Thursday, February 16, 2006


I am going to attempt in this post to avoid any specifics of judgment about the Cheney hunting mishap while trying to explain the terms being thrown around. That is my point in writing this. While the antique press has been screaming about the people's need to know (read be spoon fed) they have neglected to tell you anything about guns or hunting. Many of them are making statements about hunting that fly in the face of reality. In a conversation about the incident the other night it became apparent to me that my wife didn't have the basic knowledge to understand what had happened, and she has lived with me for a while. That means there are a lot of you out there living in cities who not only have never been hunting but don't live with somebody who has. You must be completely lost given the pathetic coverage in the press. That's OK, I am here to help.

My credentials on the topic: I started bird hunting with a BB gun as a small child. At the age of 8 my parents gave me my first shotgun and the BB gun started collecting dust. I still have that shotgun 30 years later and it is in mint condition. I grew up on a farm as an only child. I spent a lot of time hunting and shooting. Please don't get my Dad started on the money he spent on ammunition for me as a child. In other words, I was a typical farm boy. I do not claim to be a firearms expert. I know relatively little about handguns although I have shot a fair number of them. I know a lot about hunting guns and hunting because I did a lot of it and I had the good fortune to have a number of great teachers and an uncle who had a veritable arsenal of different guns.

My feelings on hunting: I hunt for one of two reasons, and quite honestly on a Midwest farm it is an even split. I have gone hunting for food. I have also gone hunting to get rid of animals that destroy crops or threaten people or domestic animals. Those creatures are not evil, they are just trying to survive and reproduce. Given the choice between finding food in the forest and walking out into a field we have carefully cultivated to be full of food, the choice probably looks really easy to your average groundhog. That choice, however, runs counter to you having cheap, fresh food in your grocery store. Shotgun and rifle shells being relatively cheap (Dad's comments aside) the choice of losing crops or killing groundhogs is also an easy one for a farmer who wants food on his table and clothes on his kids. All of that said, hunting just to kill something is unacceptable to me. We kill for survival in one form or another.

Now to the meat of it. My first gun was a 20 gauge full choke single shot. For a good description of gauges, go here. A 20 gauge gun has a bore diameter of .615 inches, making it one of the smaller common shotguns. A 12 gauge, by comparison, has a bore diameter of .729 inches. On the edges, one of the most common "first" guns for children is a 410 (which should be called a 67 gauge) is .410 inches and the biggest common gun is a 10 gauge which is .775 inches and kicks like a mule. The VP was using a quite uncommon gun, a 28 gauge, which comes in at .550 inches.

Kick is a term you will see me use. You put the gun to your shoulder and pull the trigger. The gun recoils back into you as the projectiles go away from you. The amount of force the gun puts on your shoulder is referred to as kick. A 410 has almost no kick and a 10 gauge has a lot. The amount of kick is determined by two things. The obvious one is the amount of powder in the shell. Larger shells cause an individual gun to kick harder. The second factor is the construction of the gun. Recoil springs, the right kind of wood and rubber "butt pads" that sit between the actual gun and your shoulder all reduce the amount of kick. Guns also rise when fired. The barrel goes up after the projectile leaves. The amount of rise is a function of the gauge of the gun and the weight of the barrel.

Shotgun shells come in a variety of measurements. Obviously, you need a shell that is made for the gauge of gun you are using. The next measurement is the length of the shell. Most gauges of guns have the option of 2.75 inch and 3 inch shells but not all guns will accept a 3 inch shell. You will sometimes hear hunters use the terms "standard shell" and "magnum". These refer to the 2.75 and 3 inch shells, respectively. 3 inch shells have both more gun powder and more lead in them. This provides the ability to shoot farther and pack a bigger punch. It also means that the gun kicks harder and, assuming you are close by, more pellets wind up in what you are shooting. Therefore 2.75 inch shells are almost always used for small game so you don't tear the meat up any more than necessary. We know that the VP was shooting 2.75 inch shells because 3 inch shells are not available for 28 gauge shotguns. The final measurement on a shotgun shell is the shot size. The term slug refers to a single large piece of lead or copper that is a solitary projectile like a rifle bullet only MUCH bigger. It is used for hunting large game like White Tail Deer (yummy, yummy) and bears. Most shotgun shells, however, contain pellets. The size of the pellet, like the gauges of the guns, are inverse to the number used to describe them. A number 4 shot shell has pellets that are twice the size of a number 8. The larger the pellets, the fewer of them there are in the shell. Also, as a general rule, the larger the pellets the deeper the penetration will be and the less the effective range will be. As a result, the smaller and faster the game you are hunting, the smaller the pellets you use. Here is a great picture showing various shot sizes next to a US Penny. (HT: Hugh )

For any small bird hunting I, personally, would never be shooting anything larger (meaning smaller number) than a 7.5. Again, personal preference is what it is but I usually used a 7.5 or 8. I don't think we know for sure but it is a pretty safe bet that what the VP was shooting was a number 6 - 8.5. That BB on the upper left of the picture is a standard .177 BB like kids use in BB guns. The second row is copper pellets which are larger for the same number because the measurement is one of weight, not diameter. The vast majority of shotgun shells in the US are lead and we do know that the VP was shooting lead and not copper. I have shot copper but didn't like it. I don't think copper shells are available in a 28 gauge but don't quote me on that.

There is one more important measurement. A guns "choke" is how restrictive the end of the gun is. A "full choke gun", like my 20 gauge, has a slightly longer range and the pellets stay closer together. You will hear this referred to as a "tight spread". It is commonly used for squirrel and rabbit hunting where I grew up. On the other end of the common chokes is "Improved" which has very little choke and therefore gives a very wide spread. It is probably the most common choke for bird hunting. In the middle is "Modified". There are several others but these are the most common ones. Many modern guns come with choke inserts making it possible to have the option of different chokes with the same gun and barrel. We got Dad one of these a few years ago and it is great. We don't know, but it would again be a safe bet that the VP was shooting an Improved choke.

Shotguns have a very short "effective" range, especially when shooting 2.75 inch pellet loads. The larger the gun (meaning the smaller the gauge number), the longer the effective range. A 12 gauge shotgun shooting 2.75 inch number 7s has an effective range of about 30 yards. The farther the shot gets away from the gun the slower the pellets are moving and the farther apart they get, making killing what you were shooting at less probable. This does not mean that you can't get hurt by being shot past the effective range, BTW. The effective range on a 28 gauge gun is less than 30 yards, the distance the poor lawyer is claimed to have been from the VP. Being hit by a small number of pellets at a distance is referred to as being "peppered". If you are at a closer range and you catch the center of the spread you have been shot, not peppered. "Rained on" is a similar term. When someone at a large distance shoots up at something and the pellets arch and come down on you, you have been rained on. That isn't fun either. I have never peppered anyone or been peppered. I have been rained on more than once and, unfortunately have rained on other folks as well.

Most of the hunting I did was done without dogs. You either sit still or walk around quietly looking for whatever you are hunting. You always know where the nearest roads, houses, domestic wildlife and other people are. Farmers and ranchers are very restrictive about letting people hunt on their property so when they or their friends go hunting they can be fairly sure there aren't people they don't know about in their fields and woods. If you are hunting on someone else's private property you need their permission. I know that sounds like a no-brainer but I have frog marched more than my share of idiots off of my family's property who claimed they didn't know that. Just because it is a woods, doesn't mean you belong there. In many states you are required to have written permission on your person from the owner if you are hunting on their property and they are not with you. As a matter of safety and courtesy you always contact the owner when you arrive and when you leave their property. This prevents two groups who don't know about each other being in the same general vicinity. It also prevents you from dying in the woods without anybody knowing.

Hunting with dogs changes things a fair bit. Hunting with dogs is done in a hunting line. That means all the hunters stay in a straight line behind the dog or dogs. You progress forward together. The guys on the end of the line are the only ones with an effective firing field of more than about 60 degrees. The dog handler is in the middle of the line and may or may not have a gun. Dogs have keen senses. They see, hear, and smell better than we do. Ergo, if you do it right, the dog will know where the birds or rabbits or whatever are before the hunters and before the prey knows the gig is up. So you are basically slowly and quietly walking behind the dog in a line with your gun pointed up or down waiting for the dog to find the prey. When the dog thinks he knows where a bird or rabbit is the dog will point, literally. The dog will stop moving with his nose pointing in the direction of the game and he stretches forward, often with one front paw off the ground. If nothing else happens a well trained dog will stand like that all day. What usually happens is the dog handler makes sure all the hunters have stopped, seen the point, and put their guns to their shoulders. He then tells the dog to flush, often with only a hand signal. At this point the slow walking, sniffing thing is over. The dog will leap forward into a dead run at the prey, causing it to panic and run for its life. This is where the guns come in. Your line of fire cannot include anyone else in the hunting line or the dog. With birds the dog is usually not in any danger because they will fly UP. With rabbits or other ground animals it is a serious concern. You are more likely to piss off the handler by peppering his dog than by peppering him. Anyway, the prey flushes. Bang! Assuming a kill, there are two options. Everybody goes guns down and the shooter or shooters walk up to pick up the game. Alternatively, everybody goes guns down and waits for the dog to bring it back. I have done both. Treat for the dog, lots of praise and petting. Everybody gets squared away. Repeat. As a total aside, dogs who fetch love multiple kills on a flush. They grab one, bring it back, get a treat. The handler then points at the second and he runs off to fetch it. He brings it back and gets another treat. Happy dog!

If you are rich and hunting on a multi-thousand acre ranch, hunting with dogs is slightly different than that. Spotters drive around looking for game. They radio the hunters to come to them when they find it. The dogs and hunters drive up, get out and hunt that segment while the spotters go off and look for the next location. The hunting line will have three people in it, a shooter on each end and the dog handler in the middle. The dog hunter will not be shooting. This gives each shooter a wider range of motion to shoot in thereby increasing the odds of an individual kill. I have done dog hunting in a two man, one dog configuration as well but I never had spotters. It seems like cheating to me. They found the birds, they should shoot them.

There is one more thing that is popping up in the press. When talking about small bird hunting there are two types of game. Wild game is just that, birds that naturally decided to live there or be there that day. Raised or domestic or cooped game is really cheating but it is done. As far as I am concerned that isn't hunting, it is shooting. In that case you raise the animals in cages and then release them on the property the day of the hunt. This is pretty common among the British elite and is done in many places in the US. Much of the press seems to have assumed this was the case for the VP's trip. That assumption seems pretty outlandish to me. Texas has a lot of wild birds. Also, if you were hunting cooped game why would you be driving around all over the place. Cooped game tends to pretty much hang out where you release it. Anyway, I don't know, and as far as I can tell nobody has asked anyone who would know, which type of game was in play on the trip.

Update: It was pointed out to me that in more than one place above I missed the "7" in "2.75", leaving a "2.5" which was incorrect. I hope I caught all instances of the error which I must have compounded with spell check......


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