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Many a young child got their first taste of a ‘real gun’ when they put dad’s slug gun to their shoulder. The awakening, for so many poor, innocent younglings, came rudely.

Every November I get to watch the little kids wearing puffy coats and gloves struggle to see through cheap scopes and hold steady while being poorly coached by every male relative in the family. It’s a time-honored tradition to subject unwitting children to a 12-gauge blast, which happens to be the subject of this week’s Calibers for Beginners.

Ah, yes, the 12 gauge. There may be no other cartridge that has brought so many children to painful tears. In this series we’ve looked primarily at pistol and rifle cartridges, but it’s time to move on to smooth bore.

The shotgun is a tool that almost everyone has used at one time or another. That’s because it’s able to fill almost every role that is demanded of a firearm: hunting birds and beasts, self-defense, warfare, law enforcement, law breaking and sport shooting (including sporting clays, 3-Gun, trap and skeet). It even serves well in less-lethal roles such as crowd control.

The reason behind the continued success of the 12 gauge above other shotgun cartridges is that it occupies a very sweet spot in terms of power, recoil, and types of payload. Shotguns, unlike rifles (I know there are a number of exceptions here, so don’t get cocky in the comments), typically don’t fire single-piece projectiles that have spin imparted on them by rifling.

Rather, most shotguns are smoothbore, meaning that the barrel has no rifling grooves cut into it to create projectile spin. A notable exception to this is that some shotguns have rifled barrels, but aren’t classified as rifles. Maddening, I know.

The 12-gauge cartridge has been loaded with almost anything a person can imagine putting in it from birdshot, buckshot, slugs, beanbags, rock salt, incendiary shot, nail-like flechettes, noise-making blanks, and much, much more. The versatility of the 12 gauge bore makes it a prime contender for innovation and widespread acceptance of new designs. If anything, novelty 12-gauge ammo makes great gifts around the holidays.

Excellent guns are available from a world-wide array of makers. Shotguns haven’t seen the same prejudice and persecution as some rifles and pistols in most countries and civilian ownership is relatively common across much of the world, and is sometimes not widely regulated. This speaks to the fact that even in countries that routinely abuse their citizens, the utility of the shotgun can’t be denied.

Common, hard-use American shotguns such as the Remington 870 and Mossberg 500 are usually the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of a 12-gauge. Typical shotguns like these are pump-action and hold anywhere from three to eight rounds.

Other shotguns that are in common use, although more expensive, are break-action double-barrels and semi-automatics. The double guns are what many sport shooters use for clays, most commonly in an under/over configuration where the barrels are one atop the other instead of side-by-side. It could be argued that there’s no finer bird hunting gun than a double-barreled 12-gauge.

The beginner shouldn’t take the 12-gauge lightly. Despite the fact that they’re extremely common and can be quite inexpensive, they’re extremely powerful and can make for a bad day at the range for beginners. The 12-gauge is many things, but it could rarely be called forgiving, especially to the unaware.

What the beginner should know going into shotguns is that there are many other options other than 12-gauge, such as 20-gauge, 28-gauge, and .410. The only problem with these is that they aren’t in the same power class as the big 12 and typically have reduced range and shot density. The 12-gauge is arguably the best shotgun chambering for 99% of all hunting and sport shooting scenarios.

The big problem for a beginner with 12-gauge is, of course, recoil. Some of you may scoff at this notion, and of course there are reduced-power loads, but the 12-gauge is powerful and has a long learning curve. Most slug guns are ungainly when compared to rifles and generate much more noise and blast. This is a consideration where young hunters are concerned. A better choice than Gramps’ old Winchester might be something like a Ruger bolt action .44 Magnum, which weighs substantially less and generates far, far gentler recoil and less noise.

Great shotguns are made by a huge number of companies such as Remington, Mossberg, Winchester, Franchi, Beretta, Benelli, Browning, Kel-Tec, and many, many more. It’s even possible to find historical shotguns in good condition. There is a substantial market for trench guns and other war-used shotguns.

Some 12-gauge guns command impressive price tags on the collector’s market. One of the world’s greatest gunsmiths is located in my city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Bachelder Master Gunmakers is the world’s sole leader in restoration and sales of the legendary Parker gun.

Parker Brothers Gun Shotgun

If you don’t know the Parker gun or haven’t had the chance to see or hold one in person, I don’t fault you. They are quite valuable and can go for upwards of $10,000-$40,000 on a normal day. I have had the opportunity to visit their facility several times and it is always a trip to the candy shop.

Rarely do rifles ever climb as high in overall value. And that’s just the Parkers. Custom English guns from Boss, Purdey and Holland & Holland go for well into six figures.

Ammunition for the 12-gauge can be had from a dizzying number of makers including Remington, Winchester, Federal, Hornady, Rio, Fiocchi, Estate, S&B, Wolf, Herter’s, and many others.

Particularly notable modern 12-gauge models include:

Remington 870: As mentioned, this is an American classic that millions rely on for daily use. You can get more expensive guns, but most hunters will never wear one out.

Mossberg 500/590: Another widely owned, widely available gun that’s often sold for just a few hundred dollars. That said, the Mossberg sees hard use and is fielded by dozens of military groups and combat units. It is a rugged, reliable gun that serves both the hunter and soldier.

Benelli M4: This is another military shotgun that has seen considerable use in combat. Unlike the others here, it’s a semiautomatic. This gun is on the expensive end, but it isn’t even close to the cost of collector guns. The standard model has rifle-like iron sights and other cool features.

Kel-Tec KSG: Call of Duty fans will instantly recognize this weird-looking bull-pup gun. The KSG is a pump-gun that has dual magazine tubes and a downward loading/ejection port. The compact overall length makes the KSG a great home-defense weapon. The design has had some criticism over the years, but it is refined now and quite reliable. It may surprise some, but it is available in a design that holds an entire box of 25 shells.

The 12-gauge is a modern staple across the world. It can be had at almost every store that doesn’t cater to SJW’s and can probably be found in in nearly every garage or barn in America. The utility of the 12-gauge is undeniable and every shooter can do themselves right by learning how to use one. It isn’t the best beginner’s hunting gun, but is more often than not the gun that lots of people start with.


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  1. I get angry when I see ppl give a 12 ga to a kid or their girlfriend to shoot. They react poorly to the recoil and everyone else gets to laugh and make fun.

    It’s ignorant and I’m surprised more ppl don’t get hurt. Plus it’s gotta put some kids on a path to hating anything to do with guns.

    Want to get your kids to respect and appreciate firearms? Then respect them and carefully build them up to the recoil by using smaller caliber more friendly firearms.

    Make it fun instead of an exercise in bullying.

    • Always be a good ambassador to the new shooter. Agulia 12 gage short shells are great for new shooters. I used them when introducing a shotgun to my daughter. Very low recoil and very low report from the gun.

      • I use Herters Mini-Buckshot for that. A little more recoil and noise, but far easier to find, and far less expensive.
        The gun I use for letting newbies use is a Mossy 500 20″ model, with black furniture, no fancy stuff, other than a heat shield (which the gun came with). The gun is a little heavier than a 18.5″ model, so recoil isn’t quite so bad.
        But the biggest thing I do is show them how to stand, which goes a very long way in letting them handle the recoil.

  2. I agree, but do have to admit those youtube videos are funny. In all seriousness, I don’t understand how people lose control of a firearm so that it hits them in the face or goes flying out of their hands. I recently got my hands on a Remington Tac-14 Hardwood, basically a legal version of the Witness Protection. I did have some concern that shooting 3″ buckshot and slugs would be difficult, esp. if trying to aim…I was surprised at how easy it was to shoot and handle. Never lost grip on either hand. If you believe youtube the gun should’ve jumped out of my hand, smacked my mamma, and given me a black eye.

    • The only case I witnessed personally was mechanical failure. Screw in scope mount walked out on a safari rifle so the scope flew back. Left a scar but not disabling.

  3. “most hunters will never wear one out.”

    But after 2007 you’ll get a worn out one from the factory more often than not. It may even have rust.

  4. It’s a shame the 28 gauge don’t catch on, for a kid that hasn’t shot much a 20 is still a little snappy. .410 is fine for experienced shooters however it’s hit to bird / clay ratoi is a little disapointing for a novice. Developing a flinch at an early age is not very conducive to good marksmanship. ( Theory based on observation)

    • I saw a 16 gauge Winchester model 12 this weekend at the local gunshop, had I not just bought a new range toy I might have had a new shotgun in my collection.

      • I had a Remington 58 in 16 gauge with a Cutts compensator. It recoiled about like a .223. You could shoot it all day long and no pain at all. Gave it to a hunting niece after I gave up shooting doves.

    • I’m a 20ga “coach gun” man myself, but why wasn’t the ten ga. even mentioned? At least Browning and H&R still make firearms for it, and the ammo is widely available. It looks to be staying around for the foreseeable future. At least for as long as there are turkey and goose hunters.
      As the only shotgun round available that’s more potent than the 12, shouldn’t it at least have been mentioned as something for newbies to avoid?

  5. While 12 gauge is fine for fit men and women with appreciable muscle tone and body weight, I cannot recommend it for everyone else. For everyone else, 20 gauge is the way to go.

    Note: I would actually prefer 28 gauge with slugs over 20 gauge for home defense. As (bad) luck would have it, I have yet to see any store selling 28 gauge shells loaded with slugs.

    • Update: I just happened to check an online ammunition location website and managed to find about six distributors who have Brenneke brand 28 gauge shotgun shells with 5/8 ounce (273 grain) slugs. Unfortunately, they are expensive (about $2 per shell if I remember correctly).

      Sadly, Mossberg does not appear to make a pump-action shotgun in 28 gauge, although they do appear to make a semi-auto shotgun in 28 gauge.

      That would be an impressive home-defense platform: a semi-automatic 28 gauge shotgun shooting 273 grain slugs — which are .55 caliber and have a muzzle velocity of over 1,400 fps. That will put every male attacker down every time, no matter how big they are and no matter what drugs they are on.

  6. “… options other than 12-gauge, such as 20-gauge, 28-gauge, and .410. …”

    Born in 1950, my first shotgun was a AH Fox .410.
    Next was a Stevens single shot 20 gauge….then a “Elsie” in 16 gauge.

    There is little a 12 can do the 16 can’t copy with a lot more pizzazz than a 20.

    I think Remington still builds a few 16’s.

    The 16 is “THE” perfect gauge!

    • The 16 ga 3 shot semi auto was my second shotgun. A masterpiece for shooting quail/dove. I’d have one to this day if I was still hunting those little birds with afterburners. Unfortunately, in this part of Texas, it got to where I was shooting more snakes than birds.

      • I have five and keep my eyes open for more.
        One LC Smith, 2 Win M12, 1 Stevens pump and a Rem “Sportsman”.
        Love antiques and 16’s!

  7. Standard 2 3/4 inch 12 ga 00 buckshot has negligible recoil. If you can’t handle it you don’t need to be shooting a shotgun. Heavy loads, however, can sit you back on your heels if you are not used to dealing with them. Stance is the key. If I have doubts about recoil of any firearm, I let somebody else shoot it first. If it knocks them on their butt and they get up and tell me “ok, it’s your turn”, I look at my watch and tell them I’m late for a meeting. (my first shotgun was a single break barrel full choke 20 ga exposed hammer. Luckily Dad had me position my feet and lean into it. Naturally, I thought that thing “kicked”. Many squirrel hunts, that was one sweet shooting little gun. Proved to be ideal first gun for left handed shoot and load).

    • the 20 is the ideal gun for beginners. cohoked modified or IC . the 410 is ok for cans, but don’t let them shoot at game with it. the patterns are just too thin. unless you are using LE buckshot the 2 3/4 kicks as much as a slug.

    • Hoyden brings up a critical point that is not in the article: a high quality gel pad (either a pad integrated into your shooting garment or on the buttstock itself) significantly improves the felt recoil of 12 gauge hunting loads.

      If you are going to shoot 12 gauge for whatever reason, I HIGHLY recommend Limbsaver brand recoil pads. Having used them a fair bit now, I won’t shoot 12 gauge shotguns without them.

      Note that these recoil pads increase the length-of-pull of your shotgun. That could be a deal-breaker if you are already straining with the length-of-pull being too long. On the other hand, if you have a wood stock, you could potentially remove about 5/8 inch from the end and then add the recoil pad without increasing your length-of-pull.

      • I’ve got cheap Rossi single shot 12 gauge that the only way I can stand to shoot it is with a Limbsaver slip on pad. It really is a limb saver.

        • If you have a problem with recoil on a 12 gauge buy a semi auto. I had a Mossberg 590 that would beat you (Me) up. Got talked into shooting a Mossberg 930 and gave the 590 to a friend for home protection and bought the 930. The cycling of the action on a semi auto smooths out the impulse to your shoulder and makes it just fun to shoot.

        • That Rossi is now the standby snake and skunk gun, it weighs 5 pounds with a rock hard but pad (thus the Limbsaver). The main shotgun I shoot is a Winchester SXP trap, 12 gauge, no problem with its recoil shooting 2-3/4″ 1-1/8oz 1200fps 100 pack field and range loads.

          Now when it comes to high brass I can tolerate out of field model SXP. But I’m not shooting high brass very often. I’d still like to get 930 JM series though.

  8. I use sabot rounds in a beretta a400 xtrema2 for deer. I get groups of three touching holes at 25 yards and 4 inch accuracy at 100.
    The slugs I a 335 grain Remington accupoint which has an aero plastic nose which collapses to expose a nice bucket profile slug. Knockdown power is all there.
    It’s a specialized setup for states and areas where rifles are banned. Not cheap by any means.
    I also use a stoeger 3500 semi smooth bore with Winchester slugs for a change of pace. The 1 1/4 oz slugs are heavy and knock down larger deer . Not as accurate though, I use this setup for close work where everything is under 30 yards.

  9. Use my Remington 870 and Mossburg 500, had them both for decades, for bird hunting. But, for sheer fun a trip to the range with my Saiga 12 with 10 round mags is a hoot. Rifle sights and it’s action is slicker than snot on a doorknob.

  10. The first time i fired my dad’s shotgun i landed on my back and had no idea what happened. the second shot knocked me back a few steps. good times.

    • When deer hunting with slugs, you’re using a shotgun as a rifle (albeit with limited range and accuracy). You’re not pointing it, you’re aiming it. A cheap scope is appropriate, and may be the best way to achieve whatever accuracy potential the platform provides.

  11. I have seen plenty of pre-teen boys and girls using 12 gauge guns at the trap range, enjoyably and competently. With training in proper technique, a gun that fits right, and target loads, the recoil is tolerable.

  12. The reason for the success of the 12 gauge came down to this:

    3″ (and after steel was mandated, the 3.5″) chamberings in a 12 would allow you to hurl enough shot up into the sky for ducks and geese. Then, in the 50’s, removable steel chokes were introduced. Between the larger payload shells and the ability to change chokes,, the 8 gauge and then the 10 gauge shotgun became largely obsolete for waterfowl hunting. Browning still makes some 10’s, but Mossberg’s 835/935 shotguns with heavy 12 ga. loads would give you pretty much the same results.

    The 16 was a victim of both lighter loads in the 12, and heavier loads in the 20. By the 1960’s, what was once the “perfect” upland/sport shotgun had been encroached from both sides. It’s a shame, because IMO, a nice SxS or O/U in 16 gauge still allows you to shoot 1 oz. loads very well for clay sports, but the gun is lighter and mounts so much more easily at the end of a competition than a 12. They’re lighter, but not “too light.”

    The 28 and 32 gauges were always limited-run guns. You can look into Winchester’s records and see how few 28’s in the Model 12, 21, 24, etc they made. For a person who wants to shoot either doves or just trap/skeet, 28’s are very nice. They’re ver, very light, quick to shoulder, etc.

  13. I shot my dad’s “pheasant” gun, a Rem. 3-shot semi-auto 12 gage a few times when I was 14 or 15, at hand thrown (with a device) skeet. I might have even hit one. I wasn’t stunned but I didn’t come back for more either. Granddad had a 16 gage and a .410.

    We dined on pheasant occasionally, but farming practices changed eliminating harvested fields of standing corn stalks that pheasants used for nesting.

  14. There are many low recoil options available for the 12 bore that are not explored in this article. For example, there are both OOB and Rifled Slug 12 gauge options that have a lower recoil impulse, in guns of the same weight, than any 20 gauge buckshot and slug loads on the market. –

  15. I started out on a light 20 gauge single barrel as a child and still have it. I never found the recoil problematic from it despite youth and small for age stature and weight. However not everyone agrees, and slight differences in technique or inate recoil tolerance are important.

    The thing about the 20 gauge is that minus the novelty stuff, ammo for it is widely available, affordable, and as far as realistic differences go, just about on par with 12 gauge. Waterfowling aside, appropriate and effective 20 gauge ammo for bird, beast or man is readily available.

    I carried and used 12 gauges for years, bowing to the greater power and increased shot counts, but by my late 30s, with back and shoulder issues, I returned to the 20 for all purposes including whitetail and SD. I guess the reduced recoil is just worth it to me, and frankly what can’t be done with 3/4 of an ounce at 1600 fps isn’t apt to be done with a solid ounce at similar velocity, nor is 12 gauge 00 apt to end a threat that 20 pellets #3 buck from a 20 gauge failed to stop.

    Once you’re into this kind of power, arguing relative effectiveness in SD situations is merely academic at best, and outright foolish at worst. Consider, no one here is packing anything more powerful than a .44mag for personal defense on the go, and most carry a 9 or 45. Comparing any of these to 3/4 oz slugs or 20 pellet #3 buck from an 18 inch 20 gauge for “stopping power” is a joke. I wont deny that when your life is on the line more is better and there isnt any such thing as too powerful…in theory at least. From a practical position though, it’s hard to argue the 20 gauge, properly loaded, isn’t “enough” for white tail or SD/HD.


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