Understanding Shotguns

Understanding Shotguns

As recreational shooting sports continue to grow in popularity, the shotgun sports are of particular interest to both experienced and new shooters alike. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), there were an estimated 3.2 million shotguns sold in the United States in 2020, while that same year, according to data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) shotguns made up approximately 25% of all firearms manufactured in the United States.

So why are shotguns and shotgun shooting so popular? One reason is the versatility of the shotgun itself. They can be used for hunting anything from birds to small and large game, home protection, simple target shooting, and are the primary equipment in some of the most fun, competitive and recreational shooting activities available, chief among them skeet, trap, and sporting clays.

Shooting competitions such as skeet, trap and sporting clays continue to appeal to an increasingly growing and diverse audience because they offer:

  • Challenge: Shotgun sports appeal to people of all skill levels. It does require hand-eye coordination to hit moving targets, making it a fun and rewarding activity.
  • Socialization: Participating in shotgun sports is often a social activity where people gather with friends and family to enjoy the sport together.
  • Accessibility: The shotgun shooting sports are accessible to people of all ages and physical abilities.
  • Relaxation: Shotgun sports can be a relaxing and therapeutic way to unwind and relieve stress.
  • Competitiveness: Many people enjoy the competitive aspect of shotgun sports and compete in tournaments and events to test their skills against others.

Overall, the combination of challenge, socialization, accessibility, relaxation and competitiveness make the shotgun sports a popular activity for many people.


Whether your motivation is to compete, target shoot for recreation, hunt or simply buy a basic shotgun for personal protection, before considering a shotgun, there are a few basics you need to understand about the different shotgun actions and overall performance of a shotgun.

From a performance standpoint, shotguns differ from rifles and handguns because rather than firing a single projectile such as a bullet, they more often are loaded with shotgun shells filled with pellets (commonly referred to as shot), which is best suited for moving targets such as clay targets thrown in skeet, trap and sporting clays or for hunting game such as upland birds or waterfowl, which can be fast flying. The shot spreads out as it exits the muzzle of the shotgun into a wider pattern, making it easier to hit such fleeting targets than would be impossible for most people firing a handgun or rifle.


There are three main types of shotgun actions. Each type of action has its own unique characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages.


This type of action is the simplest and most traditional type of shotgun action. A break-action shotgun has a hinge mechanism that allows the barrel(s) to pivot open, allowing for easy loading and unloading of the shotgun. Break-action shotguns are usually either a single-shot or double-barrel design, with vertically stacked barrels, (called an over/under shotgun) much more popular and common today than the older-style side-by-side double barrels common on Westerns. One of the key advantages of a break-action shotgun is its simplicity, which results in fewer parts and lower maintenance requirements. However, their capacity is limited, and they are slower to reload than other types of shotguns. Because there are fewer mechanical parts, there is little in their design short of a thick butt-pad to reduce felt recoil from the load. Over/Under break-action shotguns are popular in bird hunting and shooting sports because they allow for the use of multiple choke tubes which can change the constriction so the first shot will spread the shot wider while the longer follow up shot can use a tighter choke to put more pellets down range on a target moving further away. 


A pump-action shotgun uses a sliding forend to cycle rounds into the chamber and eject spent shells as the shooter fires the shotgun. Pump-action shotguns are reliable and popular among hunters and sport shooters alike, and they can have a magazine capacity of up to eight rounds, though most sporting shotguns only hold five. One advantage of a pump-action shotgun is that it is typically less expensive than semi-auto shotguns, but still affords the shooter the ability to quickly cycle rounds needed for follow-up shots on missed or multiple birds or clays. They are also reliable, durable and easy to maintain. They can, however, be slightly slower to shoot than semi-auto shotguns, and the sliding action can be a bit more difficult for some users to master though with a little practice, this is rarely a problem. A pump shotgun is great for waterfowling, bird hunting and even home protection.


A semi-auto shotgun uses the gases or Inertia energy from the fired round to automatically cycle the next round into the chamber after another round is fired. Semi-auto shotguns are popular among hunters and sport shooters because of their rapid-fire capability and ease of use, and because the energy of the load is used to cycle the gun, it helps reduce the recoil felt from the shot and allows faster target acquisition for follow-up shots. With more mechanical parts inside, cleaning and maintenance can also be slightly more difficult.

Each type of shotgun action has its own advantages and disadvantages, and choosing the right type of action will depend on your individual needs, preferences, and intended use for the shotgun. There are a lot of great manufacturers out there so buying a brand name shotgun that will be reliable and offer a lifetime of shooting fun can easily be had with just a little research and shopping around.