The Complete Sporting Shotgun Battery

By Chuck Hawks


"I have a suggestion for an article for your site." That is how an e-mail from Guns and Shooting Online reader Graham Hopley began. He went on to say, "I think an article about what an ideal, cohesive, extensive and specialized hunting gun collection would look like if one had the opportunity to build it from scratch using a large, but not unlimited budget, would make for some good reading and food for thought." Graham then went on to list various purposes for which he thought an appropriate gun should be included in a complete battery. He also asked for a brief description of the purpose for which each shotgun is intended, the appropriate game and type of hunting.

I knew it would take a while to pull such an article together, but it sounded like a valid suggestion. You are reading the result.

All of the shotguns specifically mentioned in this article have been covered in depth on Guns and Shooting Online and you can find those articles and reviews on the appropriate index pages. These include Shotgun Information and Product Reviews. The Guns and Shooting Online internal Google search engine on each index page can help you find the relevant Main Site articles. (It doesn't work for the Member Side articles, though.)

To illustrate appropriate shotguns in each category, I will use examples from my personal battery and those of the Guns and Shooting Online staff. There are certainly other, and perhaps arguably better, choices. However, these are the shotguns in which we have invested our hard earned money.

As with any firearm, I recommend avoiding economy guns. In the long run, they are never a good investment. If you think you need a shotgun with a synthetic stock, avoid the cheap injection molded stocks supplied on bottom of the line models. Pay enough to get a good composite synthetic stock or a laminated hardwood stock. Good walnut, of course, remains the premium stock material of choice.

Upland Game

Upland game usually means doves, rail, snipe, quail, grouse, chukar, partridge, pheasant and similar birds, plus possibly rabbits and squirrels. However, it is much more sporting (not to mention more fun) to hunt the latter with a .22 rifle. I was taught not to ground sluice anything with a shotgun and I refuse to do so to this day.

Upland hunting is done on foot, usually in dry country (rail and snipe are usually associated with marshy or wetland conditions, however) and lots of walking is typically part of the game. Most upland birds are prone to erratic flight and are difficult targets requiring rapid acquisition and quick shooting. Therefore, lighter and handier guns are most appropriate.

GAUGES AND LOADS

Upland loads are available in .410, 28, 20, 16 and 12 gauge, with the 20 and 16 gauges traditionally favored in the U.S. and extra light 12 gauge loads favored in the U.K. Typical American 2-3/4", low brass, field loads use ounce of lead shot in 20 gauge, one ounce in 16 gauge and 1-1/8 ounces in 12 gauge. For the largest upland birds, such as pheasants, high brass or "maximum" loads (one ounce in 20 gauge and 1-1/4 ounces in 12 gauge) are commonly used. Lead shot sizes are typically #8, #7-1/2 and #6, with #6 being used for the larger birds and longer ranges. Relatively low density and inefficient steel shot needs to be one shot size larger than lead or high density lead free shot.

GUNS AND CHOKES

Repeaters with 24-26" barrels designed for upland bird hunting are offered by practically all of the major shotgun manufacturers. However, side-by-side double guns are the traditional choice for upland hunting and over/under guns are the next best alternative. Lightweight, easy to carry models with 26" or 28" barrels are favored and should balance on the hinge pin to speed handling.

Except for Randy Wakeman, who mostly shoots autoloaders, virtually the entire G&S Online staff uses side-by-side upland doubles. The British perfected the upland double and to this day no one does it better. Fine doubles have been and still are made in the UK, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Austria, France and the U.S. Spanish best grade doubles are designed and built in the British tradition and are still a relative bargain. I suggest avoiding Turkish made guns, as the examples I have seen are inferior in quality and workmanship.

My "go to" upland gun is a 20 gauge Grulla Model 216RL, made in the Basque country of northern Spain. If Grulla is the "Holland & Holland of Spain," Arizabalaga is the Purdy. Other fine Spanish doubles are made by AyA, Arietta, Ignacio Ugartechea and Garbi.

Most upland double guns are bored with Improved Cylinder (IC) and Modified chokes, a good all-around combination. Fast shooters, especially quail hunters shooting over pointing dogs, may use guns bored Cylinder and IC or Skeet 1 and Skeet 2. Many dove and pheasant hunters use guns choked Modified and Full. I think IC and Improved Modified (IM) choke borings makes for an exceptionally versatile double gun. Repeaters and many O/U guns these days come with interchangeable choke tubes. Use whatever chokes best suit your ability, hunting conditions and the specific birds sought.

Double triggers in double guns give the fastest and most natural choice of barrels and chokes. Selective single triggers (SST) may be a hair faster for second shots, but are slower for barrel selection, since the safety or a selector button must be manipulated. They are also complicated and less reliable than other trigger types. English and Spanish makers generally avoid SST's and so do most experienced double gun shooters. Single non-selective triggers always fire the more open barrel first, allowing no choice of chokes. They are fine on live pigeon guns, but not as good as double triggers on hunting guns.

Automatic safeties, which return to the safe position when the barrels are opened, are a pain in the rear at first, but easily mastered. They do no real harm on a field gun. They are also easily disconnected.

I find the type of rib between the barrels to be inconsequential. I own doubles with ventilated ribs, raised solid ribs and swamped English ribs and find they all serve equally well. When you shoot a shotgun, you are supposed to look at the target, not the bead or the rib.

The debate between pistol grip, semi-pistol grip (Prince of Wales) and straight hand stocks is mostly a matter of personal preference. Straight hand stocks look sexy and make the slight hand movement necessary to move from the first trigger to the second on double trigger guns a bit easier. I like the look and feel of the straight grip on a side-by-side double, but admit that on a single trigger gun it is no more functional than a pistol grip.

Likewise, the choice between a splinter, semi-beavertail and beavertail forend is a matter of personal preference. Shooters used to the massive feel of pump and autoloader forends will probably want beavertails on their double guns. A beavertail forend serves to keep the fingers off of the hot barrels if many shots are fired quickly, as in some clay target games. My Winchester Model 21 trap gun has a beavertail forend, for example. In the field, this is unlikely to be a consideration and I like the look of a splinter forend on an upland double gun.

Waterfowl

To most hunters, waterfowl means the various species of ducks and geese. (Cranes and swans are protected in most places.) These are relatively large, fast, heavy bodied birds that are not highly maneuverable. A smooth swing and plenty of lead are normally required and waterfowl guns have developed accordingly.

A hunter shooting from a blind over decoys can actually do quite well with an upland gun, since the ranges involved are usually short. Pass shooting at high flying, migrating waterfowl requires a specialized, long range gun. Waterfowl guns are typically heavier and longer of barrel than upland guns, since they shoot heavier loads and are not usually carried long distances. The length of pull of waterfowl gun stocks is shorter than upland stocks to allow for the extra thickness of bulky winter clothing.

GAUGES AND LOADS

The traditional and most common waterfowl gauges are 12 and 10. For a time, after the Second World War and before lead shot was banned for waterfowl hunting, three inch 20 gauge guns were popular, but the forced use of steel shot pretty much put an end to that. High density lead free shot (usually tungsten or bismuth based) has let the 20 gauge back into the game, at least for shooting over decoys.

12 gauge, 2-3/4" high brass (also called "maximum" or "high velocity") loads are the traditional shells chosen for shooting over decoys. The typical 12 gauge payload in such shells is 1-1/4 ounces of high density shot ("heavy shot") and about 1-1/16 ounces of steel shot. Pass shooters tend to "sky burst" with 3" or 3-1/2" 12 gauge Magnum shells or 3-1/2" Magnum 10 gauge shells and wound plenty of birds in the process. The recoil of such loads is punishing. #6, #5 and #4 shot are the traditional choices in lead or high density shot, while steel shooters mostly use #4, #2 and BB size shot.

GUNS AND CHOKES

Heavy loads require heavy guns. Long barrels swing smoother and provide a longer sight plane. Doubles such as the Super Fox and Winchester Model 21 Duck Grade gun with 30" or 32" barrels used to be popular for hunting waterfowl and the 20 gauge, 3" chambering was initially developed by Winchester/Western for the Model 21. Today, however, repeaters with 28" or 30" barrels are the most common choice.

Steel shot patterns tighter than lead shot. Full choke barrels designed for use with lead shot often have too much constriction for steel shot. Modified chokes are usually best for steel waterfowl loads.

After the Feds banned the use of lead shot, I pretty much quit waterfowl hunting, since I refuse to shoot steel in my double guns. (Note: steel and tungsten shot should not be used in fine doubles; only lead or bismuth shot will not damage their thin wall barrels.) For the infrequent waterfowl hunting I do these days, I use my 12 gauge, pump action, Mossberg Model 500 Marine shotgun with a 28" ventilated rib (VR), Modified choke barrel. If I were buying a specialized waterfowl gun today, I go for a 12 gauge, gas operated autoloader with a 28" VR barrel and interchangeable choke tubes. Browning, Remington, Winchester and Beretta, among others, offer such waterfowl guns.

Turkey

Turkey hunting has grown in popularity as the big birds have expanded their range across the U.S. When I moved to Oregon in 1964, the state had a tiny population of wild turkey, but for decades I never saw one. Now they are so common they have become a pest in many locales and have invaded the suburban areas of the larger cities, including Salem, Eugene and Portland. Turkey are generally hunted from blinds and called to the gun, then shot on the ground with heavy loads.

GAUGES AND LOADS

12 gauge dominates, with 20 gauge a distant second choice. Specialized turkey loads tend toward buffered, copper plated lead shot in magnum shells. Recommended shot sizes are #4, #5 and #6. Some special turkey shells use duplex loads of #4 over #6 shot. 2-3/4" shells are adequate, but turkey hunters are prone to using 3" Magnums. 3-1/2" Magnum 12 gauge shells have also become popular.

GUNS AND CHOKES

Since wild turkey are typically called to a hunter in a blind and ground sluiced, with head shots preferred, turkey guns resemble rifles more than upland shotguns. Almost all modern turkey guns use interchangeable (usually extended) choke tubes and the tightest possible, Extra-Full chokes are common. Heavyweight, gas operated repeaters with SuperCell type recoil pads minimize the kick of super heavy magnum loads and are the most sensible choice in guns. Barrels are short, usually 20" to 24", designed for use from a blind. Rifle type sights are common. See your local Remington, Browning or Winchester dealer for details. Made for the purpose turkey guns are the most specialized type of bird hunting shotgun and the least useful for other purposes.

Far more sporting than hunting with a shotgun, where legal, is hunting wild turkey with a rimfire pistol, attempting only brain shots. A .22 Magnum revolver is ideal. This is truly a sporting proposition.

Slug Guns

Specialized slug guns are simply substitutes for rifles in jurisdictions where conventional rifles are prohibited, allegedly for safety reasons. (Slug guns are actually the most dangerous and over-penetrative of woods hunting weapons, but that is a subject for another article.) The typical game in the U.S. is woodland deer and black bear.

Slug guns used to be conventional repeating shotguns with cylinder bore barrels designed to shoot Foster-type, bore diameter, "rifled" lead slugs. The Ithaca Deerslayer pump gun was perhaps the best known of the type. Such barrels and loads are still offered, but they are obsolescent.

Today, "shotguns" designed for hunting big game animals with slugs are even more specialized than turkey guns. Most modern slug guns are not shotguns at all, but shotgun caliber rifles with fully rifled barrels. Barrels are usually 20-22" long and supplied with open rifle sights. Many shotgun caliber rifles come with bases for telescopic sights and all are drilled and tapped for scope bases. The ammunition fired by these shotgun caliber rifles is usually sabot, reduced diameter slugs.

GAUGES AND LOADS

12 gauge rifled guns are suitable for hunting deer and black bear in close cover and 20 gauge rifled guns will suffice for deer. A 12 gauge rifled slug gun is a .729 caliber rifle and a 20 gauge rifled gun is a .615 caliber rifle. As with all big game hunting, shot placement is crucial and far more important than the caliber of the weapon used. Winchester, Remington and Federal offer special sabot slug loads for 12 and 20 gauge rifled guns, as well as old fashioned, Foster type rifled slugs for smooth bore guns. Sabot projectiles are intended to perform like rifle bullets, expanding after impact.

Bore diameter, lead Foster slugs usually weigh one ounce in 12 gauge, 4/5 ounce in 16 gauge and 5/8 ounce in 20 gauge. The "rifling" molded into such slugs is largely cosmetic. They are actually stabilized by their weight forward balance, like a badminton shuttle cock. Indifferent accuracy is normal with smooth bore barrels and Foster slugs.

GUNS AND CHOKES

Smooth bore slug barrels are usually cylinder bore, although lead Foster slugs are intentionally under size, so they can be safely fired through choked barrels. Rifled barrels, of course, have no choke. 50 yards is probably a typical zero distance for smooth bore slug guns, while most rifled guns can be zeroed at 100 yards. Even sabot slugs shed velocity fast and their trajectory is such that shots much beyond 100 yards become doubtful.

Any sort of repeating or single shot action can be used for a slug gun, with bolt, pump and autoloading actions being the most common. Double barreled shotguns are usually regulated for shot charges and will crossfire slugs. If you absolutely must hunt deer with a double gun, get very close (25 yards or less) and use buckshot loads.

Barrels designed for shooting slugs are typically 20-24" long. Even slug guns with fully rifled barrels are relatively short range firearms and open iron sights will suffice for those who know how to use them. Many repeating slug guns have interchangeable barrels and with these the sights should be mounted on the barrel. Otherwise, removing and replacing the barrel will change the point of impact. Guns with fixed barrels can use receiver mounted telescopic or red dot optical sights. Stock dimensions should be as per any other big game rifle, with a higher comb and shorter length of pull than ordinary shotgun stocks designed for wing shooting.

12 gauge (.729 caliber) slug guns kick like hell with heavy loads, on the order of a centerfire magnum rifle, and 20 gauge (.615 caliber) guns are not pushovers, either, so gas operated autoloading actions with high tech recoil pads make the most sense to me. Manufacturers such as Remington, Winchester and Browning offer designed for the purpose, fully rifled barrel, gas operated slug guns.

SCOPES

Most of the major riflescope manufacturers offer special slug gun scopes. These are usually low magnification scopes corrected for parallax at 50 to 75 yards, instead of the 100-125 yard parallax correction used for rifle scopes. Given the short range ballistic potential of even the best sabot slug loads, a 2.5x scope offers all the magnification required and a sufficiently wide field of view for woods hunting.

Clay Targets

Shooting clays on a skeet field, trap range, five-stand layout, or simply thrown by a buddy is the best way I know to sharpen your wing shooting skills and also have fun. Manual mechanical traps are inexpensive and can be set-up practically anywhere shooting is legal. Outers and Trius are popular brands. Two or more shooters can alternate the throwing and shooting duties.

GAUGES AND LOADS

With appropriate target loads, the .410, 28, 20 and 12 gauges are used for shooting skeet and sporting clays. Trap loads are only offered in 12 gauge. 2-3/4" lead shot target shells pack a ounce payload in 28 gauge, 7/8 ounce in 20 gauge and 1 ounce of shot in light 12 gauge loads. Heavy 12 gauge target loads pack 1-1/8 ounces of shot. Target shells use hard shot to improve patterns and generate less recoil than hunting or promotional loads. Target loads are available from all major shotshell manufacturers. The shot sizes used in target loads are #9, #8 and #7-1/2.

You shoot a lot more shells at clay target games than you do in the field. I prefer the 20 gauge for all clay target games except trap, due to its lower recoil. However, the majority of the G&S Online staff prefers 12 gauge target guns.

GUNS AND CHOKES

Serious competitors at trap, skeet or sporting clays need competition guns designed specifically for these sports. Gas operated autoloaders are popular because their action moderates recoil fatigue when many shells must be fired. Casual shooters who just want to practice wing shooting inexpensively can use their field guns.

Skeet guns and sporting clays guns are rather similar to heavy upland game guns and any action type can be used, as long as two shots are available. (Unlike trap, both games require shooting doubles as well as singles.) Skeet is a short range game requiring open chokes, usually Skeet 1 and Skeet 2 in double barreled guns. Most sporting clays guns feature interchangeable chokes. Skeet barrels are usually 26-28" long and sporting clays guns usually have barrels 28-30" long. My sporting clays gun is a handsome Remington Model 1100 Sporting 20 with interchangeable choke tubes.

On the trap range, where the targets are always rising and the ranges typically longer, a purpose built trap gun makes breaking targets much easier. Trap guns are always 12 gauge, usually with 30-34" barrels and IM or Full chokes. Autoloading, single shot and O/U guns predominate for shooting American singles trap. G&S Online Gunsmithing Editor Rocky Hays, for example, has a LeFever single barrel trap gun. My trap gun is somewhat unusual, a Winchester Model 21 Trap Grade side-by-side with 30" VR barrels bored Modified and Improved Modified. This gun was originally built for shooting trap doubles. I call it my "magic gun," as I can break more targets with it than with any other gun I have owned.

I like a sporting clays or live pigeon gun for informal clays shooting with friends, as both are derived from heavy duty field guns. I have probably used my Charles Boswell side-by-side pigeon gun more extensively than any other gun for informal clays shooting. This gun has been retro fitted with Briley interchangeable choke tubes. Most of the G&S Online staff use their various side-by-side or over/under field guns for informal clay target shooting.




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Copyright 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.


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