Shotguns: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.

Those famous words were spoken by Wesley (Cary Elwes) in The Princess Bride in response to Vizzini’s convoluted arguments.  I feel the same about anyone who can understand all of the intricacies of firearms.  I have already written about some of my adventures into the realm of handguns, but this did nothing to prepare me for the dizzying variety in the world of shotguns.  Shotguns have infinitely more variety than handguns

This little article will describe some of the choices and options to consider when purchasing a shotgun.  (Please keep in mind that I have not yet had the opportunity to take a shotgun class, so much the information here will most likely need to be updated afterward.)

As always, the first question to be asked of any gun purchase is the gun’s intended purpose.  With shotguns, the basic purposes boil down to recreational shooting such as traps and clay birds, hunting birds and small game, hunting larger game (such as deer), and self defense, especially home defense.  If you are on a tight budget you will probably want one shotgun that can serve multiple roles.  This can be accomplished because most shotguns allow multiple barrels that, in combination with different types of ammunition, can be configured for different roles.

The shotgun I am buying is first for self/home defense, and second for hunting/sporting (two things I do not do that often).  The key things to consider when purchasing the shotgun are the action, the gauge, and the barrel.

The Action

The action refers to the type of shotgun.  The basic (most common) three actions are break-action, pump, and autoloading.  The break-action has a pivot between the chamber and the barrel.  The action “breaks” or pivots open and the shells are loaded into the barrel.  This is the traditional shotgun and comes in two basic varieties.  Single barrel, and double barrel.  Double barrels may be side by side or over-under, which describes the placement of the two barrels.  These shotguns are very simple, very durable, and the barrel can be changed out for different purposes.  They have been around for hundreds of years and vary from extremly inexpensive to very expensive.

The second type of shotgun is the pump-action shotgun.  This is the iconic police shotgun from just about every movie featuring a policeman.  Pump shotguns offer the advantage of quicker follow up shots when compared to break-action shotguns but are more complicated and can be more expensive.  The shotgun shells are typically loaded into a magazine tube mounted below the barrel.  The user loads a new round by sliding (pumping) the action.

The third type of shotgun is the autoloading (or semiautomatic) shotgun.  These shotguns use the recoil of the shotgun to load the next round.  These offer the quickest followup shots but are the most complicated and most prone to mechanical failure. 

Generally speaking, the pump action is preferred for self defense purposes, due to it combination of quick follow up shots and rugged, reliable action.  Of course reading any internet forum will bring a myriad arguments in favor of all three.  So which did I go with?  The pump action.

The Gauge

The gauge refers to the size of the round the shogun will accommodate. Gauge is typically measured as a fraction, so 12 gauge is actually larger than 20 gauge (1/12 > 1/20).  The most common gauge by far is the 12 followed by the 20, with the oddly named .410 recently gaining in popularity.  (The .410 is measured in inches and would be equivalent to 67 gauge.)   Other relatively common gauges include the 10 and 28 (probably best known for being the gauge former vice president Dick Cheney used to shoot a hunting partner by accident).

Shogtun shells are verstaile creatures, able to accommodate, birdshot, buckshot, slugs, and specialty rounds such as flechettes (tiny darts) or tear gas cannisters.  For civilians, the first three are the most common ammunition.  The size of the gauge determines how much shot or what size slug can be used.  The trade off is the amount of shot vs the kick or recoil of the gun.  Shotguns are notorious for their kick, and new users are often steered to the smaller gauges because of their lighter recoil.

Randy Cain (my gun guru of choice from reputation, accessibility, and experience) maintains that this is a mistake.  There is more 12 gauge ammunition available than any other choice, and if recoil is an issue, low-recoil 12 gauge shells have less recoil than traditional 20 gauge rounds.  Anne Langlois also offers that loading a 20 gauge magazine is more difficult than a 12.

So what did I go with?  12 gauge.  I haven’t paid for Randy’s advice on shotguns yet, but I might as well try to do it his way first.

The Barrel

The barrel on most shotguns can be replaced, so a single shotgun can be configured for multiple purposes.


Generally speaking, a short barrel is desirable for self defense applications because it is more maneuverable.  The shortest barrel that can be owned by civilians without hassle is 18 inches.  Shorter barrels are also used for hunting in more densely wooded areas.  Generally speaking, a longer barrel is used to for hunting game that moves because the heavier barrel swings more smoothly.


The bore refers to the inside of the barrell.  There are two types of shotgun bore: smooth and rifled.  Rifled barrels are a more recent development and are generally used for hunting with slugs.  Smooth bores can be used for shot or slugs.


Some shotgun barrels are choked, which means the muzzle end is constricted.  Choking the barrel prevents shot from spreading as much, allowing the shotgun to be used for longer distances.  Some shotgun barrels have interchangeable chokes so that the same barrel can be used for several different purposes.  For self defense shotguns,  cylinder or improved cylinder barrel is preferred.


The traditional shotgun sight is a single bead at the muzzle end of the barrel.  The shotgun is pointed not aimed.  However for slugs and longer distance hunting, traditonal rifle sights or vent-ribs may be used.  A vent rib is a tube or ridge that sits above the barrel and aids in sighting.  For a defensive shotgun, rifle sights are preferred. Note: Jeff Cooper decided that ghost ring sites were best for tactical shotguns, so that is what is most popular, but in more recent times, instructors such as Randy Cain have discovered they shoot faster and better with traditional rifle sights.

The Conclusion

We have only begun to scracth the surface of shotguns, but hopefully, you have enough basic vocabulary to choose  a shotgun for home defense.  The preferred home defense shotgun is a 12 gauge, pump-action, shotgun with an 18 inch, improved cylinder barrel with rifle sights.

The Contenders

The two most common types of shotgun that meet these criteria are the Mossberg 500 series and the Remington 870.  (Please note that I have no experience with the Mossberg, so this information is either factual or 2nd hand anecdotal).  The Remington 870 has been around a long time and is a standard among armed forces, police, and hunters.  It seems to be the standard by which all other pump shotguns are measured.  There are a ton of replacement parts and accessories available for it.

The Mossberg 500 series is both stronger and weaker, more and less reliable, more and less rugged than the Remington 870 depending on who you listen to.  Generally speaking, the major factors in its favor are that it is often less expensive, and the safety is located on top of the receiver and is completely ambidextrous, making it attractive to left handers.

The choice

Randy Cain’s preferred shotgun is the Remington 870, and since I have no preferences whatsoever (my shotgun experience is only with break-actions) I went ahead and bought a Remington 870.   Of course, that brings another set of dizzying choices with it.  The next article will highlight the different models of Remington 870 and guide you through some of their major features.