Friday, January 8
On Fit and Form: The Field Shotgun
Since moving to the Eastern Shore, I have started a library of books relating to Sporting activities, with a focus on wildfowling and saltwater fishing. Over the last three years, as I have read through these volumes, I have found there is a vacuum of knowledge relating to “firearm physiology”. By this I am referring to the elements of firearm design that allow the shooter to use the firearm to the greatest effectiveness aside from ability. In a nutshell, at my current proficiency level, I should expect to harvest more game with a custom shotgun built to my specifications, than a field model built for all. My verbose description can be condensed to two words: gun fit. The other main item I have noticed is left out is a practical review of chokes. In particular, I have found scant reference to how steel shot patterns in standard manufacturer chokes, often provided with the shotgun.
The field shotgun is made for the average right handed shooter, who is 5’ 9” and 175 pounds. Even if you are close to those dimensions, you have to keep in mind that length of pull, or distance between butt stock plate and the trigger, is generally set for the average male. In addition, so is the measurement of drop in comb, which is the vertical drop between the comb (the midpoint in the stock where your cheek connects) to the rear of the action where the stock is affixed. If you are far from the norm, you might consider changing the thickness of the buttpad, or trying another aftermarket stock. One element in your favor is that with a field shotgun there will be no “cast on” or “cast off” as there might be with an over and under shotgun (for models above the Field Grade). Casting is where the stock is bent away from the body of the shooter so that their dominant eye is more easily aligned over the sighting plane (rib).
A rule of thumb for measuring length of pull is to put the butt of the unloaded shotgun in the crook of your elbow, and place your index finger on the trigger. If the first knuckle of your finger overlaps the trigger, the length of pull is adequate.
In The Orvis Wing-Shooting Handbook, Bruce Bowlen describes that, “Field shooting dictates that the gun be brought to shoulder with one smooth motion and the shot be taken without hesitation…One size does not fit all, but unfortunately most guns are sold with only one size stock”. Bowlen’s reference to a “smooth motion”, underscores the importance on gun mounting. When I posed the question of the importance of gun fit to Wildfowl Magazine contributing writer Nick Sisley, he related that, “there is a lot of variation in how the butt stock fits into the shoulder with each mount - how the comb of the stock contacts the face with each mount. I try to make a concerted effort to ask readers to really practice their gun mount a lot - as well as practice the gun mount properly. Only with a consistent, proper gun mount can a gun fitter do his job to perfection”. Practicing gun mount until it is fluid and consistent, as well as checking out some aftermarket options for your field gun might help the fit feel more natural.
As federal regulations called for a change to steel shot for waterfowling in the late 1970’s, this created a new reality for the hunter. Gone were the days of crumpling geese and ducks beyond fifty yards. In his November, 1989 article titled, “Steel Shot Can Do The Job” in The New York Times, Nelson Bryant relates that, “being lighter than lead, steel pellets lose their velocity more rapidly…. resist shooting at ranges greater than 45 yards” Although there are many more non-toxic alternatives today than when Bryant wrote his article over 20 years ago, they can be pricey and tough to find locally in the sizes warranted. Also, there are far more improved steel cartridges, such as Kent Fasteel, which pushes a 12 Gauge, 3”, 1 1/8 dram load at 1560 feet per second (~$15 per box).
With newer loads of higher velocity compensating for some of the lessened “stopping power”, the field hunter also must take into consideration how steel reacts to a standard manufacturer choke, made for lead shot. Bryant notes that, “In addition to the need for going to larger shot sizes with steel [to increase shot velocity], the waterfowler should also be aware that steel loads deliver tighter patterns… Although this varies from gun to gun, steel loads in an improved cylinder barrel might produce full choke results” Generally, you need to go up one choke size to get the corresponding pattern with steel. Looking for a pattern you expect from a modified choke? Use an Improved cylinder. Need to reach out and touch that honker? Use a Modified to expect a Full Choke pattern. However, NEVER use a full choke on steel shot, as the lack of deformity of the shot might create a catastrophic event.
There is no way to know how the different loads shoot until you pattern your shotgun with the exact load and choke you intend to use in the field. I asked Larry Albright of Albright’s Gun Shop in Easton, Maryland about patterning and he put it succinctly. “All factory barrels are not the same and the Remington for instance is a little “looser” than the Browning…We carry Patternmaster chokes, as a factory lead choke is too all-purpose and an aftermarket choke is for a specialty hunting scenario, such as decoying waterfowl” Larry is a good salesman, but all he was trying to sell me on was the point that specialty chokes are a good thing and not another marginal accessory for the gear intensive waterfowler.
There are many topics which are far more interesting than practicing to attain a consistent gun mount and knowing what your chokes will produce through patterning your gun. Decoy spreads and layout blinds seem to be popular topics in print and online media. However, if success comes down to one piece of equipment, let me know my shotgun as I know my truck. I don’t baby it, but I know how it will perform in adverse conditions. And always, with proper care, it has never let me down.