What, exactly, is “enough gun?” This question was posed by the famous African hunter/writer Robert Ruark, originally of North Carolina, but his last years were spent living in London. To over simplify Ruark’s answer to this question, “enough gun” is having sufficient or perhaps more than adequate cartridge power and terminal ballistics to take care of the task at hand. Of course, he was talking about elephants, lions, and tigers and such. Even so, the point is very well made.
As a young hunter, my dad thought a good .410 shotgun was the best way to start me off. That move could not have been further from reality. Adding insult to injury, he acquired for me a second hand Stevens bolt action shotgun. Whoever invented the bolt action shotgun should have been summarily flogged. It was (is) a disaster in my opinion.
I could not hit anything with the little .410, but if I had, I doubt it had the killing power to down a dove, much less a running rabbit or squirrel. So, what solution did my dad have for this dilemma? He got me a 20-gauge Mossberg bolt action shotgun. Whew…..
Now, finally matured in the ways of shotguns, wingshooting, and throwing pellets at multiple targets on the move, I can appreciate that the .410 (caliber, not true gauge) is actually a smoothbore for expert shooters, not the novice or beginner. The 20 gauge is but a couple steps up on the spectrum, but a fairly good forward incline. Others continue to advocate the 28 gauge and even the 16 gauge, an excellent shotgun gauge though nearly extinct now. In the final analysis, though, it seems to me that only one true gauge is really needed.
For hunters, clay shooters, sporting clays, survival preppers, law enforcement, security, home personal protection, varmint control, and all else using a shotgun, the venerable 12 gauge is the only one shotshell you should seriously consider having in stock. For sure, have the others for specialty hunting or shooting fun, but if your budget can only support one gauge, then the 12 has to be it.
I had my first move to the 12 gauge as a college graduation present from my mom. With the help of my brother, they bought me a Beretta A-301 semi-auto in 1972. It was and still is one of the finest guns I own. It is choked modified, but alas those early models did not have screw in choke tubes. At the time this Beretta with an aluminum frame/action was the lightest 12-gauge on the market. I do have a rubber slip-on pad on the butt, but the gun does not kick prohibitively. It is my No. 1 go-to dove gun.
If you stop by a shooting supply or well stocked gun shop, just peruse the shelves of shotshell loads for the 12-gauge. Most any 12 gauge these days (except really older guns) will handle the universally standard 2 ¾- inch (chamber length) shotshells. Shotguns chambered up to the 3.5 inch shells will usually handle everything else from 3-inch to the lighter 2 ¾ inch loads. Three-inch guns will handle the shorter shells, too. Just be sure to consult the owners’ manual to make certain what your gun will shoot safely.
Shotshell ammunition is made for virtually every smoothbore shooting sport or LE application imaginable. Loads go from light to heavy duty, buckshot for big game, and even slugs. Currently in vogue are the multiple projectile loads for self-defense, in which a load might include one large slug projectile behind 2-3 buckshot pellets. These are awesome protection or law enforcement loads. New shotshells also come now with color-coded shot so that, for example, the hunter can determine which ducks they shot. Pretty cool idea.
Shotshell pellets used to be primarily made of lead. Today all waterfowl hunting is covered by Federal regulations requiring the use of steel shot. Other approved materials are composites like Bismuth or Tungsten. These unleaded loads or PC labeled shot materials marketed as non-toxic.
Many conventional shotgun loads are still assembled with lead-based shot, but there can be all manner of coatings to help the shot ‘fly” better and exit the barrel smoother in the designated pattern. Most shotgun chokes run from open, improved cylinder, modified, and full. Extra full chokes are made specifically for turkey hunting. Each choke “throws” a shot pattern from very wide to very constricted or narrow patterns. Hunters have to match the choke and the appropriate loads to the game be pursued. Ditto for law enforcement, personal protection, home security, military, and survival prep uses.
Shotgun shotshell power and velocity also varies widely between loads. A typical self-defense load is the new Winchester PDX1 Defender using a one-ounce slug with three plated 00 buck pellets with a muzzle velocity of 1600 foot per second out the barrel. Remington makes a 00 Buckshot load for the 3-inch magnum chamber using 15 pellets with a MV of 1225 fps. Hunting loads vary too widely to list here. Consult the factory ammunition catalogs or their individual web sites. Do a Google to find specifically what you are looking for.
As to shotgun action types, it boils down mainly to personal preference. The most common types are single shot, pump action, and semi-auto actions. Please allow me in principle to skip the bolt actions altogether. Pumps and semi-autos are the prevailing favorites across the board.
Single shots are obvious, but most everyone I know certainly wants the option of a follow up shot or two or three without manually reloading the chamber. As implied, the pump action means the fore-end must be pulled/cycled backwards toward the action after each shot (which releases the pump action mechanism).
The semi-auto action is gas operated, which means after firing a shotshell round, exploding powder gases are siphoned off within the mechanism and used to push the bolt open to eject the spent shell and upon closing to load a new one from the tube magazine. It is all much more complicated than that description. If you are new to handling or shooting a shotgun, I recommend you buy a good instructional book or DVD on the subject.
In the final analysis, I’d argue that if you own a single shotgun or even multiples, then you should standardize to one gauge and that gauge should be 12 gauge. It not only simplifies logistics, but it also enhances the learning/shooting curve for the user. It is better to concentrate on shooting one shotgun gauge really well rather than shooting several so-so.
Stocking ammo, cleaning supplies, and other accessories is just easier when you only have to support a single shotgun gauge. If you grab up a shotgun and a hand full of shells, there should be no issue whether or not you picked the correct gauge shotshells from the cabinet. You can’t even count on shotshell hull color now to be safe in what you grab up. Trust me — if you ever shoot a 20 gauge by mistake in a 12 gauge, you will know the difference.
The legendary 12-gauge simply does it all. I see no real reason to have other gauges except just for the fun of it.