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Upland Shotguns – Which is right for bird hunting?

Upland Shotguns – Which is right for bird hunting?

A bird hunter with an upland shotgun and his bird dog.

Picking your first upland shotgun? Here’s what you need to know

So you want to be a bird hunter. As the season approaches, you’re starting to gear up: new hunting boots, vest, a nice orange hat. You’ve even been scouting spots on Google Earth. Now all you need is the right shotgun.

Just as there are pointers, retrievers, and flushers, there are also different types of shotguns for upland hunting. And like hunting dogs, some of these shotguns do certain things better than others.

  • Single shots ($200 – $300): The most basic shotguns. They hold one shell, so you fire, reload, repeat. Most use a break-open action with an exposed hammer. Some older models are bolt actions. While single shots are okay for dog training or for a youngster’s first shotgun, better options exist for a bit more money. Pass.
  • Pumps ($500 – $750): The top choice for most bird hunters. Pumps hold up to five shells and require you to “pump” the forend to reload the chamber and cock the action after firing. Hunters have probably killed more gamebirds with pumps than with all other types of shotguns combined. Why? Because pumps are affordable, reliable, versatile, easy to repair, and available in all sorts of configurations. And because companies like Remington, Winchester, and Ithaca built pump shotguns for so long, there are tons of used ones on the market and bargains are easy to find. Recommended.
  • Semi-automatics ($500 – $1750): The second most popular shotguns for bird hunting. When you pull the trigger on a semi-auto, the gun fires once and then reloads and cocks itself. It does this by siphoning off a portion of the recoil. This makes semi-autos easier on your shoulder and super comfortable to shoot, even if they’re lightweight. Recommended.
  • Double barrels ($650 to more than your truck): The king of upland guns. Like it says in the name, double barrels have two barrels. Each holds a single shell. Barrels come in two configurations: Side-by-side or over/under. Some doubles have two triggers, one for each barrel. Others have a single trigger which fires one barrel the first time you pull it and the other barrel the second time. While doubles can cost more than a year of private college, others — especially O/Us — are as affordable as a new pump or semi-auto. Drawbacks? How specialized double barrels can be. Lightweight ones built for Georgia quail aren’t going to cut it on South Dakota pheasants. But that’s okay. It’s the perfect reason to buy more guns. Highly Recommended.

Getting en-gauged

Shotguns come in a variety of gauges: 10, 12, 16, 20, 28 and .410 (which is really a caliber, not a gauge). These gauges correspond to the internal diameter of a shotgun’s bore. Because of the way these measurements used to be made, the bigger the bore size, the smaller the gauge. So a 10-gauge is far bigger than a 28-gauge.

The most popular gauges for upland hunting are 12 and 20. Twelve and  twenty gauge shotguns are easy to find. Ammo for them is easy to find, too. While twenty gauges are good for grouse, chukar, and quail, you’re better off with a 12-gauge if you’re hunting pheasants, especially later in the season.

Watch your weight

If you want to shoot birds, you need to get boots on the ground. You’ll be walking a lot, and you’ll be carrying your shotgun a lot. So be sure to consider a gun’s weight when you’re shopping.

A seven-pound shotgun may not feel heavy at the store or sound heavy online. But after a morning of lugging it around, it’ll feel that way. That’s why most upland hunters go with shotguns in the 6 to 6 ¾ pound range.

If you’re looking at 20 gauges, focus on around 6 pounds. For twelves, go 6 ¾ pounds max. If you want one gauge to do it all, buy a 6 ½ to 6 ¾ pound twelve and choose light or heavy loads depending on your game.

For the same load, lighter guns always kick more than heavier ones. Other than buying a semi-automatic (or making your gun heavier), there’s little you can do about this. If you plan to shoot your new shotgun a lot (say at doves or sporting clays), even moderate recoil can turn a few hours of fun into a bruising, black-and-blue experience you will not want to repeat.

Don’t get choked up

Most shotguns have “choke” in the final few inches of their barrels. Choke is a constriction of the barrel’s interior size, and it helps concentrate the cloud of shot and make it more effective at long ranges. Shooters use Cylinder (C), Improved Cylinder (IC), Modified (M), and Full (F) to classify the amount of this constriction. A gun with Cylinder choke has no constriction, a Full-choked gun has the most.

While older guns have fixed chokes that can only be modified by a good gunsmith, most newer shotguns come with screw-in chokes. Screw-in chokes are easy to change, so you can match them to the type of shooting you’re doing — in theory, anyway. But before you start switching chokes like a golfer with a bag full of clubs, here are two things to keep in mind:

  • You don’t need a lot of choke for most upland hunting. Few grouse, woodcock, quail, and pheasants are killed at more than 25 yards away. At that range, open chokes like Skeet 1 and Improved Cylinder will bring down any bird your shooting skills let you hit.
  • Most guys have a hard time hitting anything beyond 30 yards — regardless of the chokes in their gun. So if you want to be a better shooter, focus on lessons and practice first and on the chokes in your gun afterward.

More to keep in mind

  • Chamber lengths: Every shotgun barrel has a chamber where the shell is inserted for firing. A chamber’s length corresponds to the length of the shells that fit into it. A 2 ¾-inch chamber can take shells up to 2 ¾ inches long; a 3-inch chamber takes shells up to 3 inches long, etc. Because 2 ¾-inch ammunition holds enough lead to kill everything from quail to pheasants, 2 ¾-inch chambers are all you need in any 12-, 16-, 20-, or 28-gauge shotgun you plan to use in the uplands.
  • Stocks: The part of a shotgun you hold onto. Most shotgun stocks are wood, some are plastic. The forend is the front part of the stock (usually for the left hand), the buttstock goes against your shoulder. Buttstocks come in three main styles: straight, semi-pistol, and pistol grip. While all three work for upland hunting, straight and semi-pistol grip buttstocks are best for birds.
  • Fit: Unlike rifles, shotguns are pointed, not aimed. That’s because birds fly fast and aiming is the perfect way to miss them. But for a shotgun to point where you want it to, it has to fit your body. Like with an off-the-rack suit, most off-the-rack shotguns need a bit of fitting to be just right. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get by with them. Some pumps and semi-autos come with stocks that allow for small tweaks. On other guns, getting them to fit you can take a lot of work.

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider when shopping for your first upland shotgun. Be sure you take the time to ask yourself a lot of questions, including “What kind of birds will I hunt most often?” to “Will I use steel shot?

Then shop around and see lots of guns. Instead of just seeing them online, get them in your hands, mount them, and see how they feel. Shoot them if you can. Once you find something you like, get ready to have a great first season in the field.

View Comments (10)
  • Thank you! As I hunt for my first shotgun for the field, this has been very helpful. My budget is $1K, and it’s good to know I can find a decent O/U for my first time out.

  • Can you please comment further on the following? “While all three work for upland hunting, straight and semi-pistol grip buttstocks are best for birds.”

    Ergonomically, I’ve read pistol grips are best. Most English doubles are straight grips, but it seems most Parkers I come across have pistol grips. And very few, if any, O/Us have straight grips. The best I can come up with is that straight grips were designed a long time ago for live bird shooting, and pistol grips are preferred for more modern target games because of ergonomics and pointability. But wouldn’t that make them better for live birds too?

    Thanks for your help!

    • Yeah – I think you’re right. People have realized the benefits of pistol grip stocks. Personally, I like real open round-knob stocks or slight pistol grips for bird shooting. I don’t like those full pistol grips you find on target guns unless I’m shooting clays.

  • I’m retired military and have used shotguns but not in hunting and attempting to assist my son who lives in Maine in purchasing a shotgun for bird and waterfowl hunting. I noticed you did not mention ducks in your article. Does any/all of your comments apply to duck hunting.
    Great article, well written and very educational.
    Thank you.
    Rick B.

    • Hey. Rick.

      Thanks for the kind words.

      Duck hunters have to consider things like steel shot and wet, muddy conditions.

      Vintage SxS and OUs were not made to shoot steel shot. While you can shoot non-toxic shot like Bismuth through them, Bismuth-ammo is expensive and hard to find in load appropriate for old doubles. And an old double isn’t the best choice for really tough weather conditions. While they can take beatings, they can break. And when they do, they can be harder to repair. Personally, I would get something like a Benelli Super Black Eagle. Those are awesome duck guns. You can shoot steel through them, they’re built to be abused, and they’re easy to clean up after a muddy day outdoors.


  • “While all three work for upland hunting, straight and semi-pistol grip buttstocks are best for birds.” Amen!!!!! I have looked at several O/U shotguns that were very nice, but only come with a very harsh full pistol grip. Great on the trap line, and horrible to carry at the ready in the field. If you have any pull with these gun makers tell them to stop making upland guns with trap gun stocks.

  • First bird fun. Find something that fits either a 12 or 20 gauge. Get something in a medium weight and barrel length with modified or more open chokes. Pattern the gun, know where it shoots. Light, short barrel, quick pointing shotguns are a bird hunters best friend but in own experience, it took a lot years to become competent hunting with them.

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