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Shotguns vs. Rifles: Which is Better for Hunting, Self Defense, and Sport Shooting? preview image
Aug 06 2023
9 min read

Shotguns vs. Rifles: Which is Better for Hunting, Self Defense, and Sport Shooting?


Choosing the right firearm for hunting and home defense can be difficult. The factors you have to consider are many. Two of the available options are shotguns vs. rifles. Each of these firearms addresses those factors in different ways.

Shotguns are versatile and powerful firearms. They can be used for hunting or self-defense. However, shotguns may not be the best option for everyone. Shotguns, especially 12 gauge shotguns, are known for their stout recoil.

Rifles, on the other hand, can address some of the issues of shotguns. Rifles are more accurate than shotguns. Rifles also have better long-range capabilities. Rifles also have their own drawbacks. In this article, we will compare and contrast shotguns and rifles and discuss which is better for your needs.


Shotguns For Sale

Shotguns are versatile firearms that can be used for various purposes. Shotguns are excellent for hunting, especially birds and small game.

Shotguns are incredibly versatile as hunting firearms. The fact that the hunter can choose between slugs, buckshot, and birdshot allows the hunter to use the same firearm for multiple roles.

various shotguns in graphic form
Photo Credit: Shooting Illustrated

One of the characteristics important to note when discussing shotguns is the nature of the barrel. Shotguns are smooth-bore firearms. This means there is no rifling of the barrel to impart spin to the projectiles.

Shotguns are ideal for home defense. Shotgun shells, like 00 buckshot, provide more firepower than pistols and rifles.

The devastating effects of buckshot on a target are one of the main reasons people choose shotguns for home defense. Another virtue of shotguns is they have a larger margin for error when engaging a target in less-than-ideal circumstances.

Shotguns are also used in popular shooting sports. Both skeet and trap use shotguns and provide lots of fun for those who engage in shooting sports.

Shotgun Gauges

A shotgun gauge refers to the diameter of the bore, or the interior of the barrel, of a shotgun.

A 12-gauge shotgun has a bore diameter equal to the diameter of 12 lead balls that weigh one pound in total. It’s 1/12th pound per ball for a 12 gauge shotgun and 1/10th pound per ball for a 10 gauge shotgun.

The larger the gauge number, the smaller the bore diameter; the smaller the gauge number, the larger the bore diameter.

different shotgun gauges
Photo Credit: Wideners

The three most common shotgun gauges are 12, 20, and .410. Popularity-wise, 12 gauge is the most popular and versatile of the three. It can be used for hunting, home defense, and sport shooting.

20-gauge is a smaller and lighter loading than 12-gauge. Almost anything you would do with a 12-gauge, you can do with a 20-gauge. The effectiveness is reduced, but so is the recoil and, oftentimes, the size and weight of the shotgun chambers in 20-gauge.

.410 is the smallest of the three gauges we are discussing today. .410 is generally not suggested as the primary gauge or loading for a home defense shotgun and is most commonly used for hunting small game and birds.

Shotgun Drawbacks

Shotguns can have their drawbacks. Shotguns, especially 12-gauge, can have significant amounts of recoil.

Additionally, shotguns have limited range. These limitations mean that while shotguns are excellent firearms, they are not right for all situations.


Rifles For Sale

Rifles, like shotguns, can be very versatile firearms. Rifles can be used for hunting, home & self-defense, target and sport shooting, and good old-fashion plinking.

The rifle takes its name from its most important characteristic, the rifling or twisting that goes the length of the barrel and imparts spin to the projectile.

various rifles in graphic
Photo Credit: Field and Stream

One of the most significant advantages over shotguns is the rifling in the barrel. Rifling grants rifles greater accuracy than shotguns, especially as the distance to the target increases.

Most shotguns are limited to approximately 60-yard engagement distances. Rifles have no such limitation. Even lightweight cartridges like .22LR can accurately shoot past 100 yards, with more effective cartridges able to accurately hit targets at distances of 500 and 1000 yards.

The accuracy of rifles combined with cartridges capable of delivering excellent terminal ballistics and long range makes rifles ideal for hunting. Deer, hogs, elk, bear, moose, and many other game animals can be effectively harvested by hunters using a rifle.

There is one area where shotguns have a clear advantage over rifles when hunting, though, and that is when hunting game birds.

tikka t3x lite rifle

Rifle Cartridges

There are many rifle cartridges available when choosing what to shoot. Four popular rifle cartridges are .223/5.56, 7.62×39, .307/7.62×51, and 30-06. These cartridges represent varied capabilities, and each is very capable in its own way.

game ammo hunting cartridges

.223 Remington/5.56×45 NATO is a popular cartridge for varmint and other small game hunting. It is also suitable for mid-distance target shooting and shooting competitions.

Additionally, as a cartridge with its genesis for military use, it is a very popular cartridge for home defense. Some studies have shown that the lightweight nature of the projectiles helps to limit over-penetration when used for defense in an urban environment.

Long associated with the AK-47, 7.62×39 has gained popularity in the United States as more and more shooters, and collectors have sought to acquire AK-47 and SKS rifles. The cartridge itself is effective for hunting hogs and deer at shorter ranges. It is less popular than .223/5.56 for home defense.

.308/7.62×51 NATO is one of the most versatile rifle cartridges around. It is capable of accurate long-distance shooting. Packs enough punch to hunt all but the toughest North American game animals. Plus, it has a reputation as an effective cartridge for self-defense. The cartridge’s power, though, makes it less than ideal for home defense because of the possibility of over-penetration.

The last rifle cartridge on this list is the venerable and powerful 30-06. Carried by American doughboys and GIs in World War 1 and World War 2, the 30-06 is capable of taking all North American game animals.

Rifle Drawbacks

Rifles do have some drawbacks. Some rifles are more complex to operate than shotguns. Rifles also require more training and precision to use than shotguns.

The large number of rifle cartridges can make it more challenging to select the appropriate cartridge for each situation or lead to the shooter spending lots of money chasing cartridges for specific purposes.

Comparing Shotguns and Rifles

PurposeHunting, sport shooting, home, and self-defenseHunting, target and sport shooting, home and self-defense
AmmunitionShells containing pellets or slugsCartridges containing a single bullet
AccuracyLower accuracy due to spread of pelletsHigher accuracy due to rifling and single bullet
RangeEffective at short to medium rangesEffective at short, medium, and long ranges
Magazine SizeTypically small with an internal magazineTypically larger with both internal and external magazine options available


Rifles have a larger effective range than shotguns. They are typically more accurate as well.

These two factors make rifles a better choice than shotguns hunting at any distance past 40 yards. This also means that if you want to do target shooting, your choice should be a rifle


This is where shotguns win hands down.

Rifles do not have spread unless you are using a very specific type of shotshell. Shotguns, conversely, are known for the spread of pellets or buckshot.

Shotguns are effective for hunting birds and other small game as a result of this. The one downside of the spread that typifies most shotgun loadings is it is not ideal for hunting large game or hunting at longer distances.

shotgun patterns
Photo Credit: NRA Women


Shotguns are known for having stout recoil. Many rifle cartridges have lower felt recoil than shotguns. Recoil-adverse shooters need to take care when selecting shotgun loadings to ensure they are comfortable with the recoil.

The large number of rifle cartridges makes it easier to select a rifle and cartridge with a more manageable recoil. That being said, if recoil is not something you are concerned with, there are definitely rifle cartridges that can put a 12 gauge to shame with the force for the recoil.


Shotguns typically use shotshells. This means multiple pellets are fired with each shot. The most common shotgun shells are numbered. 00 (pronounced double ought) buckshot down, 0 buckshot, #2 through #9. The larger the number, the smaller the shot.

Generally, #5 through #9 are called birdshot.

Rifle ammunition fires a single bullet with each shot. Loaded in a brass or steel case, rifle bullets engage the rifling, which imparts spin and allows the rifle to be more accurate and shoot longer distances than a shotgun.

There are many specific loadings for rifles. Loads for hunting specific game animals, loads for long-range target shooting, loads for home defense, and frequently anything else you think you want to do with your rifle.

Shotgun Pros and Cons

  • Versatility – Shotguns are highly versatile firearms
  • Spread – Shotguns are known for their ability to shoot a spread of pellets or shot at a target
  • Stopping Power – Shotguns have excellent stopping power since they send multiple projectiles into their target simultaneously.
  • Reputation/Intimidation – Shotguns are cool. The idea of a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot feels like freedom.
  • Recoil – the high recoil of many shotguns can make them challenging to shoot accurately.
  • Limited Range – Shotguns are much more effective at close range. As the distance to the target increases, shotguns lose their efficacy, at least compared to rifles.
  • Ammo Capacity – Shotguns typically have lower ammo capacity than many rifles and pistols.

Rifle Pros and Con

  • Accuracy – Rifles are more accurate than shotguns, especially at longer ranges.
  • Range – Rifles are capable of shooting accurately at much longer distances than shotguns.
  • Ammo Capacity – Rifles generally have a higher ammo capacity than shotguns.
  • Adaptability – Rifles can be adapted to a variety of purposes, and this is generally done more easily than with a shotgun.
  • Recoil – Larger rifle calibers can have significant recoil.
  • Over-Penetration – Rifles can shoot through walls and other obstacles. This over-penetration is a concern in home defense situations.
  • Spread – Rifles don’t have spread. This makes them far less suitable for hunting birds than a shotgun.


Why do police use shotguns instead of rifles?

There are several reasons police will use a shotgun instead of a rifle. Shotguns are effective at close range and in confined spaces that police often encounter.

Another factor is over-penetration. Shotguns are less likely to over-penetrate or shoot through walls and, therefore, less likely to injure or damage unintended targets

What is the most significant difference between a shotgun and a rifle?

The biggest difference is the type of ammunition used. Rifles, by their nature of having a rifled barrel, use cartridges optimized for firing a single projectile at a target.

Shotguns, conversely, because of their lack of rifling, use shells that contain multiple pullets and sometimes a single slug. This makes both firearms good at different things.

Is a rifle or shotgun more powerful?

It is difficult to compare the power of rifles and shotguns because they are designed for different purposes and use different types of ammunition.

Ultimately, whether a rifle or shotgun is more powerful depends on the shooter, their circumstances, and what the shooter’s intended use for the firearm is.

Last Words

Ultimately, the choice between a shotgun and a rifle comes down to your intended use and personal preferences. Both shotguns and rifles do some things very well, and other things not as much.

Both can be used for home defense, but there are arguments to be made for shotguns being superior as a home defense weapon. Both can be used for hunting, although the type of game being hunted and the distance to the target will dictate whether you choose a shotgun or rifle.

It is important to consider all of the factors when picking a shotgun or rifle, and you need to realize that as circumstances change, your choice of firearm might change as well.

Leave us a comment below and let us know what you use, in what circumstances, and why.

Chris Fortenberry photo Chris is a firearms enthusiast and collector located in Texas. Chris’ passion for firearms started at a young age and was fueled by his passion for history. Chris used that passion to become a historian and feels that spreading the understanding of firearms functionally, socially, and politically is one of the paramount jobs of the 2nd Amendment community. He seeks to share his knowledge with those around him.


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