So, You Want a New Shotgun?
A common series of questions crossing the Guns and Shooting Online desk are "What is a good shotgun," "What shotgun should I buy," "Is it worth it" and so forth. (Most of these questions have been addressed in previous G&S Online articles--see the "Selecting and Buying Shotguns" heading on the Shotgun Information Page. -Ed.) Like any other series of vagaries, it is not easy to give suggestions without a great deal more information. In this article, I will try to list some of the important considerations.
There is no question that the twelve bore is the most popular gauge; nothing else is even close. That does not mean that is it the best for you and your purposes; it just means that if you elect to go with a 12 gauge you have more selection of product from which to choose. Not just in guns, but also in ammunition.
Year after year, new models that are hoped to become best sellers are introduced in 12 gauge. Some remain that way, regardless of their following. Recently, the most heavily promoted shotguns include the Remington 887, Benelli Vinci and Browning Maxus, all 12 gauge only product.
None of them may be the best choice, or even a good choice, for your needs. Nevertheless, they are choices restricted to 12 gauge offerings at the present time. If you are a casual shooter and want a shotgun that does a little bit of everything, a 12 gauge is never a bad way to go. That said, from a practical perspective, there is scant little that a 1-1/8 ounce payload cannot do and whether it comes out of a 12 gauge, 20 gauge or 16 gauge is not a game-changer.
The answer turns on whether a cost-based purchase or a performance-based purchase is being made, or (in other words) what you are willing to pay for a shotgun. The amount of use your gun is going to get plays a large role in considering cost of the shotgun. For extremely active hunters and shooters, the price of a shotgun may be inconsequential. Licenses, tags, travel, food, lodging, range fees, quide fees and ammunitions costs may overwhelm to cost of the shotgun.
If a few boxes of shells a year is your intended shooting level, the cost of a shotgun may be significant. At a case of shells a week, ammo alone can run $4000 or more a year and we haven’t factored in any range fees, snacks and beverages, or gasoline. With only the gun itself retaining much value at the end of the year, two thousand dollars for a shotgun purchase is considerably less than the total annual cost of the shooting sport. That is the reason that active shooters might consider a $3000 - $5000 shotgun the best value for them; it very well could be.
For a basic “meat gun” type of repeating shotgun that reliably goes bang, nothing is as affordable as a pump-action. The Remington 870, Benelli Nova, Browning BPS and Mossberg 500 and variants all exemplify this type of no-nonsense slide-action scattergun.
Break-open, double barreled guns come in Over/Under and Side-by-Side form and have advantages, but price is definitely not one of them. They are essentially two guns built on a single frame and cost at least twice as much as a deluxe repeater. However, they are the fastest of all guns to get off a second shot and the shooter can choose between two different chokes for the first shot. Their short overall length (compared to repeaters with the same length barrel) centers the gun's weight between the hands and makes for better balance, faster handling and more convenient carry. Short overall length also easies operation in tight spaces and merely opening the gun renders it completely and visibly safe. Double guns can be cased broken-down for storage and travel. They are ideal for reloaders, since spent shell cases can be conveniently removed by hand from the open breech, rather than ejected haphazardly onto the ground as from a repeater.
In a discussion with the erudite Chuck Hawks a while back, Chuck (who is a double gun fan) commented that he did not see much reason for a hunter to own a semi-automatic shotgun beyond recoil reduction and price. Well, Chuck is essentially right for many applications. However, recoil and shooting comfort is a very big deal. Shotgun recoil can exceed that of most other shoulder-fired arms. A Fiocchi Golden Pheasant Load can easily exceed 36 ft. lbs. of recoil energy and a pheasant load is far from the harshest shell you can fire from a 12 gauge. For comparison, this level of shoulder abuse is more than double what you'd find in many .270 Win. and .30-06 rifles. Rarely would most .30-06 hunters go through hundreds of rounds of ammo in a single session. For clays shooters, dove hunters and so forth, making a pile of empty hulls is not unusual.
The recoil equation gets even worse: while an instant second or third shot from a .30-06 is rarely a necessity, quickly swinging over to take that second pheasant, clay, or dove is common. To the extent that recoil recovery time impairs subsequent target acquisition with a shotgun, it really is a big deal. That’s why gas operated autoloading shotguns are desirable for so many people.
Trying to Narrow the Field
This necessarily means giving impressions of what shotguns have impressed me over the years on their merits. The advertising departments of most manufacturers of brand name shotguns are guilty of profusely expelling of horse manure. That is why reasoned consumers should recognize the hype for what it is—vaporware. Too often we hear that “so and so swears by it,” and that this gun has “never let me down in fifty years.” Swearing by something is a meaningless assessment and mere possession of a firearm sitting in a gun case for decades is equally meaningless.
There is a psychological need to defend what you happen to own, of course. This is of no value to the new purchaser, who wants to know what is right for him, and could not care less about who is swearing by what.
The ad bluster tells us that the age of the company is supposed to mean something; apparently, some people accept this. An obvious example is “Beretta: 500 Years, One Passion.” Ahem. The fact of the matter is that Beretta is a comparative newbie in O/U and autoloading shotguns. The “500 year” stuff is a bit silly when you realize that while Beretta indeed built barrels for Napoleon’s Army, Beretta never made a pistol until the 1900s, the Beretta 92 wasn’t designed until 1972 and Beretta had little sporting shotgun presence until the 1980s. Beretta is not the only entity guilty of inventing their resume: Winchester hasn’t made a gun in many decades; Remington today has nothing to do with DuPont, much less Eliphalet Remington who passed back in 1861. Browning has nothing to do with John Browning or his family today; the organization is Herstal Group. What matters is price, performance, quality and value being manufactured today, not lore and fables.
Finally, Some Recommendations
No single article can attempt to say what is right or best for the individual, of course. What can be suggested, though, is what current product is worthy of your consideration and let the savvy shopper go from there. So, with that, here are a few scatterguns that I think are worth looking at.
The short-list includes Browning, Benelli, Ithaca, Mossberg and Remington. To characterize any of these as “good” or “bad” doesn’t tell the story; there are satisfied users of all of them. To the credit of the Browning BPS, it has never been offered in any rough, economy, or semi-finished versions. Of currently offered product, the most recent versions of the Ithaca Model 37 are the best-built, best finished pumps on the market. They aren’t the absolute cheapest, though, so if you are emphasizing low price over top quality, there are a lot of options.
Browning BPS slide-actions are very uniform in quality and that’s a good thing. The current models are nicely finished, but generally lack engraving, often lack recoil pads and have fairly heavy triggers. These are the three areas in which the Ithaca Model 37’s are clearly ahead. However, I have yet to test a sub-standard BPS and Browning actually has a customer service department, notable since so many firearm companies do not.
Not much can be said about the Remington 870 that hasn’t already been written. I have been disappointed with the fit and finish of the recent blued and walnut versions and have always had to hold my nose a bit at the economy “Express” version. The 870 is tried and true, if not as true in the area of quality control in recent years.
One of the few new slide-actions to appear in recent years that has gained any traction is the Benelli Nova. Tough, durable, ugly, and plasticy is the way a lot of folks view the Nova. It is a gun that works, though, and has been successful enough for Remington to attempt to recapture some of the market share they have lost with their new plastic-covered NitroMag 887. If you think you need to shoot 3-1/2 inch shells, these models are an option, although the Browning BPS also is available with a 3-1/2 in. chamber length, as is the Mossberg 835 that started it all.
For general purposes, I would have a rough time getting something other than an Ithaca Model 37 or a Browning BPS. They are worthy of anyone’s serious consideration and are what I would call “good shotguns.”
The Browning Silver / Gold / Maxus and Winchester SX-2 / SX-3 shotguns are soft-shooting, one of the main reasons to go autoloader. The Beretta 391, 3901 / 390 shotguns have the potential to be good. Beretta has no customer service that we can find, so you might be happy with a 391 12 gauge, or completely disgusted, as I was with its 20 gauge sibling. The Browning genre and Beretta genre gas guns are generally “good guns.” The high-recoil Benelli shotguns and the Remington 1100 are viable choices as well, but at this juncture the most desirable models remain Brownings and Berettas.
I have yet to find a good, cheap O/U shotgun. Most go bang, but if that is the level of shotgun you want—I’d suggest avoiding O/U shotguns altogether. When Browning Arms launched the Superposed, it was relentlessly promoted as the “Aristocrat of Shotguns.” I can’t think of anything worse than a cheap O/U, unless it is a cheap Side-by-Side.
Browning Citori’s are well proven and the general standard of comparison in O/U guns. The Ruger Red Label has been around for many years, yet remains a real sleeper in this category. Upscale a bit in finish and wood to metal fit, the Caesar Guerini O/U shotguns are worth anyone’s serious attention. Those are three to put on the short list, in any case.
The comments about O/U guns apply equally to SxS models. A good double gun is never cheap, or even inexpensive. Merkle's least expensive model, for example, retails for about $4,400 USD in 2009. The best values in doubles today seem to be coming out of Germany (especially Merkel) and Spain (AyA, Grulla and Arietta). Double guns from English makers such as Boss, Purdy and Holland & Holland remain the absolute top of the shotgun heap in both price and prestige.
I have not attempted to make any blanket statements or dictate what is right for everyone. That is far beyond the scope of a modest overview article like this one. I can, however, sum up the categories quickly. If you want simple, reliable and affordable, get a pump gun. If you want soft-shooting, go gas autoloader. If you want upscale style and handling, consider an O/U, but only one with a good reputation for uniform build quality, barrel regulation, well-matched triggers and residual value. If you are looking for the ultimate in the latter areas, as well as classic appeal, Chuck Hawks suggests looking for a good side-by-side double gun. As for what makes the most spent hulls for Randy, it hasn't changed for the last forty years--it is still semi-autos.
Better yet, get one of each.
Copyright 2009 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.