Gun Basics for Writers: Long Guns, Part 2 of 2: Shotguns

Now what's the deal with shotguns?

In case any of you were wondering, I do have thoughts on that Medium article that was making the rounds. I’ll have something for subscribers next week—some more nitty-gritty money talk and some hard truths about living off advances.

Meanwhile, here’s the continuation of this week’s writer primer on long guns. On Monday, we talked about rifles. Today we’ll discuss shotguns from a writerly point of view.


Shotguns are (almost always) smooth bore firearms.  What does "smooth bore" mean? Well, remember how rifles have rifled bores?  Smooth bores are just that, smooth—no rifling. Rifling is much more ineffective across most shotgun ammunition, as that ammunition is often very different from the type fired by rifles and handguns.

Shotgun shells are comparatively wide (usually), and are usually packed with small pellets that spread out upon exiting the barrel when the shotgun is fired.  Here are shotgun shells next to rifle and handgun rounds:


Handgun ammo on the far left, rifle ammo in the center, shotgun shells the two on the far right. Photo by Bobbfwed / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

The pellets are packed inside the shell. Shotgun shells have three varieties: bird shot, buck shot, and slugs.  Bird shot has the tiniest pellets.  Buck shot has larger pellets. Slugs don't have any pellets—they're solid chunks of metal; instead of having ammo that spreads out upon firing, you have, well, a slug. If you peeled back the red casing of the shells on the right hand side of the above picture, you would either see it filled with those pellets or by a heavy metal slug.

Shotguns are effective defensive or close-range weapons.  On the other hand, your character would not snipe someone with a shotgun.

Shotguns (generally) have wider barrels than rifles.  A 12-gauge shotgun, for example, has a barrel with about a 3/4-inch diameter.  It is fairly unusual to see a modern shotgun that is not 12-gauge—occasionally I see 16-gauge or 20-gauge, but not much else, even though other ammunition sizes do exist.

There are many different types of shotguns (probably about as many types as there are rifles—there are even semiautomatic shotguns).  However, the one you see more than any other in contemporary times is the pump-action shotgun, so I'll dedicate this post mostly to that one; double-barreled shotguns are fairly common as well, so I'll include those too.  Again, many other types exist, but I don't see them in use all that much.

Here's a picture of a pump action shotgun:


Pump action shotgun. Wikimedia Commons / public domain.

Here's a picture of a double-barreled shotgun:

Coach gun

Coach gun. Photo by Commander Zulu / Wikimedia Commons / attribution required.

The view from the side makes it hard to see the second barrel, but you can just see it behind the first one on the right side of the picture (the barrels on this one are side by side; other double-barreled shotguns have the barrels one over the other).  You can clearly see the two triggers in this photo.

How a Character Would Load a Shotgun

Pump action shotguns have a magazine tube below the barrel.  These magazine tubes hold different numbers of rounds depending on the model of shotgun and the local regulations, but 5-7 shells is a realistic maximum number (though again, specific legal regulations could limit that more, even for shotgun models that hold that many). You would load the magazine tube by sliding the shells into it one at a time.

Just like with a semiautomatic handgun or rifle, once you've loaded in however many rounds you want to, the magazine is loaded but the weapon is not yet ready to fire: you have to chamber the first round.  Chamber it by pumping the shotgun—that cha-CHUNK sound that is so famous throughout the world.  (You actually have to hit the action release to chamber the first shot, but this is a subtle motion and I wouldn't even worry about describing it; if you show your character pumping the shotgun that's definitely good enough.) The weapon is now ready to fire.

For a double-barreled shotgun, on the other hand, you break it open—the gun "breaks" at the base of the barrels, like so:

Double-barrel shotgun

Double-barreled shotgun. Photo by Commander Zulu / Wikimedia Commons / attribution required.

See the lever on the top?  You push that to the side, and that allows you to break open the gun.  Then you load in your two shells (one in each barrel) and snap the gun shut again.  Double-barreled shotguns vary on whether they have external hammers and whether they have one or two triggers (the ones with one trigger alternate which barrel the trigger fires from).

How a Character Would Fire a Shotgun

Most shotguns are designed to be braced against the shoulder—though pistol grip shotguns are not; they do not have stocks:

Pistol grip pump action shotgun

Pistol grip pump action shotgun. Wikimedia Commons / public domain.

The “common wisdom” is that unlike a rifle or a handgun, you don't generally aim a shotgun—you point it. Of course, your character is still going to be trying to line up the shotgun barrel with the target, but what this means is that in most situations, the process of doing that is going to be different from the precise aiming training for a rifle or handgun. There generally isn’t going to be the intense sighting down the barrel when firing a shotgun that rifle or handgun shooters utilize.

Assuming a round is in the chamber, you only have to pull the trigger to fire it. Shotguns have a LOT of kick.

To fire the next round in a pump action shotgun, you must pump the action again: cha-CHUNK! Back, and then forward. The spent shell will kick out of the gun, and the next round will be chambered. The shotgun is now ready to fire again.

Note: If you have a character pump the gun and then pump it again without firing it in between, it will release a round to fall on the floor, similar to what happens if you rack the slide of a semiautomatic twice without firing it in between. This is one of the main mistakes I see in books and movies.

To fire a double-barreled shotgun, pull back the hammers (if necessary—most modern shotguns don't have external hammers, but an old-style double-barreled coach gun would), and then either pull the trigger for each barrel (if there are two triggers) or pull the trigger twice to fire both barrels (if there is one trigger).  The spent shells will remain in the base of the barrel (like the spent casings remain in the cylinder of a revolver).

How a Character Would Reload a Shotgun

Same way she loaded it.  For the double-barreled shotgun the spent shells would have to be pulled out first.

How a Character Would Clear a Shotgun

For a pump action: Hold down the action release (it's an eensy button on the bottom of the gun) and pump the action over and over.  Every time you rack it back and then forward, another round will pop out of the magazine tube.  Do this until no rounds are left.

For a double-barreled shotgun: Just break it open and pull out any shells that are in the barrels.

How a Character Would Clean a Shotgun

They're pretty easy. Nothing to take down—just clean and lubricate them.

Why a Character Would Prefer a Shotgun

I've often heard the opinion that shotguns are the number one best home defense weapon. In gun-friendly areas, it wouldn't be surprising for a household to have a shotgun for home defense or hunting.

Shotguns are also effective in close-range combat.  Law enforcement carry shotguns for some situations.

And shotguns are also used by for sport (trap and skeet shooting).

You might have heard a lot about sawed-off shotguns.  They are not only used by criminals, but that is definitely the stereotype, partially because sawing off a shotgun barrel to a shorter length is illegal in most jurisdictions.  Sawing off the shotgun barrel to a shorter length means the pellets achieve a greater spread upon exiting the barrel, and it also means that the gun is much more concealable.  A sawed-off shotgun is extremely effective in close quarters and a very powerful concealable weapon (much more powerful than a handgun).

Other Useful Notes

  • You have to pump the action like you mean it.  The most common malfunction of pump action shotguns I see is when shooters are gentle with the action and don't slam it back and forward like they should, causing the next shell to fail to chamber properly.

  • The two most common contemporary shotgun models I see, by far, are the Mossberg 500 and the Remington 870 (widely used by military and law enforcement as well as civilians).  But it wouldn't be surprising to me for a Midwestern American or Southern American household to have some random shotgun model that had been passed down through the generations.

  • It's not uncommon for a new shooter (or even an experienced one) to have a bruised shoulder after firing a shotgun.

  • That thing you see characters do in movies, when they pump a shotgun with one hand by hanging onto it and throwing the gun against the action to pump it? That ranges from impossible to difficult-to-do-and-terrible-for-the-gun, depending on the shotgun.  And it's much, much harder than pumping it with two hands.  It may look cool, but I don’t recommend you have your characters do it.

So that's a lowdown on shotguns. As with the posts on handguns, in this newsletter and the one Monday on rifles I've left out a lot of detail and some caveats about specific situations or models of weaponry. But between these four newsletters I’ve covered in at least a skeletal manner the types of modern-day weapons accessible to civilians in jurisdictions that allow civilian gun ownership.

Questions?  Comments?  Anything you'd like to know more about?  Let me know!