It had puzzled me for a long time: when I bought a 16 gauge Baikal side by side a few years ago, I noticed an overnight improvement in my shooting.
I’d become frustrated with my 28 gauge over the preceding summer and in early October of that year – I can’t remember exactly which one – I decided I wanted something new to shoot over the winter. I’d been on the look out for something “unusual” – perhaps a .410 – for some time, but when I saw advertised on the website of a reasonably well-known gun dealer, a 16-gauge side-by-side for the grand total of £140 delivered to the local RFD, I telephoned them immediately and reserved it.
After receiving the gun, my impulsiveness appeared to have paid off. After a summer where the bag returns had been “ones” and “twos” with an awful lot of “zeros” in between, I suddenly started shooting double figures on a regular basis. This carried on through till March or April where – called to shoot corvids at a local cattle farm – I put in a bag return of 20 jackdaws and an assortment of wood pigeons, rooks and crows for a total exceeding 30, which remains my best bag in a day to date.
(I should emphasize that I’m particularly useless at decoying as I almost never get the chance to attempt it.)
After that, although I’d been using the 16 gauge somewhat religiously, in the hope of this “winning streak” continuing, the bags returns tailed off and despondency set in. The numbers have never really since recovered, although I have had some spectacular one-off birds with that gun as I’ve walked around the hedgerows.
A Borrowed Gun
It wasn’t until last summer when I borrowed a Zabala 12 gauge from a friend that the cogs started to tick in my head, so to speak, and the conclusions that I think I’ve reached this week started to form.
The reason for the loan was simply that, even after quite a lot of years shooting, I still didn’t have a 12 gauge double gun and this seemed to be an omission from my collection. In the event, the gun didn’t fit and I didn’t get on with it, but I remember very clearly that, having observed it seemed long in the stock, we laid out the Zabala next to my 16 gauge and found that the 16 gauge stock was really very short indeed.
At the time, that discovery did no more than confirm the feeling that I had when I mounted the gun- the stock was getting in the way – so we took the fitted extension off and I took it away to play with it for a month or two before returning it. What it should have prompted however, was the realization that the shortness of stock coupled with initial use in the wintertime (when my shooting clothes were considerably thicker) made for a gun that fitted in the cold, but which was much too short in spring and summer where I only wore a thin T-shirt.
I wasn’t going to write about (i.e. admit to) last week’s outing, which was as bad a display of shooting as I think I have ever produced, but it has at least resulted in something positive in the days following.
As it happens, I was shooting at the same cattle farm I mentioned above, once again doing (or failing to do) my bit to keep the crows down. When I returned home, having downed two birds for what I guessed must have been 40 cartridges, I was angry at myself and disappointed that I hadn’t learnt the lesson of my final shot of the day rather earlier.
I’d found a good spot for a hide behind an old cattle cart and had had some good opportunities, even if it wouldn’t have been called “busy”. I’d taken the 28 gauge and my 12 gauge semi-automatic, the latter because I’m running low on “ordinary” 12 gauge shells at the moment and the only ones I have in stock were some steel #4s and a bag full of my 39g/#5 reloads which are probably a little on the hot side when it’s 30 degrees in the shade – the strongest chamber wins the day.
I’d intended to shoot the 28 gauge since the ranges were more likely to be short, but after hitting the first bird with my first shot – probably luck – I then missed another 14 shots in succession, most of them by firing both barrels at a single bird as I tried to adjust the amount of lead I was giving in the hope of working out what the hell was going on. By that point, I was so utterly confused that I packed away the 28 gauge gun and shells and switched over to the 12.
Unfortunately, the pattern continued. I had been operating under the impression that the 12 gauge, although I hardly use it now, was my first gun and had been chosen and adjusted with help from one of the instructors who taught me how to shoot in the first place. It should therefore fit, but over the last hour, I fired another 7 cartridges at passing crows and wood pigeons and missed every single one.
It was only this morning when I packed my shooting bag that I unpacked last week’s empties and found I hadn’t used quite as many as 40 cartridges for my two birds. It turned out to be only 25, but being positive about that discovery seems a little like rejoicing in the fact that one has a life jacket with which to escape the sinking ship, only to die of hypothermia in the water 3 hours later.
Perhaps I should include in my bag, the two clumps of weeds I shot at on my way to working out what was happening, although for the most part, they were un-hit. After missing 7 in a row with the 12 gauge, I used the weeds, with plenty of open soil around them, as a point of reference to determine where both the guns I had with me were shooting, compared to the point at which I was looking.
The answer to that question turned out to be that the shot was approximately 4′-6′ high of where I was looking at around 40 yards. I tend to prefer a flat-shooting gun, but what I was seeing didn’t just indicate a high pattern bias; rather, it was poor gun fit.
The last opportunity of the day was a big old bugger of a crow who came to have a look at what was going on after I cleared away the pigeon decoys I’d been using. I proved the theory by pointing the gun a good distance – about 6′ – underneath where he was flying and pulled the trigger. The bird flopped down on the deck with quite a thud.
Well that halved the ratio, at least.
When I got home, I looked at the semi-automatic. For reasons I have not been able to adequately explain, the gun was missing a stock spacer and had the wrong shim inserted into the stock which was making the comb rather too high. That immediately explained the problem of shooting high. I can only imagine that I changed the configuration for the sake of experimentation and forgot to put it back when I last put the gun away, many months ago.
I wrote my friend a message to describe all of this to him last Monday and he’s promised his assistance in sorting it all out, for which I’m grateful. After today’s trip out, a pattern is emerging however and the solution is starting to make itself clear.
Before I wasted all those cartridges, I’d already decided to extend the stock of the 16 gauge in the hope of improving the fit of the gun. I’d thought about leaving it alone as a “winter gun”, but frankly, I’ve missed using it. It hasn’t come out much since I bought the .410 which is the usual subject of this blog and I’ve wanted to change that for a while.
I’ve therefore been trying to decide whether to buy a grind-to-fit stock extension, or a slip-on recoil pad. I think I’ve now settled on the latter.
Four Guns; One Problem
I’ve said previously on this blog that I own two Baikals – a 12 gauge and the aforementioned 16. I had intended to pattern some cartridges in the 12 gauge this morning, to check their performance, but in the end I decided not to since it was blustery and looked like rain. After getting rather frustrated with the pattern plate falling over in the wind two weeks ago, I didn’t really want to repeat the experience.
Instead, I went for a wander. I fired about 10 cartridges in the end, for two birds. Still not really an acceptable shot-to-kill ratio, but if I recount that the both birds came from the last two shots of the day, again taken by shooting at points well underneath the bird, readers may begin to see the pattern which is emerging.
I checked the shape and length of the Baikals against each other when I got home and found them to be essentially identical. If the 16 gauge is too short – which I’m 99% certain it is – then so is the 12 gauge version.
Recalling that the sight picture of the semi-automatic was also improved by more drop and a longer stock, I got the 28 gauge out too. I’m inclined to think that that my shooting would probably benefit if that gun too had a slightly longer stock. As I said above, I prefer a flatter-shooting gun and in all cases (prior to modification) these guns have all shown rather a lot of slope up the rib when I mount them. The 28 gauge, particularly, was showing about £3.50 for the “pound coin” method of checking fit.
The Snowflake Generation
Most of the cartridges I fired this morning were 36g loads that I’m using up because I want the cases for reloading. I know that one can make do with much lesser quantities of shot, but could it be that the current trend for light loads in big tubes is explained not only by our addiction to “speed” but also because modern shooters are a bunch of proverbial pansies? 1¼oz through a medium-weight side-by-side? I barely noticed.