There are very few things manufactured over 120 years ago that are capable of performing their intended purpose today as effectively as the day they were made. There are even fewer that are competitive with their modern counterparts. Steinway pianos are one. High-quality 19th-Century double-barrel break-action shotguns are another.
I have believed this for a number of years based on personal experience hunting upland game and waterfowl with Damascus-barreled exposed-hammer and hammerless shotguns. But how well does this opinion stand up to objective empirical evidence?
To find out, I designed a study to document systemically the performance of one class of mid-19th-Century double shotguns; British wildfowlers, in hunting one type of game; Canada geese. The study took two hunting seasons and three trips to Canada’s Prince Edward Island (PEI) to complete. This article reports the results.
I chose to use only British wildfowlers, which are also commonly referred to as waterfowlers, to limit the scope of the study. These guns were designed for only one purpose, to kill big birds at long ranges.
In North America today that means Canada geese. To be able to reach even tentative conclusions, I judged that I would need over fifty data points. A data-point was created when a goose was shot at, regardless of whether it dropped and was recovered or did not drop.
Choosing a hunting location where this number of opportunities was possible within reasonable time and resources was vital.I selected PEI because for over two month a year it is the home of the largest concentration of Canada geese on the Eastern Flyway. And the daily harvest limit is generous; five geese from the start of the hunting season until mid-November and three thereafter until the season ends.
data on effectiveness had to be collected in a manner that was consistent and reproducible
I had 12 days of guided hunting over two seasons during the months of October, November, and December. Spreading the hunts out in this way reduced the potential for bias based on weather conditions or phases of the migration.
I used the same make of 10-gauge cartridges throughout the study. Manufactured specifically for Damascus-barreled shotguns by the Classic Shotshell Company in Friendsville, PA, they produce pressures similar to the black powder for which these guns were designed (6,000 psi). The cartridges contain 1-3/8 ounces of Number 2 bismuth shot and produce a muzzle velocity of 1250 fps.
To be most useful, the data on effectiveness had to be collected in a manner that was consistent and reproducible, starting with range. The hunting was entirely over fields. If a goose crumpled, the distance was determined by range finder to where the bird dropped, or in some cases by pacing it off. In those cases when a harvested bird did not initially crumple, I relied on the guide’s judgment of its position when struck.
The one instance that a goose was dropped flying high and level directly over the top of the blind, the estimated height was used rather than the drop point. Although my concentration was on the target, the decoy spread provided me reliable reference points. If a bird did not drop at all, either because I missed entirely or the pellets that struck were not crippling, I relied on the guide’s judgment of the distance when I took the shot. The three guides that primarily assisted me had a total of 36-years of experience.
On the last day of my first hunt, I dropped a goose at 60 yards that was flying straight away. The guide recovered the bird without having to shoot it again. I cleaned the bird myself, and found that three pellets had gone through the left wing without significant damage. The right wing was broken by one pellet and the right leg damaged by another. Therefore, the body of the goose had to have been inside the shot pattern; yet no pellets had penetrated the body.
recorded whether each goose was hit in the head-neck, wing, or body
This awakened me to the potential value of this type of data. So, on the second and third hunts, I tagged each dead goose at the blind and wrote down the shot presentation as well as the distance. When we returned to the lodge, the processors recorded whether each goose was hit in the head-neck, wing, or body. In the latter case, they also noted the number of pellets and depth of penetration.
The pit blinds in which I hunted were built to accommodate four shooters and the guide. When hunting with only the guide in the blind, we jointly agreed that it was safe for me to raise the muzzle above the top of the blind and cock both hammers on the command to “get ready.” However, we felt that if a third person was in the blind, hammers should only be cocked after rising. I hunted in both situations, which allowed for a good comparison of the impact on effectiveness.
The core criteria used in this study to assess hunting effectiveness of this class of guns is whether the guns got the job done. Given a reasonable number of opportunities, did they to consistently take birds under the conditions and at the distances typically encountered in waterfowl hunting? Other performance parameters are also examined, including the percentage of birds that were dead before they hit the ground, the number of visibly wounded birds that were not recovered, and the number of doubles, among others.
the hunter is an above average shot.
The analysis of the data also provides insight on the performance implications of various choices hunters have to make, most especially which shots to take and on which to pass. The data also sheds light on performance related questions, such as whether choke or barrel length make any difference.
In interpreting the data on the effectiveness of the guns themselves, it is not possible given this study design to take the capabilities of the hunter himself out of the equation. The best that can be done is to benchmark it, and qualify the results accordingly.
In this case, the hunter is an above average shot. On the trap or skeet range, he typically breaks 18 to 20 clays. As one of a group of four vintage gunners on a sporting clays course, he might finish second but never first. His wing-shooting experience is evenly divided between upland game and waterfowl. His principal hunting companion for the last decade, his Boykin Spaniel Ellie, is more accomplished at both than he is.
THE HUNTING LOCATION
Located at the southern end of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, PEI is 140 miles long and ranges between 4 and 40 miles wide. At 2,100 square miles, it is roughly the size of Delaware. Its population is 155,000. The capital and largest city, Charlottetown, has 36,000 residents.
For Canada geese migrating south on the Atlantic Flyway from the breeding grounds in Newfoundland, Labrador, and Eastern Quebec, PEI is the first place where they can find a substantial amount of food. Upwards of 50,000 geese will stop there and replenish the energy and body mass lost in flights of 800 miles or more.
Many geese stay for a long time, as they have no incentive to leave the area until the fields are covered with enough snow and ice to prevent easy access to their food. Because of the island’s shape, most of the coastal and estuarian shoreline lies within 5 miles of cultivated land – a really short hop for a goose looking for breakfast or a late afternoon snack.
In Canada, PEI is famous as the birthplace of the Confederation and for its famously rich soil, the beneficiary of sediment from the St. Lawrence watershed washed down as glaciers melted. In the United States, it is perhaps most commonly associated with PEI mussels. My association is always going to be with the large numbers of geese, diverse landscapes and seascapes, every-changing sky, and the hospitality of the people.
This study would not have been possible without the assistance and support of my host, Reid Lea, the owner of Pointview Outfitters, and his experience guides who were willing to share their knowledge with me.
The three 10-gauge wildfowlers I selected from my collection were made during a decade of intense innovation at the beginning of what is often referred to as the Golden Age of the double-barrel shotgun. Their barrel lengths range from 27 inches to 30 inches. Two have no choke and one has a full choke in both barrels. Two have non-rebounding hammers and one rebounding hammers. Two have top-lever release mechanisms; one is a side-lever. All have bar-action frames and are heavy. The stocks all have substantial drop.
Joseph Lang & Sons 10-Gauge Top-Lever.
The 1868 Joseph Lang & Sons shotgun used in this study incorporates cutting-edge technology, including the Purdey double under-bolt locking mechanism invented in 1863, and the Scott spindle top-lever release mechanism invented in 1865. Its 29-inch laminated-steel barrels have no constriction at the muzzle. The hammers are non-rebounding. The length of pull (LOP) is 14-1/4 inches: the drop at the comb (DAC) is 1-1/2 inches, and the drop at the heal (DAH) is 3 inches. Its overall length is 45-1/4 inches. It weighs 8 pounds 8 ounces.
W&C. Scott 10-Gauge Top-Lever
W. & C. Scott produced more high-quality shotguns than any other British manufacture. It was also the first British gunmaker to realize the potential of the expanding international market of affluent, but not necessarily aristocratic, shooters, especially in America. The 10-gauge used in this study was manufactured in 1876. It incorporates most of the innovations that came to define the modern double-barrel shotgun. Its 30-inch Fine Damascus-steel barrels are both choked full (.035). The LOP is 14-1/4 inches; the DAC is 1-3/4 inches; and the DAH is 3 inches. Its overall length is 46-1/2 inches. It weighs 8 pounds 13 ounces.
J. & W. Tolley 10-Gauge Side-Lever.
The Birmingham firm of J & W Tolley was best known for building top-end large-bore shotguns and rifles. This Tolley side-lever has 27-inch laminated-steel barrels, neither of which is choked. The slot and key forend and non-rebounding hammers suggest a manufacture date close to that of the Joseph Lang. The LOP is 13-1/2 inches; the DAC is 1-3/4 inches; and the DAH is 3 inches. Its overall length is 42-1/2 inches. It weighs 9 pounds 8 ounces.
The geese were plentiful. Most were Greater Canada geese, and hence were both large and tough. The largest overall had a wingspan of six feet, a length 42-inches, and weighed 12-1/2 pounds. The heaviest weighed 13-1/2pounds. The average weight was 8 pounds 10 ounces.
Of the 62 Canada geese engaged, 40 dropped and were recovered and 22 did not drop. The three guns dropped 91% of the geese engaged at less than 40 yards and 81% engaged at less than 50 yards. Of shots taken at distances beyond 50 yards, most of which were second shots, the success rate was 40%. (See Table 1. Summary of Overall Results)
The combined daily limit for the12 hunting days was 46 geese. On two of those days there was no opportunity to drop birds. This was not for lack of geese, but rather because a couple thousand decided to feed in a field less than a mile away and their followers would not decoy. The combined daily bag limit for the other 10 days was 40 geese. On days where the geese decoyed well, the daily limit was reached quickly and with few wasted shells. On days when they were hesitant to commit and veered off early, it was harder and took longer. These were more common in the last third of the season.
Maximum Effective Range.
If maximum effective range is defined as the distance at which a Canada goose can consistently be killed or crippled with a well-placed shot, under the conditions of this study it was 60 to 65 yards.
All three birds harvested at this distance were autopsied. Each was hit in the head/neck or suffered a broken wing. None had any penetration of pellets into the body, although in some cases welts and skin abrasions were visible. Only three of the seven geese taken between 50 and 59 yards were autopsied, but they too were all killed by pellets striking the head/neck or crippled by a broken wing.
There are a number of possible causes for sharp decline in the percentage of birds dropped at 50 yards or more. One is that shot placement becomes more challenging as the distance lengthens. Another is that as shot pattern thins, and thus the probability of a pellet striking the head, neck, or a wing bone diminishes. Also, the most common presentation of the geese at these distances, going straight away or quartering away, diminishes exposure of the head and neck. Finally, the pellets may not have enough energy at this distance to kill or cripple even if they did strike the head, neck, or wing.
To gain greater insight on the relative importance of these potential reasons, I patterned the W. & C. Scott at 60-yards. Forty-seven of the 130 pellets in the cartridge struck within a 30-inch diameter circle. I made a template representing the head, neck, and vital areas of a goose presenting its side to a hunter, and place it at ten different spots within the circle.
The average pellet count inside the template was six; the variation was three to nine. While all four factors probably contributed, the presentation of the targeted goose and diminished energy of the pellets are together sufficient to account for the reduced effectiveness beyond 50 yards.
I also went through the books in my library for historical or other data on maximum effective range of this class of guns with this type of ammunition. In Diggory Hadoke’s 2016 book, Hammer Guns in Theory and Practice, I struck gold. Relying on contemporary accounts, including W.W. Greener’s 1871 book Modern Breech Loaders, Hadoke makes a case that the modern breech loaders of 1870 could “kill cleanly out to 40 yards with normal game loads and could deliver lethal patterns out to seventy yards with heavier loads of larger pellets.”
Of course, in 1870 hunters were shooting lead pellets. Bismuth is only 87% as dense as lead. A number of recent ballistics tests indicate that energy density and gel penetration of bismuth pellets at typical hunting distances is roughly 90% of lead pellets. Taking into account the difference in shot, the results of this study are consistent with Greener’s and Hadoke’s observations.
As described in the Study Design section above, the processors recorded the location of the pellets that killed or crippled each of the last 25 harvested geese. The results are displayed in Table 2 and Table 3 below.
These results establish that shots taken at less than 40 yards that strike only the body can kill a goose. It is also unequivocal that shots between 50 yards and 65 yards can kill a goose if pellets strike the head/neck and cripple it if they strike a wing bone.
What is perhaps most surprising about this lethality data is the percentage of kills at all ranges resulting from head/neck shots. Twelve of the 25 birds autopsied died in this way.
Of the 22 lost birds, only one was visibly wounded and did not drop. Flying from left to right at approximately 45 yards, it lost altitude but recovered enough to make it to water. I had not given it enough lead.
None of the six autopsied geese that were dropped at distances of 50 yards or more had any pellets penetrate the skin. Thus, it seems likely that those geese which may have been hit at these distances but did not drop were probably not harmed.
Doubles (shooting two birds successively with two shots).
Ten doubles were attempted during the four-days over two trips when I hunted alone and felt it safe to cock both hammers immediately before the engagement. Using sporting clays notation, five would have been scored as “dead/dead” and five as “dead/lost. Table 4 below shows the outcome and distance of these engagements in chronological order.
When the first shot was taken at less than 40 yards, five out of six times the second shot was successful. When the first shot was taken at 40 yards of more, all four times the second shot was not successful.
Chokes and Barrel Length.
The significance of chokes was as heavily debated in the 1870s as today. Hadoke argues that “the modern user of a hammer gun with cylinder-bored barrels need not worry that he is ill equipped to shoot on even terms with users of later, choke-bored guns.”. With respect to barrel length, Hadoke advises that if a gun is properly balanced, barrel length is a personal issue. Despite the differences in choke and barrel length of the three guns used in this study, there was no significant difference in their effectiveness.
The average distances at which first birds were dropped when both hammers were cocked immediately before rising was 37 yards. The average distance when the right hammer was cocked while shouldering the gun was 35 yards. If hunter has trained using the latter process, it does not delay first shots.
However, the almost two seconds needed to cock the left hammer after firing the right barrel allows a potential second target to put another 20 to 25 yards between it and the shooter. In these circumstances, doubles are most often not going to be achievable.
In assessing overall hunting effectiveness of this class of guns, the data establishes clearly that these three wildfowlers got the job done. They reliably and consistently took birds under the conditions and at the distances typically encountered today in waterfowl hunting.
How is it possible that these results could have been achieved with 150-year-old shotguns that must be cocked by hand and hold only two cartridges, each of which produces only 50% of the pressure and 80% of the velocity of modern ammunition?
The explanation starts with an understanding of the engagement itself, the five to eight seconds when the hunter and the goose are acting and reacting to each other.
The confrontation between hunters in pit blinds and geese is in some ways analogous to what the military calls a meeting engagement. Both opponents know that an engagement is imminent, but neither knows where precisely the other is located or when they are going to confront each other directly. An experienced older goose leading the flock has probably been shot at before. As it approaches a decoy spread, it is likely to be warry. Except for the observer/caller, the other hunters in the blind keep their heads down from the time the geese are within a couple of hundred yards until the observer/caller commands “take them.”
Canada geese fly at about 30 mph. This equates to 15 yards per second.
Engagements can vary considerably based on a number of factors, including the wariness of the birds, alertness of hunters, wind speed and direction, visibility, and height and angle of approach. If a hunter is an average to above average shot, the single variable that most determines the outcome appears from the data in this study to be the distance at which the shot is taken. And time drives distance.
Traveling from their roosting area to their food source, Canada geese fly at about 30 mph. This equates to 15 yards per second. Geese will normally set up to land against the wind. Assume a moderate wind and that the lead goose has decelerated to 10 yards per second at 35 yards out, when the observer/caller tells the shooter to engage.
Also, assume that it takes the lead goose one second to react to the opening hatches, and that it takes the shooter three seconds to rise and shoulder his gun. The lead goose will be 25 yards out and still have two seconds to evade before the hunter can shoot. In that time, it can simultaneously gain two or three yards in altitude, change direction, and put another 10 yards distance between it and the blind.
If the hunter acquires his target while rising and is shooting a well-balanced gun, he will fire in a fraction of a second after shouldering the gun. Thus, he has a good chance of engaging the goose at 40 yards or less. If the second target is within his field of vision and the transition is smooth, the second shot will be at around 50 yards. If there is a delay of even one second in acquisition and engagement of either first or second target, the shot is likely to be 10 to 15 yards longer.
The Inherent Design of the Guns.
The effectiveness of these 19th -Century shotguns in this study can be summarized by three performance parameters: the percentage of shots taken at less than 40 yards that dropped geese; the percentage of geese killed instantly by head and neck shots; and the percentage of successful doubles. The inherent design of this class of shotgun is a significant factor in each.
Pointability and Balance. In his book The Double Shotgun, Don Zutz writes that the “… most basic factor in classic wing-gunning technique … is a speedy, natural point made by allowing one’s hands to work in natural coordination with the master eye". He later adds that “By virtue of its compact construction and trimness of line, the double presents optimum opportunity for pointability and balance”.
On the topic of balance, once again Hadoke’s analysis is unassailable: “Balance is both a science and an art …. Somehow, a best quality hammer gun has the balance and proportions in-built in a manner that only time and experience can teach. The old gunmakers knew how to make them right and those almost magical qualities remain with their offspring into old age.”
The term “almost magical” describes how I felt about the results after the first hunting trip. The need to find a more empirical explanation spurred changes in the study design to gather more data.
the design of the stock reduces recoil relative to modern straight-lined shotguns
Situational Awareness. While focusing on the first bird I intended to shoot in an engagement, I experienced greater situational awareness than ever before of the other birds in the flock. In most cases, I had the second target bird in my field of vision as I was pulling the right trigger on the first. If I had cocked both hammers before rising, I was able to take the second before I knew if the first bird had been stuck or not. The explanation can be found in the design of the stock.
Because of the drop in these guns, the side of the stock fits against the cheek at about an inch lower than is the case with straighter-stocked early 20th-Century double guns or modern semi-automatics. This expands the field of peripheral vision by about 30 degrees in the lower right quadrant. Also, the design of the stock reduces recoil relative to modern straight-lined shotguns. This facilitates a smooth and uninterrupted transition from the first to the second shot.
The amount of time saved because of improved situational awareness and low recoil may be small. But every second a hunter can take off the transition to a well-place second shot keeps the targeted goose from putting an additional 10 to 15 yards between it and the gun.
Shot Pattern. Most geese are rising sharply before a hunter has even shouldered his gun. Importantly, geese do not rise in a relatively straight line but in an elliptical curve. British wildfowlers were designed to anticipate and counter this evasive maneuver.
The pattern thrown by the W. & C. Scott 10-gauge, as shown in the picture below, is typical for British wildfowlers. About 80% of the pellets strike above the point of aim.
When shooting at a flaring goose with a gun throwing an 80/20 pattern, the hunter can see the bird during the entire engagement as he swings through it and fires. Because most of the pellets will arrive above the point of aim, a sharply rising goose literally flies into the bottom of the shot stream. As its head and neck enter, it dies instantly.
I missed many shots by shooting directly in front of a goose and hence below it
If the hunter takes the shot in the same way using a gun with a 50/50 pattern, the goose is above the pellets when they arrive at the point of aim. The solution is to make the point of aim above the goose as the hunter swings through it. However, this results in the barrel obscuring the target temporarily. Experienced goose hunters that shoot well have learned to deal with this.
Many average to above average shooters, myself included, may have not. During the 10 years or so that I hunted geese with a Benelli Black Eagle, I missed many shots by shooting directly in front of a goose and hence below it. And because the gun follows the eyes, the barrel probably stopped moving just long enough for me to also shoot behind the goose.
Hunting with these three wildfowlers for the first time, I almost certainly followed my bad habits. Yet from the first day of the first hunt, the percentage of dropped birds and percentage of head and neck shots were significantly higher than I have ever before achieved.
A plausible historical explanation of the results is that shotgun design in mid-19th-Century Britain evolved to meet the demands of the clients. This is succinctly described by Cyril Adams and Robert Braden in Lock, Stock, and Barrel:
“Knowledgeable shooters brought a wealth of practical experience to the gunmaker’s table. They also had the money to have their ideas about stocking, balance, and weight incorporated into the making of exceptional guns. London gunmakers, in fierce competition to serve prominent buyers, freely offered technical advice.
They were, however, willing to make the types of stocks these shooters wanted, even if it meant a departure from traditional forms. Eventually the more successful experiments with dimensions and shape evolved into a product that spread throughout the gun trade.”
And what their aristocratic and wealthy clients wanted was to kill game. Shooting driven upland game and waterfowl was an important part of their social life and status. Participation in the hunt at country estates during the Victorian age was expected, as was some level of shooting competency. Failure was not an option. The exquisite inherent design of their shotguns for this one purpose allowed even the average shooter to achieve an acceptable level of success.
The subjective judgement of expert observers is valuable, especially to the extent it tends either to validate or to cast doubt on the analysis of the empirical data. I asked each of the three very experienced guides near the end of the first hunt two questions. The first was very general: what are your impressions of the hunt?
All said in various ways that they were impressed by the effectiveness of guns. The second question was more direct: do you think a goose hunter using a 19th Century wildfowler is at a disadvantage? None thought this was the case.
The venue provided everything that I had hoped for, from large numbers of geese to memorable skies and landscapes. My host and his guides were consummate professionals. The guns were reliable and effective.
To achieve a level of empirical rigor, the scope of this study was limited to one class of guns and one type of game. Hence, the ability to generalize from its findings is also limited.
Given the emphasis today on power and 3-1/2-inch cartridges, magnum loads, super high velocities, and being able to fire three shots in rapid succession, some may find the results of this study surprising. On the other hand, almost all sports demonstrate that power is not the only path to success. It can also be achieved by quickness, agility, and specialization.
Paraphrasing Hadoke’s assessment of chokes cited earlier, the user of a 19th-Century British wildfowler need not worry that he or she is ill-equipped to hunt geese on even terms with hunters using modern shotguns.
There are a lot of good reasons why owners of high-quality 19th-Century double barrel shotguns may choose not to hunt with them. At least in the case of British wildfowlers, doubts about their effectiveness in hunting geese should not be one of them.
Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on (modified )