A Shotgun Primer; Everything you never wanted to know about shotguns, so you didn't ask...

Okay, I have gotten a few questions around the subject of shotguns lately and it occurs to me that there may be more than a few folks out there now contemplating buying and shooting their first shotgun. Even though a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, I shall forge ahead, it's never stopped me before

Let me say that the first thing anyone should do when obtaining a new weapon or starting to learn to shoot is to get to a good gun safety course (required by most states for first time hunters anyway) and possibly even go take a lesson or two from a quailified intructor. Safety is paramount over all other issues and if your gun handling experience is limited, safety instructions is the absolute starting place. It's not a bad idea for experienced folks to take a safety course now and again as well.

Now, to the nuts and bolts of the issue. I will endeavor in this piece to give a "down and dirty overview" of the theory and practice of the modern shotgun, given my own, limited understanding.

The shotgun is a firearm used to hunt all manner of small game, waterfowl and upland game such as rabbits, pheasants, and any number of other game bird species. There are many different models, sizes and price levels. I will attempt to make this as simple as I can.

A shotgun fires a "shell", not a bullet. For our purposes, this plastic or paper shell contains dozens of small, lead pellets that spray out in what might best be described as a cloud of pellets that spreads out as it leaves the shotgun. The shotgun is a very short range weapon. Moving targets over about 30 yards away are in little danger when fired on with a shotgun in average hands. At 40 yards, even the best shooters are limited by the fact that this cloud of pellets is spreading out and slowing down very rapidly, thus limiting it's effectiveness severly.

A shotgun, very simply, is nothing but a metal tube for guiding this shot charge down range, onto our target. (We hope) That is a little like saying that a car is nothing but the thing we sit in that rolls down the road to take us to work everyday.

Shotguns come in several different sizes called "gauges". These most commonly being 12,16 & 20 gauge. The smaller the gauge number, the larger the bore of the shotgun. The smallest shotgun is measured and named a bit differently and is called a .410 bore shotgun. Also available is a 10 gauge shotgun. Almost too heavy to carry, these large, 10 gauge guns are used for waterfowl shooting from blinds for the most part. There is also a 28 gauge shotgun which is rarely seen, but is a wonderful size weapon for beginning youngsters and ladies.

Of course, you can see that each gauge of shotgun would take a correspondingly larger or smaller shell. But that's not all. Shotguns also come with different chamber lengths. The chamber is where the shell fits into the gun for firing. It is extremely important that you load shells marked only for the gauge and chamber length that is stamped on your gun's barrel. In actual practice, the gauge of shell and gun must match exactly while the shells must be no longer than the length marked on the gun's barrel or shorter.

In the US, the standard chamber size is 2 3/4 inches for all gauges. Some guns are marked to take a shell that is a maximum of 3 inches long. Shells are most commonly made in the 2 3/4 inch length. Some shells, called "magnums" are manufactured in the 3 inch length. Thus, guns marked with a 3 inch chamber can safely fire these 3 inch or 2 3/4 inch shells as long as the gauge matches exactly. Some older guns (I own such a 12 gauge gun) have only a 2 3/4 inch chamber and must never be loaded with a 3 inch shell, for safety reasons. A gun so loaded can burst with fatal results to shooter and bystanders when fired. The 3 inch shells are commonly available, but they are usually very expensive compared to the 2 3/4 inch shells and so are used only in special situations such as turkey or goose hunting. Watch every box of shells and every gun you shoot very carefully to be sure they match.

A good rule is to not have shells on you that will not fit the gun you are carrying when you are hunting or shooting targets. Shells of a different gauge than the gun calls for will not actually fit that gun, however, shells from smaller gauge guns can be accidently loaded into a gun of larger gauge. For instance, a 20 gauge shell can fit right clear into the chamber of a 12 gauge gun and become stuck, down in the barrel. If a 12 gauge shell is then loaded into the gun and the gun is fired, the gun will explode and the shooter will be seriously hurt or killed. Same for any bystanders. Shotgun shells are generally color coded by gauge, but one cannot even say that for sure. 20 gauge shells are generally yellow in color. Many 12 gauge shells are red, but shells of all gauges at times come in red, green, purple, black and other colors. The shell size is stamped on it's brass base, regardless of color.

.As to the shells; generally they hold about an ounce of lead pellets or "shot". Some shells hold a bit more shot, some a bit less. The shot too, comes in several sizes. The larger the shot size number, the smaller the shot size. Each size shot has specific application to shooting targets or game. The most common or "medium" sized shot is the #6 size. Other popular sizes include #4, #5, #7 1/2, #8 and #9. Those sizes larger than #6 (the smaller numbered sizes) are used mostly for pheasants and waterfowl with the sizes #6 and smaller being used for quail and dove sized birds for the most part. Sizes #8 and #9 are the most commonly shot for the clay target games folk play with shotguns to hone their shooting skills. It is important to match the shot size to the game or targets you are shooting. It is also important to remember that the bigger the shot, the fewer of them there are in the shell because the total weight of the shot charge is still always about an ounce in every shell.

Shotguns come in several basic different model types;

In America, the pump or slide action shotgun is probably the most popular at this time. A pump holds several shells in it's magazine. Once a shot is fired, a new shell is loaded by pumping the slide which is actually the forearm of the gun. Pump guns are simple, tough and not very prone to malfunctioning. Almost every manufacturer who sells shotguns sells at least one model of pump shotgun.I have hunted with many pump shotguns and was very pleased with most of them. Pumps are generally quite affordable.

Almost as popular in some areas of the country as the pump shotgun is the semi-automatic shotgun. Similar in appearance to a pump gun, this gun simply reloads itself after each shot is fired. These shotguns are very useful and have some advantages over other models of shotgun. However, they are generally more expensive and somewhat prone to malfunctioning if not properly cared for. I have been around a few semi-autos in the field, and have owned only one, that I dearly loved. In my experience, they are a bit tempermental, due to the fact that their mechanisms are quite complicated and susceptible to dirt and the weather.. Generally, I would say that the newer, more expensive auto guns perform quite well. The older and less expensive modern guns of this type seem to be barely worth owning, however. Unless you have money to spend, stay clear of a semi-automatic gun. The auto is the one type of shotgun that auctually seems to wear out with extended use. I would never buy a used automatic shotgun unless I was sure it was reasonably new, well cared for and sparingly fired in the past.

This leaves us with the over/under and double barreled shotguns. As their name implies, these guns have two barrels. In America, if you say "double barreled", you are talking about a gun whose barrels are mounted next to each other. We also call these guns "side by sides". In America, the over/under shotgun is the much more popular of the two at this time, for a variety of reasons. However, both types of two-barreled guns are gaining in popularity here as of late. In some countries in Europe and other parts of the world, there are simply are no other types of shotguns. There are many advantages to a two barreled gun for bird and target shooting. Let's just say that in general, these type of guns are generally of a higher grade of manufacter than most pumps or semi-automatic shotguns. They load and unload by breaking them open. When broken open, the gun simply cannot fire as the action and the barrels are no longer connected. This is a wonderful safety feature. Also, due to their design, pound for pound, a good two-barreled gun will seem lighter to carry and will generally be easier and safer to handle than pumps or automatic guns. Two-barrels guns are by far the easiest to clean and care for of any type of shotgun. However, even a decent two-barreled gun usually has commas in it's price tag and the very good ones are more expensive than the cars that most folks drive. However, two-barreled buns are very reliable to operate and you will never wear one out with a lifetime of heavy use. If you shoot alot, dropping a month or two's pay on a weapon you will truly enjoy shooting for your entire life and then pass on to your grandchildren is not a large expense at all. If you shoot alot and hava a poor shotgun to shoot, you will not enjoy it very much.

I will leave out discussion of obsolete models such as lever, bolt and single shot shotguns, except to say that each, in their own way, distinguishes itself as an abomination to saftey and/or function as far as shotguns are concerned and that, having owned and used at least one of each of these devilish creations, I would not wish one on my worst enemy.

All shotguns, regardless of model have a "safety" button or switch that is supposed to prevent the trigger from being accidently pulled. This is a useful feature, but it is not a substitute for safe gun handling. Remember, most guns that accidently kill people were either "unloaded" or "on safety". A shotgun is carried with the safety on while hunting until the very moment the bird flushes. The shooter pushes the safety to the "off" or "fire" position as the shooter is mounting the shotgun to his shoulder to swing on and fire at a flying bird. When hunting over pointing dogs, I prefer to carry my weapon unloaded, most of the time until the dog goes on point. I just hate carrying a loaded gun around. However this is not always practical while hunting.

I prefer hunting with an over/under shotgun for a number of reasons. One of the biggest reasons is that as I go about my training or hunting day, the gun can be carried unloaded and shells can be dropped into the open gun and the gun brought into action very quickly without having to carry a loaded gun around. A two-barreled gun that is broken open is much easier to carry over your arm or over your shoulder than any other model. In bird hunting, this is a huge factor because bird shooters in America carry their guns around much more than they shoot them. Likewise, the gun can be made unfireable and stone-dead safe very quickly simply by breaking the action open. This is a very reassuring feature when hunting or training dogs with other folks. It is for these reasons that two-barreled guns are normally the only types of guns that dog clubs permit gunners at their field trials and tests to carry during these events.

Also, every barrel on every shotgun is made to a specific "choke" setting as well. The choke setting of your barrel is actually more critical in hunting with pointing dogs than the gauge is. Many modern guns have "screw-in chokes" that screw into the end of the barrel to permit the shooter to change the choke of the barrel. What is "choke"? You may ask, and rightly so. Simply, the choke of a barrel is simply the way the maker of the barrel regulates how tightly packed together the lead pellets in the shell will remain once they are fired into flight from the barrel. The choke of the barrel is also stamped on the barrel or choke tube, in most cases. But you cannot tell anything about a barrel's choke setting by looking at it. The differences between choke setting are almost microscopic, but they really effect how the shot charge behaves down range. For our purposes, in America, barrels come in three chokes;

Improved Cylinder, Modified or Full. Pretty technical, huh? Agan, I must emphasize that the choke setting of your barrel is actually more critical in hunting with pointing dogs than the gauge of the gun is. Barrels actually come in several more choke sizes, but we'll not digress for hunting purposes. Without going into mind numbing detail, lets just say that bird shooters generally don't use Full choke. It's the "tighest" choke and as such one's pellets don't spread out too much at close ranges when shooting a full choke and this causes many birds to be missed. Bird shooting over pointing dogs is a close range business. We generally want our pellets to spread out quickly so we have the best chance of hitting a flying bird. Let's just say that for shooting over pointing dogs, modified is a good choke and that Improved Cylinder is a better choke. With a two barreled gun, you get one of each, usually, which is another advantage to that type of shotgun. With a pump or an auto gun, I would really stick to improved cylinder. If you buy an older, used gun, be sure it's got at least a "Modified" choke barrel on it. Many older guns were made with "Full" choke barrels that are worse than useless to shoot over dogs. If you buy a new gun, be sure to buy a model that has "screw in" choke tubes so you can select the choke to match the hunting situation. If you find yourself with a "Full" choke barrel on the gun you intend to use for your shooting over bird dogs, you can take it to a gunsmith who can work on the barrel and change it to roughly a modified or improved cylinder setting for a nominal fee.

So, you can see, with all the different shotgun action types, gauges and barrel chokes, one has a wide variety of choice in what to look for and try in a gun. Multiply that by the dozen or more major makers of shotguns that are available in the states and even experienced shooters can really become quite confused and lost in choosing a new gun. Generally speaking, it might be an advantage to visit with someone who has hunted alot to get a better idea of what might suit you in a shotgun. You might even arrange to try out a couple of different guns on a target range before you even head out to a gun shop. Used guns are easily found, but have a gunsmith look over any gun you are considering buying off the used rack. One should expect to spend anywhere between $200 and $500.00 dollars for a decent first shotgun, used or new, that's worth owning, depending on type and maker. Of course, as with anything, you can easily spend much more depending just how much of an obstacle cost is.

Folks can become as addicted, particular and defensive about the brand and model of shotgun they shoot as they do about the breed of pointing dog they keep. Just ask them, they'll tell ya'!! As this not-so-brief journey into the topic shows, you are probably going to need some help with your first shotgun if you are a beginner. You needed and sought help with your first bird dog, I hope? A shotgun is no different. A shotgun is a simple thing with so many details and nuances that determine what is best for each shooter that it takes years to get it all figured out. It's all part of the enjoyment of owning and hunting with a good pointing dog.

In short, the only thing that I think is better than having a great bird dog is having a decent shotgun that one feels confident and at least somewhat competent in shooting over that dog. Again, experience and practice are the keys, just like with the dog, and I hope this piece will give you an idea, at least, of where to start.