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Shotgun Ammo Guide

April 2, 2013


Shotguns are among the most versatile firearms available. With that versatility, a vast and confusing market exists for ammunition. There are thousands of types of shotgun shells, all with different projectiles and powders to give you an edge in whatever task you and your trusty shotgun are trying to accomplish. If you are a beginner to the shotgun world, let’s take a minute and figure out how in the heck we’re supposed to pick out the right ammo.



When shopping for shotgun ammo, the first step is to find the right gauge. The industry measures most shotguns in gauges instead of calibers. You would expect that 12 gauge means some sort of linear measurement, but it isn’t. A 12 gauge means that you can make 12 balls of equal size out of a pound of lead and they will each fit the diameter of the barrel precisely. This is why a 20 gauge is smaller than a 12. This originated when you made your own ammunition and you bought lead by the pound. A notable exception is the .410, which is a very small shotgun measured by its bore size. If we measured the .410 by gauge, it would be roughly equivalent to a 68 gauge.

Chamber length

Once you have your gauge figured out, its time to look at inches. In the case of 12 gauge shotguns, chambers generally come in 2-¾, 3 and 3-½-inch chamber lengths. It is very important that you only fire shells that are the length of, or shorter than your corresponding chamber length. For instance, you can safely fire a 2-¾-inch shell out of a 3-½-inch chamber, but not the other way around. If the shell is too long, you will create too much chamber pressure and you could damage the firearm or more importantly, yourself. However, always check your firearm’s manual to make sure what length of shell it will take. If you don’t know, then just stick with the chamber length you know you have and there won’t be any worries.

Shot Size

Using the proper shot size is very important. You will be much more effective at the sport if you know your way around the various shot sizes. The larger the number, the smaller the individual pellets. Generally, the smaller the pellets, the more there are. For example, a No. 8 dove load will have tiny .09-inch pellets, while a No. 4 turkey load will have fewer pellets, but with .13-inch diameters. Buckshot follows a similar patter, meaning the higher the number, the smaller the individual pellets. No. 3 buckshot pellets measure .25 inches, while 00 or double-aught buckshot measures in at a huge .33-inch per pellet. For hunters, the following chart illustrates proper shot size for various game animals.

Pheasant4 to 62 to 3
Turkey4 to 62 to 3
Quail, dove,7½ to 8
Rabbit6 to 7½
GeeseBB to 2TT to 1
Ducks, low4 to 62 to 4
Ducks, high2 to 4BB to 2

Slugs and sabots

A slug is usually a single projectile fired from a shotgun. It can either be dense and heavy for hunting and combat, or light and less lethal for law enforcement applications. Slugs also offer a way to hunt in areas that outlaw traditional rifle hunting. Most slugs are effective at ranges inside 100 yards, and their weight delivers a large amount of kinetic energy to the target. Newer saboted slugs are metallic projectiles supported by a plastic sabot, which engages the rifling in a rifled shotgun barrel and imparts a ballistic spin onto the projectile. This differentiates them from traditional slugs, which do not typically benefit from a rifled barrel.

Materials used

Lead is still the most common material for shotgun pellets. However, at the beginning of the 21st century, ammo manufacturers began producing lead-free shotshell ammunition loaded with steel, bismuth, or tungsten. The alternative materials are non-toxic and used in various types of hunting, especially waterfowl. If you have an older shotgun, stick with lead. The hardness of non-toxic materials can damage your firearm. Make sure you know your state’s hunting laws before using any type of lead or non-toxic material. Different areas have different requirements and you don’t want to break any hunting laws.

Read and join the discussion on Shotgun Ammo Guide at

Written by Cheaper Than Dirt! · Filed Under Ammunition, Hunting Tips, nopromo, Shotgun Hunting, Shotguns 

The Anatomy of a Shotshell

February 22, 2013


We all know what a shotgun shell is, right? Are you sure? Not all shotshells are alike. While just about anything available will do the job, it’s the little things you need to be aware of that can increase your success.

Speed sells, but who’s buying?

A short while ago, we were obsessed with speed. I could throw in a few quotes from Ricky Bobby here, but you know what I mean. There was a speed war being waged in the shotshell market for a time. It seemed like every manufacturer was taking basic steel shot and pushing down the barrel faster and faster. Standard velocities for a 12 gauge, 3-inch magnum load quickly rose from 1,200 feet per second (FPS) to 1,500 and beyond. Several manufacturers’ 3 ½- inch loads were hitting 1,700 FPS.

What good does the extra speed do for you? It goes back to when the laws were passed making non-toxic shot required for waterfowl. The density of lead made it fly significantly different than early steel shot loads, which weren’t great. Poor velocity had hunters crying foul and looking for alternatives. That desire for performance lead in two directions at first.

Federal Premium released the first 3 ½-inch 12 gauge loads in the late 1980s. It was a joint venture with Mossberg to increase payload, although originally designed as a turkey gun. Steel shot loads soon followed. The goal was to capture some of the performance of the 10 gauge in a readily available product with a wider commercial appeal. It was also an attempt to increase the lethality of the steel shot load by putting more powder behind it and making the load bigger.


A half-inch can make quite the difference in payload.

“Technically, 12 gauge 3 ½-inch shotshells have the ability to contain more shot and are launched at higher energy levels (payload/velocity balance), thus they have the ability to be used on longer shots,” said Erik Carlson, Federal Premium Shotshell Product Development Manager.

The next advancement was speed. Manufacturers played with different powder and load combinations to increase speed. From the late 1990s to today’s market, we have faster loads than ever before. The problem inherent with steel shot loads is that the density of steel is less than the density of lead, meaning that a BB-size pellet of lead will weigh more than the same size pellet made from steel. With this decrease in density, the steel load loses velocity much quicker, reducing range and lethality. The industry answered by pushing the shot out of the barrel faster. The waterfowl hunting world was ready and waiting.

Aside from advancements in powder, there were also leaps in wad technology. The latest wads were cupping the shot tighter coming out of the barrel and hold it together longer, increasing the overall mass of the payload and increasing both speed and range.

Better shot

With the search for new things driving the market, advancements in the actual shot construction soon followed. One of the first advancements was making the steel shot perfectly round and uniform. A few years ago, Federal Premium introduced its FlightStopper FS Steel, with its center cutting ring that stabilizes the shot in the air and creates devastating wound channels on birds. Winchester also released its Hex shot in the Blindside ammo line. The Hex shot packs tighter in the shotshell, increasing the density.

There was also a huge push toward steel alternatives for shot materials. Alternative metal ammunition became a highly competitive market, with HEVI-Shot, Winchester’s Xtended Range, Kent’s Tungsten Matrix, Federal’s Ultra-Shok, and Remington’s Wingmaster HD, among others. Tungsten, bismuth and other blends offered non-lead alternatives that had the shooting characteristics of lead shot, but were legal under the federal regulations. They remain a bit of a headache for conservation enforcement officers looking to collar violators, especially with those who hand load their own shells.

The biggest issue with steel alternative, non-toxic loads is the expense. Most of the manufacturers sell these loads in 10-round boxes at a cost equal or greater to a 25-round box of steel or more.

There are some great advantages though. For one, the advancements in powder that came from the speed revolution propel these new loads at great speeds and they carry the energy well. In shooting tests at the range, I have seen lethal pellet counts at 100 yards and more from 12 gauge, 3 ½-inch loads of BB and F shot. Of course, I’m still not taking that shot in the field, but it is good to know. This is also good news for hunters who have the occasional coyote come over to check out the decoy spread. More than one coyote has made this fatal mistake around me.


Depending on the load, a 3-inch shell may produce a higher velocity than the same shot in a 3 1/2-inch shell.

There has also been a push to combine steel shot and the alternative loads in one shell. These shells give hunters the best of both worlds at a lower cost. HEVI-Steel loads from HEVI-Shot are a very popular example.

These advancements have hunters looking to mix it up when it comes to shells. Companies are still selling more 3-inch 12 gauge loads. When the 3 ½-inch shell was first introduced, there was a big surge in moving towards the longer shell because of its bigger payloads.

“While I don’t have hard data to reference specifically, I think the trend back towards the 3-inch is in large part to the advancements in steel ammunition technology,” said Tim Brandt, marketing and communications manager for Federal Premium. “Products like Black Cloud allow hunters to get outstanding performance without having to move up to 3 ½- inch shells. That being said, 3 ½-inch options are still very popular, and many hunters prefer them.”

The side effects of speed

There is a side effect and one that affects every hunter out there. In shotguns, as with anything, with any action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, with the increase in speed, there is an increase in recoil. If you’re not ready, an increase in recoil can lead to an increase in misses.

“I like to think of the ‘hunter’ and ‘weapon/ammunition’ as a system that has a different optimum balance for everyone,” Brandt said. “The excess recoil in large shotgun shells may quickly create bad habits for hunters, causing an increase in missed birds.”

With that, shotgun manufacturers have been looking at recoil reduction systems. One of the best on the market is Beretta’s Kick-Off system. The Kick-Off is a hydraulic dampening reduction system that reduces recoil 44 percent, Beretta claims. It uses two hydraulic recoil dampers incorporated into the stock. The recoil energy is gradually dissipated by the hydraulic dampers. Other companies have used anything from mercury-filled weights in the stock to massive shock-absorbing recoil pads.

Ported barrels do reduce recoil and muzzle jump to some extent, but at the cost of increased noise back to the shooter. If you’re shooting in a blind, boat, or pit with other hunters, they will surely notice the increase in noise. Hearing protection is a must.

With all of the advancements in shotshells and shotguns, waterfowlers have a huge advantage. But you still have to practice. You still have to find the birds and get them to come in. And you still have to be able to hit them when it comes time to pull the trigger. It may be better, but it still isn’t easy.

Read and join the discussion on The Anatomy of a Shotshell at

Written by Hard Core Decoys · Filed Under Ammunition, Hunting Supplies/Gear, Hunting Tips, Waterfowl Hunting 

Finding the Magic Bullet: Benefit or Baloney?

September 6, 2012


I was at a local gun shop when a guy came up to me. “Aren’t you the guy who writes about shooting in the paper?” I replied that I was. “Well, I’ve got a question,” he said, and then he went to length explaining how he’d bought a quality .243 rifle and it wouldn’t shoot better than one minute of angle, or MOA, a rifleman’s description for one inch groups at 100 yards. He said he’d tried a dozen different loads and brands of ammunition and that was all he could get.

I told him one MOA was great accuracy from a hunting rifle and I’d be happy with that. He looked at me as if I was just trying to get rid of him. “You really think so? I read about guys who shoot half-inch groups all the time, why can’t I shoot groups like that?”

Great groups happen. I have two or three hanging around in my office. I have even more targets I shot in matches, past, or practice sessions that were impressive; I keep them around because they make me feel good. They make me feel good because I don’t shoot that way all the time. For some reason, I never save the bad groups or targets and I don’t show them off to my friends, it’s human nature.

All this being said, how can I say that testing multiple loads to see which shoots better in your rifle isn’t productive? I can say it because most people simply don’t have the time or resources to test extensively enough. A better way to approach it is to test loads to find the ones your rifle doesn’t like. Not long ago, I had several different loads of .223 to test. I had a few different rifles including one belonging to a friend, Dave, who was helping me in the testing. There was a specific .223 load that I won’t mention by name because to do so might prejudice someone against perfectly good ammunition, something that happens all the time, anyway.

We fired the specialty ammunition in a couple of my rifles and it did fine, not exceptionally good or bad. It shot about the average group size of the rifle. Then we shot it in Dave’s rifle. The first shot, we checked the scope to see if it was loose. The shot was five inches from where a similar bullet weight had impacted. The next shot was at least six inches from the first shot, closer to the rifle’s zero but still not a good shot. We shot five shots and the group wasn’t within eight inches. We went back to the ammunition Dave normally shoots and the rifle was fine. Back to the specialty ammunition and you couldn’t hit a ball cap. The rifle just wouldn’t shoot that ammunition for some unexplained reason.

I’ve never seen a case so extreme but I’ve seen similar situations over and over. For some reason, some rifles don’t like some ammunition. The kind of testing most shooters do will determine if their rifle simply won’t shoot a specific ammunition but finding which ammunition really is best is much more complicated. OK, I still haven’t explained why I’m saying most testing is not effective other than to say we don’t test enough.

When I ran the state rifle team, I needed a way to test a lot of M14 rifles. M14s are hard to scope and neither I nor any of my team members were good enough to simply shoot the guns with iron sights to determine accuracy. Shooter fatigue would have killed anyone trying to do so: all, we had 26 M14s and a dozen or so privately-owned M1As and all needed at least 20 rounds through them to test. Remember, the rifles had iron sights and we were looking for MOA accuracy so bench rest testing would have been tough. I built a test cradle that held the gun and recoiled on tracks and could be pushed back to the exact same place. The good rifles would shoot ten shots from the magazine, rapid fire, and put all ten shots in less than two inches at 200 yards, quite a feat for a semiautomatic service rifle. The main purpose of the testing was to put the very best rifles in the hands of the very best shooters. I was only determining the inferior rifles, not determining which was the very best rifle.

If we had a rifle that was really exceptional, we’d shoot some extra groups to be sure. Sometimes a rifle would shoot an incredible group, maybe ten shots in less than an inch. Remember, these are ten-shot groups, not the three- or five-shot groups most shooters use as a test. The next group, the rifle might print the same ammunition, just a minute or so later, into a four-inch group. That rifle was no better than a rifle that shot four inches all the time. It was eliminated from the better rifles. You can get fluke groups even when they are ten shots.

If you think you can find the best load for your rifle by shooting ten rounds, try this experiment. Shoot ten five-shot groups with the same rifle using the same ammunition on the same day. I’ll wager you get some groups that are markedly better than others. Now imagine if you were just shooting two five-shot groups with five brands of .22 ammunition. If you consider groups one and two one brand, groups three and four another brand and so on, you’ll find a pair of groups that’s markedly better and one that’s worse, all shot with identical ammunition. The fact is that bad ammunition will occasionally shoot a great five-shot group and to determine which is best you need to shoot a whole lot of shots over and over and keep very good records.

So, how much do you have to shoot to really tell if one load shoots better than another? At least five ten-shot groups to determine a statistical trend. Allowing ten minutes to cool the barrel of a lightweight hunting rifle between each ten shots (and you have to shoot each group with consistent conditions to have an effective test), it will take almost an hour for each load you check. Further, if you’re shooting a high-velocity magnum caliber like a 7mm Remington Magnum, you will have used up 25% of the rifle’s barrel life before you find the best of just five loadings. For twenty loadings, you’d use up the barrel completely and have to begin again.

For hunting rifles, the best thing is to first determine the bullet weight range that matches the twist rate of your barrel and choose a few loads that have a good reputation. Test with a minimum of twenty shots with each load and be scientific about barrel heat and cleaning consistency. Four- and five-shot groups aren’t definitive but it will give you an idea. Use the load that performs best, but realize there is probably a better load out there if you had the time and money to pursue it. If you have unlimited finances and time, you could find a loading that really does shoot better, but finding out could take days and weeks of testing with more than twenty shots per load and cost thousands of dollars. A more realistic approach is to find a load that shoots well and will perform and have faith in it. Faith is a good thing when accuracy counts.

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Written by Lewis Creek Shooting School · Filed Under Ammunition, Hunting Supplies/Gear, Hunting Tips, Reloading, Rifles is neither affiliated with the authors of this page nor responsible for its contents. This is a safe-cache copy of the original web site.