By John Haviland
Weighing just 6 pounds, the 12-gauge
Benelli Ultra Light shotgun sports a 24-inch barrel
and a featherweight alloy receiver.
The ruffed grouse has the widest distribution of all the grouse in North America, ranging from Alaska south to California and down the Rockies into Utah, across the Upper Midwest to Maine and down the Appalachian Mountains into South Carolina. Wherever these popular upland birds live, they cling to the thickets of the forest and it’s regenerating edges.
Brad Howard, marketing manager for Beretta shotguns, has hunted ruffed grouse in Utah for years and considers it as physically draining as hunting elk. “It’s frustrating when the grouse flush and fly straight up or down the mountain,” he says. “Of course, then you have to go after them, and it’s tough climbing.” Add in busting through tight cover with limbs whacking you, and by the end of the day, you’re about done in.
Howard sees grouse hunters carrying a variety of shotgun types. In the thick cover of poplars and pines, or creek-bottom willows and hawthorns, most hunters carry a short-barreled gun, a light model they can keep up and ready in their hands. “In some thickets, a 24-inch barrel on an autoloader or a pump would be nice,” Howard says, “but a 26-inch barrel is also handy.”
A shorter barrel means less weight on the forward arm, shifting the balance of some guns from between the hands toward the butt. That is not true with Beretta shotguns, Howard says, because wood for those guns is selected for its density to mate to the barrel length. The result is the guns remain well balanced. A short-barreled gun does tend to slow or interrupt the swing and follow-through, but for grouse - and woodcock as well - the shots are quick, and it’s mostly point-and-shoot.
The length of pumps and semiauto shotguns is usually reduced by bobbing their barrels. The Winchester Model 1300 Upland Special pump in 12 and 20 gauge wears a 24-inch barrel and a straight-grip stock. These guns are 4 inches shorter overall than regular Model 1300s, and they weigh a half-pound less, too. The Remington Model 11-87 Upland Special autoloader likewise comes with an abbreviated 23-inch barrel.
Switching from a 12 gauge to a 20 gauge in the same model reduces the gun’s weight by a pound or more.
Many of us use one shotgun for all our bird hunting. My brother likes the smooth swing of the 30-inch barrel on his 3-inch magnum Remington Model 1100 for pass-shooting ducks. But the long barrel kept whacking tree trunks while hunting grouse, so he bought a 26-inch barrel with a 2 3/4-inch chamber to screw on the gun for grouse hunting. An added benefit: The shorter chamber cycles even the lightest-recoiling shells.
The over/under and side-by-side guns’ shorter overall length results from the absence of a receiver. For example, the Remington 332 over/under measures 3 inches shorter than the Remington 11-87 with the same 30-inch barrel.
A short gun doesn’t necessarily mean a light gun. Manufacturers lighten guns by whittling down the stocks and trimming metal from the barrel, receiver and magazine. Often, like “lite” foods with the fat taken out, the good stuff is also removed. A stock whittled to bare bone may have a comb so thin there’s no contact for the cheek, causing recoil like a whack with an ax handle and a forearm so skimpy there’s little to hold onto.
An easy way to shed another pound is to go to a smaller gauge. Twenty-gauge pumps, autoloaders and double guns weigh about a pound less than comparable 12s. The Browning Citori Superlight 12-gauge over/under weighs 6 pounds, 9 ounces, while the Superlight 20 gauge weighs 13 ounces less. The Ruger Red Label over/under 26-inch-barreled 12 gauge weighs 71/4 pounds; the 20 gauge is 7 pounds; and the 28 gauge is 57/8 pounds. For those who prefer the 12 gauge, Brad Howard recommends the Beretta Ultralight over/under at 6 pounds, 5 ounces. The weight savings comes from an aluminum frame with a titanium-reinforced breech face and shoulders.
Howard likes to carry a Beretta Silver Pigeon over/under for grouse. “That’s in 20 gauge, too,” he says. A Silver Pigeon 20 gauge weighs 6 pounds, 5 ounces. Some hunters prefer even a lighter gun, and for them, Howard suggests the Silver Pigeon 28 gauge that weighs 5 pounds, 14 ounces. “Of course, the whole idea of these light guns is that after hours of hunting, they will be ready in your hands when a grouse does flush.”
Howard says his shots at grouse average about 15 yards. “For those, I want a real open choke like an improved cylinder.” Some hunters screw a modified choke in their second barrel of a double gun in anticipation of a longer second shot. “In some places, I guess that’s okay,” Howard continues, “but in most places, it’s so thick, you’re not going to see a grouse very long after it flushes.”
One pellet in the brain or three or four pellets in the body is all that’s needed to kill a grouse. A 12, 20 or 28 gauge firing 7/8 to 1 ounce of 7 1/2 shot provides plenty of pellets in a wide pattern to put that many pellets in a bird. A shot velocity of 1,150 fps is adequate speed, and the mild recoil in even a 5-pound gun is only a peck on the cheek.
That amount and size of shot is fine if the birds present an unobstructed shot. But that’s rarely the situation. “I think if you walk, say, six hours for two flushes, you want a load that’s going to knock the birds down and be able to chop through a thick screen of brush to do it,” Howard says. “That’s why I think an ounce of 6s in the 20 gauge is about minimum, and the 12 gauge shooting 1 1/8 ounces of 6s or even 5s isn’t out of the question in some real thick places.”
A properly fitting gun is essential for ruffed grouse because you have only a few seconds to shoot at a bird before it’s gone, especially early in the season when the foliage is still on the trees. The old bird hunter’s adage of “bum, belly, beak, bang” to describe swinging and shooting at a flying bird simply doesn’t apply.
“It’s all point and shoot at a grouse, or maybe point and shoot where it’s going to come through an opening,” Howard notes. “For that, I want a stock that is just a bit shorter than normal. That helps me quickly get the gun mounted all the way up on my shoulder and my cheek screwed down tight on the comb.”
With the gun only partially mounted, a hunter’s eye is looking above the barrel, causing shots to fly high. To engrain that muscle memory of proper gun mounting, Howard practices 10 minutes a day in the weeks before hunting season.
Reprinted from the September 2006 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine