Getting Started

Written by Phil Erickson

If you are interested in getting a shotgun, remember that just like pistols and golf clubs, there are many different types and brands. Some are, or can be made to be, multi-purpose. But it’s best to first decide what you want it for. Most importantly, don’t just go buy a shotgun. Think about what you want it for. Then go shopping with paper and pen, ask questions, take notes, handle different guns, then go home to think more about it. Some issues to consider are: intended use, brand, price, action type, ease of use for you, gauge, barrel length, and fit. Let’s look briefly at these considerations.

Intended use:  Nearly all shotguns are purchased for one of three purposes: shooting clay birds on trap and skeet fields; self-defense; or hunting (birds, small game like rabbits, or deer.)  A general-purpose shotgun like the Remington Model 870 pump, Mossberg 500 pump, or Remington 1100 or 11-87 semi-auto, could be configured to be useful for all of these purposes, but not be ideal for any. This is due mainly to barrel length (self-explanatory) and barrel choke (the amount of constriction at the muzzle end, intended to tighten-up the pattern of pellets.) Luckily, easily-switched barrels with removable choke tubes are available for all four of these models, thus making them much closer to general-purpose with the purchase of additional barrels. Also, some companies (Remington, Mossberg) are now offering a shotgun as a kit with two barrels, one general purpose about 28” long and one for self-defense about 18” long.

Brand and price:  Generally speaking, you get what you pay for with shotguns. However, there are some good quality shotguns, such as the four mentioned above, which are relatively inexpensive (well under $1000.) Other brand names to consider: Benelli, Beretta, Browning, Ithaca, Ruger, and Winchester. It is best to avoid off-brand models and inexpensive imports. A used, name-brand shotgun, as with any gun, will almost invariably be of better quality than an inexpensive, off-brand new one.

 Action type:  Generally speaking, single-shot and pump shotguns have more recoil, because of their lighter weight. Semi-autos tend to kick the least, due to their greater weight and the action type, which in gas-operated semi-autos absorbs some of the recoil.

High-quality over-under double-barrel shotguns (Browning, Beretta, Krieghoff, Perazzi) usually have moderate recoil because they are heavier than pumps. This is by design, since they are designed for high-volume trap and skeet shooting, where gun weight is an important advantage in reduced recoil and therefore reduced fatigue.

 Ease-of-use:  You should choose a shotgun that is easy for you to handle and manipulate. Try different types, and determine which action type matches your needs, stature and strength.

  • Long barrels can be cumbersome and will be harder to hold up than shorter barrels.
  • Semi-autos are often heavier in the front end which accentuates this front weight bias.
  • Pumps require that you be able to easily manipulate the sliding fore end.
  • Over-unders require that you be able to open the action without difficulty.

Gauge:  “Gauge” in shotguns is a measure of the barrel’s inside diameter. The two common gauges in use today are 20 and 12. The 12-Gauge is by far the most versatile, since ammunition is available for it in very light (i.e. low power) to very heavy (high-power), in a wide variety of pellet or BB sizes. However, 20-GA is popular since even lower-power (and so lower recoil) ammunition is available. In general, 12-GA shotguns are heavier than 20-GA, to ameliorate the greater recoil. A heavy 12-GA shotgun can have less perceived recoil than a light 20-GA shotgun, with common ammo. So if your primary desire is for a clay-bird shotgun, a heavier 12-GA will probably be a better choice. In addition, the 12-GA shell in common clay-bird loadings contains up to 50% more pellets than does the 20-GA shell, giving a great advantage in number of pellets on target.

The same principles apply in hunting shotguns, except that a heavy gun is harder to carry all day in the field.

For self-defense, at shorter distances such as inside a home, the 12-GA does not have a significant advantage over a lighter & handier 20-GA, except in variety of ammo choice.

Barrel length:  The most common general-purpose barrel length in the U.S. is 28”. This length is fine for nearly all hunting. It is a little short for clay bird shooting, and a little too long for most self-defense use. It is a compromise, but if your interest is in hunting, it’s fine. Most shotguns sold today have removable choke tubes, giving one barrel far greater versatility. Unless your purpose for a barrel is confined to self-defense only, you should expect your barrel to come with choke tubes.

Fit:  Some pumps such as the Mossberg Bantam are designed for people with shorter arms.  Some semi-autos like the Beretta 3901RL are also designed for shorter arms.  And some semi-autos like the Remington 1100 Youth and 11-87 Youth are designed with shorter barrels, to be easier to hold up.

When you bring a shotgun up into firing position, proper buttstock length will put your nose about 1.5-2” from your shooting-hand thumb. A too-long buttstock can be shortened on most shotguns.

If your shotgun doesn’t have a 1” thick, good-quality recoil pad (Kick-Eez, Remington R3, Limbsaver, Pachmayr,), the stock should be shortened enough so that when one is installed, your buttstock length will properly fit your body.

Many women find a better shotgun fit with the addition of a Jones Stock Adjuster, so that the recoil pad can be lowered and turned until it properly fits their shoulder muscle “pocket.” Installation of this will require that more wood be removed from the buttstock.

A final consideration is the shape of the buttstock. A “field” shotgun stock has a top surface (the “comb”) which slopes down from the front to the back, and also a more “open” (larger diameter) grip area. This type stock is designed for a gun that is to be grabbed and shot quickly, and is appropriate for hunting or self-defense. It’s common on almost all general-purpose shotguns, because the “fits-all” shape makes the guns more universal, and less expensive.

A clay-bird, (skeet or trap), shotgun will typically have a parallel comb, which does not drop from the front to the rear, and is parallel to the rib that runs along the top of the barrel. This makes for more precise shooting. It will also typically have a more closed, or smaller-diameter grip area, also designed for more precise shooting. A clay-bird shotgun that fits you well can be perfect for shooting live birds, but a general-purpose field stock will be less than perfect for clay bird shooting due to its compromises in precise fit to the individual shooter.

2 thoughts on “Getting Started”

  1. I am not a fan of the shotgun as a denvfsiee weapon when you have other choices frankly. I can see the attractions (low legal profile, stopping power ) but its outweighed by the awkwardness of the weapon, the immense muzzle blast and noise and the risk of panicked short stroking for novice users with pump guns.The doesn’t negate my optimum suppressed 20g semi auto idea of course but like a lot of weapons, its something of specialist item.For persons in more sane jurisdictions a pistol caliber carbine is a better choice, easier to shoot, more rounds and still very effective with good ammo IMO, YMMV However given no other choice , a shotgun is better than nothing and a double will serve very well. I do agree with Mulliga though, bird shot is for the birds . Use buckshot or slugs for humans. If a person is in a jurisdiction that forbids buckshot, well use the heaviest bird shot you can get , again better than nothing.


  2. Thanks Phil, for a great article!


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