Which is Best? 3 or 3 1/2 inch Shotgun Shells

News & Tips: Which is Best? 3 or 3 1/2 inch Shotgun Shells...

The 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge "super magnum" was introduced about 25 years ago in response to waterfowlers having to switch to non-toxic shot alternatives, principally steel shot. As steel is lighter than lead, larger pellets are needed in order to match the performance of lead shot. This created a need for longer shot shell hulls to hold more of these larger steel pellets in order to maintain pattern densities.

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If you can handle the recoil, 3.5-inch shotgun shell (top) offers better performance over 3-inch shotgun shell.

These super magnums quickly became extremely popular with waterfowlers, especially goose hunters. But turkey hunters also came to appreciate the increased payload of these longer shells, and suddenly new models of shotguns in all action types began to be offered in this new chambering.

Although these super magnums remain popular today, with continuing strong sales particularly of autoloader and pump-action models, and new models being introduced each year, some hunters are now re-thinking this "bigger is better" philosophy. Part of the reason is that non-toxic ammo is much better today than in the early days of steel shot, making 3-inch shells plenty effective for most situations. But the bigger issue is recoil.

Anyone who has ever fired a 3 1/2-inch load will attest that the recoil is significant, particularly if the shotgun doesn't fit the shooter just right. Yes, top quality autoloading shotguns help tame some of this recoil, but it can still be imposing for many hunters, particularly when the action is hot and so is your shotgun barrel.

Are super magnums worth the extra recoil and expense? A standard 3-inch steel load contains 1 1/4 ounces of shot, while a standard 3 1/2-inch load has 1 9/16 ounces. That difference equates to roughly 22 more BBs, 39 more No. 2s or 60 more No. 4s. In lighter 3 1/2-inch loads of 1 1/2 ounces, the difference is about 18 more BBs, 31 more No. 2s and 48 more No. 4s. That can certainly make the difference between a hit and a miss or a cripple versus a clean kill.

So, do you really need a super magnum? If you are only shooting ducks over decoys, you can do just fine with 3-inch loads, and probably even 2 3/4-inch. But if the ducks aren't decoying very well, or you're hunting geese, it's hard to beat the added performance of super magnums, as long as you can handle the recoil.

When you aren't quite sure what may come your way, and mixed bags of ducks and geese are often the norm whether hunting fields or water, it's nice to have the benefit of the super magnum, just in case. The same is true with turkey hunting. When the gobblers are coming nicely to your calling, even a 20-gauge is a deadly turkey taker. But when they aren't, having the ability to reach out to that hung-up tom is a big advantage.

Good hunting.