The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Shotguns
Like many gun-related questions today, the answer to this one is a little more complicated than it might seem at first. Generally, shotgun barrels are what’s called “smoothbore,” meaning they are basically metal tubes with a smooth, non-rifled surface inside. So, MOST shotgun barrels are not rifled. However, there are exceptions.
Most shotgun barrels are not rifled… but some are
As we discuss in our article, “The Origins of the Shotgun,” shotguns were originally called “fowling pieces” and were intended for bird hunting. Refer to our article “Shotgun Ammo 101,” to learn about the three basic types of shotgun ammunition (birdshot, buckshot, and slugs).
It’s when discussing the third type of ammunition (slugs) that rifled barrels for shotguns come into relevance. In some states and jurisdictions, using a traditional rifle for hunting is illegal, but using a shotgun is not--even if the shotgun barrel is rifled. So, firearms manufacturers developed “slug barrels” for their popular shotgun designs, intended exclusively for use when firing Foster-type slugs or sabot slugs. Again, refer to our “Shotgun Ammo 101” article for details on these types of projectiles.
Rifled shotgun barrels can be capable of excellent practical accuracy, often printing 3-shot groups within 2” or better at 100 yards, which is well within the ethical limits for hunting accuracy at the closer hunting distances typically seen in these locales. What’s more, the slugs used for hunting deer-sized game with rifled shotguns are often heavy hitters, delivering impressive expansion and penetration.
Depending on your local regulations, you may be permitted to use a smoothbore shotgun for hunting large game as well, and within 50 yards or so, the right buckshot load can be a very effective choice.
Birdshot and buckshot should not be fired through rifled shotgun barrels
Birdshot and buckshot should only be fired in smoothbore shotgun barrels because the twisted grooves known as rifling (for which a “rifle” is named) is intended to rapidly spin and stabilize a single projectile. When a payload of birdshot or buckshot is spun when fired out of a rifled bore, the projectiles spread far too rapidly and in an uncontrolled, unpredictable fashion. This can lead to large holes in the shot pattern and even missing your target completely at a relatively short distance.
Furthermore, rifled bores are not intended for birdshot- or buckshot-type shot cups and projectiles, and may suffer rapid plastic and/or lead fouling if used with the improper type of ammunition.
Can I fire rifled Foster-type slugs through a rifled shotgun barrel?
While most rifled shotgun barrels perform best with sabot slugs, which are a single projectile of smaller-than-bore diameter encased in a fiber or plastic shroud that is intended to engage the rifling of the barrel to spin and stabilize the projectile but then break away from the projectile upon exiting the muzzle, some shooters report success shooting standard Foster-type slugs through their rifled shotgun barrels.
If you decide to try it, be sure to watch your barrel for leading and keep your bore clean. Foster slugs are fairly soft lead, and despite being called “rifled slugs,” are designed to be fired through smoothbore shotgun barrels and are stabilized aerodynamically by the thin skirts and heavy forward portion of the slug, similar to how a badminton shuttlecock works.
(The angular “riflings” on the sides of a Foster slug impart no spin to the projectile, but are intended to allow the slug to safely swage down when fired through a restricted shotgun choke.)
Rifled shotgun barrels can allow for an economical and versatile “combination gun”
Many people can only afford to buy one hunting firearm, or they may live in very restrictive jurisdictions where purchasing an additional firearm is a huge hassle. For these people, a smoothbore shotgun with an additional rifled barrel can be a “one gun for all seasons” option.
A barrel is generally quite a bit cheaper than a complete firearm, and removing and installing shotgun barrels is almost always a 5-minute job maximum on modern shotguns. So, you can use your smoothbore barrel for hunting turkeys, ducks, geese, or upland game, and then install your rifled shotgun barrel for hunting deer-sized game.
Be sure to check your state firearm and game laws to determine whether it’s permissible for you to use a rifled shotgun barrel for hunting.
Whichever shotgun and barrel you choose, Liberty gun safes are the best way to keep your shotgun safe when not in use. Visit your local dealer to learn more!