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A Beginner’s Guide to Shotguns

Shotguns are one of the most useful tools in your arsenal.

A reliable shotgun works wonders for home defense, hunting, training, and clay sports. They are among the most versatile guns out there.

Many experts say that if they could just have one gun, it would be a shotgun.

However, there are many different types on the market, separated by gauge as well as action.

Since this is a beginner’s guide to shotguns, I’ll try to keep it simple and explain the different types of shotguns you are likely to run into on the market, as well as what jobs they do best.

Shotgun Gauges

Shotguns come in a variety of gauges. The gauge of a firearm refers to the diameter of the bore.

The gauge is determined from the weight of a solid sphere of lead that will fit the bore of the firearm, and you express it as the multiplicative inverse of the sphere’s weight as a fraction of a pound.

If that made your head spin, sorry — I’ll explain it in plain English.

A 1/12th-pound ball fits a 12-gauge bore, while a 1/20th-pound ball fits a 20-gauge bore.

The most common gauges you will see today on the modern market are .410-bore, which is actually like a 68-gauge, 20-gauge, and 12-gauge.

Remember the smaller the number, the larger the barrel.

Most defensive guns are 12-gauge shotguns, and serious game hunters who don’t mind the recoil of the 12-gauge use them too.

They are by far the most common gauge for all purposes and support the widest range of ammunition options.

A 20-gauge is a good choice for youth hunters or those who want a bit less recoil. Shooting a 12-gauge all day long can be hard on your shoulder.

A 20-gauge will still get the job done, while saving you from a large bruise.

Pump-Action Shotgun

Black Mossberg 500 Shotgun, pointed to the right on a white background
The Mossberg 500 with an 18.5″ cylinder bore barrel is one of the most popular shotguns for home defense.

This is probably the most common type of shotgun you will see.

Many first time shotgun buyers pick this type of shotgun because it is easy to use, reliable, versatile, and most are comparably inexpensive.

Most pump-action shotguns work by first having the shooter push shells into magazine tube, which usually runs underneath and parallel to the barrel.

Once the magazine tube is full, the shooter chambers a shell by pulling the pump handle or fore-end backward toward their body, and then pushing the foreend back into place to chamber the shell.

The shooter repeats this action after firing a shot.

When pulling back, the shotgun throws out the empty shell, and chambers a new shell when the shooter pushes the fore-end back into place.

This manual action is extremely reliable since it is man-powered instead of mechanical.

As long as the shooter properly uses the action, the gun will usually cycle without fail. Pump shotguns fill many roles very well.

Their reliability makes them useful for many different roles, such as bird hunting, home defense, and tactical use.

Their main disadvantage is that the shooter can only fire as quickly as they can actuate the pump, this makes follow-up shots slower than other types.

Semi-Automatic

Beretta 1301 Tactical shotgun
The Beretta 1301 is an amazing shotgun, shot after shot.

The semi-automatic shotgun is becoming much more common in recent years due to its increased reliability.

Operating a semi-automatic shotgun is very easy since the gun ejects and reloads from the magazine tube automatically.

On many models, once the shooter pushes the shells into the magazine tube, pulls back on the bolt, and releases the bolt forward, the gun will fire with each trigger pull until the magazine tube is empty.

It sounds complicated, but it really is not. Semi-automatic shotguns offer very fast follow-up shots and high magazine capacity.

A reliable semi-auto is one of the best shotguns you can own for many applications.

Quality models handle the jobs of hunting, home defense, and trap shooting with ease.

Their main disadvantage is that many models are more expensive than their pump-action counterparts are.

Additionally, some models are more meticulous on the type of ammunition they can cycle, since the gas released from the shot is what cycles the action.

Too little gas and the gun could fail to eject or jam.

Cleanliness can also be an issue as shooters have to properly maintain their guns to keep them reliable.

Single-Shot Shotguns

H&R Pardner Turkey shotguns
H&R’s Pardner Turkey gun is perfect as a starter gun or for the veteran. The single-shot break-open design ensures every shot will count the ultimate in mechanical reliability.

Many single-shot models are a great buy. Several major manufacturers sell single-shots for less than $100. They are perfectly reliable and accurate.

The obvious disadvantage to a breech-loading single-shot is that you only get one try.

The shooter has to manually open the breech of the gun, eject the shell, and reload the second shell with his hands.

This takes time, and during a self-defense situation, betting your life on one shot is just silly. However, these guns fill the hunting gun roll nicely.

Growing up, I hunted countless times with a breech-loading single-shot and the lack of follow-up shots forced me to become a better shotgunner.

Reliability combined with the very low-cost makes these guns hang on as a viable option for shooters of any skill level.

Side-by-side shotguns with action open and loaded
Simply break open the action, and you know instantly if the shotgun is loaded.

Over/Under and Side-by-Side

The biggest advantage to a modern double-barrel shotgun is the ability to use different-sized chokes in each barrel.

A choke is a device that attaches to the barrel or is integrated into the barrel.

Its purpose is to adjust the pattern of your shot so that you can reach a target with more or less shot at varying ranges.

Your top barrel could have a wider choke than your bottom, allowing you to engage targets both close up or far away with better efficiency.

Follow-up shots are also instantaneous with a double-barrel, but since it is a breech-loading gun, and there are only two barrels, you only get two shots before having to reload.

The versatility of having two chokes, combined with the double barrel’s reliability makes it perfect for trap shooters.

Most modern double-barrels come in the over and under configuration, rather than the old side by side, however, their operation is similar.

Many modern over and under shotguns are costly and come with ornate designs and high-quality wood.

While not the best for home defense due to ammo capacity, these guns fill the trap-shooting role perfectly.

Bolt-Action Shotguns

Some states only allow shotgun hunting for deer.

Usually, hunters shoot larger game with rifles, but the laws in these areas require a shotgun for hunting, so a bolt-action is a viable option.

Many models come with threaded barrels that specialize in shooting slugs longer distances with greater accuracy.

A bolt gun will work fine for this purpose, but it does poorly at most other roles.

The threaded barrel and slower bolt-action make it a specialized gun built for one purpose.

The modern versions are rare outside of the areas where the laws require their use.

Tell us which shotgun you prefer and why in the comment section below.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in August of 2012. It has been completely updated for clarity and accuracy.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (12)

  1. With diligent practice almost anything is possible! Years ago (in the 80’s) I was in the mountains of N.C. to go black bear hunting with some of the locals. Several of them showed up with single-shot 12 gauges and a cloth carpenter’s apron containing loose shells. They would load one and hold up to three between the fingers of their support hand. I laughed at them until after the hunt one of them challenged me and my pump-action. He kept perfect time with my four shots and then laughed at me for being a little slow! Just shows that determination can overcome almost anything.

  2. There are two other gauges that might have been touched on since this is an introduction to shotguns for beginners. 16 gauge and a 28 gauge. Though they are not in circulation as much as the 3 mentioned, one should know they exist if you are learning about gauges and shotguns in general for the first time.
    That’s like saying, when talking about cars, that there is Ford and Chevy but never mentioning Dodge or Mercedes……..etc.

  3. Hello.

    Quite a while back I had written you about not being able to find an FFL dealer for a shotgun that I wanted to buy here in Kentucky. We’ve recently moved (still in Kentucky) and have a couple of acres and lots of trees, and I’m concerned about snakes where we are now, so I need a shotgun more than ever now. I’m looking at semi automatics, because I hear the copperheads around this area are more than a few.

    This has been well over a year ago, and was just wondering if there has been any changes in the order process and if I can buy direct from you – or if you could find a dealer for me?

    We live in Whitley City KY 42653 now – if that might help in finding me an FFL dealer.

    Thanks.
    Mike

  4. Mostly well written for beginners. However, “a choke is a device that attaches to the barrel”? Screw-in chokes have become popular in the past few decades, and there were a few old devices that were their predecessors, but this statement ignores a huge number of barrels in which a fixed choke is formed (machined, swaged, etc.) directly in the barrel.

  5. AFAIK, some double-barrel shotguns can fire both simultaneously, either by having two triggers, or a switch to allow a single trigger to fire both at once.

  6. Under the Bolt Action heading:

    “Many models come with threaded barrels that specialize in shooting slugs longer distances with greater accuracy.”

    You meant “rifled barrels”, right?

  7. Even though I have used shotguns for years, I learned some interesting things from this article. Well written and easy to understand. John Krahnert

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