Hunting 101: Your First Shotgun

shotguns in a gun shop

A shotgun is arguably the most versatile hunting weapon. It can do what a rifle does – kill a big game animal with a bullet – only not quite so well, as shotgun slugs don’t have the accuracy and range of a rifle bullet. But shotguns do what no rifle can – fire a cloud of pellets that can hit small, fast moving targets, such as birds and small mammals, that would be nearly impossible to hit with a bullet from a rifle. Even many African PHs, rifle guys as they are, have a shotgun or two at hand in case they need to follow a wounded leopard. A lot of experienced hunters say that if they had to go down to just one firearm it would have to be a shotgun. 

In most European countries, like Austria, France, and the UK, buying a shotgun is significantly easier from the legal point of view than obtaining a license for a rifle; in places like Turkey and Greece, shotguns are the only firearms that hunters are allowed to use. Many areas in the USA do not allow rifles during big-game seasons because of the perceived danger to the public, but include shotguns in the list of the “short-range weapons” that can be used. But even in the most gun-friendly places a shotgun should be a necessary part of a hunter’s arsenal. 

What to buy as your first shotgun? 

Short answer: A brand new 12-gauge traditionally designed semi-automatic, gas-operated, with plastic stock, 3” chamber, and a 28” barrel with interchangeable chokes. Two highly desirable features are a) a set of shims to adjust the stock to match your physique; b) a spare shorter barrel with rifle sights and/or provision for mounting a scope or a red dot sight. 

A semiautomatic shotgun
A typical semi-automatic shotgun; a plastic stock doesn’t have to be black, they come in camo patterns, too.

To understand why I recommend this, and no other type of shotgun, let’s quickly go over the whole job of shooting flying objects, and the challenges connected with it.

How to shoot a shotgun – and hit something

The biggest challenge of wingshooting is that it all happens very fast. Big-game hunting with a rifle allows you, in most scenarios, to take your time with the shot. With a shotgun, you have only like one to five seconds to hit the bird before it flies out of range. Ducks and geese may give you some time to get ready, grouse and woodcock flush like rockets and are gone before you can say your favorite dirty word.

A shot, however, is not instantaneous. After your brain gives the command to pull the trigger, the signal passes from the brain to the index finger along the neurons, the muscles contract, the trigger mechanism of the gun breaks the primer of the shell, the powder burns and the resulting pressure moves the shot charge along the barrel, the shot travels through the air – all that takes a few milliseconds. That’s more than enough time for a bird to fly out of the area covered by the shot charge. This is why you need to hit not the place where the bird is now, but where it will be that few milliseconds later – in shotgunners’ lingo, take lead. 

How much to lead – that is the question. The answer is complicated, and depends on the speed of the bird, the angle at which it travels, and your shooting technique. With “sustained lead” you swing the muzzle along the bird’s trajectory so that the muzzle keeps pointing at the place in front of it you want to hit. With “swing-through” you start the swing a bit behind the bird, keep swinging a little faster than the bird flies, press the trigger when your gun passes the bird, and inertia will take care of the rest. 

In any case, when you shoot a flying target with a shotgun, you keep your gun moving – that is, you can’t rest it on sticks or bipod like a rifle, you control its whole mass with your muscle power. And secondly, this shot happens too fast for the rational part of our brain – you don’t calculate the angles and seconds, you use your instincts and hand-to-eye coordination, just as you do when you throw a ball. If rifle shooting is a science, shotgun shooting is an art.

Weight and Balance

There are many parameters that differentiate one shotgun from another: action type, barrel length, chamber length, gauge, type of stock, etc. But all of them don’t matter so much as the one that is really hard to define: how a gun feels. This comes down to weight, balance, and the shape of the stock. Centuries of practice (the first guns advanced enough for shooting flying were developed in the late XVII century) proved that most humans shoot best a shotgun that weighs between 6 and 8 lb. (2.7 to 3.6 kg). Anything lighter or heavier is difficult to control.

Wildfowl hunting takes you places where you can enjoy breathtaking sights like this. Check out our YouTube channel for more videos.

Guns that are on the heavy side have less recoil and work well for situations where you have to shoot big loads (e.g. waterfowl hunting) and for shooting clay pigeons (Skeet, Trap, and Sporting Clays). Lighter guns are more appropriate for upland bird hunting, where you have to carry your gun at the ready sometimes for hours. 7 pounds (3.2 lb) is a good all around compromise and therefore a good choice for your first shotgun. 

This weight has to be distributed more or less equally across the gun, so that your hands get roughly a half of the weight each. This is known around shotgunners as “balance”. Most people should best with a gun that has just a bit of the so-called “weight forward”. That means, a slightly higher proportion of weight falls on your “front hand” – left hand for a right-handed shooter, right hand for a left-handed one.

Gauge and Bore

Early gunners were practical people – they didn’t care much for how many fractions of an inch the barrels of the guns measured, all they wanted to know was how many bullets they could make out of a pound of lead. If it was sixteen, then the gun was a 16-gauge, if twelve – a 20-gauge, and so on. This old system survived to this day in shotgunning, and that explains, by the way, why a 20-gauge shotgun is smaller than a 12-gauge. The exception is the .410 caliber, which is measured in fractions of inch. 

The tolerances for shotgun gauges are rather loose – a 12-gauge barrel can be from 0.716” to 0.744” (18.2 -18.9 mm.) in diameter. Normally, the wider the barrel the better, as it makes it easier for the pellets, especially in large sizes, to travel along it. The chamber of the barrel – the place where you put the shell – is wider than the barrel itself, and may be of different length. Historically, chambers (and shells to be used in them) came in 2” (51 mm.), 2 ½ “ (63 mm.), 2 ⅝” (65 mm.), 2 ¾“ (70 mm.), 3” (76 mm.) and 3 ½” (89 mm.). 

(Warning: Never use a shell that is longer than your gun’s chamber! A loaded shotgun shell is shorter than an empty hull, because it has to be crimped to secure the shot, but the chamber length is measured according to the length of the hull, so the action will close, and the gun will fire, but it will lead to a pressure hike that may destroy the gun and injure the shooter. You can usually fire a shorter shell in a longer chamber without consequences). 

Of all the gauges that existed historically and are in use today the 12-gauge reigns supreme. The simple explanation is that it lies directly on the golden section between weight, firepower, and physical ability of an average human – the properly designed 12-gauge shotgun will weigh exactly 7 pounds, and you could build one in about any weight range between 6 lb and 8 lb. No other gauge has such a variety of factory loads available, from the tiniest ⅞ ounce size 9 load for Olympic Skeet (or quail hunting) to the heaviest magnums for geese. And the economics of scale makes 12-gauge shells more affordable and easier to buy than any other. 

All this makes the 12-gauge the best choice for a first shotgun.  Don’t break your head much over barrel length – 28″ (710-mm.) is the best all-around compromise, but 26″ (675-mm.) and 30″ (760-mm.) will work just as well, anything longer or shorter is a tad too specialized. As per the chamber length, the 3″ is your first choice, the 3 ½“ chamber will work too (don’t forget you can use shorter shell length ammo in either), while 2 ¾” is to be avoided, as it limits your ability to use non-tox ammunition.

A semi-automatic shotgun and four replaceable screw-in choke tubes.
Most modern shotguns come with interchangeable chokes that allow you to adjust the gun to different ammunition and shooting scenarios.

The choke problem 

A shotgun charge begins to spread as soon as it leaves the barrel and keeps spreading. Too close to the barrel, and the pellets have not spread wide enough, that makes connecting with the bird more difficult, and if you do, it will usually be “plastered” – receive too many wounds to be consumable. Too far from the barrels, and the shot will spread too much, leading to cripples and misses. The spread can be to some extent regulated with the help of the choke bore – a slight contraction at the end of the barrels. If you’ve ever watered the plants and flowers with water from the hose, and pulled around with pressing the end of the hose with your fingers – well, that’s roughly how a choke works.

The choice of the choke was a topic that gun writers of old had to dedicate whole chapters to. Thankfully, most modern shotguns come with interchangeable chokes, usually in the form of tubes that you can screw out and in (Warning! Never ever fire a screw-in choke gun without the tube – you’ll destroy the barrel). Decent producers include three to five different choke tubes with each gun, and there’s a wide selection of aftermarket tubes as well, that allow you to adjust your gun to any possible hunting scenario, from extremely short to extremely long ranges, for slugs and buckshot, and for shot of different material. 

Lead or unleaded? 

Lead, the original material for firearm projectiles, is notoriously toxic. Lead pellets have been documented to poison birds, especially waterfowl, and are particularly dangerous for birds of prey that feed on animals shot but not collected by hunters. This is why all developed countries ban lead shot in or near wetlands, and in some areas it has been banned completely. We have covered this issue in a blog about rifle bullets, but with shotguns this question is more complicated. 

There are numerous alternatives to lead pellets, and some of them are actually better than lead, but they are also significantly more expensive. The only cost-efficient solution is steel, but it has the drawback of being significantly lighter than lead. So are non-lead rifle bullets, but because of their aerodynamically efficient shape, it’s not much of a problem, and in fact can sometimes even be an advantage. Shotgun pellets, however, come almost invariably in one shape only: a round ball. 

A steel pellet of the same weight as lead will meet a much higher wind resistance, and will lose its velocity very quickly. A charge of the same weight will take more place in the shell – that’s why longer chambers. Steel pellets don’t deform on hitting the target, and are thus less lethal; besides, they can damage barrels of older shotguns. That makes a transition away from lead a complicated issue that you should be aware of. 

Action type

Shotguns come in many different types. The basic distinction is between break-open guns, that can have one, two, or very rarely three barrels, loaded with one shell at a time each, and magazine guns, which feed one round after another from the magazine into the barrel. Some use box-type magazines like military rifles, but the traditional and most common design is with a magazine as a tube under the barrel. The mechanism of a magazine gun can be operated by hand, like in lever-action and pump-action guns, or automatically, using the power of recoil or pressure of the powder gas. The latter type is known as “semi-automatic” (because, unlike full-auto military guns, they don’t shoot in blasts, but only one shell per trigger pull).

All the action types have their advantages and disadvantages. In some places the choice of action type is dictated by tradition, in others by law. In the UK, for instance, you may be turned around at the gates if you show up for the traditional pheasant or partridge “shoot” with a magazine shotgun, in Australia pumps and semiautos are outright banned. Unless you’re subject to such regulations, the best option for a first shotgun is a semiautomatic – traditional design with tubular magazine under the barrel. 

A side-by-side shotgun
A vintage side-by-side double barrel shotgun is a thing of beauty but may not be suitable for modern ammunition.

Autoloading shotguns are more versatile, offer three to nine shots without reloading (Warning! Magazine capacity is often limited by law – always check the hunting regulations). You may often read that semi-automatic shotguns are more likely to jam, but, with modern guns and quality modern ammunition, the difference in reliability is down to statistical error. With a semi, you can concentrate on shooting, not working the action, which makes the learning process easier. And, what’s more important, these guns are well adapted to modern manufacturing methods. This means you get more quality for the same money.

Most modern semiautomatic shotguns are either inertia, or gas operated. Both systems are good, but gas-operated guns are a bit better match for a beginner. They are a bit more difficult to clean, but at the same time less picky to ammunition, and a bit more fool-proof.

The stock

The stock of the shotgun is arguably its most important part. As mentioned above, shotgun shooting relies a lot on your eye-to-hand coordination. The stock is the part that make sure that while the rear part of the gun is securely pressed to your shoulder, the barrel is perfectly aligned to your line of vision. It does so by the right amount of bend: a bend down, known as “drop”, then there might be a bend to the right or left (known as “cast-off” and “cast-on”) for right- and left-handed shooters respectively, and finally “pitch” – an angle between the butt of the stock and the line of the barrel.  

Competitive athletes, as well as most serious shotgun hunters who can afford it, have the stock of their shotguns individually fitted to their body and shooting style. It would seem like a good idea for a beginner, too, but no – the problem is that the person who can’t shoot doesn’t yet have a shooting style. Your first shotgun should simply have a generic stock that would fit most humans. Many modern semi-autos come with a set of shims that you can put between the receiver and the stock, as a rough adjustment to your physique – that’s a good feature to have. 

As for the material of the stock – nothing beats the warmth and aesthetics of good walnut, but good walnut is expensive. Plastic is more cost-efficient, and works much better than basic grade wood of any tree.

Summing it up

I firmly believe that your first gun, of any kind, should be as far as possible a universal tool, not a highly specialized one. You don’t know yet what you’re going to like. Whether you’ll prefer turkey hunting, or the white madness of the American “conservation order” spring goose season, the driven pheasant hunt in British style, or following a pointer into a grouse or woodcock thicket, nobody could say, not even you, until you’ve tried it all. Which shooting style and technique would work for you is also an unknown. It’s only logical to pick a gun that can do it all, and then, when your preferences begin to materialize, get another weapon that matches them more closely.

In a similar vein, I don’t think you should invest a small fortune in your first shotgun. If you can afford to pay fifty thousand pounds sterling for a “best” English shotgun, made to order by hand – I’m very happy for you. But what are you going to do in the two to three years it will take to complete the order? It makes sense to buy an affordable, but reliable tool from a reputable company, that will get the job done. Second-hand guns can be great bargains, but you must have a bit of knowledge to tell if they’re in good condition – better be on the safe side of factory warranty. 

Last but not the least, my suggestion – a brand new 12-gauge traditionally designed semi-automatic, gas-operated, with plastic stock, 3” chamber, and a 28” barrel with interchangeable chokes – is advice, not a prescription. If, as you go through the guns at a shop, you feel that you like something different better – an inertia-operated model, or even a side-by-side shotgun, a longer or shorter barrel, etc. – by all means go for it. You should love your weapon, or at least like it; it’s hard to learn if your gun, which should become almost a part of your body, leaves you cold or even stirs negative emotions.

A female shooter at a clay range
To master the art of shotgun shooting, go to a clay shooting range.

How to shoot a shotgun: Revisited

The best advice anyone could give you is: open your Google Maps or whatever software you prefer, enter “Sporting Clays”, find the nearest shooting range that offers it, and sign up for a shooting lesson with a coach. Trap and Skeet will also work, but Sporting Clays is the variety of competitive shooting flying clay targets with a shotgun that has been specifically designed to imitate hunting as close as possible. Rifle shooting is a science, shotgun shooting is an art, it’s more about the how than about the what, and whatever such a coaching session may cost you, you’ll lose more in time, wasted ammo, and bitter feelings if you try to figure it out yourself. 

I’ll never forget one opening day of the duck season in my home town. There were eight guns on the lake, the three oldest had over a century of experience between them. The absolute king of the hunt, however, was a guy in his 30s who literally fired a shotgun for the second time in his life. His first time though was a training session with an Olympic caliber Skeet coach, and the whole story could be a Mastercard ad for the Outdoor Channel: some six to eight range hours – $X, 250 shells – $Y, earning the nickname “Flak” (after the German anti-aircraft gun that was a terror to Allied pilots in WWII) after your first hunt – priceless.

Shotguns and bird hunting have been somewhat overshadowed recently by rifles and big-game hunting. But the pursuit of small game with a scattergun is also an exciting adventure that should be experienced by any hunter.



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