Shotgun Buying Basics

Waterfowlers and upland bird hunters demand performance and reliability from their shotguns. But with nothing but choices on the market, it can be difficult to find the gun that's best for you…and your budget! Consider these tips before making your big purchase.


If you're going to have only one shotgun, a 12-gauge is the most versatile. Most handle both 2 ¾- and 3-inch shells, with some also accepting 3 ½-inch loads. There are few situations where you'll benefit from those larger shells. Recoil is significant, plus those guns come at a premium. Don't purchase one unless there's no price difference.

Likewise with 10 gauges-they offer little practicality, shells are hard to find, and both guns and shells are pricey. Twenty-gauges are suited to those who predominantly hunt upland birds or decoying ducks, or are recoil-shy. Twenty-eight-gauges are an upland specialist's gun…not a good choice for novices or those who will hunt waterfowl. The smallest gauge, the venerable .410, has little practical hunting use except for potting grouse.


Waterfowlers generally want semi-autos as they're the quickest to cycle, but they do cost significantly more than pump-action. Semi-autos come in two flavours: inertia-operated and recoil-operated. Inertia guns are more reliable in bad weather and don't get as dirty, but they kick more. Gas-operated guns have less recoil and the good ones are almost as reliable as inertia guns.

Double shotguns, whether SxS or O/U, are not often used for waterfowling but are a fine choice for upland bird hunting or clay target shooting. Just be prepared to pay more.


Most hunters today select synthetic stocks, especially waterfowlers, in either black or camo. Camo is more than about looks; the dipping process adds corrosion protection. While traditional and beautiful, walnut stocks are best-suited to upland bird hunting, target shooting, or situations where exposure to wet conditions is minimal.


The trend is lighter shotguns, but that means increased felt recoil. Goose hunters who regularly shoot magnum loads will be happier with a heavier gun over the long haul. But it you plan to shoot light loads most often (upland bird hunting) lighter shotguns are noticeably easier to carry afield all day.

Barrel length

Barrel length affects balance and swing, but has no real impact on ballistics. Twenty-eight-inch barrels are most popular, although 26-inch tubes aren't uncommon. Most people shoot best with 28-inch barrels, as the length and weight helps sustain momentum and follow-through. Few hunters wish they'd bought a shorter-barrelled shotgun, though many wish they'd opted for longer. And the 30-inch barrels of yesteryear? They're not popular; stick with 28 inches.


Fit is considerably more important when shooting shotguns than it is with rifles. A rifle is aimed, a shotgun pointed. Our eye acts much the same as the rear sight on a rifle. The trick then, and what shotgun fit is all about, is ensuring your shotgun shoots where you look.

Length of pull, drop at comb and drop at heels are the main considerations, but for most it's not critical to know those dimensions. What is important? When you mount your shotgun and your eye looks straight down the barrel, you should see the bead but not the top surface of the rib. Fortunately, many of today's shotguns come with spacer kits and adjustable combs to help ensure a near-custom fit.