Man Wearing a Red Vest Shooting a Shotgun at a Shooting Range

Shotguns 101: A Buyers Guide for All Skill Levels

Buying a shotgun is easy at Pennsylvania’s Largest Gun Show, where you’ll find new and used shotguns for sale and trade by leading retailers, regional gun shops, and private owners who want to make room in their safes for their next favorite gun. Whether you’re looking for a defense shotgun to protect your family and property, a hunting shotgun to put food on the table, or a historical firearm that offers a connection to the past, you’ll find a great deal on the model you’re looking for. If you find the number of shotgun options on the market confusing, then settle in because this Shotgun 101 is for you.

What is a Shotgun, and Why Isn’t It Just a Rifle

Modern shotguns are smooth-bore weapons that are designed primarily to fire cartridges filled with shot–or small lead balls–of various sizes at fast-moving targets. By saturating the area of the target with projectiles, you don’t need the level of precision aiming or firearms handling skill necessary with single-projectile rifled firearms. They aren’t rifles because there is no rifling–the small twisting grooves from the opening of every James Bond film–inside the barrel.

Guage and Caliber

When buying a shotgun, it’s important to understand the gauge you’re looking for. Bigger cartridges carry heavier shot loads that send more projectiles down range thanks to larger propellant loads. While there are many different gauges, the most common you’ll see when buying a shotgun are:

  • 12 Gauge – These big boys are common in defense shotguns and for hunting. A 2.5” shell will usually carry about ⅞ of an ounce of lead. Longer shells, sometimes referred to as “magnums” are available in 2.75”, 3”, and 3.5” with more power, throwing more lead at the target.
  • 20 Gauge – Popular in hunting and for skeet shooting, these shotguns sacrifice size and power for the lower recoil that lets the shooter stay on target easier when multiple shots are needed in rapid succession, such as skeet shooting or bird hunting. 
  • .410 – The .410 shell is measured in caliber, not gauge. These small shells are most popular for self-defense, especially in weapons chambered for the .410/.45 Long Colt bullet. Their shot load is generally too small to make them the best choice for hunting or sport shooting.

Common Shotgun Types and Actions

You’ll need to decide what type of shotgun you’re looking for before buying a shotgun, as well as the action that best suits your needs. Since the action and type are often linked, we’re going to try to cover both of these together as part of Shotgun 101.

Break-Action Shotguns

break action shotgun showing double barrels

These firearms hinge at the breech end of the barrel, allowing spent shells to be removed and new shotgun shells inserted. They’re available in single and double-barrel models with the two barrels situated either side-by-side or over-under. These shotguns fire a single shot per barrel before reloading, usually by either the action of an exposed hammer or an enclosed firing pin. Many hunters began with single-shot shotguns, and some still choose to test their skills with them even now. Double-barrel guns are popular for sport shooting and hunting, with over-under models offering more precision. Side-by-side shotguns with shorter barrels and double-exposed hammers released by separate triggers are often referred to as “coach guns” due to their traditional old-west popularity.

Pump-Action Shotguns

The most popular action in modern shotguns is the tried-and-true pump action. Underneath the barrel is a magazine tube that holds shotgun shells. A pump grip slides along the magazine tube, and when pulled back toward the shooter, it cycles the action, extracting a spent shell from the chamber, cocking the firing pin, and moving a new shell from the magazine tube to a loading ramp. Returning the pump grip to its forward position loads the shell from the loading ramp into the chamber and locks it closed for safe firing. 

This action is efficient, durable, and practical for almost any shotgun application, whether buying a shotgun for hunting, sport, tactical shooting, or as a defense shotgun. Hunting models frequently have longer barrels, up to 28”, to more accurately direct the shot, while tactical or defensive models often use barrels between 18” and 20” for greater maneuverability.

Semi-Automatic Shotguns

While at first glance, these shotguns look similar to pump-action models, often sharing the same barrel and stock options, the pump grip is replaced by a foregrip that does not move. Much like a semi-automatic rifle or pistol, these guns use the considerable recoil from firing a round to extract the spent shell and load another round from the magazine tube. These guns are extremely popular for hunting, and more and more tactical models for self-defense are being produced.

Lever, Bolt, and More

While those are the three main actions you’ll see when buying a shotgun, as one of the most popular types of firearms in history, there have been plenty of variations made in more exotic combinations of gauges and actions. While not seen as often, you never know what will show up with our huge variety of vendors when your local gun show gets to town.

Man skeet shooting with a shotgun

What’s Your Aim?

Another consideration, whichever action you choose, is the aiming hardware on your shotgun. Just because you’re buying a gun that puts out multiple projectiles that don’t allow for precise placement doesn’t mean accuracy isn’t important. You need to put that cloud of shot right where you want it. 

  • Front Bead – This sight is just what it sounds like: a small bead attached to the top center of the muzzle-end of the barrel. It’s meant for fast target acquisition and intuitive aiming of small shot, such as that used for fowl hunting. Modern versions may replace the traditional brass bead with a fiber-optic front blade that serves the same purpose.
  • Rifle Sights – Some barrels will have rifle-style sights, often either notch and blade or peep and blade. These allow for more precise aiming when using larger shot sizes or slugs. Some shotguns will also accept red dot sights that give both the precision of rifle-type sights and the fast target acquisition speed of a bead sight.

Shooting the Sh– Facts About Shot

Shot size gets smaller as the number goes up. Smaller shot sizes, like No. 12 and No. 8, are meant for birds and critters. Larger shot, such as 000 buckshot, is meant for larger game, like deer. You can also choose slug loads, which fire a single, large lead projectile. Smaller shot is often used with a shotgun choke. This accessory screws into the end of a compatible shotgun barrel and helps control the dispersal of shot as it leaves the gun, keeping it properly concentrated for better saturation of the area your target is flying, running, or otherwise moving through. 

While you may not be buying your ammunition at the same time you’re buying a shotgun, Shotgun 101 is all about making sure you know your options. If you’re planning on bird hunting, taking up skeet shooting, or need a ranch gun for varmint control, a long barrel that can take a choke to control small shot is your best bet. A defense shotgun will most likely need a shorter barrel, and you can skip the choke in favor of running buckshot or slugs.

National Firearms Act (NFA) Shotguns

It’s important to note that some shotguns are regulated by the National Firearms Act. These items require more paperwork, take longer than a standard background check to receive government approval, and require steep fees to buy and own. These include short-barrelled shotguns, defined as a model that is or was fired from the shoulder and has a barrel of less than 18 inches and/or an overall length of less than 26 inches. 

When is a Shotgun Not a Shotgun?

Shotguns, by definition, have smooth bores. If the barrel is rifled, it is either a pistol or a rifle, depending on its length. This is important because short-barreled shotguns are NFA items. You may come across pistols or rifles chambered for .45 Long Colt rounds that will also fire .410 shotgun shells. They may even only have rifling on the last couple of inches of the barrel. Even with the minimal and minimally effective grooves, they are considered pistols or rifles–not shotguns–even if you are using .410 shells.

When is a Short-Barreled Shotgun Not a Short-Barreled Shotgun?

Of special note at the time of writing is the Mossberg 590 Shockwave, which looks a lot like a short-barreled shotgun but is readily available at our shows as well as sporting goods and gun stores across the country. The crafty engineers and white-knuckled lawyers at Mossberg designed the 590 from the ground up, never having released it with a shoulder stock. Since it is not and has never been shoulder-fired, it does fall under stricter NFA regulations.

Start Planning Your Shotgun Buying Visit

Now is the time to research available models and prices to make sure you’re ready to find the best firearms value for your money at your next local gun show. Our vendors and other attendees will be ready to sell or trade with you. Order your tickets online and get there early to find the best deal on your new shotgun at an Eagle Shows gun show.

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