What Kind Of Gun Do I Need To Hunt Birds?

Imagine the perfect fall day: Blue sky, bright sun, crisp air. You're walking the edge of a plowed field, hunting pheasants. There's some fallen corn on your right, a tangled shelterbelt on your left, and knee-high grass beneath your feet.

Suddenly, a rooster erupts into the air just ahead of you and cackles away as it rushes for cover. You raise your gun to shoot. But what kind of gun should you be shooting?

Now that we've covered some of the basics of upland hunting, let's talk about the firearm you should carry when hunting these birds.

What's The Difference Between Shotguns And Rifles?

Most people who hunt with firearms carry a shotgun or a rifle. Shotguns fire numerous small pellets at once. These pellets are called "shot", and they're released from the shotgun in an expanding cloud. This cloud increases your chances of hitting a flying bird or small game like squirrels and rabbits.

Shotguns come in different gauges (28 gauge, 20 gauge, 12 gauge) and have maximum ranges of around 50 yards or so. "Gauge" refers to the interior diameter of a shotgun's barrel and correlates to the amount of shot the gun can fire effectively. It's confusing, but the smaller the gauge (20 ...12 ...10), the BIGGER the interior diameter of the barrel (20 < 12 < 10) and the more shot the gun can fire effectively (20 gauge, ? ounces of shot; 10 gauge, 1 ½ ounces of shot).

Does this mean a 10 gauge shotgun is more powerful than a 20 gauge? Yes—and no. A 10 gauge shotgun shell does contain more powder and more shot. When fired, it generates more recoil. But the cloud of shot a 10 gauge shoots travels about the same distance as a cloud of similar sized shot coming out of a 20. But with the 10, there's more shot in the cloud.


  • Fire clouds of shot from shells
  • Come in different gauges
  • Interior of barrels are smooth (not rifled)
  • Have ranges from 40 - 50 yards
  • Mainly for small game, waterfowl, and upland / migratory birds

Rifles fire single bullets and come in different calibers (.22LR, .30-06, .470). They have ranges from 20 yards to 250 yards or more. To make rifles more effective, their barrels are lined with twisting grooves called "rifling".

Most people use rifles for larger game like wild boar, deer, and elk. While some states allow you to shoot upland birds with a rifle, it's not practical or safe. All states prohibit you from using rifles when hunting ducks, geese, other waterfowl and migratory birds.


  • Fire single bullets from casings
  • Come in different calibers
  • Interior of barrels are rifled
  • Have ranges from 20 - 250+ yards
  • Mainly for larger game: wild boar, deer, and elk

Which Shotgun Is Right For You?

The first time you walk into a gunshop, you'll probably be overwhelmed by all the shotguns you see. But don't let this worry you. Even though there are many different brands and models out there, shotguns for hunting come in four basic varieties: Single shots, pumps, semi autos, and double barrels.

Different Types Of Shotguns

  • Single shots
  • Pump
  • Semi-automatic
  • Double barrels (over-under & side by side)

Single shots are the basic shotguns—and the least expensive. They have a single barrel and hold a single shell, and they fire once when you pull the trigger and require you to break open the gun and reload after each shot.

In years past, the single shot's low cost and ease-of-use made it the first gun for many first-time hunters—especially kids. While the design has drawbacks (some lack safeties or exposed hammers that can be tricky to use), the fact they break open for reloading has a couple advantages: First, it's easy to see if they're loaded; second, it's easy to check the single barrel for obstructions.

Next in cost come pumps and semi-automatics. Rugged, reliable, and available in lots of configurations, pump and semi-automatic shotguns are ideal for all kinds of bird hunting. These shotguns fire one shot when you pull the trigger. But unlike single shots, they hold multiple shells and reload with either a "pump" from you or on their own using a recoil/gas-driven system.

Most pumps and semi autos guns can hold three or more shells (one in chamber, the rest in the magazine). But be aware: Federal law restricts you to having a maximum of three shells in your gun when waterfowl hunting (one in the chamber, two in magazine).

Semi-automatics use a portion of the energy from the fired shell to automatically reload. This feature absorbs some of recoil (or "kick") and makes semi autos ideal for new shooters (especially kids) and for situations which call for powerful loads (like Canada goose hunting).

Double barrels are the top of the shotgun market. They come in two forms: Over-unders and side-by-sides, which indicates the placement of their barrels. Decent ones can be found for $1000 while the very best will run you $60,000+ (yeah, four zeros). Like pumps and semi autos, over-unders and side-by-sides come in many configurations. Some are suited for upland hunting while others are ideal for waterfowl.

Safety Is Always First

Whichever type of shotgun you choose, be sure you know how to handle it--before you go into the field. Some states require you to take a firearms-safety class before you buy a firearm. In other areas, it's optional. Regardless, classes like this are always a good idea. Even if you've spent time around guns, there's probably something they can teach you about firearms safely.

Most shooting facilities and sporting clubs offer some type of training. Search around online to find classes in your area.

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