Learning How to Buy a Gun
If you’re learning how to buy a gun for your first hunting trip, you’ve come to the right place. But first, imagine that you’re going on your first hunt. See the autumn sun sifting through the colorful leaves to warm your skin. Hear the ruffed grouse drumming in the distance. Smell the aromas of earth and fallen leaves. And feel the steady heft of a shotgun in your hands as you walk along the trail.
There’s only one problem…you don’t know how to buy your first gun.
For many who are learning to hunt as an adult, the most common concern is clear:
“How do I possibly buy my first hunting weapon when I really don’t know much about guns? Besides, won’t I just be judged if I walk into a store and admit that?”
How to buy a gun is a tricky question for a lot of people I’ve talked to.
- Maybe you weren’t raised in a traditional hunting family where guns are part of everyday life.
- Maybe you’re still holding onto some negative bias against guns because of the stigma around them.
- Maybe you even tried reading about how to buy a gun on popular hunting websites and magazines, but got so lost in the jargon that you just gave up.
The point is that you’re probably not super comfortable buying one by yourself. But you still want to learn to hunt your dinner and put nutritious, organic wild game meat on the table for you, your family, or friends.
If you’ve been looking for a resource like this to help you through the entire process, from deciding on what type of gun to get to the actual questions you should ask at the store, this post is for you.
Though I’ve been hunting for years, I just recently bought my own gun for the first time. As I was going through the process, I captured all the questions I asked myself, the stores I looked at, and the feedback from sales associates. Now this first time gun buyer guide is available to answer questions you have about how to buy your first gun.
Because of the depth I’m going to cover, this is a long read and it’s not for the faint of heart. But I’ve broken it up into sections so it’s easier to digest. Feel free to click below on whatever’s interesting to you and skip around as you wish.
Oh, and one favor before we begin…
If anything really stands out to you, is especially helpful, or you’d like more clarification on something, please email me. I’d love to know how to help you the most. I read every email I get.
How to Buy a Gun: Contents
Part 1: Are Guns the Only Option for Me?
Part 2: Guns 101: Everything You Might Want to Know About Firearms
Part 3: What Kind of Gun Should I Get?
Part 4: What Do You Need to Buy Your First Gun?
Part 5: The Surprising Truths About Gun Shopping
You’ve Already Selected a Gun
You’d Like Some Help Selecting a Gun
Part 6: Do I Need All the Gun Accessories?
Conclusion: How to Buy a Gun: Start Simply
Part 1: Are Guns the Only Option for Me?
Maybe you’re really interested in bow hunting because it feels more natural or primal. There’s a lot of renewed interest in archery these days, which is great! So if you’re wondering why we’re not talking about bows as your first hunting weapon, there are a few reasons.
For me personally, I absolutely love bow hunting. It’s exciting being that close to a deer and it feels a little fairer sometimes for the animal.
If you re-read that last sentence, I just explained why we’re discussing guns as your first hunting weapon.
- You have to be very close to an animal to make an effective and ethical shot (especially when you’re just starting), usually less than 30 yards. This is hard to do even when you’re dressed in camouflage clothing and you’re trying to sit still. But simply having an animal that close still causes me to shake like crazy. Wild animals have incredible senses that can detect even the best hunter on occasion. Plus, needing an animal that close also means you lose a lot of opportunities. For example, a 50 yard shot with a bow is pretty hard, but very easy with a gun. That simple distinction could mean the difference between a sustainable wild game meal or not.
- New hunters can benefit from hunting small game animals a bit before they jump right into deer hunting. It obviously depends on your background and personality, but taking an animal’s life produces a lot of emotions. Right or wrong, hunting smaller animals doesn’t seem to carry the same weight as larger ones for most people. I’d advise you to start small.
- Finally, there’s the notion that bows are more natural or “fairer” for animals because they reduce the hunter’s chance of success. I’m of the opinion that if you’re going into the woods to hunt for food, you should do everything you can to maximize your chances of securing some meat. And for a new adult hunter, that means using firearms. Other predators don’t hold back their unique strengths because it’s unfair, and we’re just another predator at the end of the day.
Besides those points, learning how to shoot a gun takes far less time and practice to be “hunting-ready” than a bow does. The most important thing you can do as a new hunter is to get started. While practicing and shooting a bow is very addicting, it won’t get you into the woods as fast as a gun will.
If you’d still like to try archery instead, send me a message and we can talk about doing a bow buying guide too.
On that note, crossbows are a good option for many new hunters because they don’t carry the stigma of a hunting rifle, but they operate much like a gun does. So if the rest of this article doesn’t interest you as much, consider picking up a crossbow instead.
Part 2: Guns 101: Everything You (Might) Want to Know About Firearms
Talking about how to buy a gun can quickly become overwhelming. There are a lot of technical things to know about firearms and most of it isn’t really necessary for a new hunter. You probably just want to know how to load and shoot it. But I’ve included details below that were helpful for me in choosing my gun.
Of all the styles and types of firearms out there, I’m going to talk about just two in this article: shotguns and rifles. Why? We’d be here all day if we didn’t have a few constraints. But these are also the two most common hunting weapons there are. Let’s compare them for a basic understanding before we move into gun selection.
A shotgun is a firearm used primarily to shoot smaller game animals at close range. With some exceptions, it uses a smooth barrel to fire numerous small pellets out in an expanding pattern. They are probably the best guns for beginners. Here’s what you need to know about them to get started.
The size and power of a shotgun is often expressed as a “gauge,” with smaller gauges being more powerful and larger gauges being less powerful. Intuitive, isn’t it? For example, a 10 gauge packs a lot of power and recoils pretty hard when you shoot it, while a 28 gauge shoots lighter loads and doesn’t kick much at all. There are also oddball guns like the .410 (“four ten”) that don’t fit within the gauge discussion. The shotgun I bought recently is a 12 gauge, which is perfect for virtually all small game and some big game hunting.
Narrowing down further, each brand (e.g., Remington, Mossberg, Browning, etc.) has its own models of guns available in different gauges. For example, my shotgun is a Model 870 Express, one of the most common and standard models for shotguns. If you’re just getting started hunting, don’t spend too much time researching the single best model for you. As an associate told me while gun shopping, today’s technology and manufacturing abilities are leveling out the playing field so much that specific models are really not all that different in the grand scheme of things, especially if you’re just looking to get started.
Moving down further, now there are different actions, which is basically how the gun accepts ammunition.
- Break action – this action physically opens so you can see into the barrel. There are single-shot and double-shot break actions, and doubles come in either over-under or side-by-side options.
- Pump action – this gun requires you to pump the fore-end of the gun back to eject a spent shell and chamber a new one. It is a very reliable and popular option.
- Semi-automatic action – this type of action uses an internal operation to cycle another shell by itself, and will allow you to shoot a new round each time you pull the trigger without doing anything else.
Barrel and Stock
Finally, you should consider the length of the barrel and stocks. Longer barrels provide a little more control and stability when you’re swinging your shotgun into position. But they are also heavier and may interfere with shots in tight cover. Longer barrels are usually more useful for hunts in the open (e.g., pheasant, waterfowl, etc.), while shorter barrels are better for shots in close quarters (e.g., grouse, rabbit, etc.). My shotgun has a 26” barrel, which fits me well and I’ll be able to use it mostly for grouse hunting. The stock and fore-end will come in either a wood, laminate, or synthetic version. This is largely a matter of personal preference and which you like better. The wood is a little heavier and more likely to scratch in the field, but I still prefer it because it just looks better to me.
Shotguns are very customizable in the fact that you can change out what’s called a choke tube. This tube is screwed into the inside of the muzzle and acts to open up the muzzle further or constrict the opening. A wider muzzle opening will produce a more loosely scattered shot pattern, while a tighter opening will produce a more constricted pattern. They come in several different shapes, which I’ve listed below from wide open patterns to extra constricted:
- Cylinder – loose shot pattern, good for target shooting at clay pigeons.
- Improved cylinder – slightly more constricted than cylinder, good for squirrel hunting.
- Modified – right in the middle, a good all-purpose choice for most small game hunting.
- Full – fairly tight pattern, good for waterfowl or pheasant hunting.
- Extra full – very tight pattern, used for turkey or goose hunting.
Shotgun ammunition is referred to as “shells.” There are two basic types of shotgun shells: shot and slugs. Shot basically consists of dozens of small pellets/BBs, which are fired out of the barrel. Depending on several controllable factors with the gun and ammunition, you can get these shot pellets to group very tightly or scatter very loosely. Shotgun shells come in several different “loads” with different characteristics for different species and situations. The size of the individual pellets (e.g., #4 shot) and the amount of gunpowder (e.g., 1 ½ ounce) varies with each one. Shot also comes in different metal types, with lead shot being the old standard. But hunting some species (e.g., waterfowl) now requires the use of non-lead shot, commonly steel or tungsten. They have slightly different patterns, but they are a more environmentally-responsible option.
You can also adapt a shotgun to fire slug shells (“slugs”), which have a single projectile instead of numerous BBs. Slug shells require a different barrel (called a “rifled barrel”), which has internal grooves meant to stabilize and steer the projectile as it exits the muzzle. Slugs are used for larger animals, such as deer or bear.
A rifle acts similar to a slug shotgun (firing a single projectile), but it’s capable of much further distances and is much more accurate, particularly when using a scope with it. Here’s a graphic to see the different pieces of a rifle.
Types of Rifles
There are two basic types of rifles. Centerfire rifles are most often used for larger game animals. They are named because the firing pin strikes the center of the cartridge to fire the bullet from the gun. Rimfire rifles are different in that the firing pin strikes the outside edge or rim of the cartridge to fire the bullet. Rimfires are usually only available in smaller caliber guns since they are not as reliable or safe as centerfire rifles.
Similar to shotgun gauges, rifles are measured in power by their “caliber.” But this time, the higher the caliber, the more powerful the gun is, and vice versa. Some popular hunting gun calibers include .22 (said, “twenty two”), .243 (“two forty three”), .270 (“two seventy”), and .30-06 (“thirty ought six”).
Rifles also come in different models. There are some tried and true ones out there, but again, don’t spend a lot of time focusing on this. It’s just not worth your effort.
Just like shotguns, rifles come in several different actions. Which you choose should ultimately be what you’re most comfortable with. The more popular rifle actions include:
- Break action – this action physically opens so you can see into the barrel.
- Bolt action – this type of action requires you to open and close a bolt on the side of the gun, which ejects and chambers a new round. Similar to the shotgun pump action, it is a very reliable design.
- Lever action – very similar to a bolt action, the lever is usually on the bottom of the gun near the trigger. But it’s basically the same concept and operation as a bolt action.
- Semi-automatic action – this type of action uses an internal operation to cycle another cartridge by itself, and will allow you to shoot a new round each time you pull the trigger without doing anything else.
Barrels and Stock
Barrels aren’t quite as customizable with rifles as they are with shotguns. But they do come in different materials and finishes; again, a cosmetic choice of yours. The stocks come in wood, laminate, or synthetic options. Take your pick.
Since rifles are capable of shooting at much further distances, mounting a scope on top is a great way to extend your maximum effective hunting distance. They come in different “powers,” which basically mean how much they can magnify the image. A common scope option is a 3-9x40mm, which means it can magnify the image from 3 to 9 times larger, and the forward-facing part of the scope (objective lens) is 40 mm wide. The larger the magnification, the further you can see clearly. And as the objective lens size increases, more light is allowed in for a brighter and clearer picture.
Rifle ammunition is collectively called a cartridge or round, which is a casing that holds the bullet and the gunpowder. A bullet is the small projectile that is actually fired from the cartridge. When it comes to rifle ammunition, there are a lot of variables. But you should basically look for one that matches your caliber of gun. Beyond that, there are also different “grains,” which effectively translates into how much gunpowder is loaded into each cartridge (larger grains = more fire power).
Bullets are often discussed in terms of their penetration vs. expansion. Penetration is the ability to pierce and travel through something, while expansion is the ability to expand and cause a larger hole. As a result, bullets come in different designs for these purposes. For example, some have a hollow cone, which lets the tip expand outward to resemble a mushroom. These types have great “expansion” and are used to put an animal down quickly through blunt force trauma. Bullets with a full metal jacket, on the other hand, are covered in a different type of metal casing, which causes them to keep their conical shape after it is fired. They don’t expand, but they can penetrate through harder things. They are often used on the very largest animals with tough hides.
Part 3: What Kind of Gun Should I Get?
Now that we’re clear on the types of guns you could look at, you’re probably asking, “What is a good first gun for me?” This is a really important step in the process, and it takes a little reflection on your part.
Before you buy your first gun, think about the type of hunting you’d like to do. Not the hunting you’d like to do “one day,” but the kind you want to get started on this season. Imagine grilling with your friends in the backyard. The smell of grilled meat wafts over to you with your craft beer in hand. What comes to mind when you look at the grill?
- Are you mostly interested in rabbit and grouse hunting in thickets and woodlands?
- Does pheasant hunting in farm country sound fun?
- Or do you think you want to jump right into deer hunting to really supplement your protein budget?
While some guns can be used for many species, some are suited to one species a little better than others. Think about it in terms of exercise equipment. Your standard tennis shoe is a workhorse that can get you through any workout and be used for many exercises. But a shoe designed specifically for running is way better for helping your feet while you’re running and can improve your performance.
That being said, there still is a lot of crossover between them, depending on your specific gun setup, the ammunition you’re using, and the way you’re hunting. Check out the chart below that shows generally which type of gun should be used for each species.
As you can see, all small game animals (upland/waterfowl birds, squirrels, rabbits, etc.) require the use of a shotgun. The pellets in the buckshot shell expand outward down range to give you a better chance at delivering a lethal shot to such small targets. These animals also tend to “flush” from cover very fast, which means delivering a single projectile would be really hard to do. The one exception might be a .22 rimfire rifle, which you can use for squirrels if you wish.
As you start hunting larger animals (deer, antelope, wild boar, etc.), you can still use a shotgun, but you’ll have to use the rifled barrel and slug ammunition. In almost all cases, buckshot wouldn’t be enough to ethically kill one of these animals, but the slug ammunition is capable of doing it at closer distances.
If you need to be able to take longer shots or you are going after even bigger animals (deer, wild boar, elk, black bear, etc.), you’ll need a rifle. You’ll generally use scopes on rifles to get more accurate shots at further distances. This hunting approach usually involves stalking up to or waiting in ambush for an animal. You’ll generally have more time to stealthily aim and shoot in these situations. Now you know which type you’ll need to buy your first gun.
Part 4: What Do You Need to Buy Your First Gun?
Now we start to really talk about how to buy a gun. Every state has slightly different regulations when it comes to buying guns. While many states require you to take a firearm safety class before you can legally go hunting, they may not require anything special for buying a gun.
In Minnesota, for example, you need to be over age 18 to buy a firearm, but do not need a firearm safety certification or anything else. As long as it is not a tactical gun (general definition for military-style guns) or handgun, you simply need a driver’s license, a good background check, and the money in the bank.
If you’re not sure about your state, try searching online for, “how to buy a gun” in your state or “buying your first gun in [STATE]” to see what you find. If nothing else, call up your nearest sporting goods store and ask them. They should be able to give you an answer right away. Remember: I grew up hunting and really had no clue myself, so don’t be embarrassed.
Part 5: The Surprising Truths and Emotions About Gun Shopping
Alright, you’ve made it this far and are going to drive to the nearest sporting goods store to buy a hunting weapon. This is where things really get exciting!
But suddenly, all sorts of internal doubts start cropping up in your mind:
- “What am I actually going to say to them?”
- “Are there special technical terms I’m supposed to use?”
- “What if I don’t know the answer to their questions?”
- “What if they see through me and know I don’t belong?”
How to Buy a Gun: The Experiment
While writing this article on how to buy a gun, I went to several sales associates of different sporting goods stores (Cabela’s, Gander Mountain, etc.) and used various levels of understanding to ask questions about how to buy a firearm.
Frankly, I freaked out a little. I, a lifelong hunter, was having these same fears and doubts, which I didn’t expect. I was really nervous walking up the counter to begin the conversation.
But I’ll be the first to tell you…it really doesn’t matter!
If you’d like to see the exact questions I asked and the surprising answers they had, click here for my free, which includes a PDF of this article, the scripts I used, and the candid answers you need to know.
I later explained the experiment to them and asked some more questions about what they notice from potential customers. The consistent and surprising answer from the associates was that they REALLY HOPE you are honest about not knowing how to buy a gun. It’s a waste of time for both parties if you say you know something (but don’t) and the associate explains the nitty gritty details assuming you have a certain level of understanding.
Be honest about what you know and explain your situation to them. Most of them will be more than happy to chat about how to buy a gun. They want to know what you’ll be using the gun for and how often you plan to use it, and will advise you on the right “fit” of the gun for your specific build. They don’t want you to get “too much gun” for your purposes, or have a gun that’s inadequate for what you want to do.
Alright, now choose one of the following options for your specific situation and custom advice.
You’ve Already Selected a Gun
If you’ve been doing a lot of research about buying your first gun and know exactly what you want, the process can go pretty quickly.
When I recently bought my first shotgun in Minnesota, I knew exactly what I wanted. I simply walked into the store and told the associate what I was looking for. I mounted the display model to my shoulder a few times to see how it felt, and asked a few questions about it, including recommended accessories and ammunition, warranty periods, etc.
Then they grabbed a packaged gun in the back room and took it up front to me. I had to fill out a simple online form in the store to allow a background check on me (mostly yes and no questions on whether I was a felon or not). They then entered my driver’s license number onto the form to complete the paperwork, and I was able to go on my way. The whole process took about 45 minutes, and wouldn’t have taken that long if they hadn’t been short an associate that day. Thanks a lot dude that skipped out on work…
You’d Like Some Help Selecting a Gun
If you’re still not sure what exact gun you’d like, you can ask the sales associate for help. That’s why they’re there. Explain that you’d like to buy a shotgun or rifle and would appreciate some explanation. If you feel like they don’t know what they’re talking about or you feel disrespected in any way, simply ask to talk to someone else. You should feel comfortable and confident during this discussion.
The associate should ask you a few questions, including:
- which species you’re going to hunt with it;
- how much you plan to use it and how long you’ll keep it;
- what caliber/gauge, model, action, barrel length, or stock type you’re interested in;
- how comfortable the weight and length feels to you when you mount it; and,
- whether you like the look of the gun.
Some things you might want to ask include:
- “What kind of ammunition would you recommend for x/y/z game animals?”
- “How often should I clean the gun?”
- “Can you show me how to actually use it (where to load it, safety mechanisms, etc.)?”
- “What other accessories would you recommend (e.g., cleaning kits, cases, scopes, slings, choke tubes, etc.)?
- “Where can I bring it if I have a malfunction or other issue with the gun?”
- “Are there any sales promotions or rebates available for this gun?”
Don’t hold any question back because this is the best time to get it answered.
After deciding, you’ll need to go through the paperwork process to it, which consists of a simple online form, background check, and signing a few documents. It’s pretty painless and you’ll be out the door with your new gun before you know it.
Part 6: Do I Need All the Gun Accessories?
When you buy your first gun at the store, you’ll probably be asked by the associate if you want this accessory or that one. The shelves are full of hunting equipment. Luckily, you only really need a handful to get in the woods.
- Gun case – this is a must-have item. Almost anywhere you go, you’ll need a case to transport your gun legally. Get one with pockets and all the bells and whistles if you want, but you really only need a simple zippered case.
- Cleaning kit – this is another must. Ideally, you should clean you gun after every 20 shots or after it’s been in some wet weather (rain or snow). This will keep residue and debris from impairing the gun down the road and keep it from rusting. Again, get a simple kit specific for your rifle or shotgun, some gun lubricating oil, and some solvent.
- Scope – to make the most use of a rifle, you really do need a scope. If you intend to only hunt a few times a year, you don’t need the fanciest optics out there. Get a simple 3-9 x 40 mm scope, and you’ll be set for multiple types of hunting.
- Choke tubes – a variety of these are nice for shotguns, but not immediately necessary. Depending on what gun you buy, it may come with a few options. Otherwise, they are pretty cheap.
- Sling – this is useless for a shotgun, in my opinion, but very nice to have for a rifle. Is it necessary? Nope. But it can make your life easier while walking to your tree stand.
How to Buy a Gun: Just Start
I’ll be honest with you…
You could easily spend months researching the “right” gun, finding the perfect bullet ballistics, and shelling out every paycheck for more stuff. That’s what I went through for this article, and I grew up using guns. But you don’t need to!
All you really need to do is pick a gun that will work for your first hunt this season.
Whatever is on sale is just fine if you’re on a budget. Don’t get so caught up in the details when simply getting started is a much better use of your time. The first gun to buy is really just any gun that will get you outside after your intended wild game animal.
Oh, and remember that favor we discussed? Just send me an email with your biggest takeaway from this post. Good luck out there!