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How to Properly Choose a Shotgun

Last winter I was invited on a goose hunt, while I had many options of shotguns I could borrow, I decided to buy my own. Naively, I thought I could go to the gun counter of a big box store and get some help from an expert. I went to one, asked the guy behind the counter about fit and he said, oh they just all fit…fantastic. I swallowed my pride and asked a friend who is a gunsmith to show me how to fit a shotgun. Not all of us are lucky to have someone knowledgeable to take us gun shopping and customer service for single women isn’t always ideal. Here is my beginners guide to options in choosing a shotgun.


There are 3 types of shotgun actions. They are semi-automatic, pump action, and break action.

Semi-automatic shotguns use a mechanism through which shells are loaded automatically. These often have less recoil due to the shell being loaded using the gas created with shell firing. They are often the most expensive option. One issue with a semi-automatic is that extreme cold (like in a duck blind) can cause them to load ineffectively.

With pump action shotguns, shells are loaded by manually cycling the fore end of the shotgun. They are more reliable in extreme cold and dirty conditions as well as considerably less expensive than a semi-auto. Having hunted with my semi-automatic and with someone with a pump action, I find them both to be similarly quick when goose hunting, in the hands of an experienced shooter.

Break action shotguns open or pivot at the action point. They vary greatly in price due to novelty and basic functionality. They are considered to be the most safe due to the action being open during loading. Break action shotguns are slower and perhaps not the first choice if you are looking to hunt geese or ducks where the pace can be fast.


Like other guns, shotguns are classified by caliber. In case you are wondering, gauge is a measurement of how many balls of a certain material will fit in a pound. The most common shotgun in America is a 12 gauge. This is largely due to the versatility of ammunition, making it an appropriate gun for most types of game. Conversely, they are light and many pack a good amount of recoil which is sometimes a detractor from beginning hunters/shooters. Many beginning hunters start with a 20 gauge as most have less recoil and there are many offerings in ammunition allowing for versatility in hunting. There are a few other calibers of shotguns but I am only touching on a few here.

Length Of Pull

This is the first thing I learned how to test. Length of pull is the distance between the center of the butt of the stock and the center of the trigger. One way to test this is to place the stock of the gun in your elbow and extend your arm down the stock like this. The perfect fit is when your finger extends to the center of the trigger guard. (picture 1) I had to try several to find the right fit. One nice thing about big box stores is that they often have more than a few shotguns on the used gun racks to try and you can also go the gun counter to ask to try as many guns as you would like. Length of pull can be modified with stock extensions but it is easiest for a first time buyer to purchase a gun that fits right out of the box.


The fit of the drop of the comb is very important for consistent shooting. The easiest way to measure this is to shoulder the gun, like this, and bring it to your cheek with your eyes closed. You should be able to just see up the comb to the sight. Too high or too low will have a detrimental effect on your shooting consistency.

Shotgun comb check

So I took this brief amount of information and went shopping. I quickly learned what fit and what didn’t. One has to be careful when gun shopping, especially alone, as every sales person has their own idea of what the best gun is and they can be good or bad. I found that while I am normal to tall as a woman, my build is small, so many guns that fit the length of pull were not even close on the comb height. I wanted to start with a 20 gauge semi-automatic, but the ones that fit me in my price range were not readily available in a 20 gauge. I worked it out to the Winchester SX4, which I promptly ordered and am very happy with my choice. I have killed many geese and clay pigeons with this shotgun.

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