Seeing a clay bird shatter and spray like fireworks on the Fourth of July is bound to put a smile on any shooter's face. You're more likely to feel that thrill if you choose a shotgun that's right for you. Understanding the fundamental differences between shotgun types can help narrow your options and make your decision much easier.
Semi-Automatic Shotgun Advantages & Drawback
The biggest advantage of a semiautomatic is also the most obvious one: it allows you to shoot several times (actual amount varies depending on magazine capacities) quickly without reloading. When waterfowl hunting, this gives you an extra shot versus the O/U and SxS (most waterfowl-species' regulations only allow you to shoot three shells without reloading). What's more, semiautomatics have less felt recoil than other actions because they allow gas to escape, therefore decreasing the pressure that causes recoil. This increases shooter comfort.
A drawback to semiautomatics is they have somewhat complicated gas or inertia systems that can jam. However, if you regularly clean your gun, most modern-day semiautomatics are made so well that malfunctions are rare.
Tip: The Beretta A300 Outlander Semi-Auto Shotgun is a gas operated semi-auto shotgun that uses a compensating exhaust valve allowing the shotgun to cycle a wide range of ammunition, from 2-3/4" target loads to 3" magnum waterfowl loads. Plus, a self-cleaning gas piston enhances reliability and ease of maintenance.
Pump-Action Shotguns are Revered for Their Reliability
When used correctly they virtually never jam. This makes them one of the most popular choices for tactical or self-defense shotguns. Yet, they can be used for virtually any shotgun activity. What's more, pumps are typically the most economical choice, making them excellent for beginners.
The downside to pump actions is that you have to manually chamber a new shell after every pull of the trigger by pumping the forend, meaning your follow-up shot will take longer than it would if you had a semiautomatic, O/U or SxS.
Tip: The Benelli SuperNova Pump-Action Shotgun is an ultra-reliable, nearly indestructible pump shotgun that's ideal for hunting most game animals in North America. A magazine disconnect button on the bottom of the forearm allows the user to quickly unload the chamber without releasing another round from the magazine. This allows the user to quickly load another round via the ejection port in the event that a different shooting situation suddenly presents itself.
Best for Shooting Clays & Targets, Side-by-Side or Over & Under Shotguns
Imagine you're in a two-person sporting clay competition with your buddy, and the winner not only has to buy dinner, but gets to gloat until the next competition. Your first target is a close-range clay coming at you, while your second target is going straight away. If you're shooting a side by side (SxS) or an over and under (O/U) you can use different chokes in each of the barrels, increasing your odds to come away with bragging rights.
For the distant target, equip one of the barrels with a modified choke so you can shoot a tight pattern that is accurate at longer ranges. For the close-range target, outfit the other barrel with an improved-cylinder choke that shoots a much looser pattern, giving you a larger margin of error. Access to multiple chokes also gives you an advantage while flushing birds. With your first shot, use a choke that shoots a somewhat loose pattern. For your follow-up shot, the bird will be further away, making a tighter choke optimal.
The advantage of multiple chokes is accompanied by easy reloading. While semiautomatic and pump-action shotguns have moving parts to deal with when reloading, O/U and SxS simply break open so you can easily remove spent rounds and insert live ones.
The downside of these firearms is they only allow you two shots before you have to reload while the above semi-auto and pump-action guns allow as many as their magazine can hold. However, for most target shooting games you will never need more than two shots at a time, making this "drawback" inconsequential.
Tip: The Stoeger 12 Gauge Coach Gun Supreme Side by Side Shotgun. As handsome as it is affordable, this potent home security gun is chambered for 2-3/4'' and 3'' shells.
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Consider the Gauge for Performance & Comfort of the Shotgun
Gauge makes a major difference in performance and shooter comfort. A small child shooting a 12 ga. is likely to get knocked flat on their behind, whereas with a .28 ga. they'll remain upright and ready to fire another shell. Larger gauges deliver more recoil, which can be uncomfortable for new or young shooters. However, they also fire more shot at higher velocities, making them far better for most hunting applications. Unlike hunting, noncompetitive target shooting doesn't have regulations on gauge size, so you can use what you like. This allows people of all ages, statures and experience levels to enjoy.
Common Shotgun Gauges
10-ga. – Simply put, this gauge packs a punch. It can shoot the largest loads of all modern gauges, providing maximum knock-down power. However, much of that "punch" is directed to your shoulder in the form of recoil. With advancements in shotshell and choke-tube technology, 12 ga. is just as effective in most situations, and won't bruise your shoulder as easily.
12-ga. – Good for nearly any shotgun-shooting activity, from waterfowl and turkey hunting to target shooting. Although they typically have more recoil than the smaller gauges, you can alter loads to make shooting more comfortable.
16-ga. – These have less recoil than a 12 ga. However, they aren't manufactured for use with steel shot, rendering them useless for many hunting applications. Today, they are viewed mainly as collector's items.
20-ga. – An extremely popular chambering for smaller-framed shooters who favor reduced recoil. While still a good choice for many hunting applications, they typically shoot at lesser velocities and with less shot than a 12-ga., so they don't have the same knock-down power.
28-ga. – Lightweight and offering tight shot patterns, this gauge is excellent for hunting small birds such as quail. It offers almost the same amount of shot as a 20-ga. with the reduced recoil of a .410 bore. However, ammunition is more expensive.
.410 bore – As the smallest, .410 bore fires the smallest loads of shot but is the easiest to handle, making it excellent for teaching youngsters how to shoot.