Balancing Act

It's one of themost commonly used words in the entire shooting lexicon, yet it's possibly theleast understood. Its effect on how well we perform with our shotguns, riflesand handguns is profound, but no single definition explains why or how. We evensay we know it when we see it (and feel it). But do we really say what we meanwhen we're talking about a gun's balance?

Balance has beendescribed in countless ways, two of which have been accepted in some shootingcircles as "classic" definitions. For example, we often hear that a"well-balanced" shotgun is one where the weight feels equal in--orbetween--the shooter's hands. A century ago and before, when double-barreledshotguns were lords of the hunting fields, the hinge pin (which connects thebarrels to the action) was considered the near ideal balance point for awell-mannered gun. Shooters who were picky about their shooting ware and couldafford to have guns built according to their personal whims would specify theirdesired balance point in reference to the hinge pin or the breech.

In the 1910edition of his book The Gun, W.W. Greener is quite specific about balance,stating that a 5¾- to 6-pound shotgun with 27- to 28-inch barrels shouldbalance 2 5/8 inches ahead of the breech. This seems to be calling it prettyclose, but Greener tended to be rather exact, especially when proclaiming hissuperior knowledge of all matters pertaining to guns and shooting.

BALANCEFUNDAMENTALS

A time-testedmethod of measuring a gun's physical point of balance (or center of gravity) isto dangle the gun in a suspended loop of string, shifting it fore and aft untilit teeters evenly. I recently checked out a few of my meager collection'sside-by-side doubles in this manner. Most of them, particularly the older guns,balanced almost exactly on the hinge pin, arousing some suspicion that theirbalance might have been "refined" by their respective makers. One, aseductive nymph of a smoothbore by Farmars, had obviously been jimmied to getthe balance on point. Another one, however, the recently introduced Ruger GoldLabel, balanced about an inch forward of the point of barrel rotation (wherethe hinge pin would be if it had one). Whether the Ruger's forward balance wasdeliberate or not I can't say, but it is consistent with current thinking insome wing-shooting circles, which I'll come back to in a moment.

In actualpractice, the two classic definitions of "good"balance--weight-between-the-hands and at-hinge-pin balance--are pretty much oneand the same. With most doubles the hinge pin--or point of barrel rotation--isabout midway between where we normally hold the grip and where we hold theforend. But with the arrival of pump-action and autoloading repeaters early inthe 20th century, balance and its finely measured distinctions were largelyignored. Of greater importance to designers and makers of fast-firing repeaterswere a gun's functional reliability and manufacturing cost. Happily, some ofthese new-era guns turned out to be nicely balanced: Winchester's Model 12 pumpis a good example.

BREAKING THERULES

As the centuryprogressed, designers and makers increasingly blurred the distinctions betweenweight and weight distribution, the latter being the true essence of balance.The poster gun for light weight achieved at the expense of poor balance has tobe Winchester's ill-fated M59 Win-Lite autoloader. But before condemning theM59 out of hand, as some writers and critics have done, we should acknowledgethat its peculiar balance could be an advantage in certain hunting situations.If nothing else, the M59 teaches us that "balance" doesn't need toconform to fixed ideas. In today's rapidly changing gunning environments, wecan even improve our wing-shooting performance by breaking some of the oldrules.

In wing-shootingparlance, the M59 had a butt-heavy, "whippy" feel due to its lightglass-fiber-wrapped barrel and the heavy inertia rod in the butt section. Iowned an M59 several years ago and still consider it the fastest gun I everused for hunting grouse. My pals and I tramped about four uphill miles throughdense mountainside laurel thickets for every bird we flushed. The old 59 wasalso great for thick-cover bobwhites. Like the mountain thickets, thefast-disappearing birds allowed no time to "finesse" a shot withelegant style and follow-through, but only an instant to point and shoot. Thisis where the "whippy" M59 excelled. It's one of the ironies of the guntrade that Winchester discontinued the M59 just as densecover bird hunters werediscovering its advantages. I know several grouse hunters who still snatch upevery M59 they can find.

Taken out of itsclose-range, spot-shot element, however, the M59 was at a distinctdisadvantage. For longer-range shooting--waterfowl, doves and almost allwing-shooting games such as skeet, trap and clays--the demand for balance shiftstoward the muzzle, because a muzzle-heavy gun tends to swing more smoothly,maintains its direction of swing and contributes to a longer and smootherfollow-through. This might be what the Ruger people had in mind with their GoldLabel side-by-side.

Even if you'renot interested in skeet shooting, it's worth spending an afternoon at a skeetclub watching some good shots in action, especially at the center station,where the targets cross at nearly right angles to the shooter and require thelongest leads. You'll notice that in the hands of skilled shooters the gunsdon't stop moving when the shot is fired but continue to move along thetarget's path even after you hear the report and see the target smashed.Follow-through of this kind is a hallmark of good wing-shooting and isreligiously cultivated by top shooters, who prefer guns with a forward balancebecause it makes their follow-through all the smoother.

You'll also seefine follow-through at work watching a good waterfowl hunter plucking 50-yardhonkers out of the sky or a top sporting clays shooter smashing high-towertargets that look like specks in the stratosphere.

THE LONG-BARRELADVANTAGE

Though barrellengths of 30 inches or more were once seen only on guns used for waterfowl ortrap shooting, they have of late become favored by skeet and clays competitors.This is a sea change from times not long past when guns used for these gameswere mainly viewed as "upland guns you shoot in competition" andquick-handling 24- and 26-inch barrels were the norm. A while back I offered tosell what had once been a great skeet gun but soon learned that its 26-inchbarrels were as out of fashion as high-button shoes.

One reason thatlonger barrels are now the rage is because the added weight at the muzzle endis regarded as an advantage in swing and follow through. This doesn't mean thatmoving a shotgun's balance point forward makes targets easier to hit. Rather,it makes them harder to miss.

The shift tolonger, heavier barrels is not without certain disadvantages that shooters mustadjust to. To get a better grasp of this and other elements of a firearm'sweight distribution--balance--we need only to remember what no less a gun nutthan Isaac Newton (who was fascinated by ballistics) had to say about objectsat rest and in motion and apply it to guns.

A shotgun at restin your hands wants to remain at rest until you apply some muscle (force) toget it swinging after a winging target you want to hit. Conversely, applyingNewtonian physics again, once the shotgun is in motion it wants to remain inmotion. This, of course, is simple and obvious, but when we apply these basicsto a gun's balance, the situation gets a bit more complicated. To understandthis idea more easily, you can demonstrate it yourself using a broom handle andsome weights [see sidebar].

Adding, say, 3 or4 ounces to a gun's center of gravity serves only to make the gun that muchheavier. But add that same amount of weight at the muzzle--by making thebarrel(s) longer--and the gun's dynamics might be altered to an amazingdegree.

A while back Ishot a few rounds of skeet with a new gun sporting a full 32 inches of pipeplus another inch of choke tube extension. The experience was educational. Atthe center station the gun floated along like it was on rails, and hitting thetargets seemed to require little more thought and effort than simply pullingthe trigger. But at the No. 2 high house and No. 6 low house, which requirefaster handling, especially the doubles, the gun felt sluggish andunresponsive, requiring more muscle to overcome the long barrels' inertia. Thismight not be a problem for today's generation of huskier shooters, but for methe extreme weight-forward balance was simply too much of a good thing. Iprefer a more "balanced" approach, if you get my meaning.

Next time you'rein a gun shop, try shouldering and swinging a few shotguns, paying particularattention to how their balance affects their dynamics. You'll be surprised bythe differences and might come away with a whole new appreciation of that muchused and misused word, balance.

WHEN UNBALANCED GUNS WORK BEST

QUICK SKEET SHOTS In skeet, "whippy" guns are ideal for stations 1, 7 and 8, whereextremely fast shooting is required. But for the middle stations, where longerleads are required, a muzzle-heavy gun will help your follow-though.

THICK-COVER GROUSE Flushing grouse or fast-rising quail in heavy cover is a point-and-shoot affairwith no time to finesse shots with a nice follow-through. Guns that arebutt-heavy excel here because the muzzle naturally comes up first.

LONG CROSSERS For longer-range hunting for waterfowl and doves, the balance advantage shiftsto guns that are more muzzle heavy. The added weight offered by longer-barreledguns contributes to a longer and smoother follow-through.

The Broom-Handle Balance Test

Begin your demonstration by taking a household broomand chopping off the handle to about 4 feet, which is more or less the lengthof a typical shotgun. Next, attach four weights of about a pound each that canbe slid back and forth on the broom handle. This is your new "testgun." Yeah, I know it doesn't look or feel like much of a shotgun, but injust a few minutes it will demonstrate to you how weight distribution--call itbalance--affects your shooting.

1 WEIGHT BACK FOR FAST RISERS »

For your first test, mount the "gun" with allfour weights slid back close to your shoulder. This makes your gun butt heavyand "whippy," just like my old M59 Win-Lite, and you'll see how quicklyand easily the barrel can be pointed and its direction reversed--as if you weregoing after a double, or even a triple on a covey rise. But you'll also quicklylearn that the "barrel" has almost no inertia of its own and you mustcontrol all of its movement.

2 WEIGHT CENTERED FOR BALANCE »

Next, move two of the weights close to each of yourhands and the other two somewhere in between. This will give your gun a more"balanced" feel, which you will quickly recognize as you mount andremount the gun as if swinging after a winging target. Your mounting andswinging will be noticeably smoother than with the butt-heavy configuration,but the muzzle action will not be as quick.

3 WEIGHT FORWARD FOR FOLLOW-THROUGH »

At this point, begin to experiment with the weights indifferent positions. You'll soon discover dramatic changes in your gun'shandling as you move just one of the weights toward the muzzle. It doesn't takemuch shifting of weight to make a big difference in the barrel's moment ofinertia, which is a fancy way of saying that the barrel is a lever and theweight's leverage is compounded as it gets closer to the muzzle. Workingagainst this leverage, you'll find that it becomes increasingly harder to swingthe gun, but once the gun is in motion it's also harder to stop the swing. Inother words the gun has a built-in follow-through, which makes it harder tomiss the target.