The shotgun is a true symbol of defending yourself and your own.
It is a firearm for defense and not offense, as even the best slugs on the market do not hold a candle to most rifle bullets’ accuracy. This isn’t to suggest a shotgun can’t hold its own in combat, of course. Police everywhere rely on shotguns when their pistols aren’t up to the dangerous task at hand, and the Winchester Model 1897 proved so effective during World War I’s trench warfare that the Germans protested its use during combat.
But the beauty of the shotgun is its versatility. A single 12 Gauge shotgun is as capable of hunting the smallest birds as it is anchoring a huge whitetail. You don’t have to kill anything at all to enjoy firing your shotgun. Trap, skeet and sporting clays are all some of the best fun you can have, and setting up a watermelon on a sawhorse where you can barrage it with double-aught is downright splendid.
If you’ve just added a shotgun to your arsenal for home defense, hunting, or sport shooting, all you need now is the right ammo. We’re not going to recommend specific brands of ammo in this article. Instead we’re going to go over the different types of shotshell projectiles, each of which dictates what their respective shells are designed for.
Before we get to that, let’s quickly answer a couple of the questions new shotgun owners ask most often.
Can You Fire a Rifled Slug in a Smoothbore Shotgun?
This question comes up a lot because the answer to it is so darn unintuitive. In brief: Sabot slugs are for rifled bore barrels, and rifled slugs are for smoothbore barrels.
To better explain, a shotgun can have one of two types of barrel: rifled bore, or smoothbore. The surface of the inside of a rifled bore barrel has rifling, i.e. spiraling grooves and lands which impart rotational stability to a projectile to promote greater accuracy. All modern rifle and handgun barrels have rifled bores. A smoothbore, on the other hand, is just that: smooth, with no rifling at all.
Like a rifle or handgun, a rifled bore is designed to stabilize a slug (a single large shotgun projectile, in contrast to multiple round pellets of shot). A rifled bore shotgun is specifically designed to fire sabot slugs, which have little plastic sleeves (aka sabots) that engage with the grooves and lands to impart spin to the projectile.
A smoothbore is usually used for shot, but it can also fire a rifled slug. A rifled slug has grooves, but these do not serve to give the projectile improved rotational stability. They don’t make it spin in flight at all – instead, they enable the rifled slug to safely pass through a choke tube.
If you fire a rifled slug through a rifled bore, there is a good chance you will damage the barrel. If you fire a sabot slug through a smoothbore, you’ll get absolutely terrible accuracy as the slug begins to flip around upon exiting the muzzle.
What Are Choke Tubes?
A choke tube constricts the shot column upon exiting the muzzle to influence how densely it patterns downrange. The tighter the constriction, the farther the range. A shotgun barrel may have no choke tube, an integral choke tube, or a design that permits its owner to outfit it with any choke tube of their choosing.
These are the most commonly used choke tubes:
- Cylinder: Zero constriction. The Cylinder choke places roughly 40% of a shell’s pellets within a 30” circle at 40 yards. Often used by law enforcement professionals and homeowners for self-defense.
- Improved Cylinder (Imp Cyl): Light constriction. The Imp Cyl choke places roughly 50% of a shell’s pellets in a 30” circle at 40 yards. Good for close-range waterfowl or upland game hunting, as well as rifled slugs.
- Modified (Mod): Medium restriction. The Imp Cyl choke places roughly 60% of a shell’s pellets in a 30” circle at 40 yards. Good for average waterfowl hunting conditions, farther away upland game, and trap shooting.
- Full: Tight constriction. The Full choke places roughly 70% of a shell’s pellets in a 30” circle at 40 yards. Good for hunting distant waterfowl, turkey, whitetail, and trap shooting.
- Super-Full (aka Extra Full): Extremely tight restriction. A Full choke delivers the densest possible pattern and is most often used for turkey hunting when the accuracy needed to make a head shot is desired.
- Skeet: The Skeet choke places roughly 50% of a shell’s pellets within a 30” circle at 25 yards, which is optimal for close-range skeet shooting.
Now that we’ve covered rifled bores, smoothbores, and choke tubes, let’s talk about which kinds of shotshell projectiles you want for various applications. The chart below is a quick reference to the most common shot pellets’ diameters and applications. (Note that the chart is not exhaustive. There are other less common shot pellets available, and a shot pellet’s applications are not entirely set in stone.)
|#12||.050″||Pests (rats, scorpions, spiders, etc.)|
|#8||.090″||Snipe, woodcock, quail, trap, sporting clays|
|#7.5||.095″||Quail, dove, grouse, partridge, snipe, woodcock, rabbit, trap, sporting clays|
|#7||.100″||Quail, dove, grouse, partridge, snipe, woodcock, rabbit|
|#6||.110″||Turkey, grouse, partridge, rabbit, squirrel|
|#4||.130″||Turkey, ducks (over decoys)|
|#3||.140″||Ducks (over decoys)|
|#2||.150″||Ducks (pass shooting), ducks (over decoys)|
|#1||.160″||Ducks (pass shooting)|
|B||.170″||Geese, ducks (pass shooting)|
|BB||.180″||Geese, ducks (pass shooting)|
|#4 Buckshot||.24″||Predators, deer, home defense|
|#3 Buckshot||.25″||Predators, deer, home defense|
|#1 Buckshot||.30″||Predators, deer, home defense|
|0 Buckshot||.32″||Predators, deer, home defense|
|00 Buckshot||.33″||Deer, hogs, home defense|
|000 Buckshot||.36″||Deer, hogs, home defense|
The higher the shot number, the smaller its diameter. (Shot pellet sizes work similarly to fishing hook sizes in that regard.) The smaller shot pellets become, the more of them can fit inside a shell. For example, one ounce of #9 lead shot contains 585 pellets; one ounce of #5 lead shot contains 170 pellets.
Birdshot covers everything from #12 to T shot. Its name is not misleading: Birdshot is optimal for killing birds without mangling their trophies, and it’s also suitable for shooting sports like trap, skeet, and sporting clays where the motion of the clay disc is intended to mimic that of smaller live game.
In general, as your quarry becomes smaller, so too should your shot pellets. Smaller diameter shot pellets deliver a denser pattern – exactly what you want for hunting little birds like quail and woodcock, as it will (A) have a better chance of overlapping with so small a target, and (B) not pelt the bird with so much shot that it will render its trophy unrecognizable.
Smaller shot pellets become less effective the larger the quarry becomes, as they carry less momentum and accordingly strike their target with less energy. If you were to shoot a turkey with #9 shot, for example, the little pellets would have difficulty penetrating its coarse feathers and tough body. #9 shot could in fact kill a turkey, but the odds of it just badly injuring the bird would be very high.
Trap, skeet and sporting clays all call for the smallest shot pellets. These sports revolve around shooting small, delicate, fast-moving targets dozens of yards away, so a dense spread of #7.5 to #9 shot is perfect. It is also acceptable to play these sports with larger shot pellets if you’re training with your preferred hunting loads.
Although still technically birdshot, #3, #2, #1, B, BB, BBB, and T shot pellets are nearly exclusively made out of steel. Why is this? Because this shot is commonly used to hunt waterfowl, which live in a sensitive habitat that could become polluted by lead. Unlike lead shot, steel shot is nontoxic and therefore far safer for wildlife.
Steel does have a huge disadvantage, however: It is significantly less dense than lead. In simpler terms, a steel shot pellet weighs less than a lead pellet of the same diameter. As the result, a steel shot pellet carries less momentum and resultant killing energy than a lead pellet traveling at the same velocity. This is one of the reasons why waterfowl loads are commonly longer than 2-3/4” – it lets them contain more shot pellets. It’s also why waterfowl hunting shells are often loaded to extremely fast muzzle velocities.
Nontoxic alternatives to lead such as tungsten and bismuth are also used to make legally compliant waterfowl shot (as well as shot for hunting upland birds in sensitive habitats). These metals are both much denser than steel (albeit far more expensive), which enables them to retain more momentum over longer distances.
Buckshot pellets are at least 0.24” in diameter. As its name implies, buckshot is suitable for hunting deer, but it’s also used to hunt hogs, predators such as coyotes, and even elk.
Why use buckshot to hunt deer instead of a rifle? Largely because it offers a big advantage in certain environments. In areas with dense forest or thick vegetation, many obstacles could intercept the trajectory of a rifle bullet to make it inaccurate. But 12 pellets of 00 buck don’t have this problem. If an intrusive branch deflects one pellet, 11 more are still on the way to ruin a whitetail’s day.
Buckshot is also the most popular choice of shotgun projectile for home defense. It is certainly powerful to quickly neutralize a human-sized threat – far more so than a pistol and even many rifles (including the AR-15) at close range. Buckshot also delivers a wider area of effect than a single bullet could ever manage, which gives the homeowner some room for error while they are defending their homestead during a stressful situation.
Buckshot may also avoid the problem of penetrating multiple walls to jeopardize an innocent bystander. Smaller buckshot pellets generally deal less damage to a threat, but because they are lighter and smaller they also pose less risk of penetrating multiple sheets of wallboard. That said, there’s good reason why cops prefer 00 buckshot in their dangerous line of work – it’s super effective.
A slug shell has a large, single projectile instead of multiple shot pellets. This enables a shotgun to perform comparably to a rifle!
A slug offers greater long-range accuracy than shot, and it also delivers much more energy to the point of impact than a single shot pellet could manage. A slug is accordingly capable of substantially deeper penetration, and if outfitted with a hollow point nose cavity or polymer tip it may also deliver terminal expansion inside of soft tissue. (Expanding as it penetrates soft tissue makes a projectile substantially deadlier.)
Slugs are also excellent for home defense. We do occasionally see the left-leaning media and the Big Tech platforms it dominates declare that overpowered firearms shouldn’t be permitted for personal protection, but at the end of the day the way you choose to keep yourself safe shouldn’t come down to politics. If you believe that a slug, which can deliver nearly ten times as much energy following close-range impact as a 9mm bullet, is necessary for protecting your family, then it’s your God-given right to employ it for that all-important job.
You don’t see very much frangible shotgun ammunition on the market, but it is available and should be on your radar if you ever plan to shoot steel targets at close range.
Frangible shotshells are available loaded with either slugs or buckshot. Instead of lead, their projectiles are made of compressed non-toxic metal powders. When a frangible slug or shot pellet hits a surface harder than itself, it instantly disintegrates. This will all but completely eliminate the chance of a ricochet or splash-back injuring you while you’re shooting nearby hard targets.
Some people also choose frangible shotgun shells for home defense. They do so because their projectiles are less likely to punch through walls where they can cause collateral damage. If you decide to take this approach to home defense as well, take care that a frangible load is still capable of ripping through walls.
Some shells are loaded with less lethal projectiles like rubber balls or beanbags. These are typically used by law enforcement officers and prison guards for riot control. They are also available to the civilian market, but to be very certain: a “less lethal” projectile can still be plenty lethal if it hits a vulnerable area like the eye. Also, whatever you do, don’t shoot steel targets with rubber ball shotshells!
There are more specifics to which kind of ammo you should buy for a shotgun, as not all shotshells are created equally and some offer performance advantages that others do not. But if you follow these guidelines, you’ll be able to buy the correct ammo for any application you might have in mind for your shotgun!