“For us, hunting wasn’t a sport. It was a way to be intimate with nature, that intimacy providing us with wild, unprocessed food, free from pesticides and hormones, and with the bonus of having been produced without the addition of great quantities of fossil fuel. In addition, hunting provided us with an ever-scarcer relationship in a world of cities, factory farms, and agribusiness — direct responsibility for taking the lives that sustained us, lives that even vegans indirectly take as the growing and harvesting of organic produce kills deer, birds, snakes, rodents, and insects. We lived close to the animals we ate, we knew their habits, and that knowledge deepened our thanks to them and the land that made them.”
— Ted Kerasote, Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog
When it comes to hunting for small and medium game, nothing can match the versatility of the shotgun. There are lots of choices out there, so understanding a bit about the true possibilities will help you decide. I have settled on a single-shot break-open gun as my choice for many reasons I hope to explain here.
Two huge factors in choosing a weapon for hunting are weight and simplicity of its mechanisms. Weight matters if you’ll be carrying the weapon for long periods, and simplicity of mechanism means fewer problems are likely to occur and maintenance is easier to do.
One thing we need to look at for versatility’s sake is the age of the gun as well as the chamber length and choke. The choke is a reduction in the barrel’s outside diameter that allows the gun to pattern better at distance but does give some restriction on loads, especially hand loads and muzzle loads.
First to the age of the gun: You want something modern enough that it was made to withstand the use of modern powders, not just black powder charges. You also want a good quality steel barrel. Most guns made after 1940 will meet this restriction, and you will be fine with any gun made in the past 50 years that is in sound working order.
Next you want to look at chamber length. This is the area in which the shell is loaded at the breech. You want this to be a 3-inch chamber so it will accept any load you can find or buy to put in the gun. Many modern shells are 3 inches, and if you have a 2-3/4-inch chamber, such shells will be useless without modification.
The basic chokes are cylinder, modified, and full. They get progressively smaller from cylinder to full, with modified being the happy medium. Cylinder bore is fine but you will sacrifice accuracy past 20 – 25 yards for sure, while modified will keep a good pattern with a modern shell to about 35 yards. Again the tradeoff for choke is load variation and adaptability.
My main carry gun is an H&R single-shot 12-gauge shotgun with a modified choke and a 26-inch barrel. I find this to be the perfect gun for running the woods.
Barrel length is a matter of personal preference, but I find that anything over 24 inches is as accurate as 30 inches. Most shots we will take with these guns are short-yardage shots anyway, and added barrel length is added weight.
Let’s first speak of store-bought modern rounds and the versatility of that beautiful old SS 12GA. I have a great deal of variation in loads and game I can hunt with this gun with little or no modification to anything
- #8 shot for small birds
- #6 shot for small game
- #4 shot for large waterfowl and turkey
- Slugs or buckshot for larger game
Just this gives me a huge array of animals I can hunt by only carrying a few shells and the gun if I am determined to make my supper from hunted game.
Now let’s explore a bit more of the modified versatility of this gun beyond normal 12GA store-bought ammo. Subcaliber adapters come in many different types. First let’s look at shotgun calibers. I can buy adapters that are 3 inches for my chamber to accept 20GA and 410GA, as well as with that adapter 45 Long Colt pistol cartridges. Now I can shoot any type 20 or 410GA shell as well as any 12GA shell in any chamber length up to 3 inches.
There are also 8-inch adapters that are 3-inch chambers and rifled to shoot most pistol cartridges including 9mm, 38, 40, and 45ACP, as well as rifle cartridges in 22LR (long rifle), 22WMR (Winchester Magnum Rimfire), and 17HMR (Hornady Magnum Rimfire).
Now I have a whole other realm of possibilities for my lil 12GA, and I can easily match my sidearm to the gun for safety if one fails. The rifled adapters are surprisingly accurate especially at 30 yards or less, again normal small game ranges. The 20GA, 410, and a 3-inch rifled 22 also come in what’s called a “stack pack” that all fit into each other like a nesting cook set and can be carried in a small waterproof container, taking up little room in the kit.
Reloading Spent Shells
You don’t have to purchase tools to reload a shell in the field. What you may already have will work. First, we need to cut the old crimp from the shell, and our knife will do the job fine. Cut the crimp so that the shell is 3 inches total length for the chamber. Then we need to remove the spent 209 primer from the shell before seating a new one.
Replacing the Primer
Removing the old primer requires an anvil to create space where the old primer can be pressed out. Several washers glued together will work for this or just a hardwood board with about a 3⁄8-inch hole drilled into it works fine. Make this anvil (whether of washers or wood) about 1/2-inch thick to ensure the primer completely clears the shell when removed. I use a simple piece of scrap metal about 1⁄2-inch thick by 2 x 3 inches for this tool, and it works well in the next step to seat the new primer as well.
Place the shell on the anvil with the spent primer over the hole in the anvil, and use a normal flat punch or a ground-down 20-penny nail to drive the old primer out from the inside of the shell with a light blow from a mallet or hammer. Once the old primer is out, inspect the shell to ensure there are no cracks in either the brass or the plastic (if using a high-brass cartridge).
To seat the new primer, we need a box of 209 SG primers. These are readily available and come in packs of 100. Seat the primer the best you can by hand pressure ensuring the alignment is even going into the primer pocket. Now place the shell primer down on the flat metal surface of the anvil (a solid flat surface like metal is important). Take a common 5/16-inch deep well socket and a short adapter and place this over the primer pocket on the inside of the shell and again tap until the new primer seats. Simple enough. You now have a primed shell ready to load again.
Reloading the Shell
To load the shell we need powder (black or Pyrodex). The beauty of Pyrodex is overloading or overcharging is much harder, and Pyrodex powders are Walmart shelf items at about $12 – $15 a pound. This should load 65 – 80 shells, depending on your load.
We will also need some wad and over wad/over shot carding. The wad can be any soft material. In the field, I prefer to use sheep’s wool from my trapping supply kit, as it is somewhat lubricating as well as fire retardant after leaving the barrel of the gun.
To make our over wad/over shot carding we need a cutter. This cutter can be made from sharpened tube stock of steel with a 5/8-inch ID. Bevel the outer edges to create the cutting edge, then use this with a mallet to cut cardboard stock cards in circles.
Once we have these supplies we need to have a measure for powder and shot. This can be made from tubing as well. Mine is copper with one end smashed and a hole drilled for a lanyard. I can use this for both reloading and muzzle loading. This measure should hold a particular volume of powder. About 60 grains is standard for the 12GA, and you can use this for an equal volume of shot.
The final step is using a glue gun to seal the top of the shell once loaded.
Let’s talk about shot for a moment. Remember we are measuring shot in volume, so the amount will vary with size. You can buy lead shot in bulk. The best all-round size for functional use is #6 shot, as it will kill birds, most small game, and will take medium animals as well, especially at close range.
The other kind of shot that is worth a look is actual BBs. They are very inexpensive as well as versatile and will be useful for about all game except small fowl. The only issue to remember with steel BBs is they cannot be melted down easily to make round ball or slugs.
Loading the Shot
There is an easy sequence to be used here every time to make a good shell. Set the primed cartridge on end and load a measure of powder, then a wad of wool (this amount will need to be figured as you make shells due to compression; the material is not easily measured for volume). Add an over wad card (cardboard cutout), then a volume of shot.
The final piece to add is an over shot card. At this point the shell should be filled to the top of where it was cut off (this is an adjustment to wad that you will always have to make when reloading a spent shell).
You can now seal the rim of the shell with hot glue to keep the contents in the shell, and you have a usable shotgun shell. Less is more on the hot glue; an electric melting gun makes the job easier than using a lighter to melt the glue stick, although the lighter will work in the field.
Let’s speak of round balls for a moment. If we are using a modified choke gun, it will have an ID at the end of the barrel. If it is approximately .071 inches or 71 caliber, I would suggest getting a lead ball mold of about .069 inches. This will allow for a good, thick patch when muzzle loading and allow for wall thickness of the cartridge when reloading.
Shot is very difficult to reproduce, while round balls are easy. You will use much more shot for hunting than you will round balls, so carrying shot in volume and making a few round balls as needed makes more sense.
Now let’s look at muzzle loading a single-shot shotgun. You will need a 209 primer adapter. Once you place this adapter in the breech of the gun, it is basically a long shotgun shell. You replace the primer in the adapter and then load the gun from the end of the barrel instead of loading a shell.
The additional thing you need is a ramrod to pack the barrel contents, and you can do away with any over wad/over shot cards and just use wool.
To load the gun, replace the spent primer in the adapter and close the breech. Load a measure of powder down the barrel. Then push a wad of wool down the barrel against the powder with the ramrod.
Next add a volume of shot followed by another wad and you are ready to shoot. Pretty simple really.
If you want to use a round ball you have molded, the first steps are the same: prime, powder, wad. Once this is done you will need a patch. This can be made from a square of bed sheet material just large enough to wrap around the ball. This creates a seal when pushed into the barrel and seated above the wad and shot.
Tips and Tricks
• The versatility of this 12GA single-shot shotgun is truly amazing. As inexpensive as a used one is today, this makes it a vital piece of gear for any woodsman.
• A double-barrel break-open is a good option if you just think you must have a follow-up shot and the only main sacrifice there will be weight.
• My go-to company for subcaliber adapters is Short Lane Arms. Short Lane also makes a 209 shotgun primer adapter that makes your 12GA a muzzle loader if you choose. They also sell a retractable or breakdown ramrod that will fit in the haversack for use with the muzzle-loading system.
• For reloading shells, good quality high-brass shells will do better for this in the long run, or you can actually buy full brass 12 hulls online.
• Molds that will make a single round ball as well as ladles for melting lead shot over the fire can be purchased online from stores like Track of the Wolf.
Excerpted from The Bushcraft Field Guide to Trapping, Gathering, and Cooking in the Wild by Dave Canterbury. Copyright © 2016 F+W Media, Inc. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.