Shotguns & Shooting  |  07/11/2023

How Shotguns Work


The first step to better shooting (whether on feathered or clay birds) is understanding a shotgun and how it works

By Rachel Hoveland

When you pull the trigger on your shotgun, a firing pin moves forward in your shotgun action and hits  into the shell’s primer. That ignites the gunpowder. This causes rapid gas expansion in your barrel and shoots the contents of the shell (the shot) forward.

Shotgun Actions

There are three main categories of shotgun actions. The action is what cycles another shell into the chamber to fire.

Pump Action
You manually slide the forearm backward to eject your spent shell and forward to chamber your next one.

Semiautomatics use the energy from your spent shell (using gas from the shell or the recoil of the gun) to chamber your next shell. No additional action is required from the shooter for follow-up shots.

Break Action
Break action barrels pivot or “break” open at the beginning of the barrel. Rather than cycling shells through the action, you place shells directly into the breech (back) of the barrel. Break action shotguns can come with a single barrel, or double barrels in over-under or side-by-side configurations.

Shotgun Gauges

Gauge is a measure of the diameter of the inside of your barrel. You must only shoot shells of the corresponding gauge in your shotgun. Larger gauge numbers mean a smaller size, so a 12-gauge has a larger diameter than a 16-gauge, which is larger than a 20-gauge, which is larger than a 28-gauge.

Shotgun Chokes

The end of a shotgun barrel is restricted in a manner to control the expansion of your shot as it leaves the barrel and flies toward the target.

Full Choke
You will want your shot very constricted for large or far targets, so that your shot pattern stays together longer. This is called a tight choke. An example is full choke.

Improved Cylinder 
You will want your shot less restricted for smaller or closer targets, so your shot pattern will be more spread out at a closer distance. These are called open chokes, and an example is improved cylinder.

Modified Choke
In between tight and open chokes are a middle-ground, with one example being a modified choke.

Some shotgun barrels have the chole build right in them, but most modern shotguns have interchangeable choke tubes that screw in and can be swapped out and used for different hunting or clay-shooting situations.

Rachel Hoveland is Web Developer at Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, as well as the organization’s resident shotgun expert.

This story originally appeared in the 2023 Summer Issue of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever's Forever Outdoors journal, which is included with every Youth Membership. Give the gift of a Youth Membership and pass along more great upland content like this today!