To get a sense of the shotgun’s utility, just consider the variety of ammunition that it can use. There is standard round shot that progresses from .05-inch No. 12 up to .36-inch No. 000 buckshot. Shot materials include lead, steel, and various hybrid blends of tungsten and iron. Then there’s non-round shot. And slugs come in too many shapes and sizes to list. The shells for all these loads vary in size and length for different purposes as well. When you add it all up, there is no class of firearm that handles a similar array of ammo or as broad an array of shooting tasks.
While the shotgun’s history doesn’t stretch back quite as far into the mists of time as that of the handgun or rifle, it’s been in use in one form or another for over 200 years. And the technology has changed very little in some cases, proving rather conclusively that sometimes you don’t need to improve a great machine.
Upland Birds: The earliest true shotguns were used for bird hunting and as such were commonly known as “fowling pieces.” This is still one of the most popular uses for shotguns, and an entire industry is built around the hunting of doves, pheasants, partridges, grouse, quail and other feathery creatures. The shotguns for upland birds tend to be lighter with elegant lines and fast handling.
Turkeys: The gobbling of turkeys in spring sounds a wake-up call from the doldrums of winter for many hunters. As soon as the snow starts to melt (and sometimes even sooner) hunters will grab their turkey guns, which are often customized to take these large birds. Pistol grips, fixed sights (or even scopes), adjustable stocks, extra-tight chokes, 3 ½-inch chambers and full camo are common features.
Waterfowl: The wet cousins of upland birds are the other major hunting quarry for shotgunners. Waterfowl shotguns are built to withstand rough weather and rough use, able to survive everything from saltwater to bouncing around in the bottom of a boat. Ducks and geese are also tough birds, requiring heavier shot and larger shells. A good duck gun must be robust, but still handle well enough to bring down fast-flying birds.
Big Game: Hunters in many parts of the country are restricted to using shotguns for deer and other big game. Buckshot still accounts for plenty of deer, but the use of slugs has become more common. Performance has a lot to do with this. Slug gun accuracy has come a long way in the last 10 years, and specialized rigs that shoot 2- to 3-inch groups at 100 yards are not unusual. Well-made fully rifled barrels, better quality ammo and purpose-built scopes have fuelled this trend.
Predators: The hunting of coyotes and predators is an obsession for many sportsmen. Depending on the terrain and conditions, a shotgun is often the favored firearm for taking on these smart critters. Camo shotguns with predator-specific loads are ideal in suburban areas and thick cover, though many open-country hunters out west will tote a shotgun in addition to a rifle for those times when the coyotes run right up to where the hunter is calling from.
Military: Shotguns have a rich military history and have appeared in one form or another in every major military action in U.S. history. Anywhere with fighting that was up close and personal—whether in the trenches of World War I, during the island assaults in the Pacific during World War II, in the jungles of Vietnam or in urban combat in Iraq—shotguns have been carried into battle.
Competition: Shotguns are used for various forms of target games more than all other uses combined. The breaking of clay birds takes on many forms—trap, skeet, sporting clays, 5-stand and others—and there are shotguns and loads for each application. In general, target guns are heavier than hunting models. Heavier guns will swing more smoothly, but the extra weight also allows the shooter to better handle the cumulative effect of recoil while putting dozens, and in some cases hundreds, of rounds through the guns over the course of a day.
Law Enforcement: Standard issue for most U.S. police departments, shotguns are used in patrol vehicles, by SWAT teams, for riot control with less-than-lethal ammunition and are even carried by some motorcycle units. Pump-action shotguns have been a favorite platform for law enforcement personnel, though some departments also employ tactical semiautos as well.
Personal Protection: When it comes to personal protection, shotguns are an excellent choice. They are easy to wield, pack tremendous firepower, work reliably, and are ideal for use in tight quarters. Personal-defense shotguns often have extended magazine tubes, shorter barrels, collapsible stocks and attachment lights. Specialized ammo for self-defense minimizes recoil while retaining lethality.