No other weapon on the face of the planet is as poorly understood by outsiders as the shotgun.
Thanks in large part to videogames and movies, the shotgun comes across as this mythical weapon of unstoppable force that can send enemies flying, blast holes through armor, and turn the side of a house into swiss cheese with a single shot. The recoil is so fierce that it can send a grown man flying, unless the grown man is a terminator, in which case he'll shoot it with one hand.
It should come as no surprise that the reality is quite different, but to the uninitiated, it can be surprising just how much different it can be.
Let's start with the basics. A shotgun, simply put, is a weapon designed to fire shot. Shot. Gun. Easy enough, right?
In most cases, it will be a smoothbore weapon, which means the barrel won't be rifled. Instead of firing lead bullets in a brass casing, most shotgun shells are made of plastic, with a brass cup at the base. Inside you'll have a powder charge, wadding, and then the shot.
The powder works just like it would in a normal cartridge. It's ignited by a primer at the base of the shell, and once lit, explodes in a cloud of rapidly expanding gas. In between the shot and the powder is the wadding. It used to be simple wadded up paper or cloth, hence the name. Its job is to prevent the powder and the shot from intermingling, which could lead to a rather embarrassing weapons malfunction. These days, the wadding is a specially designed bit of plastic that cups the shot and helps push it out the barrel.
The shot is a bunch of lead balls of varying diameter. Different sizes of shot are used for different things. For instance, birdshot is used to hunt small game like, well, birds. It's also used for small mammals and is a popular choice for target and trap shooting. Each individual pellet is tiny, with the smallest about the size of really coarse sand.
On the other end of the spectrum is buckshot. The most popular variant, 00 (pronounced "double aught") is about the size of a .38 caliber bullet.
It's also worth noting that, since unjacketed lead rounds are frowned upon by convention, most modern militaries use steel shot instead of lead. It doesn't deform on impact, but it makes for one hell of a hole.
Unlike rifles and handguns which are either measured in caliber (fractions of an inch, such as .22, .38, and .50) or millimeters (9mm, 10mm, and so on), shotgun bores are measured in gauge. Exactly how one determines the gauge is an interesting but utterly useless topic of discussion, so we'll stick to the numbers. The smaller the number, the larger the diameter. Your most common gauges are 12 and 20, but there are also 8, 10, 16, and 28. 8 and 10 gauge are specialty rounds, pretty much useless for everyday hunting due to their fearsome recoil. 16 gauge is a good intermediary between the heavy 12 and the lighter 20, but weapons that fire 16 gauge shells are fairly rare. There's also a .410 shotgun shell, mainly used for introducing youths to the things, or for hunting small game such as squirrel and rabbit.
Now that we've covered gauges, the next thing to worry about is the firing mechanism. There are three basic varieties: breech loading, pump/lever action, and gas operated.
Breech loading shotguns are the simplest of all shotguns. Flip a lever, the barrels tilt forwards, and you manually insert shells directly into the breech. Some models have built in extractors that will pop the spent shells from the breech. Some don't, and woe unto the poor bastard who chews their fingernails and has to work one of those puppies. Your double barreled shotguns, be they over/under or side by side, will typically be breech loaders. As mentioned earlier, breech loaders are dead simple. They're easy to clean, rugged, and because you don't have to worry about a gas system or a magazine, you can saw the barrels off more easily. You don't want to go too short, mind, but we'll cover that later.
The lever/pump action shotguns are technically two different things, but they work on the same principle: the shooter manually cycles the bolt, using either a lever or the pump. Lever action shotguns are fairly rare in this day and age, as the mechanism simply isn't as handy as a pump. It's a lot of work to cycle the bolt with one, and unlike a pump action, it requires you to take your firing hand off the stock. There are a few uses for which they excel, but in most cases, a pump action is the best choice. A pump action is easily the most common variety of shotgun, and for a reason. It's simple, easy to use, easy to maintain, and you can fire a wide variety of ammunition through it. They're also relatively cheap, and even a cheap one can be extremely reliable.
Gas operated shotguns are almost always semiautomatic. Though there are full auto version available, most of them are either gigantic pains in the ass, extremely expensive, or both. Gas operated shotguns offer a few advantages over pump action or breech loading models. The most apparent is the ability to fire rapidly. Though a skilled shooter with a pump can make up for it, for the average person who doesn't spend years and thousands of dollars worth of ammunition training, the gas operated model is simply faster. It's also more expensive and prone to malfunction, but that's a different story altogether. As the saying goes, when you absolutely must kill every motherkriffer in the room, accept no substitutes.
So how do you know which shotgun best suits you?
The technical answer is you want to carefully evaluate your needs and your budget to see what best fits in both categories.
The practical answer is you want a 12 gauge pump action with an 18 inch barrel.
Anticlimactic, right?
Look, it's no secret that the vast majority of folks on Chaos have little to no practical experience with firearms. That's not meant as an insult by any means. The choice to own a firearm should not be undertaken lightly, and if you're not sure you can handle one, it's best not to buy one. Guns are a lot like dogs: if you're afraid of them, they will bite you. Either you're going to get nervous, tense up, and mess up your shoulder or pop yourself in the face, or you won't be able to hit the broad side of a barn because you flinch every time you pull the trigger, or you're going to forget some basic safety thing and get smacked by your instructor. There's no shame in saying it's just not for you.
With a lack of practical experience, however, comes a lack of understanding of what it's like to fire one, and that makes it difficult to portray accurately in writing. With handguns or rifles or blasters, it's not such a big deal. With shotguns, however, the potential for abuse is very high, and the more you try to fudge the details, the greater the chance you're going to inadvertently screw something up.
That's why a 12 gauge pump with an 18 inch barrel is ideal.
The barrel is long enough to ensure that you have something resembling range. I've gone skeet shooting with an 18 inch barrel before, and while it's not ideal, you can engage targets at a considerable distance.
It's also short enough to get a decent spread. The idea that shotguns can pepper the back wall of a room from a few feet away is ridiculous. Get that out of your head. At 20 meters, a spread the size of a softball is about average for buckshot. Birdshot can pepper a man's torso at that range, but it's probably not lethal. You can get a wider spread by shortening the barrel, but after about 18 inches, you're going to get diminishing returns. The shorter the barrel, the wider the spread, but the less power behind the shot. You're also making the weapon lighter, which means increased recoil, and it also throws off the balance of the weapon.
A pump action is dead simple to use and dead simple to write. Pull back to eject the spent shell. Push forward to load a new one. Pull trigger. Rinse and repeat. You can also shoot a wide variety of ammunition without having to worry about whether or not it'll work.
The 12 gauge shell is also one of the most common. It doesn't have as much sheer stopping power as a 10 gauge, but it's not going to break your shoulder to fire it either. With an 18 inch barrel, it's perfectly manageable recoil wise, especially if you leave the stock on the damn thing. My wife is a tiny little thing, about 5'3" and 110 pounds soaking wet and naked, and she can handle a 12 gauge with buckshot just fine.
So there you have it. I know it seems like a lot of buildup for a relatively simple conclusion, but for what it's worth, when I buy shotguns, that's what I go for. It helps that I can get a brand new 12 gauge pump for about $120.
If you do want to put a little more work into choosing a weapon, or if you have any questions in general, my inbox and the comments section are both open. Thanks for reading.