4 steps to selecting the right shotgun for a new shooter
There comes a time in every hunter’s life when it’s time to purchase a first shotgun.
Perhaps it’s truly your very first shotgun: either you’ve never shot before, or you’d like to upgrade from constantly borrowing from friends or family. Maybe you’re looking to finally graduate from the gun given to you in your youth. Or now is the time to purchase the first shotgun for that beginning hunter (adult, teen or child) in your life.
The first-shotgun process can be intimidating. Where to even begin? What features and aspects need to be considered in your decision?
Here are 4 steps to help you narrow down your selection and decide which bird-killer to bring home.
1. PICK YOUR ACTION
Inexpensive, reliable, follow-up shots take time
Pumps are the most popular shotguns in the U.S. for two simple reasons: they are inexpensive and dependable. You can purchase a top-of-the-line pump for less than an entry-level semiauto. You operate the moving parts so there is minimal risk for malfunction. But since you manually slide the forearm to eject your shell and chamber your next, pumps are the slowest for follow-up shots. This is why you won’t see many pumps on the sporting clays course or other situations where fast, sequential shots are required.
If you’re on a budget but still looking for a quality, reliable shotgun, a pump may be a great fit for you.
Mid-priced, low felt recoil, easy and fast follow-up shot, more maintenance, reduced reliability
Semiautomatics use the energy from your spent shell (via gas or recoil) to chamber your next shell, and the advantage of this process is two-fold: lower felt recoil, and increased speed and ease for follow-up shots. On the flip side, semiautos tend to be the most complicated shotguns to operate and they run the highest risk of malfunctioning — especially if you don’t take the time to clean them often; this makes semiautos the highest maintenance of the shotgun varieties.
If low recoil and fast follow-up shots are priorities for you, and regular gun maintenance wouldn’t be an issue, a semiauto is an excellent direction to look.
High-priced, 2 shots, 2 choke tubes, ease of use in field
Folks love the traditional look, ease of operation and ability to load and unload break actions quickly in the field. Double barrels limit the hunter to only 2 shots, but provide a unique benefit where the 2 barrels can be set up with different choke tubes, creating a lethal advantage when shooting at targets moving away from you.
Double-barreled break-action shotguns are the priciest options for shotguns because of the amount of metal required for 2 barrels, and the manufacturing precision needed to get those 2 barrels to shoot consistently with one another.
If you’d like to stick with tradition, or you desire a gun that is simple to operate in the field, a break-action shotgun may be the right choice for you.
2. Select Your Gauge
The 12-gauge is the most popular gauge shotgun in the U.S. In fact, everything smaller is considered sub-gauge. Because of its popularity, you’ll find the biggest selection of shotguns here and it will be the most versatile option when buying shells. A 12-gauge is large enough to be lethal for large or wily birds such as pheasants, but still perfectly suited for lighter loads for other types of wingshooting.
Also known as the gentlemen’s gauge, the 16-gauge is often described as a compromise between the size/payload of a 12-gauge and 20-gauge. A common adage states that a 16-gauge carries like a 20 but hits like a 12. Just keep in mind that the 16-gauge can still be considered a niche-market in the U.S., and ammo — especially variety options and nontoxic shot — can be difficult to find in stores.
The 20-gauge is the second most popular gauge shotgun in the U.S., with a large variety of firearm options and versatile shells available. A 20-gauge shotgun typically has a smaller frame and weighs less than its 12-gauge counterpart, making the 20 desirable for upland hunters looking for a lighter option for the field.
The minimal weight and low recoil of a 28-gauge make it an appealing option for uplands with its ease of carrying in the field and fast handling. But keep in mind that larger gauges will be more effective for killing, so the 28-gauge is best suited for scenarios where accuracy takes priority over knock-down power. Doves and quail are ideal for a 28.
Bigs and Littles
For this article we’ll leave the 10-gauge to the goose hunters and the .410s to the seasoned shooters.
3. Decide on Barrel Length
You’ll typically see hunting shotguns available in 26-inch and 28-inch lengths. But shorter 22- or 24-inch barrels, and longer 30- and 32-inch barrels, aren’t too uncommon.
Simply put: Longer barrels weigh more and swing better. This can be an advantage for fast-flying targets but can be cumbersome for ambush-style shooting in wooded areas or thick cover, or if you’re trying for a lighter-weight option for carrying. Pick a barrel length on the end of the spectrum for your shooting style, or somewhere in the middle with a 26” or 28” barrel if you’d like more versatility.
4. GET THE RIGHT COMFORT & FIT
Once you have narrowed to an action, gauge and barrel length, you’ll want to check out the many makes and models available. Unfortunately, it’s often not possible to test out shotguns before you buy them.
If you’re lucky enough to have a range nearby with shotguns available to rent, check them out. If you don’t have access to rental shotguns, you’ll still want to handle as many shotguns as possible. Visit your local gun shop or sporting goods store and shoulder the models you’re interested in. Try out several to get an idea of what works well for you. You may be surprised.
Look for a shotgun where the stock is comfortable and mounts easily to your cheek and shoulder, and you can swing the barrel with ease. Keep in mind that a gun that weighs more has more mass to absorb recoil, but a heavy gun can be difficult to carry all day and still shoulder quickly on a flushing bird. Find a balance that will work best for you.
WHAT’S YOUR (END) GAME?
A couple suggestions to consider, based on what you intend to hunt with your shotgun:
Are you strictly upland? A 20-gauge double barrel — with its traditional style and ability to quickly crack open in the field to water dogs or cross obstacles — would be an excellent choice for the beginning shooter.
Are you an all-around wingshooter? Ducks in the morning, upland in the afternoon? A 12-gauge semiauto is lethal enough for waterfowl and late-season roosters, but still versatile for the majority of wingshooting scenarios.
Are you looking for affordable versatility? A 20-gauge pump shotgun can and will literally do it all.
Are you shooting trap during the week and roosters on the weekend? A 12-gauge double barrel will transition perfectly from sporting to the uplands. If hunting is your focus, trend toward a field model.
FIELD VS SPORTING
As you’re looking at shotguns, you may notice that some models are described as Field or Sporting:
In general, a sporting shotgun will weigh more, have a higher rib on the barrel, a fuller grip and forearm, and may potentially only chamber 2¾-inch shells. It’s designed for trapshooting, skeet shooting, sporting clays and other shotgun sports.
A field gun will typically weigh less, have a flatter rib, and feature sleeker handling to shoulder quickly in the field. You can hunt with sporting guns and shoot shotgun-sports with field guns, but just keep their specialty characteristics in mind when deciding what is best for you.
Rachel Hoveland serves as Pheasants Forever’s resident shotgun expert when she’s not working as web developer for pheasantsforever.org.