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You Do Not Need a Double Gun to be an Upland Hunter

You Do Not Need a Double Gun to be an Upland Hunter

a ruffed grouse hunt using a semi-automatic shotgun.

An exploration into the personal ethics and community of upland hunting shotguns

Lately, there has been an increasing amount of “heat” around the shotgun choices of upland hunters of every stage and stripe. Now, the rant that could follow that statement could be contained in volumes. Instead of adding to the rants, we have decided to take the approach of addressing each myth one-by-one over the course of time so as not to cause a larger and more hostile panic from any one camp. This first myth I’d like to address is the idea that you need to shoot a double gun to be a bird hunter. The conversation certainly has some depth to it as that perception increases and decreases depending on which subculture you find yourself in. But here’s the short form summary of this whole article – shoot whatever shotgun that works for you.

I will start first in the area I’m most seasoned – ruffed grouse hunting. Double guns are a beautiful thing. I personally made the switch some six or so years ago. It’s possible I would have sooner, but money was always a factor. Before I toted my first over-and-under, I shot an 870 pump Youth Model 20-gauge. It’s still in my safe and I still use it on the rare occasion I deer hunt. It kills deer, and ruffed grouse, without discrimination. No grouse has yet to cry “fowl.”

Some years back, I handed a semi-automatic shotgun to one of my camera guys. A grouse got up and he shot it (on the wing) with one shot. Later that day, another cameraman shot his first grouse with an 870 pump (again, on the wing). Then a bird got shot in the road, with a double gun. It was that gentleman’s first . . .

A first grouse taken during a Project Upland film shoot.

All versions of the above story are potentially frowned upon in the eyes of the some based on two factors: choice of gun and location of the grouse. Beginning with the issue of gun choice, the fact of the matter is that Fox, Parker, and L.C. Smith typically don’t make good entry-level shotguns. Neither do premium Italian-crafted over-and-under or European side-by-side brands. And regarding the location of the grouse, can you honestly say you’ve never shot a grouse in the “pre-flight” position? If yes, more power to you. Either way, I only ask that you remember where you started and where somebody else might be on the spectrum of newbie to pro.

There are certainly ethics to be observed when you take to the field as well as laws that are required, not suggested. But the particular ethics I am talking about here are relative to the person, not normative to the whole world of grouse hunting. And just because one hunter has confined their personal ethic to only shooting grouse over a staunch pointing dog while carrying a vintage side-by-side and then kneeling as their English setter returns the bird to hand, that doesn’t mean that someone else’s approach is wrong. The reality is most ruffed grouse rarely behave for anyone and, statistically speaking, the setter most likely didn’t bring the bird back to hand. (Sorry, I love setters, but we all know it’s true). And the irony is that many of these advocates sometimes seem to have amnesia about how they arrived at their current ethical framework.

Personal standards dictate the use of a double gun, not some official rule of grouse hunting. No one is shooting up hordes of grouse because they have semi-automatics. The ruffed grouse himself sees to that, challenging as he is. Additionally, I have no doubt that birds will always be shot off roads (unless it’s outlawed) no matter the gauge, action, or age of a shotgun. And quite frankly, if you think any of the above is the true threat to the future of ruffed grouse populations – wake up, there are bigger issues.

Semi-automatics catch the most flak in the upland world. Less so in the Western states, but especially in the South. Our recent film Flushing Grouse particularly caught some isolated grumbling. According to some, you cannot use a semi-automatic to shoot at ruffed grouse! Imagine now if they are public land quail, and the hunters are following up on singles! Perhaps it would be more acceptable at the $3000 per day hunting experience where the birds are “managed” in a different manner? But then again, if you can afford $3000 a day for bobwhite quail hunting, you can probably afford the London Best . . . no need for that all-around semi-auto. Ethical dilemma solved.

A bobwhite quail taken on public land with a semi-automatic shotgun.

I cannot say I’ve ever heard or seen a rant from or against those chukar folks — who generally seem like more of a sadistic club than those in the grouse hunting community — about what gun you can and cannot use. Apparently, they seem more concerned with running up impossible terrain while trying not to break an ankle than to worry about someone’s superior opinion.

The same goes for the pheasant hunting world. Not that I’ve ever shot a wild pheasant, but some of the New England stocked birds I happen upon in American woodcock covers certainly can take the heat. I will take any shots I’m afforded (I’ve got a hungry freezer) and that seems to be the sentiment of the general community.

Read: The Difference Between Upland Purists and Opportunist

In short, you should shoot the shotgun that works for you. You should make your decision based on what matters to you, whether it’s price, fit, or anything else that has nothing to do with my (or anyone else’s) life and opinions. Upland hunting is a single user experience with a very large and intertwined community. Follow the laws, be mindful of the conservation issues that surround your pursuit, and don’t forget about ethics. If anyone has a case to make for this gun over that or this method of take versus that, we should be glad to hear it. And also glad, if their cases don’t woo us, to shrug it off and go about our business.

And to those that would insist on a certain type of gun or a certain type of method of take, I can guarantee that no one’s mind was ever changed by a red-faced judgemental rant. You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.

Sure I shoot a side-by-side these days, but that’s my bubble and while I write this, my semi-auto is sitting by my desk ready to be cleaned after a solid turkey hunting season.

View Comments (17)
  • A side by side or o/u break open action is inherently safer. For those who hunt with repeaters rarely if ever observe safety precautions ingrained for many of us using double guns afield. This was emphasized to those of us who learned hunter safety in my Bucks County Pennsylvania community in the 1950’s – 1960’s. I routinely break the action upon negotiating myriad obstacles encountered pursuing quail in rugged hilly terrain here in California.

    • Just read this article. Agree 100%. We need more hunters especially YOUTH in the grouse woods and uplands. I own and hunt with 2 very exclusively bred bird dogs from top breeders because I love dogs. I also have owned several very expensive side by side and over unders. All have been sold because my old beat up semi fits me best and gives my dogs the best chance to retrieve a bird (Far more important to my overall experience than type of gun). As to nostalgia and tradition, Frank Wolner used a semi. I now have only one shotgun that I use for all upland, an old cheap semi. My dogs and I are just as happy. I take the extra money I made selling and not buying guns and gave it to the ruffed grouse society and the rest is spent on hunting trips. Like what you like, enjoy the hunt, your dogs, the hunting community, AND Live and let live. Support each other, our sport, the conservation groups that keep it going and enjoy each other’s gear choices. Variety is the spice of life.

  • 100% agree with the author. “Use what works for you”. I own side x sides, an over-under, a semi and started hunting with a New Haven pump that I used for years. I’m constantly switching up guns that I feel match or give me an advantage on the different bird species we hunt. Beaters and repeaters on Chukars, double guns on grouse and whatever strikes my fancy on quail and pheasants or any bird for that matter. I enjoy all types of guns, why shame yourself or others into thinking it needs to be a certain type of action.
    Also, you can take that an extra measure of safety using a repeater. Just open the bolt when crossing rough terrain, fences and such. That’s what we were taught and how me and my hunting partners have always handled the semis and pumps in the field.

    • Surprised this needed to be said. Side by sides are going the way of the dinosaur as older owners selling off their vintage guns with few buyers. Younger hunters drawn to modern guns. I love the tradition of double guns but would never judge anyone’s choice in the uplands.c

  • As someone who’s spent several decades hunting most of the birds the plains and woods offer, that advice makes sense. Carry the gun you can afford and the gun that makes it fun. The rest is pretty simple: follow the rules and don’t be a jackass. These days I’m less about the head-count and more about the experience — living in the moment. I love the traditions and the connections to our past, and usually carry a simple, classic shotgun. A pump, a hump-back auto, a double … they’re all older than me and most aren’t particularly valuable, but they all do the job and none is just a tool.

  • Nice write up on what can be a touchy topic. It brought back some fond memories.
    The gentleman who taught me to bird hunt, over 50 years ago, carried an old Winchester Model 97 he learned to shoot in the army (WWI). The Model 97 (1897) was a pump action that came in at over 8 lbs and would not be labeled “fancy”. He had choice comments for the “sports” who carried fancy guns and worried more about the hardware than they did about actually hunting. He would waste no time telling me he’d rather spend his money on dogs and hunting trips. I spent my early years on numerous hunting trips watching an 80+ year old drop grouse, pheasants and ducks with that old gun.

    As an earlier post wrote, don’t over think it and have fun. It’s not about the gun.

  • This article should be required reading by the staff and management at the Pine Ridge grouse camp, among others. Sometimes the real point of the excercise is missed.
    40+ years an upland hunter.

  • The upland world, especially of the grouse persuasion, is at the moment inherently elitist. While the guns are just the start, it encompasses dogs, gear, covers, and even amazingly enough hunting style. The culture has been molded in this fashion for the better part of a century. I have seen first hand how those who have embraced that culture shun anyone looking in. This mindset has had so many negative repercussions. Thankfully some of the younger generation (Project Upland and others) have started to shed this way of thinking and broken into this world to bring access to the masses whether or not the old timers like it. We need more tattoos and beat up semi-autos. Bring the short haired dogs, the bearded dogs and the breeds nobody has heard of. We don’t need fancy expensive gear, we need more men and women picking up a scatter gun to kick up dust and follow a dog.

  • I love hunting chukar with a side by side. But for financial reasons I too started with a pump. My thought is, like yours, whatever gun works for you, but seriously, it’s always more fun with a side by side.

  • I prefer my hunting partners to use a double as it’s easier for me to see that the gun is safe for fence crossings and other situations where muzzle control is a challenge. For those who think they don’t need to open the action in these situations, no matter if they are double or repeating guns, consider an accident that happened a few years ago where a pheasant hunter laid his loaded gun flat on the ground before crossing a fence before his dog stepped on the trigger and shot him in the foot!

  • To each his own but on the plains or in the grouse woods, most outfitters (especially if you are hunting over their dogs) will tell you that they feel much safer around a break action than a repeater. For themselves and their dogs. My Remington 11-48, Poly Choke and all, hasn’t been in the upland in 40 years.

    PS – Shooting a bird on the ground is unsportsmanlike no matter what you shoot it with.

  • Having started my hunting life with a single shot 16 gauge for many years, I eventually moved up to a Wingmaster pump Gun. This did me fine for several more. As I worked I eventually thought I needed a double. Bought my first with double triggers. This barely lasted a season as the safety tang kept hitting my finger eventually causing me to flinch from discomfort. Ya, some may say I should have had the gun fitted but my pockets weren’t full of money to spend on this. This was one of the few guns that found its way out of my safe and I opted for another O/U which I found long hunts it was a bit heavier than I cared for. Kept it for several years but regular shot my pump gun on trips requiring to carry for multiple days of hunting. I even bought another different brand which I came to like pretty well. It too was a bit heavy but not so much. A forearm injury caused me to once again look at other options. Where we hunt in the west we expect to walk 5-10 miles a day. This brought me to my current shotgun, a relatively inexpensive but lightweight Semiauto. As with my wingmaster this shot well out of the box and could be carried all day.
    I’m not a snob, don’t own nor can I afford expensive guns. Buy what fits your style and by all means don’t be afraid to show up at the range or in the field with the gun you expect to shoot. Some say you have to own a pointer to be a bird hunter. Those of us with spaniels know otherwise. There’s always some asshat who believes their tool is the only correct one for the job.

  • To recap: A doublegunner looking down on anyone shooting anything else is a snob. Anyone shooting birds on the ground is a slob. A doublegunner shooting birds on the ground is a snobby slob.

  • I have reached the point in my life that I now use a lovely little Superposed 20 ga. Pigeon grade. But I’m still known to take my A5 20 , 1100 28 , or my first shotgun , a Mossberg 500 12.
    Great article and even better lesson for everyone !

  • I hunt for sustenance. Winters here are harsh and my family relies on game (moose and birds) I bring home for food. I will not hesitate to shoot a duck on the water or a bird on the ground. Being on the Northeast of Canada we are not in a flyway or migration pathway. All land as far as anyone is willing to travel, is public access. Even though our grouse population is dense, the forest is even more dense and unmanaged. The bird in front of you is the only one you may see in quite some time so you must take every opportunity to shoot. Ethically, I am at peace with this because my family can enjoy a meal. Nobody I know hunts with doubles, and very few people grouse or ptarmigan hunting here use dogs. I have never seen a double gun in the “wild” here. Cheap pumps and single shots rule the woods here. Nobody uses autos because they freeze up solid in the cold. I do not judge anyone’s hunting style and I dream of hunting pheasant over dogs someday…. We are all hunters here and should not look down on someone for their choice of firearm or hunting style.

  • In and of itself, whatever works for you is fine. However, if you are involved in AKC Upland Hunt Tests, double barrel, break guns are the only guns allowed. The main reason being safety for the Hunter and the dogs. The first time I attended an AKC Upland hunt club, I didn’t own a double barrel break gun. I came without a semi-automatic. The people there said no. At first, I thought perhaps they are snobby. I came to understand the safety factor. With a double barrel everyone can see if your gun is safe. And if you practice closing the gun only once the bird is in flight, an additional safety layer. I think there is much to commend for a double barrel gun when dogs are used in the field.

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