12 Gauge Shells

12 Gauge Shell Overview

12-gauge Shells: In Depth

Smoothbore firearms are anything but outmoded; the hunting, tactical, and competition shooting disciplines all continue to use them. These firearms are even preferred over rifles, much of the time. So how is it that these simple smoothbores remain the superior option for many folks? Why are we still focused on something so…old?

We have 12-gauge shotguns to thank for this – they have proudly borne the smoothbore standard into the 21st century by tackling nearly any challenge capable of being posed to firearms. They deliver an astounding variety of payloads while operating reliably; many enthusiastic experts even point to the 12-ga. shotgun as the “one gun” they’d choose if forced to pick a single shooting tool for survival. They just work.

12-gauge Shotgun: History

Shotguns of the breechloading (as opposed to muzzleloading) variety were perfected in the 1870s. Before that, shotgunners were stuffing loads of all description down their barrels beginning at the business end; usually this involved a combination of gunpowder, one or more wads (to cushion the payload from the gunpowder), and small lead balls (shot).

More often than not, the task at hand was dispatching doves, ducks, geese, and other flighted birds. However, these loadings were also used martially in muskets, sometimes with a large-caliber ball on top of the shot column (buck and ball). By far, however, shotguns have always been sporting arms first.

After the arrival of breechloading, these firearms developed rapidly into far more effective implements, regardless of their intended task. The issue of faster reloads was first addressed by break-barrel guns that would eject their spent shells upon opening the action. By 1882, the Spencer pump action would introduce the now familiar cycling method popular on many shotguns. A few years later, two different designs by John Moses Browning, the Winchester 1887 lever action, and the 1893 pump action, made repeating shotguns more commonplace throughout the US, and the fact that they were both offered in 12-ga. chamberings was equally as significant.

So, what is meant by gauge, anyway? Cartridges of the World, 17th Edition explains:

The gauge or bore diameter of a shotgun is designated differently from that of a rifle or pistol. The system goes back to the earliest muzzleloading days. It was the custom then to give the “gauge” of muskets in terms of how many lead balls of the bore diameter weighed one pound.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the 12-ga. shotshell surpassed its counterparts in popularity, though the smaller 20-ga. and the larger 10-ga. would remain close behind. The Winchester 1897s (Model 1893s strengthened for smokeless powder loads) would immediately see military service in the Philippines and later on in Europe (where it came to be known as the “trench gun”). Another Browning design of the era, the FN-made Auto 5, was the first mass produced semi-auto shotgun. It would see action from WWI through the Vietnam War.

The 1920s would usher in the 2 ¾” 12-ga. shell as the de facto standard for the US. Before that, the 2 ⅝” Winchester 1887 and 1893 loads were common, as well as a smattering of other lengths. Any further back is a complete mess.      

Throughout the interwar period, and on into WWII and the late ‘40s, turn of the century shotgun designs continued to be popular in law enforcement, military, and hunting applications. Monolithic rounds employing either the Brenneke or Foster style slugs increased in popularity for deer hunting around the world, as well.

In 1950, Remington’s 870 pump action entered production. To date, more than 11 million of these shotguns have been manufactured. The many variants of the 870, and of Mossberg’s pump - the 500/590 series, introduced in 1960 - would carve out a major portion of the 12-ga. shotgun market for generations.

Another major breakthrough, polyethylene hulls, were introduced by Remington around this time, replacing the paper and cardboard construction used previously. This enabled shotgun ammunition to better resist swelling in damp conditions.

Law enforcement and military usage of less-lethal 12-ga. shotgun rounds for crowd control dates to the end of the 1960s. Nowadays, bean bags and rubber baton slugs are among the many projectiles loaded into shotgun shells for this purpose. The ability of pump-action guns to cycle these specialty rounds, albeit manually, has further contributed to their prominent position in most law enforcement organizations’ arsenals.

In the last decade of the 20th century, ecological concerns in the US led the Federal Government to ban the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting. As a result, steel shot was substituted for lead in waterfowl loads: it proved to be a poor alternative. Steel shot did not carry its velocity downrange the way lead did; it also battered barrels on older arms.

To combat this, ammunition manufacturers have innovated more effective steel loads over the last couple decades. They have also used other metals, such as tungsten and bismuth, in place of steel. A more recent innovation - Federal’s FLITECONTROL - has led to new hunting and tactical loads capable of producing tighter patterns at distance. Technologies such as FLITECONTROL have kept the shotgun relevant and show off its adaptability to shooters’ changing expectations.

The most popular 12-ga. shotguns of today are remarkably similar to Browning’s designs from the turn of the 20th century; the idea of the pump-action shotgun in particular as a remarkably useful tool is now many generations old. Given its ability to push payloads of such diversity, and the worldwide availability (and even permissibility) of shotgun use compared to rifles and handguns, the 12-ga. shotgun might actually be the “one gun” we’d choose.

12-ga. Shotguns

There is a shotgun out there for every conceivable purpose – several, usually. In addition to the utility that standard pumps provide, many older/specialty guns are highly collectible and/or customized. It’s still common to see brand new heirloom quality guns on the market, whereas many rifles and handguns have generally drifted further towards economy build quality.

Pump Action

  • Remington 870
  • Mossberg 500/590
  • Stevens 320
  • Browning BPS
  • Benelli Nova

Semi Auto

  • Browning A5
  • Beretta 1301
  • Winchester SX4
  • Benelli M2 / M4
  • Mossberg 930 / 940
  • Beretta A300 / A400

Break Action / Over/Under / Side-by-Side

  • Stoeger Coach Gun
  • Browning BT 99
  • Krieghoff K-80
  • Browning Citori
  • Perazzi MX 12
  • CZ Bobwhite G2


Rifled Slug Guns

  • Henry Single Shot Slug Barrel
  • Savage 212 / 220 Slug
  • Mossberg Slugster
  • Some guns will ship with a separate slug barrel in addition to the smoothbore.


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

Why Choose a 12-ga. Shotgun?

Truly, anything is possible with a 12-gauge shotgun. You might find yourself asking, “Why wouldn't I own one?”

Bird / Small Game Hunting

  • Bird hunting has always been a core function of the shotgun. The wide pattern of pellets from a shotgun blast is more effective at bringing down birds than a single bullet. 
  • 12-ga. loads are uniquely tailored for many kinds of birds, from doves and quail to turkeys. Particular shot sizes are intended for hunting each different species. 

Deer / Medium Game Hunting

  • Look no further than the word buckshot to see how closely tied the shotgun is to deer hunting.
  • Buckshot contains larger diameter pellets than birdshot, thus carrying more energy downrange.
  • Slugs, which are large 12-ga. projectiles in this case, are commonly used on deer and other medium-sized game.

Trap / Skeet

  • Sport shooting with shotguns is popular all over the world, with 12-ga. guns reigning supreme.
  • Many loads are made specifically for shooting clay pigeons.

Self / Home Defense

  • Backwoods defense against bears, other dangerous game.
  • Popular choice for home defense due to “point and shoot” effectiveness.
  • Reduced recoil loads are available, if necessary.

Target / Competition

  • 3-gun competitions have further invigorated the 12-ga. market. Both pumps and semi-autos are popular, usually with extended magazine tubes for increased shell capacity.

12-ga. Shotgun: Ammo Brands and Loadings

There are a TON of ammunition choices here! Luckily, the intended purpose of any load is (almost) always listed on the outside of the box.


Shell Length

  • 2 ¾” - Most common. Suitable for most bird hunting and target loads. 
  • 3”  - More power for larger game.
  • 3 ½” - The most powerful loads, less common.
  • 1 ¾” (Mini / Shorty) - Minimal recoil loads mostly for plinking. They are unlikely to feed reliably in most repeaters due to their small size. Adapters are available for some pump guns, however (mostly Mossbergs).

Shot Material

  • 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

  • Compared to bullet grain weights when dealing with rifles and handguns, 12-ga. shot pellets come in many more sizes.
  • The higher the number, the smaller the shot, starting with 12 (smallest) and running through 1 (largest).
  • Buckshot, on the other hand, is larger than the numbered shots, and runs smallest (No.4) to largest (#000).
  • There is no standard loading for 12-ga., so you’ll need to pick a purpose-built load. 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.


  • 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.


  • Large 12-ga. projectiles that are typically rifled for better flight characteristics. Recoil is considerably more intense with these loads, but they are extremely effective on deer and other medium-sized game.
  • Capable of dispatching game at extended distances compared to shot loads.

Sabot Slugs

  • Capable of reaching out even further than standard slugs, especially if you’re using a shotgun with a rifled barrel. You might want to consider adding a scope to your rig to fully take advantage of these.

Less Lethal

  • Rubber buckshot and slug loads are available; they are still more than capable of killing people / animals and will not cycle a semi-auto gun. They are, however, popular with law enforcement in a pump action platform.

12-Gauge Shotgun: FAQ:

It’s ok to trust what’s printed on the box when it comes to shotgun ammo. All the important info should be listed: gauge, shell length, shot size, shot weight (or slug weight) and number of pellets, and velocity. Not only that, but the purpose of the load is often in the name of the product, and some even have a picture of the intended target! For example, Federal’s Top Gun Size 8 has the words “Clay Target Load” printed on the outside of the box, along with a picture of a clay target.

2 ¾” shells work great in a 3” chamber, which is what most 12-ga. shotguns have. Most folks will be just fine with a 3” chamber. If you’re someone who really needs a 3 ½”, or a 2 ¾” chamber, you’ll already know precisely what you’re looking for. 

Nowadays, a “high brass” load will generally refer to a hotter, or magnum load, whereas a “low brass” load will refer to a lighter, or target load. 

This depends entirely on your gun, your load, and your game! Generally, loads are effective at the following distances: 

Buckshot - 35-40 yds for deer-sized game
Birdshot - 45-50 yds for birds
Slugs - 100 yds for deer-sized game

Provided that you train for your particular circumstances, a 12-ga shotgun is hard to beat for home defense. The variety of shotguns and loads available allows many shooters to balance factors like weapon weight, overall length, recoil, and likelihood of hitting the target more effectively compared to rifles and handguns.