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What to Expect When Shooting a Shotgun for the First Time

If you’ve never fired a shotgun before, you’re in for a treat. Shotguns might just be the most versatile type of firearm you can buy. You can use them for sport, hunting or defense. Depending on the style and type of ammunition you choose, you can shoot at airborne targets — clays or birds — or stationary ones. You can use a shotgun for short-range targets or, with slug ammunition, hit targets up to a couple of hundred yards away.

Knowing what to expect when shooting a shotgun for the first time requires a basic understanding of what makes a shotgun unique. Let’s look at some of those features.

How It Works

With a few rare exceptions, there are three “styles” of shotguns, as defined by the way in which they operate.

Break-action shotguns allow the barrel or barrels to “crack open” from the receiver so you can drop shells directly into the chamber. You’ll typically see these — single barrel, side-by-side double barrels or over-and-under barrels — used by upland bird hunters, waterfowl hunters and clay-target sports competitors. Most break-action shotguns can only fire one or two shots, as they only have one or two barrels.

Pump-action shotguns are the classic workhorses of the shotgun family. These store extra shells in a tubular magazine under the barrel. By manually pumping the action back and forth, you move a shell from the tubular magazine up into the chamber while ejecting the spent cartridge. If you don’t cycle after every shot, it won’t shoot.

Semi-automatic shotguns usually have a tubular magazine like most pump shotguns, but they operate more like a semi-automatic pistol. Energy from the expanding gas is redirected to eject the spent shell and load a new one from the magazine. Some semi-automatic designs use inertia to cycle the action. When firing a semi-automatic shotgun, you can fire multiple shots by pressing the trigger multiple times until the magazine is empty.

Three shotguns, a lever-action, semi-automatic, and pump-action, all with blued metal and wooden stocks and foreends, lying on a rustic wooden background amidst a variety of red and black .410 and 12-gauge shotshells

Part of what makes shotguns so versatile are the different action-type choices like the pump-action (top), semi-automatic (middle) and even lever-action (bottom).

Ammunition

Shotgun cartridges, usually called “shotshells,” differ greatly from rifle and handgun ammunition. Sure, a firing pin still detonates a small primer which then ignites the powder, resulting in expanding gas to drive projectiles out of the fiery end. What’s different is the construction and the types of projectiles that a shotshell can fire.

Most shotshells are made with a brass base section that provides core structure and houses the primer. The brass base and rim are also sturdy enough to withstand the force of extractors or ejectors grabbing empty shotshells during ejection. The upper portion of a shotshell is almost always made of plastic. Back in the day, shotshell bodies were even made of paper or wax-coated cardboard.

Shotgun Projectiles

One of the most interesting features about shotguns is the wide variety of projectiles. Traditionally, shotguns fire a group of pellets all at once. Those pellets might range from tiny — just 0.08 inches in diameter #9 shot — to 0.36-inch 000 Buckshot (larger than a 9mm bullet). This offers the user a tradeoff. Lots of tiny pellets are great for close-range work on moving targets, while larger pellets will travel farther and carry more energy downrange.

A .410 shotgun shell and three 12-gauge shells with brass bases and plastic casings have been cut open at the muzzle end to reveal the variety of shot and slugs each contains.

Shotshells are available in different calibers like the .410 (left) and 12-gauge (remaining three) and fire different types of shot pellets and projectiles like the slug on the far right.

Slugs, single projectiles similar to a bullet fired from a handgun or rifle, are another option. The difference is that they are huge — more or less the diameter of the shotgun barrel. Being so large and heavy, they won’t have nearly the range as a rifle bullet, but they do pack a punch within a couple of hundred yards.

Aiming

Many people assume that you don’t have to aim a shotgun because they fire pellets and don’t have traditional sights like a handgun or rifle. Not true! As we’ve seen, there are many types of ammunition. Single slug projectiles certainly need to be aimed, and even pellet loads require aim. At close distances, those pellets remain in a tight clump of less than a few inches, so it’s surprisingly easy to miss the entire target if you just point in the general direction of it.

Speaking of aiming, you’ll notice that shotgun sights are different too. There’s usually a round bead or fiber-optic tube on the front but nothing in the back. That’s because your eye becomes the rear sight. When shooting a shotgun, it’s important to mount it the same way every time so that your eye (the rear sight) is always in the same spot. Some defensive shotguns do have traditional or even optical sights.

Recoil

Recoil directly results from what goes out of the muzzle. The amount of recoil you feel depends on:

  • The weight of the shotgun
  • The total weight of the projectile(s)
  • The weight of the powder charge in the shell
  • The velocity at which everything launches out of the muzzle
  • The action-type

With that said, the recoil you feel when firing a shotgun can vary — a lot.

The first consideration is the “caliber” or gauge of the shotgun itself. Smaller-bore shotguns fire smaller-diameter loads, so they weigh less. As a result, recoil is much less than that of a large-bore shotgun. While a .410 barrel measures 0.410 inches, a 12-gauge barrel has an interior diameter of about 0.73 inches. That wider projectile load weighs a lot more and requires more powder to push it, so the recoil you feel is greater.

Once you choose a gauge or bore, the next variable is the type of load. Just as you can throw a plastic wiffle ball slowly (less “recoil” in the catching glove) or a heavier baseball fast (more “recoil”), you can find shotgun shells that fire heavy or light loads at different velocities. For example, a 12-gauge clay target load might launch 7/8 ounces of pellets at 1,150 feet per second. A heavy slug load might launch a 1-ounce slug at a whopping 1,600 feet per second. The slug, with its heavier projectile, additional powder and higher velocity, will cause a lot more thump on your shoulder.

Last, the type of action influences the amount of recoil you perceive. While energy is still energy, a semi-automatic shotgun redirects some of that to cycle the action. The total amount of energy hasn’t changed, but since some is redirected, you feel less impact on your shoulder. With pump- and break-action shotguns, every bit of forward energy translates to recoil energy straight back at you.

So, in terms of what to expect when first shooting a shotgun, choose (if you can) a smaller “caliber” shotgun like a 20-gauge or .410 and lighter target ammunition until you get the hang of it. Also, if you can shoot a semi-automatic shotgun first, the recoil will be a little gentler.

Safety

The action type of the shotgun will likely impact how you handle it.

Break-action shotguns are easy to keep safe. When the action is broken open, you clearly see the empty chambers, and the shotgun is incapable of firing. In a sense, the shotgun is partially disassembled.

A silver and ash over-and-under double-barrel shotgun rests with its breech broken open, revealing two unfired 12-gauge shells

Break-action shotguns are easy to keep safe. Just crack open the action and you can see the chamber status.

Both a pump and semi-automatic shotgun operate much like a semi-automatic pistol in that there are two areas of the gun to monitor to verify that it’s unloaded. You must first ensure that the magazine has no shells. Second, you should verify that the chamber itself is empty. Just removing shells from a tubular or box magazine gives no guarantee that the gun is unloaded! With a pump shotgun, you pull the forend back to expose the chamber area, at which point you can see if a shell is present. A semi-automatic shotgun will have a bolt handle on the side of the receiver. Pulling that back and locking it open allows you to see the chamber.

The Net-Net

Shotguns are infinitely flexible based on the variety of action types and available shotshell ammunition varieties. As a “two-handed” firearm, it’s also larger and shoots heavier ammunition. Everything has a price, and the price of firing larger projectiles is recoil. That’s why big shotguns firing full-power ammo tend to have more recoil than almost any handgun and many rifles.

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