Shotguns Articles

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shotguns steel 1

Steel Yourself: Study Shoots Down Preconceptions About Nontoxic Shot

Hunters hit 5 percent more doves with steel and were unable to distinguish between loads.

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Hunters hit 5 percent more doves with steel and were unable to distinguish between loads.
Article by Phil Bourjaily

Steel shot kills doves as well as lead does. Like it or not, that’s the bottom-line finding of a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) report. Five years in the making, the study recorded the hits and misses of 53 hunters who fired 5,094 shots with size 6 and 7 steel shot and 71⁄2 lead shot, killing a total of 1,146 doves, 1,100 of which were necropsied. The 13-page report, published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin in Nov. 2014, reveals compelling data not just about nontoxic-shot performance but also about choke selection, marksmanship, and wounding rates. Every dove hunter should take a hard look at these numbers.

The report is bound to be received with skepticism and animosity. American hunters continue to hate nontoxic shot beyond reason. Of the 12,000-plus hunters who responded to the recent USFWS National Dove Hunter Survey, 32.6 percent insist they would quit dove hunting if nontoxic shot was required; 65.7 percent oppose switching to nontoxic shot for doves; 52.2 percent believe that nontoxic-shot mandates are an anti-hunting plot; and 53.7 percent believe nontoxic shot doesn’t perform as well as lead. On this last point, the TPWD report clearly shows otherwise.
Designed by well-known ballistics authority Tom Roster, the study began in 2008 with volunteer hunters using their own 12-gauge shotguns. Each shooter was accompanied in the field by a trained observer who recorded the choke used, the range and result of each shot, and the color-coding on each shell. In the double-blind test, neither hunter nor observer knew which pellets the shells contained. Here are four key takeaways.

1) Steel stops doves
Lead loads in the test featured 11⁄8 ounces of size 71⁄2 Lawrence Magnum lead shot, traveling at 1200 fps. Steel loads moved 1 ounce of either size 6 or 7 shot at 1300 fps. The 100-fps velocity difference was intended to duplicate popular loads and to make the felt recoil of all loads identical, so hunters couldn’t tell which they were firing.

At the end of two full seasons of shooting, the data showed no statistical difference between lead and steel ammunition in terms of doves hit, missed, crippled, and killed at all ranges. Hunters actually hit about 5 percent more doves with steel, and when asked after each hunt, they were unable to distinguish between any of the loads.

Observers recorded whether hit birds were killed cleanly, fell mobile but retrievable, or went unretrieved. Lead and steel (both sizes) scored identical rates of “bagged-immobile” (about 83 percent) and “bagged-mobile” (16 to 17 percent), meaning steel killed just as cleanly as lead. Incidentally, this jibes with my own field experience. The mean range of the average hit with all ammunition types was about 29 yards.

2) Most hunters can’t hit past 30 yards
The volunteer hunters, chosen among outfitter clients in the first year and from randomly drawn dove hunters in the second, proved better shots than most. Their average of one bird bagged per 4.4 shells fired compares favorably with the national average of seven to eight shots per dove. Still, these experienced hunters struggled at longer ranges. Inside 30 yards, hunters in the study missed 57 percent of the birds they shot at. At ranges greater than 30, they missed 68 percent, regardless of ammunition. Wounding rates were not significantly higher; hunters just missed more birds at longer ranges.

I’d guess that if true expert shooters tested lead against steel at 40 yards, using Full chokes, lead might win out due to its superior downrange energy. But since even better-than-average shots can’t hit much outside 30 yards, long-range effectiveness is a moot point for the vast majority of dove hunters.

3) Improved Cylinder is the deadliest choke for doves
Observers recorded the choke used on all 1,100 of the necropsied birds. The most popular was Modified, accounting for 48.1 percent of all shots fired. Improved Cylinder was next, at 30.5 percent. Full choke was last at 21.4 percent. Whereas hunters using Modified and Full chokes killed 21 and 16 percent of doves they shot at, respectively, the Improved Cylinder shooters had the greatest success, with a 26 percent kill rate.

4) We need to take closer shots
Inside 30 yards, hunters bagged 28.4 percent of birds shot at and wounded 13.9 percent. Outside of the 30 yards, they wounded almost as many as they killed: 15.1 and 16.6 percent, respectively.
That is a sobering statistic, although it’s important to note that retrievers were not allowed in the study to prevent extra punctures in the necropsied doves. There must have been a percentage of doves downed that weren’t retrieved but could have been. Still, the study shows plainly that shooting at birds over 30 yards is as likely to wound as kill with any load, and that the overall wounding rate is quite high.

Since wounding rates were the same with lead and steel, the problem lies with us. That, rather than unfounded excuses about the ineffectiveness of steel shot, should be our focus now. What this study tells us as much as anything is that no matter what we load our guns with, we will go on killing, missing, and wounding doves at the same rate until we change our chokes and do better at shot selection. Extra practice at the range wouldn’t hurt, either.

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Understanding Shotgun Chokes

When you pull the trigger of your shotgun, a column of round shot pellets leaves the barrel and spreads out into a “pattern.”

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By Philip P. Massaro, 2015

When you pull the trigger of your shotgun, a column of round shot pellets leaves the barrel and spreads out into a “pattern.” This pattern widens as the group of shot pellets gets further away from the muzzle.
At some point, that pattern will be spread apart too far to hit targets at the extreme edge of the shotgun’s effective range; there will be too much space between the individual pellets in the pattern, and all that space is opportunity for a target to escape unscathed.
To combat that effect, gun designers began to constrict or “choke” the shotgun bore in order to keep the pellets in a tighter group—the pattern. They placed this choke in the last two inches or so of the barrel at the muzzle end. As the shot column traveled down the barrel after firing, it would enter the choked region, where the column or group of pellets would compress before exiting.
To cover different game animals, shooting competitions and shot shell payloads, gun designers also developed varying degrees of constriction. The tighter the choke, the tighter the shot column is squeezed and the further that shot column will travel as effective group once it leaves the barrel.

Fixed Versus Interchangeable
The fixed-choke barrel on this old Winchester shotgun is clearly marked as having a Full constriction.

A shotgun barrel’s choke will be located at the muzzle end of the barrel and you will encounter them in two different designs. The oldest way is called a “fixed choke.” Many side-by-side and older single barrels will have fixed chokes, meaning that their barrels have the choke constriction built-in to the end of the barrel at the muzzle end. The barrels of a side-by-side would usually have two different constrictions. For instance, one barrel would be Improved Cylinder, while the second would be a tighter Modified. A combination of Modified and Full was also common. The barrels were designed this way to accommodate game bird hunting. The shooter of such a double-barreled gun would fire the most open barrel at the first, closer birds to flush from a covey, then the second more tightly choked barrel at either a second bird (which would be farther away than the first) or as a way to better connect after a first missed shot.

Most modern shotguns of all styles now come with what are known as “interchangeable chokes.” These are short tubes of metal tighter in diameter than the shotgun’s barrel. These chokes screw into the barrel, those barrels being threaded on their insides near the muzzle. Interchangeable chokes are the most popular choice among shooters today, as they allow the shooter to change chokes to fit the shooting situation at hand.

Common Choke Constrictions
These interchangeable chokes in a variety of constrictions fit a Remington shotgun. The wrench at the right helps with installation and removal.
Chokes today range from the most open, called “Cylinder,” to varying degrees of ultra- tight Extra-Full. Let’s take a look at the most common you’ll encounter for the most popular shotgun gauge, the 12-gauge.
A shotgun barrel with Cylinder choke actually has no constriction at all. Its diameter is the same as the barrel’s internal dimension. This choke throws the widest pattern, so it is considered the most open choke. Cylinder is good for close shots on clay targets and game birds, and is also the most popular choice for those who keep a shotgun for self- defense and use buckshot.
The Improved Cylinder choke is the first level of constriction up from Cylinder. It is 0.010-inch narrower in diameter than the barrel diameter. This provides just a little constriction to the shot column as it exits the barrel, enabling that group of shot to maintain a nice, wide pattern for fast flushing game birds at distances to about 30 yards. It is also a popular choice for skeet targets and sporting clays targets thrown at those same distances.
A Modified choke, the next tightest, will provide a bore reduction of 0.020-inch. It makes a good choice for an all-around shotgun choke. It works well on clays from 30 to 45 yards or so and can handle most of the flushing game birds. I’ve used a Modified choke for waterfowl, pheasants, and even turkeys. In fact, for years it was the only choke I owned, until I was educated about the shotguns with interchangeable chokes.
The Full choke was, for decades, the waterfowl hunter’s best friend. With a bore reduction of just about 0.035-inch, this tight choke allowed a shot gunner to hit geese and ducks at the 40-yard mark and beyond. The tradeoff with a choke this tight is that it’s usually too tight for close-in targets, those closer than 25 yards. You’ll either miss because the pattern hasn’t widened enough to hit a moving target, or you’ll absolutely annihilate a target with an almost literal fistful of lead. Such a hit is fine on a clay target, but if you’re a hunter looking for a pheasant dinner, you could be picking shot out of a pile of shredded meat.
As I said, the Full choke used to be the realm of the duck and goose hunter. But in the 90’s, many countries banned lead shot for hunting waterfowl. Waterfowl hunters initially had to turn to shot made of steel if they wanted to hunt. The problem with steel is that it’s much harder than lead. Now, remember I said that the shot column traveling down the barrel will compress as it passes through the choke? That’s okay for lead shot, because it’s such a soft metal. But steel pellets don’t co-operate as well, and through a Full choke that results in excessive pressures that can damage a barrel. Water fowlers have since adjusted by using looser chokes that produce good patterns at long range with the myriad non-lead shot shell choices they have available to them.
That might make you think the Full choke fell into disuse. But it didn’t. Today, the Full choke is extremely popular for hunting turkeys (In USA). The tight pattern ensures a quick and humane kill on these large game birds, which are naturally wary and are often taken at distances of 40 to 50 yards. Indeed, choke makers and gun designers who specialize in guns and gear for turkey hunters have created an entire class of Full chokes, with varying degrees of tightness beyond the constriction standard.
In between the major choke types are what I call the “boutique” chokes. For example, you can find a Skeet choke, whose constriction falls midway between Improved Cylinder and Modified. Many sporting clays enthusiasts are fond of Improved Modified (tighter than Modified but not as tight as Full), Light Modified (tighter than Improved but not as tight as a straight Modified) and Light Full (tighter than Improved Modified, but not as tight as a straight Full.

When the author bird hunted with a Browning Superposed over/under, each barrel was choked differently.

Why all these different constrictions? Well, because any shotgun can shoot a variety of loads from light target to heavy game. Within that variety you’ll have different amounts of shot (the shot payload) with different amounts and types of gunpowder behind them for different velocities. Through the practice known as “patterning”—firing a particular load at a regulated shotgun target and then seeing how the pellets in the payload strike that target—a competitor or hunter can discover which choke optimizes the load they’re using.
It takes some time to pattern a shotgun with even a couple chokes and a handful of different loads. Hang your target, take your shot, count the pellet hits and look at how the pellets struck the target. Then hang another target, switch loads or chokes, and repeat as often as needed to produce the best combination of choke and load. There’s a lot of walking back and forth to the target and not a lot of “fun” shooting, but such a day on the range can greatly improve your chances of an on-target hit when it counts, and it’s a great way to really get to know how your gun performs with your ammunition of choice. Remember, every gun is different and not even identical models from the same maker will shoot exactly the same. If you’re serious about getting the most out of your shotgun and ammunition, spend a day on the patterning board. The time invested will produce big dividends in the end.

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John Moses Browning’s Old School Humpback Auto 5s

Designed by John Browning in 1898 and patented in 1900, it was produced continually for almost 100 years by several makers with production ending in 1998.

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By Sam Trisler

From left to right:

Early Remington Model 11 12-gauge with the original style safety.

Later Remington Model 11 in 20-gauge.

Browning Auto 5 in 12-gauge magnum.

Browning Auto 5 in 20-gauge. 

There are a couple of good stories about John Moses Browning and the work it took for him to get the Auto 5 made. As with most of his long-gun designs of that era, Browning first took it to Winchester. They had a long working relationship at the time, one that had resulted in multiple lever and pump action rifles and the model 93and 97 pump action shotguns. The story goes that Winchester thought the new auto-loading shotgun design was ugly. I agree that the humpback is nowhere near the sleek and sexy Browning-designed Winchester 94, but still. What were they thinking when they passed on buying his patents on this one?

The Browning on top has the magazine cutoff that the Remington is missing.

The Browning is also a bit fancier.

Browning next went to Remington to see if it would be interested in making the ugly gun. The story told here is that while John Moses was waiting for a meeting with Marcellus Hartley, the president of Remington, Hartley had a heart attack and died. I guess that’s what happens when you leave the greatest firearms designer of at least the past 200 years waiting.

No doubt frustrated, Browning next went to his new friends in Belgium. FN Herstal ran with it and ended up making the Auto 5 for almost 100 years. The Auto 5s made by FN for sale in the U.S. carried the Browning name, while they were marked “FN” for the rest of the world. Auto 5s marked “FN” show up from time to time here in the States. One thing to remember if you come across one is that they are not chambered in the typical American fashion. One notable difference is that instead of 2 ¾ or 3 inch chambers, the FN-marked guns will be metric.

FN-made Browning butt plate. 

Design and Function

Here is a simple description of how this type of action works: when a round is fired, the bolt and the barrel are locked together. The force of the recoil moves them both backwards and compresses a spring that is coiled around the magazine tube. Once they have reached the rear of the receiver, the barrel and bolt unlock. The barrel then returns, using the stored energy of the recoil spring. There is also an ejector built on the rear of the barrel that kicks the spent shell out. The bolt then moves forward under power from an additional spring that is in the stock. On the bolt’s return, a new shell is picked up and guided into the chamber.

In order to fit the workings of this long recoil action inside the gun, the receiver has a sharp drop-off towards the stock. This is where it gets the humpback nickname, even though it’s not a hump actually—just a sharp drop off at the back end of the receiver.

Let’s get back to the mechanics. As shotgun shooters know, there is a large variety of shotgun shell loads available. There are light target or trap loads, heavy turkey loads and fast waterfowl shells. Accommodating the difference in energy of these loads is the hardest part of designing an auto-loading shotgun. The Auto 5 uses friction rings around the magazine tube that function with the recoil spring to absorb the correct amount of energy. The rings can be flipped around for different loads. Browning has the manuals for the Auto 5 on its website that give detailed instructions on how to set the rings up. A well maintained and properly set up Auto 5 is a pleasure to shoot. The recoil isn’t that bad, though it is still a shotgun and will kick as such. These old shotguns sometimes have a reputation of kicking like a Missouri mule, and they will if they are not set up correctly.

Browning Auto 5 in 20-gauge. 

Note the lever on the bottom left in the picture. That is the magazine cutoff that only the Browning (FN) guns have. 

FN made the Auto 5 from 1902 until 1998-9. They were made in Belgium until 1975, when production moved to Japan. Yet the Auto 5 design wasn’t just made by FN. The classic Remington Model 11 is a licensed copy and was the first semi-auto shotgun to be made in the United States. Remington made around 850,000 of them between 1905 and 1948. Savage also made the models 720 and 745 from 1930 until 1949. All told, the Auto 5 design is the second most manufactured auto-loading shotgun of all time. Only the Remington 1100 edges it out.

If you have never shot one of the old Auto5s, there are a couple of things that are a little different from its successors. The biggest one is the sight picture and cheek weld. The way the back of the receiver “humps” up means that you don’t have to tuck your head down as far to get the consistent cheek weld. Maybe it’s because I grew up shooting the old humpbacks, but nothing else I own or have shot feels as natural or comes to my shoulder faster.

Remington Model 11. These guns killed their fair share of ducks before the use of lead shot. The barrels on these old ones are not rated for steel shot.

The other main difference is the way the recoil feels. Well, not the actual recoil, really. The force I’m referring to is what I call the reverse recoil. When the barrel and then the bolt return to battery, it pulls the shotgun back down more than a shotgun that just has the bolt returning home. I’m sure it’s a matter of physics involving the mass of the barrel, but it is useful for reducing split times between shots.

I will admit I am a bit biased when it comes to the Auto 5 and its variants. I learned to shoot on them. These were the shotguns of my Grandfather. He had four of them, two Belgian- made Brownings and two Remington model 11s. There is no telling how many boxes of shells these guns have fired or how many birds have they’ve knocked out of the sky. My grandfather was a bird hunter. These old scatterguns have been across miles and miles of fields and woods. They all have a few bumps and bruises. It’s all character of a well-loved and well-used firearm. They are mine now and reside in the safe most of the time, but they still get pulled out at least a couple times a year to go do what they do best—throw lead and go boom. 

Remington Model 11—detail of the side of the receiver

The Browning on top has the magazine cutoff that the Remington is missing. The Browning is also a bit fancier.

Browning on top and Remington on the bottom.

Browning on top and Remington on the bottom. Notice the slight differences in the stock profiles. Also, like many shotguns of this era, the Remington has an aftermarket Poly Choke attached. They work pretty well, but not as well as the modern removable chokes.

Detail of the safety on a Model 11. This is the older style. It was later changed to the more common style behind the trigger.

Browning Auto 5 receiver. The finish and engraving are higher in quality than the Remington counterpart.

Browning Auto 5 in 20-gauge. Note the lever on the bottom left in the picture. That is the magazine cutoff that only the Browning (FN) guns have.

Loading gate on a Browning Auto 5. The magazine cutoff is clearly visible.

Engraving on the bottom of the trigger guard of a FN-made Auto 5. 8

From left to right: Early Remington Model 11 12-gauge with the original style safety, later Remington Model 11 in 20-gauge, Browning Auto 5 in 12-gauge magnum and a Browning Auto 5 in 20-gauge.

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Meet the Shotgun

A shotgun is a very versatile firearm. But, what is a shotgun, what types of shotguns are there and how do they work?

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May 29, 2014

Meet the shotgun 2Let’s take a look at what makes a shotgun a shotgun.

If you rely on Hollywood for your information, a shotgun can never miss and is capable of knocking a car across the street.

In reality, they’re not quite that impressive, but a shotgun is one very versatile gun. Competition, recreation, hunting — a shotgun can do it all.

Before we get into types of shotguns and their various uses, let’s talk about what a shotgun is. A shotgun used to be a gun with a smooth (non-rifled) bore that fired multiple pellet projectiles. As with everything, the lines got blurry because gun people like to invent new stuff. Now some shotguns can fire single projectiles and have rifled barrels.

For purposes of this discussion, let’s consider a shotgun as a shoulder-fired gun that has a smooth bore and is intended to fire a shell loaded with multiple pellet projectiles. Even with this basic definition, the versatility of a shotgun is evident.

The versatility comes from shotgun ammunition, commonly called shot. Shot type is identified by number. The higher the number, the smaller the pellet size. For example, 000 buck shot shells have pellets that measure .36 inches in diameter. That’s the same diameter as a .357 Magnum bullet! Number 9 shot shells have a gazillion tiny pellets that measure .080 inches in diameter. There are about a dozen options in between. If you require longer range and more power, you can use a shell with fewer, but larger and heavier pellets. If you’re shooting at clay targets or bird hunting, you can use a shell with many smaller and lighter pellets. Using the same gun, you can customize your ammo choice for the job.

We need to talk about one more thing before we get into types of shotguns—choke. Think of a choke tube as a nozzle you put on a garden hose. If you put a small nozzle on the end, the water stream gets narrower and shoots farther. It’s the same thing with a shotgun choke tube. For example, a “full choke” tube constricts the diameter of the muzzle, causing the pellets to compress into a tighter cloud.

Types of Shotguns

There are three common types of shotguns: break action, pump and semi-automatic. We’ll lump the more unusual designs into the “other” category. Let’s take a look at each.

Break Actionmeet the shotgun 3

Figure 1 This Classic LC Smith side by side shotgun is a great example of a break action model.

A break action is the simplest shotgun design. The “break” part simply mean that the barrel (or barrels) hinge open from the receiver and stock. To load a break action, you simply dump the shotgun shells into the chamber end of the barrel. After firing, break the action open again and pull out the shells. Some break actions have an “ejection” feature that flings the shells out automatically when you open the gun. This looks exceptionally cool at the range, especially if you do it with a nonchalant look.

Break actions usually have one or two barrels. The most common styles are double-barreled shotguns. The barrels may be oriented side by side or over and under. You’ll see side by side styles on classic hunting shotguns, while over and under designs are more popular in the clay shooting sports like skeet, trap and sporting clays.

The benefit of a break action design is simplicity. It’s easy to load and unload, and there are no fancy mechanisms to operate during the firing sequence. When ready to fire, make sure the safety is off and pull the trigger. That’s it! On the downside, you only have one or two shots before needing to reload.


Meet the shotgun 4Figure 2 On this Browning BPS pump action shotgun, the wood forearm moves back and forth to operate the action.

Pump action shotguns use a single barrel, but store multiple shot shells in a tube under the barrel. With most models, you load the magazine tube by pushing a number of shells forward against an internal spring in the magazine.

Loading a shell into the chamber is a manual operation completed by “pumping” the fore grip backwards towards the stock, then pushing it forward again. The pulling action allows one shell to move into the receiver, and then the forward motion raises the shell to the barrel and pushes it into the chamber. After firing, the reverse pump withdraws that shell and repeats the loading sequence with the next shell in the magazine.

With a pump gun, you control all ejection and feeding. Pump shotguns are popular for hunting as you can load more than two shot shells in the magazine. You won’t see them as frequently on the competition fields due to the need to pump the action between shots.


The “automatic” part of this action means that the ejection of the spent shot shell and loading of a new one into the chamber is automated. There is no need for the operator to work a pump, lever or bolt between shots.

Most semi-automatic shotguns take advantage of gas operation. When you fire a shot shell, a huge volume of rapidly expanding gas expels the shot down the barrel. It’s like a politician in front of a microphone except a lot more productive. Part of the gas is bled off through a small hole in the barrel. The gas pressure operates levers, ejectors and lifters that fling the spent shell out and push a new one from the magazine into place. It’s like a pump shotgun that operates itself, except nothing moves on the outside. Like a pump shotgun, most semi-automatic shotguns have a tubular magazine under the barrel for extra shot shells.

Some innovative designs don’t use gas to perform the ejection and loading, they use inertia. Borrowing from that brilliant Newton guy’s principles, the equal and opposite reaction forces are captured and leveraged to operate the shotgun.


Nothing ever falls into neat little categories, nor do shotgun designs. You’ll see some that operate with a bolt action, just like that old family hunting rifle. Sometimes, you might even see one that operates with a lever action, just like the cowboy rifles on Bonanza. Most of the time, shotguns will fall into the three categories we discussed.

Uses of Shotguns

You know what? If you have a shotgun of most any type, don’t let equipment intimidation keep you from enjoying shotgun sports and activities.

Do you have a budget pump action shotgun? No worries, you can take it to shoot trap, sporting clays and even skeet. Some shots, like fast double targets, might be a little harder, but that’s no reason you can’t try them out. Heck, I have a Winchester 9410 lever action shotgun chambered in .410 bore. It looks exactly like one of those cowboy rifles you see on Wagon Train or Gunsmoke. I take it to the trap range and sporting clays fields all the time, even if people think it’s silly. Why? Because FUN!

With that said, certain types of shotguns are better for certain shotgun activities.

For example, a double barrel over and under shotgun is great for sporting clays. Why? You can fire two shots in quick succession for stages with multiple targets. You can put a different choke tube on each barrel to optimize one barrel for close targets and the other for far ones – a common sporting clays course challenge. You’ll also see break action over and under shotguns at the skeet range for similar reasons. Some of the stations launch two targets simultaneously; so two quick shots are in order. Perhaps most importantly, break action designs are easy to open, unload and move in a safe condition. With the shotgun sports, you’re constantly moving from station to station, so ease of unloading, moving safely and reloading is a big time saver.

I like to think of pump action shotguns as the duct tape of all the designs. You can use them for just about anything. You can use them for single target sports like trap shooting. You can use them for sporting clays although it’s a bit more challenging. Many people prefer a pump shotgun for home defense. They’re simple, reliable, and the operator has complete control over the whole loading, firing and unloading sequence.

For a little more money than a pump gun, you can experience the joys of a semi-automatic shotgun. The rapid-fire capability gives you more flexibility with hunting, home defense or shotgun sports. It’s not at all unusual to see semi-automatics in trap, skeet or sporting clays.

While there are plenty of shotgun options out there, the most important thing is not to let your current gun limit what you do with it. Do you have an old shotgun sitting in the safe? Take it to a shotgun club and try out trap, skeet or sporting clays. There’s no reason you can’t start expanding your shotgun shooting horizons with the equipment you already have. If you like it, and want to optimize, you can always upgrade or add a new gun later.


Get out there and shoot!

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