At some point in their lives most hunters get The Look. You may even remember giving it yourself as a youngster. It means, in the most obvious way possible, ‘please, please take me with you’.
You’d have to be a hard case to ignore it. The first port of call for a budding hunter is always equipment. Magazines and catalogues are relentlessly pored over, dream guns become the centre of a thousand fond imaginings. I know this to be true because I was once that boy (and according to my wife and bank manager, still am). For many looking to start a youngster, this is where the sub-gauges come in. The little .410 — a calibre rather than a gauge — works well on quail or rabbits kicked up at close quarters, but it’s a tool for experienced hands. Giving a beginner a .410 to hunt ducks is like teaching them to ride a bike by giving them a unicycle. That leads us to the 20. There’s an old rule that no house with a 12 should also have a 20 and it’s not a bad rule. As everyone knows, a 20-gauge shell fits neatly down the barrel of its bigger brother, leaving enough room to put another cartridge behind it. Touching off that combination will ruin your day. You wouldn’t do it … but a youngster rifling through a mixed bag of rounds in a hurry might.
At the heart of all this is the idea that the smaller gauges help a beginner cope with recoil. This might offend some old hands but that’s not quite true. Every action, so Isaac Newton tells us, has an equal and
opposite reaction. There is only one thing that really counts — how much is going down the barrel in relation to the weight of the gun. (Well, two if you count how well the gun fits.) A fast, heavy shot charge will give a light gun recoil regardless of gauge. It’s hard to imagine a worse combination for a youngster than hot magnum field loads in a featherweight twenty.
If Newton had been a duck hunter he would have told us that loads are as important as gauge. The market is awash with hot and heavy cartridges, but shot is fantastically inefficient compared to a rifle bullet — it sheds velocity like a ping-pong ball. How many youngsters would be better off with mild, affordable loads that pattern sweetly, especially if they can burn through plenty in practice?
There’s little difference between an ounce (28 grams) coming out of a 12 or a smaller gauge, except that the slightly heavier gun will have less recoil and might keep its swing better. The 12 can also be had in powderpuff loads (24 and even 21 grams) at very mild velocities. Those are gentler than the average 20 and not far off the .410 on the comfort scale. Add a nice soft recoil pad and you’ve tamed the 12 way down for clays and general practice shooting. As a youngster grows they can simply scale up to bigger loads without changing their gun.
So here’s my advice, for what it’s worth. Let ‘em work for that first one. If they want it, they’ll mow the lawn and earn pocket money and do the hard yards. They’ll be better people for it — and if they won’t, they were never serious to begin with. Consider the basics of gauge, action and load, but remember this: how the first one is got is just as important as what it is. There’s a lot more to the first gun than the gun.
The late, great Gene Hill wrote these words in 1972, when I was just a small boy. He understood all this better than anybody: “As long as there is such a thing as a wild goose, I leave them the meaning of freedom. As long as there is such a thing as a cock pheasant, I leave them the meaning of beauty. As long as there is such a thing as a hunting dog, I leave them the meaning of loyalty. As long as there is such a thing as a man’s own gun and a place to walk free with it, I leave them the feeling of responsibility.
This is part of what I believe I have given them, when I have given them their first gun.”
If Newton had been a duck hunter he would have told us that loads are as important as gauge …