Monday, December 1, 2008

The How-To Series: Shotguns for women

Note: Three years after writing this post, I'd learned a little bit more about how different kinds of shotguns suit different kinds of personalities. The information here is still valid - I still strongly recommend getting your shotgun fitted - but you might want to also check out my shotgun personality test. Click here to do that.

It's that time of year when I start getting the question from women: I'm going to start duck hunting. What kind of shotgun should I buy?

The answer, unfortunately, is not so simple as, "Buy this model." But there is a relatively simple formula you can use to decide.

First, though, some basics.


There are three common types of shotgun: pump, autoloader and over-under (or side-by-side). Pumps and autoloaders are usually the preferred choice in the duck blind because you get three shots, and sometimes that third shot matters - especially if you're new at shooting.

Autoloaders are more expensive because they contain mechanisms that automatically eject your spent shell and reload the next live one, so you get your three shots off pretty quickly. These moving parts also make them a joy to clean (NOT!). I have an autoloader.

The pump requires you to move a pump to eject and reload - adding slightly to the time taken to get your second and third shots off. That pumping action is what makes the cool click-CLICK sound you hear in the movies when Arnold Schwarzenegger is about to blow away some evil enemy. Pump shotguns can be really affordable.

The over-under or side-by-side is a very simple gun: There are two barrels for the two shots you get to take. You remove the spent shells yourself. Cleaning is a breeze. I know this because Boyfriend has one, and he's done cleaning in a fraction of the time that I am. Very irritating. But he loves his gun for its simplicity (and beauty - it's Italian).


While there are many different sizes, or gauges, of shotguns, the two you see most often are 12 gauge and 20 gauge.

A 12 gauge is a bigger gun. The shotshell has a bigger circumference, so the barrel is also bigger, and the gun is heavier. I know plenty of women who use 12 gauge, but also plenty who use 20 gauge because they like the lighter weight. I use a 20 gauge.

But there are two sacrifices with the smaller gun. One is that you have less shot in the standard 3-inch shell for 20 gauge than for 12 gauge because there's just less room. That means there's less shot flying at the bird. That means you have to be a better shot.

The other sacrifice is selection. When I went to buy some Kent Fasteel for duck season in October, my two local stores had NONE in 20 gauge. When I went to order a case online, I found 26 options for 12 gauge and TWO for 20 gauge.

But I'm still happy with my selection.


Here it is: Fit, fit and fit.

1. Cost fit. Decide what you can afford. I'm one of those people who believes you get what you pay for, so I'll spend on the higher end of what I can afford, which means using the credit card because it's actually more than I can afford. That's my particular failing.

But here's why I think buying the most you can afford is important with guns: A gun is not a toothbrush that you'll discard in six months; it is a tool that, properly cared for, will serve you for the rest of your life, and possibly go on to serve your children as well.

Italian shotguns are generally considered the best, and they have pricetags to match. My Beretta Urika AL391 cost about $1,000. Fancier ones go for $1,500 or more. But I have a friend who swears by his much-more-affordable Remington (American) shotgun.

The upshot? Decide what you're comfortable with. If you're a spend-within-your means person, don't feel compelled to be a spendthrift like me - you'd be miserable.

2. Gun fit. I've followed discussions about women's guns extensively, and from what I can tell, there is no perfect women's shotgun. Why? Shotguns aren't made for women; they're made for the "average man," which means someone who's taller and heavier than we are.

If you're a smaller woman - that is, on the short side, or lightweight - you may want to consider children's guns. But most women I know have chosen adult guns.

So how do you know what fits? Simple: You try them on, just like shoes. When I went to buy a shotgun, I went to the gun counter and said, "Let me look at that one," and I raised the gun to my shoulder and put my cheek on the stock, as if preparing to shoot (aiming the barrel in a safe direction, of course). I handed back the ones that just didn't feel right and kept the others on the counter, narrowing them down until I was left with one: my Beretta. I was in serious female shopping mode. Thank God the guy behind the counter was patient.

I didn't know squat at the time, but when I told my shooting instructor and my gunsmith about my method, they told me it was a good one. To me, it just makes sense. We all have certain brands or models of shoes that work for us (I love Danskos). Even cars fit us differently (I'm way more comfortable in a Toyota than in any other car). Why wouldn't guns be the same?

The trying-on method also helps you rule out something that's not comfortable. Me? I hated the pump shotguns I tried because they just didn't feel good in my hands. And you really don't want to end up with a gun that bothers you, because that irritant will be like a mosquito that buzzes around your head every single time you hunt.

Now, if you're a boyfriend or husband who's reading this because you want to buy a nice surprise for the woman in your life, I've just gone and spoiled your plans. I recommend you give her a "gift certificate" for a shotgun, and then take her shopping, even though that's much less exciting than putting a gun under the tree. If you really want to give her something besides an envelope, buy a cheap toy gun as a proxy and put that under the tree. It'll make her laugh, and put a tangible object in her hands.

Still not convinced? Just ask yourself this: Would you buy her shoes without her trying them on? Most likely not. Nor should you do that for something that's 10 to 20 times as expensive as shoes.

3. Plan for gun fitting. Even if a shotgun feels comfortable off-the-shelf, I strongly recommend that women have guns fitted, which means leaving something in the budget for a trip to the gunsmith. Why? Again, shotguns are made for men, and if you're not 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds or so, the shotgun isn't made for you.

Shotgun shooting is all about making the shotgun an extension of your body. With the butt of the gun against your shoulder, your cheek should fall easily on the stock, positioning your eye to peer out perfectly over the barrel so when you pull the trigger, the shot goes where you're looking.

A fitting often includes shortening the stock so you can reach the trigger more comfortably, and potentially adding a recoil pad. If you shoot left-handed, it means changing the cast (left-right tilt) of the stock, because most shotguns are cast for righties. If you have a long neck and/or high cheekbones (that's me), it also means changing the drop (up-down tilt) of the stock.

My fitting cost $350 and it was worth every penny. I waited more than a year to do it, and I went from missing most of the time to hitting the ducks a lot more often. When I talk to newbies now, I recommend they get their new gun fitted immediately to spare themselves the grief I went through, because it's just so discouraging.

To find a good gunsmith, just go to your local skeet or sporting clays range and ask the folks there who they recommend. Competition shooters in particular will know who's the most trustworthy.

One final recommendation: If you're new to shooting shotguns, do yourself a favor and take a few lessons. If you're missing a lot, you may not be able to figure out what you're doing wrong, but an instructor can spot your problem immediately. My instructor costs $50 an hour, and he's worth every penny. I even go back every once in a while for "tune-ups" to see if I've developed any bad habits.

And a final word: While I'm confident with my recommendations here, I know I don't know everything there is to know about guns. If you have anything you'd like to recommend adding to this post, just email me here. I'm happy to update this with additional information.

Happy shopping!

© Holly A. Heyser 2008


Anonymous said...

Excellent and timely post, Holly! I just hope lots of people pay attention... as what you've said here is not only important for women, but equally applicable for men.

I'll also add that for those who can't afford the $350 tag for a fitting, you can get some basic adjustments done for a lot less. Shortening the stock on Kat's 870 only cost about $75, and made a huge difference in her comfort level with the gun (a proper fit reduces felt recoil) and improved her shooting significantly.

Good stuff, Holly!

Brandon Darnell said...

Fit is one of those things that makes so much of a difference. I never really believed it until I fired a shotgun that didn't fit me, and then fired one that did.

It's something I don't think gun sellers talk about enough, and it applies to rifles and pistols as well, of course.

Holly Heyser said...

Oh yeah! When I get my first rifle, I'm going straight to my gunsmith. Terry Scoville at Women's Hunting Journal was the one who pointed out to me that a pistol grip too far from the trigger can cause you to pull your shot, which is exactly what I did on my first pig.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but Holly... don't forget the number one rule for hunters...

Always leave yourself an excuse.

Holly Heyser said...

Oh, that's why I like hunting with Boyfriend - I just blame him for everything.

Blessed said...

Good tips Holly!

I shoot a Mossberg 500 right now (flat black, all synthetic, pump, 20 gauge) when I'm duck hunting and a Mossberg 410 for squirrels & upland birds - it's pretty, with a wooden stock and a blued barrel and is also a pump. (but talk about hard to find affordable shells for...)

I'm left handed and don't like a trigger safety so I have to stick to models that have a tang safety - normally the Mossberg and the Browning. My next gun will be a Browning, it was just too far out of the budget when we bought my last shotgun! I want a Browning because since I shoot left handed, the shell ejects out across my face as I pump for the next shot and is distracting - the Browning's eject out the bottom of the gun.

Hubby's next shotgun will be a Beretta Semi-Automatic... he drools over them every time we go look at guns!

sportingdays said...

Seems like there are a lot of similarities between fine shotguns and fine wines. Both tastes tend to get more expensive with age and experience.

Anonymous said...


One last thing I learned when buying my new shotgun....if you hold the butt of the gun in the crook of your elbow and can get your finger around the trigger the gun is 'your size.' This helps to indicate if the stock is too long for you, which in my case lead to me tilting my head when lining up the sites. I picked up a LOT of guns before settling on my Benelli M2.


Holly Heyser said...

Oooh, I never heard that! Very cool. Thanks!

Holly Heyser said...

I was contacted by a gunseller who suggested adding to the tip that Chandra shared: If you have small hands, you also need to make sure there's not too much reach from the pistol grip to the trigger. And keep in mind that forearm length is only part of the fit equation - neck length, chest size and facial structure also factor in.

Me personally, I didn't know any of that stuff when I bought my gun, and no one at the gun counter measured any of my body parts. But I'd like to think the "trying-on" process helped me get to some of that instinctively. When I finally had it fitted, my gunsmith said it was pretty close - he didn't have to alter length at all, just the cast and drop.

Anonymous said...

Hey Holly--
In the midst of my 10-day waiting period for my first gun. After I pick it up--our first stop is Dale Tate for a fitting. (Already made an appointment). He sends his best! We'll let you know how it goes.

Jacqueline in San Francisco

Holly Heyser said...

AWESOME!!! And this gives you plenty of time for target practice before the bird seasons begin :-).