I have very little experience with shotguns, which means I am totally qualified to write this article, right? In fact, it wasn’t until this summer that I held my first shotgun. I bought one shortly after and the experience was overwhelming. Apparently everyone had very strong opinions on what type of gun I needed and what type is the very best, which made it hard to decide how to choose one. So from someone who doesn’t have enough experience to have very strong opinions on a particular brand, here is how I chose my first shotgun.
Pick A Gauge
The most common gauge for upland hunting is the 12 gauge, but the 20 offers a lot of advantages for women. The larger the gauge the smaller the bore (the bore is the inside diameter of the barrel). So the 20 gauge is lighter and has less recoil than the 12 gauge. Both 12 and 20 gauge are capable of handling upland birds, including pheasants. Your shot will play a roll, too (there are a ton of options, so I am not getting into that). At the end of the day, there are a variety of great options, but 20 gauge is the way to go for women wanting a light gun with minimal recoil.
Choose Your Type
Shotguns come in a variety of types, including pump-action, semi-automatic, and break-action. Project Upland does a great job of explaining these:
Single shots ($200 – $300): The most basic shotguns. They hold one shell, so you fire, reload, repeat. Most use a break-open action with an exposed hammer. Some older models are bolt actions. While single shots are okay for dog training or for a youngster’s first shotgun, better options exist for a bit more money. Pass.
Pumps ($500 – $750): The top choice for most bird hunters. Pumps hold up to five shells and require you to “pump” the forend to reload the chamber and cock the action after firing. Hunters have probably killed more gamebirds with pumps than with all other types of shotguns combined. Why? Because pumps are affordable, reliable, versatile, easy to repair, and available in all sorts of configurations. And because companies like Remington, Winchester, and Ithaca built pump shotguns for so long, there are tons of used ones on the market and bargains are easy to find. Recommended.
Semi-automatics ($500 – $1750): The second most popular shotguns for bird hunting. When you pull the trigger on a semi-auto, the gun fires once and then reloads and cocks itself. It does this by siphoning off a portion of the recoil. This makes semi-autos easier on your shoulder and super comfortable to shoot, even if they’re lightweight. Recommended.
Double barrels ($650 to more than your truck): The king of upland guns. Like it says in the name, double barrels have two barrels. Each holds a single shell. Barrels come in two configurations: Side-by-side or over/under. Some doubles have two triggers, one for each barrel. Others have a single trigger which fires one barrel the first time you pull it and the other barrel the second time. While doubles can cost more than a year of private college, others — especially O/Us — are as affordable as a new pump or semi-auto. Drawbacks? How specialized double barrels can be. Lightweight ones built for Georgia quail aren’t going to cut it on South Dakota pheasants. But that’s okay. It’s the perfect reason to buy more guns. Highly Recommended.
Find The Fit
One thing everyone agreed on is finding a gun that fits you. There are a variety of aspects of finding the right fit and there are even experts that can measure you. I wasn’t ready to invest that much in my first shotgun, so some general rules of thumb to keep in mind are:
Whether you are right or left handed will determine fit.
Length of pull: The length of pull or LOP is the distance from the middle of the trigger to the end of the gun’s buttstock. It is one of the most important aspects of a gun’s dimensions and determines whether the gun will fit you. Meaning how comfortable the gun feels to you and how accurate you can shoot it. With the correct length of pull, you will have quick sight acquisition, better control, better accuracy, and feel more comfortable. Most rifles and shotguns are designed for the average adult male, but many of us, especially women, are not built like your average adult male. Therefore, you will find that many long guns will not feel comfortable when you go to take your first shot. You know you have found the right length of pull for you that when you go to shoulder the gun; your sight picture is right on target, your finger can easily reach the trigger, and you don’t have to strain your neck too far to rest on the gun’s cheek piece. (You can read more about LOP from this article.)
Drop: Drop at comb is the vertical distance between the top of the comb and a straight, imaginary line along the center of the rib extending over the top of the comb back to the heal of the butt. This measurement is usually taken in two places: at the peak of the comb and at the heel. The drop at comb is typically greater at the heal than at the peak, unless you are dealing with the rare parallel comb. If the drop at comb is too slight, your eye will come to rest at a point too far above the rib. If the drop at comb is too much, your dominant eye will dip down below the rib when the gun is fully mounted, occluding your view of the target. We tend to see this often in female and youth shooters and others with a high cheekbone and narrow facial features. Again, the goal is to have your eye centered on the rib and positioned just over the rib, like a marble on a table. (You can read more about drop from this article.)
Cast: Whereas the drop of the gun is responsible for the shot pattern landing higher or lower, the cast takes care of the right or left movement of the pattern. The cast of the stock is simply the measurement between the central line of the gun and the central line of the stock’s butt. Cast can be applied in either direction and is referred to as ‘cast on’ when the butt ends up being left of the gun’s central line and ‘cast off’ when the butt ends up being to the right of it. The aim of cast is to ensure that the when the gun is mounted in the correct position, the eye sits centrally over the rib without the need to roll the head in order to put it there. (You can read more about cast from this article.)
Once you have your gun picked out, there are a few more things that you'll need! Shells, of course. 12 and 20 gauge shells should be easy to find, but less popular gauges, like the 16 gauge, might be more difficult. A gun case is a great way to store your new shotgun; a simple canvas one will do the job. Finally, you'll need a cleaning kit to keep it maintained. There are a variety of cleaning kits available that offer the necessities!
When it comes to finding the right gun for you, set your priorities and find something within them. I went with the Wetherby SA-08 because it was in my price range, 20 gauge, semi-automatic and synthetic. I am not worried about it getting banged up in the field and it is so light and easy for me to shoot. I can shoot clays for a long time and not even feel it. It’s not a perfect fit, as I am smaller, but it is a great place for me to start. When I have a better idea of what I am doing and am ready to invest in a gun that fits better, I will probably look into something like the Syren guns that are made for women. If you have friends with shotguns, I encourage to try as many as you can and find what feels right!