Guns, Shotgun

An Ultimate Guide to Shotgun Shells

A shotgun shoots a group of pellets or shots together in order to make hitting the target much easier to the user when compared to shooting a single bullet. Due to the use of multiple pellets here, a shotgun shell is designed much differently than a cartridge made for handguns and rifles. For instance, a shotgun shell contains a casing that holds the gunpowder, the primer, the shot wad, and the pellets. This is unlike a normal cartridge that contains a bullet with the gunpowder and primer. Below is a quick breakdown of the different shotgun and shotgun shell nomenclatures which will help you to make an informed and safe purchase.


This term refers to the measurement of the shotgun’s bore diameter. Typically, the gauge number of a shotgun is equivalent to how many lead balls the barrel can hold to weigh 1 lb. For instance, a 12-gauge shotgun’s bore has the capacity to hold a lead ball that weighs 1/12 pound of lead, while that of a 20-gauge shotgun will hold a lead ball that weighs 1/20th of a pound of lead. In other words, the gauge measurement tells the user exactly how many pellets the gun can fire in one go.

The most common gauges in shotguns today are 10-gauge, 12-gauge, 16-gauge, 20-gauge, and 28-gauge. Some special designs also have 32-gauge and 24-gauge bores, while there are some that feature 4-gauge and 8-gauge inner barrel size as well. The higher the gauge number, the larger the diameter of the shotgun’s bore. That is why shotguns with larger gauges are used for target practicing, self-defense, and hunting big games, whilst those with smaller gauges are used for clay shooting, and hunting birds and small game animals.


A shot in a shotgun refers to the group of pellets that are collectively fired when the trigger is pulled. Usually, the shots contained are made of lead; however, they can also come in other materials like copper, steel, tungsten, etc. The sizes and types of shots are labeled under different categories from birdshot (the smallest) to buckshot (the largest).

The smaller sized birdshots are available in Nos. 1 through 9, the smallest of them being 7½, 8, and 9. These types of shots are usually used for clay shooting and target practice but you can also shoot small birds with these at short ranges. The next group of Nos. 4, 5, and 6 are generally recommended for hunting small game like rabbits, pheasants, sage grouse, and squirrels. The last group of Nos. 1, 2, and 3 put forth heavier charges when compared to the others, so they are generally used for hunting turkeys and geese. Then there are B, BB, BBB, T, F, and FF shot sizes, which are used in far-range shooting because of their ability to retain velocity and power for long distances.

Buckshots are classified from No. 4 Buck to 000 Buck, where the former is of .220-inch diameter and the latter is of .360-inch diameter. All the sizes of shots here are perfect for bigger game hunting like fox, deer, or coyote, and are effective at a distance of 60 yards and even more.

Apart from these, there are slugs as well which refer to a single projectile fired by a shotgun. Usually, slugs are reserved for traditional hunting such as deer, moose, and even bears. Slug shotguns feature a smoothbore, sometimes with twisting grooves and lands inside to help stabilize and spin the slug when fired to improve the accuracy of the shot.

Length of Shotgun Shells

Shotgun shells come in a variety of lengths, even within the same gauge. Since stuffing the wrong shell in a gun can be extremely dangerous, understanding the length of the shell is very important here. To stay on the safe side, it is advised to use shells that are as long as what the markings on the shotgun barrel say or smaller. For instance, 12-gauge shells are available in 2½, 2¾, 3, and 3½ inches in length, which all hold different amounts of gunpowder and shot wad. In this case if the markings on the gun barrel says “12-gauge 3-inch”, then you can safely use the 2½, 2¾, and 3-inch shells for the gun. However, you must not use 12-gauge 3½-inch shells for the same gun.

Remember that not all shotgun models can reliably shoot the shorter length shells in that particular gauge either. This is especially the case with semi-automatic shotgun models. Therefore, checking the owner’s manual before buying the ammo would be the best way to go about it. Similarly, it is very important that you never interchange different gauge shells as it can badly damage the gun and render it irreparable. Sometimes, the shotgun might fire the incompatible shell, but that could in turn lead to serious injuries to the user.

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