What Type Of Shotgun Should I Use For Upland Hunting?

Like breeds of dogs, there are all kinds shotguns you can use to hunt grouse, woodcock, Chukars, quail, and pheasants.

If you're fond of classic breeds like English Setters and Pointers, a classic side-by-side is what you'll want to carry. If you're a Lab guy who's crazy about duck hunting, a pump is a wise choice. And if you into versatile breeds like GSPs, semi-autos offer the same do-it-all ethos.

How Much Do You Want To spend?

  • $500 - $750: Pumps are at the bottom of the shotgun-cost pyramid. Along with being inexpensive, pump shotguns are also reliable and versatile. (Note: Single shots cost even less, but they're too impractical for most people to consider.)
  • $500 - $1750: Next are semi-automatic shotguns. Like pumps, semi-autos are great all-around bird guns. If they have any drawbacks, it can be their weight. Twelve gauge semis often weigh seven pounds or more. For a gun you're going to carry a lot, that's heavy. Twenty-gauge and twenty-eight gauge semi-autos weigh less, but they're not as versatile.
  • $1,500 - more than your house: The most expensive shotguns are side-by-sides and over-unders. While lots of people think these guns are just for guys living fine wine, fancy car lives, plenty of doubles are available at beer budgets (OK, good craft beer).

While their two barrels limit you to two shots, you almost never need more than that when hunting upland game like grouse, pheasant, and quail. Also, most doubles are very specialized. One for bobwhite hunting in Georgia isn't going to work for ducks or South Dakota roosters. But that's OK. This just gives you an excuse to buy more guns.

Which Gauge Should You Get?

"Gauge" is one of the first things you need to decide when you're thinking about buying a shotgun. It refers to the interior diameter of a shotgun's barrel (or barrels, if it's a side-by-side or OU).

The SMALLER the gauge (20 ...16 ...12), the BIGGER the interior measurement of the barrel (20 < 16 < 12) and the more shot the can gun fire effectively (20 gauge, ? ounces of shot; 12-gauge, 1 1/8 ounces of shot).

The most common gauges for upland hunting are 20 and 12. Because ammo for them is easy to find, these are the gauges new upland hunters should focus on. Twenty gauges are good for grouse, Chukar, and quail. Pheasants are bigger and wild ones are tough birds. For them, you're better off with 12-gauge, especially if you're going to hunt later in the season.

What Weight Should You Look For?

Upland hunting involves lots and lots of walking, and weight is a major consideration in any gun you'll have in your hands for hours at a time. A seven-pound shotgun might not feel heavy when you pull it out of the truck. But by lunchtime, you'll be wishing you had brought something lighter. That's why most upland hunters go with shotguns in the 6 pounds to 6 ¾ pound range.

For 20 gauges, focus on the lighter end of that range. For twelves, try not to exceed the upper end. But remember this: All else being equal, lighter guns always kick more. There's not much you can do about this, so keep it in mind if you plan to shoot your new shotgun a lot or if you're buying it for a youngster. In either situation, a lot of recoil can turn a few hours shooting from a fun time into a bruising, black-and-blue experience you would rather not repeat.

Don't Get Worked Up About Choke

To help shotguns concentrate their clouds of shot and work more effectively at the edges of their range, most have something called "choke" in the final few inches of their barrels. Choke is a constriction of the barrel's interior size, and people use words like cylinder, improved cylinder, modified, and full to describe the range of constriction present. A gun with cylinder choke has no constriction while a full-choked gun has the most.

Today, most shotguns come with screw-in chokes. This allows you to adjust the amount of constriction at the end of the barrel and match it to the type of shooting you're doing. But while this sounds like a great idea and guys love to discuss the virtues of one choke over the other, here's are two things to keep in mind:

  • For most upland hunting, a lot of choke isn't necessary. Few upland hunters shoot at birds more than 25 yards way; most of the time the birds are closer than that. At that range, Skeet 1 and Improved Cylinder are all you need to bring down birds like grouse, woodcock and quail.
  • Few hunters shoot well enough to kill birds beyond 30 yards--regardless of which choke they're using. Remember: Choke concentrates the cloud of shot coming out of the shotgun's barrel. If you can't put this cloud on the bird, you're not going to hit it, regardless of how concentrated this cloud is.

Other Things To Think About When Buying A Shotgun

Along with these considerations, there are other things to think about when buying your first shotgun including chamber lengths, stock styles (pistol grip, straight), barrel lengths, and fit. We'll address these additional in other articles.

Until you read them (and afterwards), the best thing to do is visit gunshops near you and look at as many shotguns as possible. See how they work, pick them up, and mount them to your shoulder. The more of them you try, the better you'll understand what does--and doesn't--work for you.

Shop For Shotguns In The Orvis Gun Room