A shotgun is the most versatile firearm you’ll ever own. Contrary to what you might see on TV, shotguns do not magically hit every target, and the recoil is not—or at least does not have to be—so brutal that it will knock you off your feet. However, while versatile, not every shotgun is equally suited to every shooter or situation. With a little research and aforethought, you’ll be ready to choose a shotgun that will perform when needed and be comfortable to shoot. Here’s your guide to put you on the right path.
Key to a shotgun’s versatility is the large, smooth bore, which allows it to shoot a host of different payloads. Shotshells may contain a single, large slug or multiple (500+) smaller pellets designed to be delivered in a small pattern or a wider spread, depending on the range and type of target you are shooting at.
Like anything, shotguns can be somewhat addictive. When buying your first shotgun, you may want a variety of features that allow it to be effectively used for self-defense, hunting, and target shooting. Likewise, if you are interest in a shotgun for a specific purpose, you’ll want to be careful to pick a model specifically suited to your future purpose.
Picking a Gauge
You may be more familiar with rifle calibers such as .22 long rifle, .223, or .30-06. Instead of caliber, shotguns are measured by the inner bore diameter and referenced by gauge. The most popular models (largest to smallest) are 12, 20, and .410. The 12 gauge is the most popular and offers the best hit probability.
If you are interested in a shotgun for hunting or self-defense, look to a 12 gauge as your first choice and a 20 gauge as a second choice. The .410 shoots a small payload and maybe well suited to certain hunting situations, typically by accomplished shooters looking to raise the bar and challenge. A 12 gauge is ideal for sporting clays, trap, skeet or hunting waterfowl or turkey. You’ll also want a 12 gauge for competition shooting such as 3-gun.
With a 20 gauge, you have a lighter platform and shoot a smaller payload with less punch—both to the target and in the form of recoil. At times, such as hunting upland game, the lighter load and recoil offered by a 20 gauge are desirable. It is also more pleasurable to shoot; making it better suited to small-framed shooters and youth. To be honest though, with the right load and the recoil absorbing technologies premium manufacturers have added to the shotguns, the difference between the 12 and 20 gauge can be negligible, and may not be worth the tradeoff.
Shotguns come in three main action types: pump, semiautomatic, and break action. There are a few shotguns that fall outside of these common action types, but those are beyond the scope of this article.
With a pump action, each time you fire the shotgun, you’ll have to pull the forearm back to eject the empty shell and then push it forward to load a fresh round. This offers a platform with good capacity and reliability, so long as the operator does their part. New shooters, or shooters under pressure, may “short stroke” the shotgun by not fully cycling the action and cause a misfeed.
Semiautomatic shotguns actions are gas operated. By using the expanding gases generated by firing the shell to eject the empty and put a new one into the chamber, the shotgun eliminates the potential for the shooter to sort stoke the gun and makes for faster follow-up shots.
Break-action shotguns open by operating a hinge at the breech (where the barrel meets the stock). Break-action guns can be single barrel or double barrel. Doubles barrels can have barrel configurations that are side-by-side (SxS) or over/under (O/U).
Break-action and pump-action shotguns usually offer the best value, but there are exceptions, especially when you get in competition models or custom guns. Semiautos are the most popular. For home defense, pumps are most popular with models such as the Mossberg 500 or Remington 870 having sold over a million units over the years. Historically, they are also a favorite of law enforcement.
However, I would worry about the novice (or accomplished shooter to be honest) potentially short stroking the gun under pressure, and causing a failure at the moment of truth. That being said, I have several pump actions and have relied on them in my home defense planning over the years. Also, the reliability of semiautos these days are hard to beat. At the end of the day, it will be your safety that is at stake. Do your homework and choose wisely.
Things to consider when choosing a pump-action shotgun:
- Limited budget
- You need a simple, reliable shotgun for home defense
- You are looking for a price point shotgun that will more than get the job done for hunting—with the potential for a few minor disadvantages
Things to consider when choosing a semiautomatic shotgun:
- You are recoil-sensitive (gas-operated semiautos have noticeably softer recoil than other shotguns).
- Your main purpose for the shotgun is target shooting such as 3-gun competition or fast-action bird hunting.
- More moving parts mean a bit more maintenance. It isn’t hard to maintain a semiautomatic, but it will require slightly more effort.
Things to consider when choosing a break-action shotgun:
Those participating in any of the clay sports (sporting clays, trap, skeet) will typically shoot an over/under shotgun. Cowboy-action and competitors from groups such as the Single Action Shooting Society will shoot break-action models that are more historically accurate, including side-by-sides. On occasion, I have heard the argument that it is easier to start a new shooter on a break-action shotgun, because you always know when it is loaded, how many rounds are in the shotgun, and in cases of models with a hammer, whether or not the shotgun is ready to fire.
While these features all tout safety, the same safety and care may be applied to pumps and semiautos. If you are worried about the number of shots in the gun, load one shell at a time. Understand and teach how to use the safety, and of course, most importantly teach muzzle discipline (never allowing the barrel to be pointed at anything you are not prepared to destroy or kill).
The last, and perhaps most important part of buying a shotgun is fit. Shotguns barrels come in different lengths for different purposes. Longer barrels are typically better for target shooting and hunting, while shorter models are preferred for tactical or self-defense use. Regardless of the purpose of the shotgun, you’ll need one with the right length stock. Adjustable stock models, or ones with stock extenders or adjustable combs will give the adjustability you need, but you’ll still need a proper fit.
I would strongly recommend spending a few dollars to be professionally fitted. This is quick and easy at most any pro shop at a shotgun range or many sporting goods stores, but you’ll probably need to call ahead and make an appointment. The worst way to be introduced to the shooting sports, or introduce a new shooter to shotguns, is with a heavy load and a shotgun that does not fit them. The gun will beat them up, which means they will not enjoy the outing and may even become afraid of the gun. Most importantly, they could drop the gun or otherwise become unsafe in its handling leading to a tragedy.
Do you have a tip for someone buying their first shotgun? Which shotgun is your favorite? Do you have a story about your first introduction to shotguns? Share your answers in the comment section.
Growing up in Pennsylvanias game-rich Allegany region, Dave Dolbee was introduced to whitetail hunting at a young age. At age 19 he bought his first bow while serving in the U.S. Navy, and began bowhunting after returning from Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Dave was a sponsored Pro Staff Shooter for several top archery companies during the 1990s and an Olympic hopeful holding up to 16 archery records at one point. During Daves writing career, he has written for several smaller publications as well as many major content providers such as Guns & Ammo, Shooting Times, Outdoor Life, Petersens Hunting, Rifle Shooter, Petersens Bowhunting, Bowhunter, Game & Fish magazines, Handguns, F.O.P Fraternal Order of Police, Archery Business, SHOT Business, OutdoorRoadmap.com, TheGearExpert.com and others. Dave is currently a staff writer for Cheaper Than Dirt!
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