A Shotgun Approach

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Published on: Aug. 2, 2002

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

I’ve always thought that downing a quail peeling out at full throttle probably feels about as satisfying as hitting a homerun out of a Major League ballpark.

Just as the bat is the tool of a Major League slugger, the shotgun is the tool of the quail hunter. It’s also the tool of choice for hunting many other kinds of game, as well as for most types of recreational shooting.

With so many types, styles and models on the market, choosing a shotgun can be daunting to a new shooter, but it doesn’t have to be. If you take your time and focus on your specific needs, selecting the right gun can be simple and fun.

Shotgun Types

Most shotguns are based on three basic designs: semi-automatic, slide-action (pump) and break-action. You can sometimes find bolt-action shotguns, but they are inefficient and hard to shoot.

Slide-Action

For reliability, durability and value, a slide-action shotgun is a solid choice for all kinds of shooting.

This type of shotgun consists of a single barrel, a receiver and a magazine that holds three to five shotgun shells. The action loads shells into the breech from the magazine and ejects spent hulls when you work (pump) a slide back and forth. That’s why they are most commonly called pump guns. The action locks when it seats a shell in the breech and releases when you fire the shell.

Slide-action guns come in two main designs. The most common has the ejection port on the side of the receiver. The pump guns made by Browning and Ithaca eject from the bottom. Bottom-ejecting guns throw empty hulls at your feet rather than off to the side like more traditional styles such as the Remington 870.

With practice, operating a pump shotgun becomes second nature, and you can fire three successive shots with surprising speed and accuracy. The best thing about them is that they almost never break, almost never jam and are simple to clean.

You can find used pump guns in good condition for around $150. Or, you can buy one new starting at around $300 for a Mossberg 500 to more than $500 for a Remington 870.

Semi-Automatic

Unlike a pump gun, a semi-automatic shotgun cycles and ejects one shell automatically with each pull of the trigger.

Most modern semi-autos are gas-operated. When the shell ignites, excess gas diverts to a cylinder, creating back-pressure that cycles the action. Many shooters appreciate the light recoil of gas-operated guns. The downside is that they are much more difficult to clean than pump guns, and they have small parts, particularly O-rings, that wear out in time.

A simpler design is the recoil-operated shotgun. Invented by John Browning in the early 1900s, this gun is arguably the most reliable and rugged semi-auto, and it is still produced by at least one manufacturer (Franchi).

This type of gun cycles shells by transferring the recoil through a series of springs. The barrel actually moves back and forth during the cycling process, unlike the silky smooth operation of a gas-powered gun.

Semi-auto prices range from about $350 to $1,500. Buy a brand name, and you won’t be disappointed.

Break-Action

Also called break-barrels, this category includes both single-shot and double-barrel shotguns.

There are two types of double-barrel shotguns. The over/under style has two barrels stacked vertically. The side-by-side features two barrels mounted horizontally. Double-barrel shotguns are the most expensive, while the single-shot models are the cheapest.

Millions of young hunters cut their teeth on hammer-fired, single-shot scatterguns. One reason is because they are extremely safe and reliable. Their disadvantage is that you get only one shot before reloading.To load a break-action gun, you push a lever and rotate, or break, the barrel away from the stock. Insert a shell of the proper gauge into the breech and lock the barrel back into place. When you’re ready to shoot, thumb back the hammer and pull the trigger.

To reload, simply break open the barrel. If the gun has an ejector, it will launch the spent hull out with considerable force, so keep your head out of the way. If it has an extractor, it will merely elevate the top of the hull so you can pull it out.

Double-barrel guns operate the same way, except modern versions do not have external hammers. Some have double triggers to fire each barrel.

Choosing between over/under and side-by-side models is a matter of personal preference. Some people don’t like the wide sighting plane of a side-by-side, and others consider the over/under to be bulky and unwieldy. I love them both.

The downside is price. High-quality used over/under prices start at about $600. New, they start at about $900. Good side-by-sides start at $1,400.

Single-shot models uniformly cost about $100 new. You can buy them used for $50 or less.

Buying Basics

The type of shotgun you buy should depend in large part on how you plan to use it. If you just want to hunt squirrels or rabbits, a single-shot will work fine. It will not be sufficient, however, for waterfowl, dove or upland bird hunting. Even the most experienced turkey hunters wouldn’t feel comfortable being limited to just one shot. You also wouldn’t be able to use it for skeet, trap or sporting clays.

A pump or semi-automatic shotgun will suffice for every application. For easy shooting, the semi-auto may be the right choice, but a double-barrel is hard to beat for sheer enjoyment.

Busting doubles with a pump gun on a clays range or in the field is the ultimate shooting experience. There’s no other feeling like it.

What Gauge Do I Need?

The 12- and 20-gauge are the most popular and most widely available shotguns in America. Of the two, the 12-gauge is more powerful and more versatile. You can use it to hunt almost anything, including white-tailed deer, and for all of the recreational shooting sports.

Keep in mind that the 12-gauge cartridge is available in three different lengths; 2 3/4 inches, 3 inches and 3 1/2 inches. Some guns fire only 2 3/4-inch shells, and some fire two or more interchangeably. Know exactly what your gun will handle, and never feed it a cartridge it isn’t designed to handle. Firing a 3-inch shell from a gun chambered only for 2 3/4-inch will probably destroy your gun, and it could kill or injure you.

A 2 3/4-inch cartridge is fine for almost every situation. A 3-inch cartridge gives you a little more firepower, and the 3 1/2-inch cartridge comes close to equaling the firepower of a 10-gauge. For waterfowl and turkey, you might want the extra versatility that the larger loads provide.

For upland bird hunting and recreational shooting, the 20-gauge is an excellent choice. Its recoil is lighter than that of a 12-gauge, and the guns are lighter, too. You sacrifice firepower, however, as the heaviest 20-gauge loads are weaker than the lightest 12-gauge loads.

The 20-gauge is available in two lengths; 2 3/4 inch and 3 inch. Many pump guns handle them interchangeably, but look closely for this option if you choose a semi-auto, because many are chambered only for 2 3/4.

The 16-gauge is a good compromise selection for both hunting and recreational shooting. It combines all the best traits of the 12- and 20-gauge in firepower, weight and handling. Unfortunately, the 16-gauge has fallen out of favor in the United States, and they are relatively hard to find.

The 28-gauge, on the other hand, has become very popular, and it’s an absolute joy to shoot. With 1-ounce loads, its firepower is very similar to that of a 20-gauge, except the guns are feather light and lightning quick to handle. The ammo is lighter, too, so you can carry more of it afield. The downside is that the 28-gauge doesn’t have the punch necessary for waterfowl or turkey.

If you opt for a 28-gauge, make sure it’s actually built on a 28-gauge frame and is not just a downsized 20-gauge. If you get a true 28-gauge shotgun, it’ll be hard to lure you away to anything else.

All Choked Up

Unlike a rifle, which fires a single projectile, a shotgun shell launches many projectiles, or pellets.

The manner in which these pellets separate or hold together when fired is called a pattern. A loose pattern sprays pellets over a wider area, while a tight pattern holds them closer together.

While each gauge has it’s own standard diameter, you can alter the diameter of the muzzle to alter the pattern. Most new guns come with interchangeable tubes that allow you to expand or decrease the diameter of the muzzle within seconds. If you want a loose pattern for quail hunting or sporting clays, you can screw in an Improved Cylinder tube. For the ultra-dense patterns many turkey hunters prefer, you can screw in an Extra Full or even a Super Full tube.

Older guns have fixed chokes. I like them better, but they limit the versatility of the gun. That alone is reason enough to own more than one shotgun!

Wood or Synthetic?

As you scan the rack, you’ll notice guns of traditional design made of wood and blued metal. Others will have synthetic stocks colored black, or with various camouflage patterns.

Which should you choose?

If you’re going to hunt in corrosive conditions such as what you typically find during waterfowl seasons, a synthetic stock with anodized metal will certainly prove more durable over time. Most turkey hunters also prefer camouflaged guns for the extra measure of concealment they provide.

On the other hand, a finely designed gun is a work of art, and there’s nothing more beautiful than good wood with a nice finish and deeply blued metal. It is as pleasant and desirable to handle as the finest baseball bat must be to a Major League slugger.

Before you buy, try out several brands, types and models to find the one that suits you best. When the gun comes to your shoulder, your head should align instantly down the sight plane without requiring you to adjust your head. You should be able to reach the trigger easily without having to overextend to grip the fore-end. In short, it should feel like an extension of your arm.

It’s hard to explain, but when you find the right shotgun, you’ll know it instantly. It’s almost like falling in love.

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