Shotgun
Shotgun Basics

Scatterguns Tackle Targets on the Move

Shotguns long ago earned the nickname “scattergun,” because rather than sending a single projectile downrange like a handgun or rifle does, its sends a payload of multiple shot pellets (in most cases—more on that in a bit). The advantage of all those pellets, which come in all sorts of sizes and can number from as few as three to more than 400, is realized with small targets on the move.

Once the shot exits the gun and heads downrange, it spreads as it flies, something called a “pattern.” Hold one of your hands in a tight fist close to your body. Now push that hand away from you while opening up your hand as you extend your arm until it’s as wide as it can be at full reach. That’s kind of how a pattern works from the end of the shotgun to the target or beyond.

In shotgunning and addressing moving targets, you will mount the gun on your shoulder and swing the barrel/s to “shoot where the target is going to be.” It’s all about hand/eye coordination, very much like learning to swing a bat timed to connect with the pitcher’s baseball, except you’re connecting with a target “out there” instead of a baseball a foot from your waistline. Suffice it to say, if you’ve ever connected bat to ball, run to catch a football or even played ping pong, you can learn to shoot a shotgun.

There are two components to shotguns, their action design and their gauge. Let’s take a look at both.

Action Design

Single-Shots

Single-shots are exactly as the name implies: They hold one shot and only one shot at a time. They are great firearms for teaching someone to handle a shotgun for the very first time, and because they tend to be lightweight and inexpensive, are a great choice for getting youth shooters started on safe handling skills. They can also be useful for home protection or for ranch and farm work such as eliminating pests. The guns usually have a lever at the top of the receiver that breaks open the gun on a hinge to allow loading of its single shell.

Over/Unders and Side-by-Sides

Like a single-shot, these are break-action guns as well, but now you get two shells. An over/under has one barrel stacked over a second, while a side-by-side puts the pair on a horizontal plane. The advantage of the second shot is obvious—you can make up a miss with a first barrel, and now you can take two targets without reloading.

Double-barrels are almost always more expensive than any shotgun with a single barrel, because, well, there are two barrels and the manufacturing processes and materials are more expensive. Those that are hand-built by some of the most famous makers in the world often serve as the canvas for some of the most talented engravers in the world and can range to the price of a luxury sports car. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find a bargain. In fact, you can find both used and new double-barrel shotguns for just a few hundred dollars.

The over/under is the most popular choice for the clay games skeet, trap and sporting clays. Short-barreled side-by-sides called “coach” guns are popular for Cowboy Action events. Both are very popular with bird hunters, and they can also be employed for home- and personal-defense.

Pump

This is the simplest of the two single-barrel multi-shot designs. Under the barrel is a tube, called the “magazine” that holds anywhere from two to five shots, sometimes more for certain shooting sport games like 3-Gun. Surrounding that magazine tube is a moveable fore-end. To operate this action, the shooter will first move that fore-end backward along its rails. That motion opens the receiver (ejecting any spent shotgun hull if the gun has just been fired), while moving a shell out of the magazine and onto the “elevator” in the receiver bottom. When the shooter slides the fore-end forward, the shell is pushed into the chamber, the bolt closing behind it until it’s fully closed. And with that you’re ready to fire again!

Pumps are an old design and very reliable. With short barrels, they’re a favorite tool for home-defense, hikers, ranch pest control and other chores. They’re perfectly suitable for the clay games, though not as fast as the double barrels and semi-automatics. Generally very budget-friendly, they’re also a favorite with both bird and deer hunters.

Semi-Automatics

Semi-automatics essentially work like pumps, except the shotgun does all the work. They work off the gasses or energy expended by a fired shell. They are very fast to shoot shot-to-shot-to-shot, which make them very popular for the clay games, as well as the action-shooting sport of 3-Gun. They are, of course, useful for self-defense. Many people prefer to teach new students with a semi-auto because they are considered to be “softer shooting,” i.e., have less perceived recoil or “kick,” than other action designs. Prices run the gamut from a few hundred to several thousands.

Bolt- and Lever-Action

Neither of these actions are very popular these days, but you will still find a few new ones here and there on store shelves, as well as used gun racks. The lever-actions are popular with Cowboy Action shooters and farm and ranch workers using them for pest control. Bolt shotguns, which most often are configured as “slug” guns—the one type of shotgun that fires a single, large projectile, much like a rifle, but at much slower velocities—are used almost exclusively by deer and other big-game hunters.

Gauges and Shell Length

There are entire books written about shotshell gauges, their history, nomenclature, performance and more. You should certainly explore them once you’ve discovered how much fun the shotgun games are, but here’s what you need to know to get started.

Starting with the largest, today’s common shotgun gauges include the 10-, 12-, 20-, 16 and 28-gauge, with the .410-bore as the smallest shotgun shell. (The .410 is actually a caliber, not a gauge, but it’s still a shotshell.)

Just as important as the gauge is the gauge’s shell length. The shotshell lengths you’ll see on box labels will be 2½, 2¾, 3 and 3½ inches. These measurement expressions are actually the length of the shotgun hull before it’s been loaded and had the end in front of the shot crimped closed by the factory.

  • 10-Gauge—The big and hard-recoiling 10 is used almost exclusively by hunters. It is always a 3½-inch shell.
  • 12-Gauge—This is the most popular shotgun shell for nearly every game or chore imaginable. Readily available in 2¾-, 3- and 3½-inch shell lengths and an enormous variety of power and shot size combinations. Because of its popularity and the millions of rounds sold every year, it is the least expensive gauge.
  • 16-Gauge—Once quite popular, this one has seen better days. You can find them new occasionally, but you’ll most often find one on a used gun rack. It is a lovely mix of manageable recoil and excellent patterning that falls between the 12- and 20-gague, so if you find one you like, give it a try. Ammo can be a bit tricky to find on retailers’ shelves sometimes, but that’s why we have the internet. You will almost never find it in anything other than 2¾-inch shells.
  • 20-Gauge—This is nearly as popular as the 12-gauge, but, being smaller, it is more limited in application than the 12. There’s simply not as much powder pushing the pellets, and there are fewer pellets. It is a super choice for new students, especially those starting out by learning skeet, and because the guns themselves are smaller and lighter than their 12-gauge counterparts, tend to fit women and youth shooters well. You’ll find this gauge in 2¾- and 3-inch shells.
  • 28-Gauge—Smaller yet than those above, this is a favorite with many upland bird shooters. Skeet and sporting clays shooters also use this gauge for “sub-gauge” competition—events just for the 20-, 28- and .410-bore. You will find the 28-gauge mostly in 2¾-inch loads, though there are some 3-inch loads and firearms for hunters. It is very light recoiling, and the guns are scaled in size appropriately to this smaller gauge.
  • .410-Bore—For sporting uses, most consider this a specialty round for talented hands only, whether for the clay games or hunting. Many used to think it was a great beginners round, since it has so little recoil, but its small payload of pellets, low power and limited range can make getting those first hits frustrating for those just learning the “swing of things.” The .410-bore does find great favor in short-barreled home-defense shotguns and in some specially designed handguns that accept this shell. It can be found in 2½-inch or 3-inch lengths.
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