Good First Shotguns

By Chuck Hawks

The shotguns that most beginners should consider are the .410 bore (which could be called the 67 gauge, but isn't), 28 gauge, and 20 gauge. The larger 16 and 12 gauge guns are generally heavier and also kick more, two qualities that are best minimized for all beginners.

The .410 is generally the lightest shotgun and kicks the least, but it is also the hardest with which to hit. Because .410 shells contain less shot, the patterns are thin. Most .410 guns have full choke barrels in order to concentrate the available shot, which makes for small patterns at the close ranges where .410's are most effective. For these reasons I am not a fan of the .410 for the adult beginner. I have owned a couple of .410 shotguns, and I tend to think of the .410 as an expert's gun.

However, for the person of small stature or anyone very sensitive to recoil, the .410 may be the best choice. It is a good gun for a youth to learn on, and probably about all a 10-year-old can handle. .410 shells are widely distributed and are available in 2 1/2 inch and 3 inch lengths with a reasonable selection of shot sizes and loads. My Australian friend Tony Santosuosso has more experience with a .410 beginner's gun than I do, and he pretty well covered the topic in his article The .410 Shotgun & A Young Hunter in Australia. So if you think a .410 might be the right gun for you or your child, I suggest you read his article. It is also an interesting insight into hunting in Australia.

The 28 gauge would make an excellent shotgun for practically all beginners, young or old, except for a couple of unfortunate snags that have nothing to do with the gauge itself. On the positive side, 28 gauge guns typically have very light recoil, pattern well, and point like a dream. They are lightweight, easy to handle guns. They are far more effective than their small bore might suggest, patterning more like a 20 gauge than a .410 bore. They are used for clay target (skeet) shooting and upland hunting.

The snags I mentioned are the general lack of availability and high cost of 28 gauge guns and shells. Almost everything else about the 28 gauge is perfect for beginning shooters, but most beginners cannot afford the guns or the shells! Neither, for that matter, can most experienced shooters. It is kind of a vicious circle: because 28 gauge guns and shells are scarce, they are expensive; because they are expensive not many are sold, so they remain scarce.

Guns that are somewhat of an exception to the foregoing are the Browning BPS and Remington 870 pump shotguns, which are available in 28 gauge. (They will usually have to be special ordered, as most dealers don't stock 28 gauge guns.) Browning, Charles Daly, Ruger, and Weatherby O/U field guns are also available in 28 gauge, and while certainly not inexpensive they are more affordable than most 28 gauge doubles.

The selection of shot shells in 28 guage is also quite limited. All 28 gauge shells are 2 3/4 inches long. Winchester, for example, offers a single 28 gauge target load, a skeet load containing 3/4 ounce of #9 shot. Winchester offers only one 28 gauge hunting load. This is a high brass (Maximum) load in their Super-X line containing 1 ounce of #6, #7 1/2, or #8 shot. The standard (low brass) 28 gauge field loads used to contain 3/4 to 15/16 ounce of shot, if you can find such shells today. If you can afford to buy and feed a 28 gauge gun, do so. You won't be sorry.

The 20 gauge is an excellent shotgun for either the beginning or the experienced adult shooter. The guns and ammunition are very widely distributed and come in all price classes. Most shooters can handle a 20 gauge gun from their late teens well into advanced old age. For all of these reasons, a 20 gauge shotgun is my first recommendation for any beginning shooter physically able to handle it.

20 gauge guns come in every style of gun, from inexpensive single shot models to the most elaborate and expensive double guns, with the popular pump and autoloading models priced somewhere in between. It is the latter, the pumps and autoloaders, that make up the bulk of the 20 gauge sales. Harrington & Richardson and New England Firearms make inexpensive break-action, single-shot guns. Browning, Ithaca, Mossberg, Remington, Weatherby, and Winchester make good pump and autoloading guns in 20 gauge.

For those willing to spring for a decent 20 gauge double gun I can recommend the guns from such well-known names as Beretta, Browning, Charles Daly, Ruger, SKB, Weatherby, and Winchester. These are worth considering as either new or used models.

Most 20 gauge guns offer moderate recoil and good performance in a handy, reasonably light weight package. Whatever type and price of gun is selected, make sure the barrel is at least 26" in length. A 28" barrel is probably better for most shooters of average stature. A 30" barrel is too long for a general purpose gun. A 20 gauge gun for the beginner should absolutely not weigh less than 6 pounds and 6.5 to 7 pounds is better for taming recoil. Beware of extremely lightweight 20's, as they can kick like the devil. Fit any beginning shotgun with a recoil pad. A beginner has to shoot a lot of shells to become an experienced shooter, and the effect of recoil is cumulative.

A 6 to 7 pound 20 gauge gun is heavy enough to swing smoothly and light enough to get into action quickly. It is not burdensome for the great majority of shooters to carry. With their modest size barrels and receivers, most 20 gauge guns are well balanced. Svelte 20 gauge guns make the larger and heavier 12 gauge guns seem heavy and awkward. With 7/8 ounce loads the recoil is noticeably less than with the 16 and 12 gauge guns (which shoot at least 1 ounce of shot). 20 gauge guns are very widely distributed and available in all styles and price classes.

There are a wide variety of shot shells available in 20 gauge, making it suitable for everything from skeet shooting to waterfowling. 20 gauge shells come in 2 3/4" and 3" length. The standard light target load is 7/8 ounces of #8 or #9 shot. Hunting loads are available with 7/8, 1, 1 1/8, and 1 1/4 ounces of shot. Beginners should initially stay with the 7/8 ounce loads; these are adequate for all target and most upland hunting purposes, and they kick noticeably less than the heavier loads. 20 gauge shells are available with all shot sizes up to (lead) #2, but #4 is probably the largest practical size, even in the 3" magnum shell containing 1 1/4 ounces of shot. #9, 8, 7 1/2, and 6 are all practical in any 20 gauge shell, with #8 being the most common target load, and #7 1/2 being an excellent choice for most upland game hunting.

There are also buckshot and rifled slug loads available in 20 gauge. These are specialized loads that should be avoided by the beginning shooter.

So, to summarize 20 gauge guns are available in all styles and at all price points, and they are widely distributed. They offer the benefits of good handling, moderate weight, moderate recoil, and relatively inexpensive ammunition. I would estimate that a 20 gauge gun is the best starting point for about 90% of all beginning shotgun shooters over the age of 16. Another advantage is that the majority of experts also own at least one 20 gauge gun, so a decent 20 is not something that will ever be outgrown. What more could a person ask for?

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Copyright 2002, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.