Choosing a Shotgun

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Every once in awhile new shooters ask some basic shot gunning questions trying to decide which shotgun they should buy.  They are generally concerned with either home defense, or hunting, but often both. 

Yes you can hunt small game and game birds with the big 10 gauge, but it is more recoil than most people want to deal with on a regular basis.  By and large the “big gun” is the 12 gauge. It has been a fight stopper from the OK corral to World War Two. 

I have been asked many times if a 12 gauge is too much gun for hunting small game.  There is a fear among some new shooters that the smaller animals will be too peppered with pellets to be edible or at best a gruesome mess. It is not true.  Many, many, many rabbits and partridge and pheasants have gone down to the 12 gauge and been perfectly suitable for eating world wide over the last hundred years or so.

Sixteen gauge shotguns use a shell slightly smaller than the 12 gauge shell, but there is not a significant difference in the perceived recoil.  In my opinion, the only thing gained by using a sixteen gauge is greater expense because the shells are more rare and thus cost more than the twelve gauge or the 20 gauge.

That said, a 20 gauge is also perfectly suitable for all shotgun hunting and for self defense without the full recoil from the larger shells. I agree with the often repeated advice that new shot-gunners, most women, and younger teens who wish to hunt or shoot trap or skeet should begin with a 20 gauge.  Many are built for smaller frame shooters (youth models) and they will probably be a better match for those folks.

The 28 and 410 gauge shells are much smaller than the 20 gauge and also more expensive.  They can be used for hunting and defense, but it is like deer hunting with a 22 rimfire. These shells are really not best suited to the job. These smaller gauges are useful for teaching shotgun use, and for youths to hunt squirrels with, but in my personal opinion they do not throw enough lead to reliably take birds on the wing. Others will disagree.

Once you decide on what shell to fire, the next question is what action choice to make for your shotgun.  Single shots are simple to operate and inexpensive, but slower to reload than other types of actions.  The venerable side by side shotguns aka “double barrels” are basically two single shot guns sharing a single stock.  They are reliable in that you have two complete actions (triggers, hammers, chambers) so that if one breaks you still have the second, but they are also heavy.  You are carrying two barrels.  Pump guns are the next technological step.  There are good ones and bad ones.  They require two hands to operate and I have found them more prone to jam than any other action, but they did dominate the shotgun market for 50 years, so I really can’t put them down too much.  Any of these can and will work for you if you find one that feels natural for you to operate.  I personally love the old outside hammer side by sides but they are not the optimum for efficiency.  In my opinion that designation goes to the more modern, semi automatic shotguns.

A semi auto will be more expensive than a pump, double, or single shot but it will kick less because the springs soak up recoil. Follow up shots will be very fast until you need to reload your tube or magazine.  The number of shells you can load at a time varies but is generally at least three so that you will get at least one more shot than the old double guns without having to pump the action or work a bolt. 

If you have any concern with recoil, get a semi auto. Regardless of what you buy, put a pad on the butt-stock to cushion your shoulder when you practice.

If you have a choice, buy a shotgun with a longer chamber to increase your ammo options, but buy the shorter shells to reduce recoil. You can fire shorter shells (like 2 3/4 inch length) in a shotgun that holds longer shells with no downside.  You can't fire longer shells in a shotgun designed for shorter shells. For example you can not use 3 inch shells in a shotgun with a 2 3/4 inch chamber.

This covers the very basics of shot-gunning terms and should give you enough information to start asking questions and narrowing down the choices when you decide which shotgun you want.  Above all be safe, and have fun.


COMeatHunter's picture

What about the over-under?

I would agree with starting out new shotgunners with a 20 gauge.  This is a good size for starting out, although a little unersized for larger waterfowl.  

For upland birds and small game like rabbits and squirrels, a 20 gauge is hard to beat.  I prefer the over-under style for this type of hunting.  Since the actions of single shot and double barrel shotguns are much shorter than pump or semi-auto actions, this style of gun is usually several inches shorter and easier to manuever quickly for fast moving targets.  Many times the barrels can also be set with different chokes so you can have an improved cylinder or modified choke shooting a wider shot pattern to be fired first followed by a full choke barrel for slightly longer shots.  This set up maximizes the shot patterns fired from the gun at targets moving away from the shooter.

For waterfowl I would also agree the 12 gauge semi auto is a great choice and hard to beat.  

Thanks again and keep it coming.


GooseHunter Jr's picture

Some great tips in there and

Some great tips in there and what a great tip to bring up especially with waterfowl season starting here all over soon.  I just happen to shoot a 10 gaieg and while I love that gun in hind sight a 12 gauge that shoots 3.5" shells would have been just as good and more verstile.  I am just a fan of big guns and it really puits a hurting on the big canada geese and some big ole gobblers.  i have since bought two more 12 gauge both that onlly shoot 3" shells so I have gun to chase all sort of game.  bext I am gonna go with a nice 20 gauge and have a 20 gauge only goose pit day and see how we do.  there are so many options and choices out there that a person can really be picky in the gun that they buy.

ManOfTheFall's picture

Thanks for the tip. I started

Thanks for the tip. I started out on a 12 gauge when I was 13 and used it until I began bow hunting in 1997. I started my kids out on 20 gauges. Right now the only shotgun we have in our house is my Remington 870. It did the job for whatever I chose to use it for. Thanks for the tips.

Retired2hunt's picture

Groovy Mike - excellent tips

Groovy Mike - excellent tips on shotgun and shotshell types.  This is an easy way for sharing with those I am trying to get into the sport of hunting or shooting.  I started off with a 20 gauge and did the same with my two sons and then later with the wife when it was her turn... when I finally convinced her that is.  I graduated the sons to 12 gauge models but the wife holds on to that 20 gauge.

I have to tell you I am partial to a pump action though.  I have out shot my brothers with it when they were using semi-automatics on a trap shoot and have had relatively few jams.  But the semi-auto is definitely something I would use as well.

I also agree that you can shoot bird or small game with a 12 gauge and not tear up the animal - you just have to pick the right size shotshell and use the right choke tube for the work.

Thanks again for putting this tip together.  I can now direct several of my friends to it for their review.