What Shotgun Should I Use For?

Early in the development of what we’ve come to know as the shotgun, hunters of ducks and other gamebirds used a variety of methods to sneak up on game “on the set” and fire a charge of rocks, and later lead pellets at single or entire flocks of birds before they could fly off. Heavy, cumbersome guns with primitive ignition systems made “shooting flying” impractical if not impossible.

It wasn’t until the development of systems such as the flintlock in the 18th century, that the ability to fire at moving/flying game began to be a practical form of hunting.

Here in America, while we have romanticized notions about the Colt and the Winchester as the “Guns that won the West”, the strongest argument can be made that the real tool of the pioneer was the shotgun. With a single gun, a frontiersman could feed himself and family, keep “critters” out of the vegetable garden plus do an adequate job of defense from hostiles. Loaded with a single ball, the shotgun at short range made a credible tool for deer and even larger game.

Over the last 200 years or so, shotguns which, with one modern exception, are classified in “gauges”, have come in a variety of bore sizes from the massive 4 gauge (and larger) “punt guns” used in the last century by market hunters to fire at large flocks of “sitting ducks” to the diminutive .22 rimfire shot loads.

A gauge is a comparatively primitive form of measurement of the number of pure lead balls fitting the bore size that equal one pound. For example, a gun in which 12 lead balls that just fit down the barrel were to weigh one pound, is a 12 gauge. Said differently, the bigger the gauge number, the smaller the hole because it takes more balls to weigh one pound.

The one common exception to the gauge measurement is the .410 shotgun, which is actually a bore diameter designation.

Today, the commonly encountered shotgun ammunition sizes are (smallest to largest), the .410, 28, 20, 16, 12, and 10.

Before we outline the hunting applications of each gauge, there are two other points the novice must understand: Chokes, and shot pellet sizes

Shot Sizes

The presumption is that the reader understands that the shotgun typically fires a load of small pellets rather than a single projectile (bullet) as does a rifle. Historically, these pellets have been made of lead, but due to evidence (subject to debate) that ducks in particular are ingesting lead pellets from the bottom of lakes and marshes and contracting lead poisoning, in the USA, waterfowl hunters are now required to use non-toxic shot (steel).

The novice looking over gauge and shot pellet size alternatives within each gauge needn’t be bewildered. Speaking of lead shot only for the moment, one needs only to remember that just the opposite as with gauge sizes, the bigger the number (shot size) the smaller the size of the individual pellets. Typically, larger pellets are used for larger quarry.

The smallest pellet size normally used for hunting is the size 8, typically used for game the size of quail or dove. Size 7 1/2 or 6 are used for many upland species such as grouse or pheasants. Size 5 and 4 are often recommended for pheasants shot at greater distance (larger pellets, because they are heavier, retain their velocity better and so killing power over distance is greater than the smaller sizes), where lead is legal, #4s or 5s are commonly used for ducks, with lead 2s or the still larger BB size used for the largest of birds such as Canada geese.

Still occasionally encountered, are shotgun shells loaded with “buck shot”, so called because the pellets are large enough to take game like deer. These sizes range from #4 buck to the largest size #00, referred to as “double aught buck”. (I mention here that there are single projectile shotgun loads, typically referred to as slugs, or rifled slugs that are far more efficient on deer sized game than buck shot.)

Because “steel shot” (actually an iron alloy) is much less heavy than lead, larger pellets are needed to provide the same individual pellet energy. As a general rule, duck hunters who might have used lead 6’s are counseled to move up two shot sizes (#4) when switching to steel. Because long range duck and goose hunters needed steel loads with sufficient pellet energy, new steel sizes that fit between lead BB and #4 buck have appeared with letter designations such as T and F.


The earliest shotgunners quickly realized that the moment a charge of shot left the barrel, the individual pellets colliding with each other and meeting wind resistance began to disburse, and after only 20-30 yards, killing power was dramatically reduced because the pellets had spread so much that too few hit the target. A solution was to use larger pellets so fewer need to connect, but this is partly offset because bigger & heavier pellets meant fewer of them can fit in the shell casing in the first place.

Some credit an American market hunter in the 19th century named Fred Kimball with the idea of constricting (choking down) the bore of the shotgun to better focus the pellets just as the nozzle of a garden hose can be made to shoot a stream instead of a spray.

Typically, shotgun chokes are referred to as full (the most constriction), modified (medium), improved cylinder (a small amount), and cylinder (no constriction). You will also occasionally encounter nuance sizes such as extra-full, skeet, or improved-modified.

The traditional British designations are full, half (modified), quarter (improved cylinder), and cylinder.

On first learning about how choke boring extends the killing range of a shotgun from less than 30 yards (cyl. bore) to 60 yards or more (full choke), the reader might logically ask why any hunter would use anything but the tightest choke available. There are two reasons. First, the spread, or pattern of the shot load over a larger area can make hitting a flying bird easier because it allows for some aiming error. Second, a bird shot at close range with a tightly choked gun can be hit by too many pellets, destroying its edibility.

Hunters who’s quarry is typically shot at closer range are counseled to use a more open choke such as improved cylinder; at the longest distances, full; with modified recommended as a more all around compromise.

While there have been in times past, a number of adjustable choke devices marketed, a hunter wishing greater versatility was required to either have multiple guns with different choked barrels, or a gun with interchangeable barrels.

In the last few years, guns with changeable “screw in” chokes have become common; greatly increasing versatility for the one gun hunter.

The Gauges

There is considerable overlap in the suitability of shotgun gauges for various game. For example, one can easily find or handload 1 ounce shot charges in the 28, 20, 16 and 12 gauge. So what gauge to use for which game is far from a black and white decision. One hunter might want maximum versatility, while another might focus on only one type of hunting. Whereas one duck and goose hunter might be well served with a heavier 12 or 10 gauge, but another who also hunts ruffed grouse where a lighter 20 gauge is a better choice might opt to also duck hunt with the same 20 gauge gun.

There is no intention below to make absolute statements about what is best. Rather these comments are to be guidelines for the novice. As always, the hunter is encouraged to ask for additional advice and make his or her own informed decisions.

Shotgun science is also so inexact to be referred to more as art than science by many, with nearly as many exceptions to the rules, than rules. Another example: Will a one ounce shot charge from a 20 gauge be exactly as effective as one from a 12? No. In general, because the 20 has a smaller bore, the shot exits the barrel in a longer and more strung out mass (called a shot string) than a 12. Yet if the 20 user was firing ammo with high quality shot versus the 12 gauge using inexpensive promotional loads, the 20 might actually be more effective, and in either case, since it requires only a few of the hundreds of pellets in that ounce to hit and bring down the quarry, the hunter might find no practical difference between the two. See what I mean?

.410 Bore

The smallest of the commonly encountered shotgun sizes, the four-ten is suitable for game such as rabbits, squirrels and some smaller close range bird hunting. Because four-ten guns tend to be lighter weight and the small sized cartridge generates less recoil or “kick”, it is often recommended as a beginners gun with which to learn shooting fundamentals. However, many disagree with this approach citing that the very small shot charge makes effective hitting of the target more difficult and can discourage the beginner. This writer tends to agree, and recommends that the beginner start with a larger gauge with the four-ten reserved for specialty applications or for use of experts.

.410 ammunition comes in 2 1/2 inch and 3″ lengths, with nearly all guns capable of firing both. The 3″ holds more shot and is therefore a better hunting choice.

28 Gauge

Still comparatively uncommon, the 28 “kicks like a .410 and hits like a 20”. For years, the only reason the gauge did not completely disappear was because of a skeet shooting application. It is the smallest gauge many feel practical for bird hunting, and in a trim and fast handling shotgun is a delight to use on such game as quail. Drawbacks are limited availability of ammo, an inadequacy at longer ranges, and insufficient shell capacity to handle larger shot, including steel.

20 Gauge

Very popular, the 20 is an excellent choice for many types of hunting. Most guns are light enough to not pose a long distance carrying problem, and with the 20 gauge 3″ magnum, it approaches the 12 in effectiveness. For any hunter whose quarry is other than deer, ducks, geese or turkey (and it can suffice in these applications), the 20 should be a strong consideration. It is highly recommended as a first gun (with light loads if recoil is a problem).

16 Gauge

Once very popular, and with periodic surges in popularity, the 16 remains in a back seat position to both the 20 and the 12. Proponents will argue that it throws better patterns than the 20, and equals the 12 in game getting power. There once was more truth to this argument than today. With advances in shotshell technology more devoted to the 12 and 20 than the 16, the 20 gauge now equals or surpasses the 16. When it became impractical for American manufacturers to build guns in three frame sizes, the 16’s (after being made for a time on 12 gauge frames) lost favor. If a hunter wanted power, he bought a 12. If he wanted light weight, he bought a 20. Both ammo and reloading components are more difficult to find, and while I personally intend to keep my one remaining 16; for practical purposes it cannot get the highest of recommendations.

12 Gauge

By way of illustration of the comparative popularity of the 12 gauge, my own gun vault contains 10 shotguns at present. One 28, one 20, one 16 and seven 12 gauges. The 12 is far and away the most versatile and most practical of all. In a light gun with light charges it makes an excellent short range and fast handling “bird gun” for such game as quail and grouse, and at the other end of the spectrum, the 12 gauge magnum 3 inch is the most popular choice for duck, geese and turkey.

Shopping today only for an “upland game” gun, you might opt for a light 20. If looking just for a heavy duck and goose model, you might consider the 10 (there are now a few guns being chambered for a 3 1/2 inch 12 gauge super magnum); but for overall versatility, the 12 is never a bad choice.

10 Gauge

In times past, if a hunter was a duck and goose specialist, the big 10 was the gun to have (U.S. laws in the 1920’s outlawed gauges bigger than 10 for waterfowl use.). Over time, the 12 gauge 3 inch magnum surpassed the 10 with shell technology and less massive guns. But with the requirement for less efficient steel shot, bigger again became better (in theory), and the 10 has seen an upswing in popularity.

There remains some debate as to the practical advantages of the 10 over the 12 in the ability to smoothly swing a bigger gun and actually hit a long range flying target as well as actual delivery of a killing pattern any further out than the 12 can do. If you must have the biggest, this is it, but for the beginner or any hunter with the intent to pursue anything other than long range ducks and geese, the 10 is not the best choice.

What kind of gun (action type) do I buy?

Shotguns come as single shots, a few bolt actions, slide actions (pumps), semi-automatics, and double barrels (either side by side or over and unders).

The single shots and bolt actions, while having some hunting utility, are quickly dismissed as no situation where they would be a first choice is recognized.

Both the pump and the semi auto have good utilitarian applications, with this writer giving the slight edge to the pump. While the “automatic” has a slight edge in rapidity of fire, and often less perceived recoil, accurate followup shots, with practice, are virtually as quick with the pump. All currently manufactured pumps, I believe, are now chambered for at least the 3″ magnum (12 and 20) which means they will function with the standard length ammunition as well. The same cannot be said for all models of semi-automatic.

While it is also true that the auto and the pump have a ammunition capacity of typically 5 shots, all models are now shipped with a magazine plug (here in America) limiting capacity to three (a waterfowl hunting restriction). Three shots is sufficient for nearly all situations, and some countries further restrict capacity to two, negating any advantage (other than cost) that these guns have over the double barreled models.

Perhaps the epitome of sporting arms, the classic side by side double barrel has long been out of mainstream favor in the USA. The reasons are several including the perception of comparative fragility, the high cost of manufacture, and the belief that looking over two barrels is a less precise method of aiming (ok, pointing).

Without a physics discussion, it is true that getting two barrels affixed side by side to shoot to the same point of aim is a labor intensive and so expensive procedure. The other reasons, are debatable.

Over and under models are a different matter. With many, but not all, of the dynamic handling characteristics of a quality SxS, but still more expensive than the pumps or automatics; these guns are quite popular.

There are a number of guns available in a range of features and quality, but if forced to make recommendations, I’d suggest:

For the one gun hunter on a budget, but desiring maximum versatility:

Remington 870 12 gauge, pump action, 3 inch chamber, screw in chokes, 26 inch barrel if possible- 28 inch ok. If I wanted to add deer hunting, special added barrels with rifle sights are available.

Were duck, geese, turkey and deer, not a consideration, the same gun is available in 20 gauge.

An economy model of the 870, called the Express can be had for just over $200.

(Note: Remington has said they will no longer honor any warranty if the shooter converts the safety to left handed operation and so after market left hand safeties are no longer available. There is an 870 made especially for left handers)

For those desiring a semi-automatic, look at the Remington 11-87 (12 gauge only. Hunting models have 3 inch chambers, target models do not.)

In over and unders, the Ruger Red Label is a good value, but a bit heavy for some tastes. It is available in 12 and 20. The Browning Citori is also an excellent choice and comes in a variety of configurations.

As to currently available side by sides, there are none either made or imported that are priced under $1000 to which I can give endorsement.

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