Field Guns v. Target Guns

Field Guns vs Target Guns | Shooting sportsman Magazine
The differences between field guns and target guns. Photograph by Steve Oehlenschlager/

Ever pondered the differences between field and target shotguns? There is a large and varied choice of shotguns available today for both field and target shooting, including side-by-sides, over/unders, autoloaders and pumps.

Perhaps the best way to compare them is to trace the evolution of the shotgun. The smoothbore shotgun was first used for shooting birds and small game using shot instead of a ball. Around 1875 single-barrels evolved into double-barrels, and other aspects of shotguns continued to change to adapt to specific uses: e.g., walked-up shooting over dogs versus taking target after target at the range.

Field Guns

Today’s field guns are carried a lot and shot a little, whereas waterfowling and target guns are carried a little and shot a lot. The specific aspects of typical field guns are as follows.

I suppose it always will be a debate among upland hunters: side-by-side or over/under? These days many sportsmen weaned on the over/under consider the side-by-side to be a dinosaur. However, in my opinion, the side-by-side is still a great field gun, with its lighter weight, dynamic handling, ease of loading and, with double triggers, there’s an instant choice of choke to match the quarry’s flight and distance. The biggest advantage of the side-by-side is in driven shooting. As the barrels are beside each other, the larger gape when the gun is opened offers easier and quicker loading.

The over/under can be either a field or a target shotgun. But field versions are usually lighter than clay target guns, and the single sight plane makes it easier for some hunters to mount and shoot O/Us accurately under field conditions.

Stocks & Forends: A field gun’s lighter weight is achieved by having a splinter forend and a slimmer straight-hand stock. Both the stock and forend wood are checkered to improve grip and control, particularly in wet or hot-and-sweaty conditions.

Weight: The gun’s svelte shape results in saving several ounces of weight. A side-by-side field gun usually weighs around 6 pounds and an over/under up to 7 pounds. Exceptions are guns designed to shoot the heavier loads—12- and even 10-gauge—required for waterfowling. The additional weight helps mitigate recoil and is not much of a factor, seeing as waterfowl shooting is done primarily from a blind.

Beyond the basics of gun choice comes gunfit.

Barrels & Ribs: When it comes to field guns, most upland hunters opt for guns with two barrels. The field gun, having a relatively small action, will have a narrow rib and a fairly narrow sight plane. The gun is always in the shooter’s peripheral vision, and a rib is part of that “sight picture,” whether you believe you look at it or not.

Triggers: Side-by-side shotguns traditionally have double triggers, which allow the instant choice of which barrel with which choke to fire first. Over/unders usually have single triggers that can be set to fire either the top barrel or the bottom barrel first.

Trigger Pulls: A side-by-side with double triggers usually will have the front trigger set at about 3½ pounds, while the rear trigger can be slightly heavier—say, 4 pounds. With a single-trigger gun, the ideal trigger-pull weight is between 3½ and 4 pounds.

Chokes & Chambers: Most field guns have fixed chokes—Improved Cylinder & Modified, or Quarter and Half—as changing chokes is not usually an option when upland hunting. Today, some modern field guns do come with multi-chokes.

Chamber lengths in upland guns can range from 2½" to 3", depending on the age of the gun, and up to 3½" in waterfowl guns.

Ejectors: Modern field guns typically have automatic ejectors, but vintage guns do not and shells have to be removed by hand.

Safety: The safety on a side-by-side or over/under game gun normally is set to move automatically to “safe” after firing or when the shotgun is opened for reloading. This requires that the safety be pushed off to fire the next cartridge.

Recoil Pads: Recoil pads on field guns usually are made from Ebonite or rubber, the latter often being covered in leather to enable a smooth gun mount. Some shotguns have a checkered wooden buttplate with no recoil pad.

Clay Target Guns

Today’s clay target shotguns have their roots in practice shooting by hunters in the off-season. Also, live-pigeon shooting in rings evolved into the clay target sports of trap and skeet, and then sporting clays was developed with targets imitating the flight patterns of various upland gamebirds and waterfowl.

Over/unders, autoloaders and pumpguns all have single sight planes and only one phase of recoil, making them the preferred choices for clay target shooting.

Stocks & Forends: The stock and forend on over/under target guns are sized for the gauge and type of gun. A 28-gauge would have a relatively slender wood set, while the 12-gauge would be substantially thicker. Many shooters prefer pistol grips with palm swells and larger beavertail forends, as they offer better control. The wood on target guns is also checkered, to provide a good grip.

Weight: The average weight of 12-gauge guns for trap, skeet and sporting clays is around 7½ pounds, but 12-bores can exceed 8 pounds 6 ounces. Of course, 20-gauges, 28-gauges and .410s can be a pound or more lighter than 12s.

Barrels & Ribs: The rib is a critical aspect of the clay target gun, which always will have a more visible rib on the barrels than a field gun. Ribs can be flat, stepped, solid or ventilated and have either one bead at the muzzle or one bead in the middle and one at the muzzle.

Raised, ventilated ribs are tall and designed primarily for use on trap guns, though they are gaining popularity on skeet and sporting clays guns. The raised rib allows the shooter to sustain a more comfortable, head-up profile, and because the barrel is well below the rib, acquiring targets can be easier.

Some shooters prefer a stepped rib, where the barrel is relatively flat coming out of the receiver but features a pronounced “step” in the rib height farther along the barrel. Flat ribs are tapered, to draw the eye down the barrel to the target.

One of the most essential lessons to master in shooting clay targets is learning to reference the rib in your peripheral vision while focusing totally on the target with your central vision.

Triggers: The majority of clay target shotguns have single triggers that are set to fire the bottom barrel and then the top, but some have a selector on the safety.

Trigger Pulls: The ideal trigger-pull weight for a single-trigger clays gun is 3½ to 4 pounds.

Chokes & Chambers: The majority of clay target guns manufactured today come with a set of chokes: Cylinder, Skeet, Improved Cylinder, Modified, Improved Modified and Full. These can be easily changed, allowing one gun to shoot a variety of targets at various ranges. There are several companies that offer aftermarket custom-choke installations to complement the nominal boring, improving patterns at various distances.

Chamber lengths for modern clay target shotguns are 2¾".

Ejectors: Today’s clay target guns have automatic ejectors.

Safety: The safeties on clay target guns are manual, meaning they remain in the “fire” position until put back on “safe.” The reason for this is that in competition, failure to fire due to an incorrectly set safety catch is deemed to be “operator error” and the target is declared a miss.

Recoil Pads: The clay target shooter may shoot hundreds of rounds in a competition or even just recreationally, so a good-quality, well-fitted recoil pad is essential for performance and protection. There are a variety of excellent pads available, including those from KICK-EEZ, Pachmayr, Tourbon and LimbSaver.

Choosing Your Shotgun

In an ideal world one would have a dedicated shotgun for each type of shooting—from upland hunting and waterfowling to trap, skeet and sporting clays. But for many of us this simply is not feasible and our choices are narrowed. Some shooters are even opting to shoot one gun in one gauge for all sports.

Beyond the basics of gun choice comes gunfit. Whether shooting in the field or at the range, a proper gunfit will make all the difference. One easy way to tell if your shotgun fits is to mount the gun in front of a mirror. If you find yourself looking at the toplever at the back of the action, the stock is too low and will obscure the target or the bird. When your gun fits and you have correctly mounted it, you should be looking down the rib with a clear line of sight to your target.

Whether you choose to start with one shotgun for both hunting and target shooting or decide to get a gun specific to each sport, you cannot go wrong as long as it fits, feels comfortable when you are shooting and, most important, allows you to hit your intended target—bird or clay.

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