Shotgun Shells

Shotgun Shells: In Depth

Back in the days of yore, when men were men and most firearms had no rifling, there wasn’t much difference between hunting guns and military guns. Still, hunting guns meant specifically for shooting birds out of the air separated from the rest of the firearms flock fairly early–1600s by most accounts. It would be the flintlock ignition system that made shooting birds on the wing possible. Match locks, which had come before, used a lit cord to touch off the priming charge and fire the gun. The significant delay between trigger pull and boom meant that most birds got away. Flintlocks gave the would-be hunter at least a fighting chance. Early “fowling pieces”, as they were called, also had super long barrels–5 ½ or 6 feet long, in some cases. Like muskets, they could just as easily be loaded with larger shot and aimed at man-size (and shaped) targets when necessary. However, these firearms were intended mostly for sporting purposes–a trend which endures to this day,

Later firearms often featured two barrels side-by-side–a term we still use at present. These guns were favored both by hunters for shooting birds, and by carriage (coach) drivers for defense against brigands or angry beasts, since they effectively doubled one’s firepower. The paper hulled shotgun shell, along with the breechloading shotgun, would make these guns especially attractive to the masses. Although these features were recognized as breakthroughs immediately, they were too expensive for most folks to afford for several decades. However, by the 1880s, breechloading guns had taken over across the board. Also by this time, the 12-gauge shotgun had risen to the top of the heap–at least in terms of sales.

Developments would continue throughout the 20th century as well, though modern shotguns were already serving in the US military as early as WWI. What exactly made them modern? They were: a) not ridiculously long b) were repeaters, c) had pump or semi-auto actions, and d) used 12-ga. shells. “Used interchangeable parts” also gets an honorable mention, though some degree of hand-fitting during assembly was still common at the time. The 3” shell would arrive in the 1930s, which massively expanded the possibilities for the popular 12-ga. guns. However, it wasn’t until after WWII that Remington unveiled the plastic hulled shell. Ejection problems stemming from swollen paper hulls were a thing of the past.

Since the 1980s, lead shot substitutes have been loaded and sold–mostly in hunting ammo. Lead shot can be harmful to sensitive ecosystems in high concentrations, especially when hunting waterfowl in / around wetland areas. Whether any sort of lead ban should extend to larger game hunting away from wetlands is another question entirely. Regardless, we now have several effective alternatives to lead shot, though they all cost a bit more.

Projectile choices, wad design, and powder in shotgun shells are all continually evolving as well. In truth, the shotgun shell of today is an incredible bit of engineering. The longer 3” shells in particular have helped some of the smaller gauges compete for market share against the 12-ga., too. Just like bullet design has upped the game of every handgun and rifle cartridge, shell design is helping us squeeze every ounce of utility of our shotguns going forward. 

Shotgun Shells: Shotgun Choices

Throughout history, shotguns have often been very precious pieces, featuring ornately carved stocks, fine metalwork, immaculately fitted actions, and sleek overall forms. This is especially true of the fantastic firearms produced for wealthy European sportsmen and other well-heeled hunters over the years. Though this kind of shotgun is still made in limited numbers, it’s no longer the rule; shotguns are guns for the people now. The polymer stocks and stamped steel components of today’s entry-level shotguns equal lower prices. Just remember, as with all firearms, it’s never a bad idea to stick with a major manufacturer. Here are the most popular action choices:

Pump-Action Shotguns

  • Pumps are the most popular type of shotguns. They are easy to operate and very reliable.

Semi-Auto Shotguns

  • Shotguns can tap gas to cycle the bolt (gas operated) or use the mass of the bolt as the gun recoils ( inertia driven ) to achieve semi-automatic operation. 
  • If you want it to be reliable, it’s worth getting a good one: Benelli, Beretta, Browning, CZ, and others make solid models. 

Break Action: Side-by-Side and Over-Under Shotguns

  • A break action features a pivoting barrel section. A shooter loads the chamber directly and then closes the gun in order to shoot.
  • Side-by-side and Over-Under refers to the configuration of the two barrels. 

Break Action: Single Shot Shotguns

  • Most single shot shotguns are also break action.
  • Just like side-by-sides and over-unders, but one barrel instead of two.


  • Sporting shotguns are capable of fitting special devices that constrict the spread of shot called chokes or choke tubes. These are sometimes useful for longer shots.
  • Three of the most popular choke styles are: improved cylinder, modified, and full.
  • Straight walled barrels with no provision for a choke are called cylinder bores. 

Shotgun Shells: Why Choose a Shotgun over a Rifle or Pistol?

In a word: versatility. In particular, a 12-ga. pump-action shotgun shines in a dozen different roles. This is because you, the shooter, cycle the action (reliability), and because there are so many good 12-ga. loads to choose from. A decent 12-ga. pump will cycle everything from less-lethal rubber baton loads to 3” magnum slugs, and literally everything in between. 


  • Given an appropriate load, you can hunt pretty much any game animal, varmint, or predator with a shotgun.
  • Whether you need a light load for pest control or something to put the hurt on a bear in the backcountry, there’s factory ammo for the job, assuming you’re talking 12-ga. 

Target / Competition

  • Several popular shooting sports, including both trap and skeet, are designed around the shotgun. 
  • 3-gun competitions also feature some interesting/specialty shotgun handling.

Home Defense

  • While it’s mostly fiction that racking a shotgun sends any would-be intruder fleeing for dear life, shotguns are still great for home defense. 
  • Shotguns point and shoot very naturally–especially with a little practice–which is invaluable if stress levels are sky high.
  • Like the hunting example, it’s all about the wide variety of ammo choices and tailoring your choice to your specific home defense needs. Apartment dwellers might want something a little different than someone with a few acres in the country. 
  • Remember: if you decide to go with a shotgun, don’t use birdshot for home defense!

Shotgun Shells: Brands and Loadings

If you’ve never shopped for shotgun shells before, your choices might seem overwhelming at first. And, truthfully, compared to rifle ammo and handgun ammo, there are more decisions to make. However, once you’re somewhat familiar with what’s inside the shells, zeroing in on the right load is a cinch. First, understand that shotgun shells can be loaded with a number of projectile types. They may contain a shot load, a heavy metallic slug, or even a synthetic baton or ball in front of the propellant charge. Shot is composed of small metallic balls and comes in different sizes that each excel at certain tasks. Slugs come in different sizes too, and are typically measured in oz. The shells themselves are also offered in different lengths–mainly 2 ¾” and 3”--and longer shells will generally have a higher volume of shot and propellant. Federal , Fiocchi , Remington, and Winchester lead the pack in terms of manufacturers, and will probably be your best bet for quality hunting ammunition. However, for target ammo, the field is wide open. Hopefully, by using a combination of this guide and the handy pictures that manufacturers put on the ammo boxes, you’ll have success in choosing your next box of shells.   

Popular Gauges

  • 12-ga. - The do-it-all, most common, most useful, and most available shotgun gauge.
  • 20-ga. - Smaller than 12-ga., with many of the same capabilities and less recoil. Might be a better choice for a smaller shooter, too.
  • 28-ga. - Smaller than 20-ga., still good for hunting smaller upland game and clay shooting.
  • .410 Bore - The smallest of all. Perfect for pest control, fun at the range, and teaching fundamentals to new shooters. 

Shell Length

  • 2 ¾” - Most common shell length.
  • 3” - Magnum shell length. More room for shot and propellant, and will have more recoil as a result.
  • 3 ½” - Heavy Magnum packs even more shot/projectile weight and propellant. Pretty punishing in terms of recoil.
  • 1 ¾” - Mini/Shorty loads first pioneered by Aguila and now offered by Federal. Will need an adapter for your gun to feed them reliably.
  • 2 ½” - .410 bore shells are often this length. 

Shot Material (Pellets)

  • Lead - Traditional shot material with optimal flight characteristics. It is now banned for many types of hunting, however.
  • Steel - Harder and lighter than lead, may damage some older barrels, flight characteristics not as good as lead.
  • Bismuth - Softer than steel, closer to lead, can be expensive.
  • Tungsten - Heavier than lead and extremely hard, also quite pricey.

Shot Size and Weight

  • The lower the number, the larger the shot, starting with 12 (smallest) and running through 1 (largest). After the numbers (still increasing in size), letters take over from B (smallest) to F (largest).
  • Buckshot, on the other hand, is larger than the numbered/lettered shots, and runs smallest (No.4) to largest (#000).
  • Consider checking out these comprehensive charts when picking shot size for hunting.
  • Target loads tend to be #7½ or #8.
  • Self defense loads vary – slugs and buckshot are both common.
  • The weight, usually in oz, is listed on the box for both shot and slugs.

Slugs and Projectiles

  • Slugs are solid metallic projectiles that range in weight from ¼-oz. to 1 ¾-oz. depending on the gauge. They are often a better choice than shot for certain types of hunting.
  • Many slugs are rifled so they’ll spin in flight. This aids with accuracy and increases the effective range of the shotgun.
  • Rubber projectiles are loaded in “less lethal” ammo


  • Pellet loads are loaded to a wide velocity range, typically anywhere from 1,200/fps to 1,400/fps. 
  • Slug loads are hotter at the muzzle, often in excess of 1,600/fps.

Shotgun Shells: Frequently Asked Questions

The term “gauge” is a holdover from the muzzleloading days. Cartridges of the World, 17th Edition explains it as: “ many lead balls of the bore diameter weighed one pound.”

So, for a 12-ga. shotgun, twelve lead balls the size of the bore equal one pound. Arguably, this is not useful information, except when you use it to compare different gauges to one another: 16-ga, 20-ga., 28-ga., etc. The higher the number, the lighter the ammunition.

In the past, gauge and bore were often used interchangeably. 12-ga. shotgun and 12-bore shotgun are still equivalent terms.
When a caliber value is put in front of “bore,” it specifies the diameter: as in .410 bore. 

12-ga. for several reasons: a) biggest variety of loads, b) more power compared to smaller gauges, c) most firearm choices!

Sometimes this can be fixed simply by modifying your gun and/or shooting technique. Make sure your shotgun fits you, consider purchasing an aftermarket recoil pad, and hold the stock firmly against your shoulder when shooting.

Some ammunition will kick worse than others. There are “reduced recoil” loads if you find that standard pressure ammo is too painful to shoot comfortably.

2 ¾” shells work great in a 3” chamber, which is what most shotguns have.