Killing a Wild Pheasant with a Shotgun

By Randy Wakeman

Above: With the help of June's dogged determation, the B-80 smacks another tasty rooster.

They are easier to eat that way, for hunting is not catch and release. When I was five years old, I got my first shotgun, a Mossberg bolt-action .410. While I could make it go bang and break a clay pigeon or two, it was too big for me and I practiced unintended dove conservation with it, hunting with my Dad. By the time I was ten years old or so, I had 'graduated' to a cheap Crescent SxS .410 with a cut-down stock, and that gun I could easily hit things with. Dad and I would hunt pheasants outside of Great-Grandpa's orchard, and that's where I shot my first wild pheasant.

Dad and Great-Grandpa were very, very close and after our pheasant and rabbit hunting, we would always settle in for good visit with Great-Grandpa; George Chamberlain Wakeman. Those were some wonderful, memorable days. A .410 generally sucks for upland hunting, but a shotgun that doesn't fit sucks even more. It was back then that I learned that if a shotgun doesn't fit you, the best you can do is take it behind the barn and shoot it, meaning at it, or use diesel fuel and matches. The misery of a poor-fitting shotgun needs to be eradicated, and it can't be too soon.

Though many shotguns and ammo combinations can take a wild pheasant, far fewer are ideal for the task. Ideal is one shot and a wild rooster that falls dead, anything less is somewhat less than ideal. Back in those days, we didn't use dogs and often hunted standing corn. With beautiful, ratty, wide fence rows and thick grass covered ditches, the hunting was quite good. For the standing corn hunting, back then the row crops were not planted close together, so walking it was not a problem. The rule of thumb in standing corn was hit him once on the way up and once again on the way down, for if he doesn't drop dead sans dogs there will be a lot of time spent trying to find him-- which was far from a certainty.

Times have changed, for in the mid 1970s there were waterways we walked where at the end, the sky would turn black with dozens of flushing pheasants. Triples were not uncommon. The terrain has changed quite a bit since those days. In the ammo department, there wasn't much debate, for it was all lead, and 1-1/4 oz. of either #4 or #5 lead was the default. No. 6 lead produced comparatively more runners and was avoided. For decades I've compared 1-1/4 oz. of buffered lead #4 20 gauge loads vs. 1-1/4 oz. of buffered lead #5 loads and there is no difference between the two that is readily apparent. Number 4 is the more lethal pellet, but No. 5 gives you more pellets per oz. and denser patterns with the same payload. Either load assuming a high quality shell and a high quality choke is quite good to 50 yards.

What About the Gun?

The High Standard Supermatic Trophy 20 Gauge was a bit long for me when I first got it, but I grew into it nicely by the following fall.

For several years I hunted with a High Standard Supermatic Trophy 3 inch 20 gauge (above). It fit me and it took countless wild roosters. It was also a tragically poor shotgun, a single shot most of the time. The technical name is junk, and even master gunsmith Harry McGowen of St. Anne, Illinois made it clear that this baby could not be saved. Harry was quite a character, flying his planes and building boats when he wasn't making his rifle barrels. Harry was adamant that my High Standard was penultimate junk. Still, miserable junk that fits beats the best shotguns that do not.

Over the years, I've gone from mostly 20 gauge, to 16 gauge, to 12 gauge, and back to 20 gauge. The best ammo is available for 12 gauge and 20 gauge for the most part. For the last several years, I've used a Fabarm L4S 26 inch 12 gauge more than any other shotgun for wild pheasants, but for 2023 it was a strictly a 20 gauge year, helped along by some outstandingly good TSS loads I've been using for the last few years. There is no way, for one or two shots fired in a day that I'm willing to accept a performance downgrade from lead on a wild pheasant gun.

Of the nine wild pheasants taken between 55 and 65 yards last year, all were with TSS: all were one-shot kills. Sure, several birds were closer, but the ammo cost is nothing compared to driving cost of 65 cents (or more) per mile, vet bills, food, and other costs. Cheap ammo makes more sense on the skeet field or dove field, but no sense at all for wild pheasant hunting.

Back to Gun Fit

We certainly don't wear the same shirts, jackets, or boots, so naturally what fits you may not fit me at all and vice-versa. For the record, in 2023 for wild pheasants, I used a 1985 Browning B-80, a Benelli M2 Camo Comfortech, a 870 Wingmaster Classic, and a Fabarm Elos 2 Elite. They range in weight from 6.0 lbs. for the M2 to 6-1/2 lbs. for the 870 Wingmaster. The B-80 alloy is 6-1/4 lbs., the Fabarm is 6 lbs. 6.7 oz. They all fit me quite well, otherwise they would not be here.


The Elos 2 Elite (above) by nature is the most reliable, but the only shotgun less than perfectly reliable used in 2023 was the Benelli M2.


As all four shotguns were patterned at several ranges with lead, steel, bismuth, tungsten alloy 12g/cc and Tungsten Super Shot loads, the softest shooting guns, clearly, are the Browning B-80 and the Fabarm Elos 2 Elite. This isn't unexpected as the B-80 is gas-operated and the Fabarm weighs a couple of ounces more than the B-80 and has a better recoil pad. As far as I'm concerned, only the B-80 and the Fabarm make for excellent clays guns in addition to being first rate wild pheasant whackers.


The B-80 and M2 have had trigger work, the 870 Wingmaster Classic and the Fabarm needed no help just as supplied.

The Incidentals

The 870 Wingmaster Classic has the best hunting safety. There are no stock adjustments on the straight-stocked 870, while the straight-stocked B-80 is shim-adjustable for drop only. Three of these four guns are walnut and metal, with the Benelli M2 as the only representative of ground-up garbage can lids and melted milk jugs that some prefer to call techno-polymer. The Fabarm O/U is available in both left right hand stock configurations.


In 2023, the Fabarm took the most birds by a large margin. For the wet, foggy, and more sloppy days, the B-80 was used most. In the style points department, the 870 Wingmaster Classic and the Fabarm Elos 2 Elite are easily the best looking guns of the group. As it happens, the only specific model of these four guns currently in production is the Fabarm.

When I was in grade school, I used to take my jam-o-matic High Standard 20 gauge and ammo to school during pheasant season. I had asked the principal if I could store it in his office during the day and he had no problem with that. Our bus driver, Mr. Salzman, was happy to drop me off a mile from the farm, so I could hunt the ditches on the way home after school. Many would not understand this scenario today, but I had the benefit of growing up in a rural area where everyone understood and happily accepted hunting.

Most things have a bit of compromise built-in, but whatever you personally decide to use never, ever compromise on gun fit or tolerate a shotgun that does not shoot where you look.

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Copyright 2024 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.