What's the Best Shotgun Gauge and Load for Squirrel Hunting?
- 05 Jan, 2022
Small game hunting has been a time honored tradition in America for hundreds of years. It’s often the first type of hunting any of us ever did. I remember going into the woods with my grandpa when I was young. I had a single shot .410, and I learned the basics of hunting and woodsmanship. If you’re starting out you might be wondering what gauge and load you need for a successful hunt?
You need to be comfortable with the shotgun gauge, while still being able to punch through whatever cover you’re shooting through. For closer shots with light cover, a 20 Gauge with 6 Shot would be plenty, but for further shots through heavy cover a 12 Gauge with 4 or 5 Shot might be necessary.
Let’s take a look at the different options you have and the pros and cons to each gauge and shot size.
Shotgun Gauge Options for Squirrel Hunting
Understanding What a Gauge Is
One of the most misunderstood things in all of hunting is what a gauge is. Imagine you are making lead balls. The diameter of the lead balls is the diameter of the inside of the shotgun shell. However many of those lead balls it would take to make one pound is the gauge.
Now to throw a wrench into what I just said, let's talk about the only one of these that uses a diameter measurement instead of a gauge measurement.
The trusty .410 is what most of us start out on. Mine was a Rossi single shot, and it was a squirrel killing machine. It’s the smallest shotgun gauge that you are going to find and is an excellent choice for someone who might not be able to handle the recoil of a 20 gauge.
One thing to keep in mind with a .410 is that you will have a lot less pellets going to the target. My grandfather always referred to it as “a marksman's shotgun” because it is significantly harder to hit a moving target with a .410.
Some people have never even heard of, let alone considered a 28 gauge. This is my fathers all time favorite shotgun cartridge and he will swear by it. It’s a great option for someone who is ready to step up from a .410, but the 20 gauge is a little strong for.
I've only found 2 glaring issues with a 28 gauge. One is that ammo for one is becoming exceedingly hard to come by(even more than any of the other’s). Two is that it lacks the knock-down power at range that you get with a 20 gauge.
My personal favorite, the 20 gauge is what I recommend anyone move up to who can from a .410. If you had success with a .410, a 20 gauge is going to feel like a punt gun! The recoil, while more than a 28 gauge, is very controllable for most people, especially on any modern shotgun with recoil reduction technologies.
You get more than enough pellets down range, and your pattern is much wider. This means that a squirrel running full speed across a tree limb can still be taken with relative ease.
Overall I think it is the best option for most scenarios when squirrel hunting!
The most common shotgun used for pretty much all small gaming hunting is a 12 gauge. It’s also the largest shotgun in the list today. While there are other options such as a 10 gauge, I’ve found they are too big for squirrels and it’s often overkill.
The 12 gauge has the strongest recoil out of these and also the most pellets and the widest pattern of any of the shotguns gauges listed here. If you’re shooting through heavy cover, such as in early season when the leaves are still on the trees, a 12 gauge could be your best option if you can handle the wallop that it packs.
Which Shotgun Load is Best for Squirrel Hunting?
Understanding How Shot Is Measured
There is a complicated math equation to figure out the diameter of the pellets in each shot, but the main thing to understand is that the higher the number of shot, the smaller the pellets.
7 ½ Shot
Hunters swear by 7 ½’s. I do not. As someone who has wounded squirrels with 7 ½’s and had to chase them down and put another shot in them(ruining more meat in the process) I cannot recommend 7 ½’s(or 8’s) for squirrels in any situation.
I recommend 6 shot in any situation that you’re not shooting through extremely thick cover. It will punch through some leaves and has very decent range when coupled with a full choke, while being very meat friendly with a well placed shot.. I find it to be the best middle ground for 90% of squirrel hunting scenarios.
For early season hunting or further shots, I recommend 4 shots. The downside to this is that it’s not a meat friendly shot, but that can be remedied with a well placed headshot whenever possible.
So What’s the Best Option?
The gauge and shot you choose is completely dependent on what you’re comfortable with as a hunter and what kind of woods you’re hunting in. If it’s mainly wide open shots and you prefer less recoil, a .410 or 28 gauge with 6 shot might be your best option. If you’re taking further shots through thick cover a 20 or 12 gauge is going to be the way to go. One thing to keep in mind if you’re selecting a shotgun gauge and load for someone else is to make sure that you don’t give them too much gun if they’re not ready for it. One of the quickest ways to turn someone away from this hobby is to give them a gun that hurts to shoot. They will find reasons not to do it again. At the end of the day, you need to take what you’re comfortable with, that still makes sense for the shots you will be taking and go get in the woods!
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