Good Lord, do I love a good scattergun. Shotguns have held my interest ever since I was a little kid. We were a family who used shotguns for everything, from hunting to sport shooting and home defense. My first gun was a shotgun, and I still own that Remington 870 in .410 to this day. The shotgun world is a massive, undeniably huge genre of weapons. There are innumerable shapes, models, and styles. So how do you determine what the best shotguns are?
Well, you can begin with this primer.
Below you’ll see my pick for the best weapon in each general category of shotgun. I explain each type of shotgun a little further down.
Substantially underrated, the innovative SuperNova is one of the best shotguns available.
Available in several calibers, Mossberg 500 models range from tactical to muzzle-loading.
Lightweight despite a gas operating system, the Beretta 1301 cycles fast.
Bullpup configurations and shotguns have always excelled at CQB. The SRM 1216 combines the two.
An heirloom quality double-barrel, the Beretta DT11 has a superb trigger, phenomenal aesthetics, and commensurate price.
A “value brand” version of the Mossberg 500, the Maverick 88 is available in several 12- and 20-gauge configurations.
A rare example of the modern lever action shotgun, the .410 Henry is built on the .45-70 lever action rifle frame.
There are advantages and disadvantages to box magazine fed shotguns; the Sentry takes cues from the AR platform to mitigate those.
This guide will give you a high-level rundown of shotguns’ various types, designs, and calibers. A good shotgun will go a long way, and you can get a lot done with a pretty basic shotgun. One of the best things about shotguns is that you can get a competent shotgun for less than 500 dollars, but you can spend upwards of tens of thousands of dollars if you so choose.
So let’s buckle in and talk shotguns.
Types of Shotguns
So you have a better idea of what exactly I’m comparing here, let’s talk about the various action types you are most likely to run into. This is not an absolutely comprehensive list. Some odd shotguns out there fall out of these categories, but these are the more common types of shotguns.
Pump action shotguns, also known as slide action, are a manual action, repeating shotguns. The forend moves rearward and forward, and this action ejects and loads the next shell while resetting the firing method. These are very versatile weapons and are arguably the most versatile repeating shotgun on the market. They are designed for hunting, home defense, tactical, and sporting use.
Semi-auto shotguns fire one round per trigger pull and are often gas or inertia-operated, but roller-delayed blowback and recoil operation aren’t that uncommon. Semi-auto shotguns require less physical manipulation and can often be fired much faster than other shotguns. They also tend to have less recoil. Sem-auto shotguns can be ammo-picky, but modern guns are very reliable. These guns are used for sporting, tactical, home defense, and hunting.
Lever action shotguns are somewhat rare, although they’ve been around since 1887. Pump actions have largely replaced lever action shotguns, but they still kick around. These guns use a lever that’s activated by the firing hand to eject the spent shell, load the fresh one and reset the hammer. They can be fairly fast to shoot and tend to be versatile in their selection. These are primarily used for sporting purposes and specialized competitions like Cowboy Action Shooting.
As the name implies, these shotguns use a single barrel that fires a single round. The user then opens the breach and removes the shell, and replaces it manually. These guns are very versatile and can handle any load, and can even handle those silly short rounds. Single-shot shotguns are often very lightweight and very affordable guns. They are primarily used for hunting and sport shooting.
Double barrel guns use two barrels and can fire two rounds before needing to reload. Double barrel guns are simple and very reliable. They can fire a versatile loadout, including mini shells, with ease. Prices and designs vary wildly from a few hundred dollars to into the tens of thousands. Double barrels come in side by side and over/under designs. Over and under guns dominate skeet shooting, bird hunting, and similar sports. Side by sides are popular with cowboy action shooters.
And of course, in Hollywood.
Bolt-action shotguns are fairly rare these days, and modern bolt action shotguns are typically slug guns with rifled barrels. Bolt action shotguns used to be much more popular, but over time their allure has faded, especially as pump actions became more robust and affordable. Most bolt-action shotguns are slug guns designed for hunting.
Shotguns are typically measured in gauge. Gauge is an old-school means to measure bore size, and gauge is the number of lead balls of a specific size that equals one pound. The smaller the number, the larger the bore. So 12 gauge is bigger than 20 gauge. One shotgun round that doesn’t use gauge measurements is .410, which uses your standard imperial measurement. There are three dominant shotgun calibers.
The most popular shotgun caliber is 12 gauge. 12 gauge is the caliber of choice for most adult shooters in most shotgun uses. It provides a hefty load of ammo at a reasonable amount of recoil. Almost all tactical loads are designed around the 12 gauge.
20 gauge offers you a very powerful shotgun round that’s considerably lighter and smaller than a 12 gauge round. It offers drastically less recoil while still providing a healthy dose of shot.
.410 is the smallest commonly available shotgun round. It’s equivalent to 67-gauge. .410s are great for kids and young shooters who would be unsuited for 12 or even 20-gauge recoil. The .410 is perfectly suitable for small game purposes and can work for medium game, but a larger gauge is preferred.
Shotguns also come in 16 gauge, 28 gauge, 32 gauge, and more. These are often specific rounds designed for specific purposes and are not super common. If you’re a new shotgun owner, these gauges might be worth staying away from.
These are my choice of best shotguns by type of action.
- Best Pump Action – Benelli SuperNova
- Best Multi-Cal Shotgun – Mossberg 500
- Best Semi-Auto Shotgun – Beretta 1301
- Best Bullpup Shotgun – SRM 1216
- Best Double Barrel – Beretta DT11
- Best Budget Shotgun – Mossberg Maverick 88
- Best Lever Shotgun – Henry Lever Action Shotgun
- Best Mag-Fed Shotgun – Iron Horse Sentry
Best Shotguns: Spec Comparison
Below is a list of some LPK specs. Here you can compare and line up the specs from each product and help you make the best decision possible.
|Shotgun Models||Barrel Length||Overall Length||Weight||Caliber||Capacity|
|Benelli SuperNova||18.5 to 28 inches||40 to 49.5 inches||7.6 pounds||12 gauge||4 rounds|
|Mossberg 500||18.5 to 28 inches||36.37 to 47.5 inches||7.5 pounds||.410, 20 gauge, 12 gauge||5 to 8|
|Beretta 1301||18.5 to 24 inches||37.8 to 47 inches||6.4 pounds||12 gauge||5 to 7 rounds|
|SRM 1216||18.5 inches||33.75 inches||9.25 pounds||12 gauge||16|
|Beretta DT11||32 inches||14.75 inches||8.15||12 gauge||2|
|Mossberg Maverick 88||18.5 to 28 inches||41 to 45.25 inches||6.5 inches||12 gauge||5 to 7|
|Henry Lever Action Shotgun||19.75 to 24 inches||38.5 to 42.75 inches||7.5 pounds||.410||6|
|Iron Horse Sentry||18.5 inches||36 inches||6.1 pounds||12 gauge||5 to 8 rounds|
Best Shotguns: Our Take
You’ve seen our comparison of shotguns by type. Let’s break them down and review each one individually.
- Barrel Length 18.5 inches
- Overall Length 40 inches
- Weight 7.6 Lbs
- Capacity 4 Rounds
- Caliber 12 Gauge up to 3.5-inch shells
Best Pump Action – Benelli SuperNova
The Supernova is a criminally underrated shotgun. It’s one of the best pump shotguns on the market and deserves a lot of respect for its innovation. The famed Remington 870 and Mossberg 500 series are both designs older than my parents, and while great designs, they are dated. Benelli brings us a modern pump action shotgun with a variety of little touches that make it take the top spot.
Those touches include amazing ergonomics. Shooters can reverse the safety for left-handed use. The pump is massive, heavily textured, and placed further rearward to make grabbing it less of a reach. The 3.5-inch chambering also gives you a massive loading and ejection port that makes reloads quick and easy.
Benelli integrates a recoil-reducing system into the stock, and it works. The pump has an ambidextrous button that will allow you to clear the chamber without releasing another round from the tube. This makes it efficient for quick slug-select drills and clearing the weapon for safety purposes.
The Supernova comes with various sighting systems, including beads, high viz sights, and ghost rings. The top of the receiver is drilled and tapped to add a rail and red dot. Shooters can choose between a variety of configurations for hunting, home defense, and tactical use. It’s surprisingly affordable and competes price-wise with both Remington and Mossberg.
My main downside with the gun would be the lack of accessories built for it. Customizing it is tough. The only major addition I’d like is a new stock with a short length of pull, and sadly they can be tough to find in the configuration you want. If that doesn’t bother you, the Benelli Supernova is a fantastic shotgun.
If you’d like to know more, read our full Benelli SuperNova review.
Benelli SuperNova: Pros and Cons
- Excellent Ergonomics
- Great Sights
- Modern Design
- Long Length Of Pull With Factory Stock
Benelli SuperNova: Check Pricing
2. Mossberg 500
Mossberg 500 Specs
- Operating System Pump Action
- Caliber 12 or 20 Gauge
- Sights Ghost ring
- Barrel Length 14-30″
- Overall Length 41″
Best Multi-Caliber Shotgun: Mossberg 500
When I say multical, what exactly do I mean? I don’t mean this shotgun shoots multiple calibers, but rather that it comes in multiple calibers. The Mossberg 500 is a legendary American shotgun, and it’s also one of the most popular. This has led it to be produced in many different calibers, including the big three, 12 gauge, 20 gauge, and .410.
On top of that, the guns come in slug configurations for those needing a rifle barrel. Heck, you can even purchase a muzzle-loading barrel to convert your shotgun to a muzzleloader. That’s about as multical as it gets. On top of that, these numerous calibers are available in numerous configurations. When I say the 500, I include the entire 500 series, which includes the 590 and 590A1.
This opens up the category to tactical shotguns in every major caliber and a number of purpose-built sporting guns. If you need a shotgun for a specific purpose, Mossberg likely makes it. The Mossberg 500 series are pump action shotguns that are famously reliable and quite affordable. The popularity of these guns even opens up the market to a wide variety of accessories and customization.
The 500 series can be made into nearly any type of firearm you want. That’s important because a lot of the factory stocks feature a long LOP. Other than that, my main complaint is the bead-sighted guns. The barrel sits directly on the barrel, which will often make you appear to hit high. The beads aren’t great, but the ghost rings rule.
If you’d like to know more, read our full Mossberg 500 review.
- Numerous Configurations Available
- Extremely Reliable
- Extremely Customizable
- Bead Sights Leave Much To Be Desired
Mossberg 500: Check Pricing
3. Beretta 1301
Beretta 1301 Specs
- Weight 6.4lbs
- Overall Length 37.8”
- Barrel Length 18.7”
- Standard Cartridge 3” 12ga
- Capacity 7
Best Semi-Auto: Beretta 1301
I’m a Benelli M4 fan and always will be, so it pains me to admit that the Beretta 1301 might be the better gun. The Beretta 1301 is a newer gun, so there is some experience there, and when you look at the whole package, I can say I love my M4, but the 1301 is objectively better. It’s lightweight, cycles fast, and offers you a rock solid, reliable action with a growing aftermarket.
Beretta owns Benelli and has a history of producing awesome shotguns. The 1301 feels like an extension of all that knowledge. This is a gas-operated gun, so it’s reliable as heck, and normally gas operated guns tend to be a little heavier, but that’s not the case here. The base model tactical guns weigh a mere 6.4 pounds, making it two pounds lighter than my main squeeze, the Benelli M4.
On top of that, the BLINK system operates insanely rapidly. Beretta claims 36% faster than other gas guns. I can’t verify the percentage, but I can say it runs like a typewriter with a well-trained typist. It just spits rounds, and the gas operation helps take some sting out of the gun. The 1301 isn’t quite ammo-picky and will able most standard rounds and even low recoil buckshot.
It might not digest those sub-1000 FPS trap or skeet loads, but it easts through cheap birdshot without complaint. The Beretta 1301 offers you a lightweight, rapidly cycling, dead nuts reliable gun that even comes outfitted with proper sights, an optics rail, and a variety of stock choices. Not to mention the oversized controls and replaceable chokes.
What’s the catch? Well, a premium shotgun demands a premium price, and the 1301 isn’t cheap. I like to think of it as making an investment.
If you’re interested in the 1301, you might also take a look at the Beretta 1301 competition model.
Benelli 1301: Pros and Cons
- Fast Cycling
- Great Ergonomics
Benelli’s 1301 Semi-Auto: Check Pricing
4. SRM 1216
SRM 1216 Specs
- Barrel Length 18.5 inches
- Overall Length 33 inches
- Weight 7.75 pounds
- Capacity 16 + 1
- Caliber 12 Gauge 3-inch chamber.
Best Bullpup Shotgun: SRM 1216
Bullpup guns typically excel for close-quarters use, and shotguns also excel in that field of use, so it makes sense to mix the two. With that said, the genre of bullpup shotguns has grown, and in that genre, the SRM 1216 shines. You might want to argue it’s not a true bullpup, but dang, it’s close enough. The SRM 1216 is a semi-automatic shotgun that uses a tube-style magazine and uses a roller delayed blowback system to make a unique system.
The magazine is really cool. Its four tubes are connected, and they each hold four fours of 2.75-inch shotgun shells. This gives you a total capacity of 16 rounds. When one tube runs empty, you rotate the tube, and you’re ready to rock and roll. The bolt locks to the rear when empty and when you rotate the tube, it automatically chambers a round and closes the chamber. Oh, and you can remove the magazine and replace it with a completely fresh magazine.
This gives you great capacity and the semi-auto action to lay them down. The SRM 1216’s use of the roller delayed blowback system is interesting and gives you both a rapid rate of fire and minimal recoil. Recoil reduction isn’t as great as a gas gun, but the overall design is lighter than a gas gun. The unloaded weight is 7.25 pounds. Since it’s bullpup ~ish, the gun is only 32.5 inches in overall length.
The downside will most certainly be its price and the fact you can’t really customize the gun. You can add optics and lights, but that’s about it. If you don’t mind not being able to customize the gun, then the SRM 1216 is a great defensive weapon and brings some real innovation to the old scattergun.
SRM 1216: Pros and Cons
- 16 Round Capacity
- Reliable Action
- Easy To Mount Furniture
SRM 1216 Deals
5. Beretta DT11
- Barrel length 32 inches
- Overall length 14.75 inches
- Weight 8.15 pounds
- Caliber 12 gauge
- Capacity 2
Best Double Barrel: Beretta DT11
Picking a double barrel is going to be based on what you want to do with it. I would say the most popular doubles category is skeet and trap shooting. If you are a sporting shooter or upland bird hunter, it’s going to be tough to get something better than the DT11. The Beretta DT11 is one of those shotguns considered heirloom quality and is a top-of-the-line competition gun.
Beretta built the gun from the ground up to produce tough but refined shotguns made for round counts that get into the tens of thousands of rounds. These guns come with a wonderful 3.5-pound trigger that’s incredibly crisp. A light trigger minimizes movement during the swing, making the gun more accurate.
The balance is low, focused around the bottom barrel to help reduce muzzle rise and to make the gun stable and easy to hit with. The stock is designed to be customized to the shooter’s preference and body types. The Beretta DT11 uses Steelium Pro barrels to offer more durability, consistency, and accuracy. The gun uses a long forcing cone to minimize recoil and create a very consistent pattern.
The DT11 is a dream of a shotgun. It’s a top-of-the-line gun, and you’re wondering what the catch is. Well, it costs more than ten thousand dollars. It’s half the price of most mid-priced new cars, and that certainly puts it into a posh position.
Beretta DT11: Pros and Cons
- Truly Custom Shotgun Experience
- Wonderful Accuracy
- Heirloom Quality
- Costs More Than Many Used Cars
Beretta DT11 Deals: Check the Price
Sionics Lower Parts Kit Enhanced
- Trigger SIONICS Enhanced
- Spring steel Mil-Spec
- Pistol grip Not inlcuded
- Ambi safety? Yes
Best Budget Shotgun: Mossberg Maverick 88
One of the best things about shotguns is that you don’t have to break the bank to get a good shotgun. The Mossberg Maverick 88 is a value-brand version of the Mossberg 500. It differs slightly with some cost-saving measures and a slightly different manual safety and trigger. The Maverick is a rock-solid pump action shotgun that comes in numerous configurations and in both 12- and 20-gauge.
The Maverick comes in as a hunting shotgun with a 28-inch barrel or a 20, or 18.5-inch barrel with various capacities. The gun comes ready to hold five to seven rounds and can be plugged in to comply with certain regulations. When you say the words simple pump action, the Maverick is what you should picture.
There isn’t a ton of fancy features. It’s a simple tube-fed, pump-action design that is incredibly reliable. Since it’s mostly a Mossberg 500, the Maverick 88 is compatible with most Mossberg 500 parts and accessories, although there are some challenges associated with changing out the pump due to the one-piece forend design.
The gun often costs less than two hundred dollars, and this makes it not only one of the cheaper shotguns but cheaper guns in general. If I only had a few hundred bucks to get a home defense gun, it would be a Mossberg Maverick 88.
Mossberg’s Maverick 88: Pros and Cons
- Easy to Use
- Has Some Customization Bugs
Mossberg Maverick 88 Deals: Check the Price
Aero Precision 20-Inch Rifle Upper Specs
- Trigger Mil-Spec MOE
- Spring steel Mil-Spec
- Pistol grip Magpul MOE
- Ambi safety? No
Best Lever Shotgun: Henry Lever Action Shotgun
Lever actions shotguns are fairly rare these days but not quite extinct. Henry surprised everyone a few years ago by releasing the Lever Action shotgun. Sure it’s not the most creative name, but it’s a lever action shotgun from the lever action company. Henry put the same care and attention into their shotgun they do their rifles, and we are better for it.
A lever action design gives you roughly the same speed as a pump action shotgun but with an overall different movement. In my example, smaller shooters handle lever guns a little bit better than pump actions. The lever doesn’t require a longer reach than necessary and makes it quick and easy to cycle rounds.
The Henry lever guns only come in .410 and are built on the .45-70 lever action frame. They can only chamber 2.5-inch shells, so you are a little limited in caliber and load selection. With that said, these guns handle like kittens. They barely recoil and handle like a dream.
These guns come in both long 24-inch barrels for sporting use and shorter 19.75-inch barrels for handier little shotguns. The Henry X Model even takes a tactical edge to the gun with all-black furniture, rails, M-LOK slots, and more. The little .410 might not be mighty, but a bad guy isn’t going to shrug off a load of buckshot.
Henry Lever Action Shotgun: Pros and Cons
- Lightweight And Handy
- Tons Of Fun To Shoot
- Easy To Manipulate
- Limited To 2.5″ .410 Shells
Henry Lever Action Shotgun: Check Price
Aero Precision 20-Inch Rifle Upper Specs
- Trigger Mil-Spec MOE
- Spring steel Mil-Spec
- Pistol grip Magpul MOE
- Ambi safety? No
Best Mag-Fed Shotgun: Iron Horse Sentry
I haven’t mentioned much about shotguns that use removable box magazines. They have become a bit more popular and bear some mention. NBox magazines and shotguns are an odd combo. They admittedly make reloads faster and easier, but despite that it’s tough to recommend them whole cloth at this point.
One major issue is that the shells are plastic, and when left in a magazine long term, they tend to flatten out and lose some of their proper round shape. This can create feeding issues over time. Shooters need to be aware of that before they get into box-fed shotguns.
If you really wanted one, my suggestion would be to obtain eh Iron Horse Arms Sentry 12. It’s a solid option that does take a low of cues from the AR series and makes a nice, magazine-fed pump action shotgun.
- Easy to Use
- Has Some Customization Bugs
The World of Shotguns
Now we have what I think are the best shotguns in their class; let’s talk shotguns in general. You might not agree with my picks. Perhaps you want a shotgun I didn’t even cover. That’s understandable. It’s tough to cover such a vast and open catalog of firearms. So let’s explore the world of shotguns. Hopefully, this will improve your understanding of the gauge and allow you to pick the right shotgun for you.
Choosing Your Shotgun
Shotguns are fairly simple weapons. Most often they are broken into general categories based on their primary intended use. Take the Mossberg 500 series. You can have tactical, hunting, and sporting models. It’s still the same basic gun, but the features are changed to make it better suited for various roles. When you purchase a shotgun, you need to establish a purpose. Here are a few of the more common purposes for shotguns.
Shotguns can be used to hunt nearly anything in North America. From doves to bears. With that in mind, you must also define your hunting parameters, i.e., break them down into medium and large game like bear, deer, and hogs vs. small game like squirrels and rabbits and flying game like geese (large quarry) and doves or pheasants (smaller quarry).
One of the more universal features of hunting shotguns is barrels typically longer than 24 inches. A longer barrel offers you a great sight radius and makes swinging the gun easier on target. Another common feature is the presence of chokes. These can be swapped to tailor your shot pattern to be exactly what you want it to be.
Shotguns designed for game on the ground, be they medium or small, can come in any configuration. Pump actions are the most common, but semi-autos, single shots, and double barrels will occasionally make an appearance. These guns tend to be simple, with wood furniture and a lack of rails, M-LOK, and similar attachments.
Bird guns can also be any type of shotgun but more often tend to be semi-auto or over/under guns. These tend to be better for hunting birds. Semi-auto guns are very popular for bigger birds and easily run those big 3.5-inch shells. The semi-auto action makes follow-up shots possible and also reduces recoil.
Double barrel guns often swing fast and easily, making them natural to take upland birds that tend to be small and rapidly moving.
Competition (Sport Shooting)
Sport shooting is another big category. It’s divided into skeet and trap shooting and action shooting like 3-Gun. Even category is typically ruled by one class of shotguns, but you’ll see other guns occasionally.
For example, with skeet shooting over and under double barrels rule. They are the dominant guns and seemingly the preferred choice for the sport of kings. However, pumps and semi-autos tend to work well.
In purpose-built trap, single shots rule the day, often with sighting planes specifically designed for the sport. However, it’s not like you won’t see pump-action and semi-autos, especially among the casual crowd.
For 3-Gun, the repeaters rule. Specifically, semi-autos tend to dominate the sport. Since a hit can be the difference between fractions of a second, it’s not surprising that these guns dominate. Certain categories only allow pump guns, however, so they also have a place.
Self-Defense and Tactical
Self-defense and tactical shotguns tend to be the more compact models. Maneuvering and using a shorter, lighter shotgun is much easier than holding out with 28 inches of steel hanging off your gun.
The tactical market is dominated by pump action and semi-auto guns. These guns are often adorned with the means to attach red dots, lights, rails, and more. You’ll also see side saddles, slings, and similar items to improve their capabilities. Caliber-wise, the tactical shotgun market is dominated by 12 gauge shotguns.
A Note On Slug Use
Slugs are great, and they do work well in smoothbore guns. If you want a dedicated slug gun, that’s also an option. A slug is a single projectile that’s often massive. A slug gun uses a rifled barrel to better stabilize the slug to increase its accuracy and effective range. These guns often have 24-inch barrels and are set up for use with a variable scope. These are typically reserved for hunting purposes, particularly big game (including the quarry of SyFy cryptid hunters).
Shotguns are the way and the light…at least for me. If you don’t have one, you are missing out on a very powerful, versatile platform. Hopefully, we’ve helped you find the right shotgun for your needs.
You weigh in. If you know a great shotgun our audience should consider then chip in below and let us know what gun (and why).
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