The 20-gauge double shotgun has been the go-to upland game bird gun, but it’s not the only option you have, and its claim as being the best in today’s standards is debatable.
When making an attempt to decide on the right shotgun for your specific hunting needs and personal preference, you should consider five things: Action, Barrel Length, Gauge, Choke, and Load. When taking all five into consideration, the 20-gauge suddenly looks outdated, indeed.
Let’s go over each factor you need to familiarize yourself with before purchasing a shotgun.
Globally, the preference for break-action double shotguns is manifested somewhat differently. In Europe, the side-by-side has long been the favourite, while North Americans have adopted the over/under as their double of choice. Both are built on the same basic design foundation, with the major difference being that the two barrels are stacked vertically on the over/under and horizontally on, as the name implies, the side-by-side. Each has the advantage of usually handling and balancing better than any other style of scattergun; when they fit well they are truly an extension of the shooter’s body.
Over/unders have established a strong North American following in large part because of the widespread use of pump and autoloading shotguns and therefore our familiarity with a single sighting plane. Shooters who prefer the side-by-side, meanwhile, often mention that those with double triggers offer the quickest selection of barrel/choke combination. And if one trigger malfunctions, you have another that will fire. While double triggers take some getting used to, those accustomed to them love them.
Equipped with single selective triggers rather than double triggers, over/unders also allow the shooter to choose between two different barrel/choke arrangements, although the switchover is not as swift. The fact that both these styles offer shooters the choice of mixing and matching two different chokes to suit their hunting conditions is a distinct advantage over all other action types.
Despite the perceived benefits offered by double shotguns, there are probably more autoloaders in the hands of hard-core upland bird hunters in Canada than all other styles combined. That’s because autoloaders bring several advantages to the table.
For starters, they are considerably less expensive than most double shotguns and they’re simple to operate. You just load, shoot and then reload-no need to fuss at all with the action, as is the case with doubles or pumps. They also offer second shots as fast as any double. And while many would argue that more often than not it’s a waste of ammunition, they do offer a third shot if a bird lags behind the covey and rises late.
For those who are somewhat recoil-shy, autoloaders are definitely the action of choice. They tend to absorb or, perhaps more accurately, slow down the transfer of recoil to the shoulder, while pump-actions and, even more so, doubles deliver a sharp kick. One final advantage: there are substantially more manufacturers of autoloaders — and pump-actions for that matter — out there than break-actions, meaning there’s a much wider array of models, gauges, stocks and finishes from which to choose.
On the flip side, autoloading shotguns are typically the heaviest when compared with other actions, and this can take a toll on long hunts. They also demand more maintenance than other styles; pumps and break-actions that have suffered severe neglect will almost always still fire, while autoloaders need regular cleaning to ensure they perform reliably.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with pump-action smoothbores for upland hunters, though they’re seldom the first choice as dedicated upland bird guns. Their primary disadvantage is the need to physically work the action before getting off a second shot. Competent pump-gun hunters will tell you this is not a liability at all and that, in fact, the time it takes to cycle in another round allows the shooter to regroup, find the target and ensure a quality second shot.
As for decided advantages, pumps are lighter than most autoloaders and many doubles, they are the least expensive on average of all action types and they’re available in a wide range of models.
Upland gamebird hunter prefers short-barrelled shotguns compared to those who hunt waterfowl, due to the quicker handling and reduced weight. Short barrels range from 26-28 inches, compared to the 28-30 inch barrels used by duck and goose hunters.
Upland bird-shooting opportunities come quickly and without warning — flushed birds burst out from vegetations and fly scattered, in unpredictable directions. Quick-swinging short-barrelled shotguns allow hunters to get on the birds a lot faster. Incoming waterfowl, on the other hand, can usually be spotted from a distance, allowing hunters to prepare for a better shot.
The con of using short-barrelled guns is they aren’t as fluid on the swing as longer-barrelled ones. The momentum generated momentum generated while swinging longer barrels sustains itself longer, establishing a smoother swing and a more consistent follow-through.
If a hunter is going to own just one shotgun for all of his or her bird-hunting needs, it’s difficult to argue against the versatility of the 12-gauge. If you’re looking for a specialized upland gun, however, your decision becomes somewhat more complex.
- 12-gauge is adequate, and then some, for all upland situations. Shells are readily available and as affordable as any other. The downside is that you don’t really need the extra oomph they offer in any but the rarest of upland bird-hunting situations, and you’re going to find yourself with a heavier gun to tote all day long.
- 16-gauge — some swear by it, and it’s ideal from a field perspective, but it shares the liabilities of shell availability and cost associated with the 28.
- 20-gauge has a tolerable recoil, even for youngsters, especially when shooting typically light upland field loads. Shell availability is generally pretty good, too, and prices are reasonable, usually in line with comparable 12-gauge loads. Quality 20-gauge loads pack plenty of punch for any upland bird-hunting scenario and when needed, the 20 can double for shooting decoying ducks.
- 28-gauge are a fine choice, offering mild recoil coupled with adequate loads. Unfortunately, shells are usually unavailable in all but the largest centres, and when you do find them they’re generally prohibitively expensive.
Chokes are one of the most important variables affecting the hit-miss ratio. Whether shooting upland birds or waterfowl, more hunters increase their shooting success by employing different chokes than by toying with any other influencing factor. Thanks to interchangeable chokes as a staple in most modern shotguns, the opportunity now exists to more accurately match your choke to the prevailing hunting conditions and game.
Upland birds are typically shot at close range; 40 metres is a very long shot, and most are significantly less. With most shooting opportunities occurring between 10 and 30 metres, there is little need to choke up beyond improved cylinder. This holds true even for double guns, although jittery, late-season sharp-tailed grouse and pheasants that flush early may justify a modified choke in the second barrel.
For numerous ruffed grouse, spruce grouse and ptarmigan hunting scenarios, you may even find that skeet or cylinder chokes are justifiable. Those who can change chokes are often amazed at how their shooting improves by going to a more open choke.
Appropriate shotshells for upland bird hunting are confined to a pretty narrow grouping. The best choice for hunting ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, ptarmigan, grey partridge, chukar partridge and quail is without doubt No. 7 1/2. On early season sharptails, No. 7 1/2 works fine, but opt for No. 6 on late-season sharpies, as well as for ring-necked pheasant or blue grouse. Some veteran hunters prefer No. 7 1/2 on pheasant and blues.
Non-toxic shot is not required when hunting upland game birds — however, whenever hunting on federally managed lands, non-toxic loads are required, even for upland birds. Bismuth, tungsten and steel-based loads all perform well in upland fields. The first two options can be ideal lead alternatives for use in older shotguns in areas where non-toxic shot regulations are in place.