A well-fitted, reliable shooting iron can greatly enhance your enjoyment in the field. But with the mountain of manufacturers, gauges, and finishes available, how does one go about selecting the ultimate upland shotgun?
I’ve met two kinds of bird hunters: those who can’t possibly own enough shotguns and those who form a deep, quasi-spiritual bond with a small cohort of smoothbores. I fit in with the latter, preferring to familiarize myself with every curve and wrinkle to remove as many variables as possible during a critical shot.
To me, shouldering the gun at the flush should feel like a familiar choreographed dance instead of a blind date, and that familiar routine is established through proper fit and muscle memory. You may fall in the former group, in which case agreeing on a single ultimate upland setup is akin to forcing a parent to choose a favorite child.
20 or 12 Gauge?
The ultimate upland shotgun must be chambered in one of these two options. Before you 16- or sub-gauge enthusiasts get bent out of shape like a Damascus barrel under 3 inches of steel, understand this criterium comes from a place of practicality. I want a gun that offers versatility of species and the maximum number of load options. There’s also comfort in knowing that a small-town hardware store in North Dakota will carry a few boxes of shells in my gauge and shot size if I slip into a mid-season shooting slump or the upland action is hotter than I anticipated.
In addition to widespread availability of ammo, both of these options offer enough knockdown power for any winged game you’ll encounter. With the right shell, I’ve bagged both pheasants and California quail in the same brushy draw with a 12-gauge. Both birds looked equally presentable on the table.
My trusty 20-gauge has also grounded a limit of fully plumed Canada geese with 3-inch #2 steel and thwarted the escape flight of a mature gobbler. However, it’s more at home with delicate work on ruffed grouse and young sharptails. If sage bombers or late season roosters comprise the bulk of your quarry, stick to the 12-gauge.
Additionally, interchangeable choke systems are a must-have feature found in most newer shotguns that enhance their versatility. Barrels, chambers, and chokes that can handle non-toxic shot will increase opportunities in lead-free zones and ensure forward compatibility as these restrictions become the nationwide standard.
I don’t notice any appreciable difference in recoil between the two guns. I have grown to appreciate the sizable weight savings the 20-gauge offers as I’ve covered more miles in chukar country. Bottom line, you can’t go wrong with either.
Single or Double Barrel?
The debate rages on as to which of these options provides the greatest utility in the field. These discussions involve a great deal more than the perceived advantages of a third shell. Whether we openly admit it or not, style and aesthetics play a huge part in our individual preference for shotguns.
I lean towards the doubles for balance, simplicity, and traditional appearance. There’s an additional benefit in recognizing the safety of a broken open shotgun from across the field and not relying solely on moving metal parts to separate pin from primer.
The orientation of those two barrels—whether they lie side by side or over-under—welcomes an entirely deeper dive into frivolities that matter little to the average upland hunter, or the birds for that matter. Much in the same way you should hunt over a dog you find aesthetically pleasing, carry what catches your eye.
Don’t get so caught up in hand engravings and fine walnut stocks that your shotgun never sees time in the field. A gun safe princess—no matter how gorgeous—has no place on the short list of ultimate upland shotguns. This firearm is meant to be used hard and must be able to withstand the unpredictable weather of traditional bird habitat. Its components should be built to withstand mud, dust, or water baths on occasion.
With a quick wipe, rinse, or lubrication, this trusty firearm should be able to recover from environmental abuse and help you salvage the rest of your hunt without getting a gunsmith involved. That’s a plus for synthetic stocks and reliable mechanics of tried-and-true pump and auto-loader models over their break-open cousins.
Bonus points can be awarded for scatterguns with a story, especially those gifted by beloved family members or possessing a deep history of time in the field. On more than one occasion I’ve caught a buddy of mine staring at the scars on his aged Model 12, so obviously absorbed in the nostalgia of the stories behind its many blemishes. He wouldn’t trade its blue-collar charm and mountain of memories for a Purdey.
If you’ve jumped to the end of this piece in search of the ultimate upland shotgun finalists, you’ll be disappointed. This is a uniquely individual pursuit. While I’ve put forward some important factors to consider, the firearm that carries the title of “ultimate upland shotgun” will be specific to each hunter who dons the blaze orange, factoring in their tastes, budgets, and favorite quarry. The quest to discover which model becomes your ultimate upland shotgun only enhances the richness in owning it.
Feature image via Captured Creative.