What Is the Best Type of Shotgun for Me?

By Randy Wakeman

This is a subject I've wanted to touch upon for some time in a concise manner. A debt of gratitude is due Brister, Brindle, Zutz, and fellow scattergun scholars for offering their view of the various nuances between the various action types. I have my personal favorites, but that does not prohibit me from using many different shotguns and understanding why all have their own cache of devotees.

Often, you'll hear the notion of "reliability" discussed, usually for marketing purposes more than anything else. All types of modern shotguns have the potential for sufficient reliability under normal hunting conditions, as long as they are properly maintained. All shotguns have wearing parts: springs, pins, bushings, and so forth. To insure complete reliability requires reasonable periodic inspection and repair. Given that, all shotgun types have equal reliability in a tangible sense when used within their design specifications, always assuming that the original product was properly machined, assembled, and inspected.

The Pump Action

Remington Model 870
Remington Model 870. Illustration courtesy of Remington Arms Co.

The pump guns is described as a uniquely American phenomenon, referred to with snobbish disdain by a few people that are disdainfully snobby. Yet, the game getting ability of the pump action is beyond dispute.

We have, over the years, decided that pump guns should be cheap guns for whatever reason. However, there are several automatics that are not substantially more expensive to produce. All guns can be supplied with plastic parts and crate-wood stocks. It seems that the pump action has been the victim of this more than other action types (except for the bolt action and the beginners' break-open single shotguns with which we are not concerned here). Consumers always decide what the future product offerings will be, and all too often we tend to ignore the only thing of value left after the end of the shooting day: the firearm itself.

If we elect to avoid repeating shotguns, it means the long way around the skeet field and a long day at the dove field as well. After getting accustomed to pump actions, operating the gun becomes second nature. Fast enough is fast enough, and most pumps tend to partially work themselves, ejecting shells by themselves after fire as the action unlocks. Offering a single sighting plane, a quality pump has all the field practicality one needs.

While the sun has set on some of the great pumps of times past (Winchester Model 12, Remington Model 31, Ithaca Model 37), two pump guns remain that are what I consider supremely well-designed: the Browning BPS with bottom ejection, and the side ejection Remington 870. Both are great guns, offering you a chance at that third dove, and with minimal care they are lifetime guns.

The Semi-Auto Action

Remington Model 1100 Sporting 20
Remington Model 1100. Illustration courtesy of Remington Arms Co.

Perhaps the most recognizable of them all, the Browning A-5 is out of production. Considered legendary by its ardent supporters, that would be a bit premature in my view. To be a legend or on a postage stamp one generally needs to be dead and my A-5's are anything but.

Nevertheless, the gas operated action subdues recoil like no other, and the notion of gas action guns being "unreliable" has long been put to rest. Major Garand, Mikhail Kalashnikov and Eugene Stoner would all have a chuckle at the strange notion that gas-operated weapons have less utility than fixed breech designs.

The best semi-auto shotguns available today, in my opinion, are the Browning Golds and Beretta 390-391 series. The great thing about gas guns is their ability to dramatically reduce felt recoil. If we start to flinch, we might as well go home. Felt recoil improves nothing and no action reduces it better than a gas-operated semi-auto.

The Over / Under

Citori Lightning Grade I
Browning Citori. Illustration courtesy of Browning Arms.

Once considered a horrid aberration compare to the fine British double guns, the O/U today has become somewhat of a status symbol, at least for those seeking status. Most shooters have embraced the single sighting plane, and though it took a very long time for general acceptance (John Browning's Superposed took decades to gain traction) the O/U is the fashionable shotgun of today.

Break-open action guns, particularly the O/U, can be a pant load in the duck blind or close quarters and like all fixed breech guns the recoil comes straight back without attenuation. But, the O/U's quiet operation (mechanically) is of great appeal, some of the most aesthetically pleasing presentations of wood and engraving are found on O/U models, and in some cases the best factory triggers. The click-click of an Over / Under versus the (what some consider obnoxious) scratching and scraping operation of pumps and semi-autos holds appear for many. The stack barrel array of the O/U has a slimmer feel than many people appreciate.

Good O/U products are offered by Browning, Kamen, Kreighoff, Beretta and from the various Rizzini family variations. For the very best, a fine Boss, Holland & Holland, Purdy, FAMARS, Perazzi, or Fabbri O/U simply cannot be beat.

The Side-by-Side

Winchester Model 21
Model 21 shotgun. Illustration courtesy of Connecticut Shotgun Mfg. Co.

Few of us today can afford a "London Best Quality" double, but their appeal is easy to see. A great deal of experience and effort goes into the notion of the "game gun," the balance and feel between the hands, and the general liveliness of the firearm being the end result. Light and lively and recoil must coexist, but for upland game use the British (and Spanish, Italians and others that have adopted the British game gun ideal) have been clever enough to use loads that compliment their equipment. One ounce loads at moderate velocities allow the 12 and 16 gauge game gun to shine with out self-inflicted pain and similar 7/8 ounce loads in 20 gauge will also suffice. The best available data we have shows that an increase in payload above these levels does not equal a commensurate increase in lethality.

Many American doubles, it turns out, were not so great after all, but rather overly bulky compared to the British game gun. The lively game gun requires minimum thickness barrel walls and narrow actions. The precise hand fitting, barrel regulation, and labor intensive individual manufacture of the game gun makes it expensive to produce, but all the more sought after by those can feel the difference.

Some of the best side-by-side guns ever made are now being produced in the U.K. (Purdy, Holland & Holland, Boss, Wilkes, Evans, McKay Brown, Dickson, et al), Italy (FAMARS, Fabbri, Piotti), Spain (Arrizabalaga, Grulla, Arrieta, Garbi, AyA), Germany (Merkel, Sauer & Sohn, Kreighoff) and, yes, the U.S. (A.H. Fox, Model 21). There are articles about a number of such "best guns" on Guns and Shooting Online, and more to come.


It is unfortunate reality that shotguns are offered to us on a "by request" basis. We, as a group, have told gun manufacturers that we make cost-based decisions, not performance based decisions. For that reason, we have been given exactly what we have demanded and voted for with our dollars. We, as a community, have demanded price first and quality second. "Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it" is an old saying, and that defines what we have today a bit too often for my delicate sensibilities.

A shotgun is more than a hammer or a tent stake, at least it can and should be. It is a combination of fit, feel, confidence, and pride. At least it can be, if that is what we seek.

All four of the actions have their own set of intrinsic appeals. If you are type of person that would rather have four on the floor than an automatic tranny, a nice pump gets you more involved with the function of your gun than other action types. Personal gun fit and feel cannot be over emphasized, so grab the Browning BPS or Remington 870 that fits you best. (Both have been reviewed on Guns and Shooting Online, as well as the utilitarian Mossberg pump guns.) I'm excited, to say the least, that Browning is offering a run of BPS guns in 16 gauge this year; that's just what my pump doctor ordered. A review is forthcoming on Guns and Shooting Online.

I like soft-shooting guns, and there is no doubt that gas autos are the easy choice when ammo used in counted, not in number of boxes per day, but cases. Browning, Remington and Beretta have enough configurations to satisfy most anyone. Browning, Remington, Beretta, H&R, and Benelli autoloaders have all been reviewed on Guns and Shooting Online. A Beretta Urika 2 is still being awaited; expect a full review shortly.

Browning and Savage O/U models have been reviewed, and for the bang for the buck crowd a new Savage Gold Wing will be reviewed here when they become available. DeHaan shotguns have been impressive for the price as well, as evidenced by my pleasurable experience with Mark DeHaan's 16 gauge U2 Over / Under. A Ruger Red Label O/U review is also scheduled.

A number of side-by-side shotguns have been covered on Guns and Shooting Online. These include standard guns such as the Fox Model B, Charles Daly 500, CZ Ringneck, Hatfield/CZ Bobwhite, Winchester Model 24, Ruger Gold Label and best guns like the Winchester Model 21, Grulla 216RL, and Parker DHE.

Updated DeHaan S2 Side-By-Sides are due in shortly, and a review of the DeHaan S2 in 20 gauge will appear here as well. A fine Merkel 47E should arrive for review soon and late Fall 2007 should bring us a Remington Premier Upland Special.

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Copyright 2007, 2016 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.