Choosing a First Shotgun

By Dave Dolbee published on in Competitive Shooting, How To, Hunting

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.

youth wearing orange safety vest and shotgun

Picking the right load for the shooter and need (target versus hunting or home defense) often dictates the difference between success and someone who will resist ever wanting to continue in the sport.

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.

Shotgun Actions

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.

CZ-USA Sharp-Tail Side-By-Side, Model 812 Waterfowler

Top to bottom: CZ-USA’s Sharp-Tail side-by-side is built on an all-new action; the Model 812 Waterfowler semiauto uses an inertia recoil-operating system; the Sterling Southpaw over-under is a true left-hand shotgun; and the 612 Magnum Turkey pump-action is chambered for 3.5-inch shells.

Pump Action

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 Action

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

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.

Bob Campbell shooting a pump shotgun

Practice cycling the shotgun and getting hits. Shotguns are underutilized because few shooters get the necessary practice.

Considerations

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).

Young Duck Hunter

Few memories can compete with the smile of a young and successful hunter. Be sure to outfit them for success with properly fitting gear.

FIT

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.

SLRule

Growing up in Pennsylvania’s 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 Dave’s writing career, he has written for several smaller publications as well as many major content providers such as Guns & Ammo, Shooting Times, Outdoor Life, Petersen’s Hunting, Rifle Shooter, Petersen’s 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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Comments (6)

  • Robert Martin

    |

    The 28 Gauge has a much higher hit probability than a .410 and it kicks less than even a 20 Gauge.

    And if more of y’all would buy beaucoup 28 Gauge ammo, the price would drop. Never mind, a beginning hunter isn’t likely to fire 500-rounds at clay birds per day, so the minor price difference is moot.

    Of course, with proper training and motivation a young shooter could master a 12 Gauge or even a 10 Gauge. I remember Ross Seyfried saying that his first shotgun was a Double 10.
    …..RVM45

    Reply

  • Sam

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    My first shotgun (many moons ago) was a Rossi 20 gauge, double barrel, side-by-side, with outside hammers (what they called a “Coach Gun”). Still have it, and real fun to shoot. Next was a Remington 12 gauge semi-auto “Special Purpose.” Nice gun. The first shotgun used while on the County Sheriff’s Dept. was an Ithaca Model 37 12 gauge pump, which I liked a lot and which motivated me to get my own pump: a Mossberg 500 12 gauge. Another nice gun. Then while on a big-city P.D. (where I spent most of my law enforcement career), I used the Remington 870 12 gauge pump, which saw extensive use. A great shotgun! So I had to have my own, only I got the combat model with the extended magazine. The only problem with the newer 870 is it came with a synthetic stock, which, because of that and the extended magazine, tends to be a bit nose heavy and not balanced as well as the 870 with the walnut stock, but none-the-less it is a very nice shotgun. A couple of the nice features of the newer 870 (in addition to the good sights – a peep sight) is it comes with a built-in muzzle brake and recoil pad, which helps reduce felt recoil a bit – especially nice if you are shooting 3″ magnums.

    Reply

  • Secundius

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    I have a Crye Six 12 Bullpup Revolver Shotgun, because of being Wheelchair Handicapped. It’s ~26-inches long and still supports an ~22-inch barrel. There’s a smaller one that can be mounted to a AR/AK style Rifle that supports a ~12.5-inch barrel…

    Reply

  • Charlie

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    First and probably only shotgun: If you want to take out a second mortgage on your home, might I suggest a Holland&Holland, Purdy, Rigby or Westley Richards bespoke shotgun Your heirs will be thrilled with your selection.

    Reply

  • Bob M.

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    I was taught the hard-hold method of holding a stock by the gunsmith, John L. Smith, now deceased. Using this method, a pump shotgun would be dangerous, maybe even useless once fired !
    I prefer a short-barreled 20 ga, cuz I don’t want to hit somebody in the next room !

    Reply

  • 70's Ops

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    I’ve had all kinds of shotguns over the years. A very short Savage 12 was my go to for years. It was stolen 5 or so years ago.
    I wound up with a Catamount Fury 2 with the Kushnapup, bullpup conversion kit I put on. Man….sweetness. All totaled around $650. A little high, but what a weapon. It spews shot at a phenomenal rate, and eats everything I’ve put through it. Semi-auto is the way to go.

    As always
    Carry on

    Reply

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