My shotgun and I have been together a long time. I received it for my twelfth birthday about 70 years ago. I was raised in a farming community. It was expected that a young man would contribute to the food supply whenever possible. My family considered a shotgun to be a piece of precision farm equipment that you used to get food. When I lived with my grandfather on his small farm in rural Midwest he positioned a firearm at each downstairs window. When we looked out in the morning if there was a critter poaching from our garden we could open the window slightly and collect a main course for lunch. If we got a rabbit it meant I did not have to catch one of the free-roaming roosters for lunch.
In those days in rural America people did not have indoor plumbing. Water came from the well. You went out and pumped for it. You wonder about personal sanitation and how often we took showers. The first shower I experienced was when I was in high school and had to take a gym class. Warm water coming out of the wall, what a concept. The privy was between the house and the barn. Grandpa got up early about 3 and went down to the barn. Not everyone had electricity in those days. It was a status symbol to see a light burning above the farm door. Not much time for a big breakfast. In the evening there was the milking so not much time then either. The big meal was the midday. There would be the main course usually chicken from free-roaming to table in less than two hours. There were always potatoes and apple kuchen for dessert. We ate well. That was when we had a leisurely meal and talked about important things.
The elementary school had three rooms: one for first and second grade, one for 3, 4, and 5 the last room was for grade 6 and above. By 5th grade you had learned to read, write, and arithmetic which is what schools taught in those days. Often the youths were needed on the farm so quit after the fifth grade. At age 12 I got my hunting license without an adult accompanying me. You could drive a tractor on the county road at least up to the next field. Young women could marry at that age. It was pioneer country. It was a different world.
I was proud of my shotgun. I took very good care of it. When a relative passed I acquired a rifle and shotgun as a hand-me-down. The local gunsmith said the rifle was not in good enough shape to shoot and advised I take it to the local lake about a mile away and throw it in. The shotgun was in good shape as shotguns do not wear out like rifles do. I already had mine so I gave it to a cousin who did not have one. There were always two issues with the shotgun: first the barrel was really long and second when firing it recoiled smartly. The bruise on my shoulder was a symbol of my ability to withstand pain. But it may have been unnecessary. I will get back to that.
So, over all these years I have learned a few things that I wanted to share with you for what they are worth.
Barrels probably don’t have to be as long as they are. The authorities specify a minimum legal length but it is plenty to ensure that all the powder burns. As far as I can tell the chokes on a shotgun are worse than useless. I think they were a marketing gimmick of the 1870s and no one ever really tested the assumptions. The difference between a cylinder, modified, and full choke is the diameter of the muzzle opening just the last couple of inches before the muzzle. I did many experiments with birdshot and buckshot over the years and found the best results meaning the cluster of shot holding together in a small bunch out to the target was cylinder or no choke at all. When I told one of the young shooters who was preparing for an Olympic tryout of my findings he didn’t believe me. He was there at the patterning board at the local rod and gun club when I showed him some of my results. I had measured out exactly 25 yards and rested my barrel on a camera tripod. The target was the shot patterning board of commercial variety about an inch thick iron plate three feet on a side. You would tape a thick piece of paper to it and the shot pattern would be evident in the impressions.
The first thing I noticed way back when I started doing this is that some shot defied gravity. Mr. Newton would have been upset. This was before the ecological change in the shell. In the old days there was the cardboard sleeve with the primer and powder at the back, a wad of cardboard, then the shot whether little number 8 for clay pigeons, 6 for rabbits, or OO for big game like deer. The OO are the same diameter of .32 caliber bullets and there are 9 of them in factory loads of 12 gauge.
The problem was that when the gun was fired the little pellets would leave the shell and as they went down the barrel some on the contact surface would start to rotate from the friction with the barrel and those at the top would spin up and actually hit above the line of sight. Those in the other directions would also spun out of the intended pattern. A few years ago one innovative manufacturer developed a cup- and- sleeve arrangement that kept all the pellets in an enclosed bunch until the bunch left the muzzle hence no spinning from barrel contact hence a much tighter grouping with none defying gravity. A reloader today would only use the innovative cup-and-sleeve arrangement.
Some pellets still hit differently than others because of the transfer of energy as in the Newton’s Balls where the first hanging ball is raised and released thus swinging down and hitting the next causing the force to be transferred to each additional until the last one which is the only one to move and it swings up and away from the others. You have seen a demonstration of this I am sure. So, some shot will hit differently than others because of that transfer of energy.
Well if they are all in a little bunch out to the target then how many do you need to be effective? Not many. My experiments showed that three OO pellets were about in the middle of the pattern paper about the same as all 9 that came standard with the factory load. And it has proportionately less kick I can tell you. Newton implied that if only one-third the mass goes in the direction of the target then only one third the recoil goes against your shoulder. Obviously that means less readjustment if you do a follow-up shot.
Also, you waste less meat with fewer wounds in the target. Three pellets in the chest cavity of a deer shot from ambush 25 yards away aiming broadside just behind the front leg and half way down will puncture both lungs and he will be sleeping with his ancestors in two minutes no matter how fast he runs.
The thing about the choke is this: The last few inches of a cylinder barrel the choke is a constriction device. When the pellets hit the constriction they are deflected from going straight out which is bad. The theory I suppose was that they would all stay in a tiny group all the way to the target but that is not what I found. I found the full choke meaning a smaller constriction actually spreads the pellets out further because like a billiard ball hitting the side of the table some are deflected. The best groupings I found were with the shot in a cup- and- sleeve arrangement as I mentioned and the barrel completely smooth with no choke constriction. If your shotgun has the choke fixed in place you might consider cutting it off with a hacksaw or Dremel tool. It won’t reduce muzzle velocity much and will give you a tighter pattern while still being legal (in the U.S.) more than 18 inches in length or more than 26 inches in overall length.
Why a shotgun at all? In flat rural country with farm animals all around and the typical farm rather small you don’t want the pellets that miss the target to go very far. If shooting from ambush up in a tree stand at 25 yards it is best if the pellets missing the target go directly into the ground. Most deer in rural settings are creatures of habit. Folks using trail cameras show that a buck may follow the same route every day and you can set your watch by him. Farmers who charge hunting fees to help pay the taxes will often show the visiting hunters where they can expect to find a buck that the farmer wants removed. It may be a six-year-old with undesirable antler formation.
Some people like the shotgun for personal safety. A lardy I know carries one when she goes trout fishing alone. It is a pump 12 gauge she wears on a sling across her body. She says it does not interfere with casting. If a bear decides he is interested in her or her catch she is confident of her personal safety. She points the front of the barrel at his nose and pulls the trigger.
I noticed at the local charity raffles that if a shotgun is among the offerings it gets the best response by ticket sales in a large ratio if the other selections are a rifle or pistol. There is no gun more versatile than a shotgun.
So if there is a beginning shooter in your life I would encourage you to consider a shotgun as a gift for the upcoming Christmas and Hanukkah holidays. Stay with 12 gauge but consider reducing the pellet number to perhaps a third of the normal factory load so 3 rather than 9 OO buckshot. I pack the empty space with sawdust so things don’t move around. You can put a piece of tape on the crimped fold to remind you of the reduced load but at one-third the weight itself the difference from a factory load is very noticeable.
I hope the experience the youth shooter has with the shotgun will be as long and enjoyable as mine has been.