By Chuck Hawks
The single most important thing about any shotgun is that it fit the user. The same is true of rifles, but it is dramatically more important with a shotgun. This is because the buttstock positions the eye in relation to the barrel, and this relationship between the shooter's eye and the barrel is how the shotgun is pointed at the target. There is no rear sight on a shotgun so the stock must position the shooter's eye in the right place, every time the gun is mounted, or a miss will be the result.
The stock also has a lot to do with how the shooter perceives the recoil of the gun, which is considerable with most gauges and loads. The effects of recoil are cumulative, and shooters tend to shoot a shotgun many more times in a day on the practice field that they would a rifle at the range. So again, stock fit is paramount.
I suggest that anyone looking to buy a shotgun do a little research before hitting the gun shops. Use the Shooter's Bible, Gun Digest, or some similar source to make a list of the models that are of interest in the desired price range. Then visit the local gun shops, list in hand, and try the various guns on the list.
Throw them to your shoulder and see if you get the same "sight picture" (view down the barrel) every time. Does the view down the rib look right? (You should see a little bit of rib; if the gun has a mid and front bead, the front bead should appear to sit on top of the mid bead, forming a figure "8.") Does the gun balance properly between the hands? Does it feel dynamic, almost alive, when swung on imaginary birds, or like a length of 2x4? Stock fit and ergonomics are critical, so if a recommended shotgun does not fit you, don't buy it, regardless of how good a deal it seems to be.
Operate the action, switch the safety on and off, and check the trigger. Inspect the fit and polish of the external metal parts, the fit and finish of the action, barrel(s), and the inletting of the stock. Then buy the gun that 1) fits best and 2) shows the best quality and workmanship, or order it if the shop does not have the exact model you want in stock.
The shotguns listed below are field guns, as that is what I am comparing in this article. Most models are available in 12 and 20 gauge, with some models also available in 16 and 28 gauge and .410 bore. Sporting Clays guns are usually similar to field (hunting) guns, and some of those are also included below.
Most of the big shotgun manufacturers also produce specialized field guns for waterfowl, turkey and sometimes deer hunting, as well as competition guns for Skeet and Trap. These are usually based on the same action as their standard field guns.
Competition guns for trap and skeet have become more and more specialized, as a trip to any local gun club will show. Anyone starting out in the clay target sports would probably be well advised to notice what brands and models are popular with the better shooters and try those first. As always, look for the gun that fits best.
Naturally, over the years I have formed opinions about the types, brands and models of shotguns that I like best. I have not used every brand and model of shotgun in the world, and particularly not models seldom seen in the U.S. But at one time I did sell guns for a big gun retailer, and I have been a fairly active recreational shooter most of my life, so I have come into contact with most of the well known models.
I'm not being paid by anyone in or out of the firearms industry to write the things I do, so the recommendations below are mine alone. They are not influenced by advertising money.
Like all shooters I have personal likes and dislikes. It is true, for example, that I favor double-barreled shotguns. My first choice is a good side-by-side, and my second choice is a good over/under. These are the Cadillacs of shotguns and no repeater can match their balance and grace. I am not particularly concerned about whether a gun has a single or double triggers, selective ejectors or plain extractors. I am mainly concerned that it works properly.
On repeaters I prefer a sliding, top tang safety to a button in the trigger guard, but I can live with the latter. Gas operated autoloaders generally kick less than all other shotgun types, which is a strong point in their favor. But pumps are generally more reliable and require less maintainence than autoloaders.
I have grouped my recommendations into categories, which you will find below. These categories are intended to group guns of similar type and general price class. I have listed the guns in each category in alphabetical order. Often there is little to choose in terms of value between the shotguns in a given category. If I don't list a particular shotgun that you cherish, if does not mean that it is no good, it merely means that I find the features of the guns I did list more desirable.
For fun I have included a category for some of "the best" specialty and bespoke shotguns, most of which are from small concerns. Usually the only way to obtain one of these shotguns is to order it direct from the manufacturer, and the waiting list is usually a matter of months or years. Prices run from tens to hundreds of thousands of 2006 U.S. dollars. This list is by no means all inclusive; it only touches on a few of those that claim to build best guns. Some makers offer only best guns, while others also offer lower grade guns; in the latter cases I have specified a "best" model
Remember, it is very important to checkout more than one model before you buy a new shotgun. Examine and handle as many as you can.
"The Best" side-by-side and over-under shotguns (Over $4000, price unlimited)
Arrieta y Cia
Side-by-side shotguns under $4000 (2006 MSRP)
AYA Model 4
Side-by-side shotguns under $3000 (2006 MSRP)
AYA Model 4/53
Side-by-side shotguns under $2500 (2006 MSRP)
H&K Fabarm Classic Lion
Over/Under shotguns under $3500 (2006 MSRP)
Beretta Model 687 Silver Pigeon Sporting
Over/Under shotguns under $2500 (2006 MSRP)
Beretta Model 686, 687
Beretta AL 391
Single barrel break-open shotguns
H&R Topper, Topper Deluxe
Mossberg Model 500 Mariner
Copyright 2004, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.