The Grouse Gun

Renewed musings on an old, old theme.

by Terry Wieland

Ruffed grouse are the most elusive and contradictory of birds, the most fascinating to the naturalist, the most frustrating to the hunter.

Over the past century, more outright swill has been written about hunting ruffed grouse than about any other game bird. This is probably because the writers thereof spent very little time hunting grouse compared to other game. Certainly they came home with fewer.

Two exceptions were George Bird Evans, the high priest of grouse hunting, and Charles C. Norris, the New England physician whose Eastern Upland Shooting belongs on the bookshelf of every bird hunter. Dr. Norris owned several guns, including two Purdeys. When he died, he left a gun to his friend Evans, and gave him his choice.

Evans chose a 12-gauge Purdey, with two pairs of 26-inch barrels, weighing 6 pounds 7 ounces. The other Purdey, ordered by Dr. Norris in 1929, had 27-inch barrels. We should keep in mind that Charles Norris was a plump man of below average height. George Bird Evans was tall and rangy, but he chose the gun he liked best and had no choice as to barrel length.

Evans made various alterations to the Purdey, including opening the chokes and sanding down the stock until it more or less fit him. He also lengthened the chambers. None of this is really important, except to show that while Evans respected the gun, he also knew that if he was going to hit anything with it, it had to fit.

In no other type of wingshooting is fit more important than with ruffed grouse. As Dr. Norris wrote, one should select the gun that he will shoot best knowing that much of the time he will be shooting from a poor stance, at a bad angle, or taken by surprise.

In our headlong rush to classify and standardize everything, the typical gun for ruffed grouse has come to be defined as a 12 or 20 gauge with a 26-inch barrel, choked improved cylinder (or, if a double, IC/Mod).

Much is made of the fact that a grouse hunter carries his gun a lot but shoots it infrequently, and so light weight is highly prized. As well, given the propensity for grouse to inhabit thick brush, the idea that a short barrel won’t hang up on twigs and branches has gained considerable currency.

Neither of these arguments stands up to close scrutiny.

If I’m to carry a gun for five miles through tough terrain for the sake of only two or three shots, then I want to hit something. So my approach is to choose the gun I’m most likely to shoot well. If a gun’s too heavy to carry all that way, modify the distance, not the gun.

As for short barrels not hanging up on brush, an extra two to four inches won’t make a bit of difference, but the extra length will improve a gun’s swing, especially in the smaller gauges.

Weight is certainly important, because a grouse hunter often finds himself holding his gun in one hand while managing the brambles with the other. This doesn’t mean a grouse gun must weight five pounds, though; a normal adult can carry six to seven pounds comfortably.

As Dr. Norris pointed out, the hunter must always keep in mind that in grouse hunting he will be called upon to make shots when off balance, from awkward angles, or while ducking under a deadfall. There’s a reason for this: Usually, in those situations, the hunter has paused, and that pause may cause a bird to flush when, had he kept moving, it might have sat tight.

A bird as heavily preyed upon as a ruffed grouse, whether by wolves and foxes on the ground, pine martens and bobcats in the trees, or goshawks from the air, is acutely attuned to being spotted and reacting instantly in the interests of self-preservation.

In a situation where a bird appears suddenly, is betrayed by its sound, and presents a blur in the trees, the most important factor in hitting it with a shotgun isn’t the weight of the gun, its length, its gauge, or the size of the shot. The most important factor is its swing.

A good grouse gun should go into action, and then swing through and keep on swinging, instinctively and almost independently of the shooter.

Gauge has relatively little to do with success. Great grouse guns have been made in every known configuration. My preference is a side-by-side with 30-inch barrels weighing about 6½ pounds, but a 6-pound 20 gauge with the same length barrels can be every bit as good. A 16- or 20-gauge pump with 26- or 28-inch barrels is a wonderful grouse gun, as is the iconic Winchester Model 42.

The Model 42, of course, is a .410, and while I’m no fan of the .410, I have to confess to feeling a bit frisky when I pick up a Model 42 with a 30-inch barrel. They have a balanced and eager quality that explains why some of my acquaintances swear by them.