A friend recently got a larger than expected royalty check from his publisher, and in passing asked me if I had any suggestions about the kind of shotgun he should consider buying as his first. Me...an opinion about shotguns?
I guess he doesn’t read my stuff much.
[If you're looking for a description of the legal process in NJ for buying a firearm - then you should probably start here. If you're looking for suggestion on the kind of shotgun to buy as your first, then by all means please continue.]
Deciding on a first shotgun is a straightforward process, and the first step is the same as any other firearm purchase. A liberal once asked me if I thought I had enough guns, and to his supreme annoyance I responded “enough for what?” That’s not a joke, it’s the first concern when choosing a firearm… what exactly are you going to be using it for? If you’re going to leave it under your bed as a home defense insurance policy that means one set of priorities, but if you plan on shooting skeet with it once a month or using it to hunt deer and turkeys, that’s probably another. You may want to do both things with it and that’s perfectly reasonable, but you should be aware that multitasking will come with compromises. But before I get to that, there are a few things you should know about all shotguns.
Selecting a Gauge
The gauge of a shotgun is defined as “the number of lead balls you would need in that diameter in order to have one pound of lead”. So a 12 gauge gun, by far the most common, is the largest (standard) bore, and the .410 is the smallest. There are 10 gauge guns out there too, and even guns that sport custom “super large” bores, but none of these should be considered as a first shotgun. All you really need to worry about when choosing a bore size is your physical size and your strength.
In my opinion, if you’re a man of more or less normal size then you should almost certainly buy a 12 gauge as your first gun. In fact when it comes to the fairer sex, I would only recommend a smaller gauge for particularly petite women. As an example, my wife is tiny. She’s a pretty little Hungarian brunette who is 5’1” and weighs about 105 lbs. when dripping wet, and she can still shoot my 12 gauge semi just fine. The only issue is that it’s a little heavy for her so if she shoots it all day her arms are tired afterward. So I did recently break down and get her a 20 gauge gun so she can shoot it a little more.
Recoil is a big concern for the new shotgun purchaser, but it isn't as great an issue with shotguns as Hollywood would have you believe. Guns with larger bores are typically heavier which cuts down dramatically on their felt recoil, and the 'semi automatic' design shotguns can diminish it even more. Besides, you don't aim a shotgun like a rifle anyway, so if you get a little push from your gun it won't necessarily effect your performance. And even if you turn out to be REALLY sensitive, there are other options like low recoil ammo, and add-on pads that can make a big difference.
I can quote you numbers about ft-lbs of thrust etc, but it won't mean anything to you - so let me explain it this way. Whoever you are, you aren't so far away from 'average' that recoil will be different for you than it is for everyone else. Virtually all men, and all but the smallest American women can 'handle' the recoil delivered by a 12 gauge gun. If you're petite, consider a 20 gauge, but don't buy one that's too light, or it might shove you even more than some 12 gauges. And for children or child sized adults, the 28 gauge, is the 'really low recoil' option. But you should be aware that the ammunition costs a fortune, and it's really quite difficult to shoot well when compared to a 20, or 12 gauge.
Some people think starting with a smaller gauge like a 28 gauge, is always a good idea but I disagree. Shotguns are designed to throw a spray of pellets, and the smaller the bore the smaller the pattern. So with a 20 gauge gun it’s harder to hit what you’re shooting than with a 12 gauge, no matter how skilled you are. A 28 gauge is also harder than a 20, and a 410 harder than a 28, and so on. Making it easy to hit what you point your first gun at is a good first concern if you ask me. So for anyone who weighs more than say, 130 lbs or so, I’d strongly recommend a 12 gauge as a first gun. If you’re under that then consider a 20 gauge, but remember that you’re starting with a small disadvantage.
As I told my friend, I’m a value for the dollar guy. I don’t think anyone should ever spend a nickel more than they have to when buying a gun. There are manufacturers out there who will build you a custom fitted shotgun to your body measurements and artistic specification and it will run you $75,000. To consider something like that for a first gun is stupid, even if you have the money. Even to think about one of the higher end factory guns seems a little silly to me when you’re still new at shooting. If you consider a Perazzi, or a Krieghoff, or even one of the nicer Beretta’s or Browning’s, you could easily drop $10,000. That makes no sense to me.
The design of gun you buy will affect the price. There are single shot shotguns out there for about $100, but there are many things you can’t do with them (including all the clay shooting sports) so I’d stay away from them if you can afford to. Pump guns are generally the cheapest repeating shotguns out there and can be had brand new from reputable manufacturers for as little as $250. Next are semi-automatic guns, and then the double barrel guns which are the most expensive in comparison. That isn’t to say they are pricey in dollar terms. I commonly shoot a Mossberg Over/Under Double barrel that I paid $400 bucks for. It’s a solid gun that I’ve put 10,000 rounds through without a hiccup. And just this morning I shot with a friend who was shooting a pump gun that cost twice that. In some ways, you’ll get what you pay for. You just want to make sure you’re not paying for features you don’t really want or need.
A Shotgun for Home Defense
In my opinion, the two biggest issues for a home defense shotgun are a short barrel, and a low price. Statistically, it’s unlikely you’ll ever fire a shot in your own home. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep a gun in your home if you feel the need, but it does mean that if you do, you probably won’t be using it all that much. If it were me, I wouldn’t want to have a several thousand dollar investment collecting dust under my bed. As for the short barrel, you don’t realize how small your house really is until you’re trying to swing a shotgun in your living room with a 32 inch competition barrel. In close quarters small is always a help.
If you’re buying a gun for home defense alone I’d recommend a Mossberg pump gun. Mossberg doesn’t make a pretty gun, but they have legendary reliability, and the click-clack of the pump is often more than enough to put fear in the hearts of most men. Remington also makes a pump gun with first rate reliability but a slightly higher price. For my money, Mossberg will do everything you need. The US Army loves the Mossberg 500. And if there is one thing the army knows, its how best to go about shooting people. You’re unlikely to use a shotgun for just this purpose, but if you think you will, then I can’t say enough about the Mossberg. No one will ever look down on it.
A Shotgun For Multiple Uses
A single shotgun used for multiple purposes is a tricky business. In fact hunting alone could turn out to be more than one purpose because there’s a big difference between hunting pheasant and hunting deer. Lots of people have just one gun to do all of the above and for use to defend their homes, but there are a number of issues to consider.
The people I know who try to use one gun for everything usually end up buying a semi-automatic shotgun with a medium length barrel - usually in the 26 to 28 inch range. A pump gun is cheaper than a semi, but the semi will give you a second shot just a bit more effortlessly. In that way its better suited to wing shooting where you should be concentrating on your target instead of worrying about short-stroking your pump. A pump can do it, but for the difference in price I think most people find it’s worth it to go with a semi.
When it comes to a semi automatic gun, I’m one of those people who is of a very strong opinion. I can only recommend one design… the recoil actuated semi-automatic shotgun designed by Benelli. There are a great many semi’s out there that use a gas actuated piston to reset the action after each shot. That design, produced by a half dozen manufacturers from Remington and Beretta, to Browning and others, has historically shown wonderful reliability when produced by a manufacturer with a good reputation. But as good as that design may be, it’s a bear to clean and it must be cleaned well in order to remain in good working order.
The Benelli design on the other hand has only 4 moving parts which drop out of the receiver frame without the use of tools. That design is so reliable that I know several guys who own them and have never cleaned theirs. But if they ever decide to, those few parts make it an easy task. It’s a lighting fast system that can handle any size of load, and makes a great all around design for a first shotgun. When the US Marines are issued shotguns, they are Remington or Mossberg pumps. When they buy their own shotguns they buy Benelli semi’s.
Of course brilliance doesn’t come cheap. The top of the line Benelli Semi-Automatic is not inexpensive, but I have a great way around that. A few years back a Turkish company hijacked the Benelli design, and starting building what probably amounted to illegal copies of it. When Benelli heard about it, they didn’t take them to international court; they bought them, and started offering the Turkish gun as a low priced model.
The Stoeger model 2000 has the same fantastically fast and reliable Benelli recoil action, but at a fraction of the Benelli price. It’s not as pretty and slick as the Italian styling of the new Benelli SBE, but it does look exactly like some older Benelli models, and is not unattractive. And in spite of it’s more traditional look, it has the same high performance works under the hood, and it shoots that way. The Stoeger 2000 will typically run you about ½ the price of the Benelli and offer the same functionality. You can find them here for as little as $450 or so. It’s a great buy, maybe the best in the shotgun industry. As a combination hunting and home defense gun I highly recommend it.
Its only weakness is that Benelli has yet to find a manufacturer for the “rifled slug barrel” they’ve been promising for a few years now. A rifled barrel will let you shoot slugs with a shotgun out to about 100 yards with dead shot accuracy. But since Benelli hasn’t gotten their act together, if you go with a Stoeger, then you’ll be forced to shoot slugs through your smoothbore giving you a best case accuracy of about 75 yards.
A Shotgun For Clay Shooting
I’ve never fired a shotgun in a home defense situation. If I exclude the high fence pheasant hunt I do with my friends every year then in the last 7 hunting seasons I’ve fired my shotgun at animals exactly twice. Even if I include it, I’ve probably only fired the gun 35 or 40 times. When hunting you don’t exactly burn through cases of ammo, there’s really no need. But last year on the skeet field at my club, I think I went through about 4,500 rounds of ammo, plus whatever my friends and other guests shot. And that’s the issue that defines the clay shooting sports; there is a lot of actual shooting going on. It’s high volume, over and over and over again. So the gun you select for that purpose should keep that in mind as a first concern.
If you try shooting that kind of volume through a pump gun or a gas driven semi, you’ll spend as much time cleaning that gun as you do shooting it. Even a Benelli or Stoeger Semi will require some careful attention after a while when it’s used that heavily. And while I personally have always felt that cleaning my guns was a zen like experience, sometimes you just have other places to be. So if you want a gun that cleans up quickly and easily, then there are really no bones about it, you want a double barrel gun.
The over under is the slightly more popular double barrel design these days, But in fact the finest grade guns available are almost all side by sides. I think the thing that makes them popular is that with an over under gun you can only see one barrel when you mount it to your shoulder, so it takes less time to get used to the view. In my house we have both. And they can both be used to great effect. No one will ever look down on your for showing up with one or the other. The gun I shoot most often is a Mossberg Silver Reserve Over Under, and my wife’s gun is a Stevens 311 Side by Side.
Double barrel guns cost more than pump guns or semi-automatics. But these days there are imports which are simple, reliable and inexpensive. My Mossberg was made in Turkey (Are you noticing a pattern here”) and Remington imports an over under from Russia which they sell under the Spartan label that I’ve heard people speak well of. Both are sturdy Boxlock designs with shell extractors instead of ejectors. An extractor is a simple device which lifts the shell from the chamber when the gun is opened, but you have to reach down there and remove them yourself. Ejectors are spring loaded mechanical devices that automatically kick the shells free for you. If you’re buying an inexpensive import, I’d stay away from a gun with ejectors since they can sometimes be subject to failure on inexpensive guns. I wouldn’t recommend them unless you’re prepared to pay up.
The triggers on double barrel guns also have several options. Many side by side guns have 2 triggers, one for each barrel. This takes some getting used to, but it works perfectly well. If you decide to go with a double trigger gun I’d recommend getting one that has a straight “English style stock”. It makes it slightly easier to adjust your finger for the second trigger. The Steven’s 311 my wife shoots came with double triggers and a pistol grip stock standard, but I replaced it with a straight style stock as a project.
As for the single triggers typical on over under guns, some are what’s called “mechanical” and others are designed to reset on recoil. Mechanical triggers are supposed to be stiffer and therefore less appealing, but I’ve found them to be more reliable in all circumstances so I still prefer them. You aren’t aiming a shotgun, you’re pointing it, so a stiff trigger isn’t so much of a hindrance in my mind. And if you have a gun with recoil triggers and for some reason the first shell doesn’t fire, the second one won’t be able to. With mechanical triggers at least you’ll get off one.
As for where to buy a gun - I do most of my firearm shopping online. In fairness, that might be at least partly because the State of New Jersey has been on a legislative war against legal gun dealers, so there are few left in the state. But even if you live in a state with lots of gun dealers, these online sites can probably save you some scratch.
Your local laws must all be obeyed of course, buying online won't let you get around the law. But if I can do it in NJ, then I'm quite sure that you can buy online as well. And even with the shipping and transfer fees, I find it cheaper. Basically the process is that your online 'seller' will transfer the gun to a dealer in your state for sale to you. That dealer will complete the paperwork for a fee, and you have your gun. The online auctions will even help you find a dealer near your home - have a look under 'finding an FFL' on the gunbroker.com site above.
With that said though, a shotgun still needs to fit you well. So I would highly recommend that before you buy anything, you go to a local firearms dealer and try them on. Stocks for factory guns all come in slightly differing lengths and sometimes come with space holders which can be added or removed to change the fit. If you need a shorter stock it can usually be cut down to suit you, but extending it is trickier, so the default factory stocks tend to be a little on the longer side. that's usually fine if you're about average size - only the very small or very tall will need much in stock reworking. But I find that most people's tolerance for a poor fit will decrease as their skill with a shotgun increases.
So it's of paramount importance that you go to a local store... pick one up, hold it, mount it, see how it feels tracking an invisible pheasant through the air. It’s really one of the most important aspects of a shotgun purchase. We aren't all built alike, and what suits me perfectly might not work for you. And in the meantime I’ve also had my local dealers agree to match prices that I showed them from the internet, so it might wind up saving you a trip as well.
The shotgun sports are my principle hobby so naturally I have a lot more to say, but unfortunately I lack the time to say it. If you have any other questions, please leave them on the blog and I’ll answer them as soon as I can. After all, it's not exactly tough to get me to offer an opinion on shotguns.
%%%% UPDATE - 4/15/2010 %%%%
It's been a while since I wrote this piece and in the intervening 2 years it's been read by tens of thousands of people. I've had plenty of time to think about it and with the exception of cringing at the mis-spellings and the few awkward turns of phrase, I wouldn't change a word. My 'go to' gun is still a Stoeger M2000 for every task except clay shooting, where I reach for my Mossberg Silver Reserve. The one thing I'd like to add though is that in those states that don't allow hunting with rifles (a foolish law which when the data is examined, does not actually add to hunting safety like it's supposed to) you really do have to go with a shotgun with a rifled barrel.
I had an unfortunate incident where in spite of my months of planning, a NJ Black Bear was spooked by another hunter just before before he entered the safe range of my Stoeger. Had I had a rifled barrel gun I'd have had another 20 yards of effective range, and that 400 plus pound Bear would be a carpet in my office right now. That's hunting I suppose. But now that NJ Governor Chris Chistie has ended the psychotically foolish Bear hunting ban that was put in place by ex governor Corzine, I'm going to go buy myself a Mossberg 500 with a rifled barrel.
That's a specialty item... you can't shoot clays or hunt ducks or pheasant with a rifled barrel gun unless you change the barrel. Bird shot fired through a rifled barrel forms a patters with a big donut hole in the middle and in extreme cases can damage the performance of your gun. So it's not nearly as adaptable as a shotgun should be. Hopefully it won't matter to you. In my opinion a rifle is a better hunting tool for virtually all situations, and a rifled barrel shotgun is really just an invention of politics. But if you are forced to cope like I am... you can't go wrong with a Mossberg 500.
%%%%%%%%%%%%UPDATE - 10/18/10%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%
Ok one last update. For those of you trying to decide on an over under, I've had great luck with my Mossberg Silver Reserve. It's held up very well for 20,000 rounds or so, and it's still in excellent condition. It should be good for another 20,000 rounds at least... however....
I was going shooting with a few friends recently and thanks to an unusual turn of events, we found ourselves a little short of firearms. I have an old H&R pump which was given to me by a friend, and it can usually fill the bill as a loaner at times like that. But the last time I lent it to my buddy Vinny he accidentally broke the carrier release spring, and no one makes the parts for that gun anymore. I tried making the spring myself a few times by reverse engineering it. But it’s an odd shape and without a sample to work from I never seemed to manage.
So I did the thing that most men do when they have a friend who wants to borrow a gun and they don’t have one to lend – I used that as an excuse to go and buy myself a new one. This may seem like convoluted logic to everyone who isn't a gun owner. But as strange as it may sound to you non-firearm folk, believe me when I tell you that to us, we people of the gun, a decision like that is not only perfectly natural but absolutely expected. In many case even our wives are conditioned to expect that from us as well.
So last week I got myself a brand new Lanber 2097 12 gauge Sporting shotgun. I’ve fired it exactly twice… that is…I fired it at one outing to break it in, and another a week later. I couldn't be happier with it. Lanber has a reputation for making incredibly durable guns for the price, and for the $700 it cost me, I couldn't be happier with it. It's one step up from the Mossberg, but it's an excellent 'value for the dollar gun.