Best Bird Hunting Shotguns [Beginner’s Guide]

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After deer hunting, bird hunting is probably the most popular hunting sport in the world, certainly in the United States.

With a good shotgun and quality (but still relatively cheap) ammo, it’s fairly easy to bring home ducks, quail, pheasant, turkey or doves.

But which shotgun to choose?

There are literally hundreds of scatterguns to pick from, and doing so can be difficult, especially if you’re a beginner bird hunter, or shopping for someone who is.

Bird hunting in Iowa, image from
Bird hunting in Iowa, image from Project Upland

While there may be a daunting number of shotguns on the wall at your local sporting goods store or gun shop, there are a few ways to narrow your search, particularly for a gun suited to a beginner.

Here’s what you need to know.

Choosing a Beginner Bird Shotgun

When choosing a shotgun, it’s important to think first about its intended use.  A quail gun may be different from a deer gun which may be different from a home defense shotgun.  

One shotgun can do it all, especially if you swap barrels, but what you gain in versatility, you lose in performance at any specific task.

When it comes to bird guns, you definitely want to go with something that’s more purpose-built with bird hunting in mind, particularly the type of bird hunting you’ll be doing.  That means picking something of the appropriate type, gauge, and barrel length.

Note: a good bird gun is also going to be a good trap/skeet/clay pigeon shooting gun, so if you’re looking for that, this a good place to be as well.

Shotgun Types and How to Choose

There are a number of different types of shotguns, separated by their action, for different uses.  Anyone of these will work for most bird hunting, but some are more beginner friendly, and some are better suited to certain game than others.

  • Semi-automatic shotgun – Semi-auto shotguns use a gas or inertia system to cycle the action automatically, ejecting spent shells and chambering fresh ones every time the trigger is pulled.  While older semi-autos may have been a touch unreliable, modern iterations have come a long way and are much more reliable, though they may still struggle with cheap, low-brass birdshot. Because semi-autos use some force from the shot to cycle the action, you also get less felt recoil than with other options
Inertia driven semiauto shotgun
Inertia driven semiauto shotgun
  • Pump-action shotgun – That old classic, the pump-action shotgun may be old-school, but you can’t argue with what works.  Manually working the action means you get a gun that is more reliable, but they require a bit more practice to avoid short stroking the action and not fully cycling the gun. Pump guns are typically cheaper than semi-autos though and will run until something literally breaks.
  • Single-shot breech-loading shotgun – Exactly what it says on the tin. These shotguns break open to load from the breech, and once you shoot, they break open to be reloaded with either an ejector flinging the spent shell out or an extractor that just nudges the shell up so you can manually remove it.  They’re perfectly acceptable bird guns, and a fun challenge, but not the most efficient. They are however cheap. Like, under $150 cheap, so they have that going for them.
  • Double-barrel breech-loading shotgun – Available in side-by-side (SxS) or over/under (O/U), the double-barrel shotgun is even more classic than the pump-action and is possibly the most popular bird hunting implement around.  You’ll find these guns wherever folks are looking to bring down game birds, or bust clay pigeons.

You may immediately want to grab a double-barrel shotgun as that’s the classic bird gun, but they can be difficult for beginners to get the hand of.  They’re simple to operate, but they lack the security of additional follow up shots.

That said, if you’re going after certain game birds in certain locations, you may be limited to just a double-barrel so it may be a good idea to pick one up.  They are typically very light and offer incredibly fast follow-up shots (there’s nothing stopping you from squeezing both triggers at once and setting off both barrels except love for your shoulder).

Because of the nature of the action, you also get a gun that’s about 5” shorter than a pump or semi-auto with the same length barrel.

A pump-action or semi-auto is more versatile, and can be used for a variety of hunting situations, and even home defense. Of course, even a single-shot breech-loader can be used for defense, but it’s hardly ideal.

Shotgun Gauges and How to Choose

  • 10-gauge – The 10-gauge is a mostly deprecated round that isn’t really used anymore.  It was once a popular option for waterfowl, but modern 12-gauge loadings work much better and they don’t pummel your shoulder nearly as badly. Seriously, the recoil on these things is downright unpleasant, especially for a long day in the field putting dozens of rounds downrange. We advise to skip it as anything but a novelty.
  • 12-gauge – The most popular shotgun round in the world by a country mile, the 12-gauge is the most well-rounded and most-beloved of the shotgun rounds.  There’s a 12 gauge load for just about every occasion, from home defense to “I need to burn this field down”, and that includes specialized loads for every game bird you can imagine.  Best of all you can literally find 12 gauge ammo all over the planet, so unless you’re in a very anti-gun country like China, you won’t have a problem finding ammo.
  • 20-gauge – the 20-gauge is the second most popular shotgun round, but don’t let that dissuade you.  The 20-gauge isn’t as powerful as the 12-gauge, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get the job done. Quite the opposite actually, and its popularity means that you still have a number of loads available for different purposes. The 20-gauge is a good option for older kids or adults who are slightly recoil sensitive.
Wide example of different gauges
Wide example of different gauges
  • 16-gauge – The success of the 12 and 20-gauges has eclipsed the 16-gauge, but it still retains its niche as the “Goldilocks” round between the two.  It, theoretically, combines some of the power of the 12-gauge, with the lowe recoil of the 20-gauge. You’ll have to decide that for yourself, but in general, you’ll have an easier time finding ammo for a 12 or 20-gauge.
  • 28-gauge – The 28-gauge is a very soft-shooting round that is ideal for small upland game such as quail.  If you want something easy on your shoulder and aren’t going after turkey or waterfowl, the .28 gauge may be worth looking into.
  • .410 – .410 shotguns are the go-to for small pest hunting, or for recoil-sensitive and young shooters who want to go bird hunting.  With the recent success of .410 handguns like the Taurus Judge, .410 is even more plentiful than before, and guns chambered for this positively tame round are flying of the shelves at incredibly low prices.  If you are a brand new shotgun owner or are getting a gun for someone who is, this may be a good place to start due to the low cost of entry, and ease of use.

As a general rule, an adult newbie is going to want a 12-gauge or 20-gauge shotgun.  These are the most popular chamberings for a reason, and they’re the ones that you’ll see the most, and have the least trouble finding ammo for.

For young kids, those on a budget, or the very recoil-sensitive, .410 shouldn’t be overlooked. Hunting with it is perfectly viable, and while a little more challenging due to the smaller amount of shot in the shell, is still loads of fun.  

The 28 and 16-gauge shotguns are a little harder to find ammo for, especially the 16-gauge but they are still perfectly viable and are good for balancing power with recoil to get the perfect shotgun for your needs.

Our Recommendation

For a new hunter, not yet used to bird hunting, we recommend a pump-action 12 gauge for adults, and a single-shot breech loader or pump-action .410 for young kids.  For an adult trying to get the most out of their shotgun money, a pump-action is the most versatile, and the easiest to repurpose if you find you don’t love bird hunting.

You might also want a bird dog, you can often times rent them and a handler if you don't own one!
You might also want a bird dog, you can often time rent them and a handler if you don’t own one!

If you want the classic bird hunting experience though, go with the double barrel.  Whatever you choose, look for something that comes ready to accept chokes and something you can swap in barrels of different lengths depending on your needs.

If you’re at a loss for which shotguns to look at, don’t panic.  The following shotguns are some of the best around, and we’ve included enough variety that anyone should be able to find something that will work for them.

1. Mossberg 500 Classic

The Mossberg 500 is in the running for the most popular shotgun on the planet.  It’s used by everyone from hunters to police officers to NATO forces around the world, albeit in different configurations.

Mossberg 500 Classic

Mossberg 500 Classic

Pros

  • K.I.S.S. type shotgun
  • Massive aftermarket
  • Just as good for water fowl as it is for home defense

Cons

  • Jack of all trades, master of none

A bevy of aftermarket parts and support, coupled with its legendary reliability make it an excellent choice for bird hunters on a budget, and the Classic version’s styling will look right at home next to bird guns that cost thousands more.

This is the basic shotgun we recommend for those who want to give bird hunting a try but aren’t sure if they’ll like it.  And if you get it and decide you don’t want to use it for bird hunting, it makes a great home defense gun…or deer gun…or 3Gun gun… just about anything you can think of using a shotgun for, you can make a Mossy 500 work.

And if you don’t like it at all, the resale value is pretty high.

2. Mossberg 835 Ulti-Mag Waterfowl

When you hear “bird hunting” do you immediately think of ducks and geese?  If you’re looking to get into waterfowl hunting, but aren’t looking to spend thousands on a shotgun, the Ulti-Mag Waterfowl may be the perfect option.

The Mossy Oak Shadowgrass camo finish is designed to match up with marsh and swampland environments to hide you from keen-eyed waterfowl until the last possible moment. The fiber optic front sight makes target acquisition easy, even in low light, and the vent-rib barrel mitigates recoil and makes follow up shots easy.

Mossberg 835

Mossberg 835

Pros

  • Semi-auto for a pump-action price
  • Easy to customize with chokes and barrels
  • Fiber optic bead sight

This shotgun also comes with choke tubes, and can easily accept new barrels so it can easily become an upland game gun or turkey/deer slayer as needed.

Finally, and best of all…its under $500.  We would go so far as to say that it is one of the best semi-autos in this price range.

3. Franchi Affinity 3.5

Unlike other semi-auto’s on this list that is gas-operated, the Franchi Affinity 3.5 is inertia-driven.  At only around seven pounds, the Affinity is actually one of the lightest inertia guns on the market today, and with 26” and 28” barrels available, you have some options for how it’s set up.

Franchi Intensity Semiautomatic Shotgun

Franchi Intensity Semiautomatic Shotgun

Pros

  • Lightweight, inertia driven system
  • Fast firing and reset

Cons

  • Middle ground pricing

Its inertia system comes with Franchi’s patented recoil padding to offset the otherwise stout kick you’d expect from an inertia-driven shotgun.  This makes the affinity a joy to shoot on even the longest outings, and the lightweight and fast-firing nature of the semi-auto means you’re likely to get more out of your trip as well.

4. Benelli Super Black Eagle

Do you want the best of the best?  Of course, you do. Everyone does. Can you afford it?  Maybe not. But if you can afford the best, why not get the best? Well, the Benelli Super Black Eagle may not be the very best, but it’s damn close.

Benelli Super Black Eagle

Benelli Super Black Eagle

Pros

  • Widely seen as the best semi-auto on the market
  • Widely seen as the coolest named, also
  • The kind of shotgun you can pass down to the grandkids

Cons

  • High price

It’s inertia driven, but comes with thick padding on the butt and cheek rest to avoid leaving you bruised, and the Benelli standard of quality means you’re getting a shotgun that will run as long as you will, no hangups or feeding issues, and keep going long after you’re packing up for the day.

The Super Black Eagle is available in multiple finishes, including several camo options and a plain black option, so you can rest assured you can match your gun to your environment.

5. CZ Upland Ultralight

Are you looking for a double-barrel, but find yourself despairing over prices that look like six months worth of your mortgage?  The CZ Upland Ultralight is a no-frills O/U shotgun that won’t break the bank, and won’t break your heart in the field.

CZ Upland Ultralight O/U Shotgun

CZ Upland Ultralight O/U Shotgun

Pros

  • Entry level U/O shotgun
  • CZ quality
  • Over/under is classic
  • Instantaneous follow up shot

Cons

  • Slow and frequent reloading

The Ultralight part is no joke either.  This shotgun weighs in at just six pounds, making it one of the lightest in its class, and it is coated in a non-reflective, weather-resistant finish to ensure the elements don’t hurt it on even the dampest mornings in the field.

The lightweight makes it ideal for those long treks after upland birds, and it holds up well to long days of shooting.  Overall, if you want the classic bird hunting experience, or want to go after quail in restricted areas that are worried about excessive harvesting, and assuming you don’t want to take a second (third?) mortgage just for a shotgun, this CZ Upland Ultralight is possibly the best value for your dollar.

Final Thoughts

Bird hunting is an age-old past time that has the practical benefit of putting food on the table.  It remains a fun and engaging hobby, with plenty of room for growth, as well as plenty of opportunities to diversify your efforts across a number of game species.

It all starts with a shotgun though.  Hopefully, the guns on this list and the other information here are enough to get you started on a bird hunting adventure of your very own.

What do you think of these bird hunting shotguns?  Thinking about getting out there and bagging some birds yourself?  Let us know in the comments below!

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