Price and performance; should one have to give way to the other? Does paying more really buy you more? Richard Atkins navigates the perilous waters that surround a shooter’s first gun purchase.
Buying a shotgun, especially your first, can be daunting. Advice from well meaning friends can help, but without understanding the factors that influence how a new gun will suit you, you are liable to find yourself repeating the process of buying a gun sooner rather than later.
Anyone who browses internet forums will know that newcomers frequently ask for advice about their first gun. The vast range of comments that come back will often serve to confuse as much as to assist, I’m sure. The most common response is, “get one that fits”! Sound advice, but not easily achieved unless you have access to a good gun shop with a broad stock selection and knowledgeable staff. And fit is not the only aspect of a shotgun that needs to be considered.
Your budget will, of course, be important. Bearing this in mind, the first decision to be made is whether to buy a new gun, a budget-priced gun, or a second-hand model from one of the better known brands. This choice has become more difficult over the past few years, with a number of new makers entering the budget end of the market.
This makes it all the more important to gain some insight into the difference between budget guns and more expensive models. It is possible to buy a gun that appears to be remarkable value for money – but will that gun help you progress, or might it hold you back? Let us look into some factors that can influence the performance potential of a shotgun, the importance of which might otherwise be overlooked or underestimated.
Not everyone will want exactly the same feel and handling qualities from their gun, but with that said there are some basic fundamentals about what feels good in the hands and enhances performance. If the key things are lacking then this can hinder a shooter’s progress. These key factors are fit, weight, trigger pulls and balance or handling.
Gun fit can be assessed by visiting a clay range with a good coach, having a lesson and getting some advice. The coach will be able to outline the basic dimensions that should suit and possibly give some indication of what guns are more likely to give a reasonable fit.
Length of pull is easily adjusted, but if you have a longer or shorter neck than average, for example, some makes and models will suit you better than others. A good gun shop can also help with this and it should be fairly straightforward to select a gun, new or pre-owned, that naturally guides your eye to look along the top rib when comfortably mounted, with your cheek on the comb.
Having a comb raised or lowered is nothing to fear and neither is a minor adjustment to cast. Adjustable combs are common these days, even on guns costing under £1000 new (the ATA SP O/U is one example). Adjustable comb stocks also allow easy adjustments of cast to align the eye with the top rib.
You cannot shoot to your full potential if a low comb is causing your gun’s receiver to obscure its rib; neither will you be consistent if your gun’s alignment is causing you to shoot to one side of your target. This latter problem is most obvious when shooting straight departing or incoming targets, but another symptom is breaking crossing targets more consistently from one direction than the other.
It is common to shoot one way better than the other, especially with trickier targets, but if those you felt should have been good too often escape, checking your gun’s cast is right for you might solve the mystery.
Similarly, a low comb can cause a shooter to raise their head off the comb to get a better view of the clay, and this too leads to inconsistency. As well as the options already discussed, there are some excellent gunsmiths who will convert almost any wood stocked shotgun into an adjustable comb type for a very reasonable sum.
This can transform a gun for little more than it would cost to have the fixed stock altered. This can mean that if you find a really nice gun that suits you apart from its stock, it may well still be worth buying. An adjustable comb stock can also be tweaked to continue to fit you as your stance, hold and technique evolves – as it almost certainly will for most newcomers to the sport.
And should you upgrade to another gun later, your gun will fit more people than a fixed stock would, making it a more attractive purchase.
Gun weight should be dictated by a combination of build, strength and what the gun will be used for. If it’s purely for clay shooting then a heavier gun is usually preferable, as this will help soak up the recoil of a 100+ clays per day, but if the gun will see field use, then something a little lighter might be better for days walking around the fields.
An important consideration when selecting a shotgun, new or pre-owned, is how its trigger pulls feel. This can be easily missed when trying a gun in a shop, especially if there isn’t an opportunity to try some dry fire ‘shots’ in a back room or quiet area. If you can actually take a gun to a shooting ground then that’s ideal. A pair of snap caps and some practice mounting, swings and dry-firing will tell you more than just whether the gun fits.
Trigger pulls have several aspects to consider, such as release weight, length of pull to release, smoothness in releasing the shot, pre-travel (sometimes called ‘take-up’) and over-travel (excessive movement after release). The most significant of these is release weight.
If a gun makes you think the safety catch might be on when it is not, then it will be extremely difficult to shoot well with it, because it will be difficult to ensure it goes off at the moment your brain says to pull the trigger.
This could make you mistime your shot release and miss your intended line. Trigger weights that fall between 4 and 5½lbs usually work out OK, especially if the release is smooth and not too long.
Triggers that have overly long pre-travel or a ‘gritty’ feel can be unhelpful too, as can too much play before the trigger engages with the sear lifters. Simply put, poor trigger pulls can spoil any gun potential, and with it the potential of the shooter who uses it.
Conversely, a decent a pull release will help progress immensely.
All these features depend upon the design and quality of the trigger mechanism (which dictates the way the sear and bent engagement and release operates). The easiest trigger action systems to manufacture and assemble do not lend themselves to the finest trigger pulls.
You only have to examine the inner workings of a premium grade gun to see its intricate design and high quality manufacture. This standard of work needs time and the skill of true craftsman to assemble, fit and adjust. That is what it takes to achieve the short, crisp, trigger pulls with sub-4lbs release weights found on the majority of high-grade competition shotguns.
Unsurprisingly, poor trigger pulls are most often encountered on budget shotguns. On these guns there is little, if any, time for hand fitting beyond basic assembly. Costs are kept down using precision casting methods such as investment casting and, more recently, MIM made parts. Parts made with these techniques can be used with minimal subsequent machining to adjust their final dimensions.
Engagement faces are sometimes literally used ‘as cast’, so they must be fairly deep to remain safe. This results in the long, heavy and gritty trigger pulls discussed above. Newcomers may not notice this because they don’t yet know what really good trigger pulls feel like.
It is easy to be blinded by an amazingly low price, but do make some comparisons before making a decision. Modern manufacturing methods have allowed some good-looking guns to come on the market for very little money, but please be aware that there are reasons such guns can be sold so cheaply.
Handling: a question of balance
The handling qualities of any gun are difficult to adequately describe; it would require a small book to do full justice to the topic, so the advice here is only a snapshot.
There are no absolute terms to define the feeling and feedback one gets when using a shotgun. What feels wrong to one person might be perfect for another. But although subjective preferences play a role, it is still true that shooting a gun is like many things in life; using good quality equipment can make the experience easier, more satisfying and more enjoyable.
A gun that handles well will improve shooting performance. As a shooter gains more experience they become better able to identify the features of a gun’s handling that complement their shooting style. Many things play a part in the handling qualities of a gun, but one of the most important is how it balances.
The hinge pins are frequently used as the reference point to talk about balance; shooters talk about their guns’ balance in terms of how far in front of or behind the hinge point their centres of gravity are.
A gun that balances exactly upon the hinge pins is said to have ‘neutral’ balance; as balance moves toward forward (toward the muzzles) it becomes increasingly ‘muzzle heavy’. Since interchangeable chokes became almost universal, balance points have tended to move forward.
To complicate matters, simply balancing on the hinge point is not enough for a gun to handle really well. If balance is achieved by using a relatively light receiver combined with heavy barrels and a stock weighted to counter them, then the gun can feel rather ‘dead’ in the hands. Such guns are difficult to point instinctively and can take more effort to get moving onto a quicker target.
On the other hand, if the gun has a heavy receiver and its barrels are carefully profiled to avoid undue weight, the weight then becomes centred closer to the receiver and is said to ‘fall between the hands’. The effect of this is to make the gun feel lighter than it actually is, especially when held with both hands, ready to address a target.
This often reveals itself when testing a new gun; when you give a gun that handles well to an experienced shooter they will say, “this feels light,” even if the scales show it weighs 8lbs. Guns with this balance and weight distribution feel ‘livelier’ in the hands and can give the feeling of doing as you require almost effortlessly, rather like a nice sports car…
This need to centre the weight is well understood and can be seen on numerous gun receivers today, where there are what are termed ‘bolsters’ on each side of the receiver. Bolsters are significant raised areas which make the receiver wider and, more significantly, add weight.
Multi-chokes can move balance points further forward than is ideal. This is for two prime reasons: firstly the barrel tubes must be made thicker to accept the recess and threads for the choke tubes. This can be achieved either by gradually increasing the outside barrels’ diameter from part way along their length, or by swaging out just the last few inches of barrel.
Some makers, particularly in the budget sector of the market, have thicker walls that taper for quite a distance – approaching half the barrels’ length. This adds more weight as you get nearer to the muzzles. Most premium makers keep tapering to a minimum to avoid excess forward weight.
Secondly, the choke tubes themselves can be quite heavy too. Extended choke tubes may look smart, but the steel ones add considerable forward weight and can upset your gun’s balance and handling qualities. Some premium brands offer titanium chokes, which are lighter than steel. Even extended chokes will improve balance if they are made of titanium. Muller also produce ceramic extended choke tubes, which are also much lighter than steel.
Long barrels can have a similar effect. A heavier, more forward balance may be fine if your main interest is Trap shooting but, if you want to shoot Sporting then long, forward heavy barrels are seldom helpful, especially for new shooters.
Hopefully this article provides some modest insight into the factors that create a shotgun that brings out the best in its user. During a gun test, when a gun feels right and handles well even targets I thought I had misjudged will break; with a less lively gun that lacks that intuitive feel the reverse can happen.
Many years of testing guns regularly has revealed to me that the qualities that make for a better handling shotgun – one that can improve your performance and raise your confidence – are more likely to be found with a higher price tag. That need not mean spending a small fortune; there are some really quality made older guns available pre-owned at attractive prices.
Some research and trials will show that there are reasons why some guns cost more than others. Discovering these for yourself can be very useful in the long run.
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