Choosing a competition clay gun
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- Last updated: 15/12/2016
I have noticed on Youtube recently that someone has been ‘borrowing’ (anonymously) my writing to create ‘their’ Top Ten clay shooting guns. Sadly, they have shamelessly pinched my prose and got approaching 200,000 views off the back of it. This is a bit frustrating (as when other writing is plagiarised). I will address the problem in the virtual world soon, meantime, GunMart allows me to put on record my developed opinions on this subject. It’s timely as the clay shooting is approaching, and lots of us are looking forward to some fair weather clay-busting.
Let’s start by noting a few criteria. My opinions are published here, they are based on a lot of ‘hands-on’ testing and I have done everything possible to be objective (such as bouncing my picks off a ‘Brain’s Trust’ of other long experienced clayshooters whose views I respect and trust). We are not considering cost here, only function. All the models in the full list (which will be published next month) are current. Many will be aware that I have a particular soft spot for the old Beretta 303 32” semi-auto, not to mention a several ancient or old side by sides (which I still use in competition). I might even note that recently I had the chance to try Percy Stanbury’s old Webley & Scott side by side at the Oxford Gun Company and it was, quite simply, the best clay busting side by side that I have ever shot. But that, as they say, is another story and not for these pages yet.
What else? Well, this was going to be a Top Ten (as it had been originally), but as there are so many great guns out there today, it has become a baker’s dozen instead. Before we launch into them in the next issue, perhaps some general pointers about choosing a clay gun are in order. It can be quite a daunting prospect wandering into a gun shop these day – there is so much choice that decision anxiety kicks in. First rule, if you can - TRY BEFORE YOU BUY. Meantimes, no names, no pack drill, but some gunshops are much better than others in helping you get the right gun for you (not them). The best dealers will take a real professional pride in matching you to the right gun. They will stand by it if it goes wrong, and they will take it back in part exchange if you want to change it or otherwise move on.
Don’t be in a hurry. Much will depend on how much experience you have. You may be a complete beginner, an improving novice, an established intermediate level club shooter, or, an advanced level competitor. You may be looking for an all-round gun (as many of us use – there is much to recommend mono-gunning as Gough Thomas once called it) or something more specialist such as a tool dedicated to domestic or international skeet, sporting, or, a trap gun for DTL, Double Rise, ABT, OT or Double Trap. Each discipline might, theoretically at least, have an ideal gun, though cost dictates that only a few will have one for every occasion.
Domestic or NSSA Skeet
Let’s try and keep it simple too. You can shoot DTL and skeet tolerably well with a 30 or 32” sporter (I often do) – something printing its pattern about 60% above the mark and 40% below. A dedicated gun for domestic or NSSA skeet will probably want 30” barrels and pattern fairly flat – 50:50 or 55:45 (55% of pattern above the point of aim 45% below). It probably wants to weigh around the 8lb mark or just a little more (a good weight for a sporter too). A bit of weight is useful in a competition gun as it helps soak up recoil and reduces fatigue and flinching (assuming that you have a reasonable level of upper body strength).
A gun for international skeet is a specialist tool, I do my work best with a 28” retro-choked gun with a highish stock (there is a tendency to chop through the line of the bird in this fast discipline which requires you to mount from an abnormally low position – the high stock can help with this). There are some top ISU skeet pros who prefer 30” guns. Few go for the old standard 26” barrels today (they were once the rage; shooting is a sport of fashion).
Domestic DTL or US style ATA Trap and Olympic Trap
A gun for Domestic DTL or US style ATA trap (which is much the same thing) will want tight or tightish chokes, 30 or 32” barrels and might benefit from being a bit weighty – 8, 9 or even 10 pounds depending on your style and preference. I do my best work with a gun of about 8 ½ pounds with a comb about 1/8” higher than on my sporters (though as noted you can manage at DTL with an ordinary sporter). For Olympic Trap, 30” is probably the ideal barrel length and I do best with an even higher comb – say 1/4” higher than my sporter measurement – and one which is notably thicker than on my sporting clay and game guns (and thus providing more facial support). I give you these figures only as a guideline - you will have to experiment to find out what works best for you. I also have a preference for a parallel comb stock on a skeet or trap gun.
As for sporters – and that is what the majority of people are interested in these days in the UK – I would say that most people should go down the 30” barrel route in a steady mid-weight gun something around the 8lb mark. Lighter and shorter 28” guns may suit younger shots and ladies because of reduced frontal weight (and 20 and 28 bores may also warrant consideration for novices, but the latter only for youngsters). A 30” gun is also practical for those who want to shoot game as well as clays, while 32” guns, which are very pointable, tend to be experts tools. For most people 33 and 34” guns are too long (with Geroge Digweed and a few other shooting superstars being notable exceptions – they have the strength and skill to use the really Long Toms).
I have no prejudice about ribs on clay guns. I like three types myself, 10mm parallel, 6 or 7mm parallel (sometimes called game ribs but perfectly suitably for clay guns and a way of reducing barrel weight) and 10 or 11mm to 7mm tapered designs. Wide ribs have gone out of fashion, narrow ones deserve more attention perhaps. High ribs can suit those who shoot with the eye opposite the rib squinted or closed (or, who use a block to its vision). This is because high rib guns increase visibility when you are only using one eye (something that some need to do, but which is a slight impediment with regard to both field of vision and hand-to-eye co-ordination).
Weight and Balance
A well balanced gun of 8 ½ pounds is to be preferred to an ill-balanced one of 7 ½ pounds. Often a shotgun is picked up by some sage who immediately pronounces: “that’s really well balanced.” What does he mean? Would he know if you asked him? I rather doubt it in most cases. Sometimes, “well-balanced” is just a synonym for ‘doesn’t weigh very much’. Light guns of good quality seem to be categorised as well balanced more often than others. Trying to remove the BS, can we be a bit more objective?
There is much talk of hinge pins in the context of balance too. The gun that balances on the hinge pin is often considered better balanced than the one that does not. There is truth in this (but it is not an absolute). First, the position of the hingepin is not constant, the length of actions varies. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that a well balanced 28 or 30” gun should usually balance somewhere near the pin.
Some London makers are very specific about this. One builds their 30” 12 bore over and unders so that the point of balance is exactly1/8” to the rear of the hingepin. It is a formula that works well with that gun. Another renowned maker prefers that its 28” side by sides are slightly muzzle-heavy. There have been few complaints about their products. And, in the clay shooting context, some very successful skeet shots prefer a front heavy gun as an aid to follow through. Some DTL shots like a front heavy gun too, and very few 32” sporters will (or should balance on the pin).
In noting the subtle variations, we may nevertheless observe that some mass produced or poorly modified guns are often grossly ill-balanced as far as the hinge-pin index is concerned (and may also give the impression of having a light or hollow stock – which usually feels awful). Many modern, multi-choked, over and unders are muzzle heavy and will – for those who want it – benefit from a little extra weight in the stock (easily accomplished with a lead plug or lead shot in putty). Get these guns – if equipped with 28 or 30” barrels – to balance more or less on the hinge pin and they will immediately feel lighter. They will also move better in the hands, helping to promote a good swing. I do not, however, strive to achieve a neutral hinge pin balance in a 32” gun. They seem to work best when they feel muzzle heavy, provided they are otherwise solid and the barrels have some ‘life’.
There is another vitally important component to balance, as it goes some way to explain the apparent paradoxes – the way the weight is distributed through the gun. It is a complex variable. Often, it is said that side locks feel better because the weight is concentrated between the hands. The gun is made to feel more dynamic, more willing, as a result. Again, there is some truth in this. I usually like to feel some weight in the middle of the gun.
The way the weight is distributed in the barrels is also critical. For a sporting clay (or game) gun, it is especially important that the tubes are not too heavy at the front (a particular challenge for makers of multichoked guns). They must not be too front or rear light, either. Like Goldilock’s porridge they need to be just right! British guns were always famous for their relatively light, thin-walled barrels. Kemen guns from Spain became popular because they reduced barrel weight in long-barrelled guns. Remington created a ‘light contour’ barrel for their semi-automatics. Beretta have reduced barrel weight in many models over recent years as have Browning who have just reduced barrel weight across their mass market range. Sometimes, shooter opt for fixed choke guns and then have Teague or Briley thin wall chokes fitted to reduce muzzle weight and improve handling.
I am also a fan, I might note, of back-boring which may also be used as a means to reduce barrel weight. In a 12 bore clay
gun, my preference is for a bore diameter of 18.6, 18.7, or 18.8mm teamed up with long forcing cones. I find this reduces felt recoil significantly and improves pattern quality too (it may also improve velocity slightly). Back boring does not work so well with fibre wadded cartridges though.
OK. On to other things. What about small bores? They may be ideal for some young shots, and, also some ladies. A clay busting 20 bore should usually weigh about a pound less than a 12. Somewhere around 7 pounds is the norm for most of the better factory made guns, though lighter 20s may have their place with slightly built ladies and youngsters as may less weighty 12s. I often advise both groups to consider 12 bore game guns as well – which are typically lighter – provided they are matched to a suitable small payload cartridge.
Finally some comments on stock design and standard dimension. Let’s stick to KISS again. If I was to specify shelf dimensions for a sporter (and I have for several makers) they would be these. Length of Pull (measured middle of trigger to middle of butt plate) 14 ¾” - 15”. There should be 1/8” - 1/4” more length to heel than to the middle. The length to toe should be ¼” -3/8” longer than the middle measurement too. Drop (the deviation of the stock from the top line of the rib extended rearwards) on over and unders and repeaters should be 1 3/8” at the front of the comb and 2 1/4” to the rear. If there is much more than 3/4” of difference between the front and rear dimensions you may end up with a comb which is too steeply angled (and which kicks more). Cast should be about 1/8” at toe and 3/16” at heel, though some men with eye dominance issues will require more. Women with eye dominance issues are usually best advised to squint/close an eye or block the vision to it (in which case they will probably do best with a standard cast dimension – cast is normally increased to accommodate those men with broad shoulders or eye issues).
Grip and forend shapes are important too. They should encourage an unstrained hand position good muzzle control, and, good recoil control (much recoil is taken through the hands). The grip should have a radius and width/depth that are ergonomically efficient. The grip in a sporter is used to push the gun out primarily, the grip in a trap gun (which may benefit from tighter radius) is used typically to lock the stock back in the shoulder. So, I like quite a tight radius on a trap gun, but not on a sporter. I’m not a fan of palm-swells unless they are custom made – there are just so many different hand shapes. Palm swells are sometimes used to compensate for poor grip design.
The chequering on the stock should provide purchase and the stock finish should be weather proof and comfortable. Forends are not a difficult subject for me. I prefer a rounded style on all clay guns. It should not be too broad or deep, but it must fill the hand. If it is constant in width and depth moving the hand slightly will not alter your relationship with the muzzles.
One final comment. Good trigger pulls on a clay gun are as important as good balance, and a well designed stock which fits you. This is usually a feature which you have to pay a little extra for. GM