Buying A Shotgun A Beginners Guide

A Benelli SuperNova 12-gauge shotgun with Hornady Custom shells with the SST Projectile.

Inventory is low everywhere. If a 9mm pistol or AR-15 is placed for sale online or in a store, it’s usually gone within hours, sometimes less. And have fun finding ammo. Civil unrest and the China Virus panic have pushed gun sales to record levels. As I’ve noted before, there are firearms available, though you may have to make compromises in caliber choice and brand if you really really need to get yourself sorted with a gun. However, you may notice that gun shops usually have some shotguns in the inventory, regardless. You might be considering a shotgun. And you’re wondering, what should I look for in a shotgun?

Shotguns are an interesting class of firearm. Having been around almost as long as firearms themselves have, shotguns are decidedly simple weapons, though there are some complications when it comes to details. Though everyone and their mother is chomping at the bit for 9mm pistols and AR rifles these days, shotguns remain a consistent choice due to their versatility and ease of use. With one weapon, one can fire multiple types of ammunition, often loaded up into the same magazine. In addition, this flexibility renders them popular with soldiers, law enforcement officers, and citizens looking for a good all-around weapon for home defense and perhaps hunting.

Primary Arms

Benefits Of A Shotgun

The biggest benefit of a shotgun is in it’s versatility. With one firearm, one can defend the home, hunt, and engage in sport shooting, by simply switching ammunition sources. Many types of shotgun ammunition exist, but the basic “major” types are shot and slug. Shot is basically where the shotgun shell contains a number of pellets as opposed to a single projectile. The pellets can range in size from something akin to a BB, up to around the size of a 9mm bullet. A slug is basically what it sounds like, a big solid projectile. Each type has different applications, but in general, shot is used for smaller game, and slugs are used for larger game and defensive applications.

There’s other types of shotgun ammo such as flechette (darts basically) and less-lethal beanbag rounds, but those are pretty specialized applications and beyond the scope of this article.

Nonetheless, it’s this flexibility which endears shotguns to a lot of people out there.

Shotguns tend to be very affordable as compared to rifles and pistols. The low chamber pressure requires less material in the barrel, which is a big cost-saver. However, one can “go crazy” with shotguns in terms of price. While you can find a shotgun for as low as $100 in a pawn shop, you can go to the other extreme and spend upwards of $100,000 for a custom one-of-a-kind shotgun from makers like Beretta, Holland & Holland, and so on. In general, an off-the-rack shotgun from a known maker will not set you back much, and the ammunition is usually cheap.

One marked advantage for people in restrictive jurisdictions is that shotguns are typically only lightly regulated as compared to handguns and rifles. For example, in New York City, it is far less problematic to legally acquire a shotgun as opposed to a handgun or a rifle. The ease of acquisition and versatility makes them a popular choice in “ban states”.

A Benelli SuperNova 12-gauge shotgun.

Limitations Of A Shotgun

The flexibility of a shotgun makes it a jack-of-all-trades, but truly a master of none. One limitation is range. With shot ammunition, you can only reach out to about 50 yards or so at the maximum. The shot will travel further, but beyond 50 yards, it’ll only serve to scare off game or irritate an assailant. Even slugs lose their effectiveness after around 150 yards or so. Sure, one can argue that someone at those ranges really isn’t a threat, but those circumstances can change rapidly. And with game, you are looking to score a kill quickly - injured game attempting an escape rapidly becomes a losing proposition in many ways.

Another limitation is the heavy recoil of most practical shotguns, i.e. your standard 12 gauge piece. While solutions to mitigate the recoil do exist and do work, the recoil of a shotgun can best be described as “stout”. Sure, one can compromise and acquire a 20-gauge youth model shotgun, but those pieces are further limited in performance.

Shotgun Calibers

Above, I spoke of shotgun calibers. Measured in the old unit of “gauge”, shotgun calibers are often described as “12 gauge”, or “20 gauge”. The measurement derives from the method of determining the bore, by which a lead sphere was created, and if it fit perfectly, it was weighed and “gauged”. So, if the lead sphere weighed 1/12th of a pound, the firearm was classed as a 12-gauge shotgun. Most shotguns are measured by gauge, with the most common being 12 gauge and 20 gauge, but you will also see 10 gauge, and maybe even 8 gauge. The gauges larger than 12 tend to be rare, and also very powerful and unforgiving weapons. You’ll also see some shotguns described as .410 caliber, which is a measurement of diameter. People have to be different I suppose. The .410 caliber is actually quite small and only present in youth model shotguns and some oddball pistols.

Most people stick with 12 gauge. It’s extremely common, cheap, and despite it’s stout recoil, it can be learned and managed rather easily.

Shotgun Actions

Much like pistols and rifles, shotguns are available in several action types as well. There are a few major classifications though, which we will break down below.

Single And Double Barrel

Single- and double-barrel shotguns were the earliest ones developed, and the simplest action out there. Sometimes referred to as “break action”, these shotguns load up 1 or 2 rounds by the simple expedient of “breaking open” the gun and loading the shells into the rear breech of the barrel. With a single barrel break-action gun, you fire one shell, and then have to stop and load. With a double, you get two shots before a reload. A double-barrel shotgun can be side-to-side (barrels next to each other) or over-and-under (one barrel on top of the other), depending on preference. Break action guns tend to be favored for specific hunting and sport applications, and are sometimes the only gun legally available in a restrictive jurisdiction.

Pump Action Shotguns

Pump action shotguns are the most common ones on the market, and are typically the type people think of when they think “shotgun”. And no, just racking the pump is not a valid self-defense technique, by the way. A pump action shotgun uses a manually-operated pump (insert pump gesture here, ha ha) mechanism to expel the spent cartridge, and load a new one from the magazine. Pump action shotguns typically hold betweeen 4 and 10 shells. Some newer designs from Benelli, Mossberg, Remington, and local favorites Black Aces Tactical can also accept box magazines, which can put 20 rounds of 12-gauge devastation on tap. Companies like Adaptive Tactical offer upgrade kits for existing users of some shotgun platforms as well.

Pump action shotguns tend to be the most reliable, as there’s no gas system to worry about to bring the next round into battery. They just “go”. To this day, they are extensively used by citizens, law enforcement, and military users for both sport, defense, and “close encouters”.

A Benelli SuperNova 12-gauge shotgun.

Semi-Automatic Shotguns

Semi-automatic shotguns operate on the same principle as a semi-automatic rifle or handgun. Some of the energy from the fired shot is directed backwards, and a slide or bolt carrier ejects the spent round, and automatically loads aa fresh one for you. From a user perspective, these tend to be the quickest and easiest to use, since you don’t have to think about racking the pump. Charge once, and boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom - you’re basically keeping that familiar interface going. As a matter of fact, some manufacturers of shotguns (usually from Turkey) replicate the look and feel of an AR-15 and make a semi-automatic 12 gauge out of it. These feed from either a tube magazine or box magazine. Unlike with ARs, there’s no standard, so a box magazine for a Mossberg will not work with a Remington, for example.

Other Types Of Shotgun Actions

There’s a few other types of shotgun actions out there such as bolt-action, lever action, revolver, and even full-auto shotguns. The first three are now considered obsolete and are limited to novelty and competition (i.e. cowboy action shooting) use. A full auto shotgun is exactly what it sounds like, a “shotgun machine gun” - one press of the trigger will keep sending shots downrange until the user lets up on it or the weapon is empty. Unfortunately these types of shotguns are restricted heavily and one will only see them in the hands of government users, well-financed citizens, and manufacturers. Still very cool nonetheless.

Which Shotgun Should I Get?

So, which shotgun is right for you? In terms of what to purchase, the field can be narrowed a little bit by sticking to the following basic parameters:

  • 12 Gauge caliber. It’s stout, but it can be learned and mastered.

  • Pump action or semi-auto action - it’s personal preference.

  • Pistol-grip is a must for control and accuracy.

  • Stick to major brands like Mossberg and Benelli. Worth mentioning is Florida’s Black Aces Tactical as well. If luck is on your side, a Russian Saiga is a good choice, if one can be found.

  • Barrel length of 18” - 20” or so. Anything longer tends to be a specialized hunting weapon and is less versatile.

  • To start, avoid non-standard items like the Shockwave-style shotguns. While useful, their unusual grip style adds another dimension to training.

  • Try before you buy. If your gun shop has an attached range, this becomes easy.

A Shotgun Will Work For You

In this world of wonder nine pistols and tricked-out ARs, it’s easy to ignore the shotgun. However, much like with other firearm types, shotguns have kept up in the world of guns and are a worthy contender for a versatile all-around workhorse of a firearm. Even if you have a few pistols and rifles, it’s always worth adding a solid scattergun to the stable.

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