Ins and Outs of Shotgun Loads Explained

It can be a bit overwhelming and confusing for a person just getting into the world of firearms. Ammunition can be particularly confusing as it relates to the different types and kinds.

When I was growing up, I primarily used shotguns for hunting, and it took me a while to understand and remember the many kinds of loads there are.

So, I thought I would put together a quick guide for understanding shotgun loads. It really is not all that difficult, but it may take a bit of time before you start to remember all of it.

Let us go ahead and jump right into it, starting with the basics of shotgun shell anatomy.

Shell Anatomy

The ammunition used in a shotgun is called a shell. They consist of a primer, rim, small brass casing, gunpowder, wad, shot or a slug, and a plastic shell casing. All of this makes up the shell itself. Shells that contain shot are crimped closed at the end while shells containing slugs are left open.

How a Shotgun Shell Works

When the firing pin strikes the primer, a spark is created that ignites the gunpowder. This in turn creates a small explosion that propels the wad and the projectile or projectiles down the barrel of the shotgun.

The wad helps to hold the shot together as it travels down the barrel and it falls away relatively quickly after exiting the barrel as the shot continues to travel downrange.


The larger the brass section of the shell is, the more gunpowder there is. These are sometimes referred to as “hot loads,” or shells that have more power to them. Both the amount of gunpowder as well as larger-sized projectiles are what produce recoil.

Shell Sizes

The next thing to observe about a shell is its length and diameter. The length is indicative of what the shotgun is chambered in, or what length of shells it can accept. Common lengths are 2 ½”, 3”, and 3 ½”.

A shotgun can accept shells that are shorter than it is chambered in but not ones that are longer. For example, one that is chambered in 3 ½” can accept 2 ¾”, 2 ½”, and 3” shells. But one that is chambered in 2 ¾” cannot accept a 3” or larger shell.

The diameter of the shell is more about what gauge a shotgun is which I will go into more detail about in the next section.

Never attempt to load shells into a shotgun that are the wrong size as that can cause a catastrophic failure and a serious safety issue.

What is Gauge?

What gauge a shotgun is, correlates to the pellets size. It is based on how many equally sized pellets can be made from a one-pound piece of lead and shot through a barrel.

For example, a 12-gauge shotgun will shoot twelve equally sized pellets made from one pound of lead. Whereas a 20 gauge will shoot twenty equally sized pellets.

Shotgun gauges

The type of shotgun gauges are .410, 28, 20, 16, 12, and 10. As the gauge number decreases in number, the larger the shotgun and shell are. The exception is the .410 which is the smallest of the lot. 

Beginners usually start out using a .410 through 16 gauge because those shotguns usually are lighter in weight and produce less recoil.

Shell Projectiles

Shotgun shells can contain several different types of projectiles, but the two most common projectiles are shot and slugs.

Slugs are a single projectile typically made from a solid piece of lead. They are used to hunt larger game, such as deer, in areas where rifle rounds are not desired. This is because bullets from rifles can travel a much greater distance than slugs. 

The shot is a bunch of small round pellets, much like BBs, and they come in many different sizes. The number on a shotshell indicates the size and how many pellets are inside the shell. As the number decreases, the larger the pellets become and the fewer of them fit inside the shell.

For example, #9 shot is quite small and has upwards of several hundred pellets, whereas #2 shot has larger pellets that number less than one hundred.

At the lowest end is buckshot which has very few large pellets. This type of shell is used for hunting large game, self-defense, and is often used among police officers and military personnel. 

Shot Material

For a long time, the shot in shotgun shells has been made from lead. Due to its toxicity, lead shot has been banned for certain hunting purposes and even some shooting ranges do not allow it. More modern materials include shot made from steel, brass and tungsten.

Lead shot is preferred among hunters because lead is softer than steel. When a lead pellet hits a target, it flattens out and causes more damage. Harder pellets such as steel do not cause as much damage and can pass right through an animal.  In terms of hunting, lead shot can be far more effective than other options.

A Box of Shells

When you go to a gun store or any store that sells ammunition, looking at a shelf of ammunition can be a bit like looking at a secret code you are trying to decipher, but it is not all that difficult to understand.

Look at the following picture as you read through the rest of this section.

Starting from the left is the gauge. Remember that this is the type of shell that fits into the shotgun and different gauges should not be intermixed. You should not load a 16-gauge shell into a 12-gauge shotgun.

Next on the flap, are inches. This tells you how long the shell is. Again, make sure you know what your shotgun is chambered in so that you are using the appropriately sized shells.

The velocity of the shell is sometimes listed as FPS which stands for feet per second. The lower the velocity is, the slower the shot will travel, and less recoil will also be produced.

Smokeless gunpowder is what is used in most of today’s ammunition, but it used to be black powder. Dram is a measurement of black powder so the equivalent of that is listed on the box. The higher the dram, the more recoil the shell will produce.

The ounces refer to the weight and the amount of shot or slug that is inside the shell.

The number on the end tells you the shot size. Remember the size of the shot increases as the number decreases. Higher numbered shot is used for smaller game, while lower numbered shot is used for larger game.

Lastly, the box will indicate what type of material the shot or slug is made from. The most common materials are lead, steel, and tungsten.

Wrap Up

I hope that the above information helps you to better understand both how shotgun shells work and how to choose them.

Thanks for reading.

If you have any questions or thoughts on the above article, please feel free to sound off in the comment section below!

Written by Bryan Lynch

Bryan grew up in the Midwest and spent every waking moment outdoors. Learning how to hunt, fish, read the land, and be self-reliant was part of everyday life. Eventually, he combined his passions for the outdoors, emergency preparedness, and writing. His goal was to spread positive information about this field. In 2019, Bryan authored the book Swiss Army Knife Camping and Outdoor Survival Guide. His second book, Paracord Projects For Camping and Outdoor Survival, is scheduled to be released on March 2, 2021. Read more of Bryan's articles.