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Short Barrel or Long Barrel?

Advice for the Shooter

When I started hunting turkeys in the late 1970’s there really wasn’t much debate about barrel length for shotguns. You just used whatever you had, maybe put a little tape on it and called it a turkey gun. An old “long tom” goose gun worked just fine. Camouflage was usually some old army fatigues, maybe some that new “tiger stripe” stuff or just a pair of pretty much worn out hunting pants. Then, largely due to that new start-up organization called the NWTF, turkey hunting started to get the attention of gun makers, clothing makers and a lot more hunters.

It was about this time that most of us found out about the ability of the local gunsmith to install after-market choke tubes. He could cut the barrel of our old shotgun to a more “modern” length, thread it for choke tubes and we could use “that one gun for everything we could possibly hunt.” At least that’s what I told Doris to justify the expense of that particular operation.

Gun magazines of the time extolled the virtues of short-barreled shotguns for turkey hunting. They were easy to carry, didn’t hit limbs or saplings when you “got on target” and generally just looked special. Now I could put some tape on my “new” short-barreled gun, screw in a turkey choke tube and attach a sling and be ready for old tom.

It didn’t take long for the big gun makers to jump on that wagon. Soon we had short-barreled shotguns galore. You could get straight stocked or pistol gripped guns with 21”, 22” or 23” barrels and “wonder of wonders” with 3” chambers. Those little guns kicked like mules, bruised your cheekbones, bellowed like bulls but they killed a lot of turkeys.

In 1991 I purchased a Benelli Super Black Eagle that had a 26” barrel. I wanted a shorter barrel but one wasn’t available and “I just had to have it right now”, you know the feeling. With that gun and a $95.00 after-market choke tube, I could put 94% of my shot in a 30” circle at 30 yards. That was "state-of-the-art" at that time. I had a long barreled, fire breathing, 3½”, 2¼ oz. of shot-throwing turkey-slaying shotgun. It wasn’t much fun to shoot with those big shells but it was quite a turkey gun.

A year or two into that mission, a rascal, you know your name, talked me into having the barrel on the SBE ported. That really helped! Now my long-barreled, fire-breathing, 3½”, 2¼ oz. of shot-throwing turkey-slaying shotgun was also LOUD. VERY LOUD!

One positive thing about that gun was that due to its longer barrel with less muzzle whip, it didn't bruise my cheek like its shorter barreled cousins.

Okay, so what’s the point of this long story? What does any of this have to do with how a long barreled gun shoots versus a short-barreled gun? Well, after 30+ years of patterning shotguns, I thought that I had the answer. Short-barreled guns just didn’t pattern as well as long-barreled guns.

Short guns were much easier to carry through the woods. They looked cool and you could kill turkeys with them but they just didn’t pattern as well as guns with longer barrels. When you only get one or maybe two shots each year and that trophy bird may just be waiting for you next time, you want your gun to pattern as well as possible, right?

I learned to deal with my "long" barrel. I had it all figured out and was content to let others go to the woods with their short-barreled guns, I'd use my 26" SBE.

Since that time, I have tested and carried shotguns with barrels as short as 19" and as long as 36". How short is too short and how long is too long?

My experience says that for most shooters 26” is an optimum barrel length. A much longer barrel, especially if you’re shooting a semi-auto shotgun that will chamber a 3½” shell, makes a gun that is just too unwieldy to take to the woods. A shotgun with a barrel much shorter than 24” may not pattern well.

Now, before you tell me all about your 21” barreled side by side that throws 100% patterns at 65 yards, I’ll concede that there are exceptions to the rule. Some guns just shoot better than others. You need to know how your gun shoots and what its limitations are. Patterning is the only way that you can be sure how your particular gun shoots, regardless of barrel length.

Short barrel – long barrel? You’ll have to decide for yourself what’s best for you. I try to optimize my chances by patterning my guns and choosing the ammo/choke tube/barrel length combination that works best at the distances that I plan to shoot.

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