Choosing The Right Shotgun

One of the most common questions asked of sales people in gun and sporting good stores is, "which shotgun should I get?" Invariably, the answer is, "it depends."

Choosing the right shotgun depends upon your intended use, your budget, your skill level, your taste, your sensitivity to recoil, and a host of other factors. In this article we'll try to address as many of these points as possible.

Shotgun Gauge

The first choice you'll need to make is the gauge of the shotgun you intend to buy. 12 gauge is extremely popular for defense and for hunting medium to large game animals such as deer and hogs, and birds such as geese or turkeys. For smaller game or birds, 16 or 20 gauge is more appropriate. .410 gauge is usually considered too small for hunting anything but the smallest game or bird.

Clay shooters will often use 12 gauge with smaller shot size, although 16 or 20 gauge shotguns will bust clays just as well with the right loads, have less punishing recoil, and are very popular at trap ranges.

If your budget allows for just one shotgun, and you'll need it for a variety of uses, the 12 gauge will likely serve you best. You can choose the most powerful loads for defense or large game, or dial the shot size and powder charges down for lighter applications.

Pump, Semiautomatic, Side by Side, or Over/Under?

You'll also need to decide which type of action you'll want in your shotgun. Pump-action shotguns are considered to be "workhorses." The manual pump action will function with any ammo, and will work wet or dry, and even when fouled with burnt powder or some dirt. Except for a stuck shell, there's not much that will keep a pump-action shotgun from not working.

The downsides to pump action shotguns are twofold: recoil and shot follow-up. The pump action shotgun doesn't use any of its energy to operate the gun as do semiautomatics. All of the recoil of the gun is directed rearward to your shoulder. Depending upon the gauge, shot size and powder charge, recoil can be punishing.

Except for the most experienced shotgunners, pump action shotguns make staying on target for a follow-up shot more difficult, as the action of pumping the gun will pull the sights off target.

Semi-automatic shotguns fire a shot each time the trigger is pulled, and load another shell from the chamber. Gas operated or recoil-operated shotguns use the spent gases of the fired shell or the recoil of the fired shell to cycle the action and load the next round. Using this energy to cycle the action reduces the amount of energy--recoil--delivered to your shoulder, making the gun more comfortable to shoot.

Some semiautomatic shotguns use inertia systems, employing the gun's recoil and movement to cycle the action. Inertia system shotguns can cycle very quickly. They also have as much, or more, felt recoil as pump action shotguns. When using certain inertia system shotguns for defense, it's important to not add too many accessories such as lights or shell holders, as increasing the weight of the gun can cause it to not cycle completely.

Gas or recoil operated semiautomatic shotguns are preferred by trap and skeet shooters who will fire hundreds of shells in an afternoon, as the reduced felt recoil makes the experience more pleasant.

Semiautomatic shotguns have a reputation for being unreliable in the field, but this is only the case if the gun is not cleaned and lubricated properly. When properly maintained, semi-auto's are generally just as reliable as pump-action guns.

Side-by-side and over/under shotguns are generally preferred by experienced shooters who are confident in taking their game or hitting their target with no more than two shots. The simplicity of the actions on these guns makes them ultra-reliable. Because of the two-shot limitation, side-by-sides and over/unders are more often found on trap or skeet ranges than in the field or forest.

Barrel length and bore

In tailoring your shotgun to your needs, barrel length is extremely important. Those hunting game such as deer, or those using a shotgun for defense, will usually opt for an 18" barrel. It's more maneuverable in tight spaces or in the woods or field, and can be brought on target quickly. For clays or birds, longer barrels are preferred for more intuitive, precise aiming. 26", 28" or even 30" barrels are common choices for clay-busters and wing shooters.

Shotguns are often referred to as "smooth bores," and for good reason. Most shotguns have barrels with a smooth finish inside, with no rifling. For hunting with slugs, though, a rifled bore is a must for accuracy. It should be noted that it's advisable to not shoot shot through rifled bores, as the shot will degrade the rifling over time.

Shotgun finish

Over the last several decades, shotgunners have been presented with a wide array of finishes for the barrels and receivers of their guns. No longer is shiny blued the only option. There's camouflage finishes for woods or field, stainless for wet weather or for salt water environments, parkerized or anodized finishes for eliminating reflections and for durability, and other more exotic finishes.

Choice of the finish should be obvious. If the gun is going to be getting wet or possibly scratched, the beautiful blued finish gun with the gold inlay isn't the best selection.

This is not to say that camouflaged, parkerized or anodized finishes can't be scratched or won't rust. They can and do. However, they can be more easily touched up without detracting from the appearance of the gun. Stainless steel, of course, can be scratched. It is, however, more impervious to rust than regular steel. Contrary to what some may claim, stainless steel can rust, although not anywhere near as readily as carbon steel.

Wood or synthetic stock

As with shotgun finishes, the choice of wood or synthetic stocks depends upon the use, and should be obvious. Synthetic stocks will hold up better to harsh conditions, and usually don't show scratches as readily. Synthetic stocks also won't swell in damp conditions. A swelled stock can affect accuracy, although not as noticeably with a shotgun as with a rifle.

Stock fit