For decades, Kansas has been a land of wing shooting.
We have some of the best pheasant, quail and waterfowl hunting in America and some of the most avid sportsmen, too.
Yet few hunters really know what's happening after they pull the trigger, and have no clue where that spread of pellets is impacting or how the pattern looks when it arrives.
Such shouldn't be the case.
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"People would never think about heading out deer hunting without checking to see how their rifle and ammo is shooting," said Scott Carlson of Atwood. "But people just grab their shotguns, a box of shells and go bird hunting. They could do so much to improve their success if they'd get to know how their shotgun patterns. It all boils down to what happens to those shot pellets after they leave the gun."
Carlson and another well-known Kansas shotgun expert, Mark Murphy, offer the following advice.
No substitute for paper
Carlson got into the business of making custom choke tubes about 20 years ago, after he started testing the relatively new screw-in tubes provided with most new shotguns.
He wasn't impressed.
Chokes that were supposed to provide wide-open pellet patterns for quail or skeet sometimes shot super-tight.
Rather than perfectly round patterns with pellets evenly spaced, many tubes tossed many pellets wide to the sides and left saucer-sized areas within the pattern untouched.
Since, he's built Carlson's Choke Tubes into an industry leader that sells about 700 products. Most major American ammo and firearms carry his products. They're also sold in several foreign countries.
He said most shotgunners would be disappointed if they put their favored gun-choke-shell combo to the test.
"You don't need anything fancy, just a piece of cardboard with a 30-inch circle and a one-inch dot in the middle for a target. Use some sort of rest so you're steady," Carlson said. "You can tell by just looking how that load's shooting through that choke. Most times you'll learn your load and shells aren't doing what you think they are."
Naturally, he said custom tubes usually work better than factory.
Still, he suggests trying three or four different kinds of ammo through each choke, looking for the combination that throws an even pattern of holes across the paper.
That includes trying shells of different shot sizes and lengths, too.
"One thing we keep finding in our patterning is that three-inch shells pattern better than 3 1/2-inch shells in almost all cases," Carlson said. "It can be a real surprise to a lot of people who shoot the bigger shells. Things aren't doing what they think they are."
Carlson said his testing has proven that chokes made especially for specific loads can make a difference.
His inventory for testing includes about 10 types of shotguns and a wide variety of chokes for each. There's probably not shotshell made that Carlson's company hasn't put through all of the above.
The data base of what works best is revealing.
In the early 1990s, Carlson learned steel shot didn't pattern like lead and required special chokes for top patterns. For about the past five years, most serious waterfowl hunters have used special chokes.
Custom chokes are increasingly important as ammo companies produce very specialized shotshells with components designed for the challenges of waterfowl, turkeys or, more recently, pheasants.
"We've had to do a lot of patterning to keep up with the market, and we're confident in the tubes we make for all of those loads like Federal's Black Cloud or Prairie Storm," Carlson said. "People can now buy those special chokes and use that kind ammunition, it's going to work a lot better than other tubes."
The only way to be sure, of course, is to shoot the new loads and new chokes on paper.
"Patterning a shotgun really isn't hard and doesn't take much time," Carlson said. "It can make such a huge difference in the field."
For more information go to www.choketube.com.
Murphy is qualified at everything from helping a hunter select a basic bird gun to coaching competitive shooters to national titles.
He puts a lot of importance on shooting a shotgun that fits the shooter very well, and is one of the nation's top custom gun fitters.
"The main thing I care about is getting the center of that gun's pattern over the center of the target time after time," said Murphy, owner of Michael Murphy & Sons in Augusta. "It's challenging enough centering a flying target in a perfect, dead-on pattern, let alone one that's off even a few inches."
And the shooter's eye needs to be looking directly down that barrel the instant the shotgun is shouldered, too.
"When you're shooting a shotgun, you need to be hitting the trigger about the time your cheek is hitting the stock," Murphy said. "There's not time for aiming or adjusting your body because that target is usually moving fast and headed out of range."
And while most shotguns are built about the same, most shotgunners are not.
"Even slight differences in body shape mean the shotgun's going to be pointed in a slightly different direction when it's mounted," Murphy said. "Some people have thick, heavy chests while others are thin. Even the shape of the face, like high cheekbones, will affect where a gun's pointed when it's mounted."
He said most people would be surprised how far from dead-center their shotguns shoot.
"Most shotguns from the factory will shoot about four inches to the left for right-handed shooters at 20 yards," Murphy said. "That will cost you birds."
He said at 30 yards that would probably result in just a broken wing on a going-away pheasant. It would also make it nearly impossible to make a solid connection with any bird flying from left to right.
"It's tough enough for a right-handed shooter swinging against his body on right-to-left shots," Murphy said.
He suggests all hunters and target shooters spend time at a patterning board.
It's important that time not be taken for formal aiming.
Once the shooter learns where the pattern is consistently hitting, they can sometimes make by-guess-and-by-golly adjustments with shims that sometimes come with new guns. Assorted pads can also be purchased.
Things get more complicated if things need to be reduced on the factory gun.
Another option is to hire the services of a certified gun-fitter, like Murphy. His going rate is about $200 for the service. For guns purchased at his shop it's $100.
That includes a few lessons to make sure the shooter's getting a proper, consistent gun mount.
Next comes a variety of tests.
He'll check the length of pull, which is the distance from the trigger to the gun's butt. Too long or too short will impede gun mount and can push the pattern well off-center.
The fit will also include checking for the proper pitch. That's the vertical angle of the gun's butt.
Cast, the horizontal angle the stock comes back from the shotgun's receiver, is also crucial.
Murphy can usually cobble together enough adjustments on-site to prove the changes would lead to better accuracy.
Sometimes, permanent adjustments are made with shims and padding.
Many times the shotgun stock is heated and bent until it reaches perfection.
Jim Greenwood, a master at stock making and adjusting, does it on the premises. His services usually run about $125-$250 per bend.
"That seems like a lot of money, and it is, but you have to ask yourself why you'd want to be shooting a shotgun that's not making you your best," Murphy said. "Joe Six-Pack is probably going to be much better off getting his cheap 870 Express pump fitted than some guy who's shooting some high-dollar over/under right out of the case. It all comes down to where that pattern's hitting when you pull the trigger."
For more information go to www.murphyshotguns.com.