Comprehensive Guide to Buying Your First Shotgun

Now that you’ve seen a sample of what you can do with a shotgun, now the question is, what gun do I buy? While this is definitely not a simple answer, I will try to walk you through the different types of shotguns, how they work, and guide you to what would work best for you.

For your first shotgun, the gun makes I would recommend are the 3 Bs and R: Browning, Benelli, Beretta and Remington. You may also want to consider Ruger. While I haven’t heard anything about their shotguns, I do own 3 Ruger guns and am very pleased with their performance. Anything else is usually going to be either cheaply made or very expensive and unnecessary for first time gun buyers.

A used gun is usually a good choice for the first time gun owner. Guns last a very long time and can be a great investment. Buying a used gun will give you less of a loss if you decide the gun you bought isn’t for you. Most gun shops will offer some form of warranty on used guns in the event something is wrong with it.

There are some basic elements of all shotguns that you should consider: caliber, chambering, length, material, and choke tubes.

Caliber

Courtesy of http://www.hunter-ed.com

Courtesy of http://www.hunter-ed.com

The first thing you want to consider is what gauge of shotgun you want. There are many types to choose from: 10, 12, 16, 20, 28, or .410. The smaller the gauge, the larger the size (i.e. 12 gauge is a larger shell than a 20 gauge). Assuming this is your first gun, you’d probably want to start with a 12 gauge, as they are readably available and the ammo is among the cheapest and most available. If you want to hunt as well as target shoot with your shotgun, a 12 gauge is the way to go.

If you don’t plan to do any hunting, or will only hunt small game, you should also consider a 20 gauge. They are the second most common gauge and the ammo is usually the same price as 12 gauge. The advantages of a 20 gauge are that they are lighter and have less of a recoil than the 12 gauge, allowing you to shoot longer and get more accustomed to the gun. The disadvantage is that there is less shot than a 12 gauge, so there is a smaller chance of hitting the target, although it is only a very small difference.

The 10 gauge will have too much kick for target shooting and is only recommended for self defense or hunting. The ammo is more expensive.

The 16 gauge is rather obscure and you can have a hard time finding ammo, unless you’re into reloading. There are also less options in terms of guns.

The 28 gauge and .410 (.410 is the size of the shell, 0.410 inches) should only be considered if you become very good with a 12 or 20 gauge and need more of a challenge on the field. There is less shot, so you have to be very accurate to hit a target. The advantages is that there is very little recoil so you can shoot for a long time, and they make a great option for children and some women (don’t get me wrong, its not a sexist comment. I’ve seen some women with a 12 gauge shatter my scores!!).

Chambering

Depending on the gauge, you will have options for the size of the shells. For example, a 12 gauge shell can come in 2.75 inches, 3.00 inches, and 3.5 inches in length. The choice of length will all depend on the use. On a clay target field, you should only use 2.75” shells. However, if you plan on hunting, a 3” or 3.5” shell will contain more shot and have more incapacitating power. Some guns can only handle one size, some two sizes, and some can handle all three. Again, if you’re only target shooting, you’ll be fine with 2.75”, and you can still hunt with it.

Length

Notice that the guns appear the same length due to the pump having a longer stock length

30" barrel vs 26" barrel. Notice that the guns appear the same length due to the pump having a longer stock length

The barrel length of the gun is another consideration when buying a shotgun. The length of the barrel can range from 24” to 32.” The shorter the barrel the lighter the gun. A shorter barrel also makes the gun easier to transport, especially if you’re carrying it through the woods for hunting. On the clay target range, you’ll generally see barrels in the 28-32” inch range. The theory is that a longer barrel allows you better tracking of the pigeon, and decreases the distance between the shot spread and target. I know people who swear by their 32” barrel, and I personally love my 30” barrel, however I don’t know of anybody who is handicapped by having a shorter barrel. This one will be a personal preference on your part.

Material

There are a few different choices for the material of a gun. The stock and grip can be wood, rubber, or synthetic (plastics). The barrel can be stainless steel, blued or have a coating on it (such as a camo).

This is all a matter of personal preference. The majority of people you see on the clay field have wooden stocks, however synthetics can be a great choice as they are more durable and easier to care for.

In terms of barrel makup, stainless steel will be very heavy and expensive. Most guns are blued but you need to make sure it is well oiled after each use, or it can corrode. The easiest option is a coating which is easier to care for, but doesn’t quite look as good (only my opinion!).

Choke Tubes

Browning Invector Plus Choke Tubes: Skeet, Skeet, IC, MOD, FULL, Xtra full

Browning Invector Plus Choke Tubes: Skeet, Skeet, IC, MOD, FULL, Xtra full

When looking for a gun, make sure that they have choke tubes. Choke tubes are 4” or so long tubes that screw to the inside of the end of the barrel. They modify the spread of the shot depending on how far your target is. The way to check if the gun uses choke tubes is to look down the barrel (make sure it’s unloaded and the action is open!) and see if there are any divots at the top. This is where a choke tube wrench would unscrew it. If there are no divots reach your finger in and see if you can feel any threads. This is where the tube would screw in.

12ga Browning Over-Under showing choke tubes

12ga Browning Over-Under showing choke tubes

12 ga Benelli choke

12 ga Benelli choke

Choke tubes come in a wide range of sizes (most open to tightest): Skeet, Cylinder, Improved Cylinder, Modified, Improved Modified, Full, and Extra Full (Turkey), and even sizes in between! In general, you will only need Skeet, Improved Cylinder, and Full. It is a good idea to have a modified on hand, but I’ve never used mine.

The reason you would want to vary your pattern is so you have the most amount of pellets on the target when it gets there. For example, if you use a skeet tube on the trap field (where you should use a full) the shot pattern will expand so much by the time it gets to the target that it will likely just fly around the bird. Conversely, if you use a full choke on a skeet field, the pattern will be so tight that you have to be extremely accurate in order to hit the target. However, when you do hit it, it will explode into a thousand pieces (which is awesome!).

Now onto the guns! There are 3 basic types of shotguns to consider: pump, semi-auto, or double barrel.

Pump

Benelli SuperNova Pump

Benelli SuperNova Pump

A pump shotgun is just that. You have to pump the slide to cycle through the rounds. They are generally the cheapest option as you’re doing all the work instead of mechanics. A pump shotgun will hold from 2 to 8 rounds depending on the gun and restrictor. A pump shotgun is also usually the most durable and is an excellent choice of you’re going to be hunting in wet and swampy conditions, as there is smaller chance of the gun jamming up. It also sounds awesome when you pump it, just like in a video game. The disadvantage of a pump is that it’s a pump. When you’re hunting or on the field and need to take a second shot, you need to pump the gun before you can take the shot. You can lose precious time by having to pump. However, I’ve seen guys with pumps where it is second nature to pump and their scores do not suffer at all.

Guns to consider:

Benelli Nova Pump $340-$430 or SuperNova Pump $440-$530: http://www.benelliusa.com/index.php

Remington Model 870 $320-$750: http://www.remington.com/products/firearms/shotguns/model_870/

Browning: BPS $600-$1400: Browning BPS

Semi-Auto

Beretta AL391 Semi-Auto

Beretta AL391 Semi-Auto Courtesy of http://www.beretta.com

A semi auto will use the recoil from the last shot to cycle in the next shell. Like the pump, they can hold 2 to 8 shells. They make an excellent choice if you’ll be doing a lot of hunting as well as target shooting. There is no wait in between shots so you can take your next shot almost instantly. The only disadvantages are that the gun can sometimes jam and there is only one barrel (only one choice of choke).

Guns to consider:

Benelli: Vinci ~$1400, Super Black Eagle II $1250-$1600, any Benelli really: http://www.benelliusa.com/index.php

Beretta: AL Series $440-$1300, Xtrema2 $1200-$1700, any Beretta really: Beretta Semi Autos

Browning: A5 or Maxus $1200-$1400: Browning Gun Finder

Remington: 1100 $640-$1000 or 11-87 $600-$940: http://www.remington.com/products/

Double Barrel
The double-barreled shotgun can be split up into two categories: side by side and over-under. You should not consider a side by side for target shooting as they are usually pretty cheap and most do not have choke tubes.

Side by Side Shotgun curtesy of http://www.mauser.org

Side by Side Shotgun curtesy of http://www.mauser.org

By far the most common gun you will see on the clay target field is an over-under. This gun has one barrel on top of the other. It breaks open at the end of the barrel to load two shells. It has one trigger that you can set to either fire the top or bottom barrel first. The inertia from the first shot will reset the mechanics to shoot the other barrel upon the next trigger pull.

12 ga Browning Citori 425 Over-Under Shotgun

12 ga Browning Citori 425 Over-Under Shotgun

The advantages of an over-under are that they are relatively simple and almost never fail, as there are no significant moving parts that can fail between shots. This means that they are also easier to maintain.

The fact that there are two barrels allows you to use two separate chokes. This means you can set it to the choke needed depending on the distance to your target. This is a big advantage when you’re out on a 5-stand course, sporting clays or even hunting.

All guns need to be unloaded with the action open when not shooting on a course. With an over-under you can tell at a glance whether this is the case. They are also very easy to load when it is your turn to shoot. These guns also happen to be among the most beautiful of the shotguns (in my opinion).

Over-Under vs Pump Action Opened

Over-Under vs Pump Action Opened

The disadvantages of an over-under are that you only get two shots before you need to reload. This isn’t a problem on any clay target field, but if you’re hunting you may want more shots. Another potential disadvantage is that your gun is so beautiful you may not want to take it out hunting where it could get dirty!

Guns to consider:

Browning: Citori $1,800-$4,000 or Cynergy $2,000-$4,500: Browning Shotguns

Beretta: 686 or 687 $1,600-$9,500: Beretta Over-Unders

Remington: Premier ~$1,400: Remington Premier
In the end its all going to come down to price and how the gun feels to you. Go to a gun store and feel all the shotguns. Put them up to your shoulder and see how it feels. If you get a gun that doesn’t fit you, you’ll have a hard time shooting and may not enjoy it as much.

I hope this article was helpful and informative. If anything was unclear or you’d like more elaboration, please leave a comment or e-mail me at jonpalmer@thejonpalmer.com

37 thoughts on “Comprehensive Guide to Buying Your First Shotgun

  1. Great job on this article. I knew nothing about shotguns, and feel like you gave me the gist as well as possible.

  2. Thanks very much for this. I’m interested in getting a shotgun and this really helped me out as guns aren’t my area of expertise.

  3. Thanks for your information. I’m definitely a novice and know nothing about guns and your blog provided some good basic information for a starter like me.

  4. Thanks ! I want to go hunting with some friends and I have no clue about anything !!! This helped a lot !

  5. I am trying to select between a 28” & 30” barrel lengths. I will be using the gun primarily to hunt pheasant & duck. I plan to use it for skeet as well, to keep up my shooting skills between hunting seasons. I was looking more than a “personal preference” statement. Ideally I would have liked to have seen rough percentages of current hunters that use each length for each intended use.

    Many years ago I was taught that the selection of barrel length (in addition to gauge) was based on what you were hunting. If you agree with this statement, I think it would be quite beneficial to include it. I was taught that Goose hunters preferred 32” 10 gauge guns while dove hunters benefited from 28” barrels and 12 or 16 gauge guns. A 410 bore, on the other hand, is seldom used for any size of bird hunting and is somewhat unique from the others listed.

    I think you also should have included a sentence or two about gauge selection based on the shooter’s age. You didn’t discuss shot guns designed for kids. I started off with a 20 gauge because my father thought anything bigger would be difficult to aim quickly and kick too much. It was specifically sized for boys, not men.

  6. Brian,

    All good feedback, thank you. I wouldn’t be able to comment on which barrel lengths or calibers would be preferable for certain game. Though if you’re planning on shooting skeet with the same gun, I would definitely point you to a 12 gauge.

    You’re also right that I would start a child under 15 off with a 12 gauge or larger. A 20 gauge would be preferable for hunting, and perhaps a .410 for small game or target.

  7. Nice Job on the article! I just graduated, and I want a nice gun for myself. You never when the zombie apocalypse is going to happen.

  8. Cory,

    Absolutely! It never hurts to be prepared for the worst. If that’s you intention, I’d recommend a Remington 870 Tactical. Great gun and great value. Definitely a zombie destroyer.

  9. Jon,

    Congratulations. I’m in the the UK and have had taster days and shot clay using a friends gun a number of times. I’m now at the point of wanting to take it further. I didn’t want to have many friends baffling me with their own my product is best. Your review has done exactly what I wanted which is discuss the basics for a beginner to consider when purchasing a first time gun.

    Thank you.

  10. Awesome job explaining the basics. Lots of great information for a first time buyer like myself.

  11. I agree with everything except for 2 points:

    1) You put the Browning BPS in the Semi-Auto category. While the BPS is a fine shotgun (I’ve shot mine for over 20 years), it is still a pump action. Perhaps, for Browning, the Silver Hunter? Or the new A5?
    2) For a new shooter, I don’t know that I’d go straight to a 12 gauge unless you are planning on hunting for geese or ducks. A 20 gauge has served me well for most applications. Dove, quail, skeet, sporting clays. Now, I won’t take it duck or goose hunting, certainly. But, I would steer a new shooter more towards a 20 gauge and then upgrade if they choose to. New shooters need repitition and if they go shoot 100+ rounds in a day, a 12 gauge is going to wear them out.

    Just a personal recommendation from some internet jackhole. Take it for what it’s worth. Nice article.

  12. I just want a shotgun for home defense…. So Remington 870 Tactical is the baddest MFer that you’d recommend? Thank you sir!

  13. Tom: Thanks for the feedback! I think I just pasted the BPS in the wrong area. I’ve incorporated some of your thoughts into the article.

    Shane: If you want a shotgun for strictly in the home, the 870 is a good choice, but it is rather long and can be cumbersome around corners or in tight areas. For indoors, I prefer a pistol with a light attached. For shotguns, you may want to look at the Mossberg 500 with the pistol grip. Packs all the power of a 20 gauge, but is more easier to maneuver. Definitely practice with it though! Check it out here: http://www.impactguns.com/mossberg-500-persuader-12g-20-in-50588mustbe21yrsold-015813505888.aspx

  14. If you want a shotgun for strictly in the home, the 870 is a good choice, but it is rather long and can be cumbersome around corners or in tight areas. For indoors, I prefer a pistol with a light attached. For shotguns, you may want to look at the Mossberg 500 with the pistol grip. Packs all the power of a 20 gauge, but is more easier to maneuver. Definitely practice with it though! Check it out here: http://www.impactguns.com/mossberg-500-persuader-12g-20-in-50588mustbe21yrsold-015813505888.aspx

  15. Tom: Thanks for the feedback! I think I just pasted the BPS in the wrong area. I’ve incorporated some of your thoughts into the article.

  16. I think you should probably revise this article and add a section on to explain Damascus or twist steel shotguns and why modern ammo tells you not to use it in them. And, I came across this page by searching for a guide on the first time purchasing of a shotgun or other rifle and what requirements I’ll need (E.G. license, etc). I will be turning 18 next month and I do a lot of shooting so I’d like to get a rifle to call my own, but I want to know what all I need first. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  17. Chris,

    I do not know anything about Damascus steel other than my kitchen knives. I cannot comment on that.

    As for the legality of buying a gun, it is highly dependent on which state you live in. For example, here in New Hampshire, all you need is a NH drivers license to buy a shotgun, rifle or handgun. You also need to pass a quick background check. These are true for any state. However, if you cross the border into Massachusetts, you need to apply through your local police department for an FID (rifle or shotgun) or LTC (handgun/rifle/shotgun). They have to issue an FID if you pass the background check, but it is up to the chief of police whether or not they give you in LTC. These are good resources, but be aware the gun laws change rapidly.
    http://www.nraila.org/gun-laws.aspx
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_laws_in_the_United_States_(by_state)

  18. Great info. I’m looking to purchase my first shotgun for clay (mainly trap then move onto skeet). I notice the Mossberg is not mentioned, but what do you think of the 20 gauge Mossberg 500?

  19. I think the Mossberg 500 is a good beginner gun. It is very versatile and has nearly limitless customization options. If you learn to shoot well with a pump, moving to a more sporting like gun is going to give you a great boost.

  20. I can’t really say. I’m not a good enough shooter to notice a miss when I use a 20 gauge over a 12 gauge. Its a pretty minor difference.

  21. I’ve taken two shotgun classes at my university (Isn’t it awesome that they actually have that?) and I think I’m ready to get my first shot gun. I’m a 5’2″ woman so I’m trying to do as much research as possible beforehand. We have done five-stand, skeet, and trap so that’s what I would be using this gun for. I know I want a 12 gauge, semi-automatic. Do you have any suggestions for shotguns that are made to fit women?

  22. Hello Lauren,

    I think it’s super cool that your university has shotgun classes. More schools should follow suit. If you’re looking for a semi-automatic 12 gauge, I would look for one that has recoil reduction, such as the Benelli clay series: http://www.benelliusa.com/shotguns/benelli-clay-models.php . I do not know of women specific guns. My best advice is to shoulder a big range of shotguns, and get which one feels best to you.

  23. Jon,thank you,this was very helpful and done in a simple straightforward manner.For me that was just what I was looking for.I admire your efforts to help educate people like myself who need help in the purchase of a first gun.

  24. Hi Jon,
    I found you article really helpful! I’m looking at buying my first gun. I’m keen to get a 12 gauge under-over as an all round gun. I was wondering what the disadvantages are of buying a gun for $650-$800 over $1500-$2000. Would I have jamming problems over a cheaper gun or other failure?

  25. Hi Nathan,

    I’ve never actually had the opportunity to shoot an O/U in the sub $1000 category so I can’t exactly speak to it. I know a few people who have such guns and they don’t seem to have too much trouble with them, but I do find the action a bit stiff. Relatively speaking, over unders are very simple guns. I wouldn’t expect you would have difficulty with any of the models, there really isn’t anything to jam. Before buying anything though, definitely go and check out the options in person and pick a gun that feels right to you.

  26. Informative article, thank you for publishing this. I feel that you have supplied myself and the reader more than enough to buy our first shotgun. I shot clays when I was 11, the only thing I knew about the shotgun was, don’t point it at anyone and always treat it like its loaded. Thank you for the time and energy it took to write this.

  27. Very informative article, and written in plain English that the beginner can understand. I am going to only be shooting clays, and will be looking to buy my first shotgun in the New Year.

    Many thanks for your informative writings !

  28. Great info. I am trying to jump into trap and skeet shooting field. Now I know which gun is best for me. Thanks again.

  29. From a guy who grew up hunting in Eastern Oregon and very occasional trap shooter, thank you for writing this article. After a long hiatus, I am in the market for a new shotgun. I’ve always wanted and O/U, as the ‘rich’ Portland hunters would come to our farm and I always envied their beautiful guns compared to my 870 Remington pump shotgun.

    The dilemma now is do I want a pretty gun or a gun with less recoil (Benelli/Beretta) and be able to shoot it without starting to flinch. In my case, a perception versus reality issue. Regardless, thank you for your article as it puts it into perspective.

    The one question is I could use a bit more explanation and clarification on the chokes and 5 position stands and why it is more advantageous with an O/U versus semi. Also, I’m guessing O/U is also a ‘status’ and ‘image’ point, too.

    Great article.

    Patrick

  30. Hi Patrick,

    You could get both a pretty gun with less recoil if you look to the Benelli O/Us, but you’ll be spending a significant chunk of cash.

    The reason the O/U is advantageous for 5 stand is because you know the relative distance you’ll be shooting the targets at, and you can set your chokes appropriately in each barrel depending on which you’ll be shooting at first. In a pump or semi, you only get once choice of choke for 2 shots, whereas with an o/u you get 2 choices for 2 shots. Its really not a huge deal if you’re a decent shot, but every little bit helps.

  31. “Anything else is usually going to be either cheaply made or very expensive and unnecessary for first time gun buyers.” Not true. There are any number of second-hand o/u shotguns out there in field or target configurations that are built just as well or better than a Beretta or Browning and are better fitted than the Ruger Red Label. As just one example, I picked up a 12-ga. Japanese-made SKB 85TSS in VG-EXC condition for only $950. Locks up like a bank vault.

  32. Thanks for the feedback Glen. There are definitely dozens of different makes of shotguns available, most of them quite good. As this was written for the first timer, I wanted to stick to guns that are easy to find and readily available. I would certainly always recommend a used gun if you’re looking to save some money, just make sure you get some sort of short term guarantee on it first.

  33. Thanks for the article. I noticed you omitted the Mossberg 500/535 line? Not a fan?

  34. Hi Dean,

    I’ve omitted it because I don’t have any experience with the Mossberg line. I have heard that they are not of the best build quality, but I really can’t comment.

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