Shotgun Common Sense

By Randy Wakeman

You might think that, as common as common sense is supposed to be, everyone by now would essentially agree on the basics of wing shooting, clay smashing and shotguns. However, many of the most common questions I receive are unanswerable, or a matter of personal preference. In an effort to address several of the most common questions, I will go down the list.

The Best Barrel Length

Barrel length from what, and how many barrels? The barrel of an autoloader is attached to a longer receiver than the barrel of a break-open gun. On average, the shooter's face is about four inches farther from the muzzle of a pump or autoloader than from a break-open gun (single shot, side-by-side or over/under). In determining gun balance, barrel weight is just as important as length to feel and swing dynamics.

Shorter barrels of the same weight per inch and on the same action type are faster. Fast handling is good, particularly for flushing birds, close range work, or when the gun is carried low in the field. Shouldering and swinging in the field cannot be easily compared to a short target mount (as in sporting clays), or a pre-mounted target mount (as in trap or skeet).

Barrel length alone does not determine gun weight, balance, or total shotgun dynamics, it is the entire firearm combined with your individual body. The only straight fact about a barrel length preference is that it is a preference, little else.

Muzzle Flip

Muzzle flip, or the lack thereof, is often touted as an advantage. Though muzzle rise is used as a singular thing in ad copy, it is not a stand alone event. It is a function of several factors, including the shape of the stock, the height of the bore over the stock's contact patch against the shooter's shoulder, the weight of the gun and the intensity of the load (magnums kick the most). Long, heavy shotguns with a low bore line shooting light target loads have little muzzle rise or recoil.

It is only with heavier loads and lighter guns that muzzle flip becomes worth talking about. With a soft, easily deformed recoil pad there is less muzzle rise. However, there is more rearward gun movement. That can be equally or more annoying if the stock is scraping your face or it feels like you are shooting a pogo stick. It is a trade-off, again a personal preference. The goal is rapid shot recovery time and a fast second target acquisition.


We like to avoid the facts when it comes to recoil and some manufacturers prefer that we avoid them, as well. Heavy guns of the same action type have less recoil.

The only common action type that significantly attenuates recoil is the gas-operated autoloader. As recoil is a product of mass and velocity out of the muzzle, the gas piston system of an autoloader also creates recoil based on mass in velocity, in the opposite direction. When you pull the trigger on a gas-operated autoloader, you are firing a gas piston assembly right back at yourself: reverse recoil.

For anyone with a functional human shoulder, quickly becomes obvious that a 7-3/4 pound Mossberg 930, a conventional gas-operated autoloader, has less recoil than any substantially lighter gun. For example, the approximately 6-1/2 pound Browning A5 Hunter or Benelli Ethos. Both are brutal kickers, by comparison. This is totally unsurprising.

A 7-3/4 pound gun may not be a whole lot of fun to carry when chasing pheasants and the Mossberg 930 may not be your version of shotgun style and elegance (it isn't mine, either). However, the fact that the Mossberg 930 is mild-mannered and pleasant to shoot compared to 6-1/2 pound 12 gauge guns is as close the best available version of the truth as can be had.


If you pay for junk, that is what you get. By nature, more expensive guns have fewer potential buyers. It costs just as much to advertise and distribute a low volume sales item as it does a large market item. Those costs need to be paid for by a smaller number of gun sales, raising the price. Shotgun shells don't care what they are fired out of, clay targets and game birds don't care what brand of anything whacks them, and neither range fees or hunting license and travel feels change based on what model or brand of shotgun you are using.

However, this hardly means that upscale guns should be avoided, for the total cost of ownership may be less. For example, upscale guns generally hold their value better than economy models.

The Gauge Story

Pellets don't care what type of tube you blow them out of. Patterns are formed from payload weight more than any other factor. You are not going to get more pellets in a pattern than came out of the muzzle. High-efficiency patterns come from quality shells and quality chokes, regardless of gauge. Harder, more spherical shot is beneficial, regardless of gauge. You can throw a one ounce load out of a 28 gauge, 20 gauge, 16 gauge or 12 gauge and it is still a one ounce load, with the same pellet count.

Pattern efficiency is not directly related to gauge, but to shell and choke combination. However, it is true that a larger gauge sun shooting the same shot charge has a shorter shot column than a smaller gauge gun, which--all other factors being equal--generally results in a somewhat higher pellet count on target.

There is a limit, based on shot shell case capacity. If condemned to shoot soft iron (steel) shot shells, you have a severe limitation in payload and smaller gauge guns may not be suitable for your hunting requirements. A 3-1/2 inch 12 gauge or 10 gauge shell has more room into which to cram low-density shot.

Larger gauges have their drawbacks, as well. These include barrel bulk, receiver bulk, weight and all factors related to size. Shotgun manufacturers have struggled to get 12 gauges to the 6-1/2 pound mark, with allegedly slim lines, slim forearms and so forth. Yet, 6-1/2 pound 20 gauge guns have been commonplace for the last 60 years, without undue cost, bulk, or other compromises.

Chokes and Patterns

The same pattern can be better or worse, depending on the application. Breaking skeet targets at 20 yards with huger numbers of #9 shot requires no constriction (cylinder bore). Some prefer reverse constriction, as a matter of fact. Yet, you don't want a cylinder bore to kill pheasants dead in the air rooster at 45 yards, to spin doves at 50 yards, or to vaporize a turkey head at 50 yards. It isn't just choke selection, it isn't just shell selection, it is both, regardless of application or gauge.


When it comes to shotguns, there are no clinical, clean answers. There are very few rights or wrongs; everything is a compromise in some way. It isn't about what is right, it is about what works best for you in your own unique conditions and circumstances.

Shotguns touted as versatile are often anything but. Being able to shoot a wide variety of loads is of dismal comfort if the gun carries, handles, or shoulders poorly.

However, this is the journey, the challenge, the sport of it all. Not to absolutely decide anything, but to discover what is the most enjoyable, effective, pleasurable combination (or combinations) for yourself.

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Copyright 2014 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.