Selection of a Gun In Regard to Its Weight and Charge

Shotguns and Shotshells

By Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey

I have so far spoken of the choosing of a gun in regard to its fit; but a good deal has to be considered concerning the best gun for a shooter to use in the field in relation to his powers of aiming, his strength, and the description of sport he expects to enjoy. A gun, whether it be the usual 12-bore or a smaller size, may, as far as mere fit goes, suit equally well; but the shooter has to consider many things besides this very necessary feature of his gun. For instance, if a shooter is not of a strong build, he should carry a gun to match his strength—one that, when he is a little tired, does not seem as if the barrels had a lump of lead at the muzzle when put up for a shot. There is no surer sign of a gun being too heavy than if, at the end of the day, the muzzle points under the mark, or when, on bringing it to the shoulder in the evening, it seems a pound or two heavier than it did in the morning.
A gun that is in the least degree too heavy for the arms of a shooter is a sad failure, and implies incorrect aiming for the latter half of the day at least; and I strongly advise a young shooter, in purchasing a new gun, to put it to his shoulder many times in succession, in order to discover whether he can keep its muzzle on the mark he aims at when his arms are more or less fatigued.
A shooter should be able to put his gun up and down correctly at a mark quite thirty times as rapidly as he can go through the movements of aiming and shouldering; and with a little practice he may do so as many as forty times; though it takes quite an athlete to do so fifty times (try, and see!) Placing the actual fit of your gun out of the question, you will find such exercise as this, if regularly repeated, of great advantage in strengthening the arms, and enabling you to bring your gun in line with anything you direct it towards.
If a gun is too heavy for a man's strength at first, it will always be so, especially in regard to quick aiming—which means placing the muzzle fair on the game, or the point chosen by the eyes, directly the gun is put to the shoulder.*
* Of one thing you may be quite certain, namely, 'that when you have well passed middle age you will shoot better with a gun that is half a pound lighter than the one you were wont to use as a young man; particularly will you find this to be the case if you are in the habit of walking up grouse and partridges.'
Of course, where money is not an object, a shooter can, if he wishes, possess several guns. For instance, a friend of mine uses a light gun in August and September for walking up partridges or young grouse, with or without dogs; he uses a still lighter one for rabbits; a fairly heavy gun for grouse-driving, and one still more powerful for hares, pheasants, woodpigeons, or ducks. In the case of men who have a good deal of shooting, a pair of guns are often in use at the same time. So that a very extensive and costly outfit might easily be selected, and yet all the guns brought into use, on different occasions, by those sportsmen whose pockets are well filled, and who, taking a pleasure in possessing a regular ' armoury,' do not mind carrying guns of unequal weights at different seasons of the year.
But for average sport, a pair of guns, or even one gun if but an occasional day's sbooting be indulged in, is amply sufficient: so that a good general gun or pair of guns for all-round sport throughout the season is what most people need consider. For my part, I am convinced that a shooter should avoid using guns of varied weights on game, as nothing is more likely to put him off his shooting than so doing; and whether he has six guns or a pair, each and all should balance and fit just the same, so that no divergence can be detected when putting them to the shoulder; else an uncertain aim, and, of course, indifferent shooting, may be the result.
I certainly recommend on all occasions a 12-bore, whether the gun requires to be light or heavy, or whether small, moderate, or full charges have to be fired. Depend upon it, this size is far the most useful one for every bird or animal, in our game list or out of it, which we are accustomed to meet with during an ordinary day's sport; and that a 12-bore can be adapted to any shooter's requirements I am equally confident.
Guns of 16-, 20-, and 28-bore always handle and feel pleasant, especially in a gunmaker's shop, and give the idea that they must be easy to hit with as a natural consequence; but from numerous experiments, both at the target and in the field, I can positively state that any bore smaller than a 12 is not so effective on game, nor so easy to aim straight with, as the latter size. Small-gauge barrels of necessity shoot weaker than a larger size: they have a more open pattern if cylinders, and a closer if chokes; they do not shoot so regularly, and, in proportion, recoil more than do 12-bores.* Of course, a 16 comes nearest to a 12; but even a 16 has these disadvantages, though on a lesser scale than a 20—the latter being the favourite weapon of the small-bore shooter.
* There is also considerably more strain exerted on the barrel of a 20-bore gun, when the charge is fired, than ever occurs to the barrel of a 12-bore with a proportionate load to that of the 20.
I will therefore take a 20 as an example; for not only do the patrons of these guns vow they kill as well as a 12-bore, but, some people will tell you, even better. Until, however, I can be persuaded that black is white, or the reverse, I will never believe that a 20, firing a charge of three-quarters, or even seven-eighths of an ounce of shot, can possibly rival in effectiveness a 12-bore gun firing an ounce, or an ounce and an eighth; any more than that a half-pound weight dropping on one's toes can strike with as much force as a weight of three-quarters of a pound.
There is, in every charge of shot fired from a 12-bore, always a number of pellets that diverge, and are, as a result, weak in regard to their striking force. In the case of a 20-bore there are still more; and, from the charge being smaller, the 20 can, least of the two, afford to waste any pellets, if its pattern is to be a serviceable one.
When a charge of shot is fired from a gun, the top pellets, being farthest from the powder, obtain the least propelling power, and are chiefly driven out by the pellets behind them, and so cannot be relied on for regularity of flight and velocity. Consequently, the closer the shot lies to the wads over the powder, the stronger are the pellets propelled; and it is easy to see that, the smaller the bore of a gun, the more elongated in proportion is the charge of shot, and the farther from the powder will the upper half of the charge lie; hence the larger average of weak and wasted pellets in a small-bore gun.
A small-bore gun, on account of the narrowness of its barrels, is never so easy to aim with as one of larger size and, of course, greater width; and the more like aiming with a rifle, or a single-barrelled gun, is the natural result.
Provided it is aimed perfectly true, a shooter may place enough pellets into his game to kill it at 40 yards with a full-choked 20, or even 28, if the penetration of his gun is equally satisfactory. But the former is no easy feat to perform regularly, and the latter attribute the gun cannot attain to the same extent as a 12-bore.
How often have I heard and read of shooters who state that they have killed their game time after time with a 20 as well and far as any one could do with a 12- bore, and who carefully quote, in support of such imaginary performances, the occasional long shots they have made. All I can say is, I have never seen a 20 nearly equal a 12 for efficiency, though I have tried the former often enough. But with a 20-bore I have seen game regularly and constantly wounded that, if struck with a 12, would have dropped dead. Often, too, have I heard a man shooting with a 20 say, 'I can't imagine how I missed that bird,' when I had noticed that he had not missed his bird, but had in reality wounded it.
It is worth remark that No. 5 shot contains too few pellets to the ounce for the charge of a 20-bore (unless the gun is a full-choke); and gunmakers, as well as those who use these small weapons, admit that, in order to obtain a fair pattern, No. 7 shot is best suited to their capabilities. Now, if a man wishes to wound at a long range, and spoil game at a short one, he could not choose a more suitable size than No. 7.  I do not deny that a 20-bore will kill birds well enough early in the season at moderate distances; but I most emphatically declare that, for fairly wild game, a 20-bore does not approach a 12 in general usefulness or excellence. As to a 28, I merely regard it as a contrivance to wound, save when used on game at a short range; and a gun that will only kill well at a short range, and wounds at a fairly long one, is not the class of weapon a shooter ought to carry.*
* I will qualify the above by saying I have found a 28-bore a useful little ' spitfire' for killing water-rats, as well as for bagging small birds to feed my trained hawks with.
In regard to all small-bores, it should be remembered that long shots now and then go for nothing; they are but chances that occur with any gun, as a very long shot may merely result from one random pellet chancing to take its flight into the head or heart of a bird; and, to my mind, nothing shows the decided inferiority of small-bores so effectively as a few shots with them at strong, high pheasants or hares crossing at a good distance. It is, in fact, impossible for any shooter of an observant nature and unprejudiced mind not to remark the poor performance of a 20-bore on such occasions, as compared with even a light 12-bore.
It is often said when small-bore guns are discussed, that our ancestors used them successfully. True, so they did; but they used them on the tame birds of long ago—birds that generally rose at nearer 18 than 35 yards; the latter being a usual distance for game to be killed at in the present day when rising in front of the shooter late in the season.
A favourite argument on behalf of small-bores is that, for the old, the weak, or the young, they are, from their lightness, easy to carry. But this argument does not really apply, as, if required, a 12-bore can now be made very nearly as light as a 20-bore, and to shoot the same charges as the latter size. This the 12-bores undoubtedly do, with better penetration and pattern, and with less recoil; and, what is more, they are more easy to aim correctly with, and are also, to a certain extent, safer as well, for, as pointed out, the strain on the discharge of a 20 is always more severe than is the case with a 12-bore.
If a shooter requires a light gun, let him select a light 12-bore, and he will shoot better with it than he will with a 20, or even with a 16; and this fact I can with every confidence assert, after countless experiments of my own, and after carefully noting scores of shooters, using all sizes of guns, on all kinds of game.
For a general gun suitable for English game throughout the season, and adapted to an ordinary shooter of fair marksmanship and moderate strength, I should recommend a 12-bore gun of 6-3/4 lb., or a trifle under, with 29 in. barrels, to fire 3 dr. of black powder or 42 gr. of a nitro-compound, the charge of shot 1-1/16 oz. of No. 6.
The gun for a man of weak physique should be one of 6-1/4 lb. weight, 28 in. barrels, the charge a light 3 dr. of black or 40 gr. of nitro-compound, and 1 oz. of No. 6 shot.
For the shooter who cannot carry 6-1/4 lb. with comfort all day, and requires, or rather fancies, something still lighter, a short-barrelled 12-bore gun can be easily built for him by a good maker, weighing 6 lb., which will be perfectly reliable, and from which he can shoot 2-3/4 dr. of powder and 7/8 oz. of No. 6 shot both safely and effectively, the barrels being 27 in. in length. With a gun like this a shooter will be more successful than with a 20-bore of 5-1/2 lb., as the 12-bore will have better penetration and pattern, will come up easier and more accurately to the shoulder, recoil considerably less, and in reality be just as handy and light to carry as the 20. Any one who requires a lighter gun than this had better not shoot, unless he is remorseless in the matter of wounding his game.
A powerful man can use a 12-bore of 7 lb., or a trifle less, shooting 1-1/8 oz. of No. 5 or No. 6 shot, and 3-1/8 dr. of black or 43 to 44 gr. of a nitro-compound. A shooter in good health and of good physique should not feel in the least tired from using a 7 lb. gun, even at the end of a long day's sport; and weight, when unfelt, gives an advantage in the matter of strength, recoil, hard hitting, and steadiness of aim.
It is worthy of notice that a shooter will do well to avoid selecting a gun with a pistol-hand. This arrangement is a good one for rifles, as it gives a strong and firm grip, and assists in steadying the aim; but when applied to a shot-gun it is an undoubted mistake, as it confines the right hand too much, and hinders it from moving with the gun, or from quickly grasping it to fire a snap-shot. A pistol-hand is also in another way detrimental to quick shooting, for it prevents the hand slipping back, as is intuitively done by a shooter before he can fire the left trigger— the result being a slow second barrel after a miss with the first.
Let me here remark that, for all-round shooting, there is no advantage whatever in the traditional custom of having one barrel of a gun bored to fire a closer pattern than the other, especially as regards driven game, as in the latter case, taking the shots that offer one with another, there is no constant difference in the ranges at which the birds pass overhead; and, even when walking up partridges or grouse, it generally occurs that the first to rise are the old birds, as they are the wildest, and hence a long shot to the right barrel is as likely as to the left one. Gunmakers seem to imagine that it is the constant habit of game to rise in pairs, and offer a near and then a distant shot in succession to each barrel as fired. If a shooter fired all his life at pigeons sprung from traps, or made it a rule to miss with his first barrel, it would be another matter.

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  • Jamie

    Readers Should Note: The shot sizes discussed in this article are British shot sizes. British and USA use different shot size numbers for pellets of the same diameter.

    - UK 5# = USA #6
    - UK #6 = USA #7
    - UK #7 = USA #7.5
    - UK #8 = USA #8.5

    The British #6 has long been used as the standard for game in England. British traditionalists still adhere to and advocate UK #6 as THE pheasant and grouse load. But many, more modern, British shooters now also advocate UK #5 for those tasks.

    One can only speculate that marketing and propaganda have convinced many young USA shooters it takes a minimum of USA #5 or even #4 to kill a pheasant. I wonder what sort of invincible monsters the British would think we are shooting if we handed them the equivalent of UK #3 and #4 and told them that was the minimum needed to kill our American birds.

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