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Throwing the Shotgun

Shotgun Throwing

The problem with having a primary gun you carry to the field is over time other shotguns just don’t feel quite right. But I worry dedication to a single shooting stick leaves me vulnerable to being gunless.

I throw my gun. It’s something I can count on at least once or twice a season.

For the last decade my shotgun has been through the upland grinder. It’s a walking stick on steep inclines above 11,000′. It’s taken multi-mile rides on the roof of my truck when I’ve forgotten to stow it after the delirium of long hunts. That gun has been plugged barrel first into swamp muck, then cleared with a warped stick and patch cut fresh from a shirttail. It’s been soaked, snow covered, and hailed on. It’s been stomped on by carefree bird dogs and swung into tree trunks attempting shots in tight grouse cover. And when I have the rare hot shooting streak I refuse to clean it because I don’t want to wash the luck off.

Taken cumulatively, It starts to sound as if I don’t like this gun. I assure the opposite is the case. There was a time when I looked at shotguns as works of art. But this bird hunting has transformed all shotguns to tools. It must work above all else. When I look at new guns the first thing I do is go hands on, mount that shotgun, see if it’s a shooter. I don’t look at any gun adoringly, envy the curves and think that would be a great addition to my safe. I look at it and think it’s a good day to get dirty. I want it to spit smoking hulls and feed it two more.

Which brings us to the throwing. I’ve learned self-preservation prevails over pristine shooting hardware. One of the most memorable tosses was hiking down a Nevada mountain when I stepped full weight onto a melon-sized rock that broke loose sending both feet skyward. Catching yourself is the natural reaction and doesn’t happen with a gun in your hands. That shotgun was airborne without a thought.

I heard a distinct, hollow clank off granite as I was getting reacquainted with gravity in slow motion. The gun and I faired pretty much the same on this flight. It ended up five feet below me with a new divot in the butt stock and a dent in the rib. Since I was alone with the dogs over two miles from a marked trail, I was just happy to still have two functioning legs and a bruised kidney. I ejected shells, inspected barrels to make sure there were no obstructions and dry fired. Mounted the gun to check for some new barrel English, reloaded and headed on down the hill, slightly bruised and highly adrenaline alert.

Many shooters might look at this as a cringeworthy moment and lament the damage. But I assure you those aren’t mars, they are character marks. Those scratches, dings and dents have all been earned. I can look at this gun and be reminded of falling into badger holes, face-planting on snowy grades and dropping birds in places where only goats walk free.

I’m entertaining the idea of a new gun. Given the abuse that’s sure to come some might advocate for a fugly plastic, hydro-dipped hog leg. But I still admire fine engraving, color case hardening, grade one walnut, immaculate receivers. Any shotgun is going to be way more attractive to my eye when it has been kissed by mishap on a memorable day afield. As long as it still goes bang.

Innovation in Shotguns

828U and UTS15

As a hunter when you walk the 12.5 miles of aisles of the National Shooting Sports Federation (NSSF) SHOT Show it becomes clear pretty quickly that you’re in the minority. Though this is the single largest gathering of shooting, hunting and outdoor gear in the world with over 1600 exhibitors, more than half serve the tactical/ military/ law enforcement market.

There’s really not that much time to explore this tactical gear, and most doesn’t translate to bird hunting. But it has been clear for a while that the tactical wing of the industry is where the bulk of innovation happens in the outdoor business.

En route to the bird hunting gear I cast longing glances at the rows of black rifles, lasers, optics, super light composites, rugged construction. I’ve got gear envy. The operators get all the cool bells and whistles as bird hunting guns languish in repackaging and dressing up ideas that have been around for decades. How many ways can a recoil reduction system be designed and still be called innovative?

But this year at the clay range I was immediately drawn to the UTS-15 from UTAS who bills it as the ultimate tactical shotgun (starting MSRP $1,250).  It’s a 12 gauge pump that looks like it came right out of the video game Halo.

On the range the UTS-15 was fitted with a suppressor and a red ring reticle optic mounted to the picatinny rail. By looks it should weigh a ton yet it comes in right around seven pounds and is lighter in hand than many trap guns.  Dual seven round feed magazines actually rest atop the barrel, a bewildering configuration for one accustomed to the standard pump design of the last century.  With a selector switch for left, right or alternating magazine feed, the potential to load two different shells and select the appropriate shot for the game at hand exists if adept enough with the unorthodox action. The UTS-15 is outfitted with AR style safety, polymer stock, matte finishes, optional flashlight/laser; truly everything you would expect from a tactical shotgun. They even make magazine plugs for hunting scenarios that require such a buzzkill.

Now I’ll be honest, this gun doesn’t have much place in upland bird hunting. When we get right down to it, I couldn’t hit the broad side of a clay looking through that reticle regardless how cool the shot picture. But I’m not sure there is a funner, faster way to burn a box of shells than this UTS-15 outfitted with a suppressor. The idea of slinging one on and hitting the pheasant fields of South Dakota is hard to resist. The Pheasant Terminator.  But it won’t change the three bird limit and the dozen shells that go unspent.

UTS 15

This brings me to the Benelli 828U which was just a couple shooting stations down the line (starting MSRP $2,500). Probably best known for their autoloaders, Benelli introduced their first entry into the double barrel market. The fish scaling on the stock and receiver in place of traditional checkering is the first indicator that Benelli has decided to go about this double in a different way.

In hand it feels like most other field doubles, 12 gauge weighing in at 6.5 pounds. But break open the action, you start noticing this isn’t just a dressed up O/U. There’s a steel plate in the receiver that Benelli has designed as a breech block that locks to the back of the barrels when the action closes. The theory is all shot pressure is thereby contained in the barrels preventing any stress on receiver parts. Wear on receivers and hinge pins is normally only a concern for professional clay shooters and the 828U is billed as a field gun. I suspect this feature has the attention of some on the trap range and may foreshadow Benelli’s future plans.

828U action

The easily removable trigger group also hints of design from a professional clay shooting approach. Just a single pin holds the trigger assembly in the action. Benelli believes this will increase reliability. It will be interesting to see the practical application when a trigger assembly offers a much easier access point for dirt and grime from the field. It’s not often in standard field doubles that one needs to clean trigger assemblies. This feature definitely makes cleaning the trigger assembly much easier, but will it also necessitate frequent cleaning? The only way to find out is hike a couple hundred miles with it.

The top opening lever on the 828U cocks/ resets the triggers instead of the normal opening of the action. Maybe the coolest new feature is adjustable break-open tension which will allow the shooter to choose whether the action drops open like butter, or needs a little ‘umph’ behind it depending on preference. This is to be a set it and forget it feature, never breaking-in or changing over time. It will take a few thousand rounds of convincing, but I do like an action that is smooth but not free.

Benelli’s marketing folks even got innovative when they tapped a couple of deer hunters to promote the new double. Hopefully this effort will spawn a legion of archery hunters to evacuate tree stands, get a bird dog and ‘Crush’ some exercise in pursuit of birds.

Regardless whether the aesthetics of these two shotguns appeal to your bird hunting sensibilities, both these manufacturers are making an effort to be different, to improve, to innovate. The trickle down effect from tactical may actually be making its way over to bird hunters. I think that’s exciting for the future of field guns. Light resilient materials, improved ergonomics, quieter shotguns…. what’s not to like?  Now if only my inner skeptic would allow me to fall in love with untested design. Because in the end the classic upland double is classic for a reason.

The Crush shotgun
828 lineup
UTS wall

Scenes from the SHOT Show 2014

The National Shooting Sports Federation hosts the largest outdoor industry trade show in the country. There are over 1,600 exhibitors who inhabit 12.5 miles of aisles. We’ll be here all week exploring new products for bird hunters while rubbing elbows with some of the icons of the industry.

Below are some of the things that have already caught our eye. Be sure to check back as more updates will continue throughout the show.

SHOT Show Media Day 2014

Had a great time at the range testing new products today.

Big thanks to all the vendors, shooting professionals and the safety folks at Boulder Pistol & Rifle Range in Boulder City, Nevada.

Check back for more extensive product reviews and posts. We’ll be here all week.

SHOT Show 2013 – Franchi Aspire

One of the really cool things about attending SHOT is that you get to see guns that have yet to hit the shelves. Some of these guns will never even make it to mass production. But Franchi has a winner in their newest offering, the Aspire. This gun is going to have mass appeal; it is light weight with refined machining and construction.

Unlike many of the other manufacturers who release new shotguns starting with the 12 gauge, Franchi has elected to start the Aspire in 28 gauge and .410. It’s really refreshing to see a different approach to production. Franchi has focused on upland hunters with both the Instinct and the Aspire. You can tell they have listened to feedback from the Instinct and incorporated the improvements. There are some significant design modifications with the Aspire which are worth checking out.

The Aspire shotgun in 28 or .410 will be a dream for quail, woodcock, ruffed grouse and even dove.

Birdhunter Battle of the Sexes: Day of Reckoning

Headed off to the desert to finally settle the score with Britney Starr from the WON. Along for the ride are the Franchi Instincts and a pile of Winchester Shells including the new TrAAcker.

The Nellis Skeet and Trap club is a hidden gem just a stone’s throw from the Vegas strip. It takes a little wrangling to get on the base, but it is a public course and the scenery just can’t be beat. On this bluebird day while we try and focus on breaking birds on the sporting clays course there are fighter jets of every breed swirling overhead. Warthogs, Strike Eagles, F16 and the USAF Thunderbirds taking practice runs make this round nearly an adrenaline overload.

It’s always a bit  tough to pull a new shotgun straight from the box and try to shoot proficiently. On this day we’re testing two new Franchi Instincts, one in 20 gauge and the other in 12, alternating guns and shooting order between stations. Luckily the Winchester TrAAcker shells can really assist with seeing your shot string since the colored wads act almost as a tracer round. Unfortunately TrAAcker are currently only available in 12 gauge, so the shooter of the 20 is flying blind.

This was more fun than a person should be allowed to have in a day and it will be tough to find a more memorable shoot.