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CA Guns & Hunting: Quail to Pheasant

CA Guns & Hunting: Quail to pheasants — what works?

BY STEVE COMUS/Cal. Guns & Hunting Guns EditorPublished: Oct 10, 2019

Just the thought of heading out for upland birds is enough to get the blood pumping. Quail, partridge, grouse and pheasants all come to mind and the same gun(s) can work for all of them.

For me this year, locally the upland action likely will focus on quail. But I also look forward to a pheasant bonanza in Nebraska and another bird shoot in Italy this fall. Bird hunting anywhere in the world is awesome.

BOTH OVER/UNDERS and semi-autos work fine for upland hunting, especially when pheasants break from cover.

Although .410 and 28-gauge can work fine on quail, some hunters feel that the minimum for pheasant (especially during the late season) is 20, and that 12 is the best overall choice.

I can’t argue against that logic, but would add that the 16-gauge remains a totally proper size for any upland expedition.

Barrel length and choking also play into the conversation. Anything from 26 to 30 inches works fine for barrel length, but choking depends on what will be encountered on the hunt. For example, if the hunt is to be over pointing dogs, then improved cylinder is likely in order. If the gun has two barrels, go for IC and modified. Modified is a good default, as well. If the hunt involves flushing dogs or no dogs at all, modified makes sense, or later in the season, even a full choke can be handy.

Shot size is fairly easy. If shots will be close, No. 7½ or No. 6 lead (where legal) works great, with No. 5 lead the name of the game in the late season. For those who need to use steel shot, go for No. 7 or No. 6 and don’t worry much about which.

Now to the real question: What gun? Consider the nature of upland hunting. Lots of walking and relatively little shooting. Hence, one basic question is how much weight do you want to heft around the fields all day? Most field guns weigh somewhere between six and eight pounds. Yes, there are lighter ones and there are heavier ones, but most are in that range. By the end of the day, even a few ounces can make a difference. The older I get, the lighter I like the guns to be.

It is fairly easy to find 20-gauge guns on the lighter end of the scale and the 20-gauge can handle any upland bird effectively if the hunter puts the shot pattern squarely on the bird.

cgh_comus_dickinson20DICKINSON 20-GAUGE plantation model over/under does upland birds in style. This gun is both pretty and effective on everything from clays to pheasants.

And, there are some deliberately light 12-gauge guns. Typically, the lightest are single-shots, then pumps, then semi-autos and finally over/unders and side-by-sides. The choice of what type of gun is purely personal. I like them all and use all of them over the course a season.

For me, the “purest” of the types are the single-shot and side-by-side. They are both totally classic and handle in such ways that make upland bird shooting both fluid and easy.

Over/unders handle great and are almost as classic as the side-by-sides, but not quite. Overall, they are good choices, but can be a bit heavy (there are some lightweight models, however).

Most hunters these days opt for pumps or semi-autos. Both are great choices – just depends on the individual hunter as to which is preferable. The pump is one of the most reliable designs there is, and the semi-auto can soften felt recoil. But semi-autos tend to be a bit heavier than pumps.

If cost is a factor, go for the pump shotguns, because they don’t cost as much and they are every bit as effective in the upland fields as are semi-autos. In fact, I’ll go another step farther down the path and suggest that for anyone just getting into upland hunting, the pump is probably the best overall choice (right next to the single-shot).

With more upland hunting experience, some hunters will learn that they prefer some other design and that is fine. But for the initial seasons, pumps and single-shots can serve admirably. Heck, I’ve been hunting upland game around the world for 70 years and still often use a pump or a single-shot, even when I have all of the other choices readily at-hand. Most hunters don’t shoot enough to become uber-proficient in pumping a pump gun, which means that if a quick second shot is desired, semi-autos and the two-barrel guns make more sense.

cgh_comus_mossberglindaMOSSBERG’S LINDA POWELL uses a 20-gauge semi-auto in Mossberg’s International line to hunt upland birds. Here, she closes-in on a bird being pointed.

I recall one hunt with Linda Powell from Mossberg in inland Oregon at Highland Hills for pheasants, quail and chukar (met some nice guys there from California). We were using 20-gauge semi-autos in Mossberg’s International line, as well as some of their Model 930 semi-auto sporting guns. Both Linda and I opted for the 20s the whole time because there was a lot of walking and a lot of hills. At least once each day, I dropped a pair of flushing birds with the little semi-auto guns and that was fun. Bang, bang and time for the dog to retrieve.

Similarly, I have used Dickinson over/unders and side-by-sides for quail with the same results – dropped pairs of birds with two quick shots when small coveys flushed. When two or more upland birds flush simultaneously, it is necessary for the hunter to put eyes in the laser mode and brain on overdrive, which makes the birds appear like they are in slow motion.

The gun is being carried more or less in the port arms position. As the birds flush, quickly identify the first one you want to bag while peripherally keeping track of the others.

Keep primary focus on the first target bird while mounting the gun and putting the safety to the “fire” position. If mounted correctly, the first shot can go at the instant the gun is fully mounted, because it also will be on the bird.

As soon as the gun goes “bang,” flash eyes to the second bird and instinctively point at it. If done correctly, the gun will be on the bird and the shot can go off as soon as the second bird is in focus. Triples with pumps or autos are rare, but the third bird routine is a repeat of what was done for the second one.

For hunters using pump guns, do the same thing on the first bird, but pump the gun open as the eyes are flashing to the second bird. If done correctly, the forward push on the slide to close the bolt also will put the gun dead-on the bird and bang, time for the dog to go to work. If no dog, visually mark the second bird while continuing to walk toward the first one, retrieve it and then go to the second bird.

Upland bird hunting is all about fun with a gun while enjoying the great outdoors and the bounties of nature.


DICKINSON GREENWING IS a good choice for all-around upland bird hunting. Its weight is right and handling dynamics are alive.

cgh_comus_singleshotSINGLE-SHOTS WORK fine for upland bird hunting. Here, author shows a nice pheasant taken with a break-open single-shot shotgun.

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