Reviving Heritage: A Guide to Safely Hunt with Vintage Damascus Steel Shotguns

Reviving Heritage: A Guide to Safely Hunt with Vintage Damascus Steel Shotguns

How to Hunt with Vintage Damascus Shotguns

Each one has a story and mystique that new shotguns can’t touch. The unmatched beauty of Damascus steel and classic walnut stocks shaped by hand and not machine - these are the shotguns that take you to a better place every time you have the privilege to shoulder one. 

Some have iconic names like Parker, Lefever, and L.C. Smith. Others were crafted by forgotten gun makers with exceptional skills that modern-day machining and manufacturing have no time for. Holding one of these fine vintage shotguns is special in its own right.

Being able to hunt with one is an event worth celebrating. 

There has never been a better time to breathe life back into these classic shotguns. But there are risks involved…and not all candidates are worthy of being called up to the big leagues. 

Let’s see if your old gun is a candidate to bring back the glory days.  

Can You Shoot Damascus Barrel Shotguns?

The short answer is yes, but only after a complete inspection by a gunsmith familiar with Damascus shotguns. Since Damascus barrels were designed for use with black powder loads, you’ll want to avoid most modern shotshells and use low-pressure ammunition instead. 

Let’s address the main concern you’ll hear about firing a shotgun with a Damascus barrel, which is that the barrel will blow up and cause serious injury. But, this doesn’t mean that Damascus barrels are low-quality or inferior. They were simply made to accommodate the black powder loads that were common in the late 1800s and early 1900s when many of these shotguns were made. 

Can You Shoot Modern Shells in Old Shotguns? 

Modern shells should not be used in old shotguns unless the barrel and action were made to handle the high pressures generated by modern shells. Vintage Damascus barrels were primarily made for black powder loads. Modern shotshell propellants produce much higher pressure when fired - roughly twice what a comparable black powder load might generate. Additionally, the pressure created by black powder shotshells is spread out over a longer timeframe after the trigger pull. 

You certainly don’t want to shoot any random box of modern shells at the nearest store, but this doesn’t mean you need to use black powder either. There are low-pressure shotgun shells available that are both safe to shoot and effective on tons of game, but more on that later. 

Let’s get into the nuts and bolts of figuring out if your old shotgun is safe to shoot. 

Are Old Shotguns Safe to Shoot?

Old vintage shotguns are safe to shoot as long as they are in good working condition and have been inspected by a gunsmith. Most importantly, you need to shoot the correct shotgun shells with the right speed, pressure, and payload. This keeps the shooter safe and prevents damage to the gun, along with the right load to break clays or harvest game. 

Damaging a vintage shotgun and an exquisite Damascus barrel won’t just break your heart - it’s a hazard to your well-being. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as shining a light down the barrel, checking for obvious pitting or damage, and heading to the range. You can start at home by checking the action and confirming the barrel and receiver lock up tight. If there’s any wiggle or play where the two meet, you’re better off keeping it as a display or having a competent gunsmith see if they’re able to tighten up the action. Likewise, if you do see visible damage, pitting, or corrosion inside the barrel, don’t shoot it. 

Assuming your gun has passed the initial home inspection, visiting a gunsmith familiar with vintage shotguns is your next step. Keep in mind that Damascus barrels are made from various strands of steel, so possible damage isn’t always clearly visible, especially where the steel strands meet. 

Additionally, knowing the history of the gun is a huge benefit, though not always possible. Ideally, you’d have a family heirloom and know where it’s been, the maintenance it’s been given, and if there have been any modifications or repairs. Without knowing a gun’s history, remember that some of the older guns could have been refinished, which leaves thinner steel, while others may have been sleeved to handle higher pressure loads. Gunsmiths can measure the wall thickness of the barrel and check for dents, which create weak areas in Damascus barrels. 

While you’re having the barrel inspected, it’s critical to verify the chamber length. Overestimating chamber length poses a huge risk and many old shotguns with a 2 ½ inch chamber can fit a 2 ¾ inch shell, but it doesn’t make it safe.

Fortunately, having a gunsmith evaluate the barrel condition and measure chamber length is a one-time deal as long as you maintain the gun correctly. Most importantly, document everything the gunsmith finds so the next generation understands exactly what they’re dealing with.  

So, you’ve got the green light to shoot that classic shotgun, but you need low-pressure shotshells and the right load for the game you’re after. 

Fortunately, there’s an easy solution. 

What Shotgun Shells are Safe with Damascus Barrels?

For vintage shotguns with Damascus barrels, you’ll want to shoot low-pressure ammunition made specifically for vintage shotguns. These shells produce about half of the pressure generated by modern shotshells, so they are safe in good-condition Damascus barrels. 

After years of hunters insisting on magnum shells and punishing their shoulders, it turns out you don’t need 3 ½ inch shells to kill geese, ducks, and turkeys. With advancements in shot technology and careful loading, we’ve seen a small gauge revolution and guys routinely dropping big birds with small shotguns. Now, considering the vast majority of old Damascus guns will be 12 gauge, you can hunt practically anything with the right low-pressure shotgun shell, and the recoil from a 2 ½ inch shell is a pleasure to shoot. 

The Best Low-Pressure Ammo

As you probably know, not all shotshells are created equal. This is why we’ve offered our premium handloaded ammo designed specifically for those who want the best shooting experience out of their shotgun. 

Each box delivers exceptional consistency - not only providing knockdown power you can trust with each shot, but tight tolerances so you don’t have to worry about barrel damage or risk your safety. Our Vintage Bismuth rounds are available in various shot sizes so you can hunt anything from small upland birds to waterfowl to small game. And with it being non-toxic, you can hunt practically anywhere, even with an increasing number of areas requiring non-toxic ammunition. 

When these guns were made 120 years ago, they were meant to put meat on the table. So, breathe life back into that old gun and get it into the field. There’s never been a better time to experience hunting with old shotguns that have unmatched character and history.

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