A number of years ago some friends and I belonged to the same gun club. One day the club was holding a “shotgun speed steel” match, and my friends talked me into going. Since it was a spur-of-the-monent decision, the only thing I had with me was my old Ithaca Model 37 in 20 gauge and some birdshot (perhaps #4 or #6, I don’t really recall.) My Ithaca had a Modified choke tube installed, which is what I normally keep on the gun.
We got to the match and found lots of reactive steel targets (as opposed to the fixed plates typically used for Steel Challenge-style handgun matches.) The crowd was a serious one; most of the competitors were running ‘tactical’ autoloading shotguns in 12 gauge, usually 3” magnums, with extended magazine tubes and fiber optic sights and all that kind of stuff. My little wood-stocked 20 gauge Ithaca looked grossly out of place.
I was especially hesitant when I watched the competitors taking on a Texas Star. (For those not familiar, the Texas Star is a large 5-spoked wheel, perhaps 5 or 6 feet in diameter, with a round steel plate at the end of each spoke. When hit properly, the plates drop off of the spoke; the wheel, which runs on bearings, is then out of balance and starts to turn. Every time a plate is knocked off, the opposing weight is less and the remaining plates are able to cause the Star to spin faster. The key is to knock all of the plates off as fast as possible, so that the wheel doesn’t have a chance to really get up to speed. They can be frustrating!)
This particular Star was set (if memory serves) about 30 feet from the firing line. One by one the shooters took on the Star, and each of them — despite their powerful, high capacity shotguns — had a great deal of trouble knocking the plates off. You could see that they were hitting, but the plates were very resistant to being dislodged. One fellow had to reload his long magazine tube twice before finishing!
You can imagine my trepidation when I stepped to the line with my poor old 20 gauge. The buzzer sounded, I shouldered the Ithaca and started shooting. BANG—clank—BANG—clank—BANG—clank—BANG—clank—BANG—clank. Five shots, five plates, in what would turn out to be the second-fastest time of the match!
The reason I beat the other shooters wasn’t entirely my skill; rather, it was the poor choices they’d made.
There is only one goal in a steel shooting competition: speed. Hit your targets faster than the next guy, and you win. Their gear and techniques are all chosen to gain an edge, to shave tenths of a second off their time. It doesn’t always work out that way!
First, all of the other shooters picked 12 gauge guns with cylinder (or improved) chokes. The idea was to give a wider shot pattern so that even if their aim is a little off while transitioning between targets, they could still get a hit. That’s not a bad idea for fixed plates, where any hit counts, but when you’re dealing with reactive targets the ball game is different: you need a certain amount of shot on the target to move the thing. Any less, and the targets won’t go down.
This is where my more tightly-choked Ithaca had its first advantage: the shot column was smaller in diameter but the result was that more pellets made it onto the plates. When I hit them, they went down. Yes, I had to take an ever-so-slightly bit more time to make sure that I was solidly indexed on the plate when I pulled the trigger, but it was faster than missing!
Because of the looser shot patterns of the cylinder-choked 12 gauge, many of the competitors had chosen magnum-length shotshells to get more pellets into the air. Their thinking was that more pellets would compensate for the spreading of the shot column. That obviously didn’t work, and the increased recoil of those rounds caused them to slow their shooting pace. The result is that their misses (because of too few pellets hitting the target) were coming much slower (because of the increased recoil.)
In contrast, the smaller but denser shot charges of the 20 gauge meant that most of the payload hit the target with less recoil, allowing me to get on the next target faster than the guys with their hard-kicking magnum 12 gauges. The small-framed Ithaca was much lighter and more maneuverable, even with its extended magazine tube, so I was moving between targets faster, too. Combine that with solid hits and my performance wasn’t all that remarkable after all!
(Oh, the best part? One of the other shooters was heard muttering under his breath “maybe I should just buy an old 20 gauge”!)
Are there lessons for defensive shooters in this story? Yes, there are — but I’ll save those for another day.
-=[ Grant ]=-