Choosing a Shotgun for Bird Hunting and Clay Target Shooting by Randy Rowley


Hardly a month goes by that I don’t receive an inquiry from a friend (or sometimes a stranger) regarding what type, brand, gauge, etc. shotgun should he purchase. In order to help the inquirer make the best decision I ask him several questions. Note that most of the available guns section for each action hasn’t been updated since 8/16/10.


I first thing that I try to determine how much the caller is willing to spend. The answer to this question basically defines the types of actions available to the shooter. A man who has set a limit of $400.00 practically eliminates most new over/unders and semi-automatics (semi-autos). He’ll either have to buy a new pump or a used/cheaply made over/under or semi-auto if he wants something better than a pump. Shooters should be warned that, just as with cars, there are some real lemons out there in the used gun market. An experienced friend who can diagnose potential gun problems is worth his weight in gold on gun shopping trips.

Intended Use

I next try to determine the intended use of the gun. The shotgun deer/hog hunter, clay target shooter, waterfowl hunter, upland bird hunter, turkey hunter, and home defender have different needs. The deer/hog hunter needs a gun that has a rifled barrel for shooting slugs, has iron sights and/or a scope, and has the capability for rapid follow up shots. Weight and recoil are usually not considerations due to the small amount of shells fired during a typical outing. The clay target shooter needs a gun that is well balanced, has light recoil, and shoots consistent patterns. The gun must also be capable of firing several hundred rounds without malfunctioning. The waterfowl hunter needs a gun that will reach out a long way and can handle adverse weather. This translates to a longer chamber that will handle longer shells and a weatherproofed finish. The upland bird hunter needs a gun that he can carry for hours and that can handle lots of light loads. The turkey hunter needs a gun with a short barrel (because he’ll be hunting in tight places), a magnum chamber, and with fiber optic front and rear sights or a red dot/scope. The man interested in a shotgun for home defense must consider dependability, magazine capacity, and length.

I’ll often inquire what shotgun loads the inquirer usually shoots during his preferred activity/activities. Gas/piston-operated semi-autos are also finicky with light game and target loads (e.g., 1 ounce loads for 12 gauges). This is especially true for guns that are chambered for both 2 3/4″ and 3″ shells. The light loads often are not powerful enough to eject the spent shell. Many gas/piston-operated semi-autos will fail to eject or have a hang up, on occasion. However, one jam in 25 shells should be regarded as a problem.

Frequency of Use

I’ll next try to determine how often the caller plans to hunt or shoot. The man who only goes on two dove hunts a year does not need as quality a gun as the man who shoots every weekend. Recoil, weight, length, and action are also much more important matters for the frequent shooter.

Duration of Hunts/Shoots

I next try to determine the average length of time that the caller spends in the field or at the range. A man who hunts at a dove lease in Pflugerville after work for a couple of hours will not be as bothered by weight as a man who spends the entire day walking fields for quail. A larger gauge always means a heavier gun. Although a heavier gun usually has the benefit of lighter recoil it has the drawback of increased fatigue to the shooter. Fatigue translates to slower reflexes and missed shots. Larger gauge shells also add considerable weight to the shooters load and thus increase fatigue.

Sensitivity to Recoil

I’ll next try to determine if the caller is sensitive to recoil. This factor is closely linked to frequency of shooting and time spent afield. However, it is a vital question in its own right. The handling of recoil is closely linked to accuracy. A simple gauge for knowing that you are experiencing too much recoil is how your shooting shoulder feels after a couple boxes of shells. If your shoulder hurts when you bring the gun to your shoulder (before you have fired) then you are shooting too much gun, shell, or both. A man bothered by recoil will think twice about taking a follow up shot and can easily develop a flinch that is devastating to technique and accuracy. Shooters should take advantage of modern technology. Just because Granddad shot a double barrel with a butt plate does not mean that you have to (Granddad also walked ten miles to school, barefoot, in the snow).

Our machoistic society has frequently promoted the idea that bigger is better (and more macho). Some view it as not macho to shoot a 20 gauge. The 20, although not as versatile as the 12, will serve most shooters just as well for dove-sized game and clay targets. However, there are numerous ways to cut down on recoil other than choosing a smaller gauge including recoil pads, padded vests and shields, and lighter loads. More expensive methods for reducing recoil include back-bored barrels, ported barrels, shock-absorbing combs, mercury recoil reducers, air cushioned stocks, and hydraulic-piston stocks.

Other Users

I’ll next try to determine if anyone else will be using the gun. A 200 pound man usually can easily handle the recoil of a 12 gauge pump. However, it is doubtful that his 125 pound wife would be thrilled to shoot “Old Betsy.” If this scenario exists, a compromise is in order (or separate guns).

Frequency of Cleaning

Lastly, I try to determine how often the caller plans to clean his shotgun. A man who cleans his gun only twice a year will need a low maintenance gun. Experienced shooters know that gas/piston-operated semi-autos require frequent cleaning to prevent jamming. If your gas/piston-operated semi-auto is jamming check your gun for dirt and grime and excess oil (which attracts the dirt and grime) before changing your brand of shells. I do not recommend gas/piston-operated semi-autos to shooters who rarely clean their guns.

As you can gather by these questions there are multiple factors in choosing a shotgun. It used to be that you had to have a different gun for dove, geese, turkeys, deer/hogs, and clays. Now we are blessed with guns that are multirole. However, if you can afford to have more than one gun it would still be wise to do so. Ideally a hunter should own a light gun with a 2 3/4″ chamber and a 24 or 26 inch barrel for upland birds, turkeys, and home defense, a standard weight gun with a 3″ chamber and a 28 inch barrel for dove, deer/hogs, and clay targets, and a heavier gun with a 3 1/2″ chamber and a 30 or 32 inch barrel for waterfowl. If owning two or three guns in not feasible then a compromise is a standard weight gun with a 3″ chamber and a 28 inch barrel. It will need to be able to handle light loads for clays, dove, and quail and heavy loads for deer/hogs, waterfowl, pheasants, turkeys, and home defense. The only thing that these jack-of-all-trades guns can’t do well is to shoot rifled slugs. For that you need a shotgun with a fully rifled barrel. Hunters in Texas, however, would be much better off with a deer/hog rifle. They’re much more accurate than a slug gun and shoot much further.

Taking all of these factors into consideration, I recommend the below shotguns that are presently available on the web and at gun shops for birds and clays.  To not make this article longer, I’ll not include home defense shotguns and deer/hog shotguns with rifled barrels.

Semi-Autos (best for hunting)

Gas/piston-operated semi-autos spread the felt recoil over a longer time than other types of shotguns. The recoil is thus more of a push that a jolt.  The con on them is they have to be cleaned frequently.  The hot gases that operate the piston, magazine tube, and bolt will junk up the pistons, resulting in failures to eject or failures to feed, if not cleaned frequently or adequately cleaned.  Some gas/piston operated semi-autos don’t handle lighter loads well, and this can vary among the same make/model gun.  For example, my son, Ryan, and I both bought Browning Gold Hunters.  His wouldn’t feed 1 ounce game loads, while mine had no problem with them.  We cleaned and oiled them the same and other than his having prettier wood, they were the same gun.

Inertia/recoil-operated semi-autos don’t have pistons to junk up.  Instead, they feature a inertia recoil operation (spring style); therefore, they don’t have to be cleaned nearly as often as their gas/piston-operated competitors.  They have a reputation for being able to shoot hundreds of shells between cleanings.  The con on them is, as they don’t have a piston to spread the recoil out over a longer period of time, they kick harder than gas/piston operated semi-autos.  If you’re just going to shoot two boxes of target loads at a skeet range you might not notice the difference, but it you shoot two boxes of goose loads on a hunt you will.

Semi-autos and pumps are the safest shotguns for hunting.  A hunter can easily reload with his muzzle pointed skyward by dropping a shell into the ejection port, pushing the button to close the bolt, and stuffing two shells into the magazine.  Practiced hunters can do that without ever having to take their eyes off the sky.

Benelli M2 Field/Montefeltro/Super Black Eagle II. These Italian made guns, owned by Beretta Holdings, start at around $850.00. They feature inertia recoil operation and a rotating bolt and they have a reputation for durability and flawless operation. They are less finicky than their gas/piston-operated competitors. The M2 Field/Montefeltro handle up to 3″ shells. The Super Black Eagle (SBE) handles up to 3 1/2″ shells. The SBEs have Criotech (frozen) barrels that deliver tight consistent patterns and have a Comfortech system with a gel recoil pad and recoil-absorbing chevrons in the stock.

Beretta AL391 Urika/Xtrema. These Italian made guns can be found starting at around $775.00. Italy is the Mecca for shotguns. Many Italian firms, such as Beretta, have been making guns for 400 + years! The Urika handles up to 3″ shells. The Xtrema handles up to 3 1/2″ shells. It is basically the same gun as the Urika. The Xtrema was given the Golden Bullseye award (shotgun of the year) by the American Rifleman in 2003. The innovative design of the gas-compensating valve allows for flawless functioning with all types of ammunition. This system vents excess gases to eliminate stress on the operating system and component parts when using heavy loads and, thus, extends the life of the shotgun. They have an annoying feature where to get a shell to pop out of the magazine you have to push a little button at the back of the magazine loading port, near the trigger guard (pulling back on the bolt will not chamber a round from the magazine). This eliminates the need for a magazine cut off switch. It also make this a poor choice for a home defense gun as you would either have to leave it fully loaded or be trying to find the little magazine release button in the dark.

Browning Maxus/Gold/Silver and Winchester Super X4 and X3. These guns can be bought starting at around $875.00 for the Browning and $775.00 for the Winchester. They both have self-compensating gas systems and back-bored barrels. Browning’s are made in Belgium and assembled in Portugal. The Maxus and Gold have a speed loading feature (simply insert a shell in the magazine with the chamber open and the gun automatically cycles the action) and a magazine cut off switch (for the 3 1/2″ and Euro versions). The Silver’s don’t have this feature. Winchester barrels are made in America, the rest of the guns are made in Belgium and assembled in Portugal.  The SX3 has a higher ventilated rib. Other than that there is no significant difference between these guns. I bought a Gold in 2006 and loved it, but it’s blue steel and fancy wood didn’t do well on the Texas coast, so I sold it and bought a Winchester SX4 that is camo dipped.

Fabarm H38/368/Red Lion. These Italian made guns can be bought starting at around $725.00. They have back-bored barrels and are very light due to an alloy receiver. I have owned their Red Lion version since 2001 and it has only jammed on Winchester 1 ounce super speed loads (a lot of guns don’t like those loads). Light guns generally kick more but the Fabarm breaks the rule due to its back bored barrel. The only knocks on the H368 are the bolt release is on the left side of the receiver and you have to press the bolt release to load a shell into the magazine, it is capable of only holding three shells, and Fabarm presently does not have an importer.

Franchi I12/712/612/AL48. These Italian made guns, also owned by Beretta Holdings and imported by Benelli, start at around $775.00. The I12 uses the Benelli bolt and has an inertia system. The AL48 is also recoil operated and is very light due to an alloy receiver. The AL48 comes in 20 gauge only. Franchi’s are a good value. You’ll get a gun almost as good as a Benelli Montefeltro for a couple hundred less.

Remington V3, Versamax,11-87/11-96. These popular guns start at around $650.00. They are built on the model 1100 action, which has stood the test of time for over 30 years. They are the easiest guns to load but they’re among the heaviest and the most finicky. I owned one for about three years. It didn’t like one ounce loads or my reloads at all and if the outside of the magazine tube got dirty it would start to jam. There are, however, several FCS members who swear by them. I got one for My wife, Chris, in 20 gauge around 2004 and it has performed much better than the one that I had. You have to press the bolt release to load a shell into the magazine.

Weatherby SA-08/SAS. The SA-08 is made in Turkey and the SAS is made in Italy. They start at $750.00 and have a self compensating gas operating system. Their only knock is you have to press the bolt release to load a shell into the magazine.

Most of these guns come with 3″ chambers (they also shoot 2 3/4″ shells) but some are chambered for 3 1/2″ shells (they also shoots 3″ and 2 3/4″ shells). The AL48 which is only chambered for 2 3/4″ shells. They all have choke tubes, ventilated ribs, and recoil pads as standard equipment. They are all gas operated (except for the Benelli’s and Franchi’s, which are inertia-operated). The main differences in their prices are due to more expensive wood, bluing, engraving, etc.

Pumps (second best for hunting)

Pumps don’t have a gas/piston system that sends some of the escaping gas from a fired shell to operate the bolt and chamber another round; therefore, they are more reliable than gas/piston-operated semi-autos.  But, as they aren’t gas/piston-operated they kick more than gas/piston-operated semi-auto’s.  Not having that piston is a major reason that they’re cheaper than semi-autos.

Pumps and semi-autos, as previously stated, are also the safest shotguns for hunting.  A hunter can easily reload with his muzzle pointed skyward by dropping a shell into the ejection port, sliding the fore end closed, and stuffing two shells into the magazine.  Practiced hunters can do that without ever having to take their eyes off the sky.

Benelli Nova. These Italian made guns start at only $375.00. They feature dual-action bars.

Browning BPS. These Japanese made guns start at around $450.00. They are bottom ejectors (they eject out of the bottom at the magazine loading port).

Fabarm Field. These Italian made guns start at around $350.00.

Ithaca 37. These American made guns start at around $400.00. They are bottom ejectors. Ithaca went out of business for awhile but they have been reacquired.

Remington 870. These American made guns start at around $250.00. They have been around since 1950!

Weatherby PA-08 . These Turkish made guns start at around $300.00.

Winchester 1200. These American made guns (that have been discontinued) start at around $300.00.

All six of these guns come with 3” chambers, choke tubes, ventilated ribs, and recoil pads as standard equipment.

Over/Unders (best for clay target shooting)

Like pumps, Over/Unders don’t have a gas/piston system that sends some of the escaping gas from a fired shell to operate the bolt and chamber another round; therefore, they kick more than semi-autos, but are much more reliable than they are as they don’t have a piston to junk up.  They also, obviously, don’t have the shell capacity that semi-autos and pumps have.  What makes them superior clay target guns is, as they have two barrels, each barrel can have a different choke.  So, if you have a close in fast crosser and a long range crosser, you can opt for an open choke for the close bird and a tighter choke for the farther away bird.  A semi-autos or pump shooter, as they only have one barrel, will have to choose between the open and tighter choke.  Over/Unders also tend to be better balanced and; therefore, swing better.

But the fact that they hold 33% less shells than plugged, and even more than unplugged, semi-autos and pumps puts them in third place for field guns.  They are also not as safe to reload, as at least during part of the reload process the hunter will not have his Over/Under pointed skyward.

Beretta Onyx Pro/White Onyx/S686 Blackwing/S686 Whitewing. These Italian made guns start at around $1050. The Blackwing has a boxlock action and a Schnabel fore-end. A special water-resistant X-Tra Wood stock is available.

Browning Citori. These Japanese made guns can be found starting at around $1300. Browning features back-bored barrels. The bore diameter has been increased to its maximum allowable specification. This reduces the friction of the shot charge against the barrel wall which helps produce fewer deformed shot pellets and delivers more pellets in the effective part of the pattern (in short it produces better patterns). It also results in softer recoil. They have hammer ejectors that are fired by a sharp hammer blow. This strike gives more positive ejection than the push imparted on competitors’ ejectors.

Fabarm Axis/Silver Lion. These Italian made guns start at around $1175.00. They have back-bored ported barrels and Schnabel fore-ends. Fabarm presently does not have an importer.

Franchi Renaissance. These Italian made guns start at around $1100. This gun has an alloy receiver and weighs only 6.2 pounds (two pounds lighter than the Browning Citori). It has a recoil pad with a gel insert that absorbs over 40% of felt recoil.

Remington Premier Field/332. These American made guns retail starting at around $1250.00. The Model 332 is based on a modified box lock action of underlock design.

Ruger Red Label. These American made guns start at around $1075.00. They are back-bored.

Weatherby Orion D’Italia. Weatherby shotguns are now made in Italy by Fausti. Their starting price is around $1025.00.

Winchester Supreme Select Field/Select Energy/Select 101. These guns are made in Belgium and are very similar to the Browning Citori (they are both made by the Herstal Group, which also owns FN). The Supreme Select Field (which have been discontinued) start at only around $950.00! Their auto ejectors have dual, tapered locking lugs designed to independently adjust for wear. Their 3″ chambers are chrome plated to ensure durability and long life.

All of these guns have 3″ chambers (they also shoot 2 3/4″ shells), auto ejectors, single selective triggers, choke tubes, and ventilated ribs as standard equipment. Most of them come with recoil pads. They all fell great, fit great, are well balanced, and handle great. The main differences in them are the more expensive ones have better wood, bluing, engraving, fit, etc.

It is commonly believed that three or more shell capacity shotguns are better for fair shots and beginners (due to their capability for rapid follow up shots); however, semi-autos and pumps have a tendency to teach fair shots and beginners that game can be killed through the volume of shots fired rather than skill. It is often a better idea for a fair shot or beginner to start with an inexpensive over/under.

Other Actions

Over the course of my life I have owned two side by sides. The operative word is “owned.” I never could get used to the sight picture, therefore, I do not recommend them. Beretta, Fabarm, Franchi, Ruger, and Weatherby make fine side by sides.

I also do not recommend single shots or bolt actions for wingshooting due to their slow rate of reload.

Fit and Feel

The key ingredients for shotguns, because they are handled so much, are fit and feel. How the gun fits you and how it feels in your hands and when you mount it on your shoulder are the key considerations. The best made gun in the world is worthless if it doesn’t fit you and feel right because you won’t have confidence in it.

Barrel Length

I prefer 28 inch long barrels. I used to prefer 26 inch long barrels but am now convinced that 28 inch long barrels help me with continuing my swing and following through. You can swing faster with shorter barrels and they’re about two ounces lighter than standard (26 or 28 inch) barrels but the better swing that the longer barrels provide outweighs weight and speed issues.


I also prefer either 12 gauges. 16 gauge shells are hard to find and more costly (the law of supply and demand). The 20 gauge is marginal for ducks, deer/hogs, and home defense. It’s really not powerful enough for turkeys and geese. The 28 gauge and .410 are for experts only. Their shells are hard to find also and more costly, especially the 28 gauge. The 10 gauge should only be used for geese, turkey, or deer/hogs. It is a specialty gauge and is very heavy. 10 gauge shells are also very expensive, heavy, and are available only in goose loads, turkey loads, buckshot, and rifled slugs. Besides you can get almost 10 gauge power by using a 12 gauge chambered for 3 1/2″ shells.

Choosing a shotgun is a complex and difficult decision. The potential buyer, in addition to asking himself the aforementioned questions, would do well to talk to men who own or have owned the shotgun(s) that he is considering. FCS members who have the mind of Christ will allow people who are contemplating buying a shotgun to join them at a range for a field test. I will be happy to further discuss your own particular scenario with you.

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