Three Myths And A Maybe
September 23, 2010
There are certain things about shotgunning everyone seems to know.
There are just some things that everybody knows. Everybody knows that some guns shoot harder than others, and if you don't believe it, ask around. You'll soon find someone who'll declare in the solemnest of tones that he owns--or once owned or knew somebody who owned--"the hardest-shootin' gun I ever saw." Ask what makes it such a powerhouse, and the answer's likely to be, "Well, I dunno for sure. It just shoots hard, harder'n any other 12-gauge I ever had."
How can this be? The short answer is, it can't. The striking energy that a shot pellet delivers to a target is determined by its weight, speed and the distance it has traveled since leaving the muzzle. These are all functions of the cartridge and physics, not the gun. You can increase the number of pellets that strike a target by increasing choke constriction, so the total striking energy might be greater, but individual pellet energy is not. Fire the same load through two different guns--or a dozen, or a hundred--and pellet energy is going to be exactly the same at comparable distance. They hit as hard as they hit, and a gun can't change that.
I believe I know where this myth comes from. Virtually all the guns that have been touted to me as being particularly hard-shooting have been old-timers, single-shots, doubles and repeaters built during the era in the late-19th and early 20th centuries when the typical American factory stock was made with so much drop that it looked like a hockey stick. Such guns all have one thing in common: They kick like bloody hell. Those old dogleg stocks promote a much higher level of felt recoil than straighter, more modern designs. They're apt to kick right off your shoulder, jump up and bat you in the chops, or otherwise behave in an unseemly fashion.
The logic is easy to see, even if it isn't really logic: A gun that beats the snot out of a shooter just has to be whompin' birds and targets harder than normal as well.
'Tain't so. In that scenario, the only thing getting hit harder is the guy behind the gun. A straighter stock that is significantly too short or too long for a given shooter enhances the sensation of kick as well. If it's way too short, he's likely to have it off his shoulder a bit because he will instinctively try to keep a safe distance between his nose and the base of his trigger-hand thumb. This means the gun travels a short distance virtually in free flight before it contacts the shooter, and the collision makes kick feel more intense. If a stock is way too long, the shooter can't get the butt into his shoulder pocket, and it ends up on the point of his shoulder or even resting against his upper arm.
Some people believe certain guns "shoot harder" than others.
In the pocket, his whole upper body helps distribute and absorb recoil; anywhere else is going to be painful. This is something to keep in mind if you're helping a youngster or a woman learn to shoot. Beginners tend to be kick-sensitive at first anyway, and a stock that's too long to allow a good shoulder-pocket mount will make it that much worse.
Everybody also knows that the smaller the gauge, the more precise you have to be in order to hit a moving target. If the myth of the hard-shooting gun is based on kinetics, the myth of the difficult small-bore seems to be founded on appearance. Here you have a big ol' 12-gauge with a bore that looks the size of a drainpipe, and there a teeny little 28, a cartridge slim as a fountain pen and a barrel that looks almost too narrow to transmit light. Which one's going to shoot the wider pattern? Here again, faux logic says it'll be the 12; what starts big stays big, and what starts small stays small. I am often astonished at how many otherwise-knowledgeable shooters buy into this, even at a level that is almost subliminal. I don't know what else would prompt a man to say, "I'd really like to try a 28-gauge, but I don't think I'm a good enough shot to hit anything with it, so I'd better stick with my 12."
I've heard that, or some variation on the same theme, a gazillion times. About as often, in fact, as someone has taken a look at my 28-gauge and said, "Boy, you must be a deadly shot to use a gun that small."
No, I'm not. I'm a good game shot, maybe better than average, because I've practiced so much and get to hunt as much as I do. But the truly deadly shots--the likes of Captain Money, Rudy Etchen, Billy Perdue, Bob Brister and a whole slew of others--aren't going to be handing me any cash at the end of the day. I feel completely confident with my 28 because, for one thing, the gun fits me perfectly, and because I know, for another, that at equal ranges and choke, its pattern is every bit as wide as a 12-bore's. The 12's pattern is apt to be denser, simply because there are more pellets in the charge, but in terms of sheer spread it won't be any larger. I have to be careful not to exceed the 28's practical limitations--not because the pattern is smaller but rather because it becomes too patchy and sparse to be reliable beyond a certain distance.
Otherwise, hitting a bird with it is no more difficult than hitting one with a 10-gauge. If this seems to fly in the face of reason, test it yourself. Find a patterning plate and fire at it from the same range with similarly choked guns of various gauge, measuring the spreads as you go. You may be surprised at what you see.
Everybody knows that a gun barrel with no choke in the end shoots doughnut-shaped patterns--that is, a circle with a big hole in the center. This is a hangover from the days when shotshells typically had overshot wads and roll crimps. The thinking was that when fired through a barrel with no choke, the overshot wad somehow disrupted the center of the swarm, leaving a void.
Despite many attempts, I've never been able to create the phenomenon on a patterning plate, and I've stuffed a lot of roll-crimped shells down cylinder-bore barrels. Actually, I never expected to see the fabled doughnut, because I've never been able to grasp the physics of how a wafer of nitro-card, virtually weightless, could influence the flight of shot pellets that are vastly heavier by comparison--nor, even if it could, how it could create the dreaded central hole through the entire length of a shot string. That dog just won't hunt. What will hunt, and very well indeed, is a cylinder-bore barrel, which is why all of my game guns have one. At 25 yards or closer, the range within which the great majority of upland birds are shot, you want your pattern to open as quickly and as broadly as possible, and nothing accomplishes that as effectively as the complete absence of choke.
This myth is not without its uses, though. Next time you watch the unscathed departure of a bird you just know you dead-centered in your pattern, you can say to your partner, "Darn cylinder barrel doughnutted me again!" A related myth has it that fiber wads can disrupt a shot swarm from behind,
regardless of how much, or how little, choke is involved. Here again, the physics mystifies me, how a wad that weighs almost nothing could have the momentum to plow through a column of shot that starts pulling ahead of it almost the instant everything leaves the muzzle. I have a notion that felt wads, like overshot cards, came to be blamed for so-called "blown" patterns mainly because they just happened to be part of the ejecta. It strikes me as a bum rap, but it stuck.
Trapshooters, notoriously fussy about their patterns anyway, were especially keen years ago on keeping wads from goosing their swarms, and so some enterprising chap came up with the wad-check. He cut a series of narrow, shallow rings into the barrel wall a short distance back from the muzzle, deliberately making them rough-surfaced. The theory was that as the shot charge and wad passed through this portion of the bore, the rough bands would grab the rough-surfaced wad and impede its progress just enough to let the shot pellets pull ahead, thus making sure that insidious slug of fiber or felt didn't go muscling its way through the swarm, sowing havoc. Did it work? I haven't a clue. I suspect it may have been a solution for which no problem really existed, but wad-checks certainly were popular for a while. Scope out enough old trap guns, and you'll find some that have had the treatment. You can see the rings plainly--typically three or four of them--by looking into the muzzle. And you can amaze your friends by knowing why they were put there.
One myth that I'm not certain is entirely mythical is the one that says you can't have too many guns. Don't misunderstand; I firmly believe that everyone ought to have at least one gun tailored specifically to every target discipline he likes to shoot, a pigeon gun, a duck gun, a goose gun, a turkey gun and upland guns in every gauge from 12 to 28. I'd call that a minimal battery for an all-around shooter, and once it's in place, you can go about filling the subtle niches. I've always believed the concept of too many guns was a fallacy--until last fall, when I had a conversation with a friend who is extremely fond of hunting, shooting and guns and has the wherewithal to indulge these affections virtually at will. He was telling me about some gun he'd recently bought, one he'd wanted for a long time and hadn't been able to find. After the requisite fondling, he went to stash it in one of his many gun safes. "Jeez," he told me, "I already had two just like it that I'd completely forgot about."
I suppose you could argue that a faulty memory is the real culprit, but what of having so many guns that even a good memory can't recall them all? That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing--but still, this is one myth I'm now inclined to think might be a maybe.