The Spectacularly Impossible Question of Shotgun Fit: Try Before You Buy!

By Randy Wakeman

You've likely hear the advice, �Get The Shotgun That Fits You The Best!� That sounds like sage advice, until you realize that there is no way to really know how a shotgun fits or works until you use it under field conditions. Not just the application, but the weather conditions, the clothing you are likely to wear and your position whether walking, sitting in a blind, or standing on a flat skeet field. It isn't that buying the shotgun that fits is bad advice. The problem is that it is hardly possible to know how a shotgun fits until you actually use it. We can try shoes on in a store, but hiking all weekend in them often shows our in-store evaluation wrong or incomplete. We can sit in an automobile in a dealer's showroom, but that is hardly the same experience as taking it for a test drive. Shotguns are no different both in fit, comfort and control.


The Dean of American gunwriters, Jack O'Connor, wrote of hunting in the U.K. Mr. O'Connor noted the plight of a friend who owned beautiful bespoke English doubles. Yet, the guns sat idle and O'Connor asked why? The answer was because �he couldn't hit anything with them.� Yet, these expensive guns had been made fitted to him, to his dimensions, with custom stocks of the proper dimensions according to a professional expert. Though measurements can be made for the so called correct length of pull, drop, cast and pitch it doesn't always work out well. The intellectual solace we have knowing that our stocks were made by an accomplished expert are of little help when that stock that is supposed to fit us perfectly smashes our face with every trigger pull.


Shotgunning great Rudy Etchen had this to say about stock length. �You should shoot the shortest stock you can shoot without getting your nose kicked, because the farther you are away from the gun, the more you have to steer it. The longer the gun is, the harder it is to point. If you're tied in close, not getting your nose kicked by the thumb on your trigger hand, the better you'll shoot.� Not everyone agrees, but what is obvious it that measuring your length of pull from your forefinger to the crook of your elbow is a meaningless dimension. We don't shoot with stocks mounted on our elbows. We also don't do much of anything with our necks stretched out and our heads tilted to one side, but that is often how shotguns are used.


Shim-adjustable stocks and stocks adjustable for drop are generally a good thing, but there are limits to what you can accomplish with them. You can make a stock longer, but that has nothing to do with circumference of the stock where we grip it. It also doesn't change the location of the grip in relation to the receiver, its size, or its angles. It also doesn't change the width or profile of the comb. Dimensions are published for most models of shotgun. Dimensions mean next to nothing, though, compared to actually using that shotgun under the conditions we bought it for.


Here is an example of three factory twenty gauges that generally fit me fairly well in the field wearing hunting clothes. The three 20 gauges, same brand, are followed by a 12 gauge from another manufacturer. All have been recently reviewed. All have taken doves, pheasants and broken their fair share of clays. Yet, from dimensions alone you might not think that this is possible. Would you buy one gun or the other based on these nominal dimensions alone? What gun do you think is going to fit you the best?


        OAL 45", LOP 14-1/4", DAC 1-1/2", DAH 2-3/8", 6 lbs. 4 oz.

        OAL 48-3/4", LOP 14-1/4", DAC 1-5/8", DAH 1-7/8", 7 lbs. 1 oz.

        OAL 46-1/4", LOP 14-1/4", DAC 1-3/4", DAH 2-1/4", 6 lbs. 5 oz.

        OAL 47.75", LOP 14-3/8", DAC 1-3/8", DAH 2", 6 lbs. 14 oz.


The shotguns are, from first to last, a Browning Cynergy 20 ga. Field with 28 in. barrels, Browning BPS 20 gauge with 28 in. barrel, Browning Silver 20 gauge with 26 in. barrel and the Benelli Vinci 12 gauge with 26 inch barrel. They are all dramatically different in handling qualities, action type and controls. Most anyone, after shooting them all, would be able to form a specific impression. However, until you actually shoot them, there is no way to know what you'll like best, for your purposes. You may not like any of these specific models, or you might fall in love with one or all of them.


Gun manufacturers naturally don't intentionally make shotguns that don't fit; the exact opposite is true. They all offer dimensions that they think will be usable to as many shooters as possible. Unfortunately, they often come up with different answers to the same question. Getting a gun that fits well is good advice, as far it goes. It just doesn't go nearly far enough.


Holding a gun to the shoulder at the pro shop can be misleading. If we want an idea of how things are going to work out in actual use, then we need to try them as we plan to use them. If cold, gloved hands are foreseen, we should try them with gloves. Hunting coats and vests can quickly add a half inch in bulk. If we are going to hunt with the shotgun, it just makes sense to consider gun fit with the clothes we are actually going to be wearing, which is why duck guns traditionally have shorter stocks than standard field models and trap guns have longer stocks. How a gun comes up, how easy the loading and unloading is, how instinctive and accessible the safety is are all considerations.


Nothing beats a thorough test drive. We can make semi-educated guesses, of course, but all too often we guess wrong. I sure have. The Dr. Jekyll of the gun in the shop can quickly become Mr. Hyde in the field and sometimes vice-versa. Think that tang safety comes off okay, or did I pay attention? It isn't a good thing to discover when a pair of cackling roosters have just broken through the snow, getting up in the wind and pumping their wings like crazy. The gun didn't feel heavy in the store? After walking through ten miles of ditches, our original impression of weight tends to change. On the other hand, an extremely fast, nimble shotgun might require a lot of extra concentration to maintain a smooth swing on the clays course or when trying for triples on doves and is going to result in missed birds.


Often, one pull on the trigger will come with a pronouncement that recoil �isn't bad.� After a case of ammunition, first impressions can change dramatically. Shotgun fit, how a shotgun comes up, how well we adapt to the controls and how its swings are all vitally important. In order to make an informed decision, dimensions and casual pro-shop evaluations don't remotely compare with field testing. It is well worth the extra effort to try before you buy. The more a shotgun costs, the more the effort to spend some quality time with one is indicated. If we all did that, there would be fewer like new shotguns on the used market.

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Copyright 2010, 2016 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.