Choosing a Shotgun for Bird Season

Hunter at sunset.

If you’re looking to hunt birds, whether your prey of choice is quail, dove, turkey, duck, pheasant, or goose, you’re going to need a good shotgun.

Wondering how to pick the right shotgun for your hunt? Well you’re in the right place. We’re going to go over everything you need to know to pick a shotgun for bird season, whether you’re new to the sport, shopping for someone who is, or just looking to upgrade your current gun.

Let’s get started.

What Type of Shotgun?

Hunter aiming at the game
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You have four options for shotguns: single-shot, double barrel, pump action, and semi-automatic. For upland game, most people consider double barrel shotguns, either over/under(OU) or side-by-side (SxS), to be the gold standard.

For field birds like dove, most people prefer semi-autos or pump actions. Same for larger birds such as turkey or water fowl.

Single-shot guns are usually for new shooters or hunters on a very tight budget, and aren’t really recommended if you can afford something a little bit nicer. You’re gonna want the extra shot(s) in almost all cases.

The type of shotgun you pick needs to be well suited towards your chosen game and type of hunting.Overall, pump-actions are the most versatile and reliable, double barrels are lighter and faster to bring onto target, and semi-autos are the most likely to have a malfunction, but also shoot the fastest.

Which Gauge Should You Go With?

man using a shotgun
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For most birds, 12 gauge and 20 gauge are the go-to options, with .410 (actually a caliber, not a gauge) being the preferred choice for young hunters who are still learning. There’s also 16 gauge and 28 gauge options, but these are getting harder to find, and generally have been replaced by the other three options.

Between 12 and 20 gauge, your choice basically comes down to more recoil and more shot with a 12 gauge, or less recoil and less shot with a 20 gauge. This is a bit of a preference thing, and there’s a lot of debate either way.

In general, 12 gauge is preferred for larger game such as late-season pheasant, turkey, and waterfowl, while 20 gauge is fine for smaller game like dove and quail, and is much easier on the shoulder, and easier to hit followup shots with.

Other Features and Things to Consider

Hunting rifle cartridges and smocke after firing. Hunting in the forest, hunting and clay shooting at the polygon (Hunting rifle cartridges and smocke after firing. Hunting in the forest, hunting and clay shooting at the polygon, ASCII, 114 components
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Once you have these two big decisions sorted out there are a few other things to keep in mind and decide on.

Chamber Length

Chamber length is another one of those subjective things, but generally speaking you’ll want to get shot shells that match your chamber length for best results. In 12 and 20 gauge, you typically have 2 ¾”, 3”, and 3 ½” chamber lengths.

Most upland guns have a 2 ¾” length chamber these days, because there’s not really an appreciable difference when going after smaller game thanks to advances in modern shot.

For turkey, we really don’t see a huge difference either, but that’s more your call according to preference. Most magnum turkey guns are going to be 3 ½”, as are a lot of waterfowl guns.

Everybody has their opinions, but generally speaking, save the 3 ½” guns for the ducks and geese such, make your own decision on turkey, and 2 ¾” guns are perfect for upland game. 3” chambers have more or less fallen out of use, and 3” shells are harder to find (far from difficult however).


For most bird hunts, you’re going to need to either have a gun that holds three or fewer shells, or modify your gun to only accept three shells. This is only a problem with pump or semi-autos (unless somebody makes  a quad-barrelled bird shotgun I don’t know about) so keep this in mind.

Fortunately, you can use a simple wooden dowel or even a pencil in your magazine tube to make these changes, so it really comes down to preference here.


A shotgun choke helps to control the spread of shot as it leaves the barrel of your gun by constricting the interior of the barrel to keep the shot together.

Your most common options from least to most restricting are Cylinder, Improved Cylinder, Modified, and Full, with some specialty chokes in between.

For upland game where you’re flushing birds from cover, Improved Cylinder or just regular Cylinder are probably fine. Modified and Full are usually for turkey, waterfowl, or field birds like dove that are going to most likely be a little further away, or will require a little more shot to bring down humanely.

For the best of all possible worlds, you can spend a little more to get a shotgun that accepts screw-in chokes so you can have more options available. Just pay attention to what style of chokes your gun accepts so you know your chokes will match up.

Trying Out a Shotgun

Hunting shotgun with bullets cartridges drop rain
Image by Alexeus from Getty

As with most gun-related purchases, we recommend at least holding your chosen shotgun before you buy. Things like weight, length-of-pull, and other ergonomic aspects can make or break a shotgun’s performance in any given shooter’s hands.

Here are some shotguns for you to check out when you’re making your decision.


Savage Stevens 555: Reliable, no-frills, entry-level O/U double barrel with vent ribs, and a checkered Turkish Walnut stock. Comes with 5 screw-in chokes.

Franchi Instinct SL: Mid-level O/U double-barrel with auto-ejectors, barrel selector, automatic safety, and a high-end look.

Benelli 828 U O/U Compact: Heirloom-grade O/U that looks absolutely beautiful, and will easily outlast its owner with proper care.


Savage 320 Field Grade: Basic pump-action that you can throw in the toolbox without worrying about it getting knocked around. Reliable and versatile.

Mossberg 835 Ulti-Mag: Excellent pump-action geared towards waterfowl hunting. Comes in Mossy Oak camo finish that resists corrosion.


Mossberg 930: Great entry-level semi-auto. Multiple barrel options available.

Benelli Super Black Eagle: Inertia-driven shotgun with industry-leading reliability. One of the best semi-auto shotguns on the market, and great for bird hunting.

Parting Shots

Choosing a shotgun for bird hunting can be a difficult decision, but it doesn’t have to be!

Hopefully this gave you some things to think about as you choose your next bird gun. With the information here, you can buy your next scattergun with confidence, no matter what winged prey you’re going after.

Have any questions or concerns? Leave a comment below.

Choosing a shotgun for bird season


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