Pump Action vs Semi Auto Shotgun for Hunting | Pros and Cons


When hunting birds or fast-moving ground game, a shotgun is the best way to kill your quarry. While other types exist, the two primary types of shotgun are the traditional pump-action and the up-and-coming semi-automatic. But which is better for hunting? 

While pump-action and semi-automatic shotguns can be used for hunting, pump-action shotguns are better for most hunters. They’re less expensive, more reliable, and easier to maintain. Semi-automatic shotguns, while more expensive, are easier to use, more accurate, and have a higher rate of fire. 

This article will explore the differences between and relative pros and cons of pump-action and semi-automatic shotguns for use in hunting. Later, we will explore their history and explain how they work. 

Pump-Action Shotguns: Pros and Cons

ProsCons
Cost-effectiveSlow firing rate
Simple maintenanceInferior accuracy
Superior reliabilityProne to short-stroking 
Superior versatility
Lighter

A cheap pump-action shotgun will likely be better than a cheap semi-automatic shotgun. The Remington 870 currently sells for around $450, but perfectly usable pump-action shotguns are available for as little as $170. Some semi-automatic shotguns are available at a similar price, but they are not well-reviewed. 

While both pump-action and semi-automatic shotguns have their share of moving parts, maintaining a pump-action is considerably simpler. They use few if any springs, and their disassembly and assembly are straightforward. 

The driving force of a pump-action is the human operator. The operator is more likely to fail before the shotgun. They also typically weigh less, so the operator will not tire as quickly. 

Pump-action shotguns are not “picky” about ammunition and can use a surprising range of shells beyond the obvious shot and slugs. And while not necessarily advisable, pump-action shotguns can be fired from the hip or one-handed. 

While more reliable than most semi-automatic actions, pump actions do have their flaws. The need to manually stroke the action slows the rate of fire. At best, a pump-action shotgun can be fired about once a second. 

Similarly, the pumping action will, in most cases, result in poorer accuracy. That is due to the physics of a human arm pulling backward on a mechanical slide. Pump-action shotgunners must recenter their aim between every shot. 

When firing a pump-action shotgun, the operator must pull the slide all the way back and push it all the way forward. Otherwise, the action won’t cycle completely. That is called “short-stroking” and can damage the action and chamber.

Semi-Automatic Shotguns: Pros and Cons

Benelli-M4-Tactical
ProsCons
Higher firing rateMore expensive
Low recoilLess reliable
Better accuracyDifficult maintenance
Less versatile
Greater weight

Semi-automatic shotguns can fire as fast as the operator can pull the trigger. Their actions cycle in fractions of a second. 

In both types of semi-automatic shotgun, the recoil is greatly reduced by the action. That makes it considerably easier to keep them on target. Semi-automatic shotguns are considerably more accurate as a result. 

The superior firing rate and accuracy of semi-automatic shotguns come with some significant disadvantages. A good semi-automatic shotgun will cost at least $600, and the more popular models like the Benelli M4 usually cost over a thousand. 

Semi-automatic actions have considerably more moving parts than pump-action shotguns, and this makes them less reliable. Maintaining them may be out of the skill level of a casual hunter.

Semi-automatic shotguns are also less versatile than pump-actions. Inertia-operated shotguns must be held firmly by the operator; otherwise, the action will not cycle completely. Both types of semi-automatic shotguns can generally only use certain types of ammunition. 

Lastly, the more complicated operating systems of semi-automatic shotguns weigh more than pump-action shotguns. That is especially true for gas-operated firearms, which include heavy metal piston assemblies. 

Are Pump Action Shotguns Good For Hunting?

Most pump-action shotguns are good for hunting, as they’re specifically made for such. They’re inexpensive, lightweight, easy to maintain, and not sensitive to dirt and debris. For most hunters, a pump-action shotgun is all the firearm they need.

Can You Use A Semi-Automatic Shotgun For Hunting?

You can use a semi-automatic shotgun for hunting because, when it comes down to it, a shotgun is a shotgun. Even shotguns marketed as “tactical” are perfectly suitable for hunting game from squirrels to bears. 

But to quote one internet commenter on Quora, “If you really need a semi-automatic shotgun for hunting anything other than large prey like grizzly or black bears, you probably should not be hunting.”

What Is The Most Popular Pump-Action Shotgun?

The most popular pump-action shotgun today is the Remington Arms LLC Model 870, colloquially called the “Remington 870”. It also happens to be the best-selling shotgun in history. The Remington 870 is widely considered the benchmark against which all other shotguns are judged. 

The Remington 870 sells for a base price of $350 and features: 

  • A four-round magazine 
  • Milled steel receiver 
  • Over a dozen variants 

What Is The Most Popular Semi-Automatic Shotgun

Arguably the most popular semi-automatic shotgun is the Italian Benelli M4 produced by Benelli Armi SpA. While marketed as a “tactical shotgun,” several versions of the M4 are designed for hunting. 

The base price for the Benelli M4 is $1799.99.

The Benelli M4 features: 

  • A 5+1 capacity magazine 
  • Proprietary A.R.G.O. “self-regulating gas system” 
  • Synthetic or wood stocks 
  • A tactical matte black finish 

History of Shotguns

Single Barrel Shotgun Unloaded

There are two primary schools of thought in firearms development, firing one larger projectile with greater accuracy or many smaller projectiles with less accuracy. Shotguns follow the latter. 

Early firearms consisted of large, smoothbore muzzleloaders, like the venerable British Brown Bess musket and blunderbuss of the American Revolutionary War era. While they were most commonly loaded with single large projectiles, they could also be loaded with many smaller projectiles. That practice was used extensively in war as well as when hunting birds. 

Some early shotgun-type weapons were ridiculously larger and designed to kill entire flocks of birds. These punt guns were primarily responsible for the extinction of the American passenger pigeon in the late 1800s. 

The modern shotgun was invented by the “patron saint” of firearms technology, John Moses Browning, in the 1880s. While working for Winchester, Browning invented both the modern shot cartridge and the lever-action shotgun. Browning later invented both the pump-action pump and the first American semi-automatic shotgun. 

How Shotguns Work

Most firearms require some degree of accuracy to hit their targets. Shotguns only have to be aimed in a target’s general direction. 

Like their musket and blunderbuss ancestors, most modern shotguns retain a smoothbore barrel without rifling other types of firearms. The lack of rifling makes shotguns less accurate, but accuracy is not required. 

Rather than a single projectile, shot cartridges contain several to dozens. When fired, the projectiles, referred to as shot pellets or just shot, are propelled down the barrel by the expanding propellant exhaust. 

When the shot leaves the barrel, it spreads out in a cone-shaped pattern. The spread angle produced by modern shotguns is smaller than many people would expect. The spread radius for buckshot at a range of 25 feet (7.6 meters) is about 8 inches (20.3 centimeters).

Shotguns have been produced using several different action mechanisms, including but not limited to:  

But the two most common actions for commercially available shotguns use either pump-action or one of two semi-automatic mechanics.

Pump-Action

Pump-action shotguns essentially use the human operator to power their reloading system. Ammunition is stored in either a tube or box magazine. When the operator pulls back the slide, the spent shell is ejected, and a replacement is cycled into the chamber. 

Early pump-action shotguns had their triggers directly connected with the slide. If the trigger was held back, the firearm would fire as soon as the action cycled. In other words, they could be fired as fast as the operator could pump the slide. They were also prone to accidental firing during maintenance and cleaning.

Most modern shotguns feature a safety mechanism called a “trigger disconnector” to prevent that from happening. Some firearm enthusiasts prefer weapons without the trigger disconnector because of the high firing rate it allows. 

Semi-Automatic Shotguns

There are two semi-automatic mechanisms used in modern shotguns, inertia/recoil operation and gas operation.

Inertia Operated

The first semi-automatic shotguns were recoil-operated. That includes the Browning Auto-5, which was produced with minimal changes from 1898 to 1998. 

When the shotgun is fired, the force from the exploding propellant pushes the bolt and barrel backward. The spent shell is ejected at the back of the bolt’s stroke, and a replacement is pushed upward into the chamber. Then springs push the barrel and bolt back into place. 

For inertia-operated firearms to properly cycle, they must be held sturdily-generally against the operator’s shoulder. If not held firmly, the action may not cycle properly.

Gas Operated

Gas-operated semi-automatic shotguns use the exhaust from the burning gunpowder to cycle the action. They essentially use the same type of mechanism as the AK-47. 

A small amount of the exhaust gas is siphoned off and directed into a piston when the weapon is fired. The piston is forced backward and pushes the firearm’s bolt back. 

Final Thoughts

For most hunters, a pump-action shotgun is perfectly sufficient. A semi-automatic shotgun’s added expense, complexity, and weight are unnecessary for shooting ducks, geese, or deer. 

Semi-automatic shotguns can be used for hunting, especially for large game like moose or bears. For hunting most game, they are simply overkill. Semi-automatic shotguns are better used for personal or home defense and recreational shooting.

Thanks for reading!

For more, check out What Is the Best Barrel Length for Accuracy? | Optimal Guide.

Jim James

Hey, I'm Jim and the author of this website. I have always been interested in survival, fishing, camping, and anything in nature. In fact, while growing up I spent more time on the water than on land! I am also a best-selling author and have a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. I hope you find value in the articles on this website. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or input!

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