Clays and Wingshooting

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If you’re accustomed to rifles or pistols, or simply a new shooter, you’ll be surprised to know that shotguns generally require both of your eyes to be open while shooting.

Shotguns are designed to quickly hit small, fast-moving targets that are visible with the naked eye. Unlike rifles, they are pointed rather than aimed and do not require precision sights. They use shells filled with round pellets instead of solid bullets.

Originally used for bird hunting, shotguns are instinctive – essentially field guns that you mount quickly at the first sign of a prey. Speed is more important than deliberation, and essentially it all comes down to a blink of the eye.

Everything about shotguns speaks of fluid motions. Whether it’s the swing of a crossing target, raising the gun for a rocket-like teal or bringing the gun down quickly to “kill” a fast-moving rabbit target in sporting clays, shotguns can be considered the nimble handling sports cars of the gun universe.

Shotgun Actions

Some gun actions are more appropriate than others for individual sports – usually determined as the “shotgun of choice” adopted by most shooters.

Break action guns are the standard for clays and wingshooting. A lever at the top of the receiver breaks open the barrels. Of all shotgun types, the break action is generally the safest and easiest to maintain.

When open, it’s readily apparent whether or not the gun is loaded. This feature plays into gun safety, showing other shooters at the range that you are carrying an unloaded firearm.

Break action guns are also the easiest shotguns to maintain. You simply run a brush or bore snake down the barrel in order to clean it. At the same time, when the barrel is removed, you have full access to the inside of the receiver to enhance cleaning.

Given the versatility of the break action shotgun, they tend to come in the widest variety of gauges, sometimes with interchangeable barrels. And since break actions open fully, they accept different size barrel-length tubes for using the same gun across a spectrum of gauges

Break action shotguns are available in both over/under and side-by-side configurations, making then highly suitable for every shotgun sport.hhh


As a shooter, the main advantage of an over/under is the single-barrel view of the target. Some shooters believe that enhances their ability to focus on the target, especially for clays shooting.

In terms of recoil, the over/under is generally friendlier. The stacked barrels tend to direct recoil to the sturdiest part of the shoulder area. For example, when using the top barrel, the recoil travels through the thickest part of the stock, providing the best recoil experience.

The Blaser F3 Imperial over-under shotgun

Also, over/under shotguns are more often used for premounted shooting – meaning that the gun is already at the shoulder when the target is called for (compared to low-gun shooting when the gun needs to be smoothly mounted as the target is moving). By eliminating the concern of mounting the gun in motion, the over/under can use thicker, softer recoil pads that could otherwise catch on the clothing of the low-gun shooter.

These guns tend to be smaller and lighter than over/unders – making them more suitable to upland wingshooting.

They are built with either sidelock or boxlock mechanisms. The boxlock is an action that is contained within a box-shaped housing. The sidelock is a type of action that is mounted to the back side (inside) of a plate… so that it can be removed in one piece.

These designs date back to the late 1800s, when bird shooting was the rage of the European aristocracy.

The Beretta 471 Silver Hawk side-by-side shotgun

Since side-by-sides are still favored by bird shooters, the use of smaller gauges tends to make the birds easier to clean and preserve more of the meat than larger gauges. The smaller the gauge, the lighter the frame of the gun and the thinner the barrels – to the extent that a well-engineered side-by-side can weigh 2-3 pounds less than an over/under.

Side-by-sides usually have double triggers – one behind the other. As pared down hunting guns, side-by-sides often feature “fixed chokes” – meaning that the diameter of the barrel can’t be changed as with the screw-in choke systems of the over-under. Read more about chokes

The fixed barrels of a side-by-side are different diameters – to provide optimal shot-string patterns at various distances (after all, unlike shooting clays, wingshooting is more unpredictable).

Looking down the barrels of a side-by-side is often described as looking down a two-lane road. The barrel is wide and dark – and can take some getting used to.

Side-by-sides are associated with the hand-crafted guns of the best European and English houses. They are revered for their long tradition, proven reliability and sturdy practicality.

Single-Barrel Shotguns

The traditional trap shotgun, along with pumps and semiautomatic shotguns are primarily the single-barrel shotguns used for clays.

The single-barrel trap gun is sometimes called an unsingle. That’s because its break-open over/under action is used in a single-barrel gun.

Pumps and semiautomatics can be loaded with more than two shells – allowing them to use one barrel for multiple shots.


While a semiautomatic is more difficult to maintain than a break-action shotgun, it is revered for its lower recoil.

The semiautomatic action lets shooters fire a cartridge after every trigger squeeze without reloading – until the gun is empty – by automatically feeding live shells from the magazine into the chamber. Spent cartridges are automatically ejected through a port on the receiver.

The Benelli Super Black Eagle II semiautomatic shotgun

The entire shooting process is usually operated by the excess gas from the fired shell, which creates back pressure that cycles the action. Diverting the excess gas into the operation of the gun absorbs much of the impact typically associated with shotgun recoil.

Most semiautomatic shotguns take three to five shells, and the reason the gun is semiautomatic is because the shooter must pull the trigger each time.

Semiautomatics require a higher degree of care to remain reliable. There are more moving parts to clean than in a break action and more parts to replace from wear.

For new shooters, semiautomatics require a little extra attention.

Most modern semiautomatics are gas-operated. When the shell ignites, excess gas diverts to a cylinder, creating back-pressure that cycles the action. Many shooters appreciate the light recoil of gas-operated guns. The downside is that they are much more difficult to clean than pump guns, and they have small parts, particularly O-rings, that wear out in time.

Extra caution is advised: keep fingers out of the bolt action when it is open. If the release is accidentally activated, the bolt action can spring shut with enormous force.


Pump action shotguns are distinguished by the way spent shells are ejected and fresh ones are chambered. Between each shot, the shooter moves the foregrip backwards to eject the spent shell through the port, and then moves it forwards to load a live round into the chamber.

After each fired shot, the shooter repeats this motion to reload the gun and eject used cartridges. The back-and-forth action gave rise to the “pump” gun.

Pump shotguns tend to be more mechanically reliable than semiautomatics, even under adverse conditions, simply because they are simpler and have fewer moving parts.

Skeet Shotguns

The standard skeet gun is an over/under break action that has screw-in chokes. This configuration is available in just about any gauge from the smallest .410 to the largest 12-gauge.

Some shooters prefer to use a semi-automatic for skeet, also with screw-in chokes.

Either configuration works fine. The most important aspect of a good skeet gun is not the number of barrels it has or its action: it’s the balance and feel of the gun that allows you to make smooth swings to hit the crossing targets of most skeet stations.

When talking about balance and feel, intrinsic characteristics include excellent fit, light recoil, consistent shot patterns, an unobstructed view of the target and solid reliability. A good skeet gun will give you nothing to think about except the target. It should feel as natural as an arm or a leg, while enhancing your ability to see and hit the target.

Since stations 1, 2, 6 and 7 feature doubles (two simultaneous targets), the gun must be able to hold and fire two shells in rapid succession without any discomfort.

That’s why, of the most common shotguns for clays shooting, pumps are inappropriate for skeet: you would have to pump the gun to eject and then load the second shell into the chamber between the two shots. Not only does that cost you critical seconds, it also often means readjusting the gun mount – making it much more difficult to hit a doubles target.

To enhance a smooth and consistent swing, skeet guns tend to be front-heavy with more weight in the barrel than in the stock.

There is a perfectly sound reason for this: the additional weight in the front of the gun creates the momentum to help you swing through the crossing target and avoid perhaps the most common problem that shooters make, which is stopping the gun before the shot is actually completed.

So depending on the size of the shooter, 12-gauge guns between 7½ and 8½ pounds often have the best heft and balance for swinging completely through a crossing target. From there, the smaller the gauge, the lighter the gun with .410 shotguns hitting the scales at some 6¼ pounds.

In terms of features, the most commonly used skeet gun has a barrel length of 30 inches, screw-in chokes, a comfortable recoil pad, two beads along the rib of the barrel to help line up the shots, an adjustable comb on the stock that lets you raise or lower the portion of the stock that lines up with the beads, and a trigger with a pull of about 3½ pounds.

You can buy a used skeet gun for about $600, a new one starting at about $2,000, with prices continuing up to $100,000 or more for rare and new skeet guns.

Just remember that visual focus of the target must be maintained throughout the entire shot. Any gun that obstructs the target even for a split second is not the gun for you. Comfort, balance and feel are vital for maintaining a high level of confidence that’s essential for consistently good skeet scores.

Trap Shotguns

Compared to other shotguns, trap guns have higher stocks and usually higher ribs. The reason: the design makes the gun shoot high to hit those consistently rising trap targets. The higher stock raises your eyes to rib-level for good visibility and quick acquisition of the rising targets.

Trap targets fly straight away or at sweeping angles while rising quite fast. With the high rib and stock, trap guns place the shot string above the actual point of hold, to offset the rapid climb.

The trap gun places the center of the pattern above the point of the aim depending on how the gun shoots. Higher ribs elevate the pattern, and you also want to raise the comb to see over the rib. Otherwise, to successfully hit a trap target, you would have to completely cover it – obstructing the target as you’re ready to shoot it.

The Krieghoff KX-5 trap single shotgun

Many trap guns feature a Monte Carlo stock. That’s when the comb drops near the heel, in order to allow better contact between the butt of the gun and the shoulder without sacrificing a firm fit at the cheek bone. It’s part of the higher stock design for hitting rising targets.

The traditional trap gun is a break action with a single barrel, since you only shoot one target at a time.

When it comes to trap guns, you may hear the term “unsingle.” Basically, it’s an over/under receiver with a single barrel for trap. You can often swap out the single barrel for an over/under barrel for double-trap. If you get a trap gun (or any shotgun) with a matching single and double-barrel set, that’s called a combo.

Trap combos allow you to fit a single barrel and an over-and-under barrel to the same receiver, so you have the same sight picture, stock fit, and trigger feel whether you are shooting singles or doubles.

Trap guns also tend to be more adjustable than the skeet and sporting guns. Often you’ll find trap guns with an adjustable rib in addition to the adjustable comb that you can also find on other types of shotguns. The adjustable rib lets you precisely raise or lower the rib with a thumb wheel in very small increments so that you can totally smash those targets.

You may see a few 20-gauge trap guns but they are usually 12 gauge. Since trap guns are not designed for hunting, 12-gauge shells provide maximum breaking power without any fear of tearing apart a game bird, for example. So it’s important when buying a target gun to make sure you can live with the recoil.

Be prepared to spend about the same amount of money as you would on a skeet or sporting gun.

Waterfowl Shotguns

Back in the good old days, side-by-sides were the only choice for hunting ducks, geese and other water birds. But technology, price and environmental concerns have pushed hunters toward pumps and semiautomatics. And unless you’re a purist at heart, the evolution provides you with a safer, cheaper and more reliable shotgun for taking down these birds.

The best trait a waterfowl shotgun can have is reliability. The gun is going to take a beating. You’re in a partially submerged blind, a small open boat or mucking around by yourself in waders in the fog, rain and sleet. This is no place for your $20,000 side-by-side with Grade VI wood, bluing and old-world engraving.

In short, you want a workhorse of a shotgun that you can use as a paddle if necessary. That comes down to a synthetic stock that you can clean with Windex – and a pump or semiautomatic that never skips a beat.

Usually, the guns have a matte black or camo finish throughout. Forget the bluing…you don’t want to worry about scratching the gun or having it rust. After all, you wouldn’t drive a Mercedes in a demolition derby.

There are several reasons why pumps and semiautomatics have overtaken side-by-sides for waterfowl hunting, but it all started with a Department of Interior study in 1976 that prompted the ban of lead shot for waterfowl hunting.

At the time, the Department of the Interior estimated that 2 million ducks died in the U.S. each year from lead poisoning after birds swallowed spent shotgun pellets used by hunters while feeding.

When a ban on lead shot was first proposed in 1976, opponents argued that the switch to steel shot would result in more unretrieved ducks than were dying from lead poisoning.

Since steel is less dense than lead, a steel shot charge would have lower striking energy, making it less effective. But field tests by the Department of Interior at the time showed little difference in the effectiveness of standard l-1/4 oz. lead shot waterfowl loads and l-1/8 oz. steel shot loads.

Other concerns were raised as well by steel-shot opponents:

  • Shotgun barrels would burst from the harder steel shot.
  • Barrels would be scratched by steel pellets.
  • And the steel pellets would actually deform the barrels.

While the Department of the Interior went to great pains to disprove these allegations, the prudent waterfowl hunter leaves his beloved side-by-by side at home when he heads out to the marsh with his shooting party.

Because, in fact, steel shot does not compress in the forcing cone and in the choke like lead shot and in turn creates more stress in barrels of older guns. In addition, most older guns do not have screw-in chokes: they are choked from the factory for mid-range and longer shots, making them more susceptible to pitting, scouring and even bursting from steel shot.

Since the 1976 ban on lead shot, gun manufacturers have developed new-generation waterfowl shotguns that take the best steel shot with little harm to the weapon.

Today, hunters use more open chokes to compensate for the tighter patterns and shorter shot strings of steel (so you want a gun with screw-in chokes).

Environmental issues aside, there are more practical reasons for using a pump or semiautomatic instead of a break-action shotgun.

Pumps and semiautomatics hold more rounds, increasing your odds of actually killing a bird instead of crippling it. And since you don’t have to break open these guns to reload, they are much more convenient in the tight confines of a blind or a small boat.

Because pumps and semiautomatics use the gasses (and recoil) to activate the mechanisms, their recoil is lower than the older side-by-sides, which are infamous for hefty kicks and barrel jumps.

When shopping for a waterfowl shotgun, remember you could be lugging it around all day in tough conditions. Most of these guns weigh in between 5.7 – 7.5 pounds for a 12-gauge model capable of handling most steel loads.

Given their utilitarian designs, the prices for waterfowl shotguns range from $500 to about $1,500 – traditionally much lower than what you would pay for a decent skeet, sporting or upland side-by-side gun.

Of most types of shotguns, technical advancements in waterfowl guns have really paid off for hunters with more reliable and less expensive weapons for hunters.

Upland Shotguns

The first thing you may want to think about is the weight.

After all, you could be trekking for miles waiting for the right opportunity for your trusty dog to flush out a quail, pheasant, grouse, prairie chicken, chukar or partridge from under heavy cover.

So experienced upland hunters generally go for a shotgun that weighs 5.5-7 pounds.

The downside of a lighter gun is that while it swings faster than a heavier shotgun, it also has a tendency to be harder to control. Since a lighter shotgun doesn’t benefit as much as a heavy gun from the swing’s momentum, the lighter gun demands more body English and tighter control.

Like waterfowl shotguns, the upland shotgun traditionally is a side-by-side with shorter barrels – let’s say 26-30 inches. You want a gun that’s lightning quick and maneuverable – hence the barrel length.

These side-by-sides often have fixed chokes and two triggers in tandem (called a double gun). One trigger/choke combination is favored for closer shots, while the other is for longer shots. Or another way of looking at it is that you have a wide spread for the flush with a tighter pattern for the follow-up shot.

Rule of thumb is that most upland bird shots fall within 30 yards of the gun. So improved cylinder or skeet in the first barrel and improved cylinder or modified in the second is an effective combination for most upland shots.

When it comes to finding an upland shotgun that you like, consider the time-honored Rule of 96. According to the Rule of 96, a shotgun should weigh about 96 times the shot weight. Bottom line: 1 ounce of shot requires a 6 lb (96 oz) shotgun for best results. More weight means less portability; and less weight means more kick.

Upland hunters like to savor the challenge (and the prey) by favoring smaller gauge shotguns. While many stores sell “dove load” 12-gauge loads with steel pellets, if you really want to get some meat off that bird common sense dictates a 20-gauge load or smaller.

For upland hunters carrying 16- and 28-guage guns, nothing gives them more satisfaction that to down a bird with such an economic load (plus the smaller the gauge, generally the lighter the gun weighs).

Like waterfowl shotguns, over/unders are making their way into the fields and pastures of upland hunting. Unless the weather turns ugly, the upland gun generally isn’t exposed to the elements as harsh as the waterfowl shotgun. That said, why would you want a gun that’s less than 100 percent reliable anyway?

What the side-by-side offers though is the romance of the hunt. It can be your time capsule back to the great hunts of Europe. It possesses a certain aristocracy not found in your over/under that can provide a great deal of satisfaction…your side-by-side and your dog together on a lovely autumn day.


Irwin Greenstein

Irwin Greenstein is Publisher of Shotgun Life. Please send your comments to