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Shotgun Ammo 101

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Shotguns are among the most versatile firearms available today, used by hunters, sportsmen, and law enforcement professionals alike for a vast range of purposes. They are also prized as some of the most affordable and reliable firearms currently on the market. One of the reasons for their widespread use is the shotgun’s ability to fire a range of ammunition, each distinct from the last and tailored for a specific task. 

Understanding the different types of shotgun shells and their applications is crucial not only for ensuring effectiveness in their use but also for optimizing safety and performance. Below, we’ll take a look at some of the most common types of shotgun ammunition and their best applications, as well as some of the more exotic and less practical options available. 

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Understanding Shotgun Shells

Shotgun shells are an unusual type of ammunition in many respects. Unlike most common handgun and rifle cartridges, they are not made entirely of metal, but instead use a small metallic base and a polymer sidewall. They are also typically designed to fire a load comprised of multiple small pellets, known as shot, which is contained by a plastic cup-shaped piece called a wad to hold them together while traveling down the barrel. Once the shot passes the muzzle, the lightweight wad falls away and the pellets spread. 

These cartridges can also be designed to fire a single projectile, known as a slug. These, too, are unlike centerfire or rimfire projectiles in both their size—shotgun slugs can weigh over an ounce—and their design. Shotgun slugs can even be rifled for use in smoothbore barrels. 

The choice between shot and slug is determined primarily by the intended use, which could range from hunting small birds to stopping large predators or intruders. 

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Gauge System Explained

The term “gauge” describes the size of a shotgun projectile and bore. This system originates from the number of lead balls the size of the bore it would take to weigh a pound. For example, a single lead ball that fits a 12-gauge shotgun bore would weigh 1/12th of a pound. 

Because of this, the size of a shotgun shell is inversely related to its gauge, with the size of the shell and bore being largest in lower gauge numbers and smallest in higher gauges. This can be counterintuitive for those used to measuring cartridges using the caliber system. 

Here’s a more in-depth look at the common gauges: 

  • 10 Gauge: This is a heavy-duty gauge ideal for hunting large waterfowl or turkeys as it allows for heavier shot loads, delivering significant energy upon impact. The 10 gauge is less common due to its substantial recoil and weight, which can be challenging for some shooters to handle. Specialized loads—like non-lead hunting shot or personal defense shells—can be difficult to find for this uncommon gauge. 
  • 12 Gauge: The versatility of the 12 gauge makes it the most popular choice among shotgun users. It’s effective for a wide range of activities, from bird hunting to home defense. Its shells contain enough ballistic energy to efficiently handle a wide range of targets while still being manageable for most shooters. 
  • 16 Gauge: Historically favored for upland game hunting, the 16 gauge offers a middle ground between the firepower of a 12 gauge and the lighter recoil of a 20 gauge. While not as prevalent as it once was, it retains a dedicated following among traditionalists and those who appreciate its unique balance. As with 10-gauge, specialty shells may be difficult to locate for 16-gauge shotguns. 
  • 20 Gauge: Often recommended for younger shooters and those sensitive to recoil, the 20 gauge provides a practical option for hunting small to medium-sized game and is also favored in recreational shooting sports. While often derided as underpowered for home defense or hunting, with many loads, 20 gauge remains an effective cartridge. In fact, some 20 gauge slugs can produce up to twice the muzzle energy of common .44 magnum handgun loads. 

Most users will be best served by either a 12 gauge or 20 gauge shotgun, owing primarily to the popularity of those gauges and the availability of all forms of ammo for them. If you’re not sure which one will best suit your needs, we recommend checking out our guide to 12 Gauge vs 20 Gauge Shotguns

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Different Applications for Shotguns and Ammo 


In hunting, the choice of ammunition is critical and largely depends on the type of game being pursued. Bird hunters prefer smaller shot sizes like #7½, #8, or #9, which offer a dense pattern to increase the chance of hitting fast, small targets. However, the small pellet size still avoids overly mangling the bird. Because of their popularity for waterfowl and upland bird hunting, these types of shot are commonly referred to as birdshot, although the category also sometimes includes larger pellet sizes up to #4 or even #2 shot. 

For larger game such as deer, buckshot or slugs are preferred for their deeper penetration and greater stopping power. 00 buckshot, usually pronounced “double-ought,” was once a popular load for deer hunting but has largely fallen out of favor compared to slugs. 

Waterfowl hunters, in particular, face specific regulations that have banned the use of lead shot in wetlands due to its toxic effects on the environment and wildlife. This has led to the adoption of alternative materials for shot that are less harmful but still effective for hunting:

  • Steel Shot: The most common and economical alternative to lead, steel shot is lighter and harder. It is less dense than lead, which means it has a faster velocity but a shorter range. Because of its hardness, steel can also pose a higher risk of barrel damage if not used in shotguns designed for it. Steel is primarily used for hunting waterfowl but requires hunters to adjust their shooting techniques due to its different ballistic characteristics. 
  • Bismuth Shot: Bismuth is closer in density to lead, making it an effective substitute without the toxicity. It’s softer than steel, which can make it safe to use in certain older shotguns not rated for steel shot. Bismuth’s density allows it to fly at a similar range and hit with a comparable impact to lead, making it an excellent choice for hunters looking to mimic the performance of lead without the environmental impact. 
  • Tungsten-Based Shot: Tungsten alloys provide an even denser option than lead, allowing for smaller yet more effective projectiles. Variants like tungsten-nickel-iron and tungsten-polymer are popular among hunters who require the maximum downrange energy and penetration, especially useful in hunting larger game birds with heavier, harder-to-penetrate feathers. Tungsten shot, while more expensive, delivers superior performance in terms of range and lethality, suitable for both upland game and waterfowl. 

The shift to these alternative materials has not only addressed environmental concerns but has also brought about innovations in shotgun ammunition. Hunters choosing non-lead alternatives must consider factors such as range, penetration, and the specific type of game being hunted, adjusting their equipment and shooting strategy accordingly. This ensures both compliance with legal regulations and continued effectiveness in the field, maintaining the tradition and sport of hunting while safeguarding natural ecosystems. 

Personal Defense 

For personal and home defense, the shotgun is valued for its terminal ballistics. Buckshot, particularly 00 buck, is widely chosen for its effectiveness in neutralizing threats. A standard 12-gauge 00 buckshot load delivers 8 projectiles with a single pull of the trigger, creating the potential for multiple wound channels and increasing the odds of a threat-neutralizing hit. 

Slugs are also a common choice for personal defense. Slugs offer the same basic function as rifle ammunition, delivering a single projectile with a high degree of precision, but offer greater ballistic energy than most centerfire rifles are capable of. 

However, users must also consider over-penetration within the context of home defense, where minimizing risk to bystanders is crucial. Obviously, the massive ballistic energy of a shotgun slug comes with a substantially increased risk of overpenetration, making it an uncommon choice for home defense, but a popular one for environments in which the primary threat comes from large animals like bears. 

Recently, new shotgun loads have emerged on the self-defense market, including combination shells and less-lethal loads. 

Combination shells such as slug-and-shot (sometimes called buck-and-ball) try to achieve the best of both worlds by loading a single shell with both a slug and a few buckshot pellets. While this does a passable job of combining the benefits both, namely a single projectile with overwhelming kinetic energy and a single load with multiple projectiles, it is something of a jack of all trades and master of none. 

These loads seldom achieve the full ballistic potential of a standard slug load and also have substantially fewer projectiles than a dedicated buckshot shell. However, they still suffer from the overpenetration concern of slugs, making them a less popular choice and a seldom recommended one. 

Less-lethal loads, such as rubber bullets or bean bag rounds, are also available and are designed to incapacitate a person without causing lethal injuries. However, these loads can be exceptionally dangerous and even lethal, but at the same time unreliable at neutralizing threats. These are typically employed by law enforcement and often require specialized training to use effectively, and even then can be unreliable. In fact, most departments do not attempt to use less-lethal shotguns loads to neutralize a target unless at least one additional officer is present to provide backup with lethal force, due to the relatively high rate of low effectiveness. Less-lethal loads are not recommended for personal defense, despite their availability to civilian users. 

Trap, Skeet, and Clay Pigeon 

Sport shooting, including disciplines like trap, skeet, and sporting clays, demands ammunition that breaks targets effectively without excessive recoil. Here, shooters often choose #7½, #8, or #9 shot—not at all unlike the shot selection used for bird hunting. Because shotgun sports are largely designed to mimic bird hunting, the selection of ammunition remains more or less the same.  

These sizes provide a dense cloud of small pellets to break clays at various distances but are light-recoiling enough to reduce shooter fatigue during long shooting sessions. Because penetrating feathers or achieving an ethical shot are not considerations on clays, light, easy-to-shoot loads are typically preferred by most casual enthusiasts, although serious competitors may use multiple loads tailored to different scenarios, often in concert with a variety of chokes. 

Exotic Ammo Types 

Beyond the practical and widely used shotgun shells, there exists a category of ammunition that exists solely because it can. These exotic ammo types, such as dragon’s breath, flechette, and ball-and-chain rounds are more novelties than practical tools and are not recommended for standard hunting, defense, or sport shooting. 

Due to their lack of practical application and in some cases, safety concerns, these types of rounds are subject to legal restrictions or prohibition in many states. 

Dragon’s Breath: These shells create a visual spectacle by expelling a plume of fire and sparks, capable of igniting everything in its path. While visually impressive, Dragon’s Breath rounds are impractical for nearly all applications due to their potential fire hazard and extremely limited ballistic effectiveness. 

Flechette: Packed with dozens of small, dart-like steel projectiles, flechette rounds are designed to scatter over a wide area and are intended to offer superior penetration compared to standard shot. Unfortunately, the actual penetration capability of these tiny darts is subject to much debate. Additionally, their accuracy and terminal ballistic efficacy are unpredictable, making them unsuitable for most traditional uses. 

Ball-and-Chain or “Bolo” Rounds: These consist of two heavy balls connected by a steel wire. Inspired by ball-and-chain cannon shot sometimes employed in historical naval warfare, the balls spin and theoretically cut a wide swath through the target area. Unfortunately, like their historical counterparts, their theoretical efficacy generally outpaces their real-world ballistics. While a fascinating experiment into unconventional projectile design, they remain impractical for all common shotgun applications. 

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Understanding the various types of shotgun ammunition and their appropriate applications is essential for anyone looking to maximize the effectiveness and safety of their shotgun use. Whether you are a seasoned hunter, a budding competitor, or simply someone investing in the defense of their home, knowledge of your equipment and its capabilities is paramount. 

By choosing the right ammo for your needs, you can take full advantage of your shotgun’s ballistic potential and best prepare yourself for the task ahead—whatever that may be for you.