When it comes to helping someone new to guns choose the best shotgun for them, every blog in the gun world reads the same. The bulk of the post is spent educating the reader on gauges and chokes and action types.
There’s no personal experience from the author and no real recommendation made. There’s sometimes a sales angle (sponsorship, which I don’t have and wouldn’t accept) and there’s usually a lot of gun nerd facts in the place of practical information.
It’s an opportunity for the author to say, “Look at me! I know so much about guns!” When the reader replies, “Okay, that’s great. What’s the best shotgun for me?” the best the author can do is shrug and repeat some basic information (reinforcing their position as an “authority”).
That’s not how I operate.
In this article, I’m going to show you what I chose as the best shotgun for me (and why), talk about the importance of maintenance, and how to choose a shotgun you’ll actually want to use.
I’ll also talk about choosing the best shotgun for hunting, self defense, and home defense. This is one of the few things in life where you don’t have to compromise.
Shocking, I know…I’m actually going to tell you what you want to know in an article about choosing a gun without trying to sell you something or regurgitate Wikipedia-type information. There’s too much of that online.
I do always assume that I’m talking to total newbies, though. If that’s you, read on.
If you already know all about gauges, actions, and choke, skip down to “My Shotgun” and we’ll get to the meat of the matter.
A shotgun chambering isn’t called caliber, it’s called gauge. In some cases it’s called bore, which means caliber. Why? Beats me, ask one of those other bloggers.
The most common are 12 gauge, 20 gauge, and .410 bore. Some less common ones that have a kind of cult following are the 10 gauge, 16 gauge, and 28 gauge.
Unless you already have a shotgun in 10, 16, or 28 gauge, stick to the first three. 16 gauge is overpriced when you can find it and it’s not going to be on the shelf in most stores.
Smaller numbers mean bigger bores, so a 10 gauge has a bigger bore than a 20 gauge. Gauge doesn’t determine power, by the way. There are 20 gauge loads that are more powerful and have more recoil than some 12 gauge loads.
Don’t get wrapped up in the debate over power. It’s as pointless as the “caliber war” threads on forums. You’re better off choosing your shotgun’s chambering based on availability of ammunition.
12 gauge is the most common, 20 and .410 the next most common. The .410 is only useful for snakes, and a 12 gauge or 20 gauge will kill snakes just as dead as a .410. The only real value in a .410 is teaching your kids to shoot a shotgun like you’d use a .22 to teach them how to shoot a rifle.
If you live in bear country, go with the 12 gauge. If you live in the lower 48, pick whichever you prefer. I like and use both 12 and 20 gauge.
This one’s easier than you think.
There are pump action shotguns, break action shotguns, and semi-automatic shotguns. Ask the guy at the gun store and he’ll show you the difference. If he won’t, ask Youtube.
Some shotguns can function as a pump or semi-auto. Their price reflects it.
If you’re only going to exclusively shoot paper or clay, go with a semi-automatic. They’re overpriced and higher maintenance. I don’t like them.
If you’re dead broke, go with a break action shotgun. The old single barrel break actions are the cheapest shotguns around. My first home defense gun was a fifty year old break action that costed eighty bucks and worked fine.
If you’re flush with cash, go with a semi-auto or break action. The ritzy double barrels and semi-autos are ridiculously expensive and ridiculously high quality. I don’t like either for much more than looking at.
If you’re practical, go with a pump action. I’ll get to showing you mine shortly. They’re priced right and they’re useful for anything. They’re one of my favorites for home defense, depending on where you live.
A pump action shotgun is going to do whatever you need a shotgun to do.
At the end of the day, I know you’ll use whatever you want. Don’t bother commenting about how I hurt your feelings by bashing your favorite action type. We’re supposedly all adults here.
Easier still. Barrel choke affects shot spread, which matters for hunting certain game. Don’t worry about choke yet. Just make sure that your barrel can accept them if you think you’ll ever need them. Here’s what to look for:
Now that we have that out of the way, we can get more interesting. I said that I hate the lack of personal experience in most gun blogs (paid reviews, bland analysis, repackaged content) so let’s talk about my shotgun.
My shotgun is ugly.
There’s no other word for it.
If it really matters to you, this is a Mossberg 500. I like the Mossberg 500. It’s intuitive for me.
Don’t believe the hype. The main difference between the Mossberg 500 and Remington 870 (the two most common pump action shotguns) is the location of the safety. Handle both in a gun store and see which you prefer.
They both work. Stop obsessing over brands of guns. Fanboy gun nerds that worship one gun company as the one true gunmaker and eschew all others are delusional. Stop arguing over which company makes the best guns.
Big companies ultimately don’t care what a single customer prefers (because it’s an opinion) and it doesn’t affect their business at all. Opinions and assholes, I’m sure you know the saying.
Now, where were we?
Making the Monster
It looks like two different shotguns got frankensteined together.
Guess what? That’s exactly what happened.
Two cool looking shotguns became one weird looking monstrosity that I carry along whenever I’m going somewhere that calls for a shotgun.
I bought a police trade-in shotgun that was absolutely ancient. I liked the blue steel and wood, because most shotguns now have black plastic and a matte coating instead. Also, somebody had sawed off the barrel (gasp!) to the legal minimum length (Oh, Okay.)
Nobody questions a cop sawing off a shotgun. Their job is to keep you safe, right? Wrong.
The problem with the police trade-in was that it was damaged. If you didn’t keep forward pressure on the forend (the part you pump, for you new guys) then it would fly backwards upon firing. Supposedly caused by a faulty trigger group.
It sounds like that would make it quicker to pump, but it just feels weird and upsets your pumping rhythm.
About a year after I bought it, the safety broke. That’s no fun. Between the safety and the worn internals, I decided to stick it in the safe.
A few months later, I bought a hunting shotgun with an old school camo coating. The barrel was ported and it had two beads to aid in aiming. I still bought it for next to nothing.
How, you ask?
The previous owner had decided to make a plug for his magazine tube so he could legally hunt with it. I don’t blame him. It’s a great slug gun.
The problem was that he used wood from a tree in his back yard to make the plug. The moisture in the wood rusted his magazine spring and created a mess in his magazine tube. The forend (which was the most comfortable forend I’ve ever used) was also cracked through from riding around in his truck.
He didn’t want to bother with fixing it. The best part? It was unfired! He’d never even gotten to shoot it.
Both shotguns happened to be Mossberg 500 variants, so they could swap parts. I bought the camo shotgun for a song and began to create my monster. I took the best parts from two shotguns and created the best shotgun for me.
Build Your Own Beast
This is the route I recommend you take. I was able to get a mechanically new shotgun by mixing together two broken ones bought on consignment. I spent less than I would have for a brand new shotgun.
I also got a second barrel, since both shotguns had perfectly good barrels. One for hunting, one for home defense. So yeah, it’s the best shotgun for me. It’ll do anything I need a shotgun to do.
Another reason I suggest you build the best shotgun you can is that it’ll teach you the inner workings of your shotgun. You’ll have an idea of whats wrong if something wears out in the future. It’s just good to know.
I also think it’s a good idea to have that knowledge. I’m not worried about living in a post-apocalyptic world, but if you’re one of those guys then you probably agree it’s best to know how to fix your guns with other broken guns. There’s a certain self reliance in it.
Some parts are a lot easier to swap out than you would imagine, and a Mossberg 500 is one of the easiest to change parts on. The only thing you need to take the gun completely apart is a pin punch (or a nail). Look at the 3 pictures below showing a barrel swap, no tools required.
Let’s talk some more about an ugly shotgun being the best shotgun for you.
Where I’m from, we have what we call “truck guns”. Truck guns are what they sound like. A gun that lives in your truck.
You wouldn’t want to use one of those overpriced semi-automatic or double barrel shotguns as a truck gun. That’s saying, “Hey, break out my window and steal my gun.” You want an ugly truck gun. My ugly shotgun fits the bill.
Another value of having an ugly gun is that you won’t be afraid to actually use it. My hunting rifle (stock, scope, trigger, and sling) would cost more to replace than my first car.
It would hurt my soul to break that rifle. Too much time and money have gone into it. I hate that I feel that way, because I don’t like being attached to objects, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t attached to that rifle.
I’m not the least bit worried about my ugly shotgun.
If I get it scratched up, I don’t buff it. If I break something, I’ll just repair it again. Hell, I don’t even worry about oiling it (maybe once every few years).
To me, the best shotgun should also be the best truck gun. It just makes sense. I’ve never understood why people insist on wasting money on guns they don’t even use.
The Shotgun’s Biggest Advantage
Speaking of using your gun, shotguns are the most versatile firearm out there. The only thing more versatile than a shotgun is a muzzleloading shotgun, since your load is a custom load by virtue of being a muzzleloader.
The best shotgun for you probably isn’t a muzzleloader, though.
Modern shotguns are very versatile. You’ll find that out when you walk down the shotgun shell aisle at a big gun store. Different sizes and weights of shot, different powder charges, and different projectile types all add to the gun’s versatility.
Shot Size – The number (#4 shot, #8 shot, 00, 000, etc) on the shotshell tells you how big the individual pieces of lead inside the shotshell are. Like with gauge, the smaller the number the bigger the shot.
I usually use 00 Buck in 12 gauge and #4 in 20 gauge. Settle on what you can find because shot size doesn’t affect power, it affects penetration. If I need more penetration than 00 Buck or #4, I’ll just load a shotgun slug. More on them below.
To give you a rough idea, 00 Buck pellets are barely smaller than 9mm bullets. Firing your shotgun once throws a column of lead (a single column at short distance, not a cloud of lead that covers the room) equal to nine 9mm shots fired at the same time.
Shot Weight – The actual amount of shot in the shotshell. Usually, a bigger gauge of shotshell carries a larger amount of shot but not always.
You can get shotgun shells with one ounce of lead in both 12 and 20 gauge, making the supposed power difference a moot point.
That said, the standard load is more powerful in 12 gauge than 20. It has 1/8th of an ounce more shot. It’s up to you to decide how important that is.
I used to think it matters, but I haven’t seen a huge difference in the real world. My only shotgun used to be a double barreled 20 gauge, and I now use a 12 gauge pump. So far there hasn’t been much of a difference.
Powder Charge – The amount of propellant in the shotshell. Unless you plan to reload your shotgun shells (which is actually pretty easy) then all you need to know about powder charge is that you can buy reduced power, standard power, and magnum loads.
They make hotter magnum loads than magnum, but that’s just silly. If your target shrugged off a shotgun blast, a little bit of extra gunpowder is only going to succeed in making your shoulder hurt more.
You probably just missed the bird. Change your choke before you go to magnums. More recoil isn’t going to help your aim.
Different Projectiles – In some areas, you can’t use lead shot. People are worried about lead poisoning the water. You’ll have to use steel shot, which can’t be good for your barrel in the long term. Another reason the best shotgun is an ugly one.
I think the fear of lead is real but overblown. They’re even removing lead from wheel weights. The last wheel weights I got were mostly iron. I’m sure there were a lot of people getting lead poisoning from their tires.
Probably the best alternative to the usual shotgun fodder is the slug. Instead of firing several pellets, your shotgun fires one massive bullet. How massive?
Slugs for rifled shotgun barrels are .729 caliber. In handguns and rifles, anything over .37 caliber (.375 H&H in rifles, .40 S&W in pistols, .41 rem mag in revolvers) is considered high caliber. You won’t see most hunters using .70 caliber rifles unless they guide dangerous game hunts.
It’s just overkill. It’s not overkill in the shotgun because rifles and shotguns use different types of gun powder that burn at different speeds. There’s a lot of science to it, and we won’t get into it here. Just know that shotgun slugs dramatically extend your shotgun’s reach.
There are lots of other types of projectiles for shotguns, but if you’re not a Youtuber they’re largely useless gimmicks. Don’t buy bean bag shotgun shells or dragon’s breath shells. They’re fun to look at and talk about and not good for much else.
My recommendation for building the best shotgun for you is that you have a barrel ideal for slugs and a barrel ideal for buck shot and bird shot at across-the-room distances. I don’t recommend that your slug barrel is rifled, though. You can hunt birds (including turkey) with your hunting barrel, then load it with slugs during deer season.
The Best Shotgun For Hunting
My idea of the best shotgun for hunting is a smoothbore. Yes, it won’t have the accuracy of a rifled shotgun, but I won’t live in a state that only lets me hunt deer with a shotgun.
If you live in a state that requires you to hunt deer with a shotgun and you don’t value your hunting experience enough to move, NEVER use buckshot on deer hunts.
Yes, I know it’s called BUCKshot.
Yes, I know people kill deer with buckshot.
Yes, I know nine 9mm bullets can waste a 150+ lb creature.
Never use buckshot on deer.
I know far more people who have lost deer with buckshot (read: senselessly and inhumanely wounded a deer that suffered for days before dying) than I know people who have successfully taken deer with buckshot.
If you can’t be bothered to spend a little more money on premier shotgun slugs, you don’t belong here at Business and Bullets.
If you don’t care about giving your prey a quick death with as little suffering as possible, you shouldn’t be a hunter.
Now, why do I say that the best shotgun for hunting is a smoothbore?
Versatility, the shotgun’s biggest advantage.
You can make your hunting barrel a smoothbore and use it to hunt whatever you want. When the season changes, you can change your load instead of your barrel.
If you really want to pretend your shotgun is a rifle, go ahead and get a rifled barrel and optics. It’s still a shotgun.
The Best Shotgun For Self Defense
Sorry, there’s no such thing as a self defense shotgun.
You’re not going to be just going about your business day to day and just happen to have your shotgun handy when trouble finds you.
The only reason we carry handguns is because we can’t carry shotguns and rifles while running errands. Handguns suck as a primary weapon, but they’re concealable.
Put yourself in the crook’s shoes. Would you mug the guy with the shotgun slung over his shoulder? I doubt it.
Shotguns suck at being concealable. You’re not going to have your shotgun unless you’re at home.
The Best Shotgun For Home Defense
The hands down best role for the shotgun is killing dangerous snakes.
If you like snakes, too bad.
I don’t bother snakes unless I can say “Yes” to one of the following questions: Is the snake where I might step on it and get bit? Is this snake in a space where my children play?
If I can say “Yes”, that’s one dead snake.
Pretty much any shotgun load is a good choice for snake medicine. I don’t know if I’d waste a slug on a snake, but it’d do the job.
The other critter you’d take care of with a home defense shotgun is the dreaded home invader.
This is another overblown fear, but it’s still a legitimate concern. Home invasions are scary stuff. It shatters people’s concept of safety.
I haven’t had the illusion of safety since 2010, so I don’t worry about it.
People like to bicker about whether a pump action shotgun or an AR-15 is better for home defense. I don’t really think it matters. Anything beats a kitchen knife.
You need to understand that real world shotguns don’t act like movie and video game shotguns. The spread of pellets isn’t that large. They won’t paint the room with buckshot.
Yes, that means you have to aim.
At across-the-room distances, your shotgun will likely fire the entire shell into a spot you can cover with your palm.
My recommendation for the best home defense shotgun is a pump action shotgun with a short barrel.
You’re not going to knock it against door frames, you aren’t limited to one or two shots, and you can keep the shotgun semi-ready. A shotgun stored with the chamber empty and the magazine tube full can be made ready very quickly.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the sound of racking your shotgun is going to scare off a home invader. If someone broke into your home when there were cars in the driveway, they’re more determined than your garden variety thug.
They might decide they’re not looking for a fight, or they might be too crazy or high to care if you’ve got a shotgun.
The Reason I Don’t Use The Best Shotgun For Me That Much
I don’t actually use my shotgun all that much.
My 20 gauge has been at a gunsmith for over a year. I haven’t even bothered to call and check on it because I haven’t needed it. Hope I get it back soon, though.
So, why exactly don’t I use my shotgun that much?
Even though it’s the best shotgun for home defense, it’s still a shotgun and I have kids. I know (like I just told you) that the shot isn’t going to disperse that much indoors, but I won’t take a risk with the safety my children.
One errant pellet is one pellet too many.
Why else don’t I use my shotgun that much?
Well, I have a lot of other guns. Not as many as I used to have. I got rid of most of my guns and only kept the stuff I really had a use for.
The truth is, I have several guns that will do “home defense” just as well as my shotgun.
Maybe I still need to justify owning too many guns. Maybe I just don’t stress as much as I used to. I’ve come to terms with my fear, for the most part.
I do still recommend a shotgun for most people.
The Reason I Still Recommend You Find The Best Shotgun For You
Shotguns can be bought in “used and abused” condition. They’re available and cheap.
A $150 shotgun will do the same job as a $1,500 AR-15. You’ll have a lot more money left over to do things that you’ll actually enjoy. Living a fulfilling life is more important than obsessing over guns.
Another reason I recommend a shotgun is that there’s no more effective fight stopper than a 12 gauge shotgun loaded with 00 Buck. That goes out the window when we’re talking about the determined aggressor (which I talked about in the second half of this article).
You can’t live your life in fear of something that might never come to pass.
The odds are, unless you already have another gun for home defense, the best solution is a shotgun.
The best shotgun for you is the one that you can get now and use for hunting and home defense today.
I hope this article was helpful. I’d hate for you to waste as much money as I have.