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Published Jun 9, 2022 12:00 PM

Upland bird hunters are blessed with lengthy seasons, liberal bag-limits, and endless opportunities to chase a wide variety of species across every state. No matter the pursuit, one piece of equipment remains a necessity for upland hunters—a reliable shotgun.

Whether you fancy your favorite upland scattergun as a work of art or a tool of the trade, its intended purpose remains the same. For this review, I included a rundown of the best shotguns for bird hunting to cover a variety of budgets and styles.

Things to Consider Before Buying a Shotgun for Bird Hunting

Budget

Purchasing a new shotgun is an endeavor worthy of your time and research. The first thing you should decide is how much you are willing to spend. When it comes to hunting gear and firearms, I generally try to abide by the “buy once, cry once” mentality as you almost always get what you pay for. Setting a budget from the beginning will set parameters on what shotguns to research and help you get the most out of your hard-earned cash.

Style

The second variable to consider when picking the right upland bird hunting shotgun is what species you plan on primarily chasing and what action style will be most conducive to that endeavor. For example, if pheasants or grouse are your primary target, an over and under or side-by-side is perfect for shooting a single or a flushing pair. However, if wild coveys of chukars, quail, or Hungarian partridge are a staple, you may want to lean toward a pump or semi-auto that offers the ability to send a third round down range. There are some purists who might argue that anything with the ability to shoot more than two shots is a blasphemy to the sport, but no one needs that kind of negativity in their life. Plus, what better excuse to buy a new shotgun.

Gauge

The third and final variable that must be considered when buying a new upland shotgun is the gauge. Personally, I have used a 20-gauge shotgun for most of my life and for that reason have a bias towards it. I am also a big proponent, depending on where and what I am hunting, of the 28-gauge. More on that later. Everyone’s trusty 12-gauge will get the job done—and with authority—but usually winds up being overkill on most upland species (outside of pheasants). Additionally, there has been a resurgence in recent years of the 16-gauge. It is a sweet little gauge, but ammo options and availability are sometimes limited.

Best Overall: Browning Citori Gran Lightning 

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Key Features

  • Break-action O/U
  • Gauge: 12, 20, 28, .410
  • Finish: Blued
  • Weight: 8 pounds (12-gauge)

Why It Made the Cut 

Browning’s Gran Lightning Citori is as visually striking as it is deadly in the field, earning best pick for its performance and upland aesthetics.

Pros

  • Well balanced
  • Easily interchangeable chokes
  • Comfortable rounded pistol grip and forearm

Cons

  • Steep price tag
  • The 12-gauge is a heavy field gun

Product Description

Browning’s lineup of Citori shotguns has reigned supreme for over and under enthusiasts for decades. I recently had the opportunity to take the Gran Lightning Citori on a traditional, southern bobwhite quail hunt where it quickly gained my utmost respect as one of the finest shotguns that I have had the pleasure to shoulder. The Gran Lightning that I hunted with was a little 28-gauge and boy did it wreak havoc on buzzing coveys of quail. For the majority of upland hunting, especially when hunting over pointers, it is tough to beat the 28-gauge’s knock-down power combined with its almost non-existent recoil.

Browning Citori Gran Lightning
The Gran Lightning is as reliable as it visually stunning. Colton Heward

The Gran Lightning features a stunning oil finished grade V/VI walnut lightning style stock with a high-polish blued barrel and engraved receiver. It is one of those shotguns that is almost too pretty to take to the hills, but that is exactly where it belongs. It also sports a rounded pistol grip and forearm for a consistent and classic feel when shouldered.

Best 20-Gauge Over/Under: Weatherby Orion I

Weatherby

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Key Features

  • Break-action O/U
  • Gauge: 20
  • Weight: 6.2 pounds
  • Barrel length: 26 and 28 inches

Why It Made the Cut

Weatherby’s Orion I 20-gauge over and under provides upland enthusiasts a reliable stacked barrel option at a fraction of the cost of many others on the market.

Pros

  • 3-inch chamber
  • lightweight
  • Incredibly comfortable to shoot

Cons

  • Only comes in 28-inch barrel length for 20-gauge

Product Description 

Weatherby is most well known for their cutting-edge centerfire rifles, but their line of shotguns shouldn’t be overlooked. The Orion I 20-gauge isn’t flashy, but don’t let that fool you. This shotgun has been put through the ringer by many who swear by its fit and reliability. The slimmed receiver combined with the oversized forearm is both comfortable to carry and easy to shoot. If you are in the market for a workhorse 20 over and under that won’t break the bank, the Orion I should be at the top of your list.

Best Budget Side-by-Side: Tristar Bristol SxS

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Key Features

  • Break-action side-by-side
  • Gauge: 12, 16, 20, 28, .410
  • Single selective trigger
  • Weight: 5.24 pounds (28-gauge)

Why It Made the Cut 

The classic look and feel of the Bristol SxS combined with its extremely affordable price tag makes it a no-brainer for first time side-by-side shooters.

Pros

  • Several gauges to choose from
  • Ability to interchange chokes
  • Classic look and feel at a fraction of the cost

Cons

  • Some might prefer a traditional double trigger

Product Description 

Side-by-side shotgun aficionados are a special breed, taking their love and fascination of these shotguns to extreme levels, my own father included. Knowing the price tags for many vintage side-by-sides, I never indulged in their mystique. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered there are many affordable options for new side-by-sides that are visually appealing work horses in the field, and most importantly, extremely affordable. Enter front and center stage Tristar’s Bristol.

Tristar Bristol
The Tristar Bristol is an excellent entry into side-by-side shotguns. Colton Heward

When I first got my hands on a 28-gauge Bristol side-by-side, I was impressed. The wood-to-metal fit was satisfactory (the Turkish walnut English stock is nothing fancy but certainly clean), and the case-colored receiver added a classic, rustic touch. Another benefit of a new side-by-side is the ability to interchange chokes when needed. The Bristol side-by-side comes standard with five Beretta style chokes (skeet, improved cylinder, modified, improved modified, and full). With a price tag below $1,200, this is a perfect shotgun to break into the wide world of side-by-side shotguns.

Best Side-by-Side: CZ Bobwhite G2 Project Upland

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Key Features

  • Break-action side-by-side
  • Gauge: 12, 20, and 28
  • Chamber: 3-inch
  • Weight: 6.2 pounds (28-gauge)

Why It Made the Cut

CZ’s Bobwhite G2 Project Upland side-by-side shotgun incorporates the classic Bobwhite frame and reliability with upgraded furniture and details.

Pros

  • Double trigger
  • Case-colored receiver
  • Comfortable straight English stock

Cons

  •  $1,700 is pricey for a Turkish-made SxS

Product Description

CZ, in collaboration with Project Upland, designed the Bobwhite G2 Project Upland shotgun. This modern side-by-side is built on one of the best shotguns for bird hunting–CZ’s classic Bobwhite frame–with some upgraded lavish details that add both character and appeal.

The Bobwhite G2 Project Upland side-by-side features a beautiful straight-English stock made from select grade Turkish walnut, encased with a decoratively engraved case colored receiver. Side-by-side purists can also breathe easy with the traditional double trigger and case colored manual tang safety preserved in this modern play on a CZ’s classic side-by-side. A wise man once wrote, “Life is too short to shoot an ugly gun.” I couldn’t agree more. And luckily, this gun’s performance matches its looks.

Best Pump: Remington 870 FieldMaster

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Key Features

  • Action: Pump
  • Gauge: 12 or 20
  • Weight: 7.5 pounds (12-gauge)
  • Better metal finish than discontinued Express model

Why It Made the Cut

Many Remington 870 models are legendary for unwavering reliability. Whether you are a first-time buyer or a seasoned veteran, everyone should have a Remington 870 in their gun collection.

Pros

  • Unmatched reliability
  • Easy to breakdown and clean
  • Rust resistant finish

Cons

  •  No shims or spacers for stock adjustment

Product Description 

With over 11 million shotguns sold since its introduction in 1950, the Remington 870 is the best-selling shotgun of all-time. The 870 FieldMaster internally mirrors the Wingmaster model but externally features a rugged corrosion resistant finish on the barrel and receiver to combat the abuse hunters put their shotguns through. Also, as of this year, the FieldMaster officially replaced the 870 Express. If a pump-action scattergun is your preferred shotgun of choice, it is tough to overlook the versatility and dependability of the Remington 870. It’s not flashy, but no one will argue that it will get the job done.

Best Beginner: Benelli Nova

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Key Features

  • Action: Pump
  • Gauge: 12 or 20
  • Weight: 8 pounds (12-gauge)
  • Barrel length: 24, 26, and 28 inches

Why It Made the Cut 

With a sub $500 price tag, this is the most budget-conscious shotgun on the list, and most importantly, it provides reliable cycling and consistent performance. These two variables make it the perfect shotgun for those wanting to dabble in upland hunting without a substantial financial commitment.

Pros

  • Budget friendly
  • Extremely reliable
  • Multiple barrel length and color options

Cons

  • Recoil is stout

Product Description 

Any shotgun displaying the Benelli name merits consideration. The Benelli Nova pump-action shotgun provides bird hunters a very affordable option for a well-made, reliable firearm that can tackle just about anything you can throw at it. The synthetic stock is especially nice when hunting the rugged mountains that chukars call home where dings and scratches are proudly worn like battle scars. The ability to have four shells in the magazine (where legal) is also a huge advantage when a staggered covey of birds gets up and three or four opportunities arise without having to reload. You won’t turn any heads with this finish, but if you’re testing the upland waters to gauge your interest, the Nova is a great, versatile shotgun that you won’t regret buying even if you decide that wingshooting isn’t your style.

Best Semi-Auto: Browning Maxus II Hunter

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Key Features

  • Action: Semi-Auto (Gas)
  • Gauge: 12
  • Barrel length: 26 and 28 inches
  • Weight: 7 pounds

Why It Made the Cut

The Browning Maxus II Hunter is a reliable semi-auto shotgun made for upland bird hunters who want more than two shots.

Pros

  • Reliable Power Drive Gas System
  • Adjustable LOP, cast, and drop with adjustable shims
  • Fiber-optic front sight

Cons

  • Only available in 12-gauge

Product Description

Browning hit a homerun when they launched the original Browning Maxus over a decade ago. The Power Drive Gas System proved its worth in the original Maxus and continues to be the driving force in the Maxus II. This gun also incorporates several cosmetic changes as well as a stock redesign, which makes shouldering it comfortable and easy. And the Inflex recoil pad eliminates a lot of the recoil, which you’ll want with a 12-gauge, and makes for quick follow up shots. And while some purists might shudder at this option, the Invector-Plus choke system makes this a versatile shotgun for other pursuits.  

Best Sub-Gauge Semi-Auto: Benelli SBE 3 28-gauge

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Key Features

  • Action: Semi-Auto (Inertia)
  • Gauge: 28
  • Weight: 5.6 pounds
  • Barrel length: 26 or 28 inches

Why It Made the Cut

The Benelli SBE3 28-gauge shotgun is the finest sub-gauge semi-auto I have ever shot. It is also chambered to shoot 3-inch shells, which allow payloads similar to a 20-gauge but with the small frame and minimal recoil of a 28-gauge.

Pros

  • Minimal recoil
  • 3-inch chamber
  • Lightweight

Cons

  • Availability (for now)

Product Description 

Few trends have gained as much recent notoriety as that of sub-gauge shotguns. Manufacturers have taken notice, and Benelli was one of the first to answer the call with the launch of their Super Black Eagle 3 28-gauge shotgun. Needless to say, they set the bar high. This gun is made for hunting flighty coveys of quail and chukar when multiple shots and staggered coveys are a given. While the recoil of a 28-gauge is minimal, the Comfort Tech stock makes it even less noticeable, especially for follow up shots. 

With a well patterned lead load, you can easily reach out to 50 yards on most upland species and knock them out of the air with a good 28-gauge payload. And with the 28-gauge, depending on the load and choke combination, you can have similar performance to a 20-gauge without the recoil and added weight. Once you shoot a 28-gauge you may just fall in love. You have been warned.

Best Bang for Your Buck: Winchester SX4 Field 

Winchester

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Key Features

  • Action: Semi-Auto (Gas)
  • Gauge: 12, 20
  • Barrel length: 26- and 28-inch
  • Weight: 6 pounds, 12 ounces (12-gauge, 28-inch)

Why It Made the Cut

The SX4 Field is a no frills, classic upland take on the proven SX4 platform. And with a price tag just below a grand, this shotgun is easily the best bang for your buck.

Pros

  • Ambidextrous safety
  • Comfortable pistol grip
  • Reliable with a wide variety of shells

Cons

  • Bolt can be sticky, tough to open
  • Load gate is also stiff, makes loading a chore in the cold

Product Description

The classic matte-black receiver, combined with the satin oil finished walnut stock gives the SX4 a classic upland look, but this gun also performs reliably and isn’t picky when it comes to payloads. Winchester incorporated an oversized safety and bolt release which makes handling with gloves a breeze. Recoil from the SX4 12-gauge is minimal, thanks to the Inflex Technology Recoil Pad. The smaller pistol grip is comfortable and provides plenty of grip for hunters with smaller hands but should still feel just right with those who have larger hands. If $1,000 is your top budget, you can start and end your search with the SX4 Field.

Best Youth: Mossberg International SA-20 Youth

Mossberg

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Key Features

  • Action: Semi-Auto (Gas)
  • Gauge: 20
  • Chamber: 3-inch
  • Weight: 6.25 pounds

Why It Made the Cut

The lightweight SA-20 Youth shotgun from Mossberg is the perfect first shotgun for your favorite little hunting buddy. All they have to worry about is barrel control and flipping the safety off.

Pros

  • Compact
  • Comfortable for youth
  • Low recoil

Cons

  • Fixed LOP means they’ll eventually outgrow it

Product Description

Passing on hunting traditions to younger generations is crucial to the survival of this sport. And one of the best entries into this sport is bird hunting. Youth specific shotguns, such as the SA-20 Youth, offer a lightweight, low recoiling, and comfortable option for young hunters interested in bird hunting. Its reasonable price tag makes it money well spent to get your little ones hooked on hunting. It does have a fixed LOP, so your young hunter won’t be able to grow with this gun, but for their early years, this compact wingshooter is more than enough to get them started and hopefully coming back.

FAQ’s

Q: What makes a good bird hunting shotgun?

To break this question down as simply as it can be put, a good bird hunting shotgun is the one that you shoot the best. It does you zero good to have a $3,000 shotgun if you can’t hit the broadside of a barn with it. On the flip side, if you don’t miss with your grandpa’s beat-up pump, then that is the gun I would take to the field. Opportunities are often few and far between, so using the gun that you shoot best trumps all other variables.

Q: Is 12- or 20-gauge better for upland bird hunting?

In my opinion, a 12-gauge, in most scenarios, is overkill because most upland birds are not that hard to bring out of the sky. However, I do prefer a 12-gauge when I am hunting late season roosters and shots are often long. Other than that, I almost exclusively use a 20 or 28-gauge.

Q: What can you hunt with a 20-gauge?

You can hunt everything from giant sage grouse to dainty quail, and I have hunted them all since I was 10 with a 20-gauge. The 20-gauge is a good compromise between the 12 and 28-gauge, and it provides plenty of knock down power without the physical abuse that often comes from a 12-gauge.

Upland bird hunting
Today, there are plenty of shotgun options for bird hunters. Colton Heward

Methodology

Asking someone to pick their favorite gun is similar to asking someone their favorite breed of bird dog; at the end of the day, it is all subjective. Having spent the past 20 years chasing upland birds across the country I know what does and does not work for me. But this list also continually evolves. For this review, I drew on my own personal experiences as well as other experienced hunters I know and respect. While this list might not be absolute, there were hundreds of days spent afield that helped me arrive at these picks. I did my best to include shotguns for every action and price point so that everyone, no matter your budget or style, could find a gun that best fits them.

Final Thoughts

Performance and reliability wise, these are some of the best shotguns for bird hunting. When it comes to individual performance, what works best for me might not work best for you. Still, any of the options on this list are more than capable for bird hunting. Find a shotgun that falls within your budget, become proficient with it, and hit the fields. The killing of a bird is inconsequential compared to everything else that surrounds the hunt, but when you work hard for that opportunity, be sure you are shouldering a shotgun you have complete confidence in.