What is Birdshot?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Birdshot is a type of metal shot which is designed to be used in shotgun shells. It consists of spheres of metal milled to be the same size so that they can be packed together into a shell. When the shell is fired, it separates, allowing the birdshot to fly out at the intended target. Classically, birdshot is made from lead, although shot from steel, tungsten, and other materials has become more popular due to environmental concerns about lead.

Birdshot is designed to be used in shotgun shells.
Birdshot is designed to be used in shotgun shells.

This style of shot is thusly named because it is designed for use in hunting game birds. Larger shot is known as “buckshot,” in a reference to the fact that it can be used to hunt deer, pigs, and larger game. The shot is packed into a cartridge backed with padding and gunpowder for the purpose of being loaded into a weapon and fired.

Birdshot is among the smallest types of shotgun pellets.
Birdshot is among the smallest types of shotgun pellets.

The varying sizes of birdshot are customized, as you might imagine, for game of different sizes. The hunter's goal is to be able to fire from a reasonable distance and achieve enough penetration with the shot to kill or at least stop an animal. If shot which is too large is used, it can cause severe damage, making the game worthless for the table or trophy room. Shot which is too small can inflict injuries, but it will not be effective enough to actually kill the animal. In addition to being inefficient, small shot can also be inhumane, as the bird may suffer considerably as a result of the birdshot injury.

Although birdshot is designed for birds, it can certainly injure larger animals, as American Vice-President Dick Cheney proved in 2006 when he accidentally shot a fellow hunter while the men were pursuing quail. Although Cheney's victim was not severely injured, the condition did cause pain and later medical complications due to a migrating piece of shot which interfered with his heart. Birdshot has also been historically used as a deterrent to poachers and trespassers by landowners.

Many hunting supply stores sell birdshot, or shotgun pellets which are packed with birdshot to be ready for use. As with any type of ammunition, it is important to understand the appropriate uses for birdshot before using it, and you should always practice basic firearms safety when working with munitions and guns. As a general rule of thumb, do not aim a gun anything you do not want to shoot, as even lightweight ammunition can cause eye and face injuries.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


In addition, the shot does not form a "cloud" as is oft described. Shot is fired more in a cone. Another consideration is bullets go a long way. even a .22LR (one of the shortest range calibers extant) can cause damage in excess of 1/2 mile if fired into the air. Small birdshot meant for wingshooting goes to ground after 3-400 yards (because of the parabola, this is a good bit less topographically), with little energy past the first 60 or so. So birdshot is as much a safety measure as it is an aid in humane hunting.


@chivebasil - I can understand your concerns and I admire your respect for the animals. This is something that gets overlooked by too many hunters. But I think the act of bird hunting with bird shot is more sporting than you are giving it credit for.

The article mentions that a balance must be struck when a hunter is selecting the size and spread of the birdshot they will employ. Too large and it will destroy the bird. Too small and it will be impossible to hit or lead to wounds that would be cruel to inflict. This means that every bird hunter must weight their options and select the shot that will work for both their needs as a hunter and the respect that has to be shown to animals that are hunted.

Also, as an occasional bird hunter myself, I can tell you that it is not easy to hit a bird out of the sky no matter what kind of shot you are using. I have fired hundreds of shots up in to the air but I can count on two hands the number of birds I've come home with. The hunter does not have as big an advantage as you would expect.


I'm so glad that the article mentioned gun safety -- you can really hurt somebody, even with something like birdshot, which, just from the name, you would assume couldn't do that much damage to a person.

My uncles used to go dove hunting, and I remember one of them was accidentally shot by a careless hunter -- he was OK after a trip to the ER, but that stuff really can hurt you!


I have always thought that birdshot was kind of sneaky, or at least not especially sportsman like. I understand that it would be almost impossible to shoot a bird with a conventional bullet. You would have to be Annie Oakley herself to pull of something like that. But doesn't it seem kind of cheap to just blow a cloud of bullets up into the sky and hope that you hit a bird or two? Doesn't this seem like cheating, or at least a little unfair to the birds. Isn't this kind of like hunting deer with a machine gun?

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