Shotguns 101: A Beginners Guide To Buying A Shotgun


So you are interested in shotguns? Well if you’ve looked around the internet and in the gun rags you may be a bit confused on the subject. Especially if you are new to gun ownership in general. Shotguns are complicated and diverse weapons that should be approached with a bit of knowledge before you make a major decision. They are somehow both complicated and simple in many ways, so lets ease on in to shotguns 101.

Their design and purpose are simple, it’s everything around them that tends to get complicated. Shotguns are diverse in the way they are used, the calibers they come in, as well as the prices they can reach. Shotguns can be as cheap as 99 bucks at a pawn shop, and they can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars price-wise. 

If shotguns are on your mind and you want to approach them with a little knowledge and know-how and to do so we are presenting you a guide to shotgun basics.

What is a Shotgun? Beginners Guide

A shotgun is a weapon designed to be fired from the shoulder and to fire a number of pellets from a single round. These pellets are known as a shot. Shot is contained in a fixed plastic shell and works best with a smoothbore. 

Shotguns can also fire solid projectiles known as a slug, and slugs are most accurate out of a rifled bore. 

Shotguns have been around nearly as long as guns have. Their simplistic design and their ability to fire multiple projectiles made them a popular choice for hunters and soldiers. Shotguns these days are used by hunters, soldiers, police officers, sportsman, and more.

Benefits of a Shotgun 

Shotguns are very versatile weapons and allow a shooter to engage a wide variety of targets from one single platform. A shotgun has the ability to successfully hunt animals as small as squirrels and birds and as large as a bear. The difference between a switch in ammunition sources. 

Shotguns are also very powerful weapons when paired with buckshot or slugs, so much so that they can deliver more foot-pounds of energy per trigger pull than handguns, or most shoulder-fired semi-automatic rifles

The use of shot in a shotgun ensures you have a greater chance of hitting your target when shooting rapidly or in low light conditions. A shotgun has no issues hitting birds from the sky with relative ease. 

Shotguns are also typically very affordable guns, there is some significant variance of course, but a named brand shotgun from a reputable company can be had for 300 dollars. Shotguns are also weapons that are rarely banned in American states and even countries with heavy gun control regulations.

Limitations of a Shotgun 

Shotguns are great weapons overall, but they do have some limitations. First and foremost they are limited greatly in range. Even with slugs, you can only reach out to roughly 100 to 150 yards in most cases. 

With shot, you can as far as 50 yards with the right ammo and choke combination. In calibers above 20 gauge shotguns are heavy recoiling weapons that can be punishing to the shoulder and this makes them hard to control for most shooters

Shotgun Calibers 

[Click here to find our complete shotgun calibers guide]

Most shotgun calibers are measured in gauge. Gauge is an old and odd method of measurement but it persists. Shotguns are measured and referred to by their bore. To determine the gauge you have to take a pound of lead, split it into perfectly equal sized lead balls and those lead balls are the perfect size to fit down the bore. 

Gauge is determined by how many lead balls that pound of lead is split into. If that lead is split into 12 lead balls then the shotgun is a 12 gauge. This unit of measurement means the lower the number the bigger the shotgun. 

For example, a 20 gauge shotgun is much smaller than a 12 gauge shotgun. 

Oddly enough one popular shotgun caliber is measured in inches like a standard rifle or handgun caliber, and that is .410. 410 is unique in this regard when it comes to shotguns. 

There are three common calibers you see when it comes to shotguns and that’s 12 gauge, 20 gauge, and 410. These three calibers are the most common when it comes to American shotguns and represent big medium, and small in terms of shot size, amount of shot, and recoil. 

12 gauge is the most common caliber and is used for everything from hunting to home defense and military applications. 20 gauge is a bit milder and perfect for smaller shooters for still being a capable defensive weapon. 410 is perfect for small game, as well as children learning to shoot. It could be used as a defensive round but 12 and 20 gauge are most efficient. 

Uncommon calibers include the mighty and powerful 10 gauge, the mid-strength 16 gauge, and the meek and mild 28 gauge. These calibers are not as popular as they once were but remain popular enough that most gun stores carry these rounds. 

Rare calibers include 8 gauge, 4 gauge, 32 gauge, and a few others that we rarely see anywhere in actual use.

Types of Shotgun Actions: Shotgun 101  

Shotguns come in almost any design you can imagine. The different designs have changed over time, but almost all are still produced in some way or another. Shotgun actions vary in so many different ways it’s important to understand the different actions and how they work. 

Single and Double Barrels

Double Barrel Shotgun
Double Barrel Shotgun

Single and double barrel shotguns are simple designs within this shotguns 101 beginners guide, capable of holding one round per barrel. Single-shot shotguns are often the most affordable shotguns and are designed to be lightweight and simple. These guns are used most commonly for hunting. 

Double barrel shotguns were popular law enforcement firearms in the 1800s, but are now mostly used for sport shooting or hunting. Double barrels come in side by side configurations and over and under designs. Over and under are typically produced to be sporting shotguns designed for hunting birds and busting clay pigeons. 

Side by side designs have fallen out of favor for most hunting uses and are typically recreations of older cowboy guns. You’ll often see them in competitions revolving around single action shooting. 

Pump Action 

Pump Shotgun

Pump actions are the most common shotguns on the market. These shotguns use a manually accentuated pump to eject, recock, and load a new round. Pump-action shotguns are the affordable repeating shotguns and are commonly used for hunting, home defense, police and military use, as well as sport shooting clay pigeons 

Pump action designs can often hold between 4 and 9 rounds depending on magazine tube length. Newer shotguns with detachable box magazines can hold up to 20 rounds of ammunition

Pump-action shotguns are inherently reliable due to their manual operation. These guns have remained the most popular shotgun due to their combination of reliability, cost-effectiveness, and quick repeating action. 

Bolt Action 

Bolt action shotguns are uncommon, but at one point Mossberg was producing several models, including a dedicated slug gun that was produced until the early 2000s. Several smaller companies also produced bolt action shotguns. 

As pump actions became more common and more affordable bolt actions quietly faded away. They offered no significant advantages other than being lighter in weight than pump-action designs. 

They were and are reliable guns and are typically very easy to operate and use. They didn’t offer the fast repeatability of pump actions or the same magazine capacity. Currently, Savage produces dedicated slug guns with bolt actions that replicate rifles in many ways. These are for states where using a rifle to hunt is illegal, but slug guns are not. 

Lever Action 

There was only ever one lever-action shotgun and that was the Winchester 1887. The design was one of the first repeating shotguns, but it did fall out of favor when pump-action shotguns came along. The biggest issue was how big and heavy the weapon had to be to function. 

The lever throw was long and there was less room for variables that shotgun shells often have between shell sizes. Winchester 1887 shotguns are still reproduced to this day by companies like Century and they are used for Cowboy Action Shooting competitions. 

Outside of that lever-action shotguns are rarely used for hunting or sport shooting. They are novelties, more or less.

Revolving Cylinder 

Revolving cylinders are very rare. In the 1980s and 90s, a few models hit the market but were later declared destructive devices and required NFA registration. This killed the popularity of revolving cylinder shotguns. 

Taurus has created a 410 variant that also fires 45 Long Colt cartridges. Albeit, legally this is a rifle and not a shotgun due to its rifled bore. It is a revolving cylinder shotgun. 

Revolving shotguns tend to be reliable, but are plagued with issues regarding the heavy trigger required to fire the gun and revolve what can be a massive cylinder. They are also slow to reload. In the 80s and 90s, they did offer a higher capacity than most and could be shorter due to their lack of magazine tubes. 


Semi-Automatic Shotgun
Semi-Automatic Shotgun

Semi-automatic shotguns are the second most popular choice for home defense and general tactical use. These guns fire one round per pull of the trigger, and the gun autoloads the next round. Semi-Automatic shotguns have become reliable and affordable as of late and this has made them more popular with individual users, and police and military forces. 

Semi-auto shotguns come in a wide variety of different configurations including tube-fed models and guns that fire from box magazines. These shotguns typically offer less recoil than other models due to the semi-auto action. 

Semi-auto shotguns can be used for tactical use, hunting of all animals, as well as sporting use, competition shooting, and beyond. Semi-auto shotguns are more expensive than most pump actions but are more effective weapons.

Shotgun Ammo Types: Shotgun 101 

[Click here to find our complete shotgun calibers guide]

The key to a shotgun’s versatility is its ability to use different ammo types. We’ve written a longer more in-depth ammo guide and it will give you a complete picture. However here are the basics of shotgun ammo types. 


Birdshot is designed to be small in size and numerous in number. Birdshot fills the sky with a ton of shot to make it easier to shoot game out of the sky. Birdshot also works for small game like squirrels and for shooting clay pigeons. 

Birdshot ranges in size quite a bit and can be used to take small doves all the way to Canadian geese. The larger the birdshot pellets the bigger the bird it can take. Birdshot should be selected based on the type of bird being hunted. 


Buckshot is designed for medium game like deer, hogs, and even coyote. Buckshot also comes in a multitude of sizes that corresponds with the number of pellets in the load. More pellets mean smaller pellets. The most common shot load is called 00 or double ought and is used for hunting as well as tactical use by police and military forces. 

Buckshot still retains the spread, but the larger and heavier pellets penetrate deeper and are more likely to strike the vital organs needed to stock an attacker and humanely take an animal. Buckshot is a simple round, and one that comes in the biggest variety of different configurations. 


Slugs are a heavy solid projectile that can penetrate extremely deep through soft flesh. Slugs extend the effective range of a shotgun and deliver massive energy on target. Slugs can be used for hunting animals as large as bear efficiently. 

Slugs are also made for tactical applications when necessary but they do not replace a traditional rifle. Slugs are potent rounds and come in a variety of configurations. This includes different projectile designs and low recoil tactical loads.

Shotgun Sights: Shotgun 101

Shotgun sights are simple, and their style relates to the typical intended use of the gun. They can be simple, or quite complicated. Here are the most common shotgun sight setups. 

Bead Sights

Bead sights are the most common shotgun sighting system out there and this shotgun 101 guide guarantees it will be your first sight. It consists of nothing more than a solid spherical bead. This small and simple sighting system is rapid on target and extremely easy to pick up in low light situations. Bead sights are easy to use, and best used with buck and birdshot. They can work with slugs but are not the most precise means of shooting slugs. 

Rifle Sights

Shotgun 101 states that rifle sights are typically a pair of front and rear open sights mounted to the barrel of a shotgun. These are a compromise when it comes to using both buckshot and slugs. The open nature of the sights ensures you can get on target with buckshot very quickly. You also have the ability to properly aim slugs with a rear sight. 

Ghost Ring Sights 

Shotgun Ghost Ring Sight
Ghost ring sight shown on a shotgun

Ghost ring sights are a rear peep sight that placed on the receiver of the shotgun and a rifle front sight. This setup maximizes accuracy over longer ranges, especially with slugs. Beyond that, you can also get on target quite fast, especially if you have a high visibility front sight. Ghost ring sights tend to require a set up from the factory and tend to be more expensive. The team here behind the shotgun 101 guide do not recommend starting with the ghost ring. 


On shotguns, a choke sits inside the very end of the barrel. It acts as a device that forces a shot to constrict or loosen. They control your pattern and are typically designed to tighten up your pattern at different ranges. 

Chokes come in a wide variety of configurations and are designed to maximize your range with a shotgun. A cylinder bore choke is no choke at all and it’s perfect for close quarter’s tactical use. Some chokes are designed for shooting skeet, others for shooting turkeys and some are designed to get buckshot out there much further for taking down deer and hogs. 

Choke selection is another major consideration when it comes to choosing your shotgun and picking its purpose, this shotguns 101 guide should ease you through the process. 

Parting Shots

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Shotguns are complicated guns and this article is what you should consider shotguns 101. This is only a starting point on your journey to becoming a shotgunner. Hopefully, you’ve learned something and if you have any questions feel free to ask below. Make sure you check out our articles on shotgun ammo, and our top 10 home defense shotguns.


Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine gunner who served with 2nd BN 2nd Marines for 5 years. He deployed in 2009 to Afghanistan and again in 2011 with the 22nd MEU(SOC) during a record setting 11 months at sea. He’s trained with the Romanian Army, the Spanish Marines, the Emirate Marines and the Afghan National Army. He serves as an NRA certified pistol instructor and works as a firearms writer.

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