Before choosing a shotgun you must answer what you’re buying the gun for. Is it an all-purpose gun, or is it going to fill a particular niche in your collection? Depending on the purpose of the gun, consider the following major areas.
The 12 gauge is by far the most versatile and handles a huge range of loads. The 16, 20 and 28 gauges are upland-bird gauges. The .410 is for squirrel hunting and expert clay target shots. The big 10 gauge hangs on as a specialty gun for goose hunters.
Action: Pump actions are the least expensive choice and are also very reliable. Semiautomatics will reduce felt recoil (some dramatically). Pumps and semiautos are better guns for hunting deer and turkeys, and extra barrels for them are readily available and interchangeable. Break-action guns offer two shots to the three offered by pumps and semiautos, but they give you a choice of two chokes. They will also digest misshapen reloads better than the others, which matters to us target shooters who load our own.
How much a gun should weigh depends on its purpose. Heavier guns absorb recoil better. Lighter guns are less tiring to carry.
Most people shoot better with a gun that is slightly muzzle heavy. The exception is guns for close-cover upland hunting, such as for grouse and woodcock.
A fancy walnut finish and beautiful shiny engraving look great in the uplands and on the target range. For waterfowl, deer, and turkeys ,something duller and easier to care for makes a lot more sense.
How to Chose the Right Gauge
Unlike rifle shooters, who are faced with a bewildering number of caliber choices, shotgunners are limited to six. Each has its niche, and each has its fans.
10 Gauge (.775-inch diameter): The largest legal gauge in the United States, the 10 was an all-around gauge in blackpowder days. It hangs on for one purpose: goose hunting. It patterns well with BB and larger steel shot, and its massive 10-pound-plus weight absorbs the recoil of heavy loads.
12 Gauge (.729): This is the standard and the most versatile gauge of all. The 12 shoots everything from nearly recoilless 3/4-ounce practice loads to 2 1/4-ounce turkey stompers. Ammunition is available everywhere, and the volume of 12 gauge sales keeps prices low. If you own only one gun, it should be a 12.
Not everyone sees it this way. A friend of mine came back from northwest Iowa, impressed by the numbers of birds but bemused at his reception by the locals. “They called me a girlie-man hunter because I shoot a 12 gauge,” he reported. “They said real men shoot 20 gauges.”
Me, I own guns of other gauges, but the half dozen I actually take out of the cabinet to hunt and shoot with are all 12s. No other gauge comes close to being as versatile as the 12. Mine range from a double weighing less than most 20 gauges to a near 9-pound target gun with 32-inch barrels, and I shoot loads from ¾-ounce (for clay targets) up to 1 3/4 ounces (for turkeys) out of them. If you shoot steel shot, it takes a hull the size of a 12 gauge’s to hold enough of the light pellets to kill a duck or a goose. And, as much fun as light, skinny small bores are to handle, I believe it’s easier to shoot well with a gun that’s a little more substantial and hand-filling.
All of the above seem like logical reasons to shoot 12s to me. Still, the idea persists among some hunters that small gauge guns are somehow more sporting and more manly because they give the birds “a chance.” (A chance to fly off and die crippled, maybe.) Me, I will stick to my 12 gauges because when I shoot birds with them, they fall dead. If that makes me a girlie-man, I’m okay with it.
16 Gauge (.662): The 16 is an upland classic squeezed ballistically into a tiny, overlapping niche between the 3-inch 20 gauge and the 12. A good 16, built on a true 16 or even 20 gauge frame, is an upland delight, living up to the 16’s billing as “carrying like a 20, hitting like a 12.”
20 Gauge (.615): The 20 gauge is a capable upland performer with 7/8 to an ounce of shot. A 3-inch 20 shoots an ounce of steel, which is enough for ducks over decoys. Advances in slugs make 20s the equal of a 12 in a lower-recoil package. A gas-operated 20 gauge is the best starter gun.
28 Gauge (.550): I have heard the 28 gauge called “the thinking man’s 20” but really it’s “the .410 for people who want to crush targets and kill birds.” At ranges out to 30 to 35 yards, the light-kicking 28’s 3/4-ounce shot charge hits with authority. I’ve killed pheasants with 28s, but it’s best for smaller birds and short-range clays.
.410 Bore (67 gauge): Although many kids start with a .410 because it is light and has little recoil, the .410’s light payloads, poor patterns and expensive ammo make it a poor choice for kids and better for expert target shooters. The best place for the .410 in the field, in my humble opinion, is in the squirrel woods.
Lord Ripon, the finest shot in Edwardian England, kept his eye sharp in the off-season by potting dragonflies with a .410. The .410 bore has been around since the late 19th century and outsells the 10, 16 and 28 gauges today. It is the only modern shotshell designated by bore diameter. To its haters, the .410 is a crippler and a ballistic disgrace. On the other hand, I know two waterfowling fanatics who shoot geese and swans with .410 handloads. So what is the .410: a toy, a tool, or the worst mistake in shotgunning?
Well, we can start by saying for sure that the .410 isn’t a toy. It’s a real shotgun, only smaller. That said, despite the light weight of the guns and minimal recoil, the .410 is a poor choice for kids because it is very hard to hit with. There simply isn’t room for many pellets inside a shotshell the diameter of a Sharpie, so the pattern core (the part that smashes targets and folds birds) is smaller in diameter compared to the patterns shot by bigger gauges. There isn’t much shot left over to fill out the pattern fringe either.
Twenty-five yards is the .410’s effective range. In an unscientific but revealing test, I shot crossing targets with 3-inch hunting loads of 7 1/2 shot. From skeet stations 3, 4 and 5, I could hammer targets at 21 to 22 yards. After I took 10 steps back, I could only crack targets in half, or at best, break them into three pieces.
Use a .410 within its narrow capabilities and it’s a proven killer of everything from dragonflies to swans. Stretch that range, and you make the worst mistake in shotgunning: pretending a .410 can do everything a bigger gun can.
The All-Purpose Shotgun
One of the first shotgun columns I ever wrote was “The One Gun That Does It All.” A friend who had read it told me that his wife had seen the column and asked him why he needed so many shotguns. “It says here in Field & Stream you only need one,” she told him.
While I have learned since then not to talk about it so much in print, it actually is true: you can get by with one gun if you must. The trick, of course, is to choose the right one. The one gun that does everything is3-inch, 12-gauge, gas semiautomatic with an alloy-receiver and a 26- or 28-inch barrel. Why? Let’s break it down. The alloy receiver keeps the weight light enough to carry in the uplands, yet the gun will be long enough to be balanced to feel like a heavier gun when you shoot birds or clay targets.
Next, there’s the gas action, which will reduce recoil despite the gun’s overall light weight, making it a decent gun for skeet, sporting clays and league trap. Choosing a 3-inch chamber in place of 3-1/2-inch gives you better reliability with very light loads (even near-recoilless 7/8-ounce practice loads). On the other hand, 3-inch waterfowl magnums, turkey loads and buckshot give up very little in effective range to 3-1/2s.