Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The myth, the machine, the shotgun

I like to test things. If this isn't apparent from my reloading addiction, then I don't know what to tell you. I started this blog almost four years ago basically to test stuff, like the live fire test where I shot a kevlar vest with everything under the sun, and due to a good discussion with a dear friend I am now thinking about what else I can do to test what I consider to be the most misunderstood weapon in the world today: the shotgun.

There are many things stated in regards to this weapon that are perhaps not founded on reality, such as the ever popular "You don't have to aim!" when talking about buckshot in a home defense scenario, or "Just racking the slide makes all badguys wet their britches!," or "It'll knock a grown man clear off his feet!" I've heard these things from drunk old codgers since I was a boy, and I have my own take on them. I've even touched on the home scenario one recently, but it was by no means comprehensive, which is why my mind keeps wandering back to the half dozen sheets of fresh drywall that I'm not using in the basement.

The one I want to address first -- the one that involves my discussion with dear friend -- is that using a shotgun with buckshot is either more or less dangerous than a rifle when used while hunting in close proximity to other hunters. The discussion started over the use of semi-auto rifles vs. shotguns with buckshot; the pervasive thought is that since buckshot is less aerodynamic than a rifle round, with a known limited range, that they are safer to use in the described environment. This comes awfully close to the rant I made just the other day about "shotgun only" hunting areas, but differs in that we're talking specifically about buckshot. Just how pervasive is the thought about safety of shotgun only hunting areas? To again quote the study at that last link:

Of Pennsylvania’s approximate 900 miles of border with other states, it was found that the centerfire rifle was unlawful along the entire boundary with the exception of western Maryland. They found that in no case was any state able to provide definitive information upon which they based their decision. In fact, most reported that they simply responded to the public perception that shotguns were less dangerous than centerfire rifles. At that time, PGC staff found there was no data to support the contention that shotguns and muzzleloaders are any less risky than centerfire rifles. They found, instead, that in the “shotgun-only” states this appears to be “an issue driven by emotion and politics rather than sound scientific data.”2
The concept sits comfortably in the minds of people, but has no weight behind it. I believe it's bunk. To go even further, I have felt that a shotgun is an inherently more dangerous than a rifle in most situations, and have felt that way since I was a boy.

In my youth, I hunted with a group of men that were known to, at times, stretch the limits of safety. We often hunted with hounds, almost exclusively in fact, mostly of the long legged breeds like Walkers or Blueticks which covered lots of ground and pushed deer hard. When an angry hound is gnawing on Bambi's mommas legs at full stride, you can either shoot or you can't; these deer are running as fast as they can, with their bellies mere inches off the ground, and opportunity to get a shot off is extremely limited. In the backwoods of Virginia, the terrain can extremely thick, limiting visibility to several feet at best. They don't call it The Wilderness for nothing. When a deer drive covered one of these areas, a shotgun loaded with buckshot was often the weapon of choice.

Now, in the name of full disclosure, I've always kinda loathed buckshot for two reasons: one, in my mind, it runs counter to marksmanship; and two, in using it you can inadvertently violate rule #4 - be sure of your target and what is beyond it. Shooting buckshot while you're on the ground, all by your lonesome -- sure, it's not hard to keep all the rounds impacting somewhere safe if you happen to shoot some doe who's farting around, oblivious to you sitting up against a hay bale. When you're in close proximity to other living, breathing human beings, with limited visibility, shooting at a fleeting animal, choosing a weapon that fires fifteen rounds or more with every trigger pull in the rough direction of your quarry is not the best choice in my opinion. Yes, you have a higher probability of hitting your target, but with that comes a higher probability of hitting Sumdood who forgot his blaze orange that day.

It was rare occasion that I would tote just a shotgun into the woods on a hunt; most of the time it was slung on my back, with a more elegant weapon in my hands, one made for surgical shots. When hunting amongst other hunters while using a rifle, which obviously has more range, the first thing you do when you get to your place in the drive is to pick out your shooting lanes. These are the directions you are absolutely certain are safe to fire in, where you know that your round will stop someplace safe. Even as a wee lad, I knew this very well; you don't deviate from your shooting lanes for any reason. If a deer comes blowing by and goes into an area where you don't know for certain there's another hunter, you don't shoot. There were very few times I felt that I could shoot safely with buckshot, and when my old man would suggest I use one I would usually look at him like he was smoking crack.

Getting back into the discussion, the argument was going towards which weapon would be better/safer/less lethal/less inconvenient to get hit with if one of your rounds happened to go in the direction of another hunter or occupied area and struck somebody. I prefer my rounds to only go precisely where I aim them, but for argument's sake, how far are buckshot pellets dangerous for? I want to embark on a journey to find out. This may take awhile, but my intention is to chronograph and shoot different shotgun loads at distance, and do the math to find out how safe they really are. My firm belief right now is that buckshot is very much lethal out to at least 500 yards or more, which is why I don't subscribe to the common belief that they are only effective at short distances, and thus safe around other hunters.
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