Shotguns are the key instrument for shooting birds, or wing shooting in game pursuits terms. They come in various types, styles and calibers. It can be a little daunting when looking to buy your first shotgun and it’s easy to make a costly or physically painful mistake. I’ve made both many times! This short summary should hopefully assist you in getting you started with what to look for.
We use, in simple terms, four types of shotgun. These are the double barrel side by side, the double barrel over and under and the pump action. There is also the semi-automatic which is used in the same way as the pump action.
Side by side
The side by side shotgun is the classical shotgun. It’s often seen in hard man movies where the barrels have been sawn off – hence the name sawn off shotgun! The irony of this is however, that the side by side is probably the most beautiful of all the shotguns from an aesthetical perspective. Its beauty however often comes with an accompanying price tag. The side by side is almost exclusively used for game shooting.
Over and under
The over and under is where the two barrels are configured above and below each other rather than side by side. It’s the more modern incarnation of the double-barrelled shotgun which has become favoured with wing shooters although side by side shotguns are still designed and produced. There is a little bit of rivalry between those who use side by side as opposed to over and under, with the side by side seen as more purist to the pursuit, but generally it’s all good humoured banter. Over and under shotguns are used equally for game and clay pigeon sport shooting. As a result, some are labelled as ‘Sport’ and others ‘Game’. In reality you can use either type for either role as the main difference is that the game version is slightly lighter than the sport to aid quick responses in the field environment.
The pump action is a multipurpose working shotgun. Whilst it is used for wildfowling it is a gamekeeper’s everyday gun. It is occasionally used for clay sporting shoots. It isn’t however allowed on formal shoot days where the need to reload after every two shots is a typical English approach to fairness in the field! Pump action shotguns are however limited through law to only be able to hold 3 cartridges, one loaded in the chamber and the other two in the magazine. Once a cartridge is fired the user pumps the foregrip backward and then forward to eject the spent cartridge and reload the chamber with a new one.
The semi-automatic shotgun is visibly similar to the pump action and used for the same purposes. As with the pump action shotgun it has a single barrel, but the cartridges are automatically loaded by the recoil of the preceding explosion generated by the shot.
Parts of a Shotgun
Boxlock and Sidelock
There are a few important parts of a shotgun to which you should become accustomed. The ‘lock’ of a shotgun is the area in which all the ‘working parts’ are housed. These are the trigger mechanisms and ejectors. There are two types of locks which are the Boxlock and the Sidelock. The most common is the Boxlock, so named as all the parts are essentially contained within a box. The sidelock is the earlier and far more complex mechanism. There are very few gunsmiths now working who would be seen as experts in building sidelock systems.
Most shotguns have a single trigger for both barrels (double barrel shotguns). However, some older side by sides are double trigger mechanisms that require the shooter to pull each trigger independently for each barrel. This can be quite tricky to get right and in your early attempts you are likely to miss getting the second barrel off and watch the bird fly on safely! On the single trigger shotguns its normally possible to configure the gun as to which barrel fires first.
Breech and chamber
The breech is the entrance to the chamber. The chamber is where the cartridge sits when the gun is loaded. Modern shotgun cartridges are either 60, 65 or 70mm in length. Modern shotguns have a breech length of 76.2mm (3”) and can therefore accommodate any of these cartridge lengths. Older shotguns however may have shorter breeches and as a result cannot accommodate the larger cartridges, even when they appear to do so. It is imperative that you know what size cartridge your shotgun can accept as fitting an inappropriate cartridge can have very serious consequences.
Barrels and chokes
The barrels of a shotgun are normally in the region of 30 inches in length. This length provides a good balance to the gun, ensures good performance of the shot and allows the shooter to attempt shots at relatively long range out to say 40 yards. Those expert shots looking to target extremely high birds may well have extended barrel lengths in excess of 30 inches. Some shots go the opposite way in order to shoot in confined spaces such as woods and forests. In addition to balance longer barrels provide increased velocity. You need to consider this, in conjunction with the cartridge selected, when working out the lead you need to give a target bird as you always shoot in front of the bird and not at it. This is because the shot will take time to reach the location of the bird and you need to get the shot and bird to intersect. Shooting at the bird will always result in a miss behind it! Many barrels in over and under shotguns allow you to fit what are called chokes in the ends. These do what the name suggests and applies a throttle to the shot by reducing the diameter of the barrel at that point. Chokes come in a range of sizes such as true cylinder, improved cylinder, quarter, half, three quarters, full and super full. True cylinder is the least constriction whereas super full is the most. The theory is the tighter the choke the tighter the shot pattern until further from the gun. However, deciding on which choke to use is not simply a case of deciding how far your target is away as you need to also consider the type of quarry and the type of cartridge you are using. Practice makes perfect as they say so get out and try different combinations until you know what suits where and when.
All barrels (and breech) must be what is called ‘proofed’. This is a test of the shotgun’s ability to withstand higher than normal pressures whilst firing. Proofing results in a proof stamp that indicates what type of load and shot the shotgun can use. There is currently a move to try and enforce all lead shot to be replaced with steel. This will be an issue for older shotguns which may not have been proof tested to fire steel shot and may not actually be capable. If buying a shotgun today ensure it is proofed for both lead and steel shot.
Most people have heard the term 12 bore or 12 gauge. Some will have heard of 20 bore less would have heard of 10, 16, 28 bore or .410. The numbers represent the diameter of the barrel. Rather than the number being a unit of the diameter measurement it actually refers to the number of lead balls that will fit down the bore and weigh 1 pound. So, for example a 12 bore equates to 12 lead balls that fit down the bore perfectly and cumulatively weigh 1 pound. A 10 bore therefore would only require 10 lead balls whereas as 28 bore would require 28 lead balls. The .410 is unique however in that it is actually a unit of distance measurement with it indicating a barrel diameter of 0.410 inch. The most common shotgun gauge is the 12 bore, followed by the 20 and then the 28. The .410 is often used as a starter shotgun for the younger shooter although I sometimes like to use it on smaller species such as woodcock to make the day more challenging!
Most gun stocks and foregrips are made using walnut wood. The most common is Turkish walnut however other nation walnut such as English and French is also used. The wood is graded (subjectively) based on the grain and the age of the tree from which it came. The higher the grade the higher the cost. Grade 5 is a very good grade but a grade 9 would be much better. Not all manufacturers or gunsmiths use the same grading scheme however as others might label a stock as standard or exhibition. It can be difficult to chose but if you are in the position where you can choose you are obviously relatively ‘well off’ and able to afford high grade wood!
Accompanying the woodwork is the engraving of the metalwork. Engraving can be done using a machine or hand. Obviously, a hand engraved shotgun is an expensive option as the engravers are masters at their craft and produce works as good as an artist as that’s what they are but working in a different medium to a painter.
For the new and uninitiated, the next statement might sound odd! Shotguns should be fitted to the shooter. This means that not only should the stock be the right length but also it may need to be shaped differently for a left-handed shooter than a right-handed shooter. The reason for this is that whereas with a rifle the shooter brings the cheek down to the stock, when shotgun shooting the stock is brought up to the cheek with the head remaining upright and the shooter constantly looking at the target. Getting a shotgun fitted can be done by the dealer taking measurements and sending them to the manufacturer. Equally, a gun can be modified by a qualified person post purchase. The best way, and unfortunately most expensive, is to get the gun fitted by visiting a master stock maker in person and having him or her shape it to your body in the same way as you would get a tailored suit made.
So, we’ve covered the shotgun options and important features but at the end of the day it only exists to fire a cartridge at a target. The cartridge is simply the container for the primer, the powder, the shot, and the wad.
The primer is the ignition device for the [black] powder. Once hit by the firing pin the primer produces heat that ignites the powder. The ignited powder creates pressure in the cartridge case that pushes the wad forward. The wad can be made of plastic but you will more likely be required to use fibre wads on shoots nowadays as they are more environmentally acceptable than the plastic. With the pressure becoming very high very quickly the shot is violently pushed to the end of the cartridge forcing the inbuilt weaknesses on the folds to break and open. The shot then travels along the barrel at high velocity and out into the open. Once clear of the barrel the shot pattern begins to open and continues to do so the further away it moves from the shotgun.
We have seen earlier in the article the velocity differences delivered by longer barrels and also the ability to constrain the shot pattern using chokes. Many people concentrate on these two characteristics and ignore the cartridge parameters less the weight and size of the shot. However, all cartridges deliver different speed characteristics and as the intersection of the shot with the quarry is based on trigonometry the speed at which the shot can travel towards its target is critical to the amount of lead the shooter must give the bird in order for the shot to be successful in its objective. Getting to ‘feel’ the performance of a cartridge and then sticking with the preferred choice to suit your lead decisions is essential for consistency.
Finally, all boxes of cartridges are labelled with a series of numbers. These include the number of cartridges contained within the box (normally 25), the caliber, the length of the cartridge, the shot size and the load (in grams). We have covered the length and caliber so the last two numbers to explain are the shot size and the load. The shot size is the scale used to determine the size of the individual balls of shot inside the cartridge case. The same sizing chart is used for fishing shot and shooting shot. The larger the number the smaller the pellet. Most shot size used in wing shooting is between 7 and 3. A size 7 would be for small birds like woodcock and a size 3 for large ones such as a goose. The number of pellets inside a cartridge depends on its length but is given by the load. The load is the weight of the all the pellets. 28 grams of a No. 5 pellet will equate to something in the region of 220 pellets. 32 grams of a No.5 pellet equates to approximately 250 pellets. For info, my personal preference for shot size to quarry is a 50 gram load of No.3 for geese, 36 gram load of No.4 for duck, 32 gram load of No.4 or No.5 for pheasant, 30 gram load No 5 or No.6 for partridge, and 28 gram load No.6 for pigeon and woodcock. Don’t forget the ‘speed’ of the particular cartridge is also critical to your shooting.