If you’ve never fired a shotgun before, you’re in for a treat. Shotguns might just be the most versatile type of firearm you can buy. You can use them for sport, hunting or defense. Depending on the style and type of ammunition you choose, you can shoot at airborne targets — clays or birds — or stationary ones. You can use a shotgun for short-range targets or, with slug ammunition, hit targets up to a couple of hundred yards away.

Knowing what to expect when shooting a shotgun for the first time requires a basic understanding of what makes a shotgun unique. Let’s look at some of those features.

How It Works

With a few rare exceptions, there are three “styles” of shotguns, as defined by the way in which they operate.

Break-action shotguns allow the barrel or barrels to “crack open” from the receiver so you can drop shells directly into the chamber. You’ll typically see these — single barrel, side-by-side double barrels or over-and-under barrels — used by upland bird hunters, waterfowl hunters and clay-target sports competitors. Most break-action shotguns can only fire one or two shots, as they only have one or two barrels.

Pump-action shotguns are the classic workhorses of the shotgun family. These store extra shells in a tubular magazine under the barrel. By manually pumping the action back and forth, you move a shell from the tubular magazine up into the chamber while ejecting the spent cartridge. If you don’t cycle after every shot, it won’t shoot.

Semi-automatic shotguns usually have a tubular magazine like most pump shotguns, but they operate more like a semi-automatic pistol. Energy from the expanding gas is redirected to eject the spent shell and load a new one from the magazine. Some semi-automatic designs use inertia to cycle the action. When firing a semi-automatic shotgun, you can fire multiple shots by pressing the trigger multiple times until the magazine is empty.

Three shotguns, a lever-action, semi-automatic, and pump-action, all with blued metal and wooden stocks and foreends, lying on a rustic wooden background amidst a variety of red and black .410 and 12-gauge shotshells

Part of what makes shotguns so versatile are the different action-type choices like the pump-action (top), semi-automatic (middle) and even lever-action (bottom).


Shotgun cartridges, usually called “shotshells,” differ greatly from rifle and handgun ammunition. Sure, a firing pin still detonates a small primer which then ignites the powder, resulting in expanding gas to drive projectiles out of the fiery end. What’s different is the construction and the types of projectiles that a shotshell can fire.

Read the rest: What to Expect When Shooting a Shotgun for the First Time – USCCA