What defines a top tier upland shotgun, and why are there so many options on the market?
This is an article that explains what you need to look for while seeking out the best upland shotgun and what constitutes that title.
What is upland game hunting?
Often, a four legged companion will accompany a hunter or group of hunters in search of fast, low flying, birds including quail, grouse, pheasant and chukar, among others, as the dogs and hunters flush them out of coveys and brush to attempt to bag some delicious birds. The concept is to try to disable the birds by clipping their wings, which means this is a game of precision and not brute force.
Because of the bird's small size and the highly respected "tradition" of upland game bird hunting, smaller calibers, like 410, 28g, 20g or 16g are preferred, and the primary gun platform is a break open or low capacity, manual interaction shotgun. This allows for the precise shooting technique called "wingshooting".
These aren't hard and fast rules, but they do tend to dictate the overall market offerings for firearms.
What characteristics do the best Upland Shotguns have?
Generally, as discussed above, the upland hunter prefers a smaller bore size as it offers more challenge, better preservation of game-bird meat and can be controlled better for fast moving targets.
20 gauge is a good starting point for many shooters as the plethora of load availability allows for dialing up or down the power and shot displacement to tailor a hunt to the surroundings and the shooter skill.
More "seasoned" upland hunters may opt for smaller calibers still, including 28 gauge and 410 gauge, and even smaller.
The ranges for targets is rarely more than 25 yards in upland game hunting, so precision and smart tactical decision making play a crucial role.
The 2 shot platforms, including side by side and over/under shotguns are usually the de-facto standard.
You can also find plenty of excellent semi-auto shotguns that shoot 2-3 rounds and offer similar experiences for shooters.
Light weight is an important factor too, as the varied terrain for different bird types might have you in large meadows with a lot of ground to cover in one week, and in rough, steep terrain the next chasing a different species.
A balanced, fast swing is also a critical component to a top tier upland shotgun. Getting on target quickly and without a ton of effort is important. There are many times where birds will be flushed out, with no shots taken.
Fast decision making and restraint are key components to the type of hunter who will perform well and enjoy upland game bird hunting.
These guns also tend to be simple in mechanical operation but highly adorned and embellished from a fit and finish perspective, and often command higher prices relative to more utilitarian guns, despite their relative simplicity.
Can you get away with using a standard shotgun for upland hunting?
Any shotgun will work for upland game bird hunting, though most shooters committed to the sport will eventually migrate towards industry/market standards as listed above.
It's perfectly normal to see casual upland hunters or those exploring the game or sport of the genre using 12 gauge pump shotguns to hunt birds, and not even using dogs, though most recognize the importance of flushing birds out with dog's to improve the sporting and control aspects of the hunt.
You can buy most mainstream upland guns in 12 gauge too, as many still prefer the easier to hit spread and volume of larger bore options like the 12 gauge.
16 gauge and 20 gauge are popular calibers in the sport too, as it offers a good middle ground.
Upland game hunting is controlled a lot by the group you hunt with or the location you hunt in, as the regulations and group etiquette can vary wildly. It's best to tailor your gun choice to those that are acceptable in your region and with the hunting partners you frequently roam with.
Below you will find 6 of the best shotguns for upland bird hunting on the market. These options should provide you with a great base of knowledge and choice while exploring the sport of Upland hunting.
Best Upland Shotguns
Franchi - Instinct SL Over and Under Shotgun
The second lightest gun overall on this list, and the lightest double barreled shotgun on the list, the Franchi can easily make the case as the gun you want to carry with you all day in the field regardless of where you are heading. The 5.6 lb. overall weight and the very easy to handle 44.5" overall length make this shotgun a joy to carry, relative to many of its peers.
The quality of manufacture is very good too, with Franchi having one of the better reputations of all the longstanding European style shotgun manufacturers. They are known for light weight, innovation and svelte aesthetics.
You might say this is not as appealing a gun from a purely looks perspective, but it also makes a case as being the one that doesn't bother you when you take it out on early morning hunts or in dirty areas, because the subdued nature of the looks means you will not be as annoyed when it picks up a scratch or two.
Note: the gun is still plenty good looking, it's just not as highly embellished as some others in the genre.
The 44.5" OAL is inclusive of a 28" barrel, which is a nice touch on this 20 gauge shotgun and gives you a bit more control at longer ranges with the dual choke system and the lightweight overall profile.
The Franchi is the shotgun you want from this list when it comes down to being fast and light and getting a shot on target at distance.
- Comfortable swing; even with a 28-inch barrel
- Super-fast target acquisition thanks to a short overall length and great sighting system
- Not the toughest gun on this list; will show some marks and the receiver is made mostly of aluminum
Savage Arms Fox A Grade Shotgun
A traditionalist's upland shotgun, this is the one you go for when you are at a point where you've had all the innovation, and you want to just get back to the manual interaction between hunter and firearm. This is the sportscar that doesn't have automatic stability control. It's the "back to origins" variant that puts you in the game more than any other gun.
It's also stunningly good looking too. It's got finishes derived from old world techniques that requires hands on work from craftsmen to achieve the deep colors and finishes you see on the shotgun. Bone and charcoal color case hardening; hand rubbed blued finishes on the hand soldered barrels and a finish as deep as you'll find on a factory gun today.
The mechanisms that make up the action are world-renowned for their service and style, including the automatic H&H (Holland and Holland) style ejectors which put you into a position to quickly and easily reload instead of fishing out spent cartridges each time you break the top open.
Additionally, the Anson-Deely box lock means the independence of the triggers is maintained and the grip-point between the hunter and the mechanism is enhanced and seems to be a continuance of your hand as you pull the trigger each time.
The gorgeous wood stocks are American Black Walnut and feature interesting figure patterns. This stock features a very nice 14.5 inch LOP (length of pull) and a 1.5 inch drop. Classic design motifs feature a slim fore-end which is reminiscent of the way things were built more than 100 years ago. Nostalgia abounds.
But you aren't paying for nostalgia, you are paying a premium for quality of workmanship and longevity of materials and design. The checkering is hand cut and stamps a final seal upon this gun that proves it's got uncommon value for those who like to know that their gun was something special and not just another gun off the line.
- Still mostly hand fitted and has many touches of "hand made"
- Beautiful; classic lines
- Built for legacy uses – this is a shotgun that will endure several generations at least
Browning - A5 Sweet 16 Shotgun
The lightest gun on this list, thanks to the single barrel and conscientious build style from Browning, this is a great choice for long days in the field and those who prefer an automatic to a double barrel.
The 16-gauge caliber offering means you still get some good options on the ammo market, but it also means you get the kind of power you need to bridge multiple hunting disciplines. The Browning A5 is a perfect gun for this type of use case – where you may not be in the market for single purpose shotguns.
In the case of the A5 16 gauge, you can use it for just about anything a 12 gauge is used for and you still get reduced recoil and easier handling.
Note: the A5 design does put some of the recoil burden on the shooter compared to other designs, but it also has some recoil mitigation built in to dampen that return of energy.
The 26 inch long barrel is long enough for hard to make shots, and the choke system can enhance patterns nicely (the package come with the Invector DS Choke system).
It is also a 16 gauge shotgun, so the recoil isn't as heavy as a 12 gauge and the loads available tend to be somewhat on the milder side.
The looks, the complete harmony of the components on the shotgun and the history of this legendary gun make it a choice that's hard to pass up. Countless birds have been taken with a sweet 16 Browning and this is a gun that will go on from generation to generation with grace.
It is a 2.75 inch chamber and offers a plain, no frills setup with a bead sight and simply finished hardware and furniture, with a semi-gloss walnut stock and a deep black and blue colored receiver and barrel. Classic lines, workhorse mentality and solid reputation – what more could you ask for in a semi-auto shotgun?
- Sterling history
- Beautiful lines
- Flawless operation
- This is a fine upland gun but it's less traditional than some styles
CZ-USA Upland Ultralight Over/Under Shotguns
Just because the manufacturer adds the name "upland" to a product, doesn't mean it's a perfect upland shotgun. In the case of the CZ Upland shotgun, the company seems to have gotten a lot right about the gun and it earns its name.
The 20 gauge variant specifically, is lightweight, nicely sized and offers a variety of chokes. The furniture and finish are utilitarian and easy to keep looking good but aren't overly embellished. That's ok, because the price point is kept low as a result, and the gun can deliver uncommonly good value.
Admittedly, it's not as nice looking a gun as others on this list or some other shotguns in the market, but it does have a certain assuredness and presence that plays on the simplicity and utility of the aesthetic. Note: there is nothing ugly or cheap on this shotgun, it just isn't embellished like many others.
That all said, the quality of materials is excellent, including the work that is done in a finishing capacity, like the checkering, which, while machine cut, is still impressive and utilitarian. That is a good word to describe the vibe of the CZ Uplander: "utilitarian".
The way it's built makes sense considering the varied terrain and weather conditions you might find yourself in during an upland shoot means you won't be as bothered when your shotgun comes home dirty and dinged up.
Combine that durability and the ability to take a beating with the light weight (5.8 lbs.) and the overall length that makes it a joy to carry in rough terrain (45.75" OAL).
Most importantly about this shotgun, is that CZ doesn't cut corners, even if this is a spartan design on its own. The company does produce $5,000 shotguns on the same equipment that the Upland Shotgun is produced on. The same engineering team, the same materials. In fact, the only thing that's different are some of the small design points and the finishes.
You're getting spectacular durability, accuracy and longevity in a gun that costs less than most base model semi-automatic shotguns, but which is also perfectly suited for upland birds.
- Tough and proven
- Built on premium machines from top tier materials
- A proven brand name
- Not as fancy as some variants in the segment
Beretta A400 Upland Semi-Auto Shotgun
One of the more polished shotguns on this list, the Beretta A400 is also one of the least traditional choices for an upland gun that is squarely in the upland category from a marketing perspective.
Being a semi-automatic shotgun, the Beretta A400 is certainly capable of doing the job, but most shooters will usually opt for an over and under or a side by side shotgun if they have spent a lot of time in the field after birds. With the A400 you don't sacrifice anything in the way of accuracy or usability, and the fact that it's both a semi auto and perfectly built for upland birds means you get a multi-purpose shotgun out of it.
And it's a very good looking, innovative shotgun at that. So, you get multi-use potential for those who require more value out of a hunting gun, and you get gorgeous workmanship and legitimate innovation.
You get a mix of aesthetics with the recoil reduction system (Kick-Off Plus); the polymer inserts and the angular lines mixed with soft curves.
Steelium barrel with a chrome plated bore improves shot formation and adds a ton of longevity, which is important because the Blink system helps you shoot ridiculously fast – 4 shots in under a second is the claim.
The embellishment on the receiver and the two-tone design helps solidify that this is a tech heavy shotgun and offers a mix of tradition and modernity. Beretta is among the most diligent R&D firms on the planet, with pheasant and quail and upland hunting in general, representing a solid portion of their product portfolio.
The product you get with the Beretta A400 is more than just a ground bird gun, it's a profoundly good shotgun for anything you might use it for, and it hopes you'll use it for upland birds too.
- Very innovative and unique for an upland option
- Top tier company
- Fast follow-up shots
- Great looks
- Not overtly traditional in the upland space
Benelli 828U Sport Over/Under Shotgun
Innovative in many of the same ways that the above Beretta A400 is innovative, the Benelli 828U is a pristine example of traditional design meeting innovation and precision in an ultra-modern form-factor.
You're paying a lot of money for innovation, but you're getting something truly special, certainly if you prefer traditional form factors with modern technology innovations.
Firstly, the traditional: gorgeous furniture, aggressive, but recognizable lines. Over and under platform, with a modular approach to the key component parts. An all steel receiver and lugs; an impeccable trigger.
The technology in the Benelli portfolio is where the company has always shined however, and the newest shotgun in the line as of this article's production date, is a pretty interesting and innovative shotgun.
Take for instance the fully carbon fiber vent rib, which seems frivolous until you recognize that the properties of carbon fiber align exactly with the purposes for a vent rib.The torsional rigidity; heat dissipation and durability of carbon fiber accomplishes everything a vent rib needs to, to be effective.
Modularity is a key component too for this shotgun – you can custom fit it easily and you don't have to pay 10K for the privilege. The choke system too, is quite impressive. It implements the proven CRIO system for metal treatment which greatly extends the life of the barrel and chokes; and makes shot deformation significantly lessened.
A few minutes of adjustment allows all sorts of adjustment (cast, drop, comb and LOP) to the stock and helps you to get the right alignment and swing for whatever you need the gun for.
Overkill for upland birds for many shooters, but significantly more interesting at the price point considering all the extras you get in this range. A gun like this should command significantly higher pricing.
- Brilliant research and development team at Benelli
- A gorgeous traditional gun with unexpected, but excellent modern upgrades
- Super accurate and great balance
- 30 inch barrel
- A lot heavier than most would expect for a traditionally styled upland gun (8 lbs.)
Which company makes the best upland shotgun?
It's hard to pick one company over the other, but there are a few who are dedicated to producing upland game bird guns on a regular basis and are genuinely trying to move industry and genre technology and performance forward, through robust research and development programs.
Among the industry leaders for this are Benelli, Beretta and Browning (the three Big B's).
Though, many of the manufacturer's that produce dedicated Upland Bird shotguns are piggybacking on trends and technology improvements that the big three are pioneering and the market as a whole does benefit from continued improvement in manufacturing processes, and field research and program development as manufacturers work closely with regulatory and wildlife organizations.
If this author had to pick a single company that was most dedicated of late, to producing new technology and driving innovation in the Upland segment of the market it'd be Benelli, but that doesn't mean you are necessarily getting the best gun out of the Benelli factory simply because they are driving sport-specific trends.
You can pick and choose from the new guns that debut each year at ShotShow and other industry conference/shows, because it's nearly certain that all the great innovations will be widely adopted across the board.
Sometimes, traditional designs are just what you want, and it just makes sense to keep it simple. On a wild bird hunt you may only take 8 shots the entire day, so why is recoil mitigation needed? Even with a farmed bird plantation hunt, you may only take 36 shots all day. So, make sure you understand what your needs are before you splurge for expensive options you may not use fully.
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