Types of Shotguns: A Guide to Actions, Gauges, and Designs

by Vern Evans

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The shotgun world is big and diverse. It’s full of different action types, gauges, and designs meant for specific purposes. So how, exactly, should a new shooter start to learn about the different types of shotguns? Think of this story as a primer.

In this overview we’ll cover popular shotgun actions, gauges, and designs. For the sake of brevity, we’ll focus only on common and modern types of shotguns. 

Shotgun Actions

A firearm’s action is the mechanism by which the gun loads shells into its breech. First, you need to know that there are three main shotgun action types: the pump action, semi auto, and break action. A pump-action shotgun functions by the shooter sliding the forend rearward to eject a spent shell and then sliding the forend forward to chamber a new round. A semi-auto shotgun (or autoloader) uses the energy of the round as it is fired to eject a spent shell and cycle in a new shell, automatically with every pull of the trigger. A break-action shotgun works on a hinge to expose its breech and allow loading and unloading. 

Here’s a deeper look into the different action styles and their merits. 

Pump Action Shotguns

Most pump shotguns (sometimes referred to as slide actions) have an ejection port on the side of the receiver, a loading port on the bottom of the receiver and a tubular magazine beneath the barrel. They also have an action release or action bar lock near the trigger guard. Here’s a cool video illustrating how an 870 pump shotgun works.

Pump Shotgun Pros

  • Reliability. Because pump shotguns are cycled manually, there’s very little to cause the gun to jam. The pump is popular for waterfowl hunting and home defense for this reason.
  • Affordability. The average pump is more affordable than a semi-auto or over/under shotgun. This makes them a good starter gun for many shooters. 
  • Versatility.  A pump-action shotgun is the ultimate do-it-all platform. The two most popular pumps of all time, the Remington 870 and Mossberg 500, have innumerable after-market modification options. 
  • Simplicity. Most pumps are easy to run, assemble, disassemble, and clean.   

Pump Shotgun Cons

  • Lower quality. Nowadays most pump shotguns are manufactured in Turkey. Though there are some exceptions, most are lacking in terms of fit, finish, and aesthetics. 
  • Heavier weight. Pump shotguns are typically a bit bulky. In our review of the best pump shotguns, the top guns weighed between 7.5 and 8 pounds, which is a half-pound to a pound more than what a svelte semi-auto or O/U will weigh.
  • Slower rate of fire. Because you have to manually work the action, pumps are slower to fire second shots compared to other types of shotguns. With that said, experienced pump shooters can cycle shells plenty fast enough for doubles on clays or live birds.
  • Rem Arms 870 Fieldmaster. The 870 is the most popular pump of all time and the latest iteration, the Fieldmaster, is an upgrade over the old Express.
  • Browning BPS. This bottom-eject shotgun is one of the slickest and highest quality pumps in production today. Because shells eject from the bottom of the receiver, it’s a great option for lefties. 
  • Mossberg 500 and 835. Mossberg makes affordable and reliable pump shotguns. Their turkey hunting versions in these two lines are the best in the market. 
  • Benelli Nova. This tank of shotgun runs reliably and has a futuristic look. I recommend the 3-inch version of the gun. 

Who Should Get a Pump Shotgun?

If you want a workhorse repeater at an affordable price, the pump shotgun is the platform for you. They won’t jam in frigid weather and you won’t have to feel bad when you accidentally scratch up the gun. There are a wide variety of synthetic-stock models out there, which are unlovely but they get the job done. Pumps are also a solid choice for a no-fuss home defense shotgun.

Lever-Action Shotguns, the Other Manually-Operated Smoothbore

Shotguns that operate with a lever-action represent a small percentage of smoothbore production, but they do exist. Henry makes a number of lever-actions chambered in .410 that are designed for small-game hunting. And other companies, like Chiappa and Taylor’s & Co., make reproductions of the classic Winchester 1887 for cowboy-action shooting.

Semi-Auto Shotguns

Like pumps, semi-auto shotguns typically have an ejection port on the side of the receiver and a loading port on the bottom. Unlike pumps, they also have a charging handle for pulling back the bolt, and a bolt release which allows the bolt to snap forward into battery. Some semi-auto shotguns (usually those that operate on inertia rather than gas) also have a carrier release, which releases a shell from the magazine. On shotguns equipped with one it also needs to be depressed in order to lock the bolt back.

Autoloading shotguns use either the recoil generated from firing a shell or high-pressure gas from ignition to eject the spent hull and cycle a new shell into the chamber. Both of these designs automatically fire with each pull of the trigger.

Recoil Driven Semi-Autos

This video below explains how a recoil or inertia driven system works. Benelli is probably the best-known shotgun maker utilizing a recoil driven system, but Franchi, Stoeger, Retay, and others use a similar concept.

Recoil semi-autos tend to be lighter than gas-operated guns, and they also have slimmer forends and more slender designs overall. The trade off is that they typically produce more felt recoil than gas guns. Some models can get gummed up in adverse weather, especially sub-zero temps. 

Gas-Operated Semi-Autos

The video below illustrates how Beretta’s B-Link gas operated system works. Browning, Mossberg, and others use similar concepts in their gas-operated shotguns. In the video, you can how the system bleeds off excess gas, using only enough to cycle the action.

Gas-operated shotguns tend to produce less felt recoil because they use pressurized gas from the shell to energize the action and because they are typically heavier. On the downside, these guns typically have bulkier forends (which house the gas systems) and they run dirtier than inertia guns. However with regular cleaning, they are known to run reliably in all conditions. 

Semi Auto Shotgun Pros

  • Firepower. Compared to a pump shotgun, an autoloader is easier to run quickly. This is useful for following up missed shots or for shooting doubles on the clays range or in the field. Like pump-actions, semi-autos use tubular magazines, meaning they can hold more loads than side-by-side and over-under shotguns.  
  • Reduced Recoil. Semi-autos, even recoil-driven models, produce less felt recoil than other types of shotguns. This is because they use energy from ignition to power the action. In addition,many top-end autoloaders incorporate recoil-reduction systems in their stocks. Minimizing recoil helps shooters stay on target or pick up a second target more quickly. 
  • Quality. The best semi-auto shotguns are smartly designed, beautiful tools (at least to a duck hunter like me). They boast features like cerakoted barrels and carbon fiber ribs. Most of the nicer models are made in Italy. These guns typically cost $1,500 to $2,000.
  • Affordability. In recent years, even more bargain priced semi-autos have proven field worthy. For $600 to $900 you can have a dependable shotgun from Winchester, Retay, Franchi, CZ, or a base model A300 from Beretta. These more affordable semi-autos will do just fine for hunting and casual clays shooting. The cheaper models are typically made in Turkey. 

Semi Auto Shotgun Cons

  • Unreliability. While all the top semi-auto shotguns cycle reliably under normal conditions, these guns are more likely to get finicky during extreme weather or when they get especially dirty. They are also more prone to user error. You’re likely to have a misfire if you don’t slam the bolt home fully or maybe you allow the bolt charging handle to catch on a branch. This is not a reason to avoid semi-autos, it’s simply a reminder to give them a little more care. 
  • Complexity. Semi-autos—especially gas-operated ones—have more moving parts, which requires more time for disassembly and cleaning. Just fire up a good YouTube when it’s time to take your gun apart (and put it back together).    
  • Benelli SBE 3. The Super Black Eagle 3 is one of the most respected duck hunting shotguns on the market for good reason. It’s earned a reputation as a reliable, sweet shooting autoloader. 
  • Beretta A400. Utilizing its B-Link gas-operated system, Beretta has built an empire of great shotguns under its A400 family. It offers a wide variety of options for clays shooters, waterfowlers, and upland hunters. 
  • Browning Maxus 2. Browning’s flagship gas-operated semi-auto has grippy rubber over molds on its forend and it points and swings naturally. At 7 pounds, it’s nice and light for a gas gun. 
  • Winchester SX4. The SX4 is a gas gun made out of Portugal that is one of the best values on the semi-auto market. Everyone seems to shoot an SX4 well. They run without fail. You can get one for about $900. 

Who Should Get a Semi-Auto Shotgun?

All the serious duck hunters I know shoot autoloaders. A lot of sporting clays shooters also opt for semi-autos. Realistically, a semi-auto is a good fit for anyone who wants a fast-firing shotgun that will mitigate felt recoil. 

Break Action Shotguns

This traditional shotgun design “breaks” open at the breech, where shells are loaded and unloaded. There are single shot, over/under, and side-by-side break-action shotguns, but here we’ll focus on the latter two because they are the most popular. Break action shotguns typically have an opening lever or “top lever” located on top of the gun. Behind the top lever you’ll find a tang safety, often with barrel selectors that allow you to pick which barrel fires first.  

Over/Under Shotguns

An O/U shotgun has two barrels paired vertically with one above the other. Today, O/Us are much more popular for hunting and clays shooting. Their advantages include a cleaner sight picture (with a side-by-side you see both barrels while pointing the gun), and more natural pointability, at least for most shooters. 

Side-by-Side Shotguns

While side-by-sides are no longer the most popular shotgun platform, they are seeing a bit of a renaissance in bird hunting. As their name suggests, the barrels are set alongside each other horizontally. SxS shotguns are typically lighter and more compact than other shotgun platforms, making them a favorite among nostalgic upland bird hunters. On the downside, well made side-by-sides are expensive.  Plus, their recoil impulse and the sight picture they offer can take some getting used to. 

More About Break Action Shotguns

Single Trigger vs Double Triggers

Double guns will have either one trigger or two. A shotgun with double triggers (one for each barrel) gives you the option to quickly select which barrel fires first. If you’re used to shooting a shotgun with a single trigger, learning a double trigger takes a little time.

Single triggers will either be mechanical or inertial. Inertial triggers require recoil to prepare the shot with the second hammer. This design is meant to prevent doubling (accidentally firing both barrels nearly simultaneously) however, if for some reason the first round does not fire, neither will the second. Mechanical triggers do not require recoil to set and both hammers fall independently. Double-barrels with one trigger typically have a barrel selector tab which allows the shooter to decide which barrel they want to fire first.  

Boxlock vs Sidelock

There are a ton of nuances when it comes to the actions of SxS and O/U shotguns. However two important action designs to know about are boxlocks and sidelocks. With the boxlock design, linkages sit inside a box in the action. Boxlocks have far fewer parts than sidelocks and are known for their reliability. 

The locks of a sidelock sit on the sides of the action, which allows for more solid steel to be built into the action, providing added strength. Sidelocks have many more pins and screws, so they are time-consuming to manufacture. 

The extractor in a break-action shotgun is the mechanism that lifts the shell out of the breech as you break the gun open. It does this whether the shell is fired or not, but it does not kick shells out of the gun. Ejectors work just like extractors except they fling spent shells clear out of the breech when you break the gun open. Ejector guns are faster to reload, since you don’t have to take the step of plucking out the spent shells. However extractor guns make it easier to collect spent hulls since they are not popping them in the air. Below you can see how Benelli’s 828U ejector system works.

Break Action Shotgun Pros

  • Quality and workmanship. If you want your shotgun to be functional art, you’re going to end up shooting a break-action shotgun. The finest shotguns in the world are double guns made in Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. High-end doubles are known for beautiful checkering, inlays, and fitting. They are heirloom guns that you’ll shoot for a lifetime and then give to your kids. 
  • Customization. It’s critical that your shotgun fits you well. There are a variety of options out there for getting a gun fitting (think of it like getting fitted for a suit). For example, the Upland Gun Company, based in Minnesota, is making a name for itself by turning out semi-custom shotguns at reasonable prices.  

  • Reliability. There’s really nothing that can jam up a SxS or O/U shotgun. Outside of a true catastrophe, mud and snow can’t foul the closed action. 
  • Diversity in weight and length. Break-action hunting guns can be made to be ultra light and compact. For example the Beretta Ultraleggero weighs only 6.4 pounds as a 12 gauge with 28-inch barrels. On the flip side, target guns can be very heavy for smoothly tracking fast targets. For example, gold medalist Vincent Hancock’s Beretta DT11 weighs more than 8 pounds. 
  • Two choke options at once. Because a SxS or O/U has two barrels, it also has two chokes. This allows a shooter to select a more open choke for their first barrel and a tighter choke for their second barrel (the assumption being that your second shot will be at a farther target). Some folks like this option so much that they choose an O/U as their turkey gun. Using the barrel selector, you can shoot your open choke at a close gobbler and your tight choke at long range.  
  • Easy to collect spent hulls. One of the reasons dedicated clays shooters like break-action shotguns is because they don’t spray empty hulls all over the course. Even with ejectors it’s easy to throw the hulls right into the station’s trash can. This might not seem like a big deal until you have to pick a few hundred hulls out of the weeds after a morning of shooting a semi-auto on a clays course. 
  • Safety. It’s easy to break the gun open and disable its ability to fire. When you’re on a clays course this is required when you’re not shooting. When you’re in the field, you break the gun open whenever you cross a fence, stop to give your dog a drink of water, or just take a pause from the hunt to chat.  

Break Action Shotgun Cons

  • Limited firepower. You only get two shots before having to reload, and for some of us, that is just not enough. 
  • Pricey. Remember all that inlay work and custom fitting I mentioned? Well, that’s going to cost you. Truly high-end guns run $20,000 or more. For the peasantry, there’s a wide variety of field and target guns in the $2,500 to $6,000 range. Even bargain-priced Over/Unders will cost about a grand (and you’re giving up all those niceties).   

Who Should Get a Break Action Shotgun

If you’re determined to become a serious clays competitor, you should consider one of the many sporting over/unders. Likewise, if you’re a dedicated upland bird hunter, an easy-to-carry O/U is a great choice. If you’re the nostalgic type or want a compact shotgun for chasing grouse in the Northwoods, consider a classic side-by-side. Or, if you’ve just got too much damned money and you need a way to spend it, developing a taste for fine shotguns is an excellent solution. 

  • Browning Citori. This is one of the most popular upland bird hunting guns on the market today and it comes in a ton of different variations. 
  • Beretta Silver Pigeon. With a price point of around $2,500 this is one of the best options for someone looking for a nice O/U without breaking the bank. 
  • Beretta DT11. This is a serious clays gun that will set you back about 10 large.
  • Caesar Guerini Revenant. This was the Editor’s Choice winner of our 2020 shotgun test, winning us over with stunning looks and excellent performance on the clays range. 
  • Franchi Instinct. This is a workaday hunting gun that looks nicer than most in its price range. 
  • Fabarm Autumn. There aren’t a ton of new mid-priced SXS shotguns in production today, but the Autumn is a happy exception. Read our full review here.
  • RFM Zeus. This is the flagship shotgun of the Upland Gun Company and it can be had in a wide variety of build-your-own configurations. 
  • CZ Bobwhite. If you just want a starter SXS to get in the game, this affordable (starting at $690) turkish-made gun is a solid choice. 

Shotgun Gauges

A shotgun’s gauge is the measurement of the bore. How we came up with the numeric system for describing any given gauge is outdated and requires math but if you must know, it’s the number of lead balls of the given bore diameter that it takes to weigh a pound. In other words, it would take 12 balls of lead of the same size as a 12 gauge shotgun’s inner bore diameter to weigh 1 pound.

This is not important to know. What is important is that the larger the number, the smaller the bore (a 20 gauge has a smaller bore diameter than a 12 gauge). One exception here is the little .410 bore, which is a measurement of the bore in inches. Below is a list of the six most popular gauges, their bore diameter, and where they stand in the hunting and shooting world.

10 gauge

Bore diameter: .775 inches. The 10 gauge is essentially on life support in the world of American wingshooting. Few companies make guns or loads for this gauge anymore. You can still find a couple diehard duck hunters and turkey hunters who stubbornly shoot hefty 10 gauges for the massive payloads they deliver.

12 gauge

Bore diameter: .729 inches. The 12 gauge is the most popular gauge in the U.S. (and worldwide) by a long shot. There is a huge variety of shells available for the 12 gauge, ranging from light target loads to magnum turkey loads and self defense rounds. The key to the 12 gauge’s success is its ability to shoot all these different loads, which gives it great versatility. If I were to have only one shotgun, it would be a 12 gauge. 

16 gauge

Bore diameter: .665 inches. The 16 gauge is only chambered for 2 ¾-inch shells which hurts its versatility a bit. Still, it’s a beloved gauge by some upland bird hunters, especially thanks to Browning’s popular Sweet 16 A5. 

20 gauge

Bore diameter: .615 inches. With the popularity of denser-than-steel shot materials like bismuth and tungsten, some hunters are claiming that the 20 gauge is the new 12. It’s true that a 3-inch, 20-gauge shell delivering a 1 ⅛-ounce payload of bismuth or Hevi-Shot is plenty effective for killing ducks and upland birds cleanly. A 3-inch 20-gauge load full of TSS is all you’ll ever need for gobblers near and far. Plus, in most cases 20 gauges are significantly lighter than the same models in 12 gauge. For example the 20 gauge SBE 3 is a pound lighter than its big brother, even with the same barrel length. 

28 gauge

Bore diameter: .550 inches. The 28 gauge is trendy among certain circles of diehard wingshooters. It’s a good option for hunters who want a light gun and light recoil. More 28 gauge shotguns are now being turned out with 3-inch chambers and more ammo makers are offering 3-inch loads, turning the 28 into a legitimate choice for hunting ducks and upland birds. We’re also seeing new turkey guns and TSS loads being made in 28 gauge. On the downside, it does take a little practice to shoot these dainty 28s well. Plus, bismuth and tungsten 28 gauge loads are pricey. 

.410 bore

Bore diameter: .410 inches. Thanks to Tungsten Super Shot pellets, the .410 is seeing real popularity as a turkey gun (see our review of the best .410 turkey guns here and the best .410 turkey loads here). Otherwise, the .410 is a fine choice for small game and backyard plinking. It’s also an oddball favorite among expert clay shooters who don’t want to deal with recoil but do want the challenge of tiny payloads and patterns. 

Niche Shotguns

There are specific shotgun designs meant for specific jobs. Here’s a quick overview of the most popular types of shotguns based on assignment. 

Turkey Guns

Turkey hunting shotguns have shorter barrels for easier maneuvering in the woods. Many have pistol grips to make for better aiming from a sitting position. A good turkey gun should come with a rail for easily mounting red dots. Nowadays they all have full or extra-full turkey chokes screwed in. Read our review of the best shotguns for turkey hunting. 

Duck Guns

Duck hunting shotguns get used and abused in the toughest conditions imaginable. Because of this, most have synthetic stocks and protective coatings on their receivers and barrels. Many semi-auto duck guns have extra-large controls for use with gloves. Read our review of the best shotguns for duck hunting. 

Home Defense and Tactical Shotguns

Like turkey guns, defensive shotguns have shorter barrels for maneuvering in close quarters and pistol grips for control. They also typically have extended tubular magazines for more round capacity. And like duck guns, semi-auto tactical guns typically have larger controls. Most defensive shotguns include rails for mounting optics and lights. Read our review of the best home defense shotguns.

Shotguns for Multi-Gun Competition

These shotguns are a niche offshoot of home defense and tactical shotguns and are used in games like 3 Gun and other multi-gun sports. They frequently have customized add-ons including extended magazine tubes that can accept as many as 12 shells, hogged out receivers for quick reloads, oversized controls, and sights for placing slugs on small and sometimes distant steel targets. One of the most popular out-of-the-box multi-gun shotguns is the Mossberg 940 JM Pro. 

Sporting Guns

Sporting and target shotguns are hefty and have long barrels. (It might seem like a very light shotgun would be better for shooting fast clay targets, but this is not the case). Beyond that, many sporting guns have adjustments in the stock to help with proper gun fit. Aesthetically, they’re usually flashier and often more colorful than field guns. Think of them as the F1 race cars of the shotgun world. Read our review of the best shotguns for sporting clays.

Slug Guns

Slug guns have rifled barrels and are mostly used for big-game hunting. They either come with open sights or have options for easily mounting an optic (some have both). Though the slug gun has fallen from popularity a bit with the rise of straightwall rifle hunting opportunities, there’s still a good roster of them still being manufactured. Read our review of the best shotguns for deer hunting. 

Final Thoughts on Types of Shotguns

There is much more to learn about shotguns than any single story can offer, and most of it can only be truly learned on the range. So if you’re hungry for more, book yourself a shooting lesson and experience the good stuff firsthand. If you take anything from this story I hope it’s this: just because you can own only one shotgun to do it all, that doesn’t mean that you should. All actions, gauges, and designs have their place, and each deserves a spot in the gun cabinet.

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