A-hunting we will go

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Deer season opens on Monday. Or rather, that’s when the shotgun season starts. Archery season is already open, but I’m not even close to being able to go out with a bow and arrow.

Unfortunately, I don’t even feel close to going out with a shotgun.

My shotgun is a 20 gauge Remington 870 with two interchangeable barrels. One is for hunting birds with shot. The other for hunting larger, four-footed animals with slugs.

When I first hear that you could go hunting with slugs, I wondered how that worked. I know you can go hunting with dogs, and they flush the birds for you. You can go hunting with falcons, which will actually go kill your prey and bring it back to you. But slugs?

The projectile in a Remington AccuTip Sabot Slug (image borrowed from remington.com)

No, not those kinds of slugs. The kind of slugs that are like bullets, only housed in a shell that fits it to a shotgun rather than a rifle.

It was only about fifteen minutes ago that I learned the difference between a shotgun and a rifle, so let me show off my shiny new knowledge by explaining it to you. The inside of the barrel of a shotgun is smooth, and the ordinary projectile is a pack of little lead or steel balls (shot) that disperse as they leave the muzzle of the gun.

The inside of the barrel of a rifle is, predictably, rifled. That is, it has grooves that run in a spiral down its length. They give spin to the projectile, which is a bullet, and the spin imparts both speed and accuracy.

For reasons that have more to do with gun laws than ballistic science, a shotgun with a rifled barrel is still a shotgun. The walls of the barrel are thinner than that of a rifle, and the slugs that come out of it don’t have the long-distance range that rifle bullets have. They are, however, accurate at distances somewhat north of 100 yards – in the right hands.

Mine, I found out last week, are not the right hands.

For the first time, I put the rifled barrel on the gun and went to the range. We’d bought sabot slugs, which are designed for use in rifled barrels (the sabot is the plastic case around the slug, that engages the rifling and keeps the slug in the middle of the barrel), and are very expensive. On sale for half price, a box of five was ten bucks. By contrast, a box of 25 shotgun shells can be as little as six dollars.

At the range, we put targets on the board that’s fifty yards from the shooting bench. I loaded one slug and took aim. I carefully lined up the front and rear sights, and tried to stay as still as possible. I squeezed the trigger, willing the slug to hit the target.

When the gun discharged, I was stunned. The noise was so loud, and the recoil so strong, that I felt as though I’d been physically assaulted. I was expecting the standard-issue bang I was used to from shooting shot shells. But it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t anything close to the same.

Kevin thought I was hurt. “Are you okay?” he asked.

Our gun range, with guns

He had to ask twice before I told him I was fine, just really, really surprised. So surprised that I violated the first rule of gun safety. I pointed the muzzle in an unsafe direction. In this case, at the guy sitting a few feet away, aiming his 22. My gun wasn’t loaded, but that’s not the point.

It took me a couple minutes to recover. The shot had set adrenaline flowing, and I needed to wait for it to dissipate before I tried again.

The good news was, I hit the target. By which I mean the piece of paper that had the target printed on it. I was a good six inches away from the center, where I’d been aiming. Six inches off at fifty yards isn’t good.

All my shots but one hit the target, but none was as close to the center as I’d like. We tried to get back to the range to practice earlier this week, but it was closed for police training. So I’ll be headed out at the crack of dawn, first day of deer season, with very little confidence in my shotgun skills.

What that means is, I’ll take only a wide-open shot, at very close range. It’s highly unlikely that such a thing will present itself but, if it does, Kevin, who is a very good shot, will be there to back me up. We have no qualms about having a second hunter bring down a deer that the first hunter has wounded.

Given that our hunting camera (also known as the VarmintCam, now employed in the pursuit for which it was intended) has turned up not the faintest trace of a deer at our chosen site, the odds that I’ll have an opportunity to take a shot on the first morning are slim. And I’ll have a chance to get to the range again before we go out again.

But that’s not the only reason I approach deer season with trepidation. The bottom line is that, despite having taken many hours of gun safety instruction, shot trap and skeet, practiced at the range, and gone pheasant hunting, guns still scare the bejeezus out of me.

Does that ever go away?

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Comments

  1. For my two cents, I think a healthy respect/fear for guns will stand you in good stead, make sure you are never overly familiar / take them for granted. But I speak as someone who has never picked up a gun in her life!
    Good luck on your first day hunting for deer.

  2. I don’t think it should. Having been around guns all my life, I still have a pretty healthy fear/respect for them. I don’t like them in the room, I don’t like watching people mess with them, and I think they should only be out for three reasons: to sight, to clean, to hunt. Maybe skeet shooting. Because it sure is fun. Tamar, you should be proud of yourself. You don’t just pick up a gun, or anything else for that matter and hack away at it. You educate yourself, and in turn you educate us. Thanks! Good luck this season!

  3. Guess what? We took advantage of my uncle’s expertise with guns (he was visiting for the Thanksgiving holiday) to go shopping for guns yesterday. We only intended to have him walk us through the gun store and hear his comments. But there was a sale on (of course!) and he said the regular prices were good, so we ended up buying the gun we’d been pretty sure we wanted before we ever set foot in the store: a 12 gauge Remington 870. (He said the universally recognized “chk-chk” sound will make any home intruder pucker.) We’d already decided that a guns(s) purchase and gun club memberships were going to be our Christmas presents to each other this year, but I didn’t quite expect to have them yesterday. So all your hunting and shooting posts are going to be extra relevant for me, Tamar! I’m pretty much where you are – clueless in gun lore and needing plenty of practice. I’m willing to learn vicariously as much as possible!

    Good luck with hunting season. Some venison would be awesome!

  4. It does go away. You’re not scared just unsure of what the gun can do (besides the obvious of course, which creates the uneasiness). When I first learned to shoot deer I took a Kevin with me, to back me up in case I miss or wounded it, and just as a confidence builder. It helped me take my first tentative steps too.

    Once you’ve shot your first deer, unaided or otherwise, I bet you’ll feel much better about the whole process. and nothing tastes better than the venison you provided yourself.

    The recoil is an unfortunate by-product. I still get a bruised right shoulder from heavy use of my shotgun but it’s only sore for a bit. I know to expect it post-shooting so I don’t worry about it now. But it is startling at first. The fear of the recoil can make you ‘pull’ your shot because you’re flinching in anticipation.

    I don’t get any problems at all with my Remington .308 rifle. It’s a big gun but I only put a couple shots through it for a deer. If you’re shooting at birds, you can easily put 20+ cartridges through your shotgun. That’ll leave a bruise.

    Does your rilfe barrel have a scope or is it open sighted?

  5. Oh man- I wanna join the girl gun club!

    It’ll never happen, of course.

    I expect that your feelings about your gun will be a lot like my feelings for my power tools. You’ll get more comfortable using it, but you’ll never forget that it can take a finger off or worse through misapplication of attention.

    Good luck with your hunting!

  6. Maria — That’s exactly what I’m trying to find: the difference between healthy respect and abject fear. I’d like to keep the former but lose the latter.

    Brooke — Like Maria said — healthy is good. And I sure hope there aren’t a lot of people just picking up guns and hacking away! Particularly since I’m about to hide out in a deer blind just when the woods is crawling with people with shotguns.

    Kate — Your experience sounds just like mine! We went to look, so I could get a feel for guns and see what the choices were, and we walked out with a Remington 870 20 gauge. Since we’re too far away from each other to actually go to the range together, I’ll make you a deal. I’ll write about my most embarrassing, ignominious moments with firearms, if you’ll do the same. That way, maybe we can each avoid some of the others’ mistakes.

    Congratulations on taking the plunge into gun ownership.

    Jen — Thanks for the encouragement. Getting your level of proficiency and comfort is only a pipe dream for me, but I’m hoping regular use, and maybe a deer, will put me a little more at ease.

    The shot recoil hasn’t bothered me yet — but my biggest day was only 50 shots. The slug recoil is bigger by an order of magnitude. And you’re right about the problem being the pre-shot flinch. I found myself thinking about the recoil as I was trying to take the shot, and that can’t be good.

    The rifled barrel is open-sighted. Do you think a scope would help? We’re talking inside 50 yards here.

    Paula — And why, may I ask, will it never happen? If you want to try to hunt, you should. Check your state regulations. Take the class. Borrow a gun and get an experienced shooter to go to the range with you, or find a club where someone will help a novice (I had a great experience at the Bass River Rod & Gun club). You can buy a used shotgun for short money. If it interests you, don’t write it off. You don’t want me to have to stage an intervention …

    • Tamar, it may be a while before my first embarrassing gun incident, but you’re on. In the meantime, I’ll just say that my gun expert uncle took a bunch of family and friends shooting at his local gun club three years ago when his daughter (my cousin) got married, and we were all in town. It was two days before the wedding. We started with shotguns and trap. I did okay until the 5th or 6th pull, and then somehow didn’t brace the shotgun against my shoulder. Even with just shells, the recoil was substantial for someone who didn’t know what the hell she was doing. I ended up with an ugly, 4-inch, black-and-blue bruise on my upper arm. And of course the outfit I’d brought for the wedding was sleeveless. I managed to borrow a shawl to hide my shame. Some lessons are learned the hard way however.

  7. “Ballistic science” may be a redundancy, like ATM machine and PIN number, and “ballistics” the science you’re discussing. The gun, according to my favorite Luddites, Lewis Mumford, is “a one cylinder combustion engine.” I don’t know if Mumford is right about that. Either way, I think anyone who can drive a car can drive a gun. Automatics, guns and cars, make me a bit nervous. Truth is, I prefer tools to machines. I’d like to try hunting with a bow. Good luck and be careful.

  8. Everyone feels differently around guns, I guess. As you and others have noted, Tamar, serious respect is crucial, while abject fear may make your firearm-handling less safe.

    Recoil: It’s a serious issue for the new shooter and has a huge effect on accuracy. When I picked a rifle, I went for one with the best possible balance of effective power and low-to-moderate recoil. With a shotgun, I suspect you have fewer choices in guns, slugs, and charges. The heavier the gun, of course, the more recoil it will absorb.

    Someday, you might want to try a blackpowder rifle, which can be used during the Mass shotgun season (and, obviously, during blackpowder season). They can be fussy, but if you’re choosing your own bullet/ball weight and also the number of grains of powder, you can diminish recoil and still have a very effective weapon for eastern woods hunting.

    Accuracy: Given that you’re hunting in eastern woods, 50 yards is going to be a long shot. Chances are that most clear opportunities you get will be more like 20 or 30 yards.

  9. P.S. For sights, I’d suggest either a peep-sight (we can talk details sometime, if you want) or, probably better, a low-power scope (1-4x). Both, I think, are easier to master than standard open sights.

  10. Ooooh, I don’t envy you having to hunt with a shotgun. Not that I’ve ever hunted with a slug gun, but I really like my rifle.

    Couple thoughts:

    1) Don’t ever take a shot you don’t feel prepared for, no matter who’s egging you on (not that your husband would do that, but I’ve hunted with LOTS of men who tried to get me to take shots that were way outside of my comfort zone). You know your limits – don’t be afraid to assert them.

    2) When you pull the trigger on a deer, you will not feel the recoil and you will barely hear the sound – you will be in a zone. But, if recoil is bothering you at the range, get a strap-on shooting pad for your shoulder – even though you won’t feel recoil in the field, you can still develop a nasty flinch at the gun range, and it will go with you into the field. Flinch = missing or crippling.

    3) I suspect you’ll get way more comfortable with guns, and the safety rules will become automatic habit, but you’ll probably never lose your respect for them. I am constantly aware of the fact that a little bit of carelessness could blow a large hole into my body or someone else’s.

    Good luck, Tamar! And remember, blog posts about getting nothing are almost always more entertaining than the ones about getting something! I know from personal experience. 😉

  11. Hey – that gun photo shows the area peppered with holes. I figured the bullets should go up the other end of the range?!

  12. Goose — Good call on “ballistic science.” “Ballistics” would have been the right choice. I gotta say, though, a compound bow scares me as much as a gun.

    Tovar — I would very much like to try muzzleloader season, and we even looked at guns for the purpose. What with my gun, all the ammunition, and various other hunting supplies, we figured we’d spent enough given that we didn’t even know if I’d like to hunt. Next year, though, next year.

    Putting a different sight on my 20-gauge is a definite possibility. I’m going to get through the next two weeks (aka the deer season) with what I have, but after that I may well look at other possibilities, and I’ll be seeking your advice.

    NorCal — As I write this, I just published a hunting failure post. They practically write themselves!

    Thanks for the advice on only taking shots I’m comfortable with. You’re right that Kevin would never encourage me to take a shot I was iff on, and my plan is to be very, very conservative.

    I envy you your experience and expertise.

    Kingsley — That very same thought crossed my mind! While we were there, though, everyone shot down range.

  13. Although I didn’t start hunting until later in life, I did a fair amount of shooting when I was a kid. So I was already used to guns and felt comfortable around them. Still, I can relate; someone commenting on one of your earlier posts made the chainsaw comparison. They scare the hell out of me.

    Even if you know all the rules, and even if you’re careful, chainsaws can still hurt you–especially if you’re inexperienced and don’t know what you’re doing. And then there’s the vicious killer trees. Just a couple months ago, I tried to fell an oak tree in a direction it didn’t really want to go. Despite what I ignorantly thought was a nice hinge cut aiming it the other direction, that tree really wanted to come toward me. I sprinted just fast enough so the branch that knocked me to my knees was a small, slender one out toward the end, and I am still here today typing this.

    A rifle would never do that to me. I can trust it. Myself, I feel much more control and competence with a gun than I do with a chainsaw. But that’s just me. You may feel about guns the way I do about chainsaws.

    Rationally speaking, a gun will never shoot where you’re not pointing it. And even then, it needs to be loaded and you need to have the safety off and have your finger on the trigger. As tools go, it’s a pretty safe one. Still, nonrationally, you feel what you feel. May you someday come to feel comfort, but still respect and caution.

    I agree with Tovar’s suggestion about a scope for next year. Iron sights are tricky, especially in low light when you’re more likely to see deer. In the best of circumstances, shooting accurately with them is a whole extra skill. And, while I’d never bring this up, in an earlier post you did mention a recent birthday. Being a couple years older still, I’ve found that iron sights are harder to shoot with than they once were.

    As far as recoil… A 20 gauge is at least better than a 12. Beyond that, you can also get special “low recoil” slugs that are a little less powerful, but still adequate. Inside 80 or 100 yards, the deer will never know the difference. You’re already wearing hearing protection at the range, right? Sometimes the sound is worse than the kick when it comes to inducing a flinch.

    Finally, a suggestion for accuracy; this will also help with recoil. Buy one more gun, a rifle that you’ll use for practicing (and maybe for small game, but maybe just for practice). It could be a .22 rimfire, or even a high quality air rifle. The air rifle thing may not sound macho, but in the Olympics competitors use $3,000 air rifles that are fairly accurate. They practice some. (You don’t, of course, need to spend nearly that much.)

    Either way, it will be inexpensive, low-recoil, flinch-free shooting that allows you to really concentrate on building skills. Shoot slowly and pay attention to what you’re doing. Perfect practice makes perfect.

    Shooting a rifle is a different skill from wingshooting. But you’ll do OK this year (use a rest if you can), and by next year you’ll be feeling lots more confident.

    Good luck out there; still a week and a half to go….