Man Releasing shotgun shell

Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Buying Your First Shotgun


Mathew R Reed
May 18, 2022

Shotguns are versatile firearms, used in a variety of applications. From door breaching and close-quarters combat for the military and law enforcement, to hunting, self-defense, and sports shooting, Shotguns are used in almost every form of shooting. These short-range weapons pack a massive punch and are very easy to use, which is one of the reasons for their enormous popularity.

With so many roles to fill, Shoguns are made in a wide variety of designs. From some simple over-under shotguns to modern semi-automatics like the Saiga 12 and Benelli M4, there is so much you need to know to buy the ideal shotgun. So, here is a complete and comprehensive beginner’s guide to shotguns.

What to Consider When Buying a Shotgun

If you walk into a gun store looking for a shotgun, you will be greeted with a lot of options. Buying a shotgun can be both very simple, and very complicated. You could simply walk into a gun store and get yourself a pump-action shotgun that will do almost everything decently. Or, you could take the time to research and buy the right shotgun for your needs and shooting practices. Either way, here are some things you should consider when you are buying a shotgun.

Ask Yourself.

What will you use your Shotgun for?

If you want to make an informed decision and buy a good shotgun as a beginner, it is very important to ask yourself why you are buying one. Shotguns are very versatile weapons, which can be used for many different purposes. Generally, a single shotgun can fill many roles. For instance, a hunting shotgun can be used for home defense as well, and it could be used for sports shooting. However, different types of shotguns, and different kinds of ammunition, complement different roles. Therefore, it is important to figure out your purpose for buying a shotgun.


Shotguns are like a multi-tool, which can perform a lot of tasks really well. A general-purpose pump or semi-automatic shotgun, chambered in a popular shell like 12 or 20 gauge, with a 26 or 28-inch barrel, and screw-in chokes might just be the most versatile weapon in the world.

Such a shotgun can be used with birdshot to hunt pheasants, quail, rabbits, grouse, and squirrels. Load 3-inch shells with steel shot in the same shotgun and you have a great tool for hunting ducks and geese. Use buck shotshells for home defense, and perhaps even change out the chokes and load up some slugs for big game hunting.

If you are having trouble figuring out what kind of shotgun to choose, this is the way to go.

Hunting with a shotgun

Specialty Tactical

If you are looking for a more tactical shotgun, to use for home defense, or any other tactical application, you need to preferably look for a semi-automatic shotgun, chambered in 12 gauge. It should stored in a light tactical furniture instead of wooden furniture and have the ability to mount accessories. As far as the barrel length is concerned, for a tactical shotgun, you will want a shorter barrel, the minimum legal length is 16 inches. So choose at least 16 inches, so that you have a more maneuverable firearm as compared to a longer shotgun, with say a 20-inch barrel.

Tactical shotguns are used by militaries and law enforcement, and they make for excellent home defense and bug-out or survival guns as well. They can be used for a variety of purposes and can be kitted up for extreme sports shooting as well.

If you are going for a sports shooting a tactical shotgun, magazine capacity and ease of reloading are other factors to keep in mind. This is where modern magazine-fed tactical shotguns excel.

If you are looking for something affordable, then perhaps a tactical Mossberg 500, or Remington 870 would work. But if you have the budget, look for a semi-auto shotgun – perhaps one that is fitted with a pistol grip as well. The Benelli M4 is the best option, in my opinion. However, there are many other really good tactical shotguns available in gun stores, and some really well-made and affordable Turkish imports as well.

You can check out the Mossberg 500, Remington 870, and Benelli M4 all on Palmetto State Armory.

Slug Hunter

Shotguns are usually used for hunting small game and waterfowl. Deer and elk probably aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when talking about shotgun hunting. However, big game hunting with a shotgun can be quite effective – especially in states like Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, Delaware, Maine, and Maryland, where public hunting grounds have shotgun archery, muzzleloader, or shotgun only mandates when it comes to big game hunting.

Typically, an all-around shotgun can work perfectly for big game hunting, with a change of the choke and Ammo. Some people like to own purpose-built shotguns for big game hunting. This is where the slug hunter use case comes in. If you intend to use your shotgun for hunting big game, you should look for one with a rifled barrel. Moreover, it should have a solid set of iron sights instead of the classic front bead sight on most shotguns and should have the ability to mount optics as well. As far as barrel length is concerned, longer barrels are better, because they can give your slug more range and stability. There are many companies that make shotguns with slug hunters specifically in mind. The Savage 212 and 220, and the Winchester SX3 Cantilever Buck are some really good slug hunting shotguns

You can check out the Savage 110 on Palmetto State Armory and Winchester SX3 on Brownells.

Upland shooter

Upland Shooting is a use case that many people don’t think about, but you can’t complete a discussion about shotguns without talking about the refined class of shotguns. These shotguns are usually used for clay shooting, and by upland hunters. They are made with elegant and careful craftsmanship, and are designed to shoot reliably, and look amazing while doing it. These shotguns are usually designed to custom fit a shooter as well and can cost in the thousands rather than hundreds. Most of these shotguns are of the double-barreled variety, both side by side and over unders.

Should you Buy a New or a Used Shotgun?

Shotgun prices can vary from a couple of hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands for collector guns. However, if you are on the market for something more affordable, it can be an attractive proposition to look for a used shotgun instead of a new one.

When you buy a new gun, you do not have to worry about its condition. However, when you are buying it used, its condition is your biggest concern. Despite this, you shouldn’t shy away from buying a used shotgun. In many cases, there is a decent chance of finding a really good shotgun on the used rack, which gives you amazing value for money.

You can find a lot of hunting shotguns in really good condition. Many times, people buy shotguns specifically for hunting, and only take them out a couple of times before selling them to buy a new gun, or maybe to pick up a new hobby. Many people sell shotguns because they don’t use them that often. Unless someone competes in shotgun shooting or three gun competitions, they usually don’t spend their days shooting 12 gauge shotguns at the range. Many times, these shotguns collect dust in gun safes and end up being the first gun people sell when they want to buy something new.

Preowned Shotgun

On average, I’d say you can save about 20% of your budget when buying a used shotgun. So, if you have a tight budget, buying a used shotgun can be a really good option. Just make sure to check the used shotgun’s condition and spot early signs of copper fouling, bluing, and extreme wear and tear.

But of course, a new gun is obviously preferable because you don’t have to worry about the inspecting its condition.

Smooth Bore Vs Rifled Bore Shotguns?

When it comes to shotgun barrels or any kind of barrel for that matter, you have two choices. You can opt for a smooth barrel or a rifled barrel. A smooth barrel is completely shut on the inside. Most shotguns that are designed to fire birdshot or buckshot have smooth barrels. This is because rifled barrels can make the shot spin in the barrel, and as it leaves the muzzle, it forms a hollow pattern – which can be bad for hunting, as it decreases the effectiveness of birdshot and buckshot.

Rifled barrels are more suitable for firing Slugs. Though slugs can be fired from smooth barrels as well, if you want more accuracy, and are shooting something at a distance of around 100 yards or more, you will need a rifled barrel, otherwise, the shots can be too inaccurate.

Choke or No Choke?

When talking about shotguns, you will commonly hear people use the word choke, and it can be a little confusing for beginners to understand what a choke is. Well, Chokes are a kind of muzzle device, which are used with shotguns, and they can affect the pattern of pellets as they leave the shotgun muzzle.

Mostly, they are used to get a tighter pattern, which allows a shotgun to be more effective against fewer targets at a longer range. For instance, if you are using a shotgun for hunting waterfowl, you may want a large spread so that you can hit multiple ducks or geese at the same time, however, when hunting bigger game, you may want all of your pellets to hit the same target downrange, in a tight pattern for maximum stopping power. This is where a choke can help.

If you are buying a shotgun simply for personal defense, then Chokes should not be something you have to worry about, however, they can be helpful for someone looking for an all-around hunting shotgun, or perhaps a competition shotgun. Know more about Shotgun Chokes here.

What is Your Budget?

When it comes to buying a shotgun, budget is an important consideration. You need to determine how much you are willing to spend on a shotgun and look at the best value within that price range. The great thing is that in any price range, you have a lot of options.

Turkish imported shotguns are a really good option if you are looking for something affordable. They are usually easy on the wallet and very well made. You can also find some really good pump-action shotguns for about $200 or $300.

The Different Types of Shotguns

Shotguns come in many different shapes and sizes, with different designs and firing mechanisms. They have their distinct advantages and limitations. Before we move on to more complex features, it is important to understand the different types of shotguns available in the market, so here is a brief description.

Break Action Shotguns

Single and double barrel shotguns are the simplest designs on the market. They only carry a single round and each barrel, which has to be manually reloaded by opening the shotgun. These shotguns are also the most affordable and are commonly used for clay shooting and some shooting competitions in the US.

They aren’t that common for self-defense or hunting in the US. However, in countries where gun laws are more strict, like the UK and European countries, they are a lot more common and easy to buy. In such countries, double-barrel shotguns are also used for hunting and home defense.

Double barrel shotguns come in both side by side and over/under configurations. They are usually quite affordable, but some high-end double-barreled shotguns can get a little expensive as well. Though they are a very old design, many manufacturers still make double-barrel shotguns.

Pump-Action Shotguns

Pump-action shotguns are quite popular these days. They usually hold multiple rounds of ammunition in a magazine tube, which can be loaded into the chamber by manually pumping the gun. This is usually done by moving the handguard under the barrel back and forward. Pumping the shotgun, removes the spent round from the chamber, ejects it, and loads a new one from the magazine tube.

The shotgun has to be pumped before every shot, which is slower than a semi-automatic, but a lot faster than a simple break action single or double-barreled shotgun. Pump-action shotguns usually hold between 4 and 9 shotgun shells, depending on the length of the magazine tube, and give you a lot of close-range firepower. Pump-action shotguns are also inherently quite reliable, because of the manual action, they can also be cycled very quickly which makes them really good for combat.

Pump-action shotguns are very popular, among law enforcement and civilians alike. Pump-action shotguns like the Remington 870 and Mosberg 500 are very common among militaries and police units, and they are also very common and effective home defense weapons.

You can check out the Mossberg 500 and Remington 870 all on Palmetto State Armory.

Semi-Automatic Shotguns

Semi-automatic shotguns have been around for quite a while, and they are very strong close-range weapons. Unlike pump-action and break-action shotguns, semi-automatic shotguns don’t have to be loaded manually. They cycle the shells automatically with gas pressure generated from the fired shells, like a semi-automatic rifle.

Semi-automatic shotguns are really fast to shoot and allow you to send a lot of lead downrange quickly. They are super effective for home defense and are used by law enforcement and special tactical units as well. Semi-automatic shotguns are an absolute favorite of competition shooters, who use these fast shotguns in three gun and shotgun shooting competitions.

The Beretta A400 and Benelli M4 are some of the most common semi-automatic shotguns on the market. However, the drawback of these rifles is that they can be considerably more expensive compared to a pump-action shotgun, or a double-barreled shotgun. Moreover, since they are loaded automatically, they have a much more complicated operating system, which can result in more malfunctions, especially with cheap products. Still, high-quality semi-automatic shotguns like the Benelli M4 are very reliable weapons.

You can check out the Beretta A400 on Brownells and Benelli M4 on Palmetto State Armory.

Automatic Shotguns

There are also fully automatic shotguns in the market, however, they are quite rare because of the ban on fully automatic civilian weapons. These Shotguns are very powerful at close range but aren’t very practical because they can be almost impossible to control. The AA12 and Saiga 12 are common examples of full auto-capable shotguns, however, the semi-auto version of the saiga 12 is much more common in the US.


There have been a lot of different innovations in the world of shotguns, some of which have been more practical than others. Still, there are many different types of shotguns that don’t fit the categories mentioned.

For instance, Bolt action shotguns were quite popular for a while in the history of shotguns. Many manufacturers used to make them, but they have been almost obsolete for a while. Still, there is a small market for these shotguns, and manufacturers like savage arms still make some 20 gauge bolt action shotguns. Lever action shotguns have also existed, but they are also obsolete. The Winchester model 1887 was perhaps the only lever-action shotgun ever made.

There are also some unique shotguns in the market, like the standard manufacturing DP-12 shotgun, which is a double-barreled semi-automatic shotgun, which feeds from two magazine tubes. There are also some triple-barreled shotguns out there.

What Are the Best Home Defense Ammo Options?

The Ammunition

Shotguns can fire different kinds of shells, and there is a wide variety of different rounds available on the market. So, here is all the information you may need about shotgun Ammunition.

First of all, there are two main types of Ammunition used in shotguns. The first is Shotshells, which include birdshot and buckshot. These shells have powder and multiple small pellets inside them, which are the projectiles that hit the target. Secondly, Slug shells have a single slug in front of the powder. These slugs are heavy and carry a lot of power.

Shot Shells and Slug Shells are the two main classifications of Shotgun ammo. There can be multiple kinds of shot and slug shells, with different sizes, lengths, shot sizes, slug sizes, powder weight, and a lot of other variables. Here is an explanation of these different factors.


To determine the size of a shotgun shell, two factors are considered, firstly, the gauge of the shell, and the length of the shell.


Shotgun shells are usually measured by Gauge, and the Gauge simply refers to how large or small a shell is in terms of either diameter or circumference. Now, there is a lot of history behind this specific naming convention, but for now, let’s focus on the basics. It might seem contradictory, however, the larger the gauge number is, the smaller the shells are, for instance, a common 12 gauge shell has a diameter of about 18.5 mm (0.73 in), whereas a 28-gauge has a diameter of about 13.9 mm (0.55 inches). Here is a list of some of the most common shotgun gauges, in order from largest in size to smallest in size.

  • 10 gauge
  • 12 gauge
  • 20 gauge
  • 16 gauge
  • 28 gauge
  • 67 gauge (more commonly known as .410 bore)


Apart from the gauge, the length of a round is also very important. Most commonly, you’ll find 2-¾ inch, 3-inch, and 3-½ inch in any gun store, however, there are some smaller sizes as well, which aren’t that popular. You may also run into 2-½ inch and relatively new 1-¾ inch shells in some stores.

Now, in many cases, you can use shells of different lengths in the same gun, as long as they are the right gauge. In break-action shotguns, the shells are loaded directly into the barrel, therefore, it doesn’t really matter how small or long the shell is, as long as the diameter is right. Similarly, in manually operated shotguns, like pump-action shotguns, the shells are held in a magazine tube, therefore, you can load more shells if the length is smaller.

When it comes to semi-automatics, the length of the shell is important, in some cases, the shorter shells don’t have enough power to cycle the gun and load a new round. It is also important to keep in mind that shotguns that are designed for a shorter shell, should not be used to fire longer shells. In some cases, longer shells may not even load into a shotgun designed for shorter shells, however, if they do, they can cause problems as well.

So, you can’t simply slap any length of shell into any shotgun and fire it off.

How to find out which size shells can be used in a shotgun?

Shooting the wrong length shells from a shotgun can be dangerous, it can damage your gun, or even worse, cause a catastrophic failure that could injure you. Luckily, there’s an easy way to check what size of shell your shotgun can handle.

On most modern shotguns, it is stamped onto the barrel, usually near the make and model. Some older shotguns may not have it written on them, but you can still find that information from the manual, or online as well.

What are the different types of projectiles used in shotgun shells?

Now that you know about different sizes of shotgun shells, let’s talk about what is inside them, starting with shotshells. Shotshells have multiple projectiles or pellets in them, which spread when fired at a target and cause a lot of damage. Mainly, there are two types of shots used in Shotgun Shells – birdshot and buckshot.

Birdshot is sort of an umbrella term used for smaller shot sizes, which are mostly used to hunt birds and waterfowl. Buckshot is usually larger and is more lethal as well. It is used for hunting, personal defense, and many other purposes.

There are a lot of different shot sizes available in the market, and the sizes can get a little confusing. Starting from small to largest, the initial sizes are named with a number. For instance, #1 birdshot. The smallest size of birdshot, that is most popular is #8 Shot, which consists of pellets that are 0.08 inches in size. Then as the numbers get smaller, the size of the shot increases, for instance, #1 birdshot is about 0.16 inches in size and is used for hunting geese.

As you move to sizes bigger than #1, things get a little confusing. These shot sizes are named by an alphabet, for instance, the next bigger size is B shot, which is 0.17 inches in size. Then the sizes keep increasing by 0.01-inch increments for sizes BB, BBB, T, TT, TTT, F, and FF. As I said it can get a little confusing,

After this you have buckshot, the sizes of buckshot also start with numbers and then are named by alphabets. The smallest is #4 buckshot, and the largest is 000 buckshot.

In general, you don’t need to know all the sizes, just keep in mind that birdshot is better for bird hunting and clay shooting, whereas buckshot is more suitable for practical applications like hunting, home defense, and in any scenario where you need lethal force.

After this, Slugs are also used as projectiles in some large shotgun shells. These are usually 1-ounce slugs, which are the heaviest projectile and carry the most stopping power. Slugs are more commonly used for hunting big game, as they have better range than Shot.

What to do when you purchase your new shotgun

Now that you have bought a new shotgun, it is important that you familiarize yourself with the different parts of the shotgun. You should read the manual, and practice with your shotgun to get used to how it shoots. You should also learn how to disassemble, reassemble and clean your shotgun.

If you bought a brand new shotgun, it was probably test-fired at the factory. Such guns are usually covered with grease, therefore, disassembling the shotgun, and cleaning out the barrel gets the grease out, and allows you to inspect the inside of the barrel more closely as well,

brushing inside

Properly Maintain Your Shotgun

Once you buy a shotgun, its maintenance is essential if you want it to last a long time, and keep working perfectly. The main tools that you will need to maintain and clean a shotgun include some form of lubricant, a nitro solvent, shotgun rod and brushes, and cleaning patches.

There are several solvents and lubricants available on the market, and a lot of discussions on which is the best. The easiest route is to go for a shotgun cleaning kit which includes everything that you may need.

For a solvent or lubricant, Ballistol is a good option. It is organic and works as both a solvent and lubricant. You have to mix your solvent with some water, and put it in a spray bottle. You then sit on the barrel for a while, use a brush to remove the carbon from the exposed surfaces, and use a cloth with a cleaning rod to clean out the barrel. Keep cleaning the barrel until the cloth comes out without any signs of residue on it.

When you buy a new shotgun, you should clean off the factory grease that is usually on it. Then you can use a metal conditioner on it. You should apply the condition as recommended by the manufacturer, and apply some lubricant to the metal parts as well.

Whenever you take your shotgun out for hunting or on a range day, you need to make sure to clean it afterward. Otherwise, shotguns can usually sit in a safe for a long time between hunting trips or range days, and all the carbon buildup and residue can damage the shotgun over time.

Final Thoughts

So, shotguns are a very versatile and effective weapon that can fit a wide variety of roles. There are so many things that need to be considered when buying a shotgun, and we hope that this post helps you make that decision, and gives you some useful information about what ammo to use for different purposes.

Mathew R Reed

Mathew R Reed is a professional gun seller who runs a dedicated gun store in the suburbs of Oakland, CA. A hardcore hunting enthusiast since childhood, Reed has ample experience with guns and accessories. He is the founder of and creates some of the most helpful gun-buying guides and explainers. If not in the gun shop, you can find him on the nearest hiking trail or nearby hunting spot.