Shotgunning Basics

Tired of being a bad wing shot? There are several basic shotgunning components that’ll improve your odds at hitting feathers this fall.

Randy McDuffie | October 3, 2016

In today’s shooting world, we have an overwhelming choice of guns, ammunition and accessories that are “best,” right? Maybe so, but maybe not. When hunting birds, I like to keep my average of shell-to-bird ratio the best that I can. If I bag a limit of ducks, but it takes me a whole box of shells to do it, that’s not a fun hunt for me.

From time to time, all of us fall into peer pressure from our buddies or advertisements. We go hunting and get put to shame because somebody kills more birds or has a better percentage than we do. When this happens, it is only natural to want to know the type gun, shells and the particular choke (or barrel) that our buddy used. Then we rush out and buy the same thing. Could it be that we keep our shooting accuracy messed up by constantly changing what we use?

I grew up hunting birds with a 2 3/4-inch, 12 gauge Remington 1100. After I somewhat learned to hit a dove, my dad let me use a Browning A5 (arguably one of the finest shotguns ever made). However, I could not hit anything with it; I was not used to the hump. My dad was amazingly deadly with it, but I was harmless to any bird. Walking off the field that day 40 years ago, I told my dad that I wanted to go back to my 1100.

Now let me pause and say this. I am not writing this to promote or put down any brand or style of gun, accessories or ammunition. I am simply sharing that consistency is valid when hunting birds.

Several years ago before I got larger chambered guns (for larger birds and longer shots), I went hunting with a 3-inch chambered pump that I had bought for home defense. It was a gun that I was not used to, and I stayed confused the whole hunt. I did almost nothing right. Not only was it a pump, the safety was in front of the trigger, and I missed even firing at several ducks because I was not getting the safety off in time. Later, while failing to remember to pump, I missed more shots. Then I got even more confused and did not reload. Ducks were flying everywhere, and I was almost crippled. All in all, I would have been better off that day with a single shot, or better still, my 1100. Maybe I’m just stupid and can’t adapt very well, but I was glad to get back to a gun that was right for me.

Just because someone else may be hitting with a particular gun does not mean that we will. Some of my buddies like the safety in front of the trigger and can hit very well. Others use pumps and have great success. Some of the guys I hunt with have the newest thing out. The bottom line is to find out what works best for you and stick with it! It may be that you have two or three guns that fit your needs and work well for you in different types of bird hunting. That’s true for me, but all shotguns need to be similar in feel and operation. It really does not matter what name brand or price of gun you have. If it feels right and you are used to it, stick with it and develop your skills with it.

My dad is now 83 years old. Just three years ago, we went on a dove hunt. All the younger guys had the latest-model guns, chokes and ammunition. Dad stepped out with an old 26-inch open-bore improved cylinder shotgun and 30-year-old shells. On a percentage basis, he waxed our britches by killing eight doves with 13 shots. Why? Not only is he a good shot, but he shot a gun and used ammo that worked for him. Sitting two stands away, I could hardly believe the long shots he successfully made.

The same is true for chokes. Just as many hunters do, I have a lot of chokes that are varied in length and restriction. Just this past duck season I put in the “wrong” choke in by mistake and didn’t realize it. That particular hunt was pretty good for me, killing three ducks out of five shots. The next hunt was not quite as good but still good for me.

After the second hunt, I went to clean my gun and saw that I had put in a stock modified choke. Allowing a little common sense to kick in, I left the modified choke in and finished the season with a much better overall average.  To my surprise, even some longer shots were productive. It became clear to me that I could hit better with that pattern. Again, finding out what works and sticking to it produces the best results.

Here’s one that’s not so obvious—shot speed. Most dove loads are 1,300 feet per second (fps) or less. Some waterfowl loads can go up to 1,700 fps. I don’t know about you, but 400 fps is a big difference in my math book. The distance you lead will not be the same with shot that goes over a football field faster or slower per second.

My oldest son got very good at shooting ducks with loads of 1,700 fps. We went on a dove hunt, and he shot a 2 3/4-inch, 1 1/4-oz. load at about 1,200 fps. He felt about like I did when I tried to hunt with an unfamiliar gun because he didn’t do very well. As time has gone on, he has narrowed the margin of shot speed between dove and duck shells, and he is doing very well in accuracy.

We keep ourselves all messed up in lead distance when we switch to a different speed of shot. I have settled in to a speed of about 1,300 fps. For me, this has proven to be the best all around speed with which I can hunt dove, duck and quail. It doesn’t matter if you like 1,100 fps or 1,700 fps; just stay consistent.

Some may say that a duck is faster than a dove and you need faster shot. I’m not so sure that’s always true. I’ve been on some dove hunts when the wind was up and the doves were flying just under Mach 2. Then again, I’ve been in duck holes when they are naturally slow because they are about to land in the water. There are not many birds faster on the take off than a quail raised in the wild. No matter what the setting or type of bird, there are times when all birds fly faster or slower. With the same speed of shot, we can adapt much better considering the distance of lead.

By the way, if you want to go out and shoot some clays for practice, I would suggest staying away from the slower shot just because they are cheaper. It would be better to shoot the same type shells (or at least the same speed) that you would when you actually hunt. It would be good to keep the same choke pattern, also.

I began learning this a long time ago when I shot a lot of skeet with cheaper shells. When I went back into the dove field, I could hardly cut a feather with heavier loads. This is not to say that the slower, cheaper shells are less effective. I know a man who shoots doves with the cheapest shells he can get and does so with an amazing average. He can shoot as well as the best shots for less money. Again, find out what you like best, and stay consistent.

To put it simply………

Find a style of gun that works the best, find the barrel/choke that works the best, find the speed of shot that works the best, and stick to it.

Too often, we hear about the best new products on the market, and we get suckered into trying each one that comes out. It may be that we keep ourselves messed up and not hitting well because we are not consistent. We keep trying different style guns, chokes and ammo and fail to get settled into a routine that actually works. Yes, it may take a little patience, but we can narrow down what works best for us. Then, we can continue developing our skills with that type of gun, barrel/choke and shot speed. The latest may not be the greatest if it does not work for you. However, it could be that the old trusty scattergun in your closet may be what has you knocking down feathers this fall.

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