Shotgun Basics - NSSF Let's Go Shooting

Shotgun Basics

Shotgun Shooting Sports

The shotgun sports are some of the most exhilarating and exciting of all the shooting sports. Designed to simulate taking a “bird on the wing”, Trap, Skeet and Sporting Clays have something for everyone from the newest beginner to the seasoned pro. You can shoot targets that come from a predetermined location and angle….or you can choose to be totally surprised! Learn more about the Shotgun here.

Trap Shooting

Trap is the oldest shotgun shooting sport in America. Trapshooting derives its name from the device, called a trap, which throws clay targets into the air. Participants shoot at the clay targets thrown from a trap house located in front of the shooter. The trap rotates in a random sequence, presenting the shooter with a variety of going away shots, angling to the right, left and flying straightaway.

Trap is usually shot in squads of five shooters. A round of trap consists of 25 targets per shooter. A trap field has five positions, or stations, numbered consecutively from left to right. Five clay targets, sometimes referred to as “birds,” are thrown for each shooter at each position, with one shot being fired at each bird. After firing five rounds in rotation, each squad member moves one station to his right, with the shooter on station five moving over to station one. Learn more about trap shooting here.

Find out how to get involved in the game of trap from the Amateur Trapshooting Association

The ATA’s AIM program provides competition opportunities for young trap shooters.

Skeet Shooting

Skeet uses the same clay targets as trap. Two trap houses are required in skeet-a “high house” at the left of the field and a “low house” at the right. Both traps throw targets at fixed angles. High-house targets start at a point about 10 feet above the ground, moving to the shooter’s right. Low-house targets move in the opposite direction starting from a point about three feet off the ground.

Skeet is usually shot in squads of five shooters. A skeet field has eight positions, or stations, seven of which are numbered consecutively from left to right in a semi-circle around the field. Station eight is located in the center, almost directly between the trap houses, offering very challenging-and very exciting-targets.

A round of skeet consists of 25 targets. Some stations offer single targets, others doubles. There are 16 single targets, two from each station. A round also includes eight shots at four double-targets from stations 1, 2, 6 and 7. The first target missed is repeated; the repeat target is called “the optional.” If no miss occurs in the round of 24 shots, the optional is taken as a single target; usually shot from station eight. Learn more about skeet shooting here.

Find out more about how to get involved in the game of skeet from the National Skeet Shooting Association.

The Scholastic Clay Target Program provides competition opportunities for young skeet shooters.

Sporting Clays

Sporting clays is a challenging clay target game designed to simulate a variety of field-shooting situations. On a sporting clays course, shooters are presented with a wide variety of targets that duplicate the flight path of game birds, such as flushing, crossing, incoming and other angling shots.

Courses are laid out in natural surroundings and typically include five or more shooting stations. Like golf, shooters move from one station to the next to complete the course. At any station, targets may be thrown as singles, simultaneous pairs, following pairs (one target right after the other) or report pairs (the second target launched at the sound of the gun being fired at the first). To further challenge shooters, target size may vary from the standard trap/skeet clay bird to the smaller “midi” and “mini” targets, or a flat disc-shaped “battue” target. There are also “rabbit” targets, special clay disks that are thrown on edge to roll and skitter unpredictably across the ground.

Sporting clays allows for either a pre-mounted or low gun approach, and a full round usually consists of 50 or 100 targets (depending on the number of stations), with several targets normally thrown at each station. Learn more about sporting clays here.

Find out more about getting involved in the sporting clays sports from the National Sporting Clays Association.

The Scholastic Clay Target Program provides competition opportunities for young sporting clays shooters.

3-Gun Shooting

The reason for the name is somewhat obvious; competitors use three different firearms — a modern sporting rifle (MSR), that is, a rifle built on an AR-platform; a pistol; and a shotgun.

3-gun simulates combat or self-defense situations. A stage provides a certain scenario for using one or more of the guns in a specific sequence. Each stage is each match will usually be different than any you’ve shot before.

Learn more about 3-Gun here.

Scatterguns Tackle Targets on the Move

Shotguns long ago earned the nickname “scattergun,” because rather than sending a single projectile downrange like a handgun or rifle does, its sends a payload of multiple shot pellets (in most cases—some deer hunters use a shotgun shell with a single projectile called a “slug.”). The advantage of all those pellets, which come in all sorts of sizes and can number from as few as three to more than 400, is realized with small targets on the move.

Once the shot exits the gun and heads downrange, it spreads as it flies, something called a “pattern.” Hold one of your hands in a tight fist close to your body. Now push that hand away from you while opening up your hand as you extend your arm until it’s as wide as it can be at full reach. That’s kind of how a pattern works from the end of the shotgun to the target or beyond.

In shotgunning and addressing moving targets, you will mount the gun on your shoulder and swing the barrel/s to “shoot where the target is going to be.” It’s all about hand/eye coordination, very much like learning to swing a bat timed to connect with the pitcher’s baseball, except you’re connecting with a target “out there” instead of a baseball a foot from your waistline. Suffice it to say, if you’ve ever connected bat to ball, run to catch a football or even played ping pong, you can learn to shoot a shotgun.

There are two components to shotguns, their action design and their gauge. Let’s take a look at both.

Action Design


Single-shots are exactly as the name implies: They hold one shot and only one shot at a time. They are great firearms for teaching someone to handle a shotgun for the very first time, and because they tend to be lightweight and inexpensive, are a great choice for getting youth shooters started on safe handling skills. They can also be useful for home protection or for ranch and farm work such as eliminating pests. The guns usually have a lever at the top of the receiver that breaks open the gun on a hinge to allow loading of its single shell.

Over/Unders and Side-by-Sides

Like a single-shot, these are break-action guns as well, but now you get two shells. An over/under has one barrel stacked over a second, while a side-by-side puts the pair on a horizontal plane. The advantage of the second shot is obvious—you can make up a miss with a first barrel, and now you can take two targets without reloading.

Double-barrels are almost always more expensive than any shotgun with a single barrel, because, well, there are two barrels and the manufacturing processes and materials are more expensive. Those that are hand-built by some of the most famous makers in the world often serve as the canvas for some of the most talented engravers in the world and can range to the price of a luxury sports car. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find a bargain. In fact, you can find both used and new double-barrel shotguns for just a few hundred dollars.

The over/under is the most popular choice for the clay games skeet, trap and sporting clays. Short-barreled side-by-sides called “coach” guns are popular for Cowboy Action events. Both are very popular with bird hunters, and they can also be employed for home- and personal-defense.


This is the simplest of the two single-barrel multi-shot designs. Under the barrel is a tube, called the “magazine,” that holds anywhere from two to five shots, sometimes more for certain shooting sport games like 3-Gun. Surrounding that magazine tube is a moveable fore-end. To operate this action, the shooter will first move that fore-end backward along its rails. That motion opens the receiver (ejecting any spent shotgun hull if the gun has just been fired), while moving a shell out of the magazine and onto the “elevator” in the receiver bottom. When the shooter slides the fore-end forward, the shell is pushed into the chamber, the bolt closing behind it until it’s fully closed. And with that you’re ready to fire again!

Pumps are an old design and very reliable. With short barrels, they’re a favorite tool for home-defense, hikers, ranch pest control and other chores. They’re perfectly suitable for the clay games, though not as fast as the double barrels and semi-automatics. Generally very budget-friendly, they’re also a favorite with both bird and deer hunters.


Semi-automatics essentially work like pumps, except the shotgun does all the work. They work off the gasses or energy expended by a fired shell. They are very fast to shoot shot-to-shot-to-shot, which make them very popular for the clay games, as well as the action-shooting sport of 3-Gun. They are, of course, useful for self-defense. Many people prefer to teach new students with a semi-auto because they are considered to be “softer shooting,” i.e., have less perceived recoil or “kick,” than other action designs. Prices run the gamut from a few hundred to several thousands.

Bolt- and Lever-Action

Neither of these actions are very popular these days, but you will still find a few new ones here and there on store shelves, as well as used gun racks. The lever-actions are popular with Cowboy Action shooters and farm and ranch workers using them for pest control. Bolt shotguns, which most often are configured as “slug” guns—the one type of shotgun that fires a single, large projectile, much like a rifle, but at much slower velocities—are used almost exclusively by deer and other big-game hunters.

Gauges and Shell Length

There are entire books written about shotshell gauges, their history, nomenclature, performance and more. You should certainly explore them once you’ve discovered how much fun the shotgun games are, but here’s what you need to know to get started.

Starting with the largest, today’s common shotgun gauges include the 10-, 12-, 20-, 16 and 28-gauge, with the .410-bore as the smallest shotgun shell. (The .410 is actually a caliber, not a gauge, but it’s still a shotshell.)

Just as important as the gauge is the gauge’s shell length. The shotshell lengths you’ll see on box labels will be 2½, 2¾, 3 and 3½ inches. These measurement expressions are actually the length of the shotgun hull before it’s been loaded and had the end in front of the shot crimped closed by the factory.

  • 10-Gauge—The big and hard-recoiling 10 is used almost exclusively by hunters. It is always a 3½-inch shell.
  • 12-Gauge—This is the most popular shotgun shell for nearly every game or chore imaginable. The 12-gauge is readily available in 2¾-, 3- and 3½-inch shell lengths and an enormous variety of power and shot size combinations. Because of its popularity and the millions of rounds sold every year, it is the least expensive gauge.
  • 16-Gauge—Once quite popular, this one has seen better days. You can find them new occasionally, but you’ll most often find one on a used gun rack. It is a lovely mix of manageable recoil and excellent patterning that falls between the 12- and 20-gague, so if you find one you like, give it a try. Ammo can be a bit tricky to find on retailers’ shelves sometimes, but that’s why we have the internet. You will almost never find it in anything other than 2¾-inch shells.
  • 20-Gauge—This is nearly as popular as the 12-gauge, but, being smaller, it is more limited in application than the 12. There’s simply not as much powder pushing the pellets, and there are fewer pellets. It is a super choice for new students, especially those starting out by learning skeet, and because the guns themselves are smaller and lighter than their 12-gauge counterparts, tend to fit women and youth shooters well. You’ll find this gauge in 2¾- and 3-inch shells.
  • 28-Gauge—Smaller yet than those above, this is a favorite with many upland bird shooters. Skeet and sporting clays shooters also use this gauge for “sub-gauge” competition—events just for the 20-, 28- and .410-bore. You will find the 28-gauge mostly in 2¾-inch loads, though there are some 3-inch loads and firearms for hunters. It is very light recoiling, and the guns are scaled in size appropriate to this smaller gauge.
  • .410-Bore—For sporting uses, most consider this a specialty round for talented hands only, whether for the clay games or hunting. Many used to think it was a great beginners round, since it has so little recoil, but its small payload of pellets, low power and limited range can make getting those first hits frustrating for those just learning the “swing of things.” The .410-bore does find great favor in short-barreled home-defense shotguns and in some specially designed handguns that accept this shell. It can be found in 2½-inch or 3-inch lengths.

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