disassembled components of 12 gauge shotgun round

Shotgun Shell Types: The Basics of Shotgun Ammo Explained

Image Credit: "Shelled Out" by gfpeck is marked with CC BY-ND 2.0.

Shotguns may be the most versatile gun you can own. One major reason for this is the broad selection of different shotgun ammo types that you have to choose from as well as the broad selection of different types of shotguns themselves. 

Effective shotgun use includes a solid, basic understanding of the different types of shotgun ammunition. This article is for those folks interested in learning basic information about the different types of shotgun ammunition, what makes each different and their most common uses. There’s quite a bit to cover in this primer (no pun intended) so let’s dig in!


What are The three main types of shotgun pellets or loads?

With shotgun shells there are 3 main types of shot or slugs (the material that actually ends up in the target), broken down into the three following categories.


This type of shellshot, initially developed for shooting birds, contains the largest number of individual pellets of any of the shell types. The smaller size of the pellets means a larger number of pellets in each shotgun shell and increases the likelihood of hitting a target like a bird in the air which is obviously more difficult than a standing target. Another important aspect of birdshot is that the smaller size of each pellet has less mass and will do less damage to the bird and the meat that you want to harvest.

What can you use birdshot for?

Of the many potential uses for birdshot, some of them include:

  • Hunting birds like dove, quail, ducks, geese, pheasant, etc.
  • Hunting small game like squirrels, rabbits, etc.
  • Use as a tool in pest control with dangerous snakes, squirrels, rats, over-abundant rabbits, etc.
  • Target practice and competition with trap, skeet and sporting clays.

What are the most common sizes of birdshot?

Birdshot sizes are measured by a system that results in the larger number representing smaller shot. For example, No. 3 shot is larger than No. 9 shot. Shot sizes No.7, No.7.5, No.8, and No.9 are all fairly common sizes that you’ll run into on shotgun shell box labels. The best shot sizes to use will be determined by the type of animal or target you are after.

How far will birdshot travel?

Though there are a lot of factors to take into account, most experts tend to agree on around a 40 yard maximum effective range. The “Maximum Effective Range” is the maximum distance at which a weapon may be expected to be accurate and achieve the desired effect.


As you might guess, buckshot was designed for hunting bucks, or male male deer. Though the size of the cartridge or shell is the same as those used for birdshot, the shot inside the shell is larger. With larger animals you need larger shot, with greater mass and energy to hunt effectively.

What are the most popular uses of buckshot?

There are lots of uses for buckshot, including but not limited to the following:

  • Large game hunting for animals like deer and even wild boar.
  • Home or personal defense
  • Target shooting 

What are the most common sizes of buckshot?

The same type of measurement system that applies to birdshot also applies to buckshot with the larger numbers representing smaller shot. For example No. 3 Buck is smaller than No. 1 Buck.

The most common size of buckshot in Hollywood and popular culture is 00 Buck, usually pronounced ‘double-ought’. 00 Buck is larger than No. 1 Buck and smaller than 000 Buck.

How far will buckshot travel?

Once again, there are a lot of factors to consider, but it’s generally safe to say that the average maximum effective range of buckshot is 30-40 with some recommendations allowing up to 50-60 yards based upon conditions.


Slugs are composed of one, single piece of material, usually lead or steel, but they can be made of other materials as well depending upon the desired application. Because birdshot and buckshot spread begin to spread out immediately after leaving the barrel their maximum effective range is much more limited than that of slugs.

Slugs' ballistic behavior is more like that of a traditional bullet. Slugs generally leave the barrel at a higher velocity than birdshot or buckshot and maintain their effective energy (penetration and stopping power) a greater distance from the shooter than other types of shot. Because all the mass is contained in one piece instead of distributed across all the birdshot or buckshot in a shell, they are more stable in flight, deliver more energy upon impact and do it at a greater distance. There are even special shotguns with rifled barrels to put spin on specialized or “Sabot” slugs that aid their stability and increase accuracy at greater distances.


What are the most popular uses of slugs?

  • Large game hunting for animals like deer and wild boar but also even larger game.
  • Home or personal defense. Slugs require greater aim and accuracy but have more stopping power.
  • Target shooting at greater distance than birdshot or buckshot.


Shotgun Shell Sizes or Diameters

Chart of common shotgun barrel diameters by gauge

Pictured above are the 6 most common shotgun gauges or barrel and shell diameters. Out of those, the 12 Gauge and 20 Gauge are the first and second most common. If you are using the same shot  or pellet size with all of them, the lower gauge number shells will hold more pieces of shot.

Ideally this means a greater likelihood of hitting the target or, as in bird hunting, more targets. There is also more powder in larger gauge shells and this means greater power and range.


Shell Lengths 

Shotgun shells generally come in two popular lengths: 2¾ and 3 inches (including 3-inch Magnum). Turkey loads can be found in 31/2”.  On the other hand some manufacturers have started producing shorter shells for various reasons like reduced kick or reduced penetration of walls in home defense applications. One example is the Federal Shorty Shotshells in 12 Gauge at 1-3/4' length.

Where you load the shell, called the chamber of the shotgun, tells you what length of shell you can use. A shotgun with a 3-inch chamber will accept 2¾ inch shells but also 3-inch shells, but a 2¾-inch chamber will not accept 3-inch shells. The fine print stamped on the barrel or your owner’s manual will tell you the chamber size on your shotgun. 

The difference between 2¾ and 3-inch shells is how much smokeless gun powder each contains. Since a 3-inch shell holds more gun powder than one that is 2¾ inches the 3-inch shell will have a greater recoil.


The Three Primary Shotgun Uses and Popular Ammo Recommendations for Each

The following are only basic suggestions about which shotgun ammo to use for each use. Both the science and the opinions surrounding shotgun ammunition use are wide and deep. In addition, some types of ammunition can be used more effectively in certain scenarios by more experienced shooters than by those who are less experienced. Mentioned below are popular or common shotgun ammunitions used for each of the 3 main uses.


Target Shooting / Skeet

In skeet shooting, targets are launched from two “houses” or launch points, usually in sideways paths that intersect in front of the shooter. For sports involving clay targets, you want to use smaller shot. Because Skeet targets are engaged fairly closely to the shooter they are easily broken, so #9 or #8s are the best choice. A hard-hitting load just isn’t needed to break a clay target at close range, and you want a large amount of pellets in the air to increase your odds of hitting that target.

Sporting Clays

Sporting clays offer more complex courses, with multiple launch points. Sporting clays courses generally provide longer shots and often use clay targets that are structurally tougher to break. #8 is a good choice but many shooters will choose the slightly larger #7½. Larger shot like a #6 and bigger can be used, but provide a lower pellet count, and some sporting clays courses prohibit shot larger than 7.5 in their course safety rules because larger shot travels farther and hits harder creating a danger outside the limits of the range.


In trap shooting, the targets are launched from a single machine or "house", usually away from the shooter. The most popular shot sizes for Trap shooting are usually #8 and #7.5.


The types of game that can be hunted with a shotgun are so numerous that it is a topic outside the scope of this explanation of the basics of shotgun ammunition! We recommend researching popular or most-often used shotgun ammo based on what kind of game you will be hunting for and starting your research there.In addition, you will want to make sure that you are aware of any regional or state laws regarding shotgun use and hunting in your area.

Home Defense

You might just want to know what’s the best home defense shotgun ammo but use shotguns in home defense and the best types of both gauge and shotgun ammunition to use is a widely debated topic. While we won’t make specific recommendations here you should research your decisions based on the location(s) that you wish to defend and the experience that those defending have with shotguns and shooting.

It is extremely important to consider several factors including, but not not limited to, the materials and density of your homes’ walls and the proximity of children and neighbors. Careful consideration must be given to make sure that in defending your home you don’t create even bigger problems. With thorough research you can, however, come up with a solid, workable plan for use of a shotgun in home defense. Do your homework and then rest easy with the knowledge that you are using the best shotgun ammunition for your specific home defense plan.

More to Learn!

This concludes our explanation of the basics of shotgun shells. However, if you are interested and you wish to learn more we encourage you to do additional searches for information online and see what’s out there! Many professionals have spent a great deal of time in testing and documenting the performance of both different shotguns and shotgun ammunition performance in varied situations and uses. You will find a sea of articles, charts and videos to feed your interest in learning all aspects of the highly versatile shotgun.

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