In a recent article I wrote about the capabilities of a short barreled, home defense or utility shotgun as a close range bird gun. In addition to yielding useful patterns out to about 25 yards at the range, my own utility gun, a Benelli Nova Tactical, was instrumental in the taking of two ruffed grouse from the thick Maine woods.
While two birds for the grill is evidence enough that a utility shotgun is a capable bird gun, I was curious about the practical limits of my current favorite birdshot load (2-3/4-inch Remington Express loads pushing 1-1/4 ounces of size 7.5 shot) in terms of terminal performance. To find out, I cast some ballistic gelatin into blocks approximately the size of a grouse’s kill zone and shot one at 10 yards, one at 25, and one at 35. All shots were taken with a Benelli Nova Tactical with an 18.5-inch barrel sporting a fixed, improved cylinder choke.
At ten yards, due to shooter error, the center of the pellet storm missed the block. Still, approximately half of the cloud struck the block and many cleared the entire 3.5-inches of gelatin. I was able to recover 22 pellets total and additional pellets likely exited the block completely. Clearly, a hit at ten yards will result in a dead bird and a direct, dead center hit will likely ruin a substantial amount of meat.
Penetration was slightly diminished at 25 yards and naturally, lower pattern density at that range meant fewer pellets hit the block. The 11 pellets I was able to recover penetrated between two and three inches of gelatin. I’m confident that the Remington Express load would reliably kill small game at this distance out of an open choked gun, but it does seem like 25 yards is the ethical, maximum range for the gun/load combo with the sweet spot being distances of 10 to 20 yards.
Performance was iffy at best at 35 yards. A mere five pellets struck the block and they only penetrated to a depth of about two-inches. Would a small game animal hit with the gun/load combo at such a distance be killed instantly? Possibly, but it seems just as likely that the animal would escape with an ultimately fatal wound and become food for the crows and blue jays.
When using smaller shot sizes I will try to keep shots on grouse-sized game to less than 25 yards. Under most hunting conditions I’m likely to encounter, this is more effective range than I need. That being said, ruffed grouse do often venture onto abandoned logging roads to obtain crop stones and sun themselves. Such birds can be spotted at distances well beyond 35 yards. In such situations, a larger shot size may offer more penetration at longer distances. However, switching to larger shot means fewer pellets per shell, thus decreasing the changes of a hit. (25)