How good is non-toxic ammunition these days? So good that many loads will kill birds farther away than most of us can actually hit them. Most, but not all, shooters who tell you about 70- and 80-yard kills are either lucky, lying, or are very poor at estimating range.

I learned my own limitations a few years ago at Nilo Farms, the shooting preserve owned by Winchester ammunition. Winchester had just introduced its Xtended Range pellets, and I was one of a group of writers invited to test it on flying mallards.

We shot crossing ducks with a Winchester engineer laser-ranging each bird over our shoulders and calling the yardage after the shot, so I know exactly how far away I can consistently kill a duck. At 50 yards, I could make 9 out of 10 shots. At 55, my average fell to 50/50. At 60 yards, I may as well have been spitting at them. The problem was, I ran out of confidence and started measuring leads. The one duck I killed at 60 was a mistake: I underestimated the range, assuming it was a 50-yard duck. I shot confidently, killed it, and then was surprised to learn it had been 61 yards away. Inasmuch as I know the secrets of long-range shooting, here’s what works for me:

  1. Look at the bird’s beak, not ahead of the bird
  2. Move the gun slower than you think you have to
  3. Shoot with conviction

One member of our group was a very experienced duck hunter who I assumed would put on a long-range shooting clinic. It turned out he couldn’t hit long shots at all…because he never takes them. If his ducks aren’t inside 35 yards, he doesn’t shoot. That is the way it should be.

Some days, though, you have to take a long shot or go home empty handed. I would rather go home with nothing than hit and lose a duck or goose, so I try to limit my long-range waterfowl shooting to places where I know I can find downed birds. Mostly, that means dry, harvested grainfields where a crippled bird has no place to hide or dive. Other than that specific situation, I believe shotguns are short-range weapons, and I use them accordingly.