The shotgun, also called the scattergun, is one of the most popular home-defense, tactical, and sporting firearms in the United States. Prized for its power, ammunition versatility, and spreading pattern, the shotgun is a wonderful firearm to have in your collection.
What is a Shotgun?
A shotgun is typically a shoulder weapon consisting of one or more barrels chambered for shotgun shells. Shotgun barrels are usually smoothbore, but rifled shotgun barrels also exist.
The budding or experienced shotgunner has a variety of action types to choose from. Each type of shotgun has its own unique handling characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. It’s in your interest to understand the differences so that you can buy the shotgun that best suits your needs.
Shotguns are available in a variety of different action types and operating systems.
A single-barreled shotgun is a break-action shotgun, hammer or hammerless, with only one barrel. As a result, it’s limited to firing one shell before you have to reload.
A double-barreled shotgun is a break-action shotgun, hammer or hammerless, with two barrels parallel to each other. Most double-barreled shotguns have an opening lever located behind the breech that you rotate with your thumb to unlock the barrels from the frame. Some older designs use an opening lever located in front of the trigger guard. The barrels pivot about a hinge exposing the chambers for loading and unloading.
Double-barreled shotguns are available in two formats:
The side-by-side shotgun places two barrels on the horizontal plane. This is, by far, the most common type of double-barreled shotgun. The most recognizable variant of this type is the classic coach gun, exemplified by Stoeger.
The over-and-under or superposed design places two barrels on the vertical plane. You often see weapons of this type used in hunting and competitive shooting sports.
Double-barreled shotguns may have one or two triggers. In single-trigger variants, the trigger will fire one barrel, followed by another. In two-trigger variants, each trigger corresponds to one barrel.
Single- and double-barreled shotguns may have automatic extractors or ejectors. A gun with automatic extractors will partially extract the spent shells when you open the breech, but you’ll have to remove them with your fingers. Automatic ejectors expel the spent shells from the weapon.
A repeating shotgun is typically a single-barreled weapon with a magazine holding multiple cartridges. Repeating shotguns can be pump-action, self-loading, bolt-action, or lever-action. However, the most popular designs are pump-action and semi-automatic.
A pump-action, also known as a slide-action shotgun, has a manually operated slide handle attached to the bolt via one or more arms called action bars. By gripping the handle with your non-firing hand, you apply rearward force, which unlocks the breech, extracts the spent shell, ejects it from the weapon, and recocks the hammer.
Pump-action shotguns benefit from mechanical simplicity. There are few moving parts, and, consequently, the guns can be reliable and lightweight. They are also able to cycle a variety of shot loads. The two most popular modern examples are the Mossberg 500 and Remington 870.
An auto-loading, self-loading or semi-automatic shotgun uses gas, blowback, or recoil to perform the reloading cycle. When you squeeze the trigger, the gun will fire, unlock, extract, eject, cock, feed, chamber, and lock automatically. You will need to squeeze the trigger a second time to fire another shot in a semi-automatic shotgun.
Auto-loading shotguns have several different methods of operation. These include the following:
1. Long recoil
In long recoil, the barrel and bolt recoil together for the full length of the receiver, compressing a return spring in the stock. The bolt engages a catch, locking in the rearmost position, while the barrel returns forward.
In the process, the gun extracts the spent shell and ejects it. The bolt is released and feeds a shell into the chamber on its forward stroke. The Auto-5 and derivative Remington Model 11 are the two most common examples of this system. The primary disadvantage of long recoil is that it recoils more severely than either manual-action or gas-operated shotguns.
In gas-operated shotguns, expanding gases from the burning propellant drive one or more pistons to cycle the action. Common examples include the Remington Model 1100 and the Benelli M4 Super 90. As the expanding gases apply forward pressure against the front of the gas cylinder, a gas-operated shotgun may recoil more softly than some other guns.
Inertia is a type of recoil operation commonly found on Benelli shotguns. In the Benelli inertia system, unlike short and long recoil, the barrel remains fixed. When the gun fires, the locked bolt head recoils with the gun. During rearward recoil, the bolt head compresses a spring against the stationary bolt carrier.
When this spring expands, it propels the bolt carrier away from the bolt head, camming it unlocked, opening the breech, and unloading the gun. On the rearward stroke, the bolt carrier group compresses a return spring in the stock.
A combination gun consists of at least one rifled barrel and one smoothbore shotgun barrel. Combination guns are usually military or civilian survival weapons, which fall into one of three categories, depending on the number of barrels:
1. Combination gun (standard)
The most common variety consists of two barrels: one rifled and one smoothbore. A popular example is the Savage Model 24. These weapons typically use a superposed or over-and-under barrel configuration, placing the rifled barrel on top and the smoothbore barrel on the bottom.
A drilling is a combination gun with three barrels. A notable example is the M30 Luftwaffe drilling, which consists of one rifled barrel chambered in 9.3×74mmR located beneath two side-by-side 12-gauge shotgun barrels.
A vierling is a combination gun with four barrels, typically consisting of two rifled barrels and two shotgun barrels. The particular arrangement of barrels can vary considerably.
Most repeating shotguns — whether pump-action or semi-automatic — are fed from integral (i.e., non-removable) tubular magazines. You load the shells nose to tail in the magazine through a loading gate in the receiver.
Some repeating shotguns are fed from detachable box and drum magazines, increasing the capacity from 5–8 shells to 20 or more.
Regardless of the type of shotgun you choose, you should spend some time familiarizing yourself with the different types of shotgun ammunition available. Buckshot, birdshot, slugs, and specialty rounds are part of the shotgun’s versatility.
The type of shotgun you choose can affect your performance in several ways, from speed and comfort to reliability. Understanding the basic information in this article will help you get a shotgun that does what you need as efficiently as possible.
See how much a shotgun will cost you when buying one on our pricing guide.
You can also check out:
Shotgun Basics: Proper Shouldering of Firearm
Shotgun Basics: Effective Range
Tips on Cleaning Shotgun Barrels
Best Online Gun Stores (See Buying Guide)