After spending enough time in the field, aiming at and leading a duck may become second nature. You pull up, know where to shoot, and make a clean shot. This comes with many trial and errors and empty shotgun hulls without much to show for them. In this article, I’ll talk about the science behind how far to lead a duck, and how much margin for error there is.
A shooter needs to lead a duck by .24-5.16 feet to make a clean shot. The two distinct variables that determine how far each duck should be led by are: How far away the duck is, and how fast the duck is flying.
How to aim at a duck
Flight speed and lead distance
How far to lead a duck at 20 yards
How far to lead a duck at 30 yards
How far to lead a duck at 40 yards
Is is hard to shoot a duck?
*Note: as you’ll see later in the article, choke tube selection does not determine the distance a duck should be led by, but instead impacts the margin of error that a hunter can miss by.
How to aim at and lead a duck
To correctly aim at a duck, a hunter must shoot far enough in front of it to allow for the time delay between when the pellets leave the barrel of the gun, and when they arrive at the duck. The distance of how far to lead a duck by is determined by how far away from the hunter the duck is, and how fast the duck is flying.
I was interested in the math and science behind how far to lead a duck (I know, you can say it, I can get a little nerdy sometimes), so I started digging into the numbers. I learned a lot in the process and thought it was interesting enough to publish my findings. Scroll to the bottom of this article to see the calculations and equations I used to create these tables and charts.
Charts showing how far to lead a duck by
The tables below show the midpoint for leading a duck depending upon its flight speed. This represents how far you would need to aim ahead of the duck so it ends up in the exact middle of your pellet pattern. You don’t have to shoot spot on this midpoint to make a clean kill shot, meaning there is some margin of error which is discussed later in this article.
A duck that’s getting ready to land (flying 5 mph)
A duck that’s making an approach (flying 15 mph)
A duck flying by (flying 25 mph)
A duck making a fast pass (flying 40 mph)
Is it hard to shoot a duck?
Shotguns that shoot several pellets at the same time are used to hunt ducks, so there’s a margin of error both ahead of, and behind the midpoint, that would still allow for a clean kill shot. This margin of error is primarily determined by the choke tube used.
In some situations, like when the duck is getting ready to land, it can be easy to shoot a duck. On the other hand, if the bird is further away (30 yards or more), and flying fast (faster than 25 mph), it can be very challenging.
Chart showing inches you could shoot either ahead of or behind a duck and still make a clean kill shot using various choke tubes:
Calculations used in the experiment
There are numerous small variables in every hunting situation. They can’t all be accounted for, so I used the following assumptions for a control baseline in my calculations:
Check out our article about best shot sizes for ducks
- #2 Steele shot traveling 1365 fps
- 12 gauge 30 inch barrel
- Shotgun is patterned correctly
- Light/no wind
- No rain
- Average size duck
Equations used in article
Equation used for midpoint: (B/C) * A = X
A= speed (fps) the duck is traveling at: fps converted from mph
B= distance (ft) from duck (ft): Yards converted to ft
C= pellet speed (fps)
D= time (seconds) for pellets to reach target: (B/C)
X = Distance to lead duck by
Margin for error (inches) equation =
(Size of pellet spread that contains 65-70% of pellets at specified distance in ft) / (2)
Considerations that might impact my results:
- Using a smaller shot size would mean it would take more than 65% to 70% of the shell’s pellets to bring a duck down
- The longer the gun barrel, the tighter the pellet pattern. This can reduce the margin of error while increasing the effective distance
- Shotgun shells with slower/faster pellet speeds would increase/decrease how far a duck would need to be let by
- Larger ducks usually take more/larger pellets to bring down
- Using a 20 gauge would decrease the effective rage
Find the Ducks!