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.


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.


Beretta A300 Outlander
The Beretta A300 Outlander is a great value in a gas semiauto, and an excellent, reliable gun. It’s primarily a hunting gun, but it definitely can be pressed into service as an all-around shotgun for both feathers and clay. Available in 12 gauge only, the A300 weighs a little over seven pounds. It comes with shims that enable you to alter the dimensions of stock to help make it fit you, and the synthetic-stock model has a removable spacer allowing you to shorten it, making the A300 a great choice for smaller shooters who need a shorter stock, or young shooters who will grow into the gun. Prices start at $775.
Browning Silver Hunter
The Browning Silver Hunter is a very soft-recoiling gas semiauto. Like the A300, it’s a good choice as an all-around clays and field gun. Available in either 12 or 20 gauge, the Silver comes in both full-size and scaled down “Micro Midas” versions, so anyone should be able to find a Silver that suits them. It’s an easy semiauto to clean and, in my experience, very reliable. The Hunter version has a walnut stock. Synthetic stocked hunting models are also available. Prices start at $1199.
Remington 870
The Remington 870 is the best-selling shotgun of all time, with over 10,000,000 made and an enviable reputation for durability. As a pump action, it’s best suited to hunting and home defense. I recommend spending extra for the “Wingmaster” model. It’s the top of the 870 line; more expensive, but better finished inside and out than the lower-priced “Express” version. You can find an 870 dedicated to almost any purpose, from guns made specifically for deer hunting to trap shooting to tactical duty. Prices start at $830.
Benelli Supernova
The Benelli Nova’s looks take some getting used to, but it’s a good gun if waterfowl hunting is your main use for a shotgun. At eight pounds it has some heft to soak up recoil, and that’s good, as it’s only gun on this list that can fire the powerful 3 ½-inch 12 gauge magnum shells preferred by many waterfowl and turkey hunters. The Nova has a very smooth pump action, and is also available in both full-size and scaled-down 20 gauge versions. Prices start at $449.
Beretta 686 Silver Pigeon I
Beretta’s 686 Silver Pigeon I is a tough but graceful field gun that will double as a skeet and sporting clays gun as well, especially if you choose the 30-inch barreled model. The Silver Pigeon I comes in 12, 20, 28 and .410 Popular around the world, the Silver Pigeon is pricey compared to the other guns on this list, but it will last forever if you decide to keep it, and will retain its value should you ever decide to sell it or trade for something else. If you’re going to step up to a break-action gun, which is generally the most expensive of all to build due to the amount of labor required, you might as well do it right. Prices start at $2,350.