Back before I knew better, I once wrote a shotgun column on “the one gun that does it all.” In it, I declared this one gun to be a long-barreled, choke-tubed, gas-operated, 12-ga. semi-automatic with an aluminum-alloy receiver. The alloy receiver made it light enough to carry in the uplands; gas-operation absorbed recoil of heavy waterfowl loads. Its long barrel made it easier to swing smoothly at doves and waterfowl. The 12 gauge provided the choice of everything from heavy, high-velocity waterfowl loads and turkey magnums down to very light field loads, and the tubes gave the right pattern spread for anything from grouse to geese. Add a turkey choke and a rifled barrel, I wrote, and you had the only gun you needed.
I was pleased with my logic. Friends and readers, less so. “My wife read your article. Now she’s asking why I have all these guns when I only need one. Thanks a lot.”
OK, sorry. To make up for that “one gun for everything” column, here’s the opposite argument: Your shotguns should be purpose-built, that is, specifically designed for an intended use. A light, quick gun carries easily and points fast in heavy grouse cover, for instance, but it lacks the momentum that helps you swing smoothly on a long, crossing shot at a goose. A gun for both purposes would be a compromise. Just as no golfer plays with one club, no shooter should hunt or compete with only one gun.
How many shotguns you need (not counting backups, of course) depends on how many types of wingshooting you enjoy. Purpose-built guns can be very specific. I hunted in Nebraska with a local who carried a Benelli Super Black Eagle with an extended magazine that he used specifically for blocking the end of shelterbelts on gang pheasant hunts. I once read about a Great Lakes woodcock specialist who carried a short-barreled, open-choked .410-bore double on a sling, only loading it when his setter went on point. Both were technically “upland” shotguns, yet they couldn’t be more different.
Choke tubes make it a little harder to justify the purpose-built gun, because they add so much versatility and allow you to use one gun for several purposes. If you remember, when choke tubes came out they were billed as “a pocket full of extra barrels.” But, a choke tube doesn’t alter a gun’s gauge, action, point of impact, or balance, so there are still lots of choices to make when you pick a shotgun for a dedicated use.
Most of us can’t afford to order up a custom shotgun for every type of hunting we do; most of the purpose-built guns in my cabinet were actually “purpose-bought,” that is, I identified the characteristics I wanted in a shotgun for a specific use, then watched used gun racks for it to appear. As you shop for or put together your own purpose-built guns, here are the criteria to consider, along with some of my personal prejudices—feel free to substitute your own....