By: Justin Hunold
A shotgun is by far the most versatile firearm in a hunting arsenal. You can hunt anything that moves with a shotgun. But in today’s social media driven outdoor-scape we are seeing very specific tools for very specific hunts. We seem to be in the search for the “Best (insert game) Gun” these days. And when the budget and seasons align we can differentiate and own guns for specific purposes like Turkey, Waterfowl, Clays, Upland and Various small game.
Let’s not forget that all of these “bests” are still Shotguns. So, what makes for the best Do All shotgun? What covers the most bases so that we can spend more time sharpening our hunting skills rather than thinking of the lack of a specialized tool as a hindrance?
If given a choice for one gun for all the targets above, a shooter would be well suited to go with a 12 Gauge. The current trend is moving towards 20 gauge and even the smaller sub gauges like 28 and .410, hell, even the 16 gauge is having its own resurrection. These options are being spurred by more consistent and lethal ammunition choices in everyday available factory loads. But we are talking about one gun versatility here, and there is no answer other than 12 gauge for that question.
12 gauges leave very few gaps in ability to handle the task at hand, including big game with buckshot and slug options. Ammunition for the king of gauges was also available throughout the shortages of the recent past. Good luck killing a Tom with a .410 and TSS if you can’t find any, or trying to takedown a few big, fat Canada’s with your 20 gauge when the only waterfowl legal and appropriate shells you can find are 12 gauge BB’s. It’s not that the other’s don’t do the job, it’s just that they can’t do anything the 12 doesn’t, and this relationship is not inverse. Add in the ability to shoot 2 ¾ “ light loads up to the heaviest 3 ½ “ Magnum loads and a good twelve will handle way more than most hunter’s need.
Ok with gauge settled let’s look at barrel length. If I’m running through the spring turkey woods, or pushing the understory for Upland or small game my gun would have a barrel length of between 22-24” . A shorter barrel is just easier to manage in tight cover, it makes your profile a bit tidier when pushing through the stuff, and doesn’t lend itself to snagging when a fast shot is needed.
When breaking clays, or shooting birds in flight such as ducks’, geese, crows, pheasants or doves I prefer to have a barrel length of at least 28”. There tends to be the misconception that a shorter barrel is “easier” to swing, which is not the case. A shorter barrel is easier to point and begin the motion of the swing, but to truly swing through a target be it live or clay the weight and momentum of a longer barrel will literally help pull you through the motion of a smooth swing.
This brings us to what would be an apt choice for barrel length in an all around shotgun. With the idea of a one gun in the forefront I would choose a 26” barrel. It’s easier to maneuver through the woods than a 28” with a 2 inch extended choke poking out, but it also carries that all important mass to help you break clays and deliver big shot at long distances on geese and divers. Plus in my opinion it’s about the perfect length for niche things like, layout blind, layout boat, hunting over dogs in fields and hunting for deer and hogs with buckshot.
So here we are, we have a 12 gauge with a 26” barrel, we need to settle on a mode of operation, pump, semi, over under, side by side, single shot? Let’s face it, we can do anything with a single shot, except reliably shoot a double or the like in the field. When an opportunity does come up for multiple targets or animals, with our limited time in the field for most of us, we need to be able to take full advantage of the situation. Or what if it’s a single, and the only shot you get all day, but you whiff the first trigger pull? Man, I’d like to have a second or even third shot. And we aren’t even talking about a fast paced dove field or a crazy 50,000 bird snow goose flight.
If you asked hunters from generations past what their choice of repeating shotguns would be a lot of them would have settled on a pump, but today’s semi auto’s are as reliable and much faster than the pumps of yesteryear. I would choose a semi auto, they are the fastest way to get three shots off if needed. Other bonuses are generally reduced recoil, a good profile for carrying and overall they are generally fairly light all things considered. So, with multiple shots on deck, a fast cyclic rate, and reduced recoil I am able to leverage the tools at hand to have the best opportunity to make my time with gun in hand the most fruitful.
This brings us to our final category and honestly, functionally, the least important. Do we want to choose wood or synthetic furniture? I prefer a nice, black synthetic stock with a matte black finish for an all around gun. There are arguments to be made for a camo gun too. Synthetic is easy to take care of, I don’t cry when I scratch or scrape it and it’s impervious to the weather conditions at hand.
With that I can understand why you may choose a wood stock set for your gun. Wood is beautiful, warm and is one of a kind. I love the way wood guns look and feel. I have a bunch of wood guns that make their rotations in and out of the safe for days out in the sun. You need to like the way your one gun looks and feels or else you won’t have the inspiration to use it. This is as important as any other feature. This is your one gun and you should love it.
The final feature is the fit of the gun, I believe this sorta goes without saying. The gun needs to fit you. Close your eyes, shoulder it, open your eyes. Is the bead there, are you looking down a straight rib, is your finger comfortable one the trigger? The Cast, Drop and Length of Pull all need to be correct no matter what gun you are choosing. A gunner who has the highest end shotgun in the world that doesn’t fit them will get outshot by a shooter with an inexpensive gun that fits them like a glove. Also, with that thought, shoot the gun. Shoot it often, know your one gun, love your gun.
Well, let’s put a bow on this thing. If you have different thoughts on an all around gun that makes sense, you might not have tight quarters shooting, you may only hunt turkeys from a blind, maybe you’re not a clays shooter or a waterfowl hunter, there are great options for your particular pie chart of hunting. Yet, day in day out if we sit down and say what makes for a great all around shotgun, a jack of all trades and the best value for your money I think that we can say a 12 gauge, 26” Barrel, Semi Automatic, Synthetic shotgun won’t let you down. It might not be the best at any one thing except for being great at all of them.