Spoiled By Choice

The .300 Weatherby with 150-grain bullets did the job on the Alaska brown bear, but it was a close-run thing.

by Terry Wieland

Among the key advances in shotgunnery, according to all the books, are the inventions of choke, different pellet sizes, and the plastic shot cup. Far be it from me to question everyone from Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey, Bart., to Michael McIntosh, but sometimes an improvement carried too far becomes a curse.

To wit:  The interchangeable choke tube, which has become de rigueur on every shotgun from the humblest single-shot to the flossiest Perazzi. More than once, I’ve listened as a shooter waiting in line at a sporting-clays station has asked the man ahead of him, who just broke ten out of ten, “What choke were you using?”  This is followed by loud buzzing as everyone in line then revs up his battery-powered choke wrench to replace the 10-thou tube with a 15-thou.

Since its invention in the 1860s, the concept of a choke barrel has evolved steadily, with degrees of choke being progressively divided and subdivided, from choke to modified, to  improved modified, light full, extra full, and finally divisions based on thousandths of an inch restriction: 5-, 10-, 15-thou, etc.)

This is all very well, and certainly there are shooters who can fine-tune their choke use to get maximum effect at anything from high-house eight at Skeet, to the zippiest crosser in International Trap — or even high pheasants and passing shots at migrating geese.  My objection is that having to make choices based on what might occur leads, inevitably, to second-guessing and regret when you miss, taking your mind off the next shot that comes along, which will also, almost inevitably, be a miss.

The point here is that having too many choices, such as which barrels to put on, which choke tubes to use, which shot size would be best, and so on, can become a distraction when what you need is concentration on the immediate task, not nagging doubts about whether you’ve made the right decisions beforehand.  Even worse, especially in a blind with real live feathered creatures flashing hither and yon, is to have the alternative choice with you.  Invariably, you’ll be fumbling with the barrels just as a half-dozen red grouse buzz your head, clucking contempt.

I recall two situations that illustrate the point.

In 1988, I boarded a plane for Alaska to spend three weeks hunting brown bears, along with mountain goats, black bear and deer, on Prince William Sound. I took two rifles — a .375 H&H for the big bear, and a .300 Weatherby for everything else. When a brown bear made a surprise appearance, what I had in my hand was, of course, the .300 with 150-grain bullets. It did the job, but it was a close-run thing.

The lesson? When in bear country, carry a bear rifle, and make it work for everything else. (Trust me: It will.)

Four years later, in South Africa wingshooting, there was a shortage of ammunition. For four weeks, I hunted everything from button quail (about the size of a shotshell) to spur-wing geese (roughly the size of a pterodactyl) with 2½-inch, one-ounce loads of #9 shot — Skeet loads, which were all the local gunshop had left.  I managed to kill quail, doves, various ducks, coots, francolin, and guinea fowl with those loads in a SxS choked ¼ and ½ (roughly IC/M.)  With no difficult decisions to make, I concentrated on getting in close, foreswore shots that were out of range, and did okay.  And believe me, I’ve done a lot worse.

To this day, I’m convinced — with absolutely no way of proving it, of course — that if a hunter spent his whole life shooting one gun, with fixed chokes and one type of ammunition, at life’s end he would have a better overall average than a man with a different gun for every situation, chokes for all occasions, and every specialized load imaginable.


Gray’s shooting editor always shoots better when he sticks to one gun, but what fun is that? He is an unrepentant shotgun polygamist, theory or no theory.