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Shotguns: Choosing an Action Type

by Jason Wimbiscus

Pros and Cons to Shotgun Actions

hunter-loading-shotgun

Although I grew up in a hunting family in a part of the country where deer season is practically a state holiday, I never really took to deer hunting.  Perhaps if I had grown up in a part of the country where deer breed like rodents and putting venison in the freezer is a near guarantee, the story would have been different. Unfortunately, deer hunting in the northeastern Vermont of my childhood, (where deer of any kind are scarce and legal to take bucks even scarcer) meant sitting in one spot, watching the same patch of woods from dawn to dusk hoping against hope that a nonexistent deer would happen by. Boring.

While being the type who can’t sit still for more than 10 minutes at a time doomed me as a deer hunter, it made me well suited to the hunting of small, upland game; a pursuit that rewards staying on the move and covering ground. This affinity for small game hunting ultimately resulted in an intimate familiarity with what is arguably the most useful and versatile weapon for the task: the shotgun. Further, years of carrying various scatterguns into blackberry brambles and stands of wild apples in pursuit of ruffed grouse and snowshoe hare has left me with a handful of insights on the strengths and weaknesses of the shotgun types (actions) commonly available to hunters.

Single Shot Shotguns

Inexpensive and simple to operate, single shot shotguns are an obvious choice for a first shotgun for a novice youth hunter, but they are also a more than adequate small game getter for the budget minded adult. Most single shot shotguns are of the break action variety that are operated by depressing a lever to open the gun, sliding a round into the chamber, closing the gun, and then cocking an external hammer to fire. However, it is possible to stumble across old but serviceable single shot bolt action shotguns such as the Mossberg Model 75, which was produced in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Popular Models

Too many manufacturers have produced a single shot, break action shotgun at one time or another to list here, but notable standouts include those produced by Rossi Firearms as well as the Pardner series produced by H&R firearms. A recent addition to the market is the single shot shotgun produced by Henry Repeating Arms.  While significantly more expensive than most other single shot shotguns, the Henry is quickly gaining a reputation for exceptional reliability, fit, and finish.

Strengths

Low cost: Serviceable used single shots adorn the racks of many gun shops and pawn shops and can often be had for less than $100, making them an ideal option for hunting or controlling pests on an extreme budget.

Durability/reliability:  While any mechanical device can break, the simple design of a single shot shotgun reduces the chances of failure. I’ve seen many single shots over the years endure decades of abuse and ill treatment only to still go bang reliably every time the trigger was pulled.

Simple operation: Even an individual who has never been in the same zip code as a firearm before can master the operation of a single shot in an hour or two.  


Weaknesses

Follow up shots are near impossible:  Since the gun must be reloaded after each shot, it is unlikely a hunter will manage a second shot on a fast flying bird if the first one doesn’t connect. This may not be an issue when shooting squirrels off of tree limbs or grouse sitting beneath an apple tree, but it may be a significant handicap when pursuing high flying geese or quail that explode from the brush in great numbers.

Double Barrel Shotguns

gauge over under shotgun

Double barrel shotguns are available in two varieties; side by side and over/under. As their names imply, a side by side shotgun has one barrel next to the other while the over/under has one barrel on top of the other. Operation is similar to a single shot in that the gun is opened via a lever (usually on the tang), a round is inserted into the chamber, and the gun is closed again. Some side by side shotguns have exposed hammers that require manual cocking, while others are “hammerless” in that the firing pins are housed within the receiver and the gun is cocked on closing. All over/under guns are hammerless.

classic double barrel smooth bore

There are two types of hammerless double barrel shotguns; double trigger, and single select trigger. Double trigger guns have a dedicated trigger for each barrel, while single select triggers toggle from one barrel to the other either via a switch or by using the recoil of the first shot to set the trigger to the next barrel.

Popular Models

Popular side by side shotguns include the Stoeger Uplander, CZ Sharptail, and Savage Arms Fox. Popular over/under models include the Stoeger Condor, Browning Citori, and Beretta 686.

Strengths

Versatility: Having two barrels means the ability to employ two chokes. One barrel can be equipped with a cylinder or improved cylinder choke for close in shots while the second can be equipped with a modified or full choke for longer shots. A hunter with a double trigger gun or a gun with a manually switchable trigger could even conceivably stoke each barrel with different ammo types. A heavy load of large shot could be at the ready in one barrel for large, tough game while the other barrel could house a light load of small birdshot for more delicate quarry.

Fast follow up shot: Double guns, especially those with inertia-operated, single-select triggers can fire two shots incredibly quickly. This is one of the reasons why over/under guns are favored among sporting clays shooters for situations in which fast follow up shots are a must.

Fit and finish: A quality double gun is simply a joy to hold and shoulder. A gun that has been properly fitted to the shooter will feel like an extension of one’s arms.

Weaknesses

Cost: While there are a number of budget priced doubles on the market, those who own them report inconsistent quality. Some buyers are perfectly happy with their purchases while others report heavy triggers, poor wood to metal fit, and mechanical failures. By contrast, those who spend $1500 and up on a double seldom have any complaints.

Limited capacity: While two shots are likely more than adequate for most hunting situations, some hunters will simply feel better having three or more rounds at the ready.

Pump Action Shotguns

I’ll admit to having a special place in my heart for pump action shotguns. My first exposure to the world of shotgunning was tagging along with my father at age 4 as he hunted grouse with his 1970s era Remington 870 Wingmaster. Later, for my 11th birthday, I was given my first “real” shotgun; a Remington 870 Express in 20 gauge. That gun became my constant companion every fall for more than 25 years, took more game than I can tally, and is the only firearm I own that I could confidently run while blindfolded, upside down in the dark. A quarter century after I unwrapped it, it is weathered, and a bit worn, but still going strong. It’s no surprise that I have a personal bias in favor of pump guns.

pump action shotgun with bird

As demonstrated below, operation of a pump action shotgun involves loading shotshells into the tube magazine beneath the barrel, racking the slide to chamber a round, switching the off the safety, and pulling the trigger.


Popular Models

In recent years a large number of pump action shotgun models of dubious foreign make have flooded the market and can be bought new for less than $300 in some instances. In spite of this overwhelming number of options, one would do well to stick to tried and true makes and models such as the Remington 870, the Mossberg 500, the Browning BPS, and the Benelli Nova/Supernova. While a hunter might own and love his Mossberg 500 and extol its virtues over the other options, the truth is, all of the above shotguns are reliable and durable game getters.

Strengths

Affordability: I consider a pump action to be a working gun for the working man. While some upper-end versions of the Remington 870 and Browning BPS can get uncomfortably close to the $1,000 mark, there are plenty of quality options available in the $300 to $500 range, especially on the used market.

Reliability: While semi-automatic shotguns can be somewhat finicky about ammo type, a pump gun (when the action is worked with gusto) will digest whatever it’s fed. While not unheard of, jamming and catastrophic failures are exceedingly rare with pump guns. There’s a reason that pump action shotguns were (and to a degree still are) the go-to shotgun for police and military forces worldwide.

Easy to modify: There are more aftermarket parts and accessories available for pump guns (especially the Remington 870) than for all the other action types combined. If you want to turn your bird gun into a deer gun, just buy a rifled deer barrel for it. Want to add magazine capacity? Buy a magazine extension. Want to make your 870 look like an alien slayer out of a futuristic sci-fi movie? There’s a mod for that.

Weaknesses

Follow up shots are comparatively slow: Pumps can be worked fast and pros like Jerry Miculek can work them shockingly fast. However, the average hunter probably won’t be able to get a second shot off with a pump gun as quickly as his double and semi-auto toting counterparts. Pumps are typically considered less ideal for clays games than semi-automatics and over/under guns.



Relatively complex operation: Use of a pump action shotgun is more complicated than any of the other action types mentioned in this article. This means mastery may be accompanied by a degree of awkwardness and frustration. Additionally, a novice pump gun user might “short stroke” or fail to work the action with enough vigor to fully chamber a second round, which in turn will result in a failure to fire.

Semi-Automatic Shotguns

A semi-automatic shotgun will fire a round and chamber a new round with every pull of the trigger. This is accomplished through a gas system in which some of the hot, pressurized gasses from a fired shotshell are directed back toward the action in order to cycle it, or via an inertia system in which the recoil of the fired round itself works the action.


Popular Models

Tried and true semi-automatic shotguns include the Remington 1100, Remington 1187, Mossberg 930, Browning A5, Beretta A400, and Benelli M2.

Strengths

Speed: Semi-autos of modern manufacture can deliver follow up shots at a far greater pace than a pump action operated by most users. Some double barrel guns might be able to deliver a faster second shot, but not a faster third, fourth, or fifth shot.

Recoil reduction: The various springs integral to the actions of semi-automatic shotguns tend to absorb recoil energy while cycling as opposed to passing it on the users shoulder. This is a welcome feature when engaging in high volume shooting activities such as skeet and sporting clays.

Weaknesses

Weight: Because of the complexity of their actions, semi-autos tend to weigh more than pump action shotguns of similar size. For example, a wood-stocked Remington 870 with a 28-inch barrel weighs in at 7 lbs. empty while a wood-stocked Remington 1100 with a 28-inch barrel weighs a full pound more at 8 lbs. The extra pound might not make a difference during a quick rabbit hunt on the back 40, but it will be felt while traversing endless miles of abandoned north woods logging roads on foot in pursuit of ruffed grouse.

Cost: While a quality semi-automatic won’t cost nearly as much as a fine double, one will run a few to several hundred dollars more than a quality pump gun.

Ammo considerations: All of the other types of shotguns mentioned in this article will function with just about any kind of ammo from reduced recoil target rounds to shoulder-wrecking magnum turkey loads. Semi-autos, however, require ammo that generates enough energy to cycle the action. This is especially true of inertia/recoil operated variants.

Fit and Feel Are Most Important

Most hunters are likely to end up with a favorite shotgun type and may eventually find themselves asserting that their preference is the be all and end all of shotguns. Ultimately, however, action type is far less important than the way the gun feels in your arms. Deer rifles will spend most of their time slung over shoulders and sitting in laps in blinds and stands, but shotguns will be held at the ready in anticipation of the bird or rabbit that could explode from the brush at any moment. The shotgun is a gun that is carried and not hauled. It should therefore feel like a natural extension of the hunter’s body.


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