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Wiltz: Know your shotgun before hunting pheasants

In the fall of 1960, two years of ROTC were required of all male students at what was then South Dakota State College. In one of my first ROTC classes, joining the rifle team was encouraged. I checked it out. There was a range in the armory basement, we had access to superb Model 52 Winchesters, and we could shoot any time we wanted.

The best part? The ammo was free.

ROTC must have thought I could shoot, for they wanted me on the rifle team. I passed it up, and I see it a one of the biggest mistakes I've ever made. At the time, I suppose I thought I was busy enough with football, engineering classes and a job. I was also becoming acquainted with hunting.

In looking back, I don't remember missing a running deer, fox or coyote until my debilitating tremor started to get the best of me in the 80's. While my rifle marksmanship is history, I can still handle a shotgun. What I can do with a shotgun doesn't relate much to skill. It all has to do with understanding shotgun choke as in improved cylinder, modified and full.

If you question your range or distance estimation skills, walk out onto the local football field. Take along a half-gallon juice carton which is approximately the size of a rooster pheasant body. Place the carton on the 15 yard line. Now go back to the goal line and see for yourself! Most of the pheasants you shoot at are from fifteen yards out to no more than twenty!

Now put the carton on the 40 yard line and go back to the goal line. You will realize that 40 yards is a long, long shot. This is full choke territory.

Time for some choke talk. Let's talk about putting 90 percent of the shot or pellets into a circle 30 inches in diameter. At approximately 25 yards, the improved cylinder choke will put 90 percent of the pellets in a 30-inch circle. At 30-35 yards, the modified choke will put 90 percent of the pellets in the 30-inch circle. At 40 yards, the full choke will put 90 percent of the pellets in a 30-inch circle.

With an understanding of the previous paragraph, we realize that each choke has its place. A 40-yard shot with an improved cylinder choke will give too wide a pattern that is likely to miss or cripple. On the opposite end, a typical 20-yard shot with a full choke is giving us an approximate 15-inch pattern that will miss completely, clip the end of a wing, or render an inedible, pulverized bird.

A single barrel gun is somewhat limiting. The 40-yard shot with an improved cylinder choke? Pass on this shot. The 15-yard shot with a full choke? Let the bird get out there. These different situations present problems. A gun with two barrels and two different chokes is a great solution.

On opening day, assuming the birds will be holding tight, my 12-gauge over and under will be choked improved cylinder and modified. In mid-December, when the birds are wild and flighty, the chokes will be full and modified. On any day of the season, I will have a wrench and choke tubes in my pocket. The situation will dictate choke choice.

Choke and shot size are related. In general, the larger the shot, the more holes or open spaces in the pattern. This is especially true as the choke tightens. A modified choke will throw a more even pattern than a full choke. On opening day, don't use shot larger than sixes. Never use shot larger than fours for any pheasant hunting.

Do you know your gun? Do you know where it shoots? How many of today's readers/pheasant

hunters have never patterned their shotguns? I'm talking big sheets of white paper with marked centers and 30-inch diameter circles. Shooting clay birds before entering the field is fine, but it doesn't tell you whether your gun shoots slightly low and to the left. Chances are that your shotgun will shoot where you point it. However, just how well you get those 90 percent patterns at exactly 30, 35, and 40 yards varies from gun to gun. Patterning answers many questions.

Pheasants, especially mature roosters, are tough birds. With 12-gauge lead shot ammo, make certain that your ammo's muzzle velocity is at least 1300 feet per second. There's a lot of inferior stuff out there and it's too bad the old black powder equivalents aren't on the box anymore. I always looked for a 3-3/4 dram equivalent.

See you next week.