How to Choose Your First Shotgun

How to Choose Your First Shotgun

By firefield  

A guest post written by Sellmark marketing intern Camille Middleton.

Shotguns are one of the most versatile firearms. You can use them to shoot clay birds, knock geese out of the air and even repel an intruder—maybe without even firing a shot! I grew up shooting shotguns for fun and to this day they are still my favorite gun to shoot. Firearms can become addicting and I’m sure you’ll want more than one, but this is what you need to know when buying your first shotgun.

Deciding on Gauge

Gauge refers to the diameter of the inside of the shotgun’s barrel. If you’re familiar with rifles, you know they are measured in calibers, whereas shotguns are measured in gauges. As the bore diameter gets smaller, the gauge number increases. Although there are numerous other gauges, the two most popular gauges are 12 and 20, and those are the two gauges I suggest for a first shotgun.

The 12-gauge, my personal favorite, has a barrel diameter the size of a dime. You should pick a 12-gauge if you plan to shoot a lot of skeet and trap, hunt turkeys and waterfowl, and are able to handle a heavier gun.

The 20-gauge has an even smaller diameter. If you plan to hunt upland birds, target shoot, or if you want a lighter gun with less recoil, the 20-gauge may better suit your needs. 20-gauge shotguns are best for small-framed shooters and youth just starting out.

Shotgun Actions

The action of a shotgun is the part of the gun that loads, fires, and ejects a shell. There are three main types of actions: pump, semi-automatic and break-action.

A pump-action requires you to pull the forearm back to eject the shell and then push forward to load a new round. Pump (or slide) actions are very reliable and quite reasonably priced. They also are able to withstand the worst waterfowl hunting conditions.

A semi-automatic fires once with each pull of the trigger. The two different types of semi-auto guns are gas- and inertia-operated. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses so it’s up to the buyer as to what they want. For gas-operated guns, the main benefit is the wide range of shotgun shells able to be fired reliably. Gas guns also are softer to shoot—they typically distribute recoil better. One downside to gas guns is their long-term reliability. The build-up of carbon residue from burning powder in the mechanisms of gas guns can cause the firearm to fail if it is not properly cleaned. Inertia-powered shotguns use recoil to complete the loading cycle. The nice thing about inertia-driven firearms is that they are generally lighter and easier to disassemble and clean.  The downside to inertia driven guns is that they have more recoil and anything that gets into the gun will build up in the stock-spring mechanism, causing the spring and bolt to move slower.

Break-Action shotguns open and load at the breech (where the barrel meets the stock.) They can be single- or double-barreled (side-by-side or over/under.) Break-action guns are a great option for novice shooters because it is very obvious when the gun is loaded. These shotguns are incredibly reliable and are often used to hunt upland birds and shoot skeet. They may be a great option for entry-level hunters but they are usually pretty costly.


Arguably one of the most important features to take into account when purchasing your first shotgun is fit. If the firearm is not comfortable when you shoulder it, you will not be able to shoot accurately. The stock of the gun needs to fit well so it doesn’t tangle in your jacket as you bring it up and not so short that it hits you in the face during recoil. When the gun is mounted properly, there should be around two finger-widths between the knuckle on your thumb and your nose. When the comb (where you rest your cheek) is the right fit for you, you should see a tiny amount of the rib, bead at the end of the rib, and the muzzle.

The barrel’s length affects weight and balance. If you want a home-defense gun, choose a short barrel (18.5 to 24 inches.)  Choose an average-length barrel (26 to 28 inches) for an all-around gun. Long barrels (30 to 32 inches) are best for clay target shooting.

Shotguns normally weigh between 6 and 10 pounds. Generally speaking, the heavier the gun, the less it kicks. If you plan to hunt upland birds or turkeys, where you walk quite a bit, it may be best to pick a lighter gun (7 pounds and under.) If you plan to hunt waterfowl or shoot targets, a heavier gun (7.5 to 8 pounds) will help absorb recoil and make for a smoother swing.


Shotguns come in a wide variety of styles. The stock can be made from wood or synthetic. Wooden stocks arguably have more of a classic look and feel, but they are generally more expensive and weigh more. On the other hand, synthetic stocks are more efficient, lower cost, require less upkeep, and are lighter.

My First Shotgun

The Beretta A300 Outlander was ultimately what I decided on for my first shotgun. I was looking for a good all-around gun—one that I could use to shoot clay pigeons, upland birds, waterfowl and turkey. I have always favored a 12-gauge. I grew up shooting my grandfather’s pump-action and my dad’s over/under, both with wooden stocks. I always enjoyed shooting those guns but after a long day walking in the field hunting pheasants my arms would fatigue and I became less accurate. I have had several operations on my shoulder so I started to look for lightweight shotguns that would fit me better. Although I love the look and feel of wooden stocks, they are heavier than synthetic so I stuck with the latter. I decided to go with a semi-automatic action because I wanted to be able to shoot more than two rounds when bird hunting. After I decided on semi-auto, I researched the differences between gas-powered and inertia-driven guns. I narrowed it down between the gas-operated Beretta A300 and the inertia-driven Benelli Super Black Eagle III. Ultimately it came down to the price difference. The Benelli SBE3 was double the price of the Beretta. The Beretta was a great first shotgun for me because it is reliable, versatile, affordable, light-weight and fits me perfectly.

Not a first-time buyer? What was your first shotgun? Share your first firearm stories with us in the comment section.

About the Author

Hey y’all! My name is Camille and I was born and raised in Wisconsin. I’m currently a senior psychology major at TCU. After graduation, I plan to pursue a career in the outdoors industry. I grew up hunting, shooting, and fishing whenever I could with my dad and grandpa. Any time I’m not working or studying you can find me in the woods hunting or on a boat fishing.

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