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Custom vs. Factory Shotgun Barrels

Custom vs. Factory Barrels


I regularly attend the qualifying  and World Championship Still Target Shoot, held at Edgefield, South Carolina. I attend both as a competitor and as an observer. I always find it interesting to see what some of the best still target shooters in the nation are shooting. I enjoy talking with them and sharing ideas and concepts but observing what they shoot, their choices of ammo, choke tubes and “custom” items, tells me what really works!


At the awards ceremony two years ago, Rob Keck, CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation, discussed the evolution of these shoots and the purpose for which they were started. He discussed the improvements in shotguns, choke tubes and ammunition over the last 10–12 years. He commented that the average shooter and hunter has more choices and better choices now than ever before. As I listened to Mr. Keck, I reflected on my personal observations over the past several years.


Manufacturers frequently ask me to test various items. I’ve adopted a policy of only testing those items that seem to make sense, are of interest to me and that may be of use to others. I only recommend items that work “as advertised” and that represent value for the money paid. Those tests have included several custom shotgun barrels. That brings me to the subject of “custom” items, my tests and my observations.


One striking observation that I've made at the World Championship Still Target Shoots is in the field of custom made shotgun barrels. For those of you not familiar with this shoot, some explanation may be helpful.


There are 5 classes at this shoot. They include 12 Gauge Open, 20 Gauge Open, 20 Gauge Ladies Hunter, 20 Gauge Youth (ages 17 and under) Hunter and 12 Gauge Hunter. Classes, with the exception of the Hunter Classes, allow modifications, including custom made barrels, to factory shotguns. All classes allow any type of sighting device. For all classes, barrels, including the choke tube, may not exceed 32”.


This is the proving ground for innovation. Several new products have been launched successfully over the years, after a debut at these shoots. Over the last several years, I've noted one interesting development. Many shooters obtained their best performances from after-market choke tubes but from factory shotgun barrels. There have been exceptions but even for those shooters using both factory and custom barrels, the factory barrels many times outperformed the custom jobs!


This mirrors my test results over the last several years. I have observed shooters who won several squads shooting factory barrels in the 12 Gauge Open class. I've also noted that several times the winning score in the Hunter class (factory barrels only) was higher than the winning score in the Open class where custom barrels are allowed. What does all this mean?


My observations are that a good factory barrel many times will equal or exceed the performance of a custom barrel.


What is a “good” factory barrel? It’s mainly one that shoots to point of aim. Some barrels, both factory and custom, just don’t shoot to point of aim. Your barrel and choke combination should be able to obtain the maximum pattern density that your ammo is capable of achieving. In 12 gauge, that may be 150 – 200 hits in a 10” circle. In 20 gauge, that may be 100 – 150 hits in that same 10” circle.


If your factory barrel and choke are delivering that type of performance, there may be little, if anything, to gain from a custom made barrel.


This is not to say that there is no need for custom made barrels with innovative chambers, lengthened forcing cones, porting, back boring etc, It is from this experimentation that innovation is born.


I’m certain that new and improved shot loads will continue to appear on the scene as will new and improved choke tubes. We’ll find better ways to tame recoil and see improvements in the clarity and durability of telescopic sights. I have no doubt that a shooter 10 years from now will take for granted improvements and innovations that we have not yet seen or even conceived.


For now however, it appears that any shooter with the necessary skills, good ammo and a good choke tube, can be quite competitive with a factory barrel.



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