What happens when you try to shoot pigeons with shotguns that you don't normally use? Tom Payne and Carl Russell find out ...

When the editor of the Shooting Times asked me if I would try out pigeon shooting with a multitude of guns of various calibres, I have to admit I was less than keen. The usual gun I shoot with, a Perazzi 12-bore, has been custom-fitted for me in every way. I take my shooting very seriously and, rightly or wrongly, how I perform on any outing is, for me, is a huge factor in how I judge the overall of the success of a day. The idea of shooting smaller bores, was going to be interesting not just because of their size but because, in contrast to my Perazzi, they would feel so alien. Not that I’m trying to make excuses at this early stage…

pigeon shooting guns

From top: Browning .410, 28-bore Cogswell & Harrison, Perazzi MX20 and Perazzi MX12

A word about clean kills

I’m willing to bet anybody who has shot game will at some point have heard the phrases “they all kill the same”, or the classic “you either kill them or you miss”. The second statement, which is utterly ridiculous, implies that with smaller bores you don’t prick birds. Sadly this is not the case, and in fact at distance with smaller bores you can often be completely unaware of birds you have pricked.

I’m not trying to be a spoilsport, but it must be said that when shooting any form of game, we all have a responsibility to kill our quarry cleanly. Of course birds do get pricked from time to time, but you have to try to reduce the chances of this happening and that means using a gun that’s suitable for the job and a cartridge that despatches the bird quickly.

Using smaller bores can increase the risk of birds being wounded if you attempt to shoot them as though you are shooting with a 12-bore. You have to be sensible and very aware of your capabilities — and this will be most particularly determined by range. It’s not that a 40-yard crosser can’t be killed by a .410, but you do run the risk of pricking the bird, very much the same as taking on 70-yard crossers with a 12-bore. If you are going to shoot smaller bores then shoot responsibly.

Two’s company

I was lucky to be joined by Carl Russell, a fantastic gunsmith based in Hertfordshire. Lucky, because not only is Carl a good friend, he was keen to try out pigeon shooting with the first gun on our list, the Browning .410.

These days most .410s have either been altered in some way for young Shots, or have been made with only young Shots in mind. Because of this, the majority of them are unshootable for the average adult because their stock measurement is too small and their weight is uncontrollable, with the result that you end up throwing it around like Harry Potter’s wand. But the Browning .410 has really good stock measurements — 15in to mid, a drop measurement that allows you to shoot properly and not play hockey with it, and a sensible cast measurement.

The barrels were 30in long and the weight was well balanced. Combined with a good Hull .410 game cartridge, Carl had every opportunity to shoot the best of ability, which he did. I can see the enjoyment that people have from shooting smaller bores but I do also think they can be used as an easy excuse for missing something (or make you look like a hero if you hit it). Carl was selective about what he felt was sensible to take on, but with a few birds really committing to the irresistible lure of dead bird decoys, he got some good old-school, classic pigeon shooting and despatched four or five pigeons.

pigeon shooter

Tom found the shorter stocked shotguns too light for him

We were on a time limit though because we could see bad weather drawing in, so with the other three guns still to shoot we had to cut short Carl’s fun with the .410. Carl moved onto the 28-bore Cogswell & Harrison. He treated it similarly to the .410 — he was selective and birds continued to decoy well, but it was hard for him to shoot with it as it was small and light. He worked away, frustrated at times, and he did shoot five or six good birds, but it wasn’t easy. I think he was pleased to put it back in its slip.

I wasn’t man enough to shoot the smaller bores; I’m a wimp when it comes to the thought of missing a shot and chucking toothpicks about isn’t for me. Instead I took on the pigeons with the Perazzi MX 20 and my MX12.

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The MX20 was short in the stock and the barrels were only 28in long; I struggled to control it and didn’t set the world on fire with it. With a bit of practice I could have been more effective, but not on this occasion. It was a well-balanced gun though with very crisp trigger pulls; but for me it was just too light. (That’s my excuse for a below-average performance, anyway.)

With my MX12 in hand normal form was resumed, though it nonetheless took a bit of time to readjust, which goes to show how chopping and changing guns means you will struggle to shoot with any consistency. I shot a dozen or so pigeons, and we had finished on 37 in total, before it was time to pack away. The dark clouds were looming and becoming more menacing by the second.

Man pigeon shooting

Carl takes aim with a 28-bore Cogswell & Harrison shotgun

How to find the right gun for you

You can’t run the 100m to the best of your ability if your running spikes don’t fit. Shooting is no different. Your gun has to fit correctly and the weight and balance has to be right.

What you shoot with is a personal choice but there are key factors to bear in mind:

  • Is it well made and reliable? A good investment will be a gun that won’t let you down if you look after it well.
  • Is it compatible with your size and strength? This will determine the bore of the gun and its weight.
  • Does it fit? Style and technique 
aside, your gun must fit you properly 
so that you are able to shoot to the best of your ability.
  • Is the barrel length right? Short barrels don’t give you as much control as longer barrels. I recommend 30in barrels across the board, from anyone starting out to those who shoot 
a reasonable amount.
  • What choke? Ideal chokes are half and half or three-quarters and three-quarters, fixed. These are very good 
all-round game chokes.

pigeon shooting cartridges

Safety is paramount

When you are shooting with different calibres like this, it is vital that you keep all cartridges separate – put them in separate bags and double check them constantly so that there’s never any danger of a mix-up. Most dangerous is the combination of 12- and 20-bore cartridges (above).