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.
Birdshot, buckshot, and slugs are three distinct types of shotgun shells that each serve specific purposes:
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:
|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||
||Small game hunting and clay target shooting|
|Buckshot Shotgun Shells||2 3/4 - 3 1/2||00 - 4||
||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.||
||Intended for medium to large game hunting, self-defense, and law enforcement purposes|
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.
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.
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.
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 gauge is a measurement that indicates the diameter of the bore or the inside diameter of the barrel.
|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|
When it comes to shotshells, the gauge numbering works inversely. The smaller the gauge number, the larger the diameter of the shotgun's bore.
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.
|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 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.
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:
|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|
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.
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.
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.