Best shot size for Ducks: A Comparison of different steel shot sizes

Distance from DuckBest Shot Size
20 yards#4’s
30 yards#4’s
40 yards#3’s
50 yards#2’s
Best shot sizes for ducks

Table of Contents:
Unfamiliar/confused with how shot sizes work?
What does shot size mean?
How many pellets are in steel shot shells?

Have a grasp of the concept of different shot sizes?
Best shot sizes for ducks
Knockdown power of steel shot sizes
Density pattern of steel shot sizes
Is size 2 shot good for duck hunting?
Is size 3 shot good for duck hunting?
Is size 4 shot good for duck hunting?

Best Shot Size For Ducks:

#3’s and 4’s are the best shot sizes for ducks. They meet the minimum 3 foot-pounds of knockdown power, and the most pellets present within a 30” circle when reaching the distance of the target.

Pellets within 30” circle and Knockdown Power

Shot Size20y30y40y
Figure 1: Shot size comparison of pellets w/in 30” and energy per pellet

The table above shows a breakdown by shot size of: The number of pellets within a 30” circle at a specific distance (not the total number of pellets in the load), and the knockdown energy (foot-pounds) of each individual pellet within the load.

Example: #3’s at 30 yards have 154 pellets within a 30” circle, and each pellet has a foot-pound energy level of 4.6.


Key Takeaways:

  • At 20 yards: All shot sizes shown in the table have enough energy (3+ foot pounds) to consistently harvest a duck. Number 4’s have the most pellets that fit inside a 30” circle, which is 22% more pellets than #3’s, and 52% more than #2’s.

I wish I could say every duck I shot was within 20 yards. BUT… the reality is, the vast majority of ducks are harvested between 20 and 40 yards away.

  • At 30 yards: #4 is the best shot size for ducks at 30 yards away. Their pellets have enough energy (3.5 foot-pounds) to penetrate a duck’s feathers and skin and have the most pellets within a 30” circle (51% more than #2’s). This gives hunters the best chance that one of those pellets will hit a duck in a vital area.
  • At 40 yards: #4’s don’t have the knockdown power required to consistently penetrate a duck’s feathers/skin at 40 yards. The shot size with the highest number of pellets that still maintains enough power at this range is #3’s. #3’s have 24% more pellets than #2’s at 40 yards.
  • Not shown in the table above since shooting percentage drops significantly beyond 40 yards, but at 50 yards: #2’s, 1’s, and BB, all maintain enough energy to cleanly harvest a duck

My curiosity inspired me to sift through numerous detailed research reports and calculations in hopes of answering the age old question: “What is the best size shot for waterfowl hunting?” I found the results interesting enough that I wanted to share them with our readers. Below you’ll see the findings of my research. I hope enjoy learning about them, and maybe it’ll inspire you to try out different shot sizes.

Note: I’ve shot #2’s most of my life. Not because I’d dug into the hard numbers, but probably because since I was old enough to shoot a gun in the duck blind, it’s just what we used. After conducting this research, I’m defiantly going to experiment with some 3’s and 4’s.

Comparing knockdown power of steel shot sizes

Shot SizeEnergy at 20yEnergy at 30yEnergy at 40y
Figure 2: Energy (foot-pounds) of shot sizes at distances

In order make a clean shot on a duck, a shotgun pellet must have at least 3 foot-pounds of energy when making impact to penetrate the duck’s feathers and skin. We’re looking at distances of up to 40 yards because most shots occur within this range. Ducks can be shot from further away, but at that point chances of wounding the bird increases exponentially.

Key takeaways from the chart above:

  • At 20 and 30 yards: Other than 6’s, all shot sizes shown have enough knockdown power to make a clean shot on a duck. (The size 6 at 20 yards is very close with 2.9, so with a little luck it might still get the job done at that range, but not consistently)
  • At 40 yards: All shot sizes other than 4’s and 6’s still have enough knockdown power for ducks
  • Size 6 shot is not a viable option for ducks further than 20 yards away
  • Size 4 shot is not a viable option for ducks 40 years away or further


Pellets inside a 30” (pattern density)

Shot Sizeat 20yat 30yat 40y
Figure 3. # of pellets in 30” circle at various distances

While ducks cannot be harvested by pellets that don’t have enough energy to penetrate them (3+ foot-pounds), they’re also a moving target that can sometimes be tricky to hit. *It only takes 1-2 pellets hitting a duck in the head/neck with this amount of energy to make a clean shot*. The more pellets in a concentrated zone (30” circle), the greater the likelihood of at least 1-2 of them ending up in this critical area.

Key takeaways from the chart above:

  • At 20 yards: #4 is the smallest shot size that has enough power to consistently bring down a duck (figure 2). At 20 yards, they have 52% more pellets within a 30” circle than #2’s have (figure 3)
  • At 30 yards: 30 yards is the furthest consistent range for shooting ducks with 4’s (figure 2). #4’s contain 22% more pellets than #3’s do within a 30” circle at this range.
  • At 40 yards: Of the lethal loads, #3’s contain the most pellets. They have 24% more than #2’s (which are the next smallest for this range) in a 30” circle (figure 3).


Is size 2 shot good for duck hunting:

#2’s Effective Range for Ducks

best range for #2 size shot
Best Yardages for Size 2 Shot

Size 2 shot is the best load for shooting ducks beyond 45 yards. Of all the shot sizes that have enough power to be effective at this range, 2’s have the highest concentration of pellets within a 30” circle (figure 1). For ducks closer than 45 yards, a smaller shot size is better.

Is size 3 shot good for duck hunting:

#3’s Effective Range for Ducks

best range for #3 size shot
Best Yardage for Size 3 Shot

Size 3 shot is the best load for duck hunting when shooting at ducks between 30 and 40 yards away. They still have enough power to bring down a duck at 40 yards, and still contain more pellets within a 30” circle than larger shot sizes.

Is size 4 shot good for duck hunting:

#4’s Effective Range for Ducks

Effective ranges of #4 shot size
Best Yardage for Size 4 Shot

Size #4 shot is the best load for shooting ducks up to 35 yards away. Of all the shot sizes that have enough power to be effective at this range, 4’s have the highest pellet density within a 30” circle. For ducks further than 35 yards, a larger shot size is required.


What do the different shot sizes mean?

If shot size concept is new (or still confusing) to you, we first need to be on the same page as to what the different shot sizes represent:

  • Each shotgun shell shot size is assigned either a number or letter(s). The higher the assigned number, the smaller the diameter of the pellets within the shotgun shell. These diameters are standard and do not changed based upon shotgun shell maker or material the pellets are constructed of.

Diameter of steel shotgun shells

Shot SizeDiameter (inches)Diameter (mm)
Figure 4: Diameter of different Steel Shot Sizes

A larger pellet size (lower assigned number), means more power to make a clean shot on a duck or goose. If size was all that mattered, we’d all be shooting BB size shot at ducks and that would be the end of it.

But there’s much more to the story…


Total number of pellets in various steel shot sizes

Shot SizeApprox. Pellets/Shell
Figure 5: Number of pellets in each steel shotgun shell based upon shot size

Shotgun shells hold the pellets that shotguns use to shoot ducks with. All shotgun shells of the same length have the same amount of space within them. Example: all 3 inch shells have the same amount of capacity to be filled with “stuff” as all other 3 inch shells do. In order to fit inside a shotgun chamber, shells must all be the same diameter regardless of their length. This means the larger the pellet diameter within the shotgun shell (the lower the assigned number), the fewer pellets will fit into it.

It’s easier to shoot a flying object if you have more pellets per shell. So if all other variables were equal, it could be said that size 6’s would give hunters the best chance at making a clean shot on a duck because of the sizes listed in the chart, it has the most pellets per shot. But, #6’s don’t have enough knockdown power (figure 2) to bring down a duck at most ranges.

Per (figure 4), we see that more pellets in a shell means that each pellet has to be smaller. The smaller the pellets (higher assigned number), the less power there is per pellet. It’s also important to note that power of any pellet, regardless of its diameter, diminishes the longer it stays in flight (figure 2).

Now that we’ve cleared up some of the confusion, let’s go back to the top of the page to put this all together


Key Assumptions used:

  • Calculations assume a 3 inch shell fired with a 12 gauge equipped with a full choke.
  • Knockdown power minimums are averages. If a pellet struck a duck in “just the right” spot, it’s possible it would take less energy than the minimum 3+ foot pounds.
  • Calculations assume light to no wind, and no snow or rain.

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