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A Hunters Companion: A Guide to Choosing Your First Hunting Shotgun



Every single hunter who has even gotten into the sport has, at some point, had to face the decision of which shotgun best fits their needs. While for some, this process might be exciting, for others it can be confusing and intimidating. For that reason alone, we figured it would be a good idea to give you a 10,000-foot view of what goes into buying your first hunting shotgun.


At a base level, there are a couple of critical features to consider to ensure your hunting shotgun meets your specific needs and preferences, just about 10 in fact. These factors can significantly impact your hunting experience, affecting comfort, accuracy, and success out in the field. Because of that, we have dove into the most important features to consider when choosing a shotgun when beginning your hunting career.


History of Hunting Shotguns

Before covering the key features of a shotgun, it is always important to make of the history behind the amazing weapon. The history of the hunting shotgun begins in the 17th century, when a simple, smoothbore muzzleloader was developed and used for bird hunting.


By the 19th century, breech-loading shotguns emerged, allowing faster reload times and ultimately laying out the carpet for the world-famous, double-barreled shotgun. The late 19th and early 20th centuries then made way for pump-action and semi-automatic shotguns, again significantly enhancing reload speeds and shooting efficiency.


Modern advancements have since brought shotguns to a whole new level of highly sophisticated firearms, with amazing features like interchangeable chokes, adjustable stocks, and advanced recoil management, all of which cater to the differing needs of a diverse hunting population.


Factors to Consider

So now, when we’re looking at the big picture, there are really 10 main factors that come into play when you’re at the gun store looking to pick up your first hunting shotgun.



1. Action Type

The action type of a shotgun references how the shells are loaded into and ejected out of the firearm.


The four main action types are the pump-action, semi-automatic, break-action (including single-shot and double-barrel), and the bolt-action. Each type carries its own blessings and curses:

Pump Action

Pump-action shotguns are known for both their reliability as well as their versatility. These shotguns can handle a wide range of shell types and are favored for their ruggedness and ease of maintenance. The pump shotgun pays homage to the old “rub some dirt on it and keep moving” school of thought.

Semi-Automatic

Now, semi-automatic shotguns open up into a whole new league of shotguns. These bad boys offer far quicker follow-up shots, as they automatically eject spent rounds while simultaneously chambering the next shell to fire. This system in tandem with the advancements of modern internals in these shotguns leads to less perceived recoil and a quick rate of fire.

Break-Action

Break-action shotguns are simple, reliable, and easy to maintain, carving them out a market of hunters who simply prefer reliability over the benefits that come with a semi-auto. You can always divide to go with a double-barrel variant, which can offer a choice of choke in each barrel for different shot patterns.

Bolt-Action

Bolt-action shotguns are less common, but we felt they should be included as they have their place in the world of hunting shotguns. These shotguns are known for their accuracy and are usually used for slug shooting.



2. Gauge

Now, when we’re talking about the gauge of a shotgun, we are essentially discussing the size of the shotgun bore. Today, the common shotgun gauges on the market include 12, 20, 16, 28, and .410 gauge. Which gauge is best for you directly depends on the game you intend to hunt:


  • 12-gauge is the most versatile and powerful, suitable for a wide range of game, from large to small.

  • 20-gauge is a lighter shell and carries far less recoil, making it a good choice for smaller game, young hunters, or hunters who simply prefer carrying a lighter firearm.

  • 16 and 28 gauges, as well as .410, are specialized choices. These gauges are very often used out of preference for specific types of hunting. They also see use among groups of enthusiasts who appreciate and value their unique characteristics.


3. Barrel Length

Barrel length plays a fairly large role in which type of shotgun you need, as it affects the shotgun’s balance, swing, and maneuverability. Where longer barrels (28-30 inches) are preferred for more open-field hunting because of their better aim and steadier swing, hunting in the brush or in the woods requires a closer range, quicker barrel, which is where the shorter barrels (24-26 inches) come into play.




4. Choke

A shotgun choke is part of the shotgun at the end of the barrel that shapes how exactly the spread of the shot is shaped, depending on how accurate you need to be or how wide of a target you need to hit. This is done by constricting the barrel and forcing the shot to exit the barrel in a particular fashion.

Chokes can either be fixed or interchangeable, and are extremely crucial for controlling the shot pattern. The choice of choke (cylinder, improved cylinder, modified, full, etc.) depends on both the size of the game and at what range you are hunting it.




5. Stock

The stock of the shotgun affects almost every aspect of the performance of the shotgun, from the shooter's comfort to the gun's handling and accuracy. Stocks typically come in a variety of materials, such as wood, synthetic material, or composites, which are different types of highly engineered plastics. Stocks also come in different styles, such as traditional, pistol grip, and thumbhole. When choosing a shotgun, the right stock should fit the shooter well, allowing for a comfortable grip, easy reach to the trigger, and proper eye alignment with the sights.




6. Sights

Sights can help a hunter with aiming and can vary from simple bead sights to more complex fiber optic and adjustable sights. When a hunter is shooting slugs, they can even employ a more advanced scope to better their accuracy, as slugs have a far better range than buckshot, for example. From our experience, if you are using slugs and elect to use a more long-range sight, we recommend going with an American scope company, as the build quality and performance will be far superior.




7. Weight

While it may seem obvious, the weight of a shotgun can heavily influence its portability and the recoil it produces. Heavier shotguns may help reduce the amount of recoil felt by the hunter, but can also be a nuisance to carry around during long hunts. Heavier shotguns can also become a safety concern if the handler doesn't have the strength to properly carry, aim, or sweep the firearm. Lighter shotguns answer this problem, as they are easier to handle and quicker to aim, but are victims of a higher level or recoil.




8. Recoil Management

Speaking of recoil, it can greatly affect the shooting comfort and follow-up shot speed of any hunter. To solve this issue of recoil, some shotguns come with advanced features such as gas-operated semi-automatic mechanisms, recoil pads, and counterbalance systems. Even with some of these advanced new technologies, recoil can be a pain to deal with, and some of these features also add a lot of weight, defeating the concept of a more light-weight shotgun.




9. Durability and Maintenance

While this may seem like a no-brainer, you should do your research on the brand. A shotgun’s build quality and ease of maintenance are a much bigger deal than a lot of people may think, especially a couple of years down the road. A durable shotgun that can withstand harsh hunting conditions while requiring minimal maintenance not only makes for a happier hunter, but also allows that hunter to use the same shotgun for countless years without having to pay for costly repairs.




10. Price

Always set a budget. It is important to consider the value the shotgun offers for its price, from its accuracy, reliability, and just about every factor we have talked about up to this point. While higher-priced shotguns can often provide a better build quality and a wider breadth of features, many affordable models can be just as reliable and, in some cases, even more effective for hunting.


Hunting Specific Game: Factors to Consider

Now, the last step of deciding on your hunting shotgun is going to be wrapping your head around the 10 aspects we just discussed and applying them to your use of the shotgun. We have gone ahead and dove into some of the most flagship styles of hunting that are popular in the shotgun hunting space to give you an idea of what you might be looking for:


Dove Hunting

In the world of dove hunting, a semi-automatic or pump-action shotgun leveraging a 12 or 20-gauge shell is typically ideal due to the sport's need for quick, successive shots. Tie this in with a 26 to 28-inch barrel with an improved cylinder or modified choke and you will be left with the optimal balance between swing speed and shot spread for hunting dove. Hunters recommend lightweight models that are easier to move around with and more simple bead sights or in some cases a fiber optic sight.


A dove hunting shotgun should really be just as comfortable to carry as it is to shoot, as dove hunting often involves both a large amount of walking, followed by a large amount of rapid shooting. You should always check with your dove hunting lodge or guide to get their opinion on what sort of shotgun would best fit the hunt you are preparing for. If it's only a one-day hunt, you could probably handle a heavy firearm compared to if you were signed up for a 4-day hunting excursion.


Turkey Hunting

Turkey hunting really demands either a 12 or 20-gauge shotgun with a tighter choke, maybe a full or turkey-specific choke, to maintain that highly desired dense pattern at longer distances. A shorter barrel (24-26 inches) should work just fine, as turkey hunting shots are typically taken from a stationary position.

Both semi-automatics or pump-actions are quite common in the turkey hunting space, with many hunters preferring a camouflaged finish to stay concealed. The stock should offer a good cheek weld for aim, and add in a fiber-optic or red-dot scope and you have a turkey hunter base-level shotgun. When it comes to weight, the shotgun should balance the hunter's need for stability in aim but still acknowledge the need for ease of carrying in the field.


Deer Hunting

When discussing the hunting of deer, especially in areas where shotguns are mandated, a 12-gauge shotgun running slugs is a very popular option. A rifled barrel, or even a smoothbore with a rifled chokem paired with a sabot slug makes for quite an efficient firearm for hunting deer.


Barrel lengths can vary slightly, but 24-28 inch barrels are the most common. For optics, many hunters will elect to go with a scope or rifle sight for precise shot placement at a distance, but some hunters prefer iron sights, as it is part of the challenge. The gun should have a solid feel, and recoil management becomes existentially more important in deer hunting due to the use of slug. Without the spread offered with other rounds, a shotgun using a slug calls for more control over recoil to maintain accuracy.


Pheasant and Quail Hunting

Upland bird hunting, such as pheasant and quail hunting, requires a shotgun that is quick to the shoulder and easy to swing. A 12 or 20-gauge over/under or side-by-side shotgun is typical, running with anywhere from 26 to 28-inch barrels. Add that all up with an improved cylinder or modified choke to take your shot from a variety of ranges, you’ve got yourself one mean upland bird hunting machine.


It is important to consider that the gun should also be light enough to carry comfortably over long distances, but still heavy enough to maintain a smooth swing. Double-barrel shotguns are a popular option due to their reliability and the sheer fact that you have two chokes available to you simultaneously, which allows the hunter to adjust to shoot at different birds at different ranges on the spot.


Making Your Choice

Now that you have a general idea of what you need to consider when looking for your first hunting shotgun, you can move forward into the sport with some confidence that you have an understanding of the factors that play into what makes up a hunting shotgun. We always recommend you lean on your local hunting or gun shop for recommendations, but you can always find more information on our website if you have any sort of doubts

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