By: Otha Barham

Okay, you are within a couple days of traipsing off to the dove fields and showing off your wingshooting skills to your fellow hunters. This year you will be the one all the others will oooh and aahhh over as the doves fall from the sky like confetti at a national political party convention. Many will seek glory, but few will walk away from the fields satisfied.


We should all ask ourselves that question.

The answer is be hiding among a raft of possibilities. First, the darn birds are hard to hit. The casual observer will belittle this fact because the birds of peace seem to float innocently along with just an occasional wingbeat to keep them aloft. But subtle changes in direction make us miss, something like four times out of five on average.

The shooters who seem to hit every shot are the rare few who are blessed with shooting knowledge, good reflexes, and calm nerves all honed to perfection by quality practice. And, oh yes, they have good equipment. Take note: the perfect September shot is fruitless if your shotgun and load are for January ducks.

First: The Shotgun
Twelve and 20 gauges will kill doves effectively. Sixteen and 28 gauges are fine but rare. The .410 bore is okay for experts who want to show off. Good shooters with a .410 are disciplined with their shooting, picking the shots that can be made with the.410. Very few of us are that good. The ordinary Joe and Jane shoot 12s or 20s. And here we are speaking to the regular folks.

Shotguns that don’t have interchangeable choke tubes and are bored full (F) or modified (M) should do nicely on high-flying, late season birds. Opt for improved cylinder (IC) bores when the birds are close, such as over feeding fields or at water holes. Double barrels are the berries for dove shooting because you can pull the trigger or switch the barrel selector to the barrel that fits the situation; (M) or (IC) for close-ups and (M) or (F) for the long shots.

For my single barrel guns, pumps or autoloaders, it would be hard to catch me in a dove field without an (IC) bore or a screw-in tube of that designation. Even if you give up a bit of range, this boring throws wide patterns with evenly distributed shot. Remember; we miss an awful lot. A wider pattern will yield more hits.

Of course, be sure to screw in the (F) or (M) tubes if your gun has the option and if you must skybust high flyers. But if you can choose only one choke for all of dove season, and someone is going to drive splinters under your fingernails if you don’t limit out, screw in the (IC) tube and go to work.

The Charge
Now for the fodder: If you have your 12 or 20 fitted with the (IC) tube and you shoot number 6 shot in a chain store discount target load, you are casting for minnows with a mackerel net. The holes in your pattern at 40 yards will be big enough for even the fattest corn-fed dove to fly happily through.

Most doves are killed with number seven-and-one-half or eight shot. Number nines work well in the most open bores at moderate ranges. In 12 gauge, an ounce and one-eighth of number 8 shot in a field load with a two-and-three-quarter or three dram equivalent (d-e) powder charge is a good all-around load to take to the dove field.

If the birds are at maximum range and wild as the wind, you might consider a three-and-one-quarter (d-e) powder charge with an ounce-and-a-quarter of shot, remembering it is serious when you fire one off. For me, if this load is required, I go home and watch a Bogart movie and postpone my hunt until another day. The ounce-and-an-eighth load would make more sense for heavy dove work. We are talking here about a maximum of three (d-e) of powder.

In the two-and-three-quarter-inch 20s with one ounce loads and two-and-three-quarter dram equivalent ounces of powder, you have good dove getters, and an-ounce-and-an-eighth of shot turns the shorter shell into a “short magnum” and is potent enough for the high flyers, especially if you go to three (d-e) of powder. The seven-eighths ounce loads are common in the dove fields along with the one ounce ones.

Bargain Basement Shells
Is it ever okay to buy the low-priced (lighter powder and shot charges) target loads for doves?

Yes. These are fine for incoming birds seeking feed, water, or gravel offering close-in shots. The lighter the loads, the better for these easy targets. But stay with seven or seven-and-a-halfs or number 8s.

Remember this general rule: Opt for the lower power and the smaller shot in your shells over the lightning bolt blazers with heavy shot when it comes to collecting mourning doves. And given a choice, select the gun with the more open choked barrel like IC.

Heed this: You don’t want to blow holes in the sky with high base, expensive, magnum shells from full choke barrels, miss the bird, and end up with a sore shoulder. Ease up, go lighter, and enjoy the shoot!

NOTE: Pay close attention to your shooting results to find the best load, especially examining harvested birds. It may take handloading to obtain just the right combination of powder, shot, and shell length for your particular gun.

Otha Barham is a retired entomologist with the United States Department of Agriculture writing from Meridian, Mississippi. Contact him at: