The All-Around Shotgun
One of the most popular topics amongst shotgunners is the notion of the "All Around" shotgun. At one time, a High Standard Supermatic Trophy twenty gauge was my very best all-around shotgun with no question. Of course, it was my only shotgun. This article is not at all a survey or technical analysis, rather it is a brief summary of one family's and one individual's experiences and personal preferences developed over the last fifty years.
Nevertheless, I won my first trap shoot with it, it did a fine job on doves, ducks, wild pheasants and was part of many happy hunting memories with my great-grandfather, grandfather and father.
The High Standard was a big step up from a Mossberg bolt action .410 bore and an old Crescent .410 SxS with a cut-down stock. It had a factory adjustable choke, a trigger guard mounted safety that took thirty pounds of force to get off. Although a gas-operated semi-auto, it was this in name only, for it was a single shot more often than not. It dropped a lot of birds, though, even if it generally had "once in a row" reliability. It was just the ticket for crows, doves, pigeons, clay pigeons, ducks, pheasants, etc.
There were a lot of crows back then and there was a bounty on them. Grandpa did the best crow call I have ever heard, not with a commercial call, just with his voice. It was so good that my cousin Steve and I could barely contain the laughter every time Grandpa let loose. Not because it was bad, but because it was so spectacularly, scary good. The crows thought so as well.
My Dad used to work summers at my great-grandfather's farm, and the bounty on crows was a good way for Dad to supplement his small income. Dad stored his crow heads in a burlap bag and when he had a bag full it was a trip down to the county courthouse to turn in the heads and collect the bounty.
On one trip that my Dad liked to talk about, a rather frumpish lady asked how many crow heads he had in the bag. "One hundred twenty-seven" was Dad's reply.
"I don't know this!" was the gruff comment from the matronly courthouse assistant. Always willing to please, my father dumped 127 decaying, fermenting crow heads on the lady's desk, happily submitting to her request for verification. Unsurprisingly, no one ever questioned my father as to how many crow heads he was turning in, ever again.
Despite its fundamentally poor quality, the High Standard fit me well and a shotgun that fits and goes bang (at least once) beats just about everything that doesn't fit. A twenty gauge is a great all-around shotgun, or at least it was, for all we used in those days was lead shot. It is steel (soft iron) shot that has muted the 20 gauge as an all-around scatter gun today, at least if you are forced to use steel and won't pony-up for tungsten and related, denser shot materials.
What makes the all-around discussion unanswerable is that everyone has a different definition of all-around and everyone has a different version of what "affordable" means. While my great-grandfather was a farmer and commercial hunter with several working guns and my Dad eventually became a collector, as well as a life long avid hunter, Grandpa had one gun: a Browning A-5 Light Twelve, vent rib, modified choke. That was his all-around shotgun for his entire adult life. It might sound horrific, to some, to endure an adult life with only a 2-3/4 inch chamber and a fixed choke, but if this was a problem for Grandpa, it was imperceptible.
Grandpa's Auto-Five still functions beautifully today, so when a piece of hardware can give you a lifetime of service, it seems a bit silly to settle for a poorly-finished shotgun. Obamacare runs me $1330 a month and property taxes are $7000 a year, so struggling to save a couple of hundred bucks on a shotgun is insignificant if it is the gun that fits you, the gun that speaks to you. The gun you have to soon replace to be satisfied is no one's bargain.
THE ALL-AROUND FIELD SHOTGUN
If your version of an all-around shotgun is a mix of dove, pheasant and spring turkey hunting, along with a bit of clays to keep yourself in form, a twenty gauge is ideal. Gauges do not mean all that much, it is payload and velocity that do the work on game. Over the last several years, the 20 gauge has gotten better and better. Not because a certain hole diameter in a tube is all that exciting, but because on the ammunition side you have 1-1/2 ounce Federal Heavyweight #7 turkey loads, the heavy for gauge Federal 3rd Degree loads (1-3/8 ounces at 1100 fps), the best lead 20 gauge loads ever in the Winchester Longbeard (1-1/4 ounces at 1000 fps), and so forth.
If no-tox is an issue, things do get a bit pricey. However, the Kent Tungsten-Matrix loads (1-1/8 ounces at 1360 fps) have done a superb job for me on wild pheasants and ducks. For dove and similar size birds, probably the best shell going is the Winchester AA 1 ounce loads (1 ounce at 1165 fps).
Of course, your individual gun and the patterning board will show you what is best at the ranges you shoot. A 20 gauge shotgun is slimmer, trimmer and faster than a 12 gauge (or a 16 gauge) as an upland field gun. However, for the duck blind using steel shot, a 20 gauge cannot compete with a 12 gauge, three inch chamber gun.
THE ALL-AROUND CLAYS GUN (with some hunting)
As much as I have enjoyed 20 gauge guns over the years, 12 gauge is generally the default choice for trap and sporting clays, as your score will be higher. It isn't that a 20 gauge won't crush clays (whatever that is supposed to mean), but the denser shot pattern and greater weight of a 12 gauge gun (to steady the swing) can be a blessing, the opposite of the Curse of the Uplands. (If you are shooting clays for fun and practice, not competitively, a 20 gauge gun is fine, even on the trap range. -Editor)
Recommendations are something I take very seriously, for it is a firearm I would suggest to my family, my friends and my neighbors. A recommendation means "worthy of your consideration," for if you do not like a gun's fit, balance, controls and handling, it is not the gun for you. There never can be the best, just the best for you. What you are willing to invest is also a factor.
I am absolutely right in my opinion that autoloaders are the best hunting guns. It is not that they are right for everyone; the only thing I am right about is this is my opinion. I believe it was Bruce Buck who commented along the lines of "tell me the best place to live, the best car to drive, the best woman to marry, the best thing to have for dinner . . . and I will tell you what the best shotgun is for you." While Bruce Buck is "Never in Doubt," I am always in doubt, except for what I personally use. I have no doubts about those guns.
Just like bolt action rifles, the current level of mass produced repeating shotgun quality is low. The previous "standard quality" in terms of polish and wood to metal fit is now called "high grade."
This is often not a functional consideration, but classic Grade 1 Browning Automatic-Fives had hand checkering, hand engraving, polished blue, crisp triggers and extensive polishing, machining, hand fitting and patterning prior to shipment. Our perception of durable goods has clearly changed!
While some of us enjoy the nostalgic romance of craftsmanship, the reality is that, in order to be manufactured at a modest profit, there is very little craftsmanship involved in mass produced shotguns; certainly little in the way of skilled handwork. This is decades long a trend in tools, appliances and also firearms that is really hard to miss. Nevertheless, several guns made of highly polished plastic by "old world craftsman" are competent, if you can tolerate that level of Bic lighter quality.
On the short list of pump-guns, I would consider the Ithaca Model 37, Remington Model 870 Wingmaster and Browning BPS Hunter. You can still get the most quality for the dollar in a slide-action, for autoloaders are not much more than pumps that close themselves. In fact, my first 100 straight at trap was with an old, standard weight Wingmaster 20 gauge with a fixed IC choke. Not ideal by any reasonable standard, but it fit well and moved smoothly.
While I suppose a pump gun is too much hassle today for some, if a pump gun fits, you will have a lot of fun. Whether Ithacas and Remingtons for wild pheasants, a BPS 16 gauge for dove and Ithaca Turkeyslayer 20 gauges for turkey, I have had a lot of fun with them and so will you.
Reliability is a perpetual topic, as is cleaning, but a good slide action is more reliable, with a wider variety of shells, than an autoloader, as shell intensity has nothing to do with function. Over the last 120 years, slide-action shotguns have been the most popular smoothbores for military and civilian law enforcement. Originally due to reliability with varying shell qualities, but also due to cost of acquisition.
Some of what might be considered obsolete shotguns still get regular use. I am not trying to define obsolete in any philosophical sense, just the basic meaning of no longer produced. Browning A-5's, Browning B-80s (made 1981-1987), the related Beretta 302 / 303 series and the Beretta A390s are just too good not to use. After thirty-five years of B-80 use, I can enthusiastically tell you, if they fit you, they are something special in a mass-produced gas operated shotgun. Clean 20 gauges have been hard to find for some time, as comparatively few were made, compared to the 12 gauge offerings.
The best all-around 12 gauge on the market, for me, is the Fabarm L4S. That is the autoloader I really love. it was love at first case of shells. The factory choke tubes are fit so precisely that the outside of the tubes give the impression they have never been fired after a case of shells. There is no mainspring or mainspring tube in the stock, the machining is extremely clean, the triggers are better than most current production autos, there is zero stress on the forearm (you can fire the gun with the forearm removed), the bolt release is hard to miss and the barrels don't wobble or slide in the receiver. It is the first 12 gauge that I gladly grab for wild pheasants vs. my normal battery of 20 gauges. In a few months, a dedicated sporting version of the L4S is coming out, and I can hardly wait.
The Benelli M2 20 gauge Comfortech 24 inch model may be a bit pricey for simple, plasticky build ($1599 MSRP in 2017). It is ugly as dirt, hard kicking, needs a trigger job, needs Trulock Precision Hunter choke tubes and is stiff-loading compared to other guns. However, it is a well balanced six pound field gun that beats most autoloaders in the handling department. The Comfortech stock scales well with load intensity. With target loads, you'll find a B-80, an A-5 Light Twenty, or most certainly a Browning Gold to be softer shooting, but with 1-1/4 ounce to 1-5/16 ounce pheasant loads, there is enough flex in the stock to allow quick follow-up shots.
The Remington V3 is Remington's best autoloader, ever, as far as I am concerned. Although not a flyweight, it is surprisingly low-priced and soft-shooting. (It weighs about 7-1/4 pounds with a walnut stock.) If it fits you, it is the best that can be had for $750 on the market today. Sure, I'd love to see V3 20 gauges, a 24 inch barrel 12 gauge model and I would like to see some upscale, highly polished blue offerings. However, this is the first Remington self-loader that checks all the important boxes for me.
THE OVER/UNDER DOUBLE
While I have used B-80s and Beretta 390s heavily for race games and most clays shooting, for trap I have generally used Browning 425s and older Winchester Pigeon Grade Model 101s the most. The De facto standard for moderate-priced O/Us has long been the classic Browning Citori or the Beretta 686/687 and 682 series.
The overlooked, over styled and somewhat overpriced O/U that I personally like is the Browning Cynergy. With Browning recently finding new religion in their pricing, the Cynergy CX is worth a close look. In 20 gauge, the Cynergy makes a fine pheasant gun. For the lady in your life, or folks that just need more diminutive stocks, the Cynergy Micro Midas 20 gauge is a worthy field and everything else gun.
When the price goes up, I expect fit, finish, walnut, warranty and customer service to go up commensurately. If an upgrade to the $3500 level of shotgun isn't a problem for you, and many folks are quite willing to invest much more than double that amount, you might want to take a close look at the Caesar Guerini Summit Sporting and variations thereof. The CG Tempio with sporter wood is also a terrific all-around choice.
Not every Beretta or Browning has problems, far from it, but if you ever do have need of responsive, professional customer service, you will be glad (and your children will be glad) you invested in a CG.
Copyright 2017 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.