Despite what you see in the movies, a shotgun can’t knock people 15 feet backwards and out of their shoes. But, it can do some impressive things: shatter a flying clay target, bring home a duck dinner, or repel an intruder. At ranges under 50 yards, a shotgun is the most versatile firearm of all. It’s also the most fun to shoot. Breaking your first clay bird or dropping your first real one hooks you instantly.
The key to a shotgun’s versatility is the smooth bore than enables it to shoot a spread of pellets. That spread may number as few as 8 or 9 pellets up to 1/3 of in inch in size (used for deer hunting and home defense) or up to 650 tiny ones not much bigger than the head of a pin (for clay targets and small birds). That’s what makes it different from a rifle.
Eventually you’ll want more than one, but here’s what you need to know when you choose your first shotgun:
A shotgun’s gauge refers to the diameter of the bore, meaning the inside of the shotgun’s barrel. While rifle bores are measure in calibers, shotguns come in gauges.
A 12 gauge, the most common, has a barrel the diameter of a dime. The bore diameter gets smaller as the number gets bigger. Of the five modern shotguns gauges —10, 12, 20, 28 and .410—the 12 and the 20 gauges are by far the most popular, and are the best choices for a first gun.
The 10 gauge is a waterfowl specialist’s gauge, the 16 and 28 are niche gauges for upland bird hunting, and the tiny .410 (the .410 is actually the caliber, although it’s called a “bore.” I know, it’s confusing) is best used only for pests and informal target shooting.
Pick a 12 gauge if: you plan to do shoot a lot of trap and sporting clays, or hunt waterfowl and turkeys, and you can handle the gun’s weight.
Pick a 20 gauge if: you’re more interested in upland hunting, and some target shooting, or if you prefer lighter weight and less recoil.
The action of a gun is the part that loads, fires and ejects the shell. Shotguns come in three main action types: pump, semiautomatic, and break action.
The pump (or slide) action is the gun you work by hand. Each time you fire the gun, you pull the forearm back to eject the empty shell and push it forward to load a fresh round. (That’s what makes the cool racking sound you know from the movies.)
Semiautomatics fire once with each pull of the trigger. Gas-operated semiautomatics function by using the expanding gases generated by firing the shell to eject the empty and put new one into the chamber, actually very much like a one-cylinder internal combustion engine.
Break-action shotguns open by operating a hinge at the breech, which is the end of the barrel into which a cartridge is inserted. Break-action guns can be single barrel or double barrel. Doubles can be side-by-side or over/under.
Generally, pumps are the least expensive, break actions the most expensive, and semiautos are in the middle. All three will handle any shotgun chore, but each has its strengths.
Choose a pump if: you’re on a budget, you want a reliable gun for home defense, or one that will work in the worst waterfowl hunting weather.
Choose a semiauto if: you are recoil-sensitive (gas-operated semiautos have noticeably softer recoil than other shotguns) and you plan to shoot targets and hunt birds of all kinds. Also choose a semiauto if you’re not afraid of cleaning guns. Semiautos require a little more cleaning than other actions.
Choose a break action if: you plan to hunt upland birds and shoot targets and prefer the simplicity of a gun that you load yourself.
Shotgun weights vary from under 6 pounds to 10 or more, but most are in between 6 ½ and 8 ½ pounds. All things being equal, the heavier the gun, the less it kicks and the easier it is to shoot well.
Choose a lighter gun (say, under 7 pounds) if: you plan to hunt upland birds or turkeys primarily, where you will walk a great deal; or if you lack the upper body strength to handle a heavier gun.
Choose a heavier gun (7 ½ to 8 pounds) if: you plan to shoot targets and hunt waterfowl. The weight helps absorb recoil and makes for a smoother swing.
The length of a shotgun’s barrel affects only balance and weight. `
Choose a short barrel (18 ½ to 24 inches) if: you want a compact gun for home defense or deer and turkey hunting.
Choose an average-length barrel (26 to 28 inches) if: you want an all-around gun.
Choose a long barrel (30 to 32 inches) if: you are only interested in clay target games.
One of the most important qualities of a shotgun is how it fits you. A shotgun has no sights because it’s supposed to pointed, not aimed, so you must be able to shoulder it smoothly and quickly. For that to happen, the gun’s stock has to fit you.
The two most important dimensions are the stock’s length, and the height of the top of the stock, which is called the comb.
A stock that’s the correct length won’t be so long that it tangles up in your coat as you bring it up, and it won’t be so short that you punch yourself in the nose when the gun recoils. If you mount the gun properly, there should be about two finger-widths between your thumb knuckle and your nose.
Here’s how to check if the gun’s comb is the right height for you: When you bring the stock to your face and tuck it under your cheekbone, you should see just a tiny amount of the gun’s rib (the long strip of steel running along the top of the barrel), and the bead sitting at the end of the rib at the muzzle.
THE ALL-AROUND SHOTGUN
In my opinion, the most versatile choice for an all-around first shotgun is a 12 gauge, gas-operated semiautomatic of about 7 pounds with a 28-inch barrel. Such a gun is light enough to carry, heavy enough to shoot well, and the gas operation takes the sting out of recoil. If the 12 seems like too much, the same thing in a 20 gauge would be a good bet.
FIVE SMART CHOICES FOR A FIRST SHOTGUN