Buying your first shotgun: a beginners guide

James Marchington offers some advice on how to go about buying your first shotgun.

Buying your first shotgun can be daunting, but we have some expert advice for you!

I’m sure, like many shooters, you will have fond memories of buying your first shotgun. It’s one of those milestones you don’t forget, like the first clay you break or even your first shoot! Buying your first gun is an exciting time, but it can be worrying too.

You’re making a big investment, and you don’t yet have the experience to feel confident about your choice. You’ll be offered all sorts of conflicting advice by well meaning friends and fellow shooters – who are probably little better qualified than you are!

First of all, remember there’s no rush. I’ll assume you applied for your Shotgun Certificate as we described recently, everything went to plan and you are now the proud owner of your very own SGC, along with an empty gun cabinet just aching to be filled.

You’re keen to get stuck in, and it’s tempting to rush off and buy the first shotgun that takes your fancy – but don’t. You’ll have to live with your choice for some time, and it can make a big difference to your early shooting progress, so take the time to choose wisely.

To assist you, here are some tips on buying your first shotgun.

Set your budget

Start by narrowing down your options. Decide what you can sensibly afford to spend, remembering that there will be other costs as well as the gun itself.

You will need a bag for your shooting gear, eye and ear protection, a gun sleeve, a shooting vest, and maybe some sort of security cable for the car. After all that, you will still want something left over for clays and cartridges, otherwise what was the point!

I can’t tell you how much to spend; that depends entirely on you and your circumstances. However I can tell you that you needn’t spend a fortune to get a good gun that will do a fine job of breaking clays and needn’t hold you back. Anything from £500 to £1,000 will get you started, while if you can stretch to £1,500 or so you can start to look at the big name brands.

What type of gun?

Once you’ve decided on your budget, your next decision is what type of gun. Not just whether it’s an over-and-under or something else, but whether it’s primarily a clay gun, a game gun or an all-rounder. That depends on the type of shooting you expect to do most.

At this early stage it can be difficult to be sure which direction your shooting might take, but you probably know already whether game shooting is a possibility. If so, you might go for an all-round gun suitable for game and clays, perhaps a ‘field’ or ‘hunter’ model over-and-under.

If game shooting is unlikely, then you can concentrate on purpose-built clay guns, with the advantage that they will have features that make them more suited to clay shooting.

For instance the safety catch will probably be the manual type, meaning that it won’t re-set itself to the ‘safe’ position when you open the gun, and the gun’s weight and design will be optimised to handle the recoil of clay shooting cartridges.

An over-and-under is probably the obvious choice, but don’t discount the semi-autos. These can offer excellent value and many people find them more comfortable to shoot, due to the reduced recoil. Just remember that there are extra safety rules if you’re using a semi-auto at a clay ground, such as loading only two cartridges, and using a safety flag to show that the breech is clear.

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Does it fit?

As you look around the range of guns on offer, all sorts of features will catch your eye – perhaps the stylish engraving on the action, a lovely pattern of grain in the wood of the stock, or an attractive rib design.

Perhaps the gun comes in a nice travelling case, with a selection of multichokes. All those are nice to have, but the one overriding factor should be the one you can’t see – does the gun fit you?

We’ll look more closely at gun fit in the future, but essentially it means that when you mount the gun in your shoulder, it points where you’re looking. Buy a gun that fits and you’re half-way there.

If you buy a gun that doesn’t fit, on the other hand, then your shooting will be an uphill struggle – and having a pretty stock or nice engraving will be little consolation.

The problem is, finding a gun that fits is easier said than done. At this early stage in your shooting career, you are still finding your style, refining your technique and learning a consistent gun mount. As you continue to develop and improve, your requirements will change. For this reason I always advise that a shooter’s first gun should be adjustable.

Many guns are available with an adjustable stock, and I feel it’s well worth paying a little extra. It’s true that a gunsmith can alter your stock’s measurements, adding or reducing cast and comb height – but it’s a lot easier, and cheaper, if you can simply loosen a couple of screws and move the comb yourself.

Later on, when you have developed your technique and have a consistent gun mount, by all means get a stock to the right measurements, but for now some flexibility is a great help.

Try before you buy

It’s a very good idea to shoot your chosen gun before parting with your money. Ideally you would narrow down your choice and then try the three or four guns on your shortlist before reaching a final decision. If you can do this with your regular coach, so much the better, as they can offer expert advice on which gun suits you best.

Many shooting grounds have their own gun shop, or have an arrangement with a local gun dealer, so you can try before you buy. There may be ‘demo guns’ available so you can compare makes and models.

Take full advantage of any opportunities offered – the more guns you try, the better you can refine your choice. Don’t dismiss the ‘easy’ targets when you’re trying different guns. A simple ‘point and shoot’ target can highlight a problem with gun fit which might not be obvious if you’re shooting a tricky crosser.

Taking the leap

So you’ve taken your time, you’ve looked at all the options, narrowed down your choice, tried a few guns and finally made your decision. At last, you are the proud owner of your first gun, and you’re embarking on a brand new chapter in your shooting career – congratulations! Don’t forget to notify the police about the details, as required under the terms of your certificate.

Take care of your new gun, enjoy using it and getting the best from it. The road ahead won’t be straightforward. There will be highs and lows, with frustration and disappointment as well as progress and success.

We’ve all been there, and it’s all part of the addiction that keeps us coming back to smash clays and try to do just that little bit better than before.

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