Back in the early days of our country, when the fur trade was flourishing, one of the most sought after trade items by Native Americans was the Northwest Trade Gun. The trade gun was not a custom built Pennsylvania rifle; it was a mass produced smoothbore, usually in 20 gauge. The reason Native American hunters wanted the Trade Gun was that it was a far more versatile weapon than the rifle. It could be loaded with a solid .62 caliber ball and used to hunt deer, elk, black bears, and buffalo. Loaded with shot it was good for turkeys, ducks, rabbits, or squirrels. I have even read tales of Native Americans shooting gravel out of these guns when they ran out of lead ammo. The Trade Gun was truly a gun for all occasions, much like the shotgun is today. That’s right we’re talking about that old 12 gauge you’ve had since you were a just a lad. If you stop and think about it, what gun in your gun closet can do as much as your shotgun? You can load it with slugs and take down a deer or elk at 40 yards with no problem. Loaded with No. 4 shot you can take turkeys, ducks and geese. With No. 6 shot you’re good for rabbits, squirrels, coons, and other small game, and with No. 7’s you can take doves and quail (although they don’t have enough meat to justify a spent shell in my book). And from a home defense standpoint I’d rather be holding a 12 gauge loaded with 00 buckshot than any gun I can think of. You can be shaking like a leaf and still hit your target no matter which side of the door he’s on.
Shotguns come in basically 5 different styles; the single barrel break action, the double barrel break action, the bolt action, the pump, and the auto-loader. Each of these has its advantages and dis-advantages. The single barrel break action forces you to think about your shot since you only get one. The disadvantage is you only get one. Also you have to preload your shell and hope you picked the right one, or you have to carry it empty and hope you can load it with the appropriate ammo before your quarry gets away. I’d hate to be loaded with No. 6 shot and jump a nice fat doe. The double barrel break action is really the only shotgun that does not suffer from this handicap. You can have one barrel loaded with a slug or 00, and the other barrel loaded with No. 6 shot and then it’s just a matter of shooting the correct barrel. Of course if you’re in a home defense situation it would be nice to have more than 2 shots without reloading. I have a bolt-action slug gun but I don’t think I would use it for home defense. Bolt actions can be a little cranky and I’d hate to hang up a shell in the middle of a critical situation. My personal preference is a double for hunting and a pump for home defense. I had an auto-loader at one time, but I really didn’t like it that well. I found myself taking shots I should have passed on and then blasting away with a second and third shot; but that’s just me. An auto-loader may be just the ticket for you.
There’s always the question of what gauge you should choose. The .410 requires some seriously good shooting skills and the ammo is expensive. The 16 gauge and 28 gauge are almost obsolete. Ammo is very hard to find. The 20 gauge and the 12 gauge are the most common sizes in use today. You can find shells for these at almost any country hardware store and at all of the big box and sporting goods stores. I prefer the 12 gauge because of the slightly heavier load, but many people swear by the 20. I wouldn’t waste the extra money on a 3 inch magnum unless you are in bear country or you are a serious goose hunter. Of course you can always buy a 3 inch magnum gun and then just shoot the cheaper 2 ¾” shells except on special occasions when you need more knock-down power.
Whichever style and gauge of gun you choose, the important thing is to learn to use it well. There’s no substitute for practice. I went to a sporting clays event recently and was embarrassed at how out of practice I was. Of course, I was using a borrowed gun, or that was my excuse anyway. Guess I’ll have to get the old skeet thrower out this weekend and burn through a couple of boxes of shells trying to get my edge back.