Carry that weight


Compared to the artillery pieces we used to lug into the grouse woods in our 20s and 30s, the shotguns of the Over the Hill Gang are now featherweights. More proof that bird hunters “get too soon old and too late smart.”

Boy, you’re going to carry that weight,
Carry that weight a long time.
  – from the Beatles song
Carry That Weight, released on the Abbey Road album in 1969, written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney

In making most grouse shots, especially in the brush, to the grip-hand and the wrist fall the duty of starting the gun into shooting position. If, at the end of a long day, the shooter can with one hand slap his gun into shooting position, he need not worry about being over-burdened, but if he cannot do this he is carrying too much gun…
  — from
New England Grouse Hunting by William Harnden Foster (1886-1941), upland shooting writer, dog trainer, the laureate of ruffed grouse hunting and a principal in the development of grouse dog field trials

Carry that weight

The worries and cares of mortal life weigh heavily upon us all. So do shotguns, more so in our sixth decade afield than our second.

Reducing the weight of my field guns has become an obsession in recent years. Long winter days are perilous times for my double guns because I cannot resist the urge to tinker with them. I can only shoot so many rounds of ghost skeet and phantom birds in the workshop before boredom brings out the demons who torment me with reminders of October and November bird hunting blunders, including the two grouse I missed in the northern Minnesota aspen forests because the heel of the gunstock of my Spanish-made double gun caught on my shooting vest when I tried to mount it, arm-weary at the end of a day’s hunt.

A bit of experimenting convinced me that problem could be solved by trimming a 3/8-inch-inch slice from the stock, reducing the length of pull to the front trigger to 14 1/8 inches. An afternoon of intense and meticulous labor with handsaw, sandpaper, steel wool, boiled linseed oil and a polishing cloth accomplished that goal. Now I am certain that next fall I will mount the gun quickly and smoothly and hit every ruffed grouse that flushes from under Abbey’s points. Probably. Maybe.

As an afterthought I placed the gun on the scale in my clubhouse to check its weight after the wood work. The little Ugartechea 28 gauge weighed five pounds, seven ounces, less than a half ounce lighter than before the stock-cutting project. Of all my doubles it best meets William Harnden Foster’s grouse gun handling criteria: even when tired I can with one hand begin the mount-and-swing cadence that brings the butt to my shoulder and the muzzles to the bird’s line of flight. The gun’s slender lines and balance point play roles in the ease of this mounting drill, of course, but mostly it’s a matter of weight, pure and simple.

My 20 gauge double, a Browning BSS sporter model with English-style straight stock and 26-inch barrels, weighs six pounds, eight ounces; a number of winter projects over the years – including shortening and hollowing out its stock – have reduced its factory weight by about five ounces. I can perform the one-hand mount with it easily early in a day of hunting heavy cover, not so easily after five or six hours afield.

A “Judy O’Grady to Colonel’s Lady” project gun in my safe, the much-modified Lefever Nitro Special in 16 gauge, weighs six pounds, 12 ounces. If I am “at the ready” the one-hand mount is possible. Ruffed grouse and woodcock, unfortunately, seldom flush when I am at the ready.

My “showpiece” game gun, a Ruger Red Label sporting clays model in 20 gauge that has been custom engraved, weighs six pounds, 15 ounces, has a pistol grip, and 30-inch barrels; it is not a gun that passes the one-hand-mount test. The restored and restocked Lefever Nitro Special “family heirloom” double in 12 gauge, an intentionally heavy seven pounds and thirteen ounces, is impossible for me to mount quickly in brushy cover even with two hands.

Shotgun weight is a huge factor in successful bird shooting, although that may not be apparent to the shooter during a day on the skeet or sporting clays range where the gun can be mounted before the clay bird appears and an eight or even nine pound target gun may be shot more comfortably and effectively than a light and quick-handling field double. Yes, stock dimensions and shape, balance, and length of barrels all contribute to the magic of a gun that fits you perfectly, but simple weight is a make-or-break factor in your ability to carry, handle, mount, and point you gun to the best of your ability.

All the Over the Hill Gang members do their bird hunting with lighter weight guns these days. When we consider the artillery pieces we used to lug around the woods and fields thirty years ago we are amazed to remember the number of birds we killed with them, and aware that we would have undoubtedly made better shots at the hundreds of birds we missed if we had figured out this weight business before the decline of strength and stamina in our senior years forced us to pay attention.

An upland hunter fortunate enough (and wealthy enough) to own a best-quality English double or a high-quality, English-style double manufactured in the Eibar gun making region of Spain would cast a sympathetic eye on our current arsenal of “light” guns. Their hand-crafted doubles weigh less than 6 and one-half pounds even in 12 gauge. Handling one of these masterpieces of the shotgun maker’s art last fall in a Duluth gun shop I recalled the frequently told story about the novice bird hunter considering his first purchase of a gun that was something more than the run-of-the-mill pumps or semi-autos lining the racks of mass-market gun sellers.

Catching the attention of a grizzled old bird shooter in the high-end gun showroom he asked, “How much should I expect to pay for a light shotgun I could use to hunt grouse?”

The old timer gave careful consideration to the question and answered, “A light shotgun costs less than $200. A shotgun you could use to hunt grouse costs about $500. A light shotgun that you would use to hunt grouse will cost you at least $5,000.”


More stories about hunting, bird dogs, bird guns, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays and two novels, all available through my Author Page on  Jerry Johnson Author Page

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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