By Oliver Hartner
Shotguns become tangible and intangible extensions of ourselves. Our minds meld with them in an almost miraculous feat of complicated mathematical calculation between the time a shooter acquires a target, pulls the trigger and tumbles a game bird. We create memories with them during our hunts, and they become familiar companions as we move through different stages of our lives. They inspire us to practice our craft because we owe it to the birds we kill. And when we part the veil between this world and the next, they stay behind as coveted family heirlooms, or they find a new home among those choosing to traipse behind a brace of bird dogs in search of grouse and woodcock.
The number of options available presents an abundance of choices, and arriving at a decision requires a good bit of discernment. Will it be used for taking a specific game species, or will it fill multiple roles? The next question might relate to barrel length. Should I get a gun with 26-inch or 28-inch barrels? Then comes the doozy of which type of shotgun action would best suit your needs. Every action has its advantages and disadvantages, and we highlight here a few reasons some people choose one type of shotgun action over another.
Gimme a Break
Break-action shotguns – side-by-side or over/under – still loom large over the upland hunting space, including the grouse and woodcock woods. One of the main reasons is safety. These guns are easily made inert by opening the action when crossing a fence, moving through thick cover or at any pauses during the hunt. Anyone in the hunting party can look at a break-action shotgun and immediately tell it’s safe when the action is open, and I know several outfitters who insist all members of the hunting party carry break-action shotguns for this reason. Break-action shotguns also offer exceptional reliability regardless of hunting conditions. Though many of them have as many or more moving parts as a repeater, everything moves internally within the action, allowing them to shrug off inclement weather and fire without failure. Dual chokes provide another advantage to the break-action when a follow-up shot is required or when a bird flushes farther away than expected. After the flush and shot, break-action shotguns allow easier accountability of spent cartridges. Policing our empty hulls, or any others we might come across, ensures we leave a smaller footprint upon the resource – and conceals the location of our best covers!
Despite these qualities, a break-action shotgun has its shortcomings. Having a limit of two successive shots before reloading dissuades some people from owning one. The initial purchase of a break-action shotgun is also significantly higher than many new or used high-quality repeaters. Under normal hunting conditions, break-action shotguns require little maintenance other than cleaning the bores and wiping carbon from the action, but maintenance jobs requiring the expertise of a gunsmith can become quite expensive. Finally, fitting a break-action shotgun to its shooter requires more effort than with most repeaters, especially when the gun is a side-by-side.
Load ‘Em on Friday and Shoot All Weekend
For good reasons, hunters may carry pump guns or semi-automatics into grouse and woodcock covers. First, many who carry a repeater learned to shoot one as a youngster, and they’re still deadly accurate with them. Then, of course, there’s the obvious advantage of having more than two successive shots. Repeaters come in a wide variety of options, and most contemporary models include screw-in choke tubes, making them quite versatile for taking a wide spectrum of game species. Regarding repeaters of the semi-automatic variety, their actions significantly reduce felt recoil compared to break-action and pump shotguns.
Still, repeaters have their shortcomings. Though technological advancement seems to have solved most reliability issues, semi-automatic shotguns will not digest all cartridges fed to them. Failures to feed and failures to eject still occur when using very light loads. Overcoming the possibility of short stroking a pump gun during a follow-up shot on a flushing grouse or woodcock takes quite a lot of practice, and the process can become a source of frustration. Routine cleaning and maintenance of repeaters take longer since carbon and grit hide in the nooks and crannies of the action. And though the competency of the hunter ultimately accounts for a firearm’s safety, repeaters by their inherent design can be less safe than break-action shotguns. Phantom cartridges can, and will, sneak their way into the magazine tubes of veteran wingshooters, hence the reason every firearm should be treated as if it’s always loaded.
For the record, I own and hunt with both a break-action and repeater. But if forced to choose one or the other, I would choose the break action. Safety and reliability considerations push my vote into favoring the break-action. Some may eschew a repeater for the sake of “tradition,” but I find this reasoning flawed since repeating shotgun technology has been around for more than 100 years. How far back should we go for the sake of “tradition?” Should we cast aside breach-loading break-actions in favor of black powder flintlocks? Count me out … though having one on my wall seems like a fine idea. Shotguns should elevate our hunting experiences, whether they’re break-actions, repeaters or perhaps flintlocks. We should shoot and own shotguns of the best fit and finish within our means because though our time with them on earth is finite, the joy they bring to our lives is eternal.