Shotguns for Squirrels

I know what you are saying, “Finally, Ole Nate’s gonna give the shotgun fans some love!”  Yeah you are right.  While the shotgun is not my first choice for the squirrel woods, I can’t neglect to give my thoughts on it any longer.  It’s how I got started in squirrel hunting.  Shotguns are probably the first firearm the outdoor community uses to introduce children into the sport of hunting, besides the .22 rifle.  

Shotgunning for squirrels

The first firearm I ever received was a shotgun.  Gifted to me by my parents.  Arriving home from school one Friday afternoon, at the age of 12, there sitting on the fireplace was a green box with the word “Remington” on it.  I was fairly shocked, and had no idea this purchase was in the works.  That’s how a surprise is suppose to work.  The Remington 870 that was purchased for me that year, has now many miles and scars on it through heavy use.  I recall the length being a tad long at 12 years old. On one of my first dove hunts I fired 66 shells and took 6 birds.  I was unable to shoulder the shotgun correctly, consequently I received a large bruise on my bicep.  I then graduated to hunting squirrels with the 20 gauge 870.  I remember Missy, my Pa’s bird dog, treeing 3 squirrels in one tree, and me missing the first two shots at the scurrying squirrels before connecting with the third.  Enough with memory lane, but now you have a basis of how a shotgun has served me for squirrels.

20 Gauge 870


The idea of using a shotgun for squirrels fits with early season and heavy foliage.  It can be difficult to draw a bead on a early season squirrel, aggressively feeding in a leafy branch tip.  Especially if you want a head shot.  Using the shotgun is perfect in this situation.  Placing the bead of the front sight at the base of the squirrel should bring said squirrel out of the tree everytime.  How about a squirrel timbering through the trees?  Certainly.  No gun better than a shotgun to tame a “runner” with.  Ever had a squirrel run past you in the woods while on a stalk?  I definitely have.  There is pretty much nothing you can do with a rifle, but with a shotgun you have a chance.  Back in my earlier days of squirrel hunting I liked hunting in a four man team:  Two gunners (Semi-auto guns 10/22, Marlin 60), One sniper (some type of scoped rifle), and One cleanup man (shotgunner).  It was like I had a tactical team for taking down squirrels.  Yeah I know I’ve got it pretty bad.  

Daniel's First Squirrel with .410


Lately I’ve had a few people question the safety of firing up into a tree with a 22 rifle.  I understand the safety concern, so there is no better firearm for such a fear than the shotgun.  At most with a shotgun you will experience the “peppering” effect.  That’s when the lead from the fired shell rains down on you.  Mostly this is experienced in a crowded dove field.  If you are unsure that a 22 rifle fits your safety threshold, or your state doesn’t allow rifles for small game hunting, the shotgun will be your best and only option.

Like rifles, shotguns offer a multitude of variety.  Pump, Semi-auto, Side by Side, Over and Under, Break Barrel (single shot) are just the ones that come to mind.  Any of them will serve you well for chasing bushytails.  Pump and Semi-auto shotguns will give you the most firepower, along with faster followup shots, “IF” you miss.  Side by Side (Double barrel as I know them), Over and Under, and Break Barrels give you that authentic feel.  I have a hunting buddy that prefers to carry a double barrel on squirrel hunts, and while heavy, the nostalgia drives his decision.   

.410 Break Barrel 2

What about gauge?  Which one is right?  It tends to be a personal preference.  I got my first shot at a squirrel with a .410.  When considering the .410 for a squirrel shotgun, make sure it can take a three inch shells.  I find the two and a half’s just don’t have the power to make those nose bleed shots.  The .410 is probably the lightest, most compact option.  Break barrels are generally the most popular, although I’ve seen pump actions and side by sides.  

.410 Break Barrel

.410 3 inch shells

How about 28 gauge?  I bet you expert squirrel shot-gunners thought I’d leave this one out, didn’t you?  Well I would have if I hadn’t been introduced to it through the man who sold me my first Feist squirrel dog.  His 28 gauge pump would accompany him on competition hunts.  It was lightweight, handled with speed and had the power the .410 lacked.  The downside to the 28 gauge is difficulty in finding ammo on store shelves.  However, shells for the 28 gauge can be found online.  If you are a reloader it makes the 28 gauge more appealing.  You can produce the perfect squirrel loads.

Sixteen gauge anyone?  This particular gauge has a strong following, but you won’t find it on most store shelves.  It should be an excellent gauge to harvest squirrels with, although I don’t have much experience.  I believe it’s superseded by the slightly more powerful 20 gauge.  The sixteen gauge lacks the power of the 20 gauge, and you have the same size package.  For those reasons the sixteen gauge is usually overlooked.

16 Gauge Shells

I’ll discuss the 20 and 12 gauges together.  Certainly they are the most popular.  As with the Ruger 10/22, every gun owner should on at least on 12 or 20 gauge shotgun.  From my experience, I would say the 20 gauge may be the perfect squirrel shotgun.  It has the required power for squirrels while cutting the ounces that the 12 gauge adds on.  A 12 gauge would be as high as I would go shotguns for squirrels.  Twelve is probably the most popular gauge used for squirrels, mainly because it’s the most popular shotgun gauge.  My inclination is not to start youth with the 12 gauge.  You don’t want the recoil to shy them away from the opportunity to hunt.  For squirrels I tend to use a shell between a 6-8.  Seven and half is usually what is marketed for squirrel hunters.

20 Gauge Shells

12 Gauge Squirrel Loads

What stops me from choosing a shotgun over a rifle?  The main reason is accuracy.  Lack of effective range is another reason.  When skinning a squirrel, making sure you get all of the lead pellets out of the meat can take more time than it’s worth.  The shotgun and ammo combined are heavy and cumbersome for my applications.  Lastly, they are LOUD when you shoot.  I can tell my ears are more sensitive as I age.  The loud bang of the shotgun is something I just prefer not to deal with.  Don’t let my discrepancies with the shotgun deter you from taking one in your favorite patch of woods.  It may just be the ideal tool to get the job done.  

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15 thoughts on “Shotguns for Squirrels

  1. I love the 410 bore with a load of #6 in 2 1/2 or 3 inch shells. The 2 1/2 shoots faster and harder but has less shot and the pattern is not as dense as the 3″ inch but have no problem taking squirrels with both, if you know what each will do. I also use all other gauges and the .22lr as well but the .410 will make a hunter out of you. Too, I can reload 3 .410 shells to one 12 gauge she’ll. That’s what makes the 410 shine.

  2. For me a 20 gauge with high brass #4 shot works well. Been using a side by side double barrel choked modified and full. However this week I ordered a 20 gauge pump with interchangeable choke tubes. Should work well also.

    1. Always fun to get a new squirrel hunting rig! I hope you get to “break her in” this upcoming season.

  3. Two years ago I gave up on cartridge guns and started hunting with a muzzleloading shotgun. One ounce of #5 shot and 70 grains of 2F black powder does the trick. I like to get in real close and wait for a broad side head shot. All the hunting is done when the trigger is pulled or I don’t take the shot. At 69 I switched to the shotgun for clean kills and no wounding.

  4. Where I live, some places the shotgun is the only gun allowed for hunting. When i have to, I use a SKB 100, 20 ga. I have the old Savage four-tenner tubes that will shoot a .410 in a 20 ga. I slip in just one, giving me a 20 and a .410 choice. So, depending on the distance I select the best one for the job. I found this to be a nice combination and makes for some fun hunts.

  5. Gotta tell you man, I have squirrel hunted my whole life, .22LR, 20 gauge, 16 gauge, 12 gauge, and .410. For the last three years I have hunted with the .410 the most, just a little Stoeger O/U .410, and I have to tell you with 3″ #6 shot it is lights out awesome, (both barrels full choke). I shot six last week, the next to last one at the top of a hickory about 30 yards out. I did some hunting about ten years ago with a single shot mossberg, same loads and choke, same experience. I think if you run this combo and take good shots (as with any combo), you will find the .410 as lethal as anything out there. I tried 2 1/2″ shells, once….did not like them at all. I have some left I am trying to use up on easy shots. They just don’t hit hard enough. The 3″ #6 though…..whole different league.

    1. Sounds like you found the gun that makes you smile the most when hunting squirrels. That’s the one you’ll cherish forever. I agree on the 3″ shells vs. the 2 1/2″ shells, they just don’t have the reach or power.

    2. I love the .410 ! They get the job done and I can reload three shells for what it takes to reload only one 12 gauge. So if you reload the .410 really shines. I use 3″ number 6 shot.

  6. One note on the 16 gauge; it sits firmly between 12g and 20g; it’s advantage is that it’s close to 12 gauge power but with lighter frame akin to the 20g- maybe that’s why it’s called a sweet 16! Note however there are many 12g frames out there converted to shoot 16g; those are the same weight as your standard 12 gauge. Look for a slimmer 16g frame.

  7. Love using both for squirrel. My favorite shotgun is a Rem 870 youth 20g with mod choke screwed in; it’s light,compact,and the shorter stock lets me wear a heavy coat! It is so versatile; can use 3″ mag or2 3/4 low brass. Hell you can even change the barrel out to make a nice slug gun. I digress. The factory barrel with mod choke patterns well with 6 shot. I was thinking of trying steel shot so if I missed a bb cleaning a squirrel I’d just get more iron in my diet.

  8. Those 410 shells are high. I can get 2 20 or 12 for the price of 1 410 box. Just getting my grandson into hunting. Did a couple years with a 410 but moved him to a 20 last year. He just recently got his first dove. By season end hopefully he’ll have a few squirrels.

    1. Excellent to hear. Glad you are getting him out in the woods. Hopefully you can bag a few squirrels this season.

  9. Love it! I like both, main reason is my single shot 20 gauge was my first gun and it was my great grandfathers. It just means a lot to me to hunt with it. .22 is just a blast and it will be my go to. Like you I also first used a 410. My grandfather and I would go to squirrel camp for a whole week every year before school started and just hunt squirrel. No electricity or running water. Had the best time.

    1. That’s the type of memories that have lead me down the path I’m on now. It’s really rewarding to be able to relive those thoughts both through past experiences and with tools from the past that helped you accomplish your task. Sentimental firearms are truly a blessing.

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