Thursday, January 26th, 2023
Thursday, January 26th, 2023

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The ‘ideal’ grouse gun? A matter of fit and choice

Contributing Editor

Want to start a fight in grouse camp? Just ask a couple of rabid
grouse hunters to name the ideal grouse gun. Most brush-worn
uplanders have experimented with several guns over the years,
seeking the perfect piece. Some settle on one and use it for
decades. Others show up in the popple woods with a new toy every
season. No matter how well you shoot, you’re bound to hit a slump
some day and wonder whether if it’s you or your gun. “If I had the
perfect gun, those birds wouldn’t stand a chance,” you think, and
so the search begins

Since grouse hunters come in a variety of sizes, shapes and
budgets, no single shotgun will work for everyone. Without
oversimplifying this complex subject, the perfect grouse gun ought
to have at least several features. It should be light enough to
carry for a half day or more without fatiguing the shooter. It
should allow for a quick second shot in case two birds flush at
once or in rapid succession (or in case your first shot misses). It
should come up the same way every time and point where you

This last feature is the most important of the three because a
gun that fits is a gun that hits.

You can debate gauge, choke, barrel length, action, stock design
and other features all you want, but consider these facts: grouse
may be hard to hit, but it only takes a few pellets to knock one
down; most shots come at close range; most grouse are flushed in
dense cover. A good grouse gun, then, mounts easily in brush,
throws a broad pattern, and puts at least some of that pattern on
the bird.

One champion skeet shooter I know hunts grouse with a .410
side-by-side. Another acquaintance swears by his 12-gauge
autoloader, arguing that the more lead he puts out there, the
better his chances of at least breaking a wing. In a good year,
both gunners hit better than 40 percent of the grouse they shoot

For years, I shot at grouse with a 12-gauge Remington Model 870
pump with a plain, 28-inch modified choke barrel because it was all
I had. When I bought a 26-inch, ventilated-rib I/C barrel for it,
the birds started falling more regularly. When I went to a 20-gauge
Lightweight model, my hit-to-shot ratio went up again.

Then Ruger introduced the Red Label, and I decided I needed an
over-and-under if I was going to hunt grouse seriously. I’m still
shooting the 20-gauge Red Label I bought in 1980. It’s a tad heavy
as O/Us go, but it fits me well and I shoot it as well as I do an
870. I use this pre-choke-tube model, bored I/C and modified, for
grouse, woodcock, pheasants and sharptails, as well as for ducks
over decoys and jump-shooting rivers and potholes.

I’ve hunted with a fair number of grouse gunners who are better
shots than I, and each has his pet shotgun. The lineup would fill
the gun racks at a well-stocked gun store. Some, you could pick up
for a song; some would cost more than a used late-model SUV. In
each case, the gun fit the shooter like an old slipper, and the
birds fell.

My high-school buddy Dick Tracy still shoots the 16-gauge Savage
Model 775A autoloader he used 40 years ago. Dick took a lot of
ribbing about his name, until people saw him shoot. The best
natural wing shot I ever hunted with, Dick also led our undefeated
high-school rifle team to a ranking of fifth in the nation our
senior year. Of his old Savage, Dick says: “It has always swung
real smoothly for me, as you may remember.” I remember well. Its
28-inch modified barrel was no handicap in his hands.

Another friend, the late Bob Sneed, of Washburn, shot a 20-gauge
Winchester Model 21 side-by-side. Bob’s son, Mark, himself an avid
grouse hunter, said: “It was the quality and the fit that he
appreciated. When a grouse got up, that gun was a part of him. It
came up like an old friend, and down the grouse went.”

Hamline University biology professor John Brennan, with whom I
hunted grouse regularly in the 1980s, shot a 16-gauge Model 21 on
occasion, but his primary grouse gun was a 20-gauge Winchester
Model 101 O/U, which he prized for its lightness. John and I would
sometimes hunt 10-hour days in aspen and alder cover in the far
north, or oak and jack pine in the central counties. When you hunt
all day, you appreciate every ounce you can shave from gun and
gear. John was as deadly on birds at sunset as he was in the

I’ve hunted once each with two past presidents of the Ruffed
Grouse Society, both of whom shot 20-gauge doubles. Stan Armour
shot a Diana Grade Belgian-made Browning Superposed, the undisputed
queen of classic O/Us. Dave Uihlein shot an American-made
side-by-side, an L.C. Smith, I think. Both accounted for their
share of birds.

If you can, shoot several different guns before you pick out a
new or replacement grouse gun. At a recent outdoors writers
conference in Sioux Falls, S.D., I shot five-stand sporting clays
with guns provided by manufacturers who like to get their new
models into writers’ hands. The only O/Us there were Browning
Citoris. I couldn’t hit a thing with them. Never could shoot one
and still can’t. Some guys love them, but they don’t fit me well
and my shooting shows it. I smoked them, however, with Winchester
and Remington autoloaders in 12 and 20 gauge and with a 16-gauge
870 I almost bought on the spot.

Many shooting writers with more experience have written reams on
this subject. In the first half of the last century, the
side-by-side was the choice of most. Later, O/Us and autoloaders
found favor. The arguments for any of them are endless. Double guns
are shorter and easier to handle in brush. Most side-by-sides are
lighter than most O/Us. Autos and pumps point naturally.

Burton Spiller, author of the classics Grouse Feathers, More
Grouse Feathers, and Drummer in the Woods, began his 60-year
grouse-hunting career with a 10-gauge side-by-side that weighed “a
shade under nine pounds.” Spiller went through countless shotguns
in that time, but his favorite was a 12-gauge Parker double.

In The Gallant Grouse, author Cecil Heacox says Leo Martin, who
headed the gun department at Abercrombie & Fitch in New York
(the original A&F was America’s classiest sporting goods
store), liked the Winchester Model 21 because it “moves readily,
mounts quickly and swings fast.” Leo’s choice was a 12-gauge with
26-inch barrels, bored I/C and modified. He believed a short stock
made a gun fit tight to the shoulder and said the stock should be
“just long enough so, on the recoil, your thumb doesn’t hit your

Frank Woolner, author of Grouse and Grouse Hunting, customized a
three-shot, 12-gauge, glass-barreled Winchester Win-Lite Model 59
autoloader, chopping the barrel to a 23-inch cylinder bore and
removing the forearm. He carried the resulting 5-pound, 11-ounce
piece easily in one hand.

The next generation of hunting writers among them Nick Sisley,
Dave Duffey and Don Johnson all have their favorites as well.
Sisley likes Franchi autoloaders, 20-gauge for early season and
12-gauge for late. The last time I hunted with Duffey, he shot a
20-gauge Red Label. In Grouse & Woodcock, A Gunner’s Guide,
Johnson gives a partial list of the grouse guns he has owned over
the years. He finally settled on a pair of SKB side-by-sides in 12
and 20 gauge. In his chapter on Guns and Gunning, Johnson sums up
the best advice anyone can give to the shooter in search of the
ideal grouse gun: “Friend, just use whatever works for you.”

It all boils down to this: find a gun that fits, one that shoots
where you look, one you can carry comfortably in the brush, and
you’ll hit more birds.

Now that we’ve settled that argument, want to start another
fight? Ask your grouse hunting buddies to name the ideal grouse

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