The Best Field Shotgun

By Randy Wakeman

The best field shotgun, for you, is the gun that fits you the best and which you can use most naturally. Not me or your buddy, but you. One size has never fit all, not in clothing and certainly not in a hunting shotgun.

The safety that you did not pay much attention to when breaking clays might be difficult to find when a late-season rooster crashes out of the snow. The long barrel that your friend told you to get can be ponderous when a pheasant hits the air 40 yards away and you've got about one-second to shoulder your gun and put a pattern in the right place.


Gun fit is absolutely a personal matter. It depends on various factors, including your physical build and your shooting style.

It is not just a matter of stock dimensions, for how a gun shoulders and points also is contingent on the hunting conditions and the clothes you are wearing. If you are dove hunting on an 85-degree F day, or in a goose pit at 5-degrees F, you will likely be dressed quite differently. The gun that fit you well on the dove field might be a shouldering nightmare with heavy clothes and gloved hands. This is why specialized waterfowl guns typically have a shorter length of pull than upland guns.


The best gauge is largely a matter of the payload it throws, more than any other factor. However, recoil and gun weight are also factors contingent on gauge that affect your ability to hit with a shotgun. In stark contrast to the "when all else fails, invent a caliber" hyperbole of rifle-land, the modern wing shooter has only a few caliber (gauge) options: 10, 12, 16, 20 and 28 gauges, plus .410 bore.

There are comparatively few ammunition and payload choices in .410 bore, 28 gauge, 16 gauge and 10 gauge. 28 gauge and .410 bore ammunition, in particular, are over-priced for the payloads they throw.

Rightly or wrongly, this leaves 20 gauge and 12 gauge as the two most popular, versatile and affordable hunting gauges. For everything except steel (iron) shot applications, the 20 gauge is generally my choice, although those who claim no one ever made a mistake by getting a 12 gauge are probably right. If you want to spin doves at 50 yards, throwing 1-1/8 oz. out of a 12 gauge is a better tool than 7/8 oz. out of a 20 gauge.


The common shotgun action choices include break-open (used for single-barreled, O/U and SxS guns), pump and autoloading. A few bolt action shotguns are also floating around.

Break-open guns, lacking the long receiver required by repeaters, are generally about four inches shorter than a repeater with the same length barrel. This makes for a more compact, faster swinging gun. On the other hand, repeaters typically offer three shots for hunting, giving them a one shot advantage over SxS and O/U guns.

Autoloaders have a better rate of fire than pumps (it takes a real expert with a pump gun to fire as fast as a semi-automatic) and gas operated autoloaders also attenuate recoil, which is highly desirable if you anticipate shooting magnum shells. A triple on doves is easier with an autoloader, which is my preferred action type.


Single and double barreled break open guns are generally more reliable than repeaters of any type. This is particularly true for hunting shotguns, the focus of this article. A double gun with two triggers is essentially two separate guns built on a common stock and if one lock malfunctions or a chamber is obstructed, the other remains available to finish the day's shooting.

Of the two common types of repeaters, pumps are generally regarded as more reliable than autoloaders. However, the shooter may not be as reliable at cycling a pump action as an autoloading action is at doing what it is designed to do.

The topic of reliability rears its head primarily in relation to autoloaders. Yet, autoloaders have been sufficiently reliable for military and law-enforcement applications since World War One. Problems are most often encountered when using incorrect ammunition (loads that are too light or too heavy), or poorly made ammunition (usually reloads). That is presuming that the firearm is properly manufactured and assembled in the first place, which many are not. Autoloaders are also maintenance intensive; they must be kept clean to work properly. If you tend to be lax about gun cleaning, an autoloader is probably not for you.


Over the years, I have hunted with many different types, brands and models of shotguns. Examples include: Browning Citori 12 gauge O/U, Browning Citori 725 O/U, Browning Cynergy O/U, Beretta 686 / 687 O/U models, Fabarm ELOS 20 gauge O/U, Ithaca M37 pump, Remington 870 pump, Browning B-80 autoloader (including the heavier steel receiver models), Browning Gold autoloader, Browning Silver autoloader, Browning B-2000 autoloader, Browning Automatic-Five autoloader, Beretta 303 autoloader, Beretta 390 autoloader, Beretta 391 autoloader, Benelli Vinci autoloader, Benelli M2 20 gauge autoloader, Mossberg .410 bolt-action, Crescent .410 SxS and many other models.

Shotguns invariably weigh somewhat more than claimed when you use them, for it is loaded weight that you are carrying, not the empty catalog weight. Even though shotguns might weight the same, they can carry vastly differently, based on balance, stock design and the width/depth of carrying surfaces. Although lots of models work, 6.0 to 6.75 pounds (empty) is the sweet spot for me. However, it does not make a lot of sense to waste time debating fractions of an ounce.

Editor's Note:

A quick, informal survey of five Guns and Shooting Online staff members shows that Randy Wakeman, Chuck hawks, Jim Fleck and Bob Fleck favor 20 gauge field guns for most purposes, while Rocky Hays prefers 12 gauge guns. Regarding actions, Chuck Hawks, Rocky Hays, Jim Fleck and Bob Fleck all prefer SxS guns, while Randy Wakeman generally prefers autoloaders. (The late, lamented John Rauzon was an O/U man.) Your results may vary.

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