Sunday, February 14, 2010

Gear for the Marginal Lands: Shotguns on the Margin

© 2010 Joshua Stark

I start my series on gear for the marginal lands with guns partly because I love guns, and partly because guns tend to be more controversial than, say, pants. I think this is because a gun purchase is expensive, regardless of your choice, and people just have a natural inclination to defend their purchase of hundreds or thousands of dollars.
(For those of you who do not hunt, don't despair. My series will include fishing gear, gear for foraging, boating, hiking, birdwatching, and the like. Just stay tuned. In the meantime, if you are curious as to the world of hunting and guns, read on!)

I have a decent gun collection, although "collection" is not the right word for it, as I use them all. Most guns automatically tend to be generalist, but with some major hemispheres in which each operate. For example, I can hunt just about any typical mammal in California with my 30-30 - although I'd be pushing it on the bigger hogs - but I can't legally hunt birds with it.

Many people like one of two guns for marginal lands: the 12 gauge or the .22. These are two extremes, in my opinion: The former, a great gauge, is usually too big and bulky for the kind of hunting I do; the latter is just about useless in my case (you can't hunt hardly anything with it).

This is because the lands I hunt are Northern California, the most varied terrain in the U.S. I can hunt subalpine country in the morning, and desert-plain in the afternoon. I can hunt white-fronted geese, band-tailed pigeons, and mule deer on the same day. Often, when hunting BLM or USFS lands, I can walk six miles in a day, and I have to be ready for a shot at a covey of quail or turkeys, a squirrel, a mallard, or even a chance to fill my deer tag. My gear needs to be lightweight and generalist.

Over the years, I've had a number of opportunities blown by the wrong shell in the chamber. On one particular trip, after having heard some quail in a blackberry bramble, I rounded a corner to find find 30 or so turkeys, their necks craned, staring straight at me at about 40 yards. I felt naked, standing there with my 12 gauge pump loaded with 8's.

That was the most stark example of my gun's inefficiency, but similarly frustrating scenes have happened a number of times.

So a couple of years ago, I began a serious quest for a new shotgun. I'd thought up an ingenious design: A gun with not one, but two barrels. Each barrel would have its own trigger, and I could therefore choose which barrel I would use as I was pointing the gun at my prey. I'd modestly hoped to make a little money off the patents, to found a non-profit, of course.

Alas, it seems somebody had beat me to it by a few hundred years.

In reality, all my life I'd wanted a double gun. I've always been preferable to the side-by-side, so I started a search for one with the following criteria: Inexpensive (under $800), new (if bought online), lightweight (under 7 lbs.), 20 gauge, double triggered, with an English stock.

I had eliminated all double guns due to my first and last criteria, and so I had to back down from one of them. Though I preferred to dump the first one, I grudgingly let go of English stocks (who knew it would cost so much to saw off a horn?).

"Lightweight" was another concern I had trouble matching up with chea... er, inexpensive. There are a few nice guns on the market for under $600 even, but all their 20 gauge models were built on their 12 gauge frames, so all of their guns were 8+ lbs. My 12 gauge pump gun already weighed as much.

For braver folks than I, one can purchase a used double gun online, but since this was going to be a major investment, I couldn't bring myself to trust that route.

Then I stumbled upon a great little gun. 20 gauge, double triggers, under 6.5 lbs., and new. So I bought it.

It's a Huglu, imported from Turkey through TR Imports.

I "researched" many gun sites on the web, and heard mixed reviews of them, but when I held one at a local gun shop, it fit me wonderfully, so I knew I'd love it. And I do.

It's just a good little gun, and it lets me get better. I won't write about all its wonderful features, because I've found the anecdote-couched-as-expertise a terrible medium for others trying to find a good gun, but I like it. It points well, it's comfortable, and it is the perfect size. Two barrels gives me great confidence; I love walking the woods in the fall with no. 6 steel in one barrel and a slug in the other.

But, for the bigger question: Why 20 gauge?

Simply put, the twenty, for me, is the most versatile gun for North America.

My claim is not meant to argue that every North American animal can be taken with it. I wouldn't try to hunt grizzlies, or elk, or a few others with it, because it doesn't have the power. (Besides, if I was ever blessed enough to get a bison hunt, I would acquire the appropriate gun for the occasion.)

However, for 90% of the hunting that folks do, and probably 99% of the hunting I do, a twenty gauge is more than adequate, and it comes with additional benefits that make it more versatile, even, than the venerable 12 gauge.

When shooting shot, a twenty throws pellets as fast as a twelve, it just throws fewer of them. So, what benefits, you ask, come with less shot? Most people who start shooting a twenty do a couple of things: They practice more, and they wait for their shots. In hunting situations, this means they are often more practical with their guns, and they usually have practiced stalking, calling, or decoying to a great extent. In addition, 20 gauge guns built on 20 gauge receivers are lighter, and so they walk better in the field. Take a Sierra hike with me, you with your 12 gauge pump, and me with my 20 gauge double, and after three miles, hold my gun. You'll swear I've been cheating, and you'll secretly want one, too.

The counter argument to the twenty is that it is not adequate for some bigger birds and mammals. To that I respond that I don't hunt waterfowl bigger than Canada geese, and I can take a Canada with a twenty - and I can surely take turkeys with it. As for mammals, I hunt mule deer and blacktails with my 20, because where I hunt, I won't take a shot longer than about 80 yards. Honestly, no gun built to hunt birds should be used much past that range, even a 12 gauge.

The only drawback I've found for my twenty gauge double is the lack of non-lead slugs for smoothbores.

The waves of the future have been to build up the 12 gauge platform to cover as much as it can. Rifled barrels, 3 1/2" shells, etc., have been ways to convince consumers that the 12 gauge is the consummate gauge, but in doing this, they have overspecialized the individual guns. To me, the 12 is a fine gun, but because of recent marketing trends, it's capabilities are oversold, an illusion built up that the typical Joe should be shooting ducks at 60 yards, and whitetail at 150. I think commercials give 12 gauge shooters a false sense of confidence in the field, letting them think that a 3 1/2" shell has enough pellets & power to justify sky-scraping and shooting cold, without practicing.

Meanwhile, the twenty gauge, like the 30-30, remains a consistent, reliable gauge with enough power, great weight, and versatility to do the jobs a hunter needs in the margins. Now, if only someone will come out with a smoothbore nonlead slug...

I know I may have riled some feathers here, because I know that guns are touchy subjects. Now, let me hear your thoughts: What is your best gun for the margins?


Bpaul said...

I like your thinking regarding the gun style and gauge.

When I have more money I can see going in a similar direction. Changing shells in a pump when you have a flock of geese coming in to your duck blind is a pain in the patoot.

Two trigger two barrel just makes so much sense.

My first duck hunting trip was with my grandpa's old fox/savage side by side. Single trigger, and as it turns out, a bad one at that. It just hung up way too much in the cold, so many lost shot opportunities.

So, I traded it in on a remington 870 express magnum pump. A newbie decision I know, but it was in my price range and would get the job done. Now that I can hunt, I can start to think and save and plan for the kind of nuance you are expressing in this post.


Josh said...

Most of my life, I hunted with a Mossberg 500 12 gauge pump, and it treated me well. I think you made a good choice with the 870.

When you get a chance, check out Huglus, and if you want a good, cheap 12 gauge on a heavier frame (if most of your hunting is from a blind, for example), Stoeger makes a good double gun, too (the Condor), for about 1/2 the price of the Huglu. I'm going to post a picture of mine pretty soon.

Bpaul said...

Not seeing double triggers on the Stoeger, but it's early so maybe just not pushing the right button.

Also a question, what's the slug for when you are walking Cali public lands... pig?

Josh said...

They don't have pictures up, but it's on their website as an option, here:

The slug is for deer, during the fall. Where I hunt in the Sierra, one can still use lead, and so I do, but only because it's the only option for 20 gauge smoothbores right now. I'm one of the anti-lead folks, when it comes to hunting.

Bpaul said...

Me too.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Another great post Josh.
personally I'm saving for a Beretta lightweight, but even secondhand they are just outside the price range you mentioned. Or (well AND really) a FinnClassic 512.

It's also available as a 'drilling' perfect for you.


Josh said...

Ah, the drilling. That would be the perfect gun for me... but alas, they are a tad beyond my means.

That Beretta is a fine gun. I hope you get it. What gauge for you?

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Ha ha I know that feeling. I rang the Uk importer once nice chap, told me he'd had to bow out due to the change in exchange rate.

The case for a 20 is well made but i'd go 12, ubiquity is sometimes a good thing