Photo Illustrations by: Michael Sugrue
What do you look for when you choose a shotgun for wingshooting? Your ideal shotgun depends on what you need it for, and certain conventions are common knowledge. For instance, a heavy, long-barreled goose gun isn’t suitable for use in a grouse thicket, because only a light, short-barreled gun can make those quick shots at fast-fleeing birds in heavy cover. But have such conventions ever been put to a test?
With a stack of shotguns and a pile of ammunition, five shooters with a range of experience went to the sporting clays course at Highland Hideaway in Riverside, Iowa, for two full days in March to challenge eight long-held assumptions that guide people’s shotgunning choices, mine included. A ninth test was conducted offsite in a ballistics lab. The results ranged from expected to very surprising.
Our early-spring shotgun test coincided with the last blast of winter in the Upper Midwest: snow, temperatures in the teens, and 25-mph northwest winds. The good news is that we had to bundle up in hunting clothes, thereby simulating field conditions whether we liked it or not. The bad news is that our scores sucked because of it.
1. Does Gun Fit Matter?
Americans buy shotguns like we buy clothes: off the rack. That situation has changed slightly in recent years as more hunters become conscious of gun fit and more guns come with shim kits to alter stock dimensions. Many still wonder, though, if shotgun fit really does affect wingshooting success. Isn’t a good-enough fit good enough to hit with?
One reason for the success of Remington’s Models 870 and 1100 is that their common stock is said to fit almost everyone, so we put it to the test. Each shooter stood 16 yards from a freshly spray-painted steel pattern plate and fired five shots at an aiming mark cut in the center. Shooters fired the gun as soon as it was mounted, without aiming. Then we measured how close to the mark each shooter’s point of impact was.
Hartsock: 8 inches high
Toth: 3 inches high
Bourjaily: 1 1?2 inches high
Launspach: 1 inch high
Kasper: 8 inches low
Two out of five of us were way off target with a factory stock, in different directions. We were able to lower Hartsock’s point of impact from 8 inches high to 3 inches by adding a 1-inch butt pad, which put his cheek farther back on the sloping comb, effectively increasing drop. Kasper, a sporting clays shooter used to a high-combed gun, required a different, target-style stock. A Jack West adjustable stock on the 870 changed his POI from 8 inches low to 21?2 high.
TIP: One easy way to test gun fit is to hang up a bedsheet, make an aiming mark on it, and take several shots at it from 16 yards, mounting the gun and shooting quickly each time. After four or five shots, a hole will appear where your pattern is centered. If the pattern is centered on or an inch or two above the aiming mark, the fit is right. At 16 yards, every 2 inches off center equals 1?8 inch needed change in stock dimension.
2. Is a 3 1?2-Inch Gun Worth the Cost and the Recoil?
The 3 1?2-inch 12-gauge load offers a 10-gauge payload in a 12-gauge gun. But how much ballistic advantage does a 3 1?2-inch have over a 3-inch? And is the performance worth the increase in recoil and cost?
We shot pairs of clays with 3-inch and 31?2-inch loads in a 71?2-pound 870 Super Mag, timing the interval between shots and tracking success. Hartsock, Kasper, Toth, and I shot the 870 at the pairs. Launspach shot with a softer-recoiling Versa Max semiauto.
Kasper and Toth found the 33 percent extra recoil of the 31?2-inch shell painful. Hartsock and I, both experienced waterfowlers, thought it bearable. Although we both thought the 3 1?2-inch shell made the gun tougher to manage, there was no difference in recovery time and little in number of hits. Launspach was equally fast with both loads.
Pattern testing showed that a 3-inch shell loaded with BB shot put 63 pellets into a 30-inch circle at 40 yards. A 3 1?2-inch put 77 pellets into the circle, an 18 percent increase. Penetration into ballistic gelatin at that distance was nearly the same: 5 inches for the 3 1?2 and 5.125 inches for the shorter shell. Shot string lengths were statistically identical.
Load; Recoil; Avg. Time Between Hits
3-inch, 11?8 oz. Xpert BB; 30 ft.-lb.; 1.08 seconds
31?2-inch, 19?16 oz. Drylok BB; 39.58 ft.-lb.; .99 second
If you shoot at waterfowl at ranges greater than 40 yards, a 3 1?2-inch gun is worth the cost and the recoil.
TIP: For over-decoy shooting, save money and your shoulder and stick with 3-inch shells.
3. Are Short Barrels Better for Hunting in Brush?
“Brush guns” often have very short barrels, so hunters can better negotiate heavy cover and take quick shots at fast-flushing birds. But do you lose velocity as you reduce barrel length? Are short barrels harder to hit with?
We set up an extreme example, using interchangeable 21- and 28-inch barrels on a 20-gauge 870. The target was a quartering bird set up to pass in front of a shooter stuck in a brushy thicket. He had to pick a window in the brush and make the shot quickly. It was a good approximation of a fleeting chance in the grouse woods. Each shooter fired 10 shots with a 21-inch barrel and 10 with a 28-inch barrel.
Avg. no. of hits with a 21-inch barrel: 1.6
avg. no. of hits with a 28-inch barrel: 4.8
A short barrel is easy to swing and hard to hit with. Every member of our team shot better with the longer barrel.
TIP: Longer barrels make any gun easier to shoot, and that’s especially true with light smallbores.
4. Do Aftermarket Recoil Pads Work?
High-tech aftermarket recoil pads supposedly reduce felt recoil more effectively than typical factory pads. But does that $30 really make your gun kick less?
We took two 870s of identical weight and put a LimbSaver pad on one in place of the hard factory rubber pad. Both pads were wrapped in tape for a blind test. We shot 1 3?8-ounce, 1300-fps Winchester Super Pheasant loads at a steel pattern plate. Each shooter fired two shots with each gun, cycling the gun as fast as possible and getting back on target for a follow-up. We measured the intervals between shots and asked each shooter to pick the softer pad.
Factory pad: 1.01 seconds between shots
Aftermarket recoil pad: 1.06 seconds between shots
Four out of five shooters agreed that the aftermarket pad noticeably reduced felt recoil. It did not make for faster follow-up shots, however. Hartsock’s dissenting opinion about which gun produced less recoil—he voted for the one with the factory pad—underscores the fact that everyone feels recoil differently.
TIP: I also timed my follow-up shots with a much lighter 1 1?8-ounce, 1145-fps load that generated 50 percent less recoil than the Super Pheasant ammo. My follow-up shot time fell from 1.13 seconds to .80.
With the soft-shooting Versa Max (which does have Remington’s soft R3 pad) and Super Pheasant loads, average follow-up time with hunting loads fell to .59 second.
While aftermarket recoil pads are generally worth the money, the best recoil reducers of all are semiautomatic actions and lighter-kicking shotshells.
5. Do Fiber-Optic Beads Improve Your Wingshooting?
Bright fiber-optic beads come standard on many target and hunting shotguns. Many waterfowlers like the way the beads stand out in low light; one catches your eye far better than a silver bead does. But other hunters find them a distraction. So, the question is, does a fiber-optic bead improve your wingshooting ability?
We shot a 25-bird round of five-stand with and without a .17-inch-diameter HiViz S200 bead in green.
Avg. no. of hits without F.O. Bead: 10/25
Avg. no. of hits with F.O. Bead: 7.8/25
All of us found that the fiber optic pulled our eye off the target and onto the gun, even those of us who regularly use smaller .09-inch fiber-optic beads, which are not nearly as bright. Hartsock and Kasper both shot a bit better with the fiber-optic bead, but we agreed that this was probably a reflection of how poorly we all shot our baseline round first thing in the morning. I became more accustomed to the bead as I continued to shoot five-stand with it, and I think I could have learned to use it effectively over time. Although some waterfowlers and target shooters find it improves their wingshooting, it is definitely not a quick fix, and in fact could impair you. Experiment extensively at the range with one on your gun before deciding to hunt with it.
TIP: Any type of bead on the end of a shotgun can distract some shooters. If you think that’s the case with you, unscrew it and try shooting.
6. Are Light Guns Faster to the Target?
Uplanders who hunt heavy cover, and many quail hunters, believe a light shotgun gets more game because it’s quicker to the target. But how much quicker is it than a heavier gun? Or is it faster at all?
Each shooter stood 5 yards behind a trap that threw a straightaway target on his command. Each shot five targets with a 12-gauge 870 Express weighing 6 3?4 pounds, then with a 12-gauge 870 weighing 7 1?2 pounds, and then with that same 12-?gauge with 15 ounces of weight added to the stock and magazine tube. The guns had Full chokes. Shots were timed from the target release to the shot. We tracked hits and misses also.
Shotgun; Avg. Time Between Launch and Hit; Success Rate
12-gauge, 30-inch barrel, 8 lb. 7 oz.; .77 second; 72%
12-gauge, 30-inch barrel, 7 lb. 8 oz.; .91 second; 71%
20-gauge, 28-inch barrel, 6 lb. 12 oz.; .98 second; 63%
The “light, fast-handling brush gun,” an outdoor writing cliché for generations, turned out to be slower to the target than a heavier gun and harder to hit with. Obviously, a light gun carries more easily in thickets, but it’s more difficult to shoot well.
TIP: Waterfowl guns should weigh around 8 pounds for a smooth, steady swing. Upland guns should weigh between 6 and 7.
7. Is a Slimmer gun Worth the Handicap of a Smaller Gauge?
The 12-gauge has become the standard around the world in part because the large bore patterns lead shot very efficiently. Slender small-bore guns are easier to carry than a 12-gauge, however. They carry lighter payloads (although ammo with 11?4 ounces of shot is made for the 16- and 20-?gauges, and even the 28-gauge can shoot a 1-ounce load). But is there a loss in pattern efficiency with smaller gauges?
Federal has learned that the average 12-bore patterns between 68 and 73 percent with the standard 11?4-ounce load of 71?2 shot out of a Full choke at 40 yards. For this test, they patterned standard hunting loads of 71?2s in 16, 20, 28, and .410 bore through Full chokes at 40 yards.
Gauge; Payload (oz.); Pattern at 40 Yards
12; 1 1?4; 68–73%
16; 1 1?8; 72.3%
20; 1; 65%
28; 3?4; 61%
.410; 1?2; 45%
The 16-gauge patterned as well as a 12-gauge, but after that, with each step down in bore size the tests showed a loss of pattern efficiency.
TIP: Compensate for the lower pattern efficiency of smaller bores by choosing slightly tighter chokes.
8. Do Long Forcing Cones Make a Difference?
The forcing cone is the area where the chamber tapers down to bore diameter, generally under an inch long. Lengthening this cone, a $100-or-less gunsmithing job, is supposed to improve patterns and reduce felt recoil by easing the transition of the shot load from chamber to bore. Target shooters get this job done often, and many gunsmiths include it as part of a tune-up package for turkey and waterfowl guns. But does it improve patterns?
I took my own 12-gauge Full-choke 870 to the range and patterned it with 1 1?8-ounce No. 8 Rio target loads. Then I took the barrel to my gunsmith and had the forcing cone lengthened and patterned the gun again, using the same ammo.
Pattern at 40 yards before forcing-cone job: 69.4%
Pattern at 40 yards after forcing-cone job: 69.0%
Seemingly, relieving the forcing cone made no difference at all in patterning. Temperatures were colder the day I tested the gun with its new forcing cone; theoretically, the gun should have patterned more openly on the colder day because the cold air is denser. However, anecdotal evidence from other shooters who have had their forcing cones lengthened point to little difference before and after.
I did think felt recoil was slightly lessened, but after the test I wasn’t convinced to run out and have the forcing cones on all my guns lengthened.
TIP: If you look down the barrel of a shotgun from the chamber end and see a very thin, dark ring at the end of the chamber, the forcing cone is standard length. A thick, gray-looking ring tells you that the cone has been lengthened.
9. Does Keeping Both Eyes Open Really Improve Your Wingshooting?
Shooting with both eyes open gives you a better view of the target. It also makes you much less aware of the gun and thus less likely to aim it. Many people shoot one-eyed, however, either because they learned that way, or because they have eye-dominance problems (right-handed, left-eyed, for instance) that make shooting with both eyes open very difficult.
Our team consisted of four two-eye shooters and one one-eye shooter (Toth). We all shot a round of five-stand as we normally do; then the four two-eye shooters taped their glasses to block their nondominant eye, while Toth shot with both eyes open.
Shooter Preference; Method; Success Rate
Both eyes open; Both eyes open; 39%
Both eyes open; Non-gun eye taped; 21%
Non-gun eye closed; Non-gun eye taped; 44%
Non-gun eye closed; Both eyes open; 8%
Two-eye shooters agreed that shooting with one eye closed makes you overly aware of the gun in your vision. Toth, on the other hand, had trouble pointing the gun with two eyes open. He was neither left-eyed nor right-eyed, but center dominant. In my experience coaching kids, most one-eye shooters are not center dominant. I’ve taught many of them to shoot more instinctively by keeping both eyes open.
TIP: Try the standard eye dominance test of holding your arms extended, palms out, making a hole between your thumbs that frames a distant object. If you’re right- or left-eyed, the object will disappear when you close your dominant eye. Center-dominant people often see the object no matter which eye they close. They need to close an eye when shooting or, better, place a small patch on the off-side lens of their glasses.
The Test Team
Pictured (from left): Kasper, Bourjaily, Toth, Hartsock, Launspach
Phil Bourjaily: 56, 6', 180 lb., F&S Shotguns editor, expert shotgun shooter
Clint Hartsock: 29, 6'3", 300 lb., gun department manager at Fin & Feather in Iowa City, waterfowl addict
Peter Kasper: 24, 6', 155 lb., trap and skeet shooter, Iowa All-State sporting clays competitor
Phil Launspach: 58, 5'11", 185 lb., hunter, regular recreational skeet shooter
Mike Toth: 55, 5'8", 165 lb., F&S executive editor, lifelong all-around shotgun hunter