By Phil Bourjaily
A shotgun barrel is more than simply a bore through which a load of shot passes on its way to the target. What's on the outside matters, too. Learning the truth about barrels, beads, and the rest can help you pick the right gun and shoot it better.
Barrel length alters balance more than it affects ballistics. The slow powders used in heavy steel loads generate higher velocities in longer barrels, but the difference is minimal—only about 15 feet per second per inch. For what it's worth, manufacturers base their printed velocities on results from 30-inch test barrels; if you're shooting a shorter-barreled gun you're likely losing a bit of speed, but the amount is negligible.
Longer barrels add weight to the front of a gun, helping it swing smoothly. The thickness of the barrel wall affects the weight of the barrel as well. Hence, two guns of the same barrel length may balance differently.
In general, bigger, stronger shooters are better able to handle longer barrels and may need the extra weight out front to keep from overpowering the gun. Smaller-statured shooters may prefer a shorter, lighter barrel. Be aware, though, that a gun that may feel light and quick in the store doesn't always swing well in the field. Few people ever wish they had bought a shorter barrel. What might feel nose-heavy in the store can feel smooth in the field.
Longer barrels provide an extended sighting plane as well. This isn't nearly the consideration with a shotgun that it is with a rifle or pistol, where you have front and rear sights to line up. Many of us can't even see the barrel when the gun is mounted. Nevertheless, a lot of expert target shooters believe that longer barrels help make their shooting more precise on distant targets.
The rib on top of the barrel adds definition to what is otherwise a blur when your eyes lock on the target. The line of the rib helps you point that blur more precisely. Not all ribs are the same. A rib that's taller near the breech than at the muzzle usually makes a gun shoot slightly high. That's not a bad thing, because it lets you see the bird over the gun and still hit it, but it's not everyone's preference. Most hunting guns are set up to shoot a roughly dead-on pattern, and so they have either a flat rib that's flush with the top of the receiver or a raised rib with a "step up" at the back.
A stepped rib may give you a slightly better view of the bird, because the rib is up away from the barrel, but it's also easier to lose sight of a dropping target behind the step of a raised rib. That matters more to sporting clays shooters than to hunters, however. In reality, there's not a big difference between the two styles in terms of waterfowling.
The shotgun's bead is not there to be looked at. Its job is to help you keep track of the gun in your peripheral vision while you focus on the target. A bright fiber-optic bead helps some people by making them more aware of the gun without having to look at it. But that bright bead can also draw your eye to the barrel when you should be looking at the bird. If that's the case, change it. Some target shooters prefer tiny brass beads, which allow them to focus on the bird without distraction. And others go so far as to unscrew the bead and throw it away.
Middle beads are useful for aiming the gun, as you would when shooting a turkey or a crippled duck on the water. It's a mistake to line up a front and middle bead when you're trying to shoot birds on the wing.
For those who do shoot by aiming down the rib of their gun, the size of the bead can change a gun's point of impact. The bigger the bead, the lower the gun shoots. Bottom line: the best bead is the one you can ignore. It's only there to remind you where the gun is, not to pull your eye away from the target.