“I can really shoot this gun,” you might say, or you may admit: “I can’t hit a thing with this gun.” Why? What makes one shotgun a can’t-miss-with-it and another one a miss machine?

A few factors go into it. I am not a great shot, but I can pick up almost any gun and shoot it okay, which is a good ability to have in my line of work where I shoot lots of different guns. Here’s a list, in descending order of importance, of factors that make a shotgun shootable:

Fit

If a gun doesn’t shoot where you look, it’s pretty hard to hit anything with it. For me, a comb (the top of the stock) that is very high makes it tough to do anything but shoot over the top of birds. Surprisingly, a comb that’s very low, like the ones on many old American side-by-sides, is easier to adapt to than you might think. You have to keep your head upright through the shot. I have read various explanations for why guns used to be stocked that way, including the speculation that shooting with your head upright prevented your top hat from falling off in the field.

Balance

If a gun is light in the muzzle, it’s easy to carry, easy to hit birds that flush in your face with, and very difficult to swing well on anything that’s crossing. My 20-gauge SKB with 25-inch barrels and the Benelli Ultra Light semi-auto are two guns I’ve shot a fair amount that are great to use in a grouse thicket and terrible when a bird flies past at any range greater than about 20 yards. It’s much easier to shoot guns with some weight up front, although if they have too much weight up front they become draggy.

Weight

It’s easier – for me anyway – to shoot a heavy gun better than a light one. Heavy guns swing smoothly, point surely and absorb recoil. Sure, they’re not lightning-quick, but speed is the most overrated trait in shotgun shooting. Slow and steady wins the race in shotgunning, and slow and steady is easier to achieve with a heavy gun.

Recoil Reduction

The less a gun kicks, the easier it is to shoot well. Recoil beats you into bad habits: lifting your head off the stock, and dropping the gun off your shoulder. It makes shooting less fun and more work, and when that happens, your shooting suffers.

Choke

Hand your gun to someone to try and they always ask “What’s it choked?” and I always answer politely, while thinking: “Who cares? Is it really going to change the way you shoot this target?” The right choke gives you a few more inches of pattern spread at the right range, but most targets are missed by feet, not inches.

Trigger

People who are more sensitive than me, and that’s a lot of you, might notice a shotgun’s trigger pulls. I never do. I had one of the first Benelli Novas made, and everyone wanted to try it. I remember handing it to one guy on the skeet field and watching him try to shoot two or three targets. The gun never went off no matter how hard he pulled the trigger. “Is this safety on?” he asked. It wasn’t, but the gun had a 9 ½-pound trigger and it took a stout yank to make the gun go off. It never bothered me, but some shooters couldn’t hit with the gun because of it.

Beads

A shotgun’s bead is there not to be looked at. The currently popular glowstick beads are fine if you keep them in your peripheral vision. So is any other kind of bead, but then again, so is no bead at all. Unless a bead is so huge and bright I can’t ignore it, beads make practically no difference at all to me, but to others it becomes a focal point, which is an automatic miss when you’re swinging on a moving target.