Shotgun or rifle

Decisions, decisions

Shooting novices must choose shotgun or rifle. John Hill outlines the difference

When taking up the sport of shooting, as newcomers we’re faced with the choice of buying either a shotgun or a rifle. Advice from other shooters and gun shops is often biased as to how they see the situation, which can be misleading to those seeking help with their selection of a suitable first firearm, the problem being most shotgunners never shoot rifles and just as many rifle shooters never use shotguns, so in order to discover the truth it’s necessary to ask those who use both types of firearm.

Shotguns and rifles have entirely different applications. A shotgun is meant to be used at close range on fast-moving targets – whether clay, fur or feathers – while rifles are usually fired at stationary targets and often at considerable distances depending on the type of rifle. It’s true a shotgun can be fired at stationary targets and a rifle on moving targets but that’s not the way they’re normally used. A rifle can’t be relied upon to hit a moving target unless the person using it has exceptional shooting skills.

If shooting at a fast-flying black duck or a fox at close quarters trotting in to a decoy, a shotgun is the only way to go as it was designed for that sort of work. The wide pattern of pellets thrown by a shotgun allows a larger margin of error than that offered by a rifle firing a single bullet, therefore your choice of a firearm should be based on whether the intended targets are likely to be moving or stationary. If the targets are moving, buy a shotgun.

Unfortunately shotguns which perform well at 50m or so have a very limited effective range. While many a claim has been made regarding the ‘long-range’ capabilities of some shotguns, most become fairly ineffective when the range exceeds 60m, as when used beyond that distance the possibility of that black duck continuing on its way are very good unless a pellet strikes a vital area. A shotgun used beyond its limitations is more likely to wound rather than kill and I once described a shotgun as ‘a big bang and a scatter of pellets which lose their effectiveness in a mere 50m’. While that statement may be a slight exaggeration, it’s not too far from the truth.

Most modern shotguns have interchangeable choke tubes which lend the gun greater flexibility than one with fixed chokes and using either open chokes or tight ones can transform a single gun into several by the simple act of changing choke tubes. Shotguns with fixed chokes may be fine for some jobs but a gun choked full wouldn’t be a good choice in a quail paddock where more open chokes are desirable, so interchangeable choke tubes have definite advantages.

The selection of an appropriate cartridge can also have a considerable bearing on the effective range of a shotgun and its usefulness on different types of game. If a gun’s loaded with number 10 shot (bird shot) for shooting quail and a fox suddenly appears from the stubble, those lightweight pellets will be almost useless on an animal that size unless it’s extremely close. Larger pellets such as 2s or BBs are more appropriate for foxes, as are 4s and 6s for rabbits and ducks with 7s, 8s and 9s suitable for clay targets. Target loads contain 24 to 28-grams of shot whereas field loads have 32 to 36-grams (there’s steel shot and other non-toxic loads for waterfowl). So there are considerable variations in shot cartridges and the use of an appropriate one is very important for a successful outcome.

Whether firing at clay targets, game animals or birds, pattern density is something to consider at all times. Small pellets produce good pattern density yet carry very little energy, while larger pellets carry more energy but give poor pattern density as there are fewer of them in the pattern. Everything involved with shotgunning seems to be a compromise of some sort or other and any particular cartridge and choke combination is only ideal at a specific range. Either side of that ideal pattern density zone the shot pattern will be too dense or too open – a dense pattern mangles the meat while an open pattern allows it to escape.

So when we consider all the different combinations of chokes and shot cartridges, it’s not hard to imagine how easy it is to have an unsuitable combination when an unexpected and different type of target is offered, such as the fox in a stubble paddock when hunting quail.

There’s also the question of what gauge should be considered when buying a shotgun and there’s only one obvious choice – 12-gauge. Of course there are others such as the small .410 and 20 and 28-gauge guns but their ammunition costs are considerably more than 12-gauge with availability often poor or non-existent. Nice guns but costly to feed – and difficult to sell as they’re not overly popular. A 12-gauge gun can be loaded down to a lighter load but a smaller gauge can’t be loaded up to duplicate 12-gauge loads.

There are yet more decisions to be made when buying a shotgun and that’s whether it’s to be an over-and-under or side-by-side (there are also special-purpose guns for trap shooting and sporters for field use). So when shotgunning is looked at in light of what’s been discussed so far, making the right choices can be a bit of a minefield.

I have an under-and-over Model 7000 Miroku Trap gun with interchangeable choke tubes and a buttstock with adjustable comb, the gun mainly used for various forms of clay target shooting. I don’t shoot ducks or quail but that Miroku has claimed a few foxes and a good number of rabbits. This under-and-over has been in my keeping for more than 25 years, covers all my shotgunning needs and as far as I’m concerned I don’t need any other shotgun as this one does everything I require of it.

So much for shotguns, now it’s time to talk rifles. The rifle is an entirely different concept to the shotgun in that it fires a single bullet instead of hundreds of pellets. A rifle barrel has spiral groves cut into the bore to affect ‘spin’ on the bullet, this gyroscopic effect stabilising the projectile to keep it travelling nose-first through the air. Spin also helps correct any tendency a bullet may have to drift off course as would be the case if it was fired through a smooth bore.

Modern bullet and rifle barrel manufacture is of such a high standard the accuracy of today’s rifles is incredible and the long-range capabilities of some centrefires must be seen to be believed. Tack-driving accuracy goes hand-in-hand with telescopic sights which have revolutionised the modern rifle but the main advantage it has over the shotgun is it can reach so much further. Hunting techniques differ greatly when using a rifle, the hunter usually quiet and stealthy so the rifle can be brought to bear on undisturbed stationary game, while a shotgunner is more likely to use dogs for flushing out rabbits or birds.

Rifles vary greatly in cost and calibre, starting with air rifles and ranging through various rimfires to centrefires. Rimfires are a good starting point for new shooters and even air rifles can teach a lot of shooting skills at low cost, though aren’t really suitable for small-game hunting and even the .22 Long Rifle is fairly restricting due to its rainbow-shaped trajectory. Neither air rifles nor those chambered for .22 Long Rifle can be described as having long-range capabilities. There are other rimfires and the .22 Rimfire Magnum or .17 HMR should also be considered when you’re confident enough to go hunting.

Centrefires rifles are in a category of their own and don’t really qualify for mention within the scope of this article as newcomers to shooting would be ill-advised to start with a centrefire. Don’t put the cart before the horse – learn to shoot well before venturing into the field to hunt.

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