How does it feel? Vic Harker takes a look at shotgun dynamics, and advocates that learners stay loyal to their old guns
As far as shotguns are concerned, nice wood, fine engraving and even accurate gun fit are not too difficult to quantify. However, feel and balance, which cannot be seen and are only felt, are rather different. Nevertheless, most would agree they are key factors in how efficiently the shooter is able to use their gun and in the degree that they enjoyable doing so.
Until relatively recent times, shotguns were employed exclusively for hunting wild game and there was at least to some degree a consensus about these qualities. The shooter may have had to walk some distance for a shot at their quarry, so light and pointable guns were favoured. Prior to this, the earliest shotguns – single-barrel matchlocks and flintlocks – were some of the most cumbersome and heavy ever made. The shooter often concealed themselves from the birds behind their horse, and would sometimes lay a heavy barrel across its back to take a shot, discharging their gun almost literally in its ears. Those horses must have been well trained to stand still!
Fortunately for horses, the shotgun evolved into something handier, from the flintlock to the percussion cap, the pinfire, and finally the centrefire cartridge, which arrived in the Edwardian era. By this time, the shotgun had become as dynamically sophisticated as you could wish for. Double-barrelled shotguns were being ordered in pairs, even trios, and with the help of loaders the gentry could deal ever more effectively with the vast coveys of game birds that were driven over the great estates in their heyday.
English game guns could be as light as 6¼lbs – however, in other forms of shotgun shooting, speed and lightness were not so desirable. The competitive live pigeon shooters, who used their shotguns on pigeons released from traps up to 40 yards in front of them, came to appreciate that stability was important when shooting at the long distances they were obliged to take their birds at.
A fast reaction on first seeing the bird was important, but equally a smooth swing was essential to follow their target’s flight and make a clean kill. The live pigeon gun was therefore usually fitted with barrels of 30 inches or more, with a raised rib and a light-deflecting matted finish similar to a modern over-and-under Trap gun. Weight was also similar, being usually around 8lbs. These guns were invariably mounted in the shooter’s shoulder before the bird was called for, which also dictated a different kind of feel and forward balance to a game gun.
At this juncture it’s only right to point out that there is no rigid formula guaranteeing a shooter’s gun will be the correct weight and balance for them. It should be understood that a degree of adaptability is required whatever specification a shooter chooses; only their own experience can help them in this matter.
There are, however, some mistakes that can be avoided by trusting your own feelings and instincts. Do not rush to change your gun because a friend has chosen one with a different barrel length to yours and is shooting well with it. It may well be your friend has entirely different requirements in terms of weight and balance, not to mention the stock, which is the most personal component of any shotgun.
In many cases, a sensible option is to spend money on expert gun fitting and custom stocking rather than moving onto a completely new gun. If you do that without a more specific reason than the hope that it will improve your shooting, you are going backwards, losing the familiarity you have built up with your gun’s feel and balance.
It never ceases to surprise me how some shooters decide upon the gun they use. It seems that for many there are no preconceived criteria, and everything is left to chance. Of course, there are dealers with suitable facilities who will permit you to shoot a gun before you purchase it.
Try before you buy is certainly the best option but one that is often ignored. When it is, the choice of purchase often becomes just a matter of what attracts the eye. When you consider the variety of guns available, it’s simply not enough. The experienced shot, who may have used many guns in their shooting career, has a far clearer idea of what kind of gun works for them, but the beginner cannot buy that experience.
By far the best strategy for them is to concentrate on becoming familiar with one set of dynamics, making small adjustments as they gain experience and begin to understand their needs. This may not be as exciting as buying something entirely new but if you follow this advice, it is certain that you will gain the confidence and knowledge that are essential to making genuine progress as a shooter.
One final word on the subject: some options can make a major contribution to achieving the handling characteristics you require of your shotgun. In recent times, the firearms industry has made huge strides in helping the shooter to personalise their shotgun’s dynamics. These include detachable barrel weights, stock weights and readily adjustable stocks for height and cast. All of this makes an undoubtedly huge contribution to how your gun feels and can help you ensure that it shoots the way you want it to.