shotgun shells

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Now that we’ve talked handgun ammo to death, it’s time to look at shotgun ammo. Shotgun ammunition is much easier than pistol ammo but does have some gotchas. Nowadays most shotguns are chambered in .410, 20 gauge, 16 gauge and 12 gauge. You will also find a few 28 gauge and 10 gauge guns out there, but they are getting rarer by the year.

One of those numbers is not like the others — .410 stands out, because it is measured like a decimal pistol caliber. An unchoked .410 barrel is 0.41 inches in diameter.

All other shotguns are measured in gauge, which is a confusing way of measuring. Basically, it is the weight of a solid sphere of lead the size of the diameter of the bore as a fraction of a pound.

A lead sphere that weighs 1/12 of a pound should just fit the barrel of a 12 gauge shotgun. If it weighs 1/20 of a pound, it should fit the barrel of a 20 gauge shotgun. The bigger the number, the smaller the bore. If we measure the .410 the same way, it would be approximately 67 gauge.

Next is length. You will find that most shotgun shells are listed from 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 inches in length, with 2-1/2 being very rare. Most are 2-3/4 and up. Now, notice I said “listed” and not “measured” — if you measure a 2-3/4-inch shell, it’s going to be about 2-1/4 inches long. That’s because shotgun shells are measured before they’re crimped at the end. So, if you fire a 2-3/4 inch shell and measure the empty case, it should be about 2-3/4 inches long.

Length is important because shotguns are chambered in different lengths. An older Remington 1100 shotgun may accept only 2-3/4 shells, but a newer one can be chambered in 3 inch or 3-1/2. How do you tell? If it’s not engraved on the gun, take it to a competent gunsmith.

The important thing is that you can’t go longer than your shotgun is chambered for. You can shoot 2-3/4 shells in a 3-inch shotgun, but not the other way around. And the bad news: 3-inch shells will fit in a 2-3/4 chamber, but the chamber isn’t made to handle the extra pressure from the additional powder.

Another measurement you may see on a box of shotgun shells is dram, dram equivalent, DR. EQ., or something like that. This is from the crossover period of shotguns. Shotgun shells were originally loaded with black powder, but once smokeless powder was created shotgun shells were moved to that. Smokeless powder is more powerful, and putting a modern smokeless powder shotgun shell in an older shotgun rated for black powder will not end well.

The only way to do it safely is to know how many drams of black powder your shotgun could handle, and then use only the amount of smokeless powder that had that much energy. So modern shotgun shells show the dram equivalent of black powder. But that really only does you any good if you know the dram rating on your old black powder shotgun, and it’s almost never on the actual gun.

Usually the next measurement you will see is an ounce measurement. This is the weight of the shot contained in the shell. Shells weighing 1-1/2 ounces will recoil a little heavier than 1-ounce shells because you’re moving more weight. But if you’re hunting or shooting the Big Three (trap, skeet and sporting clays), you may want more shot in that shell as you have a better chance of hitting your target.

And the final thing you will see is something that designates shot size. That is the size of the actual pellets in the shell. The larger the number, the smaller the shot. For example, No. 7 shot weighs on average 1.5 grains per pellet, or 292 to the ounce. No. 4 shot weighs about 3.3 grains per pellet, or 133 to the ounce.


You will choose shot size based on what you are targeting. If you’re targeting small birds like dove, or shooting the Big Three, you may want smaller shot, something in the 7-1/2 or 8 range. This puts a lot of pellets out there, making it more likely to hit a small moving target, and these smaller targets don’t take a whole lot of energy to kill.

If you’re hunting small mammals like rabbits and squirrel, No. 6 shot is better. You have fewer pellets, but each carries more energy, and your target is mostly stationary. For turkey, you probably want 4 or 2 shot. You will also see 0, 00 and 000 buckshot. The more 0s the larger the shot. These are used for hunting larger mammals like deer, hence buckshot and birdshot.

You will also see some specialty rounds that are a combination of shot sizes. I use shells marketed at turkey hunters that utilize 2 and 4 size shot or 4 and 6 size shot in the same shell.

Finally, there are slugs. These are basically like bullets — one large projectile. Slugs are used for hunting large mammals like deer and bear. Why not just use a rifle? Some states will only let you hunt with shotguns, so slugs are popular.

The big thing to remember with slugs is that there are essentially two types, rifled and non-rifled slugs. Non-rifled slugs are meant to be fired out of specialty slug barrels, which have the rifling in them to spin that round for accuracy. Rifled slugs are meant to be fired out of smoothbore shotguns — as in, the barrel isn’t rifled. These slugs are designed to be self-spinning as they leave the barrel.

On some boxes of shells, you may see a velocity rating, usually in feet per second (FPS). This is to let you know approximately what speed that shot will leave the barrel. This can be important in semi-automatic shotguns, because some semi-auto shotguns need parts changed in order to cycle high-velocity shells and low-velocity shells. It used to be that high-brass shells were high-velocity and low brass shells were low-velocity, but you can’t rely on that anymore.

Most Big Three shooters prefer a lower velocity round for less felt recoil. They are shooting at minimum of 25 rounds in a sitting, and that can be rough on the shoulder. Some small bird hunters also prefer lower recoil shells.

Turkey hunting is a double-edged sword. Most prefer high-velocity shells because they want a quick, clean kill — but at the same time, you’re doing that shooting sometimes with your back against a tree. Hopefully, you’re only shooting once.

That should clear up some of the confusion with shotgun shells. Shotguns are becoming more popular for home and self defense, so knowing what ammunition you are buying is important. Next time: Rifle ammunition.

Capt. Cayle Wills is a salesman and gunsmith at Higher Power Outfitters (1826 Tamiami Trail, Punta Gorda). Contact him at 941-916-4538 or Cayle@HigherPowerOutfitters.com.

Capt. Cayle Wills is a salesman and gunsmith at Higher Power Outfitters (1826 Tamiami Trail, Punta Gorda). Contact him at 941-916-4538 or Cayle@HigherPowerOutfitters.com.

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