Choosing the Right Shotgun for Small Game Hunting

Matt Johnson
Matt JohnsonPublished: November 8, 2023
Choosing the Right Shotgun for Small Game Hunting

When it comes to small-game hunting, the shotgun is an essential tool for any hunter. You can use other calibers like .22LR or 5.7mm, but it would be very difficult to hit a squirrel or rabbit. Larger calibers like the .308 or .30-30 would simply destroy the animal, leaving nothing left to process.

Choosing the right shotgun can determine the success of your hunt. Shotguns are available in a wide range of styles, sizes, and gauges, making it challenging to select the right one.

We've found a secret formula for finding the right one for you.

FactorConsiderations
GaugeThe most common gauges for small game are 20 and 12. A 20 gauge is lighter and has less recoil, making it good for beginners. A 12 gauge provides more power for larger game.
Barrel Length18-20 inches is good for maneuverability in dense areas. 30-32 inches provides accuracy and range in open areas.
Action TypeBreak-action is simple with 1-2 shots. Pump-action and semi-auto allow faster follow up shots.
Stock MaterialSynthetic and polymer are durable and weather resistant. Wood provides a classic look and feel.
BudgetShotguns typically range from $200 to $2000. $200-300 can get a decent beginner shotgun. Higher budget means higher quality and durability.
This table shows the several factors you must consider when selecting a shotgun for small game hunting.

Which gauge do you need for small game?

Shotgun Shell Gauge Sizes
This graphic depicts the various sizes in shotgun shells from 410 to 10 gauge.

The gauge of your shotgun is the diameter of the barrel for the shell it can handle. This is easily the most important deciding factor when choosing a shotgun for small game.

The most commonly used gauges for small game hunting are 20 and 12.

A 20 gauge shotgun is lighter, easier to handle, and recoils less than the 12 gauge, making it ideal for beginners or younger hunters. You might even want to go with a 410 or even a 28 gauge, but those tend to be fairly limited to anything beyond small game.

However, if you’re targeting larger game such as turkey or pheasants, you’ll want a 12 gauge shotgun that can provide a more powerful shot. Even then, a 20 gauge can usually handle the job. It's an extremely versatile shotgun that can hunt nearly all types of small game.

Find the perfect barrel length.

The barrel length of a shotgun can range from 18 to 32 inches. This is important for maneuverability - if that's something that matters to you in your environment.

A shorter shotgun with an 18 to 20-inch barrel is ideal for hunting in dense areas such as forests, as they are easier to move around and quicker to aim.

Longer barrels offer a greater range for shooting, making them suitable for open hunting areas. However, they are heavier and are harder to maneuver in tight spaces.

We're big fans of the 30-32" barrels because they give us the accuracy and range we need for hunting the smaller game we're after. Sure, if you've got a great shot, maybe something shorter would be ideal for you.

Action type is important.

Shotguns come in three primary action types: break-action, pump-action, and semi-automatic.

Break-action shotguns are the most common and are ideal for beginners, elderly hunters, and those with limited arm strength. With these breech-style guns, you only get one or two shots, so you'll have to make them count. They're a classic, however.

On the other hand, pump-action and semi-automatic shotguns are preferred by more experienced hunters for their ability to provide a faster follow-up shot and a higher round capacity.

Shotgun stock material matters.

The stock material is the part of the shotgun that you grip with your hands while shooting. Most hunters look for aesthetics, which we completely understand, but it's also an important consideration when hunting small game.

The material can significantly impact your aim and comfort when shooting. Synthetic and polymer stocks are suitable if you plan to hunt long hours in harsh weather conditions as they are durable, lightweight, and weather-resistant.

However, if you prefer a more classic look, wood stocks are your best option, providing better aesthetics and a balanced feel.

Both will last the test of time, and this isn't nearly as important as the gauge, barrel length, or action of the shotgun.

What's your budget for a shotgun?

The budget for your shotgun is as important as any other determining factor. Fortunately, of all of the hunting rifles we've reviewed, shotguns generally run the cheapest. They're not nearly as complex as some of the others.

Shotguns can range from $200 to $2000. Choosing a shotgun within your budget can be both cost-effective and fitting for your hunting style. However, you can get a fairly decent shotgun for small game in the $200-$300 range at your local sporting goods store.

It is worth considering that investing in a durable, high-quality shotgun can save you money in the long run and improve the accuracy of your shots.

Grab your shotgun and start hunting small game the right way.

Small Game Squirrel Climing a Tree
Typically a 20 gauge shotgun is ideal for small game like the squirrel shown here.

Selecting the perfect shotgun for small game hunting can be a daunting task. We especially love the fact that these firearms can double as home-defense as well, but that's a topic for another day.

By considering the factors listed above, you can determine the ideal shotgun for your hunting style, whether you’re a beginner or an experienced hunter.

Remember, choosing the right shotgun is essential for a successful hunt. So, take the time to research, try out different shotguns, and invest in one that you feel confident with and would enjoy using for many hunting seasons to come.

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson

Master Outdoorsman

Matt is a seasoned outdoorsman with expertise in fishing, hunting, and wildlife. With a Master's degree in Wildlife Science, he combines his passion for nature with conservation efforts, sharing his knowledge through his writing for Fish and Game Report.

We may be compensated through the links you find on this page.

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