The Best Barrel Length

Dear Sir,

What would be the best shotgun barrel length for duck and dove hunting? Is it 24,26,28 or 30 inches? What is the advantage of the different barrel length?


Dear Edward,

First let’s get the ballistics considerations out of the way. There aren’t any. With modern fast burning powders, the difference in velocity from a 24″ barrel and from a 30″ one is insignificant. You get more of a velocity difference when you change from a Cylinder Bore choke to a Full choke.

Barrel length basically affects two things: sighting plane and weight/balance.

For long, precise shots (where you are actually doing a bit of aiming), a longer barrel is a bit of an advantage because it will let you aim more precisely. Every good sporting clays shooter knows this and it’s a pretty good rationale for the success of the 32″ and 34″ O/Us we are seeing now. Trap shooters have always known it. The downside is that longer barrels also have a tendency to make you aim a bit too. Let’s face it, most duck and dove are shot within 30 yards. This is a distance at which speed and follow-through count for more than precision. These are hardly high precision shots. If you specialized in 40+ yard shots, then a longer barrel would be an advantage. For most practical duck and dove shooting, the longer sighting plane really doesn’t matter. At least in my experience, every time I start to “aim” at a really distant dove, it jiggles, swoops, dives or barrel rolls on me. I have my best luck on them when I get the shot over with pretty quickly. For my duck shooting, it’s follow-through that puts the bird in the oven. If the bird is so far up that I have to measure my lead, I will usually let it go. Some people can regularly pull off shots like that, but I’m not good enough.

What does matter a whole lot is weight and balance. Generally (but not always), longer barrels are heavier and move weight forward. A couple of gun companies actually decrease the wall thickness, and thus weight, of the barrels when they make longer versions so as to keep the weights the same and the balances approximately the same. Blaser’s F3 does this. But few others do. For most of the makers, longer is heavier, often somewhere around one ounce per inch. That may not seem like a lot, but an ounce or two right at the muzzle is really noticeable and will alter the way the gun handles.

If it were me, I’d pick a barrel length based on the way it makes the gun balance. By balance I don’t mean just it’s “teetering” point. I mean the way it swings. This is really more of a Moment of Inertia deal than a balance deal, but balance is the term everyone uses. You want a gun that has just the right combination of facile movement and steadiness to satisfy your own personal wants. There really isn’t any absolute measurement here and everyone might want something different. A gun which I would think handles like a dead possum on a rake, you might think is steady and assuring. Something that I found to be a magic wand, you might consider whippy. Also be aware that a certain barrel length won’t always confer a certain balance. Some 28″ barreled guns are heavy up front. Some aren’t. This is even true within brands. Example: When Beretta changed their 391 autos from the original Mobil Chokes to the Optimabore, the barrels actually increased in weight slightly for a given length. But in Beretta O/Us, when the same change was made, the barrels generally lost weight. Go figure. It all had to do with Beretta altering the wall thickness of the tube walls even as they increased bore diameters.

This is also a good place to mention that you must be aware of the difference between barrel lengths of an O/U/SxS and those of an auto/pump. The auto/pump has about 3.5″ more receiver length, so a 28″ barrel on an auto/pump is equivalent in length to that of about a 31.5″ O/U/SxS. Something to consider when you are thinking of sighting plane length.

Still, to me, the bottom line is balance. Balance in a shotgun is everything. All else is secondary. Get the barrel length that makes the gun balance and handle the way you want it to. Accept whatever barrel length goes along with that.

Best regards,
Bruce Buck
Shotgun Report’s Technoid

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