Preseason Shotgun Prep and Maintenance

It is that time of year—time to chisel out dirt caked on the soles of our hunting boots, finally toss away those shell husks at the bottom of our vests pockets, and ceremoniously liberate our favorite flight inhibitor from storage. 
When it comes to our shotguns, some of us bird hunters afford the attention and care normally reserved for newborns, while others of us view our firearms as just another tool in our set. As long it works with every trigger pull, who cares how pretty and shiny it is. Some might argue scrapes and grit serve as testimony to its effectiveness and durability in the field.
Regardless, our gun experts at Reeds Sporting Goods in Walker, Minnesota, have some key pieces of advice to offer bird hunters for preseason preparations. They also have some tips for after season maintenance to ensure next season gets off on the right foot.
Adam Arnold, part owner of Reeds Sporting Goods, recommends hunters try new ammo prior to bird hunting season. “Technology changes from year to year,” he explained. “Compare what might already be in your bag to new shots like Prairie Storm.” Arnold also recommends trying new types of sights and choke tubes for upland bird hunting in order to “up your game for a new season.” 
As with any purchase of hunting equipment, field tests are essential in determining how these new additions will fare when the birds start to flush. “Make certain to pattern your gun,” said Arnold. Patterning is especially important with steel shot, as it produces very different results compared to lead shot for each choke tube.
Spend at least one day before the season patterning your gun. With each shot type and choke combination, in order to achieve success in the field, a hunter needs to know three things:
  1. Point of Impact (POI) – the center of the pattern
  2. Pattern density
  3. Pattern percentages – number of holes divided by number of shot in shell

To determine, follow this safe and easy method:

  • Make certain all members in your party have read the owner’s manual first for their firearms and are following all safety rules for the range. Wear ear and eye protection at all times.
  • Bring along a big pattern board, either plywood or cardboard, (at least 40 by 40 inches) to use for attaching your targets. Staple your target paper sheets to the board. Set the target up 40 yards downrange, making certain all other shooters are aware and acknowledge you are heading into the target field.
  • Draw a 6-inch dot in the center of the sheet of paper (if no target is already printed), so that shooters will be able to spot the center from 40 yards away.
  • Return to your starting position. Again, check all range safety steps prior to preparing to fire at the target. 
  • Aim the bead or sights of your shotgun at the center of the target. Be as precise as possible. You MUST keep your rib absolutely level front to rear. If you see any rib other than a single flat surface, it will nullify the shooting results, since you will shoot too high. Results can only be trusted if proper shooting technique is followed. Keep your gun level, from right to left. 
  • If you are shooting for mostly POI, use a tighter choke, such as a modified or a full. NEVER shoot steel shot through a choke not designed for it.
  • Evaluate the results after each shot, replacing the target each time so not to confuse results of one trigger pull from another. Vary shot sizes, ammo types and chokes to determine which combination fits your style and field shooting scenarios.
  • Alternate the distance of the target to fit your needs and any probable scenario afield. Plan for the unexpected distances. Learn, as much as possible, how your shot will perform under all circumstances.
Experienced hunters understand conditions in the field can change within the hour. Perhaps the forecast called for clear skies, but in the morning, rain arrives. Birds will be sitting tight, more than likely spooked at close range. Therefore, a heavy load and tight choke is inadvisable. Perhaps a friend decides last minute to bring along his big-running dog who flushes birds no closer than 35 yards. What shot and choke combination in your bag will best fit that scenario?
Just as you, as a hunter, want to make certain your ammunition performs at the level it should, you want to make certain your firearm functions properly during a hunt. Experts at Reeds Sporting Goods recommend not only cleaning your gun after a long day of shooting, but performing regular cleanings. “A lot of issues can be prevented with a good cleaning of your gun,” explained Arnold. 

How to safely clean your firearm:

  • Make certain the firearm is unloaded! Depending on the kind of firearm, open the action, check the bore, the magazine, cylinder, etc., to determine there are no shells in the chamber, magazine, bore, or cylinder. Keep ammunition out of the cleaning area.
  • Read the owner’s manual if you have not done so already. If any steps are unclear, re-read the manual. Safety is always of utmost importance. 
  • Open the breech, cylinder or receiver or remove the barrel if possible. Run several patches soaked with bore cleaner down the barrel. If the bore is exceedingly dirty, use a brass bore brush to remove heavy fouling. Make certain your cleaning supplies fit the gauge or caliber of firearm you are cleaning.
  • Be especially careful when cleaning firearms with camouflage, Dura-Touch Armor Coating and other special finishes. Always prevent these surfaces from coming in contact with cleaning solvents, barrel scrubbers and other strong chemicals. It is preferable to clean these surfaces with lightweight gun oil containing no solvents, or with a damp cloth and mild dish soap.
  • When cleaning the bore and action of the firearm, keep the external finishes from coming in contact with other chemicals, especially chemicals found in insect repellants containing DEET, sunscreen, etc. Damage to camouflage, Dura-Touch Armor Coating and other special finishes is irreversible.
  • Clean the barrel until the patches come out clean. Use a toothbrush, cotton swabs or other cleaning tools to remove debris from the receiver and other hard to clean areas. 
  • Flush with a good gun solvent or gun scrubber to remove powder fouling and small particles. Compressed air is good, too, to blow out the receiver and dry the firearm, but be careful not to dislodge any small parts.
  • Make sure the entire firearm is as clean as possible without removing difficult or small parts. Leave that task to a gunsmith.
  • Use a quality light gun oil to lightly coat the barrel and moving parts just slightly. Do not use an excessive amount of oil in the receiver or action area, as too much oil can gum up working parts.
  • Finally, store your firearm away from all ammunition and in a safe, dry place, away from children. Inspect it periodically for rust and corrosion. 
Always clean your firearm as soon as possible after hunting or visiting the range. It is best, whenever possible, to store firearms horizontally, so oil will not run down into the buttstock and soften the wood. Never store a firearm in a tightly sealed case. Moisture could condense and cause rust. Make certain there is some circulation around and in the case when you put it away. 
Hunting is like every other sport. What you decide to invest—the time to practice and money for better equipment—is ultimately what determines success. The extra cash to test new ammunition and pattern your gun, the fees to shoot a few rounds of sporting clays in order to get up to speed—these investments pay off with bagged birds and an enjoyable hunt.
Story by John Hennessy. Passionate denizen of the outdoors and former line cook, John is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter @WildGameJack.
Photo credit: Anthony Hauck / Pheasants Forever