In the military, optimal ballistic effect is often preceded by a kill-chain concept, which is an overview of the elements that account for a successful combat action. By studying the subject as applied to military tactics, I became clearly aware that as waterfowl hunters, we use many of the same basic tactics when we set up a kill net, or shooting zone, for incoming waterfowl. One of the most important elements of the kill chain is ballistics, specifically, the basic ordnance the hunter takes into the field.
During the past several years, I have become acquainted with a few serious waterfowl hunters in western South Dakota. Largely because of their dedication, I have experienced some of the very best waterfowl hunting of my life.
I have had a chance to help set up numerous decoy-directed hunts using the kill-chain, or optimal ballistics, concept. To employ the concept, you need many ducks to shoot at and a lot of success on numerous hunts. That was exactly the case during the 2008 season because serious drought conditions concentrated birds and provided outstanding hunting.
First, the kill-chain approach to waterfowl involves the element of target location, whether it is a streambed, feedlot watering hole or natural marsh. When the location has been established, the next element is target identification. Are we hunting teal, big ducks or geese?
With those factors determined, shotgun gauge, type of shot and shot size come into play. If ducks are the order of the day and the basic kill net or shooting areas are within a 35- or 40-yard square, light 12-gauge or 20-gauge loads can often suffice. In terms of shot type, basic steel shot can get the job done. However, steel shot is ballistically inferior to designer tungsten loads. Gaining a clear understanding of your working kill zone is a very important element of dealing with the total kill-chain plan.
A Working Example
Last fall, I joined local hunters on an abandoned strip mine that had grown over with cattails and grasses after many years of non-use. The water was deep and often held diving ducks in the more open water and puddle ducks in one of two bays. The mine pit made for a very interesting setup in terms of establishing a kill net, generating a field model for the kill-chain concept.
On the first day, we adjusted our gunning so one hunter shooting a 20-gauge with 3-inch No. 4 steel shot would cover a group of puddle duck decoys set close to shore. Down in the deep, long grass, two hunters were armed with 12 gauges shooting No. 2 Hevi-Steel loads.
To the left of them, my partner was shooting a Remington 870 stuffed with 1⅛-ounce No. 2 Hevi-Steel, while I shot a Benelli with Winchester Xtended tungsten loads in No. 4 pellets.
The last hunter in the group was far to my right. He shot an 870 Remington, and it was also loaded with Hevi-Steel No. 2 and, at times, BBs. He was a major distance away from the bulk of the shooters. His role was to cover the far end of the diver spread from a point that was wide and, by way of a small ridge, well above the other shooters.
In effect, we had a full 150 yards covered in terms of load effectiveness, with good ordnance selection in place. You could say the kill chain was coming together just like clockwork.
If we had all piled into the same blind, as is often the case, we would have concentrated our firepower but left all of the area wide-open on the flanks. Sure as can be, you know the ducks would have flared at all the predawn shooting and gone out the ends that we would not have covered. Instead, we had everything covered, with both guns and loads up to the task.
The Gunning Event
At the exact stroke of legal shooting time, bluebills appeared overhead, coming into the hole like a formation of angry jet fighters. The flock of 60 birds dropped in low and fast, crossing the water, then pulling up and turning hard to double back straight to the middle of the decoy blocks. With some birds locking up over the decoys, with others continuing to push the speed button even harder, we opened up. Our shot promptly dropped several birds, sending a few cartwheeling into the decoy spread.
No sooner had our dog retrieved the last bird, when mallards came rolling in. Just like the plan dictated, the ducks headed straight over the puddle duck blocks and right into a gunner’s barrel. Thud, thud went that 20-bore, and two ducks dropped cleanly out of the group of five.
Within the next 15 minutes, we had gunned a full limit of bluebills and just about filled the remainder of our bag with puddle ducks as well. Even short a couple of birds, we backed off because only divers were pressing the decoys, and we didn’t want to take a chance at overshooting our limits.
Know Your Loads
With a good selection of new production ammunition on hand last fall, I spent a lot of time shooting test patterns and making careful notes of how the loads performed afield. I was able to carefully select the ammunition we applied for test purposes during many of our local hunts.
In the case of the strip-mine hunt that involved both diver ducks and puddle ducks, I wanted to present loads that would take care of close-range options as well as more extreme-range work. Selecting Winchester Xtended and EnvironMetal Hevi-Steel proved to be a good call.
By the end of the season, which included almost five months of hunting in western South Dakota, I had been part of harvesting nearly 350 ducks and geese. We fired 500 rounds, ranging from standard steel shot to Remington HD, Winchester Xtended and Hevi-Shot. We hunted several days each week, and I was able to consistently view different load behavior by studying many recovered birds.
We experienced one of the best duck seasons on record for our small group of western river hunters, all while initiating a game plan that involved a solid kill-chain concept.
L.P. Brezny is a ballistics expert from Piedmont, S.D.