Over/Under, Pump, or Semi-Auto? Which is "Best" for what you do?
Which Action for Your Sport?
You have to choose, unless you have an unlimited budget, between the available tools. Which one will be the best choice and for what reasons? Of course, the decision is a personal one, but there are functional reasons that may influence your decision. Then, of course, finances always play into the decision. Finally, the question becomes what is your need, what is it that you are buying this shotgun for in the first place? First we will explore the advantages and disadvantages of each of the actions. Within the advantages and disadvantages we can find answers to the functional aspects, finances, and how well the choice will fit your game.
The Pump Action or Slide Action Shotgun
When the slide/pump action shotguns came into being the whole world changed. Side by side shotguns were the best way until then to get off a second shot. All the sudden, not only a second shot but a third, forth, fifth or more! The military adopted these scatterguns for the boys in the trenches as they could rip out enough lead in a few seconds to decimate so many of the enemy.
Making their appearance as sporting arms the pump guns were able to find homes in the hands of many of the best skeet and trap shooters of the times. Built on dependable frames with dependable actions and few moving parts the guns were widely revered. Fiedl gun barrels were initially fixed chokes and long - often 32 inches which was great for reaching out and touching just about anything from ducks to trap clays. If you wanted a skeet gun - cut that barrel down to 26 or 27 inches and shoot it open bore - and it worked pretty darn well - on skeet and dove and quail!
There is no question that a well-practiced gunner with a pump shotgun can power through 3 rounds just as fast or faster than any semi-auto action on the market. So shooting trap or skeet doubles is just a matter of practice.
My personal comment is on dependability. I've shot a number of pump guns, grew up on a Model 12 Winchester like the one pictured and shoot a Remington 870 pump for ducks today. I have never had a pump gun freeze up on a duck or deer hunt - I have had a semi-auto fail in wet/freezing cold conditions. Granted, real live thinking people probably shouldn't have been hunting in the conditions we were hunting in when this happened - but we were and it did. Not before or since as I only carry a pump for ducks now.
Although if you choose high grade wood, specially finished receivers, yes you can run that cost up - but for the most part these are working man's guns and financially respectful.
If having to work the action on a pump gun seems to be distractive, maybe a semi-auto may be able to do the work for you? There are some other elements you may find advantageous with the semi-auto as well. Although there have been great advances for handling recoil, if the design actually puts some of the work involved in pushing the load down the barrel into providing the working of the action, there must be less recoil available to slam against your shoulder. There is that. The new models have fewer moving parts and are less dependent upon a single o-ring that might go out at the most inopportune time than some of the older models. The smoothness, if that is a word, of the newer actions are less distractive than some of the older models as well. It used to be kind holding a pile-driver in your hand when you pulled the trigger - boom, clank, clank, slide, click, clack, boom and so on.
Although the semi-auto is available in reasonably priced models that won't break the bank of the average shooter, there are now many moderately priced models that are of very high quality and dependability. Special designs are allowing for even better reduction in recoil and therefore keeping the shooter's head in the game. This has allowed significant growth in the shooting world for more female shooters and youth. I'm not saying there is anything juvenile or sissy about shooting semi-autos - they are just more comfortable to shoot, which is allowing us to grow the shooting world.
In this group, stick with spending up just a little and get the best quality you can afford - stretch a little, and you won't be unhappy. With the screw in choke systems now available, there is just about any option for the shooter from hunting to skeet, trap or sporting clays.
Over/Under or Break Action
There is no doubt that after the side by side for classic experience, the over/under pieces are the ones you will see winning more accolades and prizes than any other today. You can spend the equivalent of a years salary on some models, or if you choose wisely less than that of a low end semi-auto, and get reasonable results. Keep in mind, it is the magician, not the wand!
But the magician has to be confident in his wand or nothing happens. A cheap O/U may not last any longer than a pump or semi-auto intended for use as a field gun. Think about this just a little.
A good field gun, regardless of action, used by an above average outdoorsman for a whole season for dove, ducks, maybe deer, and even squirrels is going to be shot how many times? 50 for dove? 25 for ducks? 2 for deer? 10 squirrels? Say 100 times in a season? Then Uncle Eddie has you over for some hand thrown trap and you shoot another couple of boxes of shells. 150. That gun is designed to do that every year for 30 years. 4,500 or more targets shot at dependably.
Now convert that to a competitors shotgun that must be designed to take on the activity it will see every week in practice and every weekend in competition. One weekend of competition is 300 targets - and that week you practiced with 2 cases of shells or another 500 targets. 500- 750 targets a week for anywhere from 10-40 weeks a year or 5,000 to 20,000 targets per YEAR, not lifetime!
With that in mind, you may begin to understand why that 1909 Browning humpback may not have been designed for competitive shooting sports. The advantage here goes to those break action shotguns - very few moving parts help to keep these guns working. Maintenance is critical with cleaning and proper lubrication on the points of wear.
Which Gun for Which Game?
Again, very much a personal choice, but keep some thoughts in mind. If you are going to be a participant, someone who enjoys a game but doesn't ever intend to "own" the game, the choice is weighted to cost/affordability and fit. Function isn't important to you as much because if it is too expensive, you aren't going to buy it anyway. A semi-auto will meet the needs of most any shooter in most any game from skeet to trap to sporting clays and in the field for upland game and in some cases waterfowl. I still hold that a pump gun will be a better choice for ducks, although some new model autos are pretty darn good. Over/unders - one less shot and can be very expensive boat anchors.
For the field, shooting upland game, I really like side-by-side and over/under guns just for the sporting nostalgia if nothing else. Classic shooting experiences and keeping your head in the game to make those shots count are just special. Since you aren't so worried about losing the gun in the lake, fine guns make their way to the field on some plantations in quail country or on fields more likely to produce ringnecks and ruffed grouse.
Skeet and International Skeet can be shot with any of these actions - but by far if you are going to be a competitor you will be shooting a modern over-under action gun. Speed to the target, dependability, repeatability and feel for the muscle memory of the game leads these guns to be the choice of champions. Sure, we will see plenty of the newer semi-autos being used by competitors - but winners will continue to shoot break-action guns. Cost is not as big a factor for a competitor - in fact not having the best is a mental trigger that can hurt the outcome.
Trap, Doubles Trap, International games as well can be shot effectively with any of the actions discussed. In singles trap it is hard to beat a good 32" Model 12 for total targets broken! When doubles enters the picture, the pumps still work, but the over/unders will have a distinct advantage with additional choke options and speed to target. That also takes out the semi-auto.
Sporting Clays is open to use any gun available in the closet. All target sets are still only going to be a maximum of 2 targets so any of the actions are functionally capable of winning the game. The real advantage still goes to the Over/Under for being able to adjust the chokes in the barrels if there are disparate targets to be taken out. Even with this as a challenge, it is very rare that an improved cylinder or light modified wouldn't be able to break every target on a sporting clays field challenge. Speed to the target and dependability still give points to the over/under, and with the social potential opportunity of showing off that new Perrazi with your friends, might make it worth it.
It comes down to if you are willing to spend the money needed to have the best equipment. If you are, you can remove that mental barrier to be the best by shooting the best. If you can't, for whatever reason, afford to spend the bucks, learn to enjoy the game as a game and help others do the same.