The Mission is Possible!

I don’t often write “two parters” for this column, but last week’s topic demands a follow-up. To recap, last week I explained the math a hunter needs to mentally calculate when shooting a flying duck with a shotgun and how it’s seemingly impossible it is to be able to mentally do the needed calculations in only a couple of seconds – especially since most days, every shot a hunter attempts is different from the last and likely different from the next. Change the distance of the duck, the speed it’s flying, the angle it’s flying, whether the hunter is shooting nearly straight overhead, nearly horizontal or other variables. Each change requires a new, mental calculation.

Impossible? Last year duck hunters in the USA proved the impossible possible over ten million times. Obviously, the science says one thing, the reality is something else. So how do waterfowlers across the country manage to beat the science?

Easy, one might think – they are shooting shotguns and we’ve all seen movies and TV depicting shotguns blowing down doors, capping bad guys off roofs and generally mangling anything at which they are fired. Ducks fly in flocks. If you believe the Hollywood hype, one or two shots, you’d think, and the whole flock ought to fall from the sky.

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Actually, the fact hunters shoot shotguns, often nicknamed “scatterguns,” is their key to success. Consistently shooting at and successfully hitting flying ducks with rifles would truly be a mission impossible – as well as illegal.

But the scatter in scattergun is nothing like it’s portrayed to be.

The shotgun shells most often used to shoot at ducks contain about 200 individual small pieces of shot – some more, some less. Regardless of how many, once fired, they exit out the end of the shotgun as an almost solid lump of material only as big around as the diameter of the gun barrel – about three-fourths of an inch – and all of them traveling at the same speed and direction.

However, as soon as the load of shot comes out the end of the gun, that changes. Some of the pieces of shot start to slow down, others start to veer off course to an infinitesimal degree. I’m sure some of them collide with one another for tiny fractions of a second.

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Because of all this chaos, as the load of shot gets farther from the end of the gun, the nearly solid mass of shot spreads out wider and wider, the faster ones outdistancing the slower ones. The nearly solid mass of shot in essence becomes a cloud of shot hurling downrange. As it travels, the cloud becomes bigger and bigger.

How fast does the cloud spread out now becomes the question. Common sense should tell you a few inches out of the gun, the cloud is still more of a solid lump than a cloud. At five feet from the end of the muzzle the load which started at a 3/4-inch diameter may the size of a tennis ball, at 10 feet it’s only the size of a softball. This is where Hollywood starts to deviate from reality. How many times have you seen a guy blow a two or three-foot hole in a door shooting from inside a room or hallway?

Still, very few ducks are shot at 10 feet. Most ducks are shot at and brought down at distances between 20 and 40 yards. So how large is the cloud of shot at those ranges?
A very general rule of thumb is the width of a cloud of shot grows about an inch for every yard downrange it travels.

The calculations I made in last week’s column predicted a duck flying a crossing route 30 yards in front of the hunter would travel 39.6 inches from the time the gun fired, until the shot from the gun traveled 30 yards. A hunter firing when the gun is leading the duck exactly 39.6 inches would score. However, with a cloud of shot perhaps 30 inches wide, the hunter could shoot 15 inches too far ahead of the duck (or nearly 55 inches) or only two feet in front of the duck and still hit it with couple pieces of shot – mathematically. In essence, a shot fired two feet to over four feet ahead of the duck is reasonably on target.

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Mission possible.

Still, most hunters miss as often as they hit – unless they are in a movie.

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Mike Schoonveld
Mike Schoonveld grew up hunting and fishing in rural Northwest Indiana. In 1986 he piggy-backed a career as an outdoor writer onto his already long tenure as a wildlife biologist with the Indiana DNR. Now retired from his DNR position, Schoonveld is a U.S. Coast Guard licensed boat captain, operates Brother Nature Charters on Lake Michigan and spends much of his time trailering his boat to fishing hotspots around Indiana and the Midwest. Mike can be reached through his website or visit Mike's Outdoor World Blog at


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