What’s the best shotgun for hunting? For you?
If you can’t decide, welcome to another first world problem. Count your blessings. I think we can solve this welcomed challenge. Here are our common options: Break-action single shot. Break-action over/under. Break- action side-by-side. Pump-action. Autoloader.
Which of the five should you choose? The answer is YES.
I don’t wish to be facetious, but, truly, all these action types work quite well. You really can’t go wrong as long as you like whichever you choose and the gun fits you. Most importantly the gun must fit you. Why? Because when you throw a shotgun to your shoulder, it should be pointing where you are looking. You don’t aim it. You just concentrate on the target and shoot because with proper gun fit, the barrel will always be pointing where you are looking. But gun fit is a topic for another article. For now, let’s examine the pros and cons of these action styles.
Break-Action Single Shot
With the exception of some high dollar specialty trap guns, break-action single-shots are inexpensive, simple starter guns. Like many farm kids in the mid-20th century, I shot my first ducks and pheasants with a break-action single-shot in .410. It was Grandpa’s varmint gun on the farm. He kept it beside the kitchen door for easy access should a skunk, fox or coon come calling the chickens for a date.
The upside of these guns is they are simple and inexpensive. But they aren’t necessarily safe. Virtually all have an external hammer that must be pulled back to cock. he tension on some of these is quite heavy, leading to the distinct possibility a partially pulled hammer falling before it catches and locks back. The result is an “accidental” firing. Back in the day more than one kid did this. More modern iterations of these guns include a transfer bar safety that blocks the hammer from striking the primer until after it is fully cocked, but watch out for the older ones.
The stock lines of these single-shots – drop at comb and heel especially – are not the best, contributing to increased felt recoil and poor shooting. Recoil isn’t an issue with .410 and light 20-gauge loads, but have a knowledgeable shotgunner check fit. If you can get one of these to fit well, it will drop birds as effectively as most high-end guns. And the single-shot will tach new shooters (and even old) to make their shots count.
Is Over/Under Your Best Shotgun?
These classic break-actions are quite a bit fancier and more complex than the break-action single shots above. Sears, hammers, springs, etc. are neatly enclosed in the action and grip. No external hammers. There is a safety and usually a single trigger with a barrel selector atop the tang or on the side or back of the trigger. Over/unders are not cheap, although there are some models like the Mossberg Silver Reserve, CZ Redhead, and Savage/Stevens M555 with MSRP of $700 to $1,000. Over-Under shooters report they like the slim, single barrel shooting plane with the quick, two-shot, two choke option.
I find O/Us easy to carry and swing into action, simple and fast to operate, and easy to transport. Because they quickly break down into three short pieces, you can put them in convenient, short cases that don’t scream “long gun!”
Side-by-Side Ultimate Classic
Shuck the torn blue jeans and ragged flannel shirt. It’s time to play Mr. Orvis Tweed. Well, that’s the cache’ a SxS double carries in the eyes of many. It’s the snob appeal. The sporting gent’s shotgun. But you can ignore that because you don’t have to be a dandy dresser or a snob to appreciate a SxS. What you want one for is to enjoy shooting and perhaps shooting better while feeling somehow more virtuous. I kid you not. When I got my first cheap, rough side-by-side shotgun, my self-image climbed a few rungs up the sporting ladder, pulling my actual behavior up with it.. I thought I’d joined the pantheon of classic hunters and conservationists who’d stopped market hunting, established national wildlife refuges and started modern wildlife management. I thus began to conduct myself afield more as a gentleman and less as a “me first” country bumpkin meat hunter. I was less liable to hog all the shots or fall to the temptations of bending the rules. And, I started shooting better. Sounds crazy, but that’s how the human mind works. Or at least mine.
Aside from this psychological bump, side-by-sides do offer some shooting advantages, same as the over/unders. Two barrels, two chokes. Fastest two shots in the business. And get one with two mechanical triggers and you have useful redundancy. Should one trigger, sear, or striker/hammer fail, you have a complete set still functioning on the other side. Keep hunting.
You can get side-by-sides with wide “beavertail” forends or narrow “splinter” forends. Personal preference. You can get them weighing 6 pounds or 10. Fancy or plain. Sleek and smooth or boxy and clunky. They come in two basic action types, box and sidelock, but there’s no huge advantage to either. Just choose one that feels right in your hands and points where you look. Most SxS, like O/Us, are pricey, but there are a few in that $1,000 range. You might get lucky and find an old one – really old – still in good condition. U.S.-made SxSs from the early 20th century were high-quality and durable.
One advantage a SxS has over an O/U is reduced hinging. When you throw the tang lever to open the gun, an O/U must hinge at a steep angle to expose the bottom chamber. The SxS does not, since both barrels are on the same level. This can be an issue in the confines of a duck blind, but is generally not a big deal.
Whether you choose SxS or O/U, decide if you want extractors or ejectors. I like extractors because they don’t fling empties far into the grass making me grovel and search so I don’t litter. Extractors leave the shell lifted from the chamber so I can pull it and save it for reloading. Of course, you can train yourself to place a palm over the breech to stop the flying shells from an ejector.
Pump Up Your Best Shotgun
Pumps are inexpensive, tough and durable, but many consider them the farm implements of shotguns because you see those action bars and hear them schlick shlack shells in and out. I rather like the sound myself. Reminds me that I’m doing something to help the cause. Rather like driving a stick shift instead of automatic.
Pumps were everyman’s shotgun throughout the 20th century, but have been superseded by autoloaders which are generally lighter recoiling. You can offset some of this by adding a bit of weight to the pump (recoil reducer tube in butt stock or a longer, thicker barrel.) Pumps are versatile because you can easily remove and replace barrels, switching from a 26”, fast-pointing barrel for tight-cover birds to a 28” or even 32” for pass shooting waterfowl. Most have interchangeable screw chokes these days, as do all other action types. But if you get on older barrel with fixed chokes, you can always add a second barrel inexpensively. You can even get a rifled slug barrel for deer hunting.
Pumps can eject from the side or bottom. Safeties are either atop the tang or on the trigger guard, front or rear. I like the front of trigger guard because it lets me carry with my trigger finger outside the guard, protecting the trigger from limbs and sticks while keeping it on the safety button for quick activation.
Pumps are ridiculously fast to operate once you’ve mastered them. I once shot three times at a SD rooster so fast that my buddy a short distance away though I’d shot just ounce. He might have been humoring me. Would have been better if I had gotten it on the first shot. Some pump shooters have won speed shooting contests against autoloaders. Of course, fast follow up shots aren’t as important as precise first shots, and pumps can easily be fitted (stocks bent, combs raised or lowered, etc.)
Last but not least, pumps can be wonderfully inexpensive. Some basic synthetic stock models retail for less than $300. H&R recently offered one for less than $200! When shopping pumps, look for ones with dual action arms, the metal bars running from the forend to the bolt.
You Auto Consider This
This is THE shotgun of the early 21st century. Manufacturers have ironed out most autoloader glitches and upped quality control. These soft-shooting guns are now considered as reliable as pumps. They recoil less than pumps or doubles because some of the recoil energy is absorbed by and spread over time by the action of the bolt or barrel.
I’d choose an auto for waterfowl, turkeys, and deer shooting big, hard kicking loads. Those call for a fairly big, heavy gun, too, which isn’t best for upland birds. Most auto makers are putting R&D and marketing into reduced recoil features. Better butt pads, cheek pads, built-in recoil absorbers, etc. They put these features into lighter weight guns suitable for upland hunting as well as waterfowl. Only you can tell which really shoot with the least kick. Study the mechanics and marketing, but let your cheek and shoulder make the final decision.
With a lighter recoiling auto you should be able to recover and get back on target faster than with a pump because you don’t have to move that leading hand to cycle the action. In theory. In practice, shooters learn to pump impressively fast and smoothly, staying right in line with the barrel.
Fouling and gumming have long plagued autoloader function, but most of today’s models can be shot dozens if not hundreds of times, reliably, without cleaning. Some are self-cleaning to a degree and can fire thousands of shells without a hitch.
Other than using recoil action or gas to cycle the next round, autos are much like pumps. They can be built thick and clunky or delightfully slim and handy. Regardless, I don’t think they ever quite match the slim, trim, quick, minimalist look, feel, and function of a fine double.
Fit Leads to Your Best Shotgun
Regardless which action type you buy, select a good one that fits and points right where you want your shot to strike. Test drive many if you can. How does the grip feel in your hand? Is the stock too long or short? Does the comb result in your eye being too far over to the right or left? Is the gun too muzzle heavy or light? You don’t want the balance toward the butt; the muzzle will wobble all over. A bit of weight out front helps keep on target and follow-through. Check all this stuff carefully. Shop and compare.
With any action style, pay attention to whether it is built on a scaled action or not. Some manufacturers put 20 gauge barrels on 12 gauge actions. Cheaper to make, but the gun ends up being heavier and clunkier than it need be. A 20 or even 28 built on an action scaled to fit the smaller shells can be a work of art.
Best Gauge for Best Shotgun
Oh, one last thing. The 12 gauge is hands down the most versatile. Shells are usually cheapest, too. The 20 gauge is next. I’d go with it if I mostly hunted upland birds and small game. The 12 is much better for waterfowl because it handles large pellet sizes more efficiently. And you need larger pellets in steel waterfowl loads.
The 16 gauge is fun and a great balance between the 12 and 20, but shells are few and far between, although the selection is getting better. The 28 gauge is a specialty upland bird gun that shoots all out of proportion to its size. Get one if you love quail, grouse, and pheasant hunting. But you’ll be stuck with expensive lead shot shells and a few really expensive bismuth and really really tungsten no-tox options. But for mild, sweet shooting, you can’t beat a built-to-scale 28 gauge.
Spomer has been privileged to shoot and hunt with a wide variety of shotguns around the world. His favorite is whichever he has when the birds are flying — but it must be nicely balanced and pointing where he’s looking. “A clunky, unwieldy shotgun is almost as bad as no shotgun at all.”
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