The shotguns used in competitive skeet have changed or perhaps better stated, evolved considerably over the years.
The game of skeet (a Scandinavian word that loosely translated means to shoot) was originally developed by some New England upland bird hunters who wished to improve and maintain their bird shooting skills in the off-season. Pressure on the bird populations was being applied by the ever-growing and expanding population of humankind making hunting more difficult as the years passed.
Skeet shooting eventually became a sport unto itself and the first National Skeet Championships were held in 1926. Not long after, the formation of the National Skeet Shooting Association came to be. Some of the early competitive shotguns were based on the famous Winchester Model 1912 shotgun designed by Thomas Crossly Johnson, a genius of gun design. Other shotguns had their followers, but the Model 12 dominated the market and the public consciousness for decades.

Above: An example of a 4-barrel set for skeet competition. The advantages of the barrel sets were the buttstock remained the same regardless of which barrel was being used, so gun fi t was not an issue and weight between gauges was designed to be the same within an ounce or so. The main disadvantage was the image of the rib was narrower as you went down the gauges. This particular barrel set utilizes wood sideplates in order to fi ll the gap within the forend when using smaller-gauge barrels.

Tube SEt

Above: Jess Briley, founder of Briley Mfg. in Houston, Texas, machined his first tube set in the early ’70s with integral extractors, lightweight aluminum and stainless or (later) titanium chambers. The set seen here is one of Briley’s Ultimate Ultralight sets that features extreme lightweight and straight internal rifling to arrest the spinning of the wad column and keep pellets within the core of the pattern — vitally important when competing in .410 events.

It wasn’t until 1951 when Remington introduced a modern, streamlined, rugged and highly reliable as well as relatively inexpensive shotgun — the 870. The 870 went on to sell literally millions. On April 13, 2009 the 10 millionth Model 870 was produced. The 870 holds the world record for the best-selling shotgun in history. As popular as the 870 was, and is, if you wanted to shoot all four gauges of a registered skeet tournament with it or any other pump-action shotgun, you would need four individual guns in all four of the recognized gauges that comprise competitive skeet tournaments: 12, 20, 28 and .410.

Above: The highly efficient, practical and reliable tube sets have been the serious competitor’s choice of systems for shooting all four gauges in tournaments for the past 20+ years. Here is an example of the Kolar skeet tube sets with a high-grade Kolar O/U shotgun.

The Winchester pump-action shotguns were popular until the development of the gas-operated shotguns. One of the most popular of this design was the Remington Model 1100 developed in 1962 but not released to the public until 1963. (Editor’s Note: I shot several Model 1100s on the national skeet circuit and the first one was one of the very early 1962 models.) Although the 1100 was a very popular competitive skeet gun, it still required you have four different gauge guns just like the pump-action guns to be fully competitive in four-gun tournaments. Additionally, during the course of battling aerial clay targets with one of these fine shotguns, if one gave up the ghost and you could not repair it or replace it with another, you were out of the competition unless you chose to continue to compete with a different gun of a smaller gauge in that same event. If the break-down happened during the .410 event, guess what? You got it…you were down for the count.

My first shotgun was given to me by my father when I was about 16. It was a Winchester Model 12. Several years later I traded it for a Remington 870 because the Model 12 had a shortened stock that no longer fit me. I shot the 870 on upland game and waterfowl for several years until I started shooting a little skeet in the early ‘70s. I went with a friend to the public skeet range and shot my first of what was to be many, many rounds of skeet. My friend was shooting a Remington 1100. He said, “Try my gun. If you do, you will never shoot that pump again.” This was my introduction to a semi-automatic, gas-operated shotgun. I tried it and traded my Remington 870 for a new Remington 1100 the following week.

As I have mentioned, in order to shoot all four gauges of a tournament, you needed four different gauge pump-action shotguns or semi-autos. Some gun manufacturers accomplished the task of having one gun (stock/receiver) with four different sets of interchangeable barrels, one in each of the four requisite gauges. These setups were called barrel sets. The advantages of the four-barrel sets were that the fit of the stock would not change per gauge used. After all, it was the same stock. Also, the weight and balance of the gun with each of the different gauge barrels was nearly identical, regardless which barrel you had attached to the receiver. One of the disadvantages, however, was the sight plane would change somewhat when you swapped barrels because of the smaller outside diameter as you went down in gauge. There would often be a noticeable gap between the barrel wall and the inside of the trough of the forearm when using the sub-gauge barrels as well. Some barrel sets did attempt to overcome this visual annoyance with the use of wooden sideplates on the sub-gauge barrels that took up the gap, and when glanced at appeared to be the same as the look the 12-gauge barrels gave when attached to the receiver.

Another disadvantage to this arrangement was (to many shooters) cost. Barrels sets were pricey, to say the least, particularly in the higher-end brand models.

Some very innovative thinkers put their minds to work on this and gave birth to a new method of gauge conversion, eventually becoming what we know now as the tube set or, as it is commonly referred to, as the skeet tube set or sub-gauge set. This was done by placing sub-gauge inserts into a 12-gauge barrel.

Remington 1100

The earliest manufacturer of this style of gauge conversion is thought to be Claude Purbaugh of Monrovia, California. There are some folks, however, that feel the Browning Super-Tubes were around at the same time. (Editor’s Note: I was always of the opinion Purbaugh supplied Browning with these tubes but I never had that confirmed.)

Initially, Purbaugh was quite inventive making fiberglass sub-gauge sleeves for 870s. After performing a little further research, I discovered both Claude Purbaugh and Simmons created sleeves for the Remington 1100. The Purbaugh conversion included a full-length sleeve for the 1100 barrel with fixed choke in the sleeve in either 28 gauge or .410. The chamber, bolt, magazine and carrier were modified to properly work with the smaller gauge shells, thus making this a fairly permanent conversion.

Shotgun Sports Editor-in-Chief, Johnny Cantu tells me he has seen a few of the Purbaugh converted 1100s in action on the skeet field and each one of them destroyed targets, but also they could be finicky about shell pressures and ejection.

The Simmons 1100 conversion setup was similar but their idea included replacing the original barrel with a sleeved barrel of their own design. It was supposed to be lighter in weight than the Purbaugh configuration. Paurbaugh later came out with sub-gauge conversion tube sets for use in over/under shotguns. Some models of the tubes were shorter than the original barrel intended to reduce weight. Others had the muzzle ends stick out of the barrel’s muzzle while yet others were flush-fitted to the barrels’ muzzles.

I do not know exactly the dates the Purbaugh and Browning Super-Tubes came out, however, it is interesting to note Browning Super-Tubes were 16½” long and relied on the barrel’s choke constriction to provide constriction to the sub-gauge shell’s shot column as it exited the gun.

The early Purbaugh tube sets had no integral extractors. The actual extractor/ejector arms in the primary gun were swapped out for the proper ones for each change in gauge. For example, if you wanted to shoot your 12-gauge over/under with 28-gauge shells, you would remove the barrel from the receiver and remove the 12-gauge extractors (or call them ejectors if you like) from the barrels. Then install the 28-gauge Purbaugh-made extractors. Carefully line up the 28-gauge tube as you begin to insert it into the barrels so the extractor cut-out in the chamber area of the tube aligns with the 28-gauge extractor body and then tap into place with your soft-headed mallet or knock-in tool. It was and still is a very good idea to be sure the barrels have been cleaned before attempting to install the sub-gauge tubes and, if you have full-length tubes, that you install the correct 12-gauge chokes into the muzzles of the 12-gauge barrels so the ends of the tubes are properly supported and will not give you a lot of horrible-sounding rattle each time you close the gun. 

It wasn’t until the mid ’70s Briley Manufacturing of Houston, Texas came out with their tube set design for shooting skeet that incorporated integral “slave extractors” in the chambers of the tubes. It was then that tube sets made a big hit and became the method of choice for tournament skeet shooters.

Briley’s original tube sets used stainless steel chambers, aluminum tube sections and fixed chokes but development brought the use of titanium chambers and screw-in chokes in the muzzles of the tubes. Briley Ultimate Ultra-light tube sets feature very lightweight aluminum sections with as much weight removed as is safe for handling pressures of shells, and they use straight rifling in the aluminum section of the tube. The intent of the straight rifling goes something like this: when viewed under high-speed video, the shot column emerges often from the muzzle spinning very much like a bullet. This is caused by the fact that, when the pressure in the ignited shell  builds up, it finds the point of least resistance. This is going to be the crimp area of the shell. Not every fold in any crimp is as strong as every other. So, the weakest one opens first and the gas pressure having started the force going in a certain direction imparts spin to the wad and shot column. This rotational behavior creates some of the flyers in the pattern, and when you’re shooting the .410, you want as many of your pellets working for you as possible.

So how does straight rifling help? The pressure behind the wad forces the wad skirt to obturate into the grooves but, unlike twist rifling in rifles and pistols that intentionally imparts spin to the projectile (bullet) for accuracy, the wad cannot spin because the straight grooves have locked it into going down the bore in a straight line. When the shot column exits the muzzle, there is no rotational spin.

It should be mentioned there was considerable competition among the makers of conversion sets in the early days of this technology development. Briley’s Side-Kicks were 4” to 6” long and were popular for recreational use with many shooters. Another company produced the Chamber Mates, which were either short tubes, like the Side-Kicks or very short tubes that basically were separate drop-in chambers and nothing else. These dropped into the chamber of the 12-gauge gun and then could accept sub-gauge rounds in them. Since they had no aluminum body length extending to the muzzle, they required the barrel’s choke constriction for any impart of choke to the pellets. Johnny has told me he is highly dubious of the amount of influence the 12-barrel chokes could provide to the shot pellets rattling, pell-mell and willy-nilly down the bore. I am not saying they did not work, but I will say they never achieved much of a following in the competition scene.
A company out of Racine, Wisconsin, Kolar produced a fine tube set themselves. The major difference from the Briley-style tube sets were the Kolar sets incorporated a “screw-on” choke section instead of chokes that screwed into the muzzle face.

Clearly the invention of light, matched weight tubes that fit within a 12-gauge barrel that enable the barrel to be converted for using 20, 28 and .410 shells was a stroke of genius and definitely changed the game forever. Obvious benefits of these wonderful designs are: the shooter uses the same buttstock and receiver, therefore keeping the fit he or she is accustomed to. Versus the early tube sets that were needing a Jenny Craig membership, tube sets now only add approximately 14 ounces to the weight of the gun. This allows the skeet competitor to basically enjoy the same fit and feel of the gun. Additionally, for those who find the weight of the tubed barrels to be a bit much for them, tube set makers can take a second 12-gauge barrel and take out weight to the point it becomes what is known as a “carrier barrel”. The combined weight of the tube set installed into a carrier barrel is very close to the same as the original weight of the 12-gauge barrel. Of course, you have to realize that once a barrel has been turned into a carrier barrel, you cannot use it to fire 12-gauge shells any longer. You could however, do as many shooters do, shoot the 20-gauge tube set in the carrier setup in the Doubles and 12 and 20-gauge events.

For my personal configuration, I have a Krieghoff with a 30” standard weight 12-gauge barrel using a barrel weight underneath the forend for improved balance. I use this setup for shooting the 12-gauge and doubles events. This barrel is also ported to help tame muzzle rise. The second 30” barrel is for my tubes. While this is not a carrier barrel, I like having a second barrel so I do not have to clean the barrels between the 12 and 20-gauge events in order to insert the tubes. This is especially helpful during shoot-offs.
Over the past century, aside from the invention of the tube sets, there have been few changes in shotgunning, save perhaps the introduction of the plastic wad and screw-in chokes that have dramatically changed the way we shoot a shotgun.

In closing, it should come as no surprise that more World Championships have been won with tubed over/under shotguns than any other. SS

John Bulger started his skeet shooting career in 1988 at 42 years of age. He shot his first 100 straight the following year in the 28 gauge and since then has broken a total of 239  perfect scores: 90 in the 12 gauge, 77 in the 20 gauge, 54 in the 28 gauge, 10 in the .410 bore, and 8 in the doubles. John has been on 16 All-American Concurrent Teams, 21 Texas State Teams. John has earned both his AA and AAA pins including a 4x50 Pin earned at the Hodgdon Mini-Southwest in 2010. John’s most memorable accomplishments were winning the Briley Bradshaw in 1997, the Texas State 12 gauge Champion in 2002 and the Texas State Doubles Champion in 2011. That same year John was awarded the Earl Barroso Award for winning the Senior HOA at the Texas State Championships. John was also the Senior HOA Champion at the Mini-World in 2010.  During his career John has shot 170,050 registered targets. While he’s had a couple of 399s, a 400x400 is still on John’s bucket list. John served on the TSSA Board of Directors from 1997-1999 and has been a member of the Dallas Gun Club since 1989. John has been a contributing writer to Shotgun Sports since 2013.