Barrel Length Preferences

Dear Tech.,

My inquiry is this: 21,24,26,28 who do we appreciate? The technoid of course, if you can tell me why there are so many lengths of shotgun barrels and how to choose among them. I understand the sporting game shooter’s want for 30″ barrels and the turkey hunters want of a short 21 or 24″ barrel. But what would make a an upland bird hunter decide between a 24″, 26″,28″,or 30″ barrel on my field gun?

Is there a real difference in velocity like longer rifle barrels can create? There must be some science behind choosing the “right” length of barrel or am I destitute to follow the adage, “shoot the length that feels right” (that saying bugs me)?


Henry Rochester, MN

Dear Henry,

If you can tell me why there are so many different lengths of hem lines or fishing rods, I’ll tell you why shotgun barrels come in all those different sizes. It’s all marketing to an either real or perceived need.

It can get pretty ephemeral too. For the first 40 years or so of skeet, you couldn’t sell anything except a 26″ barrel. Now it’s mostly 28″s and a whole bunch of 30″s too. There are even some 32″s. Sporting clays started out with 30″ barrels being just about the only length used. Then there was a brief four or five year flirtation with 32″ barrels, but that has now retreated so that the 30″ is once again unchallenged. In trap, the standard 30″ barrel has grown, sometimes to 34″ in the single barrel guns.

That’s the target stuff. In the field it is even more confusing. I’ve seen every possible barrel length used by better shooters than I am. Generally the auto and pump guys stick with 26″ for upland and 28″ or 30″ for waterfowl, but that isn’t writ in stone. The double barrel guys are mostly 26″, 28″ and”, but that’s probably because most makers sell those lengths. I know some grouse hunters who swear by cut down 24″ bbls because they feel that they are faster with short guns. The best grouse hunter I know uses a 30″ Belgian Browning trap gun. He’s plenty fast and real accurate.

Although there is a slight ballistic falloff with shorter barrels (about 15 fps per 1″, though that’s approximate and really depends more on the shell), it really doesn’t amount to enough to matter. I don’t think that you would want to shoot slow burning steel powder in a very short barrel, but any normal length is fine.

The big difference in barrel lengths is in the balance and sighting plane. All things being equal, longer barrels are heavier than shorter ones. That doesn’t mean that all long barreled guns are heavier than all short ones, just that within a given model, longer is heavier. Heavier barrels are slower to move, but steadier. A grouse hunter may want to move fast and might like lively barrels. A goose hunter wants to move slowly in relation to the bird, but also needs to be more precise. Long, heavy barrels might be best for him. Pheasant is sort of in between.

Barrel length also alters sight picture. Yes, I know that you aren’t supposed to look at the barrels, but they are in the peripheral vision. Longer barrels allow slightly more precision in pointing. Then again, the length also encourages you to look at the barrels- a real no-no.

Personally, I generally like long and light barrels on my upland guns. The length gives me stability, while the light weight gives me the speed I need. Since I do most of my “pointing” while the gun is being raised, not when it is on the shoulder, long and light works well for me. My two favorite upland guns are a 6-1/4 lb 2-1/2″chambered 12 gauge Webley & Scott SxS with 28″ bbls and a 6-1/4 lb 20 gauge 28″ FN B-25 O/U. Both are light enough to be fast and long enough for precision when required.

Of course, I also own and shoot short, heavy O/Us plus long, heavy 0/Us and even longer, heavier gas guns. They each have their purpose. Generally that purpose is to give me a gun that feels different so that when I can’t hit a barn from the inside with one kind of gun, I can swap to something that will change my luck. It seldom works, but that’s the theory.

To me, far more important than mere barrel length is the balance of the gun. Not just where the gun balances, but how that weight is distributed throughout the gun. Balance point and moment of inertia are two very different things.

And now to the great truism: I hate to say this, but pick the barrel length that feels best to you. Aarrgghh! I know, I know, but that’s the truth. If you can’t make up your mind, then for a O/U or SxS field gun I would recommend 28″ barrels. That’s probably the most popular and seldom a mistake for upland birds. In a pump or auto, I would go with a 26″ barrel generally because those guns have an extra 3-1/2″ of receiver.

Actually, the balance and feel of the gun itself is more important than any particular length of barrels. But you knew that…

Best regards,

Bruce Buck

The Technoid writing for Shotgun Report, LLC

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