LET’S TALK SHOTGUNS
During the first half of the twentieth century, shotgun barrels were fairly simple with three basic distinguishing characteristics: Gauge (or bore size), barrel length and barrel constriction (choke). Today, advanced technology opens new horizons for shotgun performance. Current shotgun vocabulary includes such phrases as: over-boring, back-boring, porting, extended forcing cones, interchangeable choke tubes, load patterns, barrel length, bismuth, copper-coating, tungsten and more.
Experimentation with choke tubes goes as far back as the nineteenth century and was focused primarily in the United States and England. In the United States, Fred Kimble is generally given credit for laying the foundation for future generations of choke technology but the practice of firing small shot while hunting small game is mentioned in English law as early as 1549. Specialized weapons of this type did not become popular until the early 17th century and their barrels were 5 to 6 feet in length! Anything larger than a 10 gauge has been illegal in the U.S. since 1913. The first truly successful pump action shotgun was produced by Winchester in 1897 and pump actions remain the favorite of a majority of shooters today. They are relatively inexpensive, extremely reliable and hard to wear out. They will withstand neglect that will put an autoloader out of commission and will fire 3 shells as opposed to the double barrel’s 2 shots.
In order to have meaningful comparison of different chokes it is necessary to first have standards against which different set-ups and loads can be measured. Today’s standard is the number of pellets in a given load which remain in a 30-inch circle at 40 yards. The four categories of chokes are defined by the percentage of pellets they will place in that 30-inch circle:
1. Cylinder (no Choke): 40 percent No constriction.
2. Improved cylinder: 50 percent.
3. Modified choke: 60 percent.
4. Full choke: 70 percent. 40 thousandths inch constriction
The design of a choke is intended to constrict the pattern of your gun. It does this by using a tapered section to choke the shot down from the bore size to the diameter of the choke itself. A 3/4 to 1 1/2 inch cylindrical section (no taper) then stabilizes the choked shot and reduces errant pellets. Ports in the choke near the end help to separate the wadding from the back of the load of pellets which also promotes better patterns. A rule of thumb concerning chokes is that tighter chokes work better with smaller shot while looser chokes work better with larger shot.
It is not at all unusual for today’s newer guns to put 80 to 90% of a pattern in a 30-inch circle at 40 yards when using top quality loads.
The most significant development to chokes is the interchangabilty that is now possible. This means that you no longer have to own different shotguns for duck, pheasant, quail and turkey. A system of chokes with different constrictions ( sometimes called “polychokes“) which you can simply screw into the barrel of your present gun can make a shotgun highly versatile. Most newer shotguns come with a screw-in choke system straight from the manufacturer. For those of us who want a choke but prefer to stick with “Old Betsy”, two options are available: Check with the manufacturer for replacement barrels which are set up for screw-in chokes or have a gunsmith convert your present barrel. In general, it less expensive to have your present barrel threaded to accept a choking system (about $75) than it is to replace the barrel. Since not all barrels in any given gauge are the same, a gunsmith must measure your actual bore to accurately fit your gun instead of simply using the manufacturer’s average bore size numbers.
Different chokes are built for lead pellets and for steel pellets. NEVER fire the gun without the choke in place or you will damage the choke threads inside the muzzle. Also keep in mind that the tighter the choke, the farther it will shoot a tight pattern but the more careful you must be with your aim.
Back-boring simply means increasing the diameter of the barrel between the end of the forcing cone and the beginning of the choking system. It has been around a for a while but was generally only found on custom or target guns or only acquired as an after-market alteration. Its major benefits are improved patterns and less recoil. The pattern is improved because the pellets are more gradually compacted as they travel down the barrel which results in fewer deformed pellets and a higher number of true flying pellets. Recoil is reduced because the larger bore diameter allows less pressure to be built up in the barrel upon firing. Think of it this way: If you are using a hand pump to fill a tire with pressure, the air pressure will be higher in a small tire after 15 strokes than it will be in a larger tire after the same 15 strokes. Back-boring also allows the dissipation of that pressure over a longer area giving the pressure more time to dissipate. The result is less “kick”. An added advantage in some shooters’ minds is the lighter weight of the barrel. Others, who shoot heavier loads, are not as enamored of this “benefit”.
The most common bore diameter of a 12-guage shotgun is .729 inch. With a cylinder barrel (no choke in place), the gauge remains the same from the beginning to the end of the barrel. However, by back-boring, you can effectively create a long, gradual choke. Adding an improved cylinder choke will then force your shotgun to perform as if it had a fully choked barrel. CHOKES MUST BE SPECIFICALLY MATCHED TO BACK-BORED BARRELS so it is important to have a good gunsmith do this work for you.
LENGTHENED FORCING CONES
The chamber of a shotgun must be larger than the barrel gauge to accept the shell. The forcing cone is the restriction directly in front of the chamber which forces the load down from the chamber size to the barrel size. If you look down your barrel from the chamber end, the forcing cone will appear to be an abrupt ring. The change in diameter from the larger chamber to the smaller barrel gauge causes pressure to build up creating recoil. It also causes compression of the pellets, some of which become deformed. When this happens, they become “ballistically unsound” causing them to fly out of the pattern. Hence the term “flyers” for such pellets. This angle of reduction is usually about 5 to 7 degrees. By lengthening the forcing cone, the angle of reduction can be reduced to about 3 degrees. The obvious benefit is less recoil and fewer flyers. By combining a longer forcing cone with a screw-in choke, your shotgun can consistently shoot much better patterns. Take a look at most factory shotguns and you’ll probably see a short, abrupt forcing cone. Compare this to most expensive trap and skeet guns where you’re likely to see long, gradual forcing cones for better accuracy and patterns.
Porting means drilling holes in the barrel just before the muzzle to allow pressure to escape before the shot leaves the barrel. Some choke tubes are also ported. Porting can reduce recoil by as much as 15% and can minimize “barrel jump” (which is responsible for the shotgun smacking your face with the stock) by about 45%. This benefits the shooter by reducing the tendency to flinch and by helping to stay on target for a second shot. Not that any of us ever needed a second shot for anything other than doubles on quail. Porting on a shotgun can even be customized for a right or left-handed shooter.
This is probably a matter of personal preference or it may be dictated by the length of the barrel that came from the manufacturer. In general, a 22 to 26 inch barrel is probably the best barrel length because it can be brought to bear more quickly and will hang up on brush less easily than longer barrels when you have to swing left or right to get your shot off. Shorter barrels are also more easily maneuvered in a blind. Your buddies will probably appreciate that.
How your gun fits you will have a large effect on how effective you are with it. Since the 18th century, gun makers have known that, to shoot your best, your gun must fit you well. Would you put the wrong size tires on your rig? Would you buy a bow with a draw length that is too short for you? Would you buy a pair of hunting boots which are too large or too small? If you pay attention to these details, why would you intentionally buy a gun that doesn’t fit you? It’s not hard to find the right fit if you pay attention to four basics when buying a gun. Look at the following diagram to help you to better understand what to look for in a well-fitting shotgun.
1: Length of pull:
The distance between the trigger and the rear of the stock. Most guns come from the factory with a pull length of 14-15 inches. This may be too long for a youngster or too short for a big man. The stock should be as short as possible without jamming your thumb in your eye when you shoot. It must also be short enough not to snag clothing and to avoid getting caught under your arm when swinging it into shooting position. But it must not so short that it pulls away from your shoulder when you make a swinging shot or so short that your cheek rests improperly on the stock when it is in shooting position. You don’t want to be standing in front of a patch of cactus when you touch off a round with a gun which has a stock that is too long or too short. It’s gonna kick the fool out of you.
The angle at which the stock is cut off before the recoil pad is applied. Most guns have a pitch of about 1 1/2 inches. To some extent, a gun’s pitch will determine how hard it kicks. If a gun had no pitch, it would kick straight back. If you varied between shooting right and left handed with a gun with too little pitch, it wouldn’t be too long before you’d be able to pick up your empties with your shoulder blades. Too much pitch will cause the gun to kick upwards and rattle your teeth. Not good for accuracy but your dentist may appreciate the extra business. The right amount of pitch will allow the recoil to be a combination of backward and upward kick which will minimize shoulder fatigue and loose molars.
3: Height of the stock (or “drop”):
The distance between the top of the recoil pad and the top of the breech. If the drop is right, you should be looking right down the barrel when the gun is against your shoulder and your cheek is against the stock. If the drop of the stock is right for you, the top of your shoulder and the top of the butt should be aligned and the pupil of your eye should be aligned with the top of the barrel when you are in shooting position. If the stock is too high, you will probably shoot too high and vice versa. For rising targets such as clay pigeons, quail, pheasants and , sometimes, turkeys, a smaller drop (straighter stock) holds your cheek higher and allows you to look slightly down on the top of the barrel. This means that the gun will shoot slightly high to lead the rising target. Obviously this would be a disadvantage when shooting ducks overhead or for ducks dropping down to your decoys. For them, you want a lower stock which will put the pattern where you put your front sight or even a little lower.
4. Thickness of comb (or “cast”):
This will affect how well your eye will align with the barrel. A comb which is too thick will cause you to look down one side of the barrel and a comb which is too thin will cause you to look down the other. Since your eye is the “rear sight”, it must line up vertically and horizontally with the front sight. You should not have to tip your head toward or away from the gun when it is seated to sight straight down the barrel. Right handed shooters should have a stock which is “cast-off” (offset to the right) and left handed shooters should shoot a “cast-on” stock (offset to the left). The proper amount of cast is usually about 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Comb height influences the vertical alignment and the comb width influences the horizontal alignment. To assess comb fit, close your eyes and shoulder your gun while aiming at a mirror. When you have a comfortable fit, open your eyes and point the gun at your aiming eye in the mirror. If the barrel, the front sight and the eye in the mirror do not align, the fit may not be right for you.
LET’S TALK TURKEY LOADS
Turkeys are tough birds and it can be difficult to put one on the ground for keeps. Therefore, a shell which produces tight patterns with lots of downrange energy for penetration is a must. The best turkey loads are those which have extra hard pellets which undergo the least deformation in the barrel, have a powder charge which produces the highest energy to propel the pellets, have granulated polyethylene packed around the pellets to reduce deformation, and which have plastic wadding and cups.
Studies show that it takes 2.6 foot-pounds of energy when it strikes the bird to penetrate feathers, skin, fat, muscle and bone on the turkey’s head or neck and reach the central nervous system to provide consistent kills. Winchester claims that you need a minimum of six pellets in this area to for consistent results. The following tables provide the downrange ballistics and effective ranges of various turkey loads. I have circled the loads I prefer.
As you can see, loads with number 6 shot are generally effective out to about 35 yards, number 5 shot reaches its effective limits at about 40 yards and number 4 shot is effective to about 50 yards. An effective turkey load does not have to be a high powered, high muzzle velocity, hard kicking shell. It is more important to get a balance between shot and powder charge for a given shell capacity with hard, non-deforming pellets which achieve the best pattern. The ultimate compromise is called for: More pellets in the target zone VS. the better penetration of the larger pellets.
With the chokes on the market today, a hunter can almost custom choke his shotgun. NOTE: SUPER-TIGHT CHOKES ARE FOR LEAD PELLETS ONLY. The harder steel and tungsten pellets just won’t compress enough and could damage your gun and injure you! Also, if you over-compress a load by choking it too much, it will mangle your shot pattern as the pellets expand unpredictably after leaving the barrel.
Cramming as much shot into the shell is also not as important as one might believe. The longer column of shot guarantees that some pellets will arrive before others. The longer the shot column in the shell, the greater the delay between the arrival of the first pellet and the last pellet. That’s OK when shooting at stationary paper or a bird flying directly away from you but not so good on a quail or duck doing a crossing or post pattern at 40 yards. At least quail and ducks fly relatively straight and, if your aim is true, the bulk of the pellets will eventually catch up with a bird flying straight away from you. But doves change directions faster than a politician’s version of the truth. Trust me, the less elongated (flatter) your pattern, the better off you will be. Just try hitting dove consistently with low quality long-columned shells containing, soft, easily deformed lead pellets. Bring your credit card cause you’re gonna need lots of shells to take your limit.
PATTERNING YOUR SHOTGUN
The advantage of a shotgun is that you don’t have to rely on putting a single projectile onto a specific point. Theoretically you should be able to aim a little off and still put pellets where they count. That is, if you know how your shotgun patterns. You must know that it will shoot a dense enough pattern to guarantee multiple hits in the head and neck area before you take the shot. You must also know at what range the pattern becomes so dispersed that an unacceptable risk of missing or wounding a bird occurs.
It is not at all unusual for a shotgun to pattern slightly high, low, left or right. Knowing this about your gun can make a big difference. The only way to find out how your gun patterns is to shoot a silhouette paper at 20 to 50 yards (depending upon the load you are shooting). But even that doesn‘t give you the full picture. The same gun will often pattern differently with different loads and with the same load from different manufacturers. The best way to pattern your gun is to shoot various loads from the different manufacturers to determine which gives you the best pattern.
What is the best pattern? What you are looking for is a very even, dense pattern. A pattern which is too dense in the center leaves too little margin of error. A pattern which is too loose may mean that too few pellets are being relied upon to get the job done.
Basically, the more pellets, the better but only if you can put them in the right place. A shotshell with 30 percent more pellets does NOT guarantee that there will be a 30 percent higher number of head and neck hits. Many of these extra pellets will simply become “flyers” because they become deformed as a result of the longer shell’s higher pressure in the barrel. Sure, there will be more pellets in the air, but a lot of them will be where the turkey isn’t.
Actually, lighter loads tend to pattern better. They also cause you to flinch less if you have that problem. Generally speaking, there is much less downrange advantage to heavier loads than most people believe. A 3 inch shell may be preferable to a 3 1/2 inch shell. A good compromise is the 3 inch buffered magnum shooting 1 5/8 ounces of pellets. It has a greater velocity than the 2 ounce loads so it penetrates better and provides good enough density that it can be relied upon to cleanly harvest your turkey.
THE BEST LOAD?
A 12 gauge shooting number 5 shot with a full choke is arguably the best set up because it offers the best combination of pellets on target with good penetration. The longer 3 1/2 magnums hold more pellets (so number 4 pellets can still produce a very good pattern) but they are basically a 10 gauge load doing their best under 12 gauge circumstances. And talk about kick! A 3 1/2 load will set you back by over 70 foot-pounds of recoil. By comparison, a .458 Winchester elephant load only (?) generates 65 or so foot-pounds. I don’t know about you but the 3 inch magnum with 1 3/4 loads produce about 55 foot-pounds of recoil is more my speed.
Number 4 pellets will produce a rather thin pattern in 2 3/4 inch shells with 1 1/2 ounces of pellets at much more than 35 yards. It is probably wiser to stick to 5’s. The short magnum shells with 1 5/8 ounces of lead can do the job with 5’s. With the 3 inch magnums, 5’s are probably best but with a very tight choke, you can probably drop down to 4’s. Regardless of the shell you decide to use, buffered loads pattern better. Buffering is the material packed into the shell between the shot (especially with larger lead pellets) to keep the pellets from deforming when the force of the powder detonation strikes them. Choose a load which will consistently put at least a dozen pellets into the head and neck area at the maximum distance at which you will be shooting. To accomplish this, use a tighter choke, use a different load or wait for a closer shot. Kills have been made beyond 40 yards but shooting at any distance farther than that will most likely result in more wounded birds than you’ll harvest.
Frequent shotgunners know that steel shot is supposed to pattern more tightly than lead. This doesn’t mean they are the best gobbler-getter though. Because steel pellets are lighter than lead, you must use larger (and therefore fewer) steel pellets than lead or a longer shot column to get the same weight of pellets in a shell. Thus, you won’t get as dense or as flat a pattern downrange. Since the steel pellets are lighter than lead, however, the same size steel pellet will have a higher muzzle velocity with the same powder charge. The question is, at what point does the higher velocity with the lighter steel provide as much kinetic energy for penetration as an equal-sized slower, but heavier, lead pellet?
Steel pellets also form a flatter, pancake-like pattern than lead pellets which form an elongated, football-like pattern (especially if the lead pellets are not coated) so steel will probably assure more hits than an equivalent load of lead at longer distances. If the pattern is tight, the pellets will pretty much arrive at the same time in the same area.
The best shotshells are probably target loads because the shooters in this sport are some of the most demanding shooters of all. They routinely shoot more shells than the average hunter so they have more opportunity to observe, analyze and criticize the performance of their loads. Because the difference between winning and losing for them is a razor thin margin, they demand the best: the most consistent, reliable and best patterning. Unfortunately, target loads may not be available in shot sizes you want to use for hunting.
I have also heard it argued that copper-plating lead pellets allows the pellets to whiz right through the bird with too little “shock value”. There is probably no conclusive proof this. I’ve been in elk camps where the same argument has gone back and forth about arrow penetration: Do you want the arrow to shoot completely through an elk to create an exit hole for more blood loss and better trailing or do you want the arrow to remain in the elk to continue to cut and cause damage and a quicker kill? If the arrow passes through the elk, does some of its kinetic energy go to waste? You and your hunting buddies are free to discuss it all you want, but, as far as I have been able to ascertain, copper-coating does little to affect the ability of a lead pellet to do the job you want.
The newest entries to the market are the tungsten and bismuth pellets. These pellets are a response to the desire of sportsmen to have access to a less toxic material. They wanted a material that would not poison wounded birds which would otherwise recover and which would not pollute rivers and lakes from expended shot which did not hit its target. Both steel and bismuth shells are more expensive than lead shells. They both have their place but they have not yet pushed lead or copper-coated lead pellets into the background.
Steel is about 25 per cent lighter than lead and is also harder so it resists deformation better. Its hardness also helps it to penetrate better since less of its energy is dissipated through deformation upon impact. Since it is denser than steel, lead can be made into smaller pellets allowing more pellets in an equivalent weight shell (more pellets than steel in the same 1 1/2 ounce load for example) resulting in a denser pattern without needing a longer shot column in the shell.
Bismuth is about 90% as dense as lead and about 24% more dense than steel. Because it is heavier than a steel pellet, it has better velocity and energy retention downrange. In addition, the higher density allows smaller pellets, therefore more, pellets to be loaded into the same shell than steel. The performance of bismuth pellets is almost identical to lead.
Since lead is heavier than either, it retains its velocity and higher kinetic energy farther downrange. Why? Because, the farther a pellet travels, the more slowly it moves due to wind resistance. As a pellet slows, and its momentum decreases, wind resistance gradually begins to exert a greater force on the pellet until it eventually overcomes the pellet’s momentum causing the pellet to drift and the pattern to disperse. A heavier pellet loses its momentum more slowly.
CLEANING A SHOTGUN
About half of the autoloaders and abut 10% of doubles and pump shotguns returned to the manufacturer for “failure to work properly” are actually malfunctioning because they do not receive proper or regular maintenance. Keeping your gun in tip-top shape requires only a little knowledge and very little effort on your part. The following is a basic outline of the methods and maintenance you should perform regularly:
- The shotgun should be wiped down with a lightly oiled cloth daily after returning from the field.
2. The barrel and choke tubes should be lightly cleaned after every few days afield to prevent build-up.
3. The gun should be completely disassembled after the season and cleaned thoroughly.
4. Wipe all exterior surfaces with a lightly oiled cloth after hunting even on clear, warm days.
5. If the gun has been exposed to fog, mist or rain, remove the stock as well and oil the barrel and magazine to prevent rust. Allow the stock to dry completely before re- attaching.
6. Remove camo-tape then dry and oil the barrel. Camo-tape can be re-applied but if the barrel rusts, it will require re-bluing which is more expensive than replacing the tape.
7. Cleaning the barrel:
a) Use a bronze bristle brush moistened with solvent to loosen powder residue. Use a larger bristle brush (chamber brush) to clean the chamber as well.
- Run patches soaked in solvent through the barrel several times to remove remaining powder residue until the patches come out without residue. Use solvent patches to clean the chamber as well as you can.
c) Run oil patches through the barrel and in the chamber.
8. Cleaning the chokes:
a) Fill a jar with solvent and drop the chokes into the solvent and let soak.
b) Clean the threads on the choke and in the barrel with a toothbrush or bronze bore brush (Steel brushes will scratch your chokes).
a) Every two or three hundred rounds, it is a good idea to give your gun’s action a thorough cleaning.
b) Remove and disassemble the trigger mechanism. Spray it lightly with WD-40 or similar product. Let it sit for a while then clean it with a clean cloth.
c) Lightly oil the action and replace it in the shotgun.
d) NOTE: DO NOT attempt this if the manual recommends against it or if you are not experienced in doing so. Instead, have your gunsmith perform this maintenance.
e) To clean the action without removing it, remove the barrel and hold the gun with recoil pad toward the ceiling. Spray a generous supply (about 1/3 of a can) of WD-40 or Liquid Wrench into the receiver and let it drain and dry.
10. Ports: Use solvent soaked pipe cleaners then clean, dry pipe cleaners.
a) Remove the retainer, plug and spring.
b) Use a 10 gauge or chamber brush and clean the magazine tube using the same techniques you use to clean the barrel.
c) Soak the spring in solvent.
d) Use lightly oiled patches to oil the inside of the tube and threads on the retainer and inside the magazine lip.
a) Using a teflon based lubricant, oil the action’s slide bars.
b) Lubricate the choke tube shaft and threads with Birchwood Casey Tube Lube. This will prevent galling and seizing of the tubes.
a) Store you guns in a cool, dry place. If you use a gun cabinet, place a packet of
humidity absorbing material in the case with your guns.
b) Regularly inspect your guns to see that the oil finish is still present.
WHERE DO YOU SHOOT A TURKEY?
Obviously, not behind the front leg. Nope, you want to hit them in the head and/or neck.As big and tough as a turkey is, one pellet to the brain or central nervous system in
the neck can put drumsticks on the table. However, a turkey’s brain is about the same size as a tennis ball. And with all the head bobbing he does and the brush he invariably manages to put between him and you, it may not be an easy target. If the turkey is in full strut, its neck will be contracted making the muscles harder and its feathers will be puffed out making penetration more difficult. You may be able to get the bird to stretch out its neck (a much more favorable target) by clucking and purring.
Your shot pattern should encompass the head and neck of a turkey so the ideal aiming spot should be just under the beak. If your pattern centers around your front sight, aiming directly for the head will waste the top half of your pattern. If you’ve patterned your shotgun and know that it shoots a little high or low, adjust your aiming point accordingly. Body shooting a turkey, more often than not, results in a wounded, lost bird. You don’t want that on your conscience.
Remember, just like hunting with a rifle or a bow, ethics don’t come with the equipment. Good hunters know the capability of their shotgun and the loads they are shooting and will pass on a questionable shot. While it may take only one well-placed pellet to do the job, the ethical hunter will wait for the shot which he or she feels will place enough pellets in the right place to give the best chance for a clean kill. Some may disagree with me, and that is their right, but I believe that, with a shotgun, only head and neck shots on turkeys are totally reliable. I also believe that the smaller the shot and the lighter the load you use, the more true this becomes.
Bowhunters, especially those who hunt from stands, long ago learned the value of a range finder. You would do well to emulate them. When you set up, range trees and other landmarks around you and combine this information with your knowledge of how your shotgun patterns so you’ll know which are the risky shots and which are not.