Which shotgun action is best for you? Leaving single-shots aside for the moment (they’re great for deer, turkeys and singles trap but not much else), your choices boil down to pump, semiauto, or break-action.
This is the least expensive, most popular action, in the United States at least. (The rest of the world shuns them.) The pump or slide action cycles a new shell with each pull/push of the forearm. Pumps keep shooting in dusty, dirty, or muddy conditions, and they’re easy to clean. While a skilled hand with a pump gun can shoot them almost as fast as a semiauto, working the slide between shots can be distracting, which is one reason you hardly ever see them in the hands of serious target shooters.
Each pull of the trigger sends a shot downrange. The semiauto has become increasingly popular, although it ranges from slightly more expensive than a pump to four or five times more. Semiautos have the huge advantage of noticeably reducing felt recoil. While modern semiautos are extremely reliable, they still come in third behind pumps and break actions on that count. Gas-operated semiautos–which tend to reduce recoil more–can be somewhat involved to clean. Inertia semiautos, which kick slightly harder, are a breeze to maintain.
Two-barreled guns have the advantage of two chokes (and sometimes an instant choice of chokes), and many shotgunners prefer the balance of a break action. You can buy a decent break-action gun for less than the price of a high-end semiauto, but you can also spend the price of a house on one. Because you can clearly see when a gun is open and unloaded, some believe them to be safer than other designs. They are the best choice for reloaders, since they will handle almost any reload and won’t fling valuable empty hulls into the long grass.
The classic British game guns and the great American doubles were all side by sides, yet today the over/under (O/U) is the most popular break action. In the U.S., the side-by-side hangs on only among tradition-minded upland hunters.
The O/U isn’t better; it’s just different. The O/U has a more familiar feel in the hands of hunters familiar with pumps and semiautos. Its most-touted advantage is the “single sighting plane” of the O/U—the narrow profile of the top rib and barrels. It is probably true that O/Us can be shot more precisely, especially when firing at crossing targets.
Side by sides tend to be stocked straighter and have lower ribs, which lets you see more barrel when you mount it. When I shoot a side by side, I always feel as though I’m looking up a two-lane road running uphill. I always think, “How can you miss with one of these?” They are great for upland hunting, where most birds you’ll see are going to go straight away or quartering away.
Break-action fans have a tendency to talk about the advantage of two chokes and of instant barrel selection (the latter is true only for those doubles with double triggers, by the way). And to that talk, despite the fact that I am in fact a double-gun shooter, I say, “Whatever.” Purely in terms of results, which is to say birds in the bag, the third shot of a pump or semiauto and, equally important, the speed of reloading are going to beat two shots and two chokes almost every time. Granted, if you miss a flushing upland bird twice, your chances of hitting it with the third shot are slim. But if you miss one bird twice with a pump or semiauto, you won’t be standing there with an empty, broken-open gun when that unseen second bird flushes at your feet.