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Types of Shotgun Shells: Birdshot vs Buckshot vs Slugs

WriterAubrey McShan
13 min read
Hunter loading his rifle with a shotgun shell.

Ever pick up a box of shotgun ammunition in the store and have no clue what the numbers on the box mean? You’re not alone! Each shotgun shell type and size serves a distinct purpose: from bird hunting to self-defense.

In this guide, you’ll learn all about the different types and sizes of shotgun shells. We aim to help you navigate through all the choices to find the perfect ammunition for your specific hunting, target shooting, or self defense needs.

Key Takeaways

The Difference Between Birdshot, Buckshot, and Slugs

Different-sized pellets are depicted inside the casing of a birdshot and buckshot, and projectiles are depicted inside of a slug.

Birdshot, buckshot, and slugs are three distinct types of shotgun shells that each serve specific purposes:

  • Birdshot is perfect for shooting small game like birds or clay targets. It typically contains a larger number of smaller pellets.
  • Buckshot is great for larger game or self-defense. It contains fewer but larger pellets, has increased stopping power, and is effective at closer ranges.
  • Slugs consist of a single large projectile. With their greater penetration and accuracy, slugs are well-suited to take down big game animals like deer.

Shotgun Shells Types Chart

So which shotgun shell types are best for small game compared to larger game, and what type of spread does each have? Check out our chart to get answers to these questions and more:

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Shotgun Shell Types: Overview
Shotgun Shell Type Length (inches) Shot Size Details Best For
Birdshot Shotgun Shells 2 3/4 - 3 1/2 #2 - #9
  • It offers a widespread pattern, making it effective at short ranges
  • It's designed to minimize damage to game and provide a higher pellet count
Small game hunting and clay target shooting
Buckshot Shotgun Shells 2 3/4 - 3 1/2 00 - 4
  • Larger pellets for increased stopping power
  • It offers decent spread patterns at close to medium ranges
Primarily used for hunting medium to large game, home defense, and law enforcement applications
Slugs 2 3/4 - 3 1/2 0.875, 1, 1.125 oz.
  • Contains a single large projectile, usually made of lead, copper, or steel
  • Offer greater accuracy and stopping power at longer ranges compared to birdshot or buckshot
Intended for medium to large game hunting, self-defense, and law enforcement purposes

Birdshot Shotgun Shells

A birdshot shell is horizontal with pellets exposed inside the shell case.

Birdshot shotgun shell types are specifically crafted for shooting birds and other small game like snakes, doves, waterfowl, squirrels, and rabbits. These shells contain small-sized pellets that strike a balance between effectively killing the target and minimizing meat damage.

  • The number of pellets can vary significantly: ranging from 25 to well over 700 rounds (depending on the specific load).
  • Birdshot is most commonly used within a distance of around 40 yards.
  • The size of birdshot pellets is denoted by numbers. Lower numbers indicate larger pellets (i.e. size 2 is larger than size 9).
  • The average sizes used for birdshot typically fall within the range of 7 to 9.

Buckshot Shotgun Shells

A buckshot shell is horizontal with pellets exposed inside the shell case.

Buckshot shotgun shells are primarily used for hunting large game and for home defense purposes. Unlike birdshot, buckshot cartridges contain fewer pellets: typically averaging around 8-12.

  • These shells are effective at distances ranging from 30 to 40 yards — providing reliable stopping power within that range.
  • Buckshots deliver multiple projectiles per shot. This increases the chances of hitting your target.
  • The most common sizes used for buckshot include 00: where 000 is larger than 00 and 00 is larger than size 1.
  • Similar to birdshot, lower numbers indicate larger pellets (e.g. a size 4 buckshot pellet is smaller than a size 1).


A slug casing is horizontal with projectiles exposed inside the shell case.

Slugs are shotgun shells specifically designed for hunting large game like deer, bear, and boar. Unlike birdshot or buckshot, slugs consist of a single, high-impact projectile rather than multiple smaller pellets.

  • Similar to standard bullets, slugs deliver their force through a single projectile. When fired, they travel a distance of roughly 75-100 yards: comparable to a bullet's range.
  • They are available in various materials, including lead, steel, rubber, plastic, and brass.
  • Slugs come in different weights — typically ranging from 0.875 to 1.125 ounces. Rifled slugs feature grooves on the slug itself that aid in swaging through choke tubes.
  • With their significant stopping power, a single well-placed slug can achieve a similar outcome that would require multiple hits with buckshot.

Sizes of Shotgun Shells Explained

Shotgun ammunition is available in a wide range of sizes. Gauge is a key factor that determines the compatibility of bullets and the size of game you can effectively target. The length, weight, and size of the shot within the shells greatly influence your shooting experience.

Shotgun Shell Gauge Sizes

Shotgun shells designed for different-sized gauges are lined up side by side, with sizes ranging from .410 to 12 ga.

Shotgun gauge is a measurement that indicates the diameter of the bore or the inside diameter of the barrel.

  • Among the various shotgun gauges, 12 gauge guns are the most prevalent and widely used.
  • The common shotgun gauge sizes (listed from largest to smallest) include 12 gauge, 16 gauge, 20 gauge, and 28 gauge.
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Shotgun Gauges Explained
Gauge Bore Diameter (inches) Bore Diameter (mm) Common Applications
10 0.775 19.7 Waterfowl hunting, turkey hunting, trap shooting
12 0.729 18.5 Versatile gauge suitable for various applications including hunting (upland game, waterfowl, turkey), clay shooting (trap, skeet, sporting clays), and self-defense
16 0.662 16.8 Upland game hunting, small game hunting
20 0.615 15.6 Upland game hunting, small game hunting, youth, and smaller-framed shooters
28 0.550 14.0 Upland game hunting, skeet shooting, small game hunting
.410 0.410 10.4 Skeet shooting, small game hunting, youth and smaller-framed shooters

Expert Tip:

When it comes to shotshells, the gauge numbering works inversely. The smaller the gauge number, the larger the diameter of the shotgun's bore.

Shotgun Shell Length

The length of shotgun rounds typically comes in three main sizes: 2¾ inch, 3 inch, and 3½ inch. A round’s length affects the number of shells you can load into your shotgun's magazine.

  • Shorter shells allow you to load more ammunition into your magazine.
  • It is important to consult your gun's manual to determine the appropriate round length for your firearm to ensure safe and optimal performance.
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Shotgun Shell Length Guide
Shell Length Length (inches) Length (mm) Gauge Compatibility Common Applications
2 3/4" 2.75 70 10, 12, 16, 20, 28, .410 Standard length for most shotgun shells, versatile applications
3" 3.00 76 10, 12, 20, 28, .410 Increased length for greater payload and higher velocities
3 1/2" 3.50 89 12, 20 Extended length for maximum payload and power

Shot Size

Shot size refers to the size of the individual pellets within a shotgun shell. You should consider shot sizes based on the type of game you’re hunting and the shotgun you’re using.

  • The shot size inversely relates to the numbering system. Larger numbers indicate smaller pellets.
  • The weight of the shot also helps determine the shot size. Heavier shells (which typically contain larger shot sizes) can result in a more pronounced recoil when fired.
Shotgun shot size chart covering common shot sizes as well as buckshot sizes

Hunting Shotgun Shell Pairing Guide

Check your Fish and Game Regulations to make sure you comply with local laws: depending on the type of game you’re hunting. Certain game (like waterfowl) can only be hunted with a non-toxic shot.

You can view our recommendations for the best shot sizes and gauges to use when targeting small or large game:

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Best Shells for Different Types of Game
Target Specific Game Shell Type Shotgun Shot Sizes Best Gauge
Pest control Snakes, rats Rimfire, Handgun, Shotgun #12 (rimfire), #12 to 4 (handgun), #10 up to #8 (shotgun) .410 bore
Small game Quail, doves, pigeons, rabbits, squirrels Shotgun #7.5 up to #5 12ga or smaller
Upland birds Grouse, pheasant, Ptarmigan, partridges Shotgun #7.5 up to #4 12ga or smaller
Waterfowl Geese, ducks Shotgun #6 to #1, B to BBB, T to TT, F to FF 10ga to 20ga
Turkey (With turkey choke) Shotgun #6 to #1, B to BBB, T, F, specialized Turkey models 10ga to 20ga
Big/Midsize game Deer, hogs (buckshot) Shotgun #4 Buck to #1 Buck, 0 to 000 10ga to 20ga
Big/Midsize game Deer, hogs (slugs) Shotgun Rifled slugs for smoothbore barrels, sabot slugs for rifled barrels 10ga to .410 bore

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Why Are Shotgun Shells Plastic?

Plastic is a cheap, lightweight alternative to brass casings. They provide added moisture resistance compared to paper casings. However, the majority of shotgun shells still utilize a small amount of brass where the powder is located.

Q: How Many Shells Can a Shotgun Hold?

Most shotguns can hold anywhere from 2-5 shells. However, most states only allow hunters to load no more than 3 shells in their shotgun.

Q: Do Shotgun Shells Go Bad?

Most ammo has a shelf life of roughly ten years. If you notice signs like rust or corrosion then it’s best to dispose of your ammo.

Expert Tip:

Most local police departments (via the non-emergency number) accept old or unusable ammo. At minimum, they should be able to tell you of other local resources you can leverage.

Q: How Far Does a Shotgun Shell Travel?

Slugs can travel the farthest — reaching 75 yards. Buckshots can travel 30 to 50 yards. Birdshots can travel 15 to 50 yards.

Have Fun Out There!

Ready to load your magazine? Use birdshot to practice shooting at clay targets, buckshot to hunt deer, and use slugs for bear and home defense purposes. At Academy, we carry different shotgun shell types and sizes so you have everything you need for your next hunting trip.