Sunday, February 5, 2012

How to choose a shotgun for hunting

Me and Sarah Connor in 2010
One of the hard things about taking up hunting with with few role models in your life is that you have to make a really important purchasing decision  - buying your gun - with almost no frame of reference.

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.

* * *

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.

Last advice

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


Hil said...

So just out of curiosity, if the 3901 isn't the gun you'd pick today, what IS?

I am totally with you on the "buy the best gun you can" group. The $400-$800 autos out there might be great, but I'd just rather not taking the chance. Give me a Browning. I would recommend a 12-gauge to everyone. It will do everything. These people who tell me "you know that gun really isn't suited for quail hunting" crack me up. I KNOW my 12-gauge Maxus isn't the perfect quail gun, but heck, it's what I've got, and it kills 'em pretty dead.

I can honestly not imagine being new to guns and having to just go to the store and pick one to spend that kind of money on. It's such a big commitment and if you're not already knowledgable about guns, I don't know where you'd even start. Good column, Holly.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Why couldn't you have written this *before* I bought my gun? I would have been much better prepared when I went to buy it.

Matching personal characteristics to gun types is genius, and confirms that a pump was indeed the best choice for me. But I made a gauge error, I think. If I'm going to have only one gun, a 12-gauge is a better all-around choice. I got the 20.

I'm going to put in a good word here for Bass Pro Shops. We bought my gun (and a fair amount of other stuff) at the store in Foxborough, and we found their staff to be very knowledgeable and equally patient. Other stores might be different, but we've had excellent experiences at ours.

ASLEvans said...

Great advice! I'd add a few other points:

2) I'm right handed, left-eye dominant, and shoot "right-handed" long guns lefty. It's worth trying to see if it works for you...I haven't had any problems with shells ejecting into my face nor have I had issues with manipulation. And it's been a lot easier and cheaper to find guns that work for me.

3) If you can, actually try to shoot a few choices before you buy. I've been able to try all sorts of beautiful (and not-so-beautiful) guns just by asking nicely at the local range. It can be a good way to find out how recoil actually changes between different guns. And while you're there, bring a salt shaker and ask lots of questions. I've gotten much better advice from some of the more experienced shooters at the range than any stores I've been at. We're friendly and don't bite, just ask :)

In the end, I screwed up a bit on my first shotgun choice, although it was a good gun overall...just not what I needed for what I do because I was too scared of the 12ga. I've been much happier since I switched over to 12ga and added left-handed shims to my right-handed semiauto to shift the recoil a little.

Holly Heyser said...

Hil, I don't know that I have a specific model in mind, but I'd get a pump, and it would be a top brand.

Hank has a Benelli Super Nova, and he got that one instead of the Nova because the Nova stock couldn't be adjusted, and he shoots left-handed.

I need to be able to adjust the stock even more, not just for left-handed shooting, but for my stupid long neck. That means it would have to have either a wood stock that Dale Tate (my gunsmith) could work with, or be a model for which adjustable-comb stocks are available. Wood is pretty, but one thing I like about synthetic is not worrying about what water and oil will do to the stock.

I'm with you on the cheap guns. My double - a gun I won at a duck dinner and keep in my safe as a loaner - is a cheap Turkish over-and-under. The trigger is ridiculously stiff, and the workmanship where wood meets metal just doesn't hold a candle to a nice Italian double.

Tamar, I know. I wish I'd written this before I got my first shotgun!

It's clear to me that a lot of women are making the gauge error because a lot of people recommend 20 gauges for us because we're the smaller gender. It's well-meaning, albeit not the best, advice. In reality, if you can heft a 12 gauge, I think you should go for it.

Holly Heyser said...

And ASLEvans:

Me too - cross-dominant. I shoot everything left-handed, and for anyone who hasn't done much or any shooting, it's best to just go with your dominant eye - your hands won't know the difference.

And TOTALLY agreed on shooting other guns if you can.

Hil said...

Few things irritate me more than when I show up on a hunt, someone sees my gun and says "hey, I've got a 20-gauge you can borrow if that 12 is too much for you." It doesn't help that they usually call me "hon" or "sweetie" in the process. Bless their hearts.

Kevin said...

I have used a Browning 12-guage pump for a little over ten years and have gotten so comfortable with it that I can shoot almost as fast as an auto(just sayin).
Although, after seeing the Girl Hunter advert I REALLY want an over-and-under. <---still talking about guns, seriously.

Josh said...

A very thorough take on buying something expensive; nice!

I will defend some of the cheaper guns here, though. Mossberg makes a great pump gun, American made, and still reasonably priced. It is a tough gun that can shoot just as well as other pump guns for half the price. My Turkish double has a fine wood-to-metal finish, and is a 20 gauge built on a 20 gauge receiver - 6.4 lbs. - and it was under $600. Believe me, any misses that are made are my fault, not its fault; it'll take a right-to-left crossing, rising pheasant in the right hands. My Winchester Ranger 30-30 and Savage 110E are two of the best guns ever made, and when I bought them, they were both under $300 (at el Gran Cinco). Sure, the Savage looks like it is mounted on a broom handle, but it is a tack driving .270. Nobody makes a better .270 than Savage. And the Winchester? Simply the most beautiful mass-produced long gun ever crafted, and 1/2" groups at 100 yds.

You also left out the single-shots. Most folks start out with singles for the price, the weight, the ability to learn good form and be rewarded for it with good shots, and to learn when to take the right shot. H&R and Rossi both make nice single shots in the $120-$250 price range, with interchangeable barrels for different hunting situations. Rossi even sells them in package deals - 1 .22 barrel, 1 20 gauge barrel, and one .243. My single-shot 20 gauge was a rabbit and squirrel taking machine. Next week, I'm buying a 28 gauge adapter for it and handing it down to my nephew. Really, the only people who need extra shots are waterfowl and quail hunters - and probably not even quail hunters, really.

Of course, the more money you put into a gun, the nicer it will tend to be. However, one can easily get into hunting as a sport for under $500, enjoy it greatly, and work up to different guns in time.

Holly Heyser said...

Hil: Oooooouch! I'm so glad no one has ever said that to me, though I did get a hilariously awful comment from a guy on the last weekend of the season. But I'm saving it for a future Scene from the Marsh.

Kevin: I don't doubt you!

Re OUs, I appreciate the artistry and outward simplicity, but I just can't get into them, no matter how cool it looks having the broken gun over your shoulder.

Holly Heyser said...

And Josh, I left out single shots because I'm assuming that people who want to start hunting don't want to handicap themselves too much. I know a single shot is great for teaching discipline, but I would NEVER take one into the marsh - you need the ability to fire a second shot quickly if you have a cripple that's about to get away.

Brian said...

I agree about the gauge thing. Its a misnomer that a 20 is better 'for girls'. Measurable recoil is a function of gun weight, projectile weight, velocity (IOW momentum) and muzzle pressure. The nice thing with a 12 is the wide variety of low recoil 7/8 and 1 oz loads. A 3" 20 out of a sub 6lbs gun is not going to be pleasant. Of course gun fit is key in how that is experienced.

We get lots of opportunities up here at huge Canada's and the amount of appropriate 20ga offerings in slim. Unless you can decoy them in really close its a poor choice IMO. I still covert a nice Spanish 16ga double game- gun...but it wouldnt see water use and abuse like my pump does.

I like beginners to use break open guns or pumps, at least until they become 'unconsciously competant' with muzzle control and overall safety.

Holly Heyser said...

Totally agreed on the geese. I mean, you can still hit and kill a bird with a 20 gauge, but you don't fit much large shot in a 20 gauge shell. I can't even remember seeing 20 gauge BB shot.

Josh said...

Holly, there is more to a single shot than just learning discipline. I agree that most folks want more than one shot when hunting the marsh (though I don't believe it is usually the case that it improves their percentages - in fact, it probably lowers them); however, shooting a cripple can happen almost as quickly with a single as with any other gun. Most often, a cripple is down after everybody has "unloaded" anyway. People chasing cripples are often running and loading whatever gun they have.

In general, a single shot is almost never a handicap, and it may lead to fewer mistaken shots ('beware the one with the single shot, she never fires a warning shot!'). And the people I've run into who hunt with single shots have all been meat hunters out there to get something to eat. That, in and of itself, attests to its efficiency to me.

For folks who haven't hunted with a single-shot, I highly recommend it, if even for the comparative experience.

Josh said...

And for the record, one of the best goose hunters I know shoots a single shot 10 gauge. He has no problem taking it into the marsh.

Rachel P said...

I have a Benelli Montefeltro 20 gauge auto with a youth stock. I love, love it. It is very light and fits my 5 foot tall stature perfectly. Shooting clays there is hardly any recoil. That said, it's not a great duck hunting gun. First, it's way too nice to really be out in the brush and water. Second, i am thinking a 12 gauge would actually result in me getting some birds. Third, when I use the larger shells for duck hunting if my feet aren't accurately planted the recoil can knock me on my ass. Fourth, I wasn't able to purchase the ammo I wanted because it isn't made in 20 gauge.
I want to get a 12 gauge pump, which is amazingly hard to find with a youth stock. The guns stores laugh and say "12 gauge and youth stock don't go together". I am told that I can buy an adult sized gun and cut it down. The problem with being so small is that you can't "throw up" a regular sized shotgun and see if it feels right. Unless they have a youth stock available in the store, you're really left guessing.
I soooo wish you could also "try out" guns before you buy them. The shooting range here in town has some for rent (handguns, not shotguns) but none that I'm interested in.

sportingdays said...

Great post and discussion. I would only add that you can expect your tastes in shotguns or hunting guns to change with age and experience as with other things in life. I think that's OK -- and it's certainly good for the gun manufacturers.

I did most of my early waterfowl hunting with autoloaders, but have now switched to an O/U for a variety of reasons, both performance-related and aesthetics.

First, like Charlie, I found myself shooting too fast with autoloaders, unloading three shots quickly and having the birds still in range with an empty gun in my hands. Choosing an O/U forced me to slow down and make those two shots count and my success has gone up.

You also shoot fewer shells with an O/U -- unloading two shots vs. three at a flock of ducks, saving some money and reducing the exhausting trips to the parking lot in CA wildlife refuges where the shell limit in the field is 25.

Finally, I've been turned off by the increasing militarization of hunting guns, particularly autoloaders with the black and camo coatings.

I believe in the wingshooting philosophy that a beautiful bird should be killed by a beautiful gun and retrieved by a beautiful dog.

Holly Heyser said...

Sportingdays, excellent point about your tastes changing - mine sure have, and it's been only six seasons.

Love the line about fewer shells. Personally, I'll often stop at one shot, but if I think I've hit the bird, I will empty the gun to try to bring it down. I've found the third shot rarely drops a bird, but it does come in handy to anchor one that's down, but not out.

And ... sniff sniff ... you don't like my black Sarah Connor??? LOL, I won't take offense because I won it at a dinner.

I also can't take offense in your aesthetic - if that is important to you, then you absolutely should live it. It's just not important to me.

Rachel, I had no idea youth 12 gauge pumps were so hard to come by. As for your Benelli being too nice? I say, "for whom?" Do you care if it gets scratched and chipped? To me, that just gives it history and makes it yours.

Josh, that hasn't been my experience with cripples, but to each his own. I'm just trying to help new hunters whose goal is to be successful. I don't always need the third shot, and it's often a wasted shot when I do take it. But I have gotten many, many, many ducks with the second shot, and I don't foresee ever wanting to sacrifice it.

Josh said...

It's a valiant goal, to want to help new hunters be successful; that's why you left out singles, and why I mentioned them. But you are right; to each her own.

Peebs said...

Nova has a youth version in 12 and 20 ga

Holly Heyser said...

Rachel, get thee to a gun shop! Nova can't be switched for left-handed shooting - just the Super Nova - but if I remember correctly, you don't shoot lefty...

(Thanks, Peebs.)

RachelP said...

You won't even believe this but the youth stock for a Super Nova is longer than that of my Montefeltro, making it still too long. The gun shop advised me that it would be a bad idea to cut down that stock due to the internal recoil system.

Rachel P said...

Correction... *Nova* not the Super Nova.

Holly Heyser said...

I think the Super Nova has the same issue.

I've lucked into an opportunity to (maybe) review some shotguns, and when I do, I'll keep in mind your needs and see if I can find something that would work for you.

Terry Scoville said...

I would buy another Beretta 20 ga. S686 Special like the one I've been using successfully for almost 35 years now. It is an over under and I am a big believer in keep it simple. Even with the advances in auto loaders and pumps I still choose an O/U every time. Also it's important to test shoot several varieties of shotguns all "field use" and not skeet or sporting clay guns. They are a different animal than the "field" guns. If you are going to hunt birds get a field gun not the others.
The next is fit and 2 very critical aspects here to successful shooting: first is LOP or lenght of pull and second being the sight plane which is how you come to meet the gunstock with your cheek. This has to due with the drop at heel, comb and casting of the stock as to if you have a good fit and ultimately a good sight plane. The old adage of spending more doesn't equate in this instance to a more successful hunter if the gun doesn't fit well to begin with.

Phillip said...

For what it's worth, and that may be very little...

I hunted solely with a 20ga pump gun for most of the first decade of my hunting career/life,but not until I cut my teeth the hard way. Like my dad and his brothers, and their dad, and probably his dad too, I learned with a single shot gun. It kicked like a donkey with roid-rage with bird shot... and there's no socially acceptable description of its behavior with high brass loads.

And that was the 20 gauge. Later in life, I had the opportunity to play with a 12ga and a 10ga single, and they made that old HR Topper seem like a .22.

This is the reason I never recommend a single-shot for new shotgunners. Besides teaching discipline, these guns do very little or nothing for the newbie except instill a serious flinch.

The flip side of this is that I will never recommend a semi-auto. I know that some modern guns are almost "perfect", but I know from my own experience that nothing will spoil a hunt worse than your high-end semi-auto turning into a high-end single shot when the birds are flying (or when the deer are running).

Pump guns, in my opinion, are the perfect, middle-of-the-road gun for new hunters. Recoil is definitely worse then a gas-operated, semi-auto, but I think that most people can adapt to a reasonable amount of recoil (better than we give them credit for). The price difference between a pump and a semi, or a decent double is enough to make most reasonable people take notice too.

Once you learn to shoot, and get comfortable with recoil and handling... then is the time to consider options like the single-shot or double. Personally, I think carrying a double into the field or marsh is a real treat. But it's an acquired taste that should come from experience rather than fashion.

Just some random, wine-infused thoughts. I really need to go hunting.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I did get a chance to read it before my first gun purchase. A pump action 12 gauge was already my first choice and you helped confirm my preference. I'll get a riffled barrel for Massachusetts deer season and a smoothbore barrel with a few different chokes for everything else.

Old Gunkie in Wyoming said...

It may be a bit late to chime in here but I'd like to recommend Stephen Bodio's book Good Guns Again published in 1994 by Wilderness Press. I ran across a copy shortly after I first took up hunting. Aside from good practical knowledge, Steve manages to pass on an aesthetic appreciation of firearms that the tyro may not find elsewhere. I think his book is a great introduction to firearms for the person seriously considering taking up hunting. The book is out of print but there are used copies available on Amazon for reasonable prices.

Holly Heyser said...

Never too late to chime in on a post like this! I didn't know about that book, but I shouldn't be surprised - every time I turn around I'm finding another book by Bodio.

harada57 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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