Best Guns and Loads for Montana Upland Bird Hunting

Montana.  The Last Best Place, as famed artist Charlie Russell called it, is great if you hunt upland birds (pheasant, grouse, turkey, etc.).  Always a land with sharp contrasts, Montana challenges the wing-shooter like few other places.

The biggest challenge comes from the fact Montana has so many huntable bird species and ways to hunt them.  It's hard to pick just the right gun and load to fill a locacarnivore's bag limit, and to complicate matters, Montana allows not just shotguns, but rifles and pistols as well.  So what should you take afield?

Shotguns

Scatter guns and upland birds were made for each other.  Any game which is on the small side and flies away at great speed lends itself to the wide projectile patterns made by a shotgun.  Trouble is, there are so many good shotguns out there: pumps, semi-autos, break-actions, bolt-actions, and lever-actions.  Any will do the job, but one stands out from the rest--the double barrel, break-action.
Modified choke is the best compromise for Montana bird hunting with single barrel shotguns.

Montana birds are cagey (looking at you--mountain grouse and turkeys).  If you hunt elusive blue and ruffed grouse without dogs, they can either jump up from practically between your feet, or stand fifty yards away on a trail in the timber and give you the middle finger.  Here's where a double comes in handy--if it has two triggers, one for each barrel.  One barrel should have either a cylinder or improved cylinder choke, and the other barrel at least modified, and full is better yet.  This way, if old Mr. Grouse flushes close, or is stuck a few yards away in a brush thicket, just light the looser choked barrel and envelop it in pellets.  If the avian rascal is out there at forty yards or so, press the long-distance call trigger to reach out and touch 'em.

Double triggers allow easy, silent barrel selection.
If you're also after turkey, you can stuff a heavy duty gobbler dropper in said tight choke barrel.  A distinct advantage over magazine fed shotguns which require you to shove the heavy load into the mag and then work the action to replace the lighter load already in the firing chamber.  A bit cumbersome and noisy when you want to put the sneak on Thanksgiving dinner.

While you're at the gun store shopping for your double, make sure it's a side-by-side.  Yes, a superimposed (over and under) will do fine, but the wide sight plane offered by the side-by is much better as you pull lead on a gray-feathered missile as it flashes through the dark timber.  Also, a gun which feels light at the muzzle, i.e. has its balance point well aft near the action, is preferred since it is quick to line up when a bird breaks cover.

Shotgun Gauge and Loads

Truth is, any gauge will work here, from .410 on up; what matters most is your accuracy.  As a rule, the longer the shot you anticipate, the larger the gauge, to ensure enough pellets reach the bird.  All things considered, a 20 gauge is just about perfect for Montana.  It has good pellet count (use 3-inch magnums), has less recoil in a light, handy double than a 12 gauge, and hits hard enough for turkey at longer ranges.  Nothing against a 12, mind you.  If you have a 12, take it.  You just have to accept it will slap you a bit harder.

I've found the 3-inch shell in 20 gauge ideal, as just mentioned, and I'd go with the largest shell available in any smaller gauge as well.  12 gauges are fine with a high-velocity 2 3/4 inch shell but a 3 inch will put more bad news down range--for the price of a bruised shoulder.  Shot sizes from number 4 through 6 are just about right.  Lean toward the larger if turkey's also on the menu.  Regardless the shot size, copper-plated shot is a real advantage.  It penetrates better than straight lead and transfers much less lead to the meat.

I've done all my bird hunting with either 3-inch 20 gauges or 2 3/4 inch 12 gauges stuffed with No. 6 copper-plated and been satisfied.  I plan to experiment with some 12-gauge, 3-inch, No. 5 shells this fall after I had a turkey slough off a 2 3/4 No. 6 load last spring.  Anything worth doing is worth overdoing as the singer, Meat Loaf would say.  I just hope the No. 5 pellets aren't so big they liquefy a grouse.

Rifles

Montana differs from most states since they allow any rifle, center-fire or rim-fire, during fall bird season.  Most locacarnivores have never had to decide which rifle and load is good for this mission.

.22 LR, 40 gr. copper plated round-nose is best for birds.
For grouse, a good old .22 rim-fire is just fine.  Load it with copper-plated, round-nose bullets and go hunt.  Stay away from hollow points, unless you like your grouse pureed.  I'd recommend a semi-auto for those times you need a quick follow up shot with a 2 or 4 power scope, or red-dot sight.  You won't use this weapon to take them on the wing, rather you'll give 'em the scout-sniper treatment when they're on the ground or in a tree.

Turkey is a whole different situation with a .22.  Either hit them in the brain bucket, if you can (good luck on that), or accept the fact you'll need multiple shots.

Two great Montana bird rifles: AR-15 (top) and Ruger 10/22.
Now we get to center-fire rifles.  Yes, many a Montana hunter has used their deer or elk rifle on a turkey they couldn't pass up--with mixed results--but it's not ideal.  For grouse, it gets more debatable.  One could, in theory, use--oh, say--a .375 H&H Magnum if that's all you had.  I can't recommend it, but I've heard it can be done.  For either bird, with expanding big game bullets, you'll have to accept a much mangled meal.

(L-R): .308, 147 gr. FMJ; .223, 55 gr. FMJ; 9mm 124 gr. FMJ
So let's talk sensible choices here.  If all you intend to shoot is a bird, and turkey in particular, then the .223 Remington (5.56mm NATO) with 55 grain FMJ military ball ammo is a good choice.  I've used it on turkey.  Those little jacketed needles go right through those Kevlar-like feathers and hit 'em with just enough zap to put 'em down, but they leave the meat in good shape.  Haven't tried it on grouse, but it shouldn't over do the issue too bad.

Next step up, I'd try .308 Winchester (7.62mm NATO) with military issue 147 or 150 grain FMJ.  Probably a bit rough on grouse, but still within reason on turkey.  Regardless what caliber you choose, use a solid or full-jacketed bullet for best results.  Like the rim-fire rifle, an optical sight is a good idea here, too.

Handguns

The obvious choice is a .22 rim-fire, either semi-auto or revolver, and there are many fine guns out there.  Again, use copper plated, round-nose bullets.

Other options which work quite well are .380 ACP, 9mm Parabellum, or .38 special since they are available with full metal jacketed bullets.  The nine is a real winner, here.  With 115 or 124 grain FMJ, it makes a neat hole through a grouse, and has enough thump for turkey.  I wouldn't go any larger than .38 caliber for the smaller birds, but you could use .44 special, .45 Long Colt, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, or the magnums on turkey as long as you stay away from expanding bullets.  Magnums might beat the gobblers up a bit, though.
Ruger's iconic Mark III .22 rim-fire pistol is a top pick for grouse.

Montana is a great place to hunt birds, and the state's enlightened hunting regulations give you wide latitude on weapon selection.  So, grab a gun, get out there, and get some all-organic, free-range poultry!

-- LJ Bonham