Shotguns are among the most versatile firearms available. With that versatility, a vast and confusing market exists for ammunition. There are thousands of types of shotgun shells, all with different projectiles and powders to give you an edge in whatever task you and your trusty shotgun are trying to accomplish. If you are a beginner to the shotgun world, let’s take a minute and figure out how in the heck we’re supposed to pick out the right ammo.


When shopping for shotgun ammo, the first step is to find the right gauge. The industry measures most shotguns in gauges instead of calibers. You would expect that 12 gauge means some sort of linear measurement, but it isn’t. A 12 gauge means that you can make 12 balls of equal size out of a pound of lead and they will each fit the diameter of the barrel precisely. This is why a 20 gauge is smaller than a 12. This originated when you made your own ammunition and you bought lead by the pound. A notable exception is the .410, which is a very small shotgun measured by its bore size. If we measured the .410 by gauge, it would be roughly equivalent to a 68 gauge.

Chamber length

Once you have your gauge figured out, its time to look at inches. In the case of 12 gauge shotguns, chambers generally come in 2-¾, 3 and 3-½-inch chamber lengths. It is very important that you only fire shells that are the length of, or shorter than your corresponding chamber length. For instance, you can safely fire a 2-¾-inch shell out of a 3-½-inch chamber, but not the other way around. If the shell is too long, you will create too much chamber pressure and you could damage the firearm or more importantly, yourself. However, always check your firearm’s manual to make sure what length of shell it will take. If you don’t know, then just stick with the chamber length you know you have and there won’t be any worries.

Shot Size

Using the proper shot size is very important. You will be much more effective at the sport if you know your way around the various shot sizes. The larger the number, the smaller the individual pellets. Generally, the smaller the pellets, the more there are. For example, a No. 8 dove load will have tiny .09-inch pellets, while a No. 4 turkey load will have fewer pellets, but with .13-inch diameters. Buckshot follows a similar patter, meaning the higher the number, the smaller the individual pellets. No. 3 buckshot pellets measure .25 inches, while 00 or double-aught buckshot measures in at a huge .33-inch per pellet. For hunters, the following chart illustrates proper shot size for various game animals.

Pheasant4 to 62 to 3
Turkey4 to 62 to 3
Quail, dove,7½ to 8
Rabbit6 to 7½
GeeseBB to 2TT to 1
Ducks, low4 to 62 to 4
Ducks, high2 to 4BB to 2

Slugs and sabots

slug is usually a single projectile fired from a shotgun. It can either be dense and heavy for hunting and combat, or light and less lethal for law enforcement applications. Slugs also offer a way to hunt in areas that outlaw traditional rifle hunting. Most slugs are effective at ranges inside 100 yards, and their weight delivers a large amount of kinetic energy to the target. Newer saboted slugs are metallic projectiles supported by a plastic sabot, which engages the rifling in a rifled shotgun barrel and imparts a ballistic spin onto the projectile. This differentiates them from traditional slugs, which do not typically benefit from a rifled barrel.

Materials used

Lead is still the most common material for shotgun pellets. However, at the beginning of the 21st century, ammo manufacturers began producing lead-free shotshell ammunition loaded with steel, bismuth, or tungsten. The alternative materials are non-toxic and used in various types of hunting, especially waterfowl. If you have an older shotgun, stick with lead. The hardness of non-toxic materials can damage your firearm. Make sure you know your state’s hunting laws before using any type of lead or non-toxic material. Different areas have different requirements and you don’t want to break any hunting laws.

Image courtesy Cheaper Than Dirt

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