The choice of gun you make as a beginner to clay target shooting can be crucial.
It can mean the difference between gaining that all-important confidence early on, and quickly becoming despondent as you thrash around in search of that magic gun that’s going to change everything.
Let me tell you now there is no such gun, but there is a difference between something that suits you in terms of weight and balance and is appropriate to the kind of shooting you are going to do, and something that’s not.
As a complete beginner to shooting, avoid specialist guns at the outset – those for Trap shooting in particular – and I speak as an avid Trap shooter.
Instead, you need something you can use to learn the basics of hitting most kinds of moving target.
If you intend to shoot clays, an over-and-under is the best choice, a principle established beyond doubt many years ago.
Weight should be around 7½lb, barrels 28” or no longer than 30”. Hand detachable screw-in chokes are very useful, but if you choose a fixed choke gun, make sure you avoid very tight constrictions.
For the benefit of this series of articles I am going to begin with less expensive guns that can be bought second-hand and, at the same time, a make and type that I can recommend.
There are multiplicities of makes available but with a quick look around any gun club you will notice there are two brands that dominate: Browning and Beretta.
Why? Because clay target shooters buy into competition success, and though different, both are of excellent design and are made to standards few come close to at the price.
I will give you a potted history.
The Browning over-and-under appeared some years earlier than the Beretta. Designed by John Browning in America, it was the first volume production gun of its type, which is to say it was made by modern methods of the time and manufactured in numbers.
When first introduced, the Browning sold for $125 in the USA. Made in Belgium by Fabrique Nationale, prices now begin at around £11,000.
Fortunately, nearly 40 years ago, Browning went to Japan and persuaded Miroku to make a copy of their gun; in fact the Japanese company was already making something very similar.
Miroku now makes most of the over-and-unders under the Browning brand, and older examples can be second-hand from around £600. As always, second-hand prices are determined by age and condition.
I would recommend the Browning 325 and its successors the 425 and 525. In the sub-£1,000 price bracket, which is enough to pay for a beginner’s gun, there are a lot to choose from: the Citori models, if made in Japan, are also excellent quality and represent good value.
Make sure your second-hand Browning was made in Japan as the Browning brand has in the past occasionally been put on a few guns of far lesser quality.
With a Miroku-built gun you can’t go wrong, but as with all guns still look for signs of obvious neglect, for example rust or pitting in the barrels.
If you buy from a reputable dealer you are unlikely to encounter that kind of condition, but buying privately you may.
Going the private sale route as a beginner, you need a knowledgeable friend who may be as close to you as your father – if not, make sure your adviser is an experienced gun owner.
Among the second-hand Brownings in this price bracket you may occasionally come across a first-grade Belgian-made gun. If so, rather than Browning stamped on the barrels it will have Fabrique Nationale, Herstal, Belgium.
There is a certain cachet attached to these Belgian-made guns, but unless it is in good condition and to the original specification, especially the choke constrictions, be wary as in most cases you will be better served with a much newer Japanese-made gun.
Beretta’s volume production guns represent a very different kind of manufacturing process, introduced in the 1950s.
Before that all the component parts that comprise a shotgun were produced unfinished, or in the white as it is described, and then put together by hand.
When everything had been fitted carefully the gun was disassembled, the components hardened, finished and then reassembled.
The Italian company’s new and revolutionary production methods involved finishing component parts before assembly, reducing the time it took to make the gun and therefore the cost.
Beretta’s motive in this was to retain the production of its high-quality guns in its own factory in Italy, and at the same time retain competitive pricing.
It involved a huge investment in technology other manufacturers could not contemplate at that time, but it paid off.
Today, Beretta’s high-quality volume production gun is a market leader and is sold in great numbers and at good prices throughout Europe and North America.
Second-hand Berettas represent excellent value, in part because they are so durable. Always manufactured from the latest rustless steels, requiring minimum maintenance, they are practically indestructible.
There are a good number of second-hand Beretta 680 series guns available, first introduced in the 1980s though most examples are much newer than that.
Average prices for a good 686 model start around £750, while newer guns can be just under £1,000. It’s worth mentioning that the 682 models originally the higher grade clay target gun, were built around a heavier dedicated action.
As with all Berettas, they are exceptionally durable, and there are some still around.
A development of the 682 was the Supersport, as the name suggests available only in a sporting specification. These are older guns but you would expect to pay between £850 and £1,000 for good examples.
Miroku, the manufacturer of the Browning over-and-under since 1978, as I mentioned, was already making a similar gun to a very high standard.
Miroku still produces its own gun, though for obvious reasons it is, apart from some specification differences and cosmetics, identical to the Japanese Browning.
Early models dating back to the 1970s and 1980s were rather different in some areas. For example, they incorporated leaf springs instead of the coil type.
Early 800 series guns from the pre-Browning era are priced accordingly at around the £600 mark, and there are a few nice examples, although there might be a spares problem.
Later 3800 series guns on the Browning pattern range from £650 to £1,000, and good examples represent excellent value.
In the context of this article the Winchester over-and-under I refer to is the 101 and its successors the 5500 and 6500, all made by the Olin-Kodensha factory in Tochigi, Japan, between 1959 and 1989.
Originally designed by Winchester in New Haven, Connecticut, it is undoubtedly a crib of the John Browning design but with some mechanical differences.
Most notably the jointing of the barrels to the action by means of under bolting, which have barrel lumps of similar dimension to the Browning but do not locate through the trigger plate and so is not quite as substantial.
Manufactured to a high standard in significant numbers, in Britain they were marketed through Edgar Brothers and from 1979 a wholly owned Olin/Winchester subsidiary.
In its lifetime the Winchester 101 had a number of incarnations, but between 1970 and 1986 the European range comprised the 101XTR, the Super Grade, and the Grand European, followed by the short-lived Diamond Grade line.
Then, in the period until the factory in Japan closed, the 5500 and 6500 guns were introduced. Some of these guns still fetch relatively high prices, with 101 and Super Grade models ranging from £500 to £700.
The later 5500 and 6500 models are prized for their handling qualities and, depending on condition, prices are from £600 to £1,000.
Clearly the Winchester brand still holds a magic for some, and guns based on the 101 action are good ones. Spares are an issue, however, in America making 101 parts has become something of a cottage industry;
www.midwestgunworks.com offers packs of the most wanted spare parts, firing pins, top lever springs,and so on.
With almost every kind of second-hand artefact, price is determined by condition.
The closer it is to the original, the more it’s worth. In this respect, guns are no different in that they are in some ways very durable, though they inevitably deteriorate with use and time.
If looked after, shotguns can last several lifetimes in good order. Neglect, misuse or misguided modifications diminish the value of clay target guns.
Neglect usually amounts to not cleaning the gun properly or, in some cases, not at all.
Although modern nitro powders are not nearly as corrosive as the old black powders, if left sufficiently long without a clean, build-up can still damage a gun and reduce its value.
In that area, take particular care with detachable chokes – it is amazing how many people don’t unscrew and clean them.
Lack of regular cleaning can also damage the breech face, so check that too. Damaged woodwork can be repaired, but avoid guns with serious cracks in the stock, particularly in the area of the grip.
Gun stocks soaked with oil at the head, due to having been stood on racks for long periods with oil gradually seeping downwards, can be a problem in very old guns.
Any kind of stock alteration that isn’t well done detracts from the gun’s value. Stock extensions, non-standard ill-fitting recoil pads, and especially shortened stocks mark a gun down in value.
As regards stock alterations for yourself however, do not hesitate to have them carried out if you are advised by an expert gun fitter to do so.
Persisting in using a gun that doesn’t fit you makes no sense and wrecks any chance of you becoming a proficient shot.
Alterations executed by an expert may add value, but even if it doesn’t, it’s worth the price.
Few shotguns, it seems, last their entire life without some alterations to the chokes, and sometimes it may be for a good reason.
A gun too tightly choked for its intended purpose may seriously handicap performance.
In the case of clay target guns, however, the kind of choke constrictions for a particular discipline are well understood, and so the right gun can be easily bought from the outset to meet this requirement.
That said, there are a number of emasculated Trap guns with ½ and ¾ chokes instead of ¾ and Full in the racks of gun shops, and equally so in the hands of individual owners.
Regardless of the reasons for these choke alterations, no matter how justified, the gun has been devalued, so even if you have a use for it, pay less.
Of fundamental importance to good gun design is the way barrels are joined to the action.
It is therefore no coincidence that the four makes of gun I have recommended are particularly sound in this important area.
The Browning, Miroku, and the Winchester to a lesser degree, share John Browning’s substantial under bolting that not only keeps the gun secure, but the bearing surfaces it incorporates spread the stress and general wear and tear of hard usage.
The Beretta’s design, though different, does the same job very effectively by placing the locking bolt above the explosion of the cartridge and incorporating bearing surfaces at the sides of the action.
Both systems were created to keep the barrels breech ends firmly in place against the breech face.
Guns that shoot loose easily because of insufficient bearing surfaces tend to recoil harder, because the barrels more easily come off the face, as gunsmiths describe it.
There is far more to a good gun than fancy wood and engraving – good design is critical, and as the guns I have recommended demonstrate, doesn’t have to cost a fortune.