Find The Right Shotgun

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I must admit – I love busting birds, be they of the clay, upland or waterfowl variety. I’m not sure how many rounds I have put down the barrels of the many shotguns I have owned over the years, but it has to be in the many thousands. What is even more surprising, at least from my perspective, is that I still enjoy a round of trap or a pheasant hunt as much today as I did when I first starting hunting with shotguns a half century ago. It has been a long-standing love affair that involved a significant learning curve along the way. It is, therefore, my aim in this column to assist you in either buying your first or a new shotgun.


Shotgun types

I believe the first question to be asked is, “What is going to be the primary use of the shotgun?”

In the so-called good old days, this question was not nearly as salient as it is today. More often than not, one simply bought a shotgun and used it for everything, from upland birds to waterfowl or even deer and rabbit hunting, as I did. This certainly can still be an option, however, one of the things I discovered fairly early on is that if I was going to get more serious about the various types of hunting or shooting I was doing, I needed more than one type of shotgun. No one gun can do it all, at least with the same proficiency as guns designed specifically for the type of game you are hunting.

Thankfully, the world of specialty shotguns has arrived. Today you can buy a shotgun designed for turkey hunting, waterfowl hunting, deer hunting and upland hunting or for various types of competitive shooting. I could quite easily utilize my entire column to simply discuss the variety and designs of the many waterfowl shotguns that are on the market. However, I will get right to the point. I believe that a hunter that is serious about both waterfowl and upland hunting needs two shotguns – a shotgun designed for waterfowl and has a synthetic stock is designed to be all but impervious to foul weather, has the capacity to handle large magnum loads, recoil reducing features, stock adjustment features (see shotgun fit), a reputation for a sound action that can function in hostile conditions and has interchangeable chokes with a barrel length of 28 inches (also see section on shotgun actions and gauges). The Beretta Xtrema 2 and Winchester’s Super X 3 are two of my favourites.

For upland birds, my approach is quite different, as I’m singularly of the view that while synthetic stocks with camouflage patterns fit well in a goose blind, they don’t have quite the same appeal when hunting quail over a German Shorthair. Although, for test purposes, I very successfully used a Beretta Xtrema 2 on an Argentinean dove and pigeon hunt, but that was pass shooting and an exception as I much prefer a wood-stocked shotgun with interchangeable chokes and a barrel length of no longer than 26 inches. Let’s face it, when you are walking all day through brier-infested coulees, for birds that can explode quite literally at your feet and be out of range in the blink of an eye, you want your shotgun to be lightweight, easy to carry and be fast on point with the capacity for a very fast follow-up shot. For that reason, I’m really partial to an over/under, such as the Franchi Instinct L, Beretta 686 or a Browning Citori, as they not only meet these specification perfectly, but also because each of their two barrels can be choked differently – one barrel choked for close-in work and the other for a longer range and/or a second shot. Having said that, I must confess that I also own a couple of beautiful wood-stocked Beretta automatics in 12 and 20 gauges that are strictly used for hunting upland birds. That third shot, which both offer, has often come in handy as well.

Next, I will briefly discuss specialty shotguns for turkey and deer. Competition guns will be left for another day, as I simply don’t have the space to cover this diverse topic. And rather than delineate all the specific requirements for either a turkey or deer shotgun, I will mention a number of excellent choices based on the extensive testing that I have done in recent years. For turkey, Winchester’s SX 3 Extreme Turkey tops my list and for deer I would choose a rifled barrel slug gun and you can’t go wrong with either the Benelli Super Black Eagle II (automatic) or a Browning A Bolt Slug Gun (bolt action and the most accurate slug gun I’ve tested).


Shotgun actions, gauges and fits

As I mentioned earlier in this column, for waterfowl I prefer an automatic, especially when shooting heavy magnum loads – they reduce felt recoil and aid the hunter in acquiring quicker, on-target follow up shots. For upland, it would be a toss-up between a quality over/under and an automatic, depending on the game birds being hunted and when you hunt. For example, on late season roosters when using heavier loads, I would lean towards one of my Beretta automatics. Pump actions and side by sides are fine choices as well, just not for me.

While I have used every gauge of shotgun that is commercially available, from a 10 to a 410, and while each fills a niche in the bird-hunting world, I have narrowed my choices down to two: the 12 and 20 gauges. My reasons are quite simple. First: the availability of ammunition, as both can be found in just about any store that sells ammunition. Try to find 28-gauge or even 10-gauge ammunition in a small, rural town on a Saturday morning when you have used up your supply on a great morning shoot. Second: the selection of ammunition that is available, which is all but endless, from light reduced loads to those three-and-a-half-inch mega magnum loads that are designed to fold those big honkers right out to the edge of shooting range. Third: the selection or choices in guns/models/configurations that are available in both gauges and, last, both fill just about every requisite for whatever bird you may want to hunt.

If it doesn’t fit right, it won’t shoot right! A number of years back I purchased a top-of-the-line shotgun for waterfowl. When it arrived and, bolstered by visions of breaking 25 straight, I headed off to the trap range. Was I in for a surprise! I didn’t even break 15 birds in either my first or second round. A pattern board the following day revealed the problem – the gun patterned well off centre and, as this particular gun did not come with adjustable features, it was quickly replaced. Bottom line – not every hunter or shooter is built the same; we are not stamped out of a cookie cutter, so no one shotgun is going to fit everyone correctly. And because shooting a shotgun at a fleeing bird is instinctive, where proper fit and alignment must occur in seconds, the shotgun must fit properly. The key here is to try as many shotguns for fit and feel as possible. Ensure that the gun comes to point on target the same each time, that you are looking down the centre and length of the barrel and that you are not forcing yourself to fit the gun. The gun must fit you, not the other way around.

In recent years, quite a number of manufacturers have realized the importance of individual fit and have designed shotguns that are adjustable for fit with the use of various spaces. The aim here is to come as close to a custom fit as possible. But the final test is to take it to the range and pattern the gun. If, for example, it patterns too high or low, the comb will need adjustment; if it patterns too far right or left, the cast will need attention. And don’t forget time on the trap, skeet or sporting clay range as the final piece in the gun-fit puzzle.

There is just something magical about a cleanly hit bird that folds up in midflight or a clay bird that evaporates into dust. With the right shotgun, this can become routine.

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