Academy Sports and Outdoors Logo
Academy Sports + Outdoors
Academy, LTD
skip to main content

Free 2 Hour In Store Pick Up & Curbside

Main content starts here.

What Shotgun Gauge Sizes Should I Use for Hunting?

WriterAubrey McShan
12 min read
 Man holds up a shotgun with a shell in the chamber as he prepares his next shot from behind hunting netting

Choosing the right shotgun gauge can make the difference between a successful hunt and a missed opportunity. It's not just about ammo size or recoil strength. Matching your unique needs — whether it's hunting game or home defense — is also very important.

In this guide, we'll simplify the complexities of shotgun gauges — helping you make informed decisions to enhance your shooting experience. Keep reading to learn the ins and outs of shotgun gauges!

Key Takeaways

What Is a Shotgun Gauge?

A shotgun gauge refers to the diameter of the shotgun's bore, which determines the size of the ammunition. Common shotgun gauge sizes include the 10 gauge, 12 gauge, 16 gauge, 20 gauge, 28 gauge, and .410 bore.

  • The gauge number is inversely related to ammo size. For instance, a 12-gauge shotgun fires larger pellets than a 20-gauge. This is because the number ‘12’ means a lead ball fitting the bore weighs 1/12th of a pound.
  • The exception is the .410, which is a caliber, not a gauge. If expressed as a gauge, it would be approximately 67 ½, firing smaller pellets than the others.
 The diameter of the barrel sizes ranging from 10 gauge to .410 bore are depicted.

Shotgun Gauge Sizes

Understanding the various shotgun gauges might seem daunting initially. For a quick and easy overview, refer to our handy table below:

Common Shotgun Gauges Sizes Chart
Gauge Bore Diameter Recoil Common Game for Gauge Preferred Shot Sizes
.410 .410” Very low Rabbit, squirrel #6, #7.5, #9
28 .550” Low Rabbit, squirrel, snipe, quail, woodcock #7.5, #8, #9
20 .615” Low Rabbit, squirrel, dove, grouse, partridge, snipe, quail, woodcock #6, #7.5, #8
16 .662" Moderate Turkey, duck, goose, deer, dove, grouse, partridge #5, #6, #7.5
12 .729” Moderate Turkey, pheasant, duck, goose, dove, grouse, partridge, deer, bear #2, #4, #6
10 .775” High Turkey, duck, goose #BB, #1, #2

What Are the Most Common Shotgun Gauges?

The most common shotgun gauge sizes (from largest to smallest) are 10 gauge, 12 gauge, 16 gauge, 20 gauge, 28 gauge, and .410 bore. When you're in the market for a shotgun, the first decision you'll need to make is the gauge. Once you've determined that, you can refine your options further: considering factors like brand, price, and more.

.410 Gauge for Shotguns

 Rossi Single Shot Tuffy™ .410 Bore Shotgun

The .410 gauge is the smallest type of shotgun, offering a unique blend of comfort and versatility.

  • Gentle Recoil: The .410 gauge is known for its manageable recoil — making it a comfortable choice for many shooters.
  • Game Hunting and Pest Control: Despite its smaller size, it's effective for various uses like game hunting and pest control.
  • Ideal for Beginners and Light Firearm Enthusiasts: Its gentle recoil and compact size make it an excellent option for those new to shooting or for those who prefer a lighter firearm.

28 Gauge for Shotguns

The 28 gauge is the third most popular type of shotgun that is prized for its lightweight design and modest recoil.

  • Popularity: It ranks as the third most popular shotgun type for its widespread use and acceptance.
  • Ammo Availability and Cost: The ammunition for a 28 gauge can be more expensive and harder to find due to its specific size.
  • Small Game Hunting: It's particularly effective for small game hunting (like doves, squirrels, and similar game).
  • Lightweight and Modest Recoil: The 28 gauge is known for its lightweight design and modest recoil. Both features make it a comfortable choice for many shooters.

20 Gauge for Shotguns

  Mossberg Maverick 88 20 Gauge All-Purpose Pump-Action Shotgun

The 20 gauge is the most common type of shotgun that is known for its shooting versatility and manageable recoil.

  • Popularity: As the most common shotgun gauge, it's widely used and accepted across various shooting activities from skeet shooting to dove hunting.
  • Lighter Weight and Less Recoil: Compared to the 12 gauge, the 20 gauge is lighter and has less recoil: making it a comfortable choice for many shooters.
  • Ammo Variety: There's a wide range of ammunition to choose from, adding to its versatility.
  • Upland and Small Game Hunting: Particularly effective for upland hunting and small game, 20 gauge shotguns are favored amongst many hunters.
  • Distinctive Ammo Color: The ammunition for a 20 gauge shotgun is always yellow, making it easy to identify.

16 Gauge for Shotguns

  • Upland Hunting: The 16 gauge is commonly used and effective for upland birds (like pheasant).
  • Limited Ammunition: The ammunition for a 16 gauge can be more limited, which usually requires some additional planning and preparation.
  • Bird Hunting with Hounds: The 16 gauge excels for hunting birds with the assistance of hounds.

12 Gauge for Shotguns

Mossberg Maverick 88 Security 12 Gauge Pump-Action Shotgun

The 12 gauge is a popular and versatile type of shotgun that is suitable for mid-sized game and available in a variety of shots.

  • Popularity: The 12 gauge is one of the most popular shotgun types — widely used across various shooting activities.
  • Versatility: Its versatility is one of its key strengths, making it suitable for a day of deer hunting or duck hunting.
  • Mid-Sized Game Hunting: It's particularly effective for hunting mid-sized game because of its power and range capabilities.
  • Variety of Shots: The 12 gauge is available in a variety of shots: including birdshot, buckshot, and slugs.
  • Recoil Consideration: Due to its recoil, it may not be the best choice for beginners or those sensitive to recoil. But you can use recoil pads to protect your shoulder.

10 Gauge for Shotguns

The 10 gauge is a heavy-duty shotgun that is primarily used for waterfowl hunting. However, its powerful recoil and larger bore size may not be for everyone.

  • Waterfowl Hunting: Hunters commonly use the 10 gauge for hunting waterfowl: including ducks and geese.
  • Heavy Firearm: As a heavy firearm, the 10 gauge requires more strength and stamina to handle effectively.
  • Forceful Recoil: It's known for its forceful recoil, which is not suitable for all shooters.
  • Bigger Bore Size: The 10 gauge has a larger bore size, which allows for larger ammunition and improved stopping power.
  • Ammo Availability: Ammunition for a 10 gauge can be harder to find.

Expert Tip:

Consider a 10 gauge for hunting geese or swans.

Understanding Shell Lengths and Pellet Sizes

Shotgun shells are classified by gauges — with most shells available in different lengths. The length of the shell you need is determined by your firearm, so it's crucial to check this before making a purchase.

Shotgun Shell Lengths

Standard shell lengths vary, and understanding these can help you make the right choice for your shooting needs. To get a clearer picture, look at the graph detailing these standard shell lengths.

Shell Lengths
Gauge .410 28 20 16 12 10
Shell Lengths 2 ½”, 3” 2 ¾” 2 ¾”, 3” 2 ¾” 2 ¾”, 3”, 3 ½” 3 ½”

Shotguns with longer chambers can accommodate smaller shells, but the reverse isn't true — smaller chambers cannot safely fire larger shells. Most shotgun shells are made of lead, but there are regulations to consider. For example, when hunting waterfowl, non-toxic lead shots are required.

Expert Tip:

When shopping for ammo, you'll find key information on the box: the gauge it's designed for, the length of the shot after firing, the dram equivalent of powder, the weight of the shot in ounces, and the size of the shot.

Shotgun Shell Pellet Sizes

Next, let’s dive deeper into a more detailed look at the number of individual lead pellets per ounce for each shot size. As the shot size increases, the number of pellets decreases. This will help you understand the relationship between shot size and pellet count

Shell Lengths
Shot Size Diameter # of Lead Pellets Per Ounce
9 .080” (2.03mm) 585
8 .090” (2.29mm) 410
7 1/2 .095” (2.41mm) 350
7 .100” (2.54mm) 291
6 .110” (2.79mm) 225
5 .120” (3.05mm) 170
4 .130” (3.30mm) 135
3 .140” (3.56mm) 108
2 .150” (3.81mm) 87
1 .160” (4.06mm) 72
BB .180” (4.57mm) 50
BBB .190” (4.83mm) 44
#4 Buckshot .240” (6.10mm) 21
#3 Buckshot .250” (6.35mm) 18
#2 Buckshot .270” (6.86mm) 14
#1 Buckshot .300” (7.62mm) 11
0 Buckshot .320” (8.13mm) 9
00 Buckshot .330” (8.38mm) 8
000 Buckshot .360” (9.14mm) 6.2

What Gauge Shotgun Is Best for Home Defense?

When it comes to home defense, 12 and 20-gauge shotguns are the most popular choices.

  • While the 12 gauge is more commonly used, the 20 gauge may be a better fit for smaller shooters due to its lesser recoil.
  • Ensure that the shotgun is suitable for the family member who intends to use it.

Expert Tip:

Comfort, ease of use, and the ability to handle the recoil are all important factors to consider when choosing a shotgun for home defense.

What Is the Weakest Shotgun Gauge?

The .410 is considered the weakest shotgun gauge. Despite its smaller size and less stopping power compared to other gauges, it's still effective for certain applications like shooting small game or controlling pests.

What Is the Biggest Shotgun Gauge?

The biggest shotgun gauge commonly available on the market today is the 10 gauge! Although this gauge isn’t the most popular of the most widely used shotgun gauge sizes, you can still find it. Most hunt waterfowl (ducks and geese) with this specific gauge.

Have Fun Out There!

Starting your shotgun gauge collection? Let Academy Sports + Outdoors lend a hand! We offer a range of options, from 20 gauge for home defense to .410 shotguns perfect for rodents, and much more. Shop shotguns by gauge today and take the first step toward your most memorable hunting adventure yet!