You'll achieve a better bag if you have the right kit. Tom Payne offers the benefit of experience ...

Shotguns and cartridges for pigeon shooting

First off, what sort of gun would be best for you out in the pigeon field? Invest in the best gun you can afford. This doesn’t mean you have to buy new, there are plenty of good quality second-hand guns around. A properly made gun that is cared for and maintained will see you right for years.

Your gun must fit you properly or you won’t shoot your best. A gunsmith will be able to help you with this.

It’s taken me a few years to discover the best shotguns and cartridges for pigeon shooting when I’m out in the field. Here is what I have discovered.

Bore and barrels

Your size, age and strength should be all considered when choosing the weight of your gun and its bore. All bore sizes will kill pigeon cleanly but if you are a capable shooter, I would recommend shooting a 12-bore. Generally, the progression from Young Shot to adult these days is 28-bore, 20-bore, then on to a 12-bore when the shooter is capable.

I generally recommend 30in barrels across the board. Short barrels do not give you as much control as longer barrels. They may give the impression of the gun being fast, but actually the gun becomes whippy and uncontrollable and it is very easy to lose the line of the bird. Longer barrels will help you to make a better connection to the bird, stay on the line and finish your shot correctly. I shoot with 32in barrels, but you need to be shooting a lot to get used to controlling and handling 32s.

Shooting pigeons with semi-auto

Over-and-under or semi-automatic?

So should your gun be an over-and-under, side-by-side or a semi-auto? I have a preference but I’ll run through the options.

The over-and-under is my preference for pigeon shooting because the design aids the shooter. You have a single sight plane, which naturally takes your vision out to the bird. The pistol grip ensures you grip the gun properly and aids in absorbing recoil. It’s far more versatile with cartridge choice, too, and allows you to use heavier loads in comfort if you choose to do so.

The fore-end gives the leading hand a good grip and the all-important control. A well-balanced over-and-under gives you control through the shot and, because of its weight, absorbs a lot of recoil, which is a benefit especially on busy days.


Side-by-sides, favoured by traditionalists, can be enjoyable to use as they are often very light, making them fast-handling. They have a slight advantage in a hide: because there is less of a gap in the opening, they can be easier to reload in a smaller space. I spent all of my early days as a young Shot shooting with a side-by-side and shot well. However, the disadvantage comes with cartridge choice as you do not want to use a load any bigger than 30g. This is not such an issue as long as you make sure you pick the correct shot size — No.5 shot would always be my recommendation.

If you are particularly sensitive to recoil, even with sound technique, then the side-by-side would not be the ideal choice as the gun’s design and its lighter weight does mean that less recoil is absorbed. Finally, it is important when shooting with a side-by-side not to rush and to make sure you try to shoot with as much control as possible.


Semi-automatics have become the gun that many pigeon shooters feel they should shoot with but I have reservations. To shoot pigeon correctly with a semi-auto, you must resist shooting three shots at one bird. Semi-autos also tend to be limited as to how they can be fitted to the shooter, and they spit cartridges everywhere. If used correctly, however, they can be very effective. They are very easy to load in a hide and you can use a heavy load choice if you wish. They are also sensibly priced. In a nutshell, if you are an experienced pigeon shooter, a semi-auto can be a good option to have in your armoury. But if you are just starting out, resist this choice.


I believe in having the same chokes in both barrels, ideally either half and half or three-quarters and three-quarters and fixed. Having said that, good multichokes that don’t affect the balance of the gun are  fine.

shotguns and cartridges for pigeon shooting

If you are not comfortable with a certain cartridge it will play on your mind and affect your shooting

Which cartridge should you use for pigeon shooting?

Compatibility and comfort

The cartridge you shoot with has to be compatible with you and your gun. Not all cartridges suit everyone. Shot patterns will vary through different guns, so testing a few on a pattern plate will give you an indication as to what cartridges and loads work well. Don’t get hung up on pattern plates, but they are worth a look. If the pattern plate is not your thing, concentrate on the impact on clays when practising.

Feeling comfortable with your cartridge is vital. Everyone feels recoil in a different way. Your gun will deal with recoil differently as well. Heavier-weighted guns generally cope with heavier loads better than a light gun and will absorb more recoil. Confidence in your cartridge is so important. If you are uncomfortable shooting a certain cartridge and load, it will play on your mind and affect your shooting.

Shot size and bore size

Your choice of pigeon cartridge is of utmost importance both in terms of your consistency in the field and your state of mind.

Load size is down to the individual, and what bore of gun he or she is shooting with. You must feel comfortable shooting a certain gramme load and be capable of shooting that load size in a variety of different situations and all day.

Shot size is what delivers the lethal blow and is the most important decision to make around cartridge choice.

I shoot all of my pigeon with No.5 shot, as 5s deliver a better impact on the bird and enable you to kill cleanly at longer ranges. They are without doubt an all-round better killing load than 6s or 7s. Regardless of the time of year or whether birds are roosting or flighting, 32g No.5s through my 12-bore is what I choose.

Get practising with different cartridges. Find a brand of cartridge that you trust and that suits you and your gun.

Brand selection

Whatever you go for, stick with the same brand when practising. If you have no particular preference, take this as an opportunity to find a cartridge brand you like. The main players in the UK for game loads are Hull Cartridge, Gamebore, RC, Express and Eley.

Cost will play a part in your decision, but I would recommend you buy the highest-end cartridge that your budget will allow for. There is no point putting lots of time into reconnaissance and getting yourself into the right spot ready for action, to then shoot a cheap cartridge.

Spending time considering the right shotguns and cartridges for pigeon shooting will pay dividends out in the field, so make sure you have the right kit.

This piece was originally published in Shooting Times in 2016