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...Shotgun basics; what's a choke? What's a gauge? Which barrel length is best?

* I'll never forget my first shotgun . . . but then who does? For me it was a Mossberg bolt-action .410. It had a detachable, 3-shot box magazine and its ribless barrel ended in Mossberg's own C-Lect choke which, without the aesthetic benefit of a solid or vent rib behind it, looked like some sort of obscene swelling at the muzzle. But it was mine and that made it awfully special. Special, hell, it was beautiful!

I can still recall how I used to lord it over my two buddies, both of whom had H&R single shots--you know, the top lever break-open jobs. It didn't take long before I could operate that bolt fast enough to get off a second shot on the same bird (no, I never got a double!) which was something my friends could never do. I must have been unbearable the way I used to toss condescending glances and disparaging remarks their way. You'd have thought I was totin' a Special Grade Parker.

I didn't have that gun very long. As far as game went, I guess it had maybe half a dozen rabbits and fox squirrels to its credit when I got rid of it, but mostly I used it on marauding blackbirds and starlings. With the blessing of a couple of farmer friends my parents would visit all too infrequently, I'd stay out in the cornfields until my donated shells run out. Shooting at those pest birds was my introduction to wingshooting and I got perceptibly better at it each time I did it. Well, almost every time.

While I wanted to become a better wingshot, I didn't particularly care about learning any more than I had to about shotguns per se. Oh, I knew the various shot sizes, at least those most applicable to the limited kind of hunting I could do as a pre-driving teenager. I knew that "choke" was and had a vague idea of what each meant in terms of patterns. And I learned the difference between 35 yards and 50; it's a big difference when you're shooting a .410 at itty bitty birds. But that's about as far as my familiarity with shotguns went.

I lost no sleep, for example, over the fact that my .410 didn't seem to fit the gauge progression. I mean, there was a 10 gauge, 12, 16, 20 and 28 gauge and since my .410 had a little smaller hole than the 28, I wondered why it wasn't a 30-something gauge, like maybe 36 or 38.

"It's a 41 gauge" one guy told me, "They just put a zero on the end for some reason--maybe 'cause it's a newer shell."

That sounded okay to me. After all, there was a jump of eight gauges--whatever the heck they were--from a 20 to 28, so a jump of 13 to the next smaller size didn't seem too far afield.

I'm not sure when it was that I found out my .410 wasn't a gauge at all but rather the bore diameter expressed in caliber. And that decimal point really did belong there, just as it did in .270 or .375. Soon thereafter I learned that "gauge" was determined by the number of pure lead balls the exact diameter of the bore it took to make a pound. A 12 gauge, then, with its nominal bore of .730, would require 12 spheres of lead that diameter to make a pound; the 20 gauge would take 20 balls measuring .615 and so on.

At first i thought whoever came up with that gauge stuff was probably related, at least spiritually, with the gents who dreamt up the official weight of a stone being 14 pounds, 100 pounds of butter a firkin, or that one third of a dram is a scruple. But then the more I thought about it, I realized that it wasn't so long ago that smoothbore muskets were stuffed with shot as well as single projectiles, so the association between lead ball diameter and gauge is a fairly understandable carryover from bygone days.

Indeeds, there are a lot of designations and terms that are carried over from the black powder era. Take "dram equivalent" for example. In the old days, black powder was measured in drams and the typical 8, 10 and 12 gauge guns of the day digested heroic quantities of it. When the much more efficient smokeless powder came into general use after the turn of the century, smaller charges were needed to duplicate black powder performance. So, in deference to those older shooters who were accustomed to equating various shotshell loads and performance levels in terms of drams-of-black-powder, the "dram equivalent" designation was put on every box of smokeless powder shotshells--a practice which persists to this day despite its irrelevance. A three-dram equivalent, then, which is one of today's standard 12 gauge trap loads, is nothing more than a smokeless powder load that duplicates whatever performances three drams (or nine scruples if you want to impress your friends with useless erudition), of black powder provided in the old days.

When I said earlier that as a kid I knew what choke was and what each meant in terms of pattern, that was only partially correct. I knew, for example, that choke was a constriction of the bore at the muzzle, and that the more constriction, the tighter the patterns. And I knew that full choke had the most constriction and could reach out the farthest. At the time, though, I equated range with "power" and therefore a full choke had to somehow be more "powerful" than modified or improved cylinder. It wasn't until later I learned that it was strictly by virtue of its denser patterns that enabled a full-choked gun to reach out that much further.

Just as we use "minute of angle" as an accuracy standard for rifles, the 30-inch circle at 40 yards is the measure of choke, or pattern efficiency, for a shotgun. The nominal specifications say that an improved cylinder choke (a constriction of only .007 inch in a 12 gauge gun), will deliver approximately 40 percent of its pellets within that 30-inch circle; a modified choke 55 percent through its .012-inch constriction, and a full choke 70 percent through its .036-inch constriction.

To look at it another way, picture each choke as throwing beams of light, the full choke a rather narrow beam, the improved cylinder a broad one. After about 30 yards, the individual pellets from an improved cylinder choke have spread to such an extent that the average distance between each is not close enough to ensure multiple hits on birds in the pattern, especially smaller ones such as quail or woodcock. With the denser pattern of a modified choke, the same situation would not occur until around 40 yards. And with a full choke, 50 yards. There's no difference in "power," just density of pattern.

If a full choke sounds good to you, just remember that its narrow degree of arc makes it harder to hit with, and when you do hit at ranges under 20 yards or so, your bird or rabbit may not look too appetizing.

Like all beginning handloaders, when I first decided to take the plunge and reload my own ammo, I found myself forced into learning things about shotshells that the factory ammo user just doesn't have to bother himself about. Take high and low brass, high and low base, for example. As a kid I was told that shells with "high brass" bases were the more powerful, high velocity loads, and that the "low brass" was the target stuff the clay bird blasters used. That part was okay, but I also assumed, as so many shooters do, that "high base" and "high brass" were the same thing. It's not 'til you start loading your own that you learn the difference--or really have to, for that matter.

It was a real revelation to learn that high brass shells had low bases and low brass shells high bases. The confusion stems from the term "base" being applied to the brass case head when in fact it refers to the inner base wad. In paper-hull days, and even into early plastic, the base wad was a separate component. In the high velocity,L heavier shot charges which required more case volume to accommodate the added shot and powder, the base wad was lower, thus making more room inside the hull. In lighter loadings which took up less room, a higher base wad made up for all of the unused space.

In reloading today's plastic one-piece, compression-formed hulls having an integral base, the adjustment of internal volume can be done with various prescribed combinations of over-powder, over-shot and filler wads, but generally such machinations are required only for highly specialized loads. Otherwise, the vast majority of data listed in current manuals requires only a specified plastic wad with its own integral shot cup which does the job of what was once three separate components. So, like the old dram equivalent designation, high and low base will soon be an irrelevant term even among reloaders.

As for "high brass" and "low brass," they're still used by the ammo makers to distinguish target from field loads, but there is no difference in the strength or reloadability of either, assuming the same basic hull. Indeed, with today's tough, one-piece plastic cases, the brass head, high or low, is purely cosmetic. With a paper hull the brass covering provided the rigidity and strength needed to hold the primer and give purchase to the extractor, but with today's compression-formed cases, the brass head is retained purely to appease the guy who just doesn't feel comfortable with such breaks in tradition. Case in point: the Eclipse and Activ brands of shotshells which have done away with that brass head most shooters find so essential to their piece of mind. It's a shame that new ideas are so slow in catching on in the shooting game, but that's always been the case and I suppose always will be.

Another example of an idea dying hard is that long barrels reach out further and hit harder than shorter ones. I can remember as a kid listening to the grown-ups talk about how the only real shotgun was a 12 gauge side-by-side with at least 32-inch full-choke barrels. Again citing conditions as they existed in black powder days, long barrels did indeed extract more velocity, which in turn extended the effective range, but it was slight enough to make it more of an on-paper advantage than one discernible in the field. It's understandable when our gut assumption tells us that a longer barrel should provide a velocity edge, regardless of what propellant is used, but facts are that modern shotshells achieve their optimum velocity in about 25 inches of barrel, give or take a couple depending upon the burning rate of specific powder being used. Moreover, the velocity loss in tubes of 2 and 3 inches shorter is so negligible as to be of no practical consequence in any hunting context.

with most domestic makers of pump and semi-auto shotguns now offering barrels in 21 to 25-inch lengths in all chokings, I look for the long barrel myth to be put to rest more quickly than a lot of others.

One thing those grown-ups I used to listen to were right about was their contention that the full choke was the most useful. "The best all-around game-getter," a gun expert friend of my dad used to say. Thirty-five years ago he was probably right, but not today. The modified choked gun is the most versatile, not because I've changed my mind, but because shotshells have cahnged.

If we were to compare advancements in shotgun shell and metallic cartridge design over the last half century, the former would win in hands down. One need only look up the nominal ballistics for the .30-06 172-grain military ball loading back in 1926 when it was brand new; it exited the '03 Springfield's 24-inch barrel at 2,700 feet per second (fps). Compare that figure with today's nominal MV spec of 2,700 fps for the 180-grain loading and you'll find how much added velocity we've been able to extract in more than 50 years.

In shotshells, the advancements have not been in the velocity department but rather in the ability to deliver substantially more pellets within that standardized 30-inch circle at 40 yards. So dramatic has been the improvement in shotshell design and manufacture that today's 20 gauge "premium-type" field loads like Federal's Premium, Winchester's Double X or Remington's Nitro Magnums are damn near as efficient as the best 12-gauge shotshells of 50 years ago. Or to put it another way, today's shotshells through a modified choke are better (and tighter patterning) than yesterday's fodder through a full choke.

Then there's the "magnum" designation which, when speaking of shotguns, has different denotative as well as connotative meanings than when we're referring to rifle cartridges--a fact which caused yours truly all kinds of problems as a youngster trying to understand guns.

Actually, the term magnum is of British derivation meaning of larger size or volume than normal, whatever "normal" happens to be. In a firearms context the term means extra performance whether we're talking rifles or shotguns, but that's about as far as any consistency goes. In shotshell parlance, a magnum means a heavier payload, but in rifle terminology it connotes a given cartridge provides higher velocity in a given caliber. To add to the confusion, a magnum shotshell often delivers less celocity than a field load in the same gauge. Think I'm kidding? Quoting Federal Cartridge data now, a standard 1-1/4-ounce 12 gauge high-velocity load sends its shot charge out at 1,220 fps; the 2-1/4-inch Magnum imparts, 1,260 fps to its heavier 1-1/2-ounce payload, and the 3-inch Magnum gives its 1-7/8-ounce charge, 1,210 fps. No big difference, really, as far as velocity goes, but there's an awesome difference in the number of pellets being tossed--like 280 in a 1-1/4-ounce load of number 6s as opposed to 420 in the 1-7/8-ounce, 3-inch Magnum load. Even more impressive is Federal's new Premium Magnum Heavyweight, 3-inch Mag loading that pushes an incredible 2 ounces of shot (that's 450 number 6s), at a respectable 1,150 fps, but that's 100 fps slower than a 1-1/2-ounce 2-1/4-inch Magnum.

So then, in shotguns a magnum means more payload at about the same or less velocity than a standard load, but in a rifle cartridge it indicates higher velocity with no increase in bullet weight (though in fact a .300 Winchester Magnum, for example, is better suited to handling 200 and 220-grain bullets than, say, a .308 Winchester).

Another fondly remembered moment of enlightenment for me was the day I learned about chamber length versus shotshell length. It cost me a burger and a shake.

"What length shell does your 16 gauge take?" asked my boyhood pal Joe, one lazy summer day as he came ambling up our front steps to the porch (1 had since replaced the .410 with another bolt-action Mossberg in 16 gauge). Remembering how many times I'd seen "For 2-3/4-inch shells or shorter" inscribed on the barrel, I felt pretty cocky about my answer.

"Two and three-quarters," I blurted.

Wanting to be sure he had property set the hook, Joe got more specific. He squinted, cocked his head and eyed me like a mongoose does a cobra.

"You're saying that if you take one of your unfired 16 gauge shells for your Mossberg and measure it, it would be 2-1/4 inches, right?"

"Yeah, two and three quarters," I eagerly repeated.

The shake 'n' burger bet was made as we headed into the house to rummage for a 16-gauge shell and a ruler. Shortly thereafter I learned a "2-3/4" shell measured only 2.4 inches and that shotgun chambers were based on the length of the fired hull.

Shotgun stocks can be another source of confusion for the beginner, what with his hearing there are trap stocks, field stocks and skeet stocks.

For all intents and purposes there is no difference between the stock dimensions furnished on a field gun and a skeet gun.

For trapshooting, however, the comb is higher than on a field gun so that there's a tendency to look slightly down the sighting rib. The reasoning is twofold: 1) with the gun shouldered, your line of vision is slightly less obstructed by the barrel and you can pick up the bird a millisecond sooner, and 2) with the eye slightly above the rib, the gun will shoot a tad high and thus provide a built-in lead on rising birds.

In my recounting here of some of the basic facts and myths about shotguns, it all sounds almost logical now, even though it isn't. I suppose after a while you get to feel comfortable with any discipline to the point where all the facts, the figures, and even the inconsistencies sound right. But I'm not so old that i can't remember how long it took me as a gun-happy tad to get it all straight. Maybe I was denser than most kids.

Perhaps the toughest part of all was coming to the realization that the credibility my dad, my uncles, my friends' dads and all the rest of the adult world had with me--more than grown-ups have with today's kids fer sure--wasn't always warranted. So between the stories I heard and the books and magazines I read, I had a terrible time sorting it all out. If someone could have just explained the few basics we've aired out here these past few minutes, it would have helped a lot.

Learning about shotguns was one thing. Now learning how to shoot them was, well, a whole 'nother story.
COPYRIGHT 1985 InterMedia Outdoors, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Sundra, Jon
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Apr 1, 1985
Words:2985
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