|Me and Sarah Connor in 2010|
Now, I love my shotgun, a Beretta 3901 I call Sarah Connor. When I am on, I can make some pretty badass shots - one will be the subject of my next Scene from the Marsh.
But if I had to do it all over again, would this be the gun I'd buy? Hmmmmmmmm ... probably not.
That painful lack of fidelity to my firearm is the subject of my latest "Butt, Belly, Beak, Bang" column in Shotgun Life. What I want to do here, though, is provide a framework for new hunters like @Ashley_English, who inspired this post with a tweet last month: "Myself & several other ladies want to hunt & all need guns. Suggestions?"
First question: What kind of hunting do you want to do?
Big game: You should probably get a rifle, unless you live or hunt in places where you must hunt with shotguns. (Shotguns have a shorter effective range, which can be a good thing if you're hunting in fairly dense woods; if you hunt wide-open spaces like we have in the West, get a rifle.)
Small game: You should probably get a shotgun, which is good for fast-moving targets like rabbits, though you can also hunt small game with a .22 rifle.
Birds: Definitely get a shotgun.
Yes, experts, I know you can use falcons or archery to get small game and birds, but we're talking about guns here.
I'm going to focus on shotguns, because that's what I use for 99 percent of my hunting, and I haven't had the kind of buyer's remorse with my rifle (Savage .270) as I have with my shotgun. Besides, did you notice that you can use a shotgun for all three types of hunting listed above?
Next question: What kind of shotgun - pump, autoloader or double?
There are a thousand ways to answer this question, but I've come up with a little test that could provide a solid starting point for your decision. Make a score sheet like the one shown here. Answer the questions below it, and put a "1" in the appropriate column(s), as directed. The column with the highest total might just be your true love.
BUDGET: What can you afford? Let's start with the assumption that you want a quality gun, because I strongly recommend that you buy the best gun you can afford. With quality manufacturers, you'll find the pump is the cheapest (<$600), autoloader is in the middle ($1,000-$2,000), and the double gun - over-and-under or side-by-side - is the spendiest (>$2,000). Score one for the price range of your choice/preference. Amounts may vary, but the price hierarchy should hold.
DURABILITY: Are you the kind of person who has wood floors and keeps them unscratched and immaculately polished? Do you waterproof your deck every year? You'll probably do well with a beautiful engraved double gun. Do you constantly leave garden implements in the rain to rust? Get a pump. Somewhere in between? Score one for the autoloader.
PRESTIGE: Do you enjoy the look and feel of things that are classic, traditional and elegant? Double gun. Is power and speed more important? Autoloader. Couldn't give a rat's ass what people think of the gun you're carrying? Pump.
EASE OF CLEANING: Do you secretly enjoy things that are complicated to take apart and clean? Autoloader. Are you more likely to keep your gun clean if it takes very little time to clean it? Score one each for the double gun and pump.
VOLUNTARY LIMITS. Do you like imposing voluntary limits on yourself to keep things challenging? Score one for the double gun, because it fires only two shots before reloading. Do you want to shoot as much as is legally possible? Score one each for the autoloader and the pump, which can legally fire three shots at game before reloading.
SPAZ FACTOR: If you are methodical and take your time, score one each for the double and the auto loader. If you're a spaz who needs to be restrained a bit for your own good, score one for the pump - having to work that pump to chamber a new round can slow you down in a good way.
RECOIL: How big of a deal is recoil? Not worried about it? Score one each for double gun and the pump. Want maximum recoil protection? Score one for the autoloader.
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The reason I devised this test is that if I had asked myself these questions, I would've made a better-informed decision about what type of shotgun to purchase. The key factors for me:
Rough on your gear: I actually take pretty good care of my gear, but I hunt primarily ducks, and that means I'm around a lot of water - not just what I'm hunting in, but what's coming down from the sky. While the autoloader is a popular choice among duck hunters, you've got to take really good care of it after you've been out in stormy conditions. I've always followed Beretta's care instructions with my autoloader, but it never gave me this important piece of advice: After exposing your gun to a lot of water, store it muzzle down with the breach bolt open. I did the opposite, which allowed rust to form in an impossible-to-reach place, causing my gun to jam frequently. (My gunsmith was able to fix it, thankfully.)
Spaz: My buddy Charlie says one of the things he loves about the pump is that he has to manually chamber each round using the pump (my autoloader chambers shells for me). Having to chamber manually slows him down just a bit, giving him time to reset himself a bit if that first shot didn't connect.
Prestige: I'm in the "don't give a rat's ass" column. My gun is a tool, not a status symbol. I feel the same way about my car. (But hey, if you've got the money and love to indulge in really beautiful tools, go for it.)
Considering these factors, as well as price and ease of cleaning, I now wish I'd gotten a pump. But I'm probably going to keep Sarah Connor as long as she keeps killing ducks for me - no reason to throw out a gun that's working.
Final question: What gauge?
12 gauge: Hands down, the 12 gauge is the most popular gauge for duck hunters. It's a big shell that puts a lot of shot in the air, which is a good thing when you're shooting at fast and wily birds.
The downside is that gauge corresponds, to a certain extent, to gun size, so if you're small in stature, you may want a smaller gun so you're lifting less weight every time you shoot. But be aware: The heavier the gun, the less recoil you'll feel, so you do have a price to pay for a lighter gun.
I started with a 20 gauge, and while you can find waterfowl shot for it, and you can kill ducks with it, I'm a lot happier with the 12 gauge. I would advise those interested primarily in duck hunting to go with the 12 gauge if it doesn't feel unbearably heavy.
20 gauge: There is a bit of a prestige factor to shooting ducks with a 20 gauge because it requires you to be a better shot. There are actually some clubs that require hunters to shoot 20 gauge or smaller to improve the odds for the ducks. Yeah, I'm not interested in that.
The 20 gauge is a lot more popular for upland bird hunting, though, and if you're putting in a couple miles of walking, carrying less weight might be really important to you. Personally, I have no problem lugging big ole 12 gauge Sarah Connor on a walking-intensive hunt.
Sub-gauges: 12 and 20 are standard, but there is also the 10 gauge, the 16 gauge, the 28 gauge, and the .410 - the only shotgun measured in caliber instead of gauge. I've shot a .410, but not a 16 or 28, so I have little experience with them. If you're interested in them, though, prepare to pay more for shot, and/or to rely on mail order. You probably won't find ammo for these guns at Walmart.
Keep in mind that what I've devised here is a simplistic guide that doesn't take into account the myriad differences between guns within the type and size categories I've listed. Use this as a starting point to help you consider your priorities, and when you're ready to make your purchase, do the following:
1) Choose a gun store with knowledgeable staff, such as Cabelas, Sportsman's Warehouse, Gander Mountain, Bass Pro and any number of small local stores dedicated to hunters and anglers. If you go to multi-purpose stores like Big 5 or Walmart, you may not get that same depth of knowledge from behind the counter.
2) Discuss your priorities with the person at the gun counter so he or she can tell you about various features within each class of gun. Make sure to tell him or her if you're left-handed or left-eye dominant, which means you might want to shoot left-handed. Most shotguns can be altered for left-handed shooting, but some can't.
3) Try on guns like you try on shoes - check them for fit and comfort. Shoulder them, put your cheek on the stock, put your hands on the grip and fore end, swing the gun across the line of taxidermied animals that likely hang above the gun counter. Some guns will feel better than others when you do this.
If you are right-handed, 5-10 and 185 pounds, you're in luck - you're the person most shotguns are made for. If you're not, you may need to have a gunsmith alter your gun's fit. And if you're tiny, you might want to consider a children's model.
4) If you don't feel the person behind the counter is taking you seriously or interested in helping you make a good decision, walk away and try another store. The purchase of a firearm is a big deal, and you need to be comfortable with it. Besides, anyone who makes you feel stupid or unappreciated does not deserve your money.
Got questions or suggestions? Just leave a comment below.
© Holly A. Heyser 2012