Wildfowling, shooting and conservation

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Chapter 8

Guns and Cartridges

One of the very first decisions which must be made by the aspirant wildfowler is the choice of a gun. It is a matter in which much conflicting advice will be encountered and the permutations of possible options will, at first, appear almost limitless. He may be assured by one veteran that an 8-bore or 10-bore is necessary to achieve the requisite range at which flighting duck and geese will be encountered. Another trusted friend will aver the efficacy of a light 12-bore game gun. On the shore he will witness fellow fowlers using side-by-side guns, over-and-unders and semi-automatic repeaters and he will wonder about the relative advantages of each type. Questions such as the respective merits of different barrel lengths and chamber dimensions will cross his mind and, as likely as not, he will agonise for hours over details such as choke borings. At the end of the day he will pass a substantial cheque over the gunshop counter but, until he has shot his first mallard or pinkfoot, the wisdom of his choice will remain unconfirmed.

A shotgun is a smoothbore weapon which is designed to fire a cartridge containing a large number of small pellets of shot. The quarry is killed by being struck by several shot pellets and, at its most basic level, the gun is merely an instrument for detonating the cartridge and ensuring that the shot charge is propelled in the desired direction.

Any survey of the literature relating to the "good old days" when wildfowl reputedly blackened the sky above every estuary and marsh will confirm that the hard gnarled fowlers of yesteryear went in for big guns in a big way. The 8-bore was frequently regarded as the smallest gauge which could legitimately be described as a "fowling piece", with 6-bores and 4-bores being not uncommon. Even when the professional fowler was joined on the foreshore by a new breed of gentleman gunner, the obsession with heavy shotguns did not disappear.

During the 20th-century, however, the popularisation of wildfowling as a sport and the simultaneous development of the 12-bore magnum led to a decline in the use of those large weapons. For a time the magnum-12 was almost universally held to be the best gun for shooting below the sea wall but, more recently, the appearance on the market of imported 10-bores and 8-bores has re-awakened interest in specialist fowling weapons. At the same time there has been a growing awareness that heavy shot loads and tight chokes do not necessarily provide the most effective combination in the hands of the average sportsman and an increasing number of wildfowlers now opt for an ordinary open-bored game gun.


Faced with such a bewildering array of options, the wildfowler must take account of factors such as the cost of various models, the availability of ammunition, the amount and type of shooting in which he will engage and, above all else, the "feel" which different guns have in his hands. The man who intends to restrict his sport to foreshore fowling and who may anticipate firing only a few dozen cartridges each season may make a very different choice than the sportsman who expects to combine wildfowling with some game shooting, vermin control or clay pigeon shooting.

There are many conflicting theories regarding shotgun marksmanship and the "follow through" adherents will doubtlessly argue with the "sustained lead" disciples for many years to come. What all such schools of thought agree about is that the man who shoots instinctively will be the best performer. To reach this state demands that the gun becomes an extension of the body so that eye, brain, arm and shotgun are all parts of a single synchronised system. This will be achieved far more readily if the reflexes are not asked to accommodate the weight, balance and dimensions of more than one gun and there is therefore considerable merit in using the same weapon for all types of shooting. Having said that, there is no doubt that the experienced fowler will derive a great deal of enjoyment from experimenting with different types of gun. It is better, though, to forego such pleasures until a few seasons of fruitful fowling with one shotgun have elapsed.


The calibre of shotguns is normally expressed as a numeral, e.g. 8-bore, 12-bore, 20-bore, etc, which relates to the internal diameter of the barrel. The numeral is the reciprocal of the weight in pounds of a spherical ball of pure lead which has a diameter equivalent to that of the gun barrel. Thus a 4-bore has a barrel with the same diameter as a lb ball of lead and a 12-bore barrel will accommodate a lead ball weighing 1/12 lb. The exception to this rule is the .410 which is simply a measurement in inches but this very small calibre of shotgun is not of interest to the wildfowler.

Guns of the 4-bore, 8-bore and 10-bore calibres are specialist wildfowling weapons designed to throw heavy charges of shot for long range shooting. Almost all 4-bores are single barrelled guns although one or two massive double barrels were made. Almost all were manufactured by English gunmakers during the 19th-century but, to meet a small contemporary demand, a few modern single-4s of Italian origin were imported by Ralph Grant of Leicester during the 1980s. Cartridges are scarce and extremely expensive.

The 8-bore is the largest calibre of gun likely to be considered seriously by the modern wildfowler. Once more we find that the majority of such guns were made by English gunsmiths such as J & W Tolley and E M Reilly but, again, new models from Spain and Italy are available. A double barrelled 8-bore will normally weigh between 12 and 15 lbs and can throw a 2 oz shot load. Commercially loaded cartridges are now difficult to obtain but big-bore enthusiasts have discovered that the Remington industrial cartridge fits an 8-bore chamber and those plastic cases can be reloaded for wildfowling purposes.

Up until the early years of the 20th-century the 10-bore was regarded as the lightweight of wildfowling guns. When the advent of 12-bore magnums led to a substantial decline in the use of larger bores, the 10-bore suffered most and, for a substantial period, it was not regarded as a worthwhile weapon. In recent years an American-led revival has occurred due, no doubt, to the fact that legislation in the U.S.A. prohibits the use of any calibre larger than 10-bore. To meet the demand created by those Stateside sportsmen who wanted the most powerful weapon their laws permitted, a magnum-10 was developed with 3 inch chambers. This gun is capable of firing a cartridge loaded with 2 oz of shot or, if low velocity ballistics are adopted, 2 oz. Most old English 10-bores are chambered for 2 inch or 2 inch cartridges and they offer very little advantage over a magnum-12. The more popular magnum-10 cartridge, on the other hand, does provide extra firepower and it can be used in a variety of modern 10-bore weapons including Spanish side-by-sides, an Italian over-and-under and an American 3-shot semi-automatic repeater. Cartridges for the magnum-10 are readily available but are extremely expensive, costing approximately six times as much as standard 12-bore ammunition. Any wildfowler likely to use more than two or three boxes of cartridges in a season would do well to consider reloading his own empty cases.

There is no question that the 12-bore is the most popular gauge of shotgun in Britain today having, over the years, been developed into a superb general purpose weapon. From a wildfowler's point of view, the choice lies between a standard game gun with 2 inch or 2 inch chambers or a 12-bore magnum chambered and proved for the heavier 3 inch cartridge. If the decision is made to purchase a 12-bore, the fowler will find himself with the widest choice of models, both English and imported, and the greatest range of available ammunition. If coastal wildfowling is to be combined with other forms of shooting sport, a 12-bore is likely to be the only calibre to be seriously considered.

Smaller calibres of shotgun do exist and the 20-bore has become popular with sportsmen seeking a very light game gun. When shooting driven grouse or pheasants it is almost as effective as a standard 12-bore and many people enjoy the faster handling characteristics of the lighter gun. Although some notable successes have been scored at duck or geese with a 20-bore, it is unlikely to be a serious contender in the eyes of dedicated wildfowlers. The 28-bore is even smaller and is generally bought as a first gun for a youngster.

Barrel Configuration

For many years the side-by side shotgun was favoured for almost every kind of shooting and it reached a state of technical and aesthetic perfection which no other type has yet overtaken. The traditional English design has been successfully copied by gunmakers in Spain, Italy and Japan with the result that good servicable specimens may be found throughout a wide price range. Available as boxlocks or sidelocks and as ejectors or non-ejectors, side-by-side guns are quick to reload, can be very well balanced and are simple to break down for cleaning.

The over-and-under was popularised by clay pigeon shooters but is now regarded as an acceptable alternative for all branches of the sport. Most models have a single selective trigger which is a decided bonus when shooting with gloved hands. Other advantages claimed by supporters of the over-and-under are the single sighting plane and the fact that the lower plane of the bottom barrel, which is normally fired first, helps to prevent gun-flip and hence assists second barrel accuracy. The wider gape to which an over-and-under requires to be opened does, however, make reloading a slightly slower process than with a side-by-side. For guns of similar quality, an over-and-under will be a little more expensive than a side-by-side.

Semi-automatic and pump action repeaters were once popular with wildfowlers and roughshooters on account of their relatively low cost and the imagined advantage of increased firepower. Few are as well balanced as a good double barrelled gun and they are more prone to malfunction when used in the muddy conditions encountered by the estuarine fowler. Now that the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 has decreed that, when employed against game birds or wildfowl, the magazine of a repeater must be plugged so as to accept no more than two cartridges, their appeal has been considerably reduced.

Barrel Length

In the age of black powder it was generally accepted that, within reason, the performance of a shotgun would improve proportionally to increased length of the barrels. To an extent there was some foundation for this claim as black powder burned slowly and progressively with the result that the longer the wad and shot charge took to travel up the barrel, the more efficient would be the utilisation of the energy released by the burning gunpowder. Within the limits of modern shotgun design, there is no significant ballistic advantage to be gained from long barrels when using cartridges loaded with fast burning nitro powders. To all intents and purposes, therefore, the choice of barrel length can be solely concerned with gun balance and shooting style.

The great majority of 10-bore and 12-bore shotguns on the market today have barrels of between 25 inches and 32 inches in length. Guns with 25 inch or 26 inch barrels are supposed to be faster handling and particularly suited to fast, short range birds whereas 30 inch or 32 inch barrelled weapons are usually sold with the claim that they will produce an exaggerated swing when used against high pheasants or geese. There is a certain logic in those statements but, as most wildfowlers will use the same gun to shoot at a teal flipping past at 20 yards and greylag flighting over at 40 yards, it could be a mistake to opt for either extreme.

Another consideration is chamber length and this is directly related to the type of cartridges which it is intended to use. Almost all modern imported 12-bores will have 2 inch or 3 inch chambers but, if a secondhand English gun is being considered, it may have shorter chambers and the selection of cartridges will be correspondingly restricted.


By law every shotgun sold in Britain, whether new or secondhand, must be in proof and must bear the proof marks of either the London or Birmingham Proof House or one of the recognised foreign proof authorities. The Proof Acts lay down that no small arm may be sold, exchanged, exported, exposed or kept for sale or exchange or pawned unless and until it has been fully proved and duly marked. Guns proved in Britain for smokeless or nitro powders will bear one of the following marks on the flats of the barrels:

Guns proved in Britain prior to 1904 may bear the following proof marks which invariably indicate proof for black powder only unless they are associated with the marking "NITRO PROOF" in words:

The existence of proof marks on an old or well used gun does not in itself guarantee that the weapon is still in proof or is safe to use. Deterioration or enlargement of the bores, for instance, could render a gun out of proof. Many old shotguns were only proved for use with black powder and must not be used with modern smokeless cartridges. The owner of such a gun really has no alternative than to send the weapon, through his gunsmith, to the Proof House to be reproved for use with nitro powder.

The proof marks of the following foreign countries are currently acceptable in Britain:

Austria (Ferlach and Vienna) West Germany
Belgium Italy
Czechoslovakia Republic of Ireland
France (Paris and St Etienne) Spain

Further details of proof requirements and markings are contained in the booklet Notes on the Proof of Shotguns and other Small Arms issued under the joint authority of the London and Birmingham Proof Masters.


The constriction which the gunmaker builds in to the muzzle ends of the barrels affects the spread of the shot pattern and, hence, the range at which sufficient pellets will strike the quarry to ensure a kill. While tighter chokings do increase the effective range of a specified shot charge, subject to there being sufficient striking energy, a denser pattern does, of course, imply that the shooter must be more accurate in his marksmanship. If the gunner is consistently faced with no other quarry than limit-of-range fowl he may feel that he needs the benefit of full-choke barrels but a wildfowler tackling a variety of duck and goose shooting situations and, without any doubt, the man who also goes roughshooting should seriously consider whether he will not be better served by normal game gun borings of, say, improved cylinder in one barrel and half-choke in the other. At a range of 40 yards a barrel which is bored to improved cylinder, i.e. with only 5 points of choke, will throw 50% of the pellets within a 30 inch diameter circle. When using normal loads of No.3 or No.6 shot, this pattern will give clean kills on geese or duck respectively at that range.

Different conventions are used in other countries with the result that the degree of choke in gun barrels may be described in a variety of ways, including the use of stars. Approximate equivalents are as follows:

True Cylinder Cylinder Skeet
Improved Cylinder Improved *****
Quarter Choke Quarter ****
Half Choke Modified ***
Three-Quarter Choke Improved Modified **
Full Choke Full *

The pattern thrown by any particular gun barrel may not necessarily correspond exactly to the nominal choke boring and will also vary according to the type of cartridge used. For example, cartridges with plastic monowads will usually give tighter patterns than those with fibre wads. For this reason, it is always wise to test the pattern thrown by any choke/cartridge combination by using a pattern plate and counting the percentage of the pellets which strike within a 30 inch circle at a range of 40 yards. The Eley Shooter's Diary each year contains all of the necessary data tables to enable a wildfowler to make this check.

A fairly recent development has been the popularisation of multichoke guns with screw-in choke tubes which are inserted in the muzzles of the barrels. This arrangement has considerable advantages as it allows the fowler to select relatively tight chokes when expecting high geese or to change over to more open borings if duck are on the agenda. The advent of multichoke guns has significantly reduced the temptation for a sportsman to build up an armoury of several guns, each specifically designed for a particular purpose. By using the same gun for all types of shooting he can expect his all-round performance to improve.


Having selected and purchased the weapon of his choice, the wildfowler should take a few elementary precautions to ensure that his gun will provide him with reliable service for many years. Of all forms of shooting it will be obvious that wildfowling is potentially the hardest on a gun. Salt water and mud are the twin enemies of any mechanical device and both are inescapable in the fowler's environment. Generally speaking, the better quality shotguns will be less prone to deterioration than cheaper models as the finishing of the wood and metal components will be to a higher standard. Almost all modern imported guns by proven manufacturers such as AYA, Beretta, Winchester or Laurona will be sufficiently sturdy to withstand hard service on the marsh provided that they are carefully cleaned after each outing and occasionally stripped down and checked by a competent gunsmith. Cheaper imported "bargains" may be less reliable and any secondhand English gun should be treated with extra caution as misuse in the hands of a former owner might already have caused deterioration to commence.

Proper cleaning of shotguns is a three phase process. Before the gun is put away in a car boot at the end of a shooting outing a few squirts of an "instant maintenance" spray lubricant such as WD-40 should be directed down the barrels and over the external metalwork. A quick rub down with a clean rag will then remove any surplus moisture.

Upon reaching home, the gun should be cleaned properly. After breaking the weapon down into the component parts of stock, barrels and fore-end, a squirt of WD-40 down each barrel followed by pushing through a rolled-up ball of toilet tissue will usually remove all deposits from the chambers and bores. If the internal surfaces of the tubes are particularly dirty, it may pay to adopt the old-fashioned procedure of scrubbing with a phosphor bronze brush. A soft nail brush may be used to remove mud from the rib, chequering and engraving before a final spray of lubricant is given and the re-assembled gun wiped down with a clean rag. The third stage of maintenance should be an annual strip down, inspection and clean by a good gunsmith. By developing the right sort of relationship with a local expert it should be possible to have this service undertaken quickly and inexpensively.

Should a shotgun be inadvertently dropped into mud or salt water, the most effective remedy lies in washing it thoroughly in gallons of clean lukewarm water, drying as well as can be arranged and then spraying liberally with WD-40 before rushing it to a gunsmith for proper attention. Even the softest mud contains grit which will accelerate wear if it is allowed to remain in the working parts and no motorist needs to be reminded of the corrosive properties of salt.

It is virtually impossible for a wildfowler to keep his gun in mint condition forever but every effort should be made to protect it from unnecessary damage. It is worth purchasing both a soft gunslip and a hard case. The latter will protect the gun against knocks and bumps while it is being transported in the boot of a car while the gunslip is more practical for carrying over the shoulder when out on the saltings. A gunslip should be fleece-lined to avoid the blueing being rubbed off the muzzle ends of the barrels as can happen if a plain canvas cover is used. In order that the lining can be quickly dried after each outing, it will be helpful if the slip is fitted with a full-length zip.

Although there is no legal requirement in Britain to keep a shotgun in a lockfast security cabinet there is considerable merit in ensuring that it is safely locked away when not in use. Apart from protecting the gun against the unwanted attention of children, a strong cabinet will also minimise the chance of accidental damage. It goes without saying that a gun should never be left in an unlocked, unattended motor vehicle and should be kept out of sight in the boot.


As mentioned previously, it is not the gun which kills but rather a few pellets of lead shot. To achieve a clean kill, the bird must by struck by a sufficient number of pellets and each pellet must strike with enough energy to penetrate to a vital organ of the quarry. It is the combination of pattern density and striking energy which determines whether or not a particular load and size of shot will be suitable for use at any specified distance and it must be recognised that the maximum effective range of any load will be limited by whichever of those parameters fails first.

Basically, large shot sizes will retain adequate striking energy over longer distances while small shot provides denser patterns. As a rule of thumb, any shot size in the range No.4 to No.6 will have sufficient striking energy to kill a duck up to a range of 50 yards and shot in sizes BB, No.1 and No.3 will have high enough energy for use against geese at the same range. To be reasonably sure of obtaining a clean kill, however, we must look for a pattern sufficiently dense to strike the bird with at least three or four pellets and this factor is absolutely crucial. With an open-bored gun and game loads, only shot sizes No.5 and No.6 will provide a sufficiently dense pattern for duck at 50 yards although No.4s will just meet the criteria from a full choke barrel.

When geese are the quarry, then we are restricted to No.3 shot when using a game gun as the patterns of No.1 and BB will fail at 38 yards and 32 yards respectively. Even when a fully choked 12-bore magnum is employed, BB shot will cease to give a decent pattern at around 40 yards. Many wildfowlers swear by large shot sizes and can recount tales of fowl being plucked from the sky at ranges of up to 65 yards. Certainly such shots have occurred but they are likely to have been flukes caused by a chance single pellet hitting a vital organ of the bird. Responsible sportsmen cannot rely upon such chances and should moderate the range at which they shoot so that, theoretically at least, a clean kill can be expected every time. The following table illustrates quite graphically the limitations of a variety of shot loads when fired at geese from a full choke barrel.

On balance there is little reason to choose anything other than a game load of No.6 shot when pursuing duck. If geese are in prospect, a game load of No.3 or a 3 inch magnum load of No.1 will give the optimum combination of striking energy and pattern density. Having made that point, it must be conceded that many experienced fowlers feel more confident with a little bit of extra oomph up the spout and regularly employ the most powerful cartridge for which their gun is proved and as large a shot size as will give a satisfactory pattern at maximum range. One important aspect of shotgun marksmanship is that the shooter must have confidence in his gun and cartridge. If that confidence is provided by a heavy shot load then perhaps it would be a mistake to be too dogmatic about the effectiveness of lighter ammunition. The principal dangers of using extra-powerful cartridges are, firstly, that the fowler may be tempted to shoot at unsporting ranges and, secondly, that his gun may not shoot to the point of aim if used with a heavier shell than that for which it was designed.

Cartridges for 12-bore guns are available from a very large number of manufacturers, including some well known brands from the U.S.A. and Europe. Some paper-cased 12-bore ammunition is still sold but, for use in the wet conditions of the foreshore, it would be prudent to buy only plastic case cartridges. Almost all commercially loaded 10-bore magnum shells are of American origin while the owner of an 8-bore or 4-bore wildfowling gun may have to load his own in paper, plastic or brass cases. A few specialist shops do sell cartridges for big-bore guns but they may not always be available "off the shelf".

Armed with a suitable gun and cartridge combination, the apprentice wildfowler can then concentrate his attention on developing his skills so that he learns to accurately assess the range of a bird and swing his barrels with the correct speed and direction. In the last analysis those skills will put more birds in the bag than any switch to a larger calibre of gun or a heavier cartridge load.


This file is an extract from "Fowler in the Wild" by Eric Begbie. It may be reproduced, in whole or in part, by magazines or other publications with the prior permission of the author.