Shotgun Shells Demystified: Understanding the Numbers and Choosing the Right Shell for Your Hunt

What do the numbers on shotgun shells mean? We often get questions in regards to the numbers on shotgun shell boxes and it can definitely be a little confusing if you’re just getting into hunting or shooting with shotguns.  Shotgun shells come in various sizes, shapes, and configurations, leaving many hunters puzzled about which ones to use for different types of hunting. If you’re new to the world of shotguns or just need a refresher on shotgun shells, you’ve come to the right place. In this blog post, we’ll help you understand the numbers on shotgun shells and guide you in selecting the perfect shell for your hunting or shooting needs. Before you get started, feel free to read our Shotgun FAQ Page to get familiar with some other basics.

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Understanding the Numbers on Shotgun Shells:

The numbers on shotgun shells represent essential information that will help you choose the right shell for your hunt. Here’s what each number means:

  1. Gauge: The gauge refers to the size of the shotgun bore. A smaller gauge number indicates a larger diameter. The most common gauges are 10, 12, 16, 20, 28, and .410 Bore (which is not technically a gauge, but rather a caliber). Most hunters use 12-gauge or 20-gauge shotguns as they offer a good balance of power and manageability. New shooters might choose the .410 bore because it is easy to manage and still packs enough punch to hunt small game.
  2. Shell Length: The shell length is measured in inches and indicates the length of the shell when it’s fired. Typical lengths are 2 3/4″, 3″, and 3 1/2″. Longer shells hold more powder and pellets, resulting in more power and a larger shot pattern. However, make sure your shotgun is chambered to handle the shell length you’re using to avoid potential safety hazards.  The information for your shotgun is conveniently engraved on the barrel.  It is extremely important that you use the proper shells for your gun.  Some shotguns cannot fire the longer shells, so please pay attention to the information on your barrel before loading and firing your shotgun.
  3. Shot Size: The shot size refers to the diameter of the individual pellets inside the shell. Shot sizes are numbered, with larger numbers indicating smaller pellets. For example, #9 shot is smaller than #2 shot. Smaller pellets have a denser pattern and are ideal for hunting small game, while larger pellets are better suited for larger game due to their increased energy and penetration. Some shotgun ammunition is labeled as “buckshot”, which is a shotshell made with 6-10 large projectiles.  There are also shotgun slugs that are single (large) projectiles intended for large game and personal defense.  Slugs will be labeled as such and should not be used to shoot small game.  Slugs function in a way like rifle ammunition in that a single projectile is fired through the shotgun.
  4. Shot Weight: This number tells you the weight of the shot (or pellets) in the shell, often in ounces. More shot generally leads to a denser pattern and more knockdown power. When selecting shotgun shells for a specific purpose, such as hunting or target shooting, it’s important to consider the shot weight in conjunction with other factors like the shot size, shell length, and gauge. This will ensure that you choose the appropriate ammunition for your specific needs and preferences.

Choosing the Right Shell for Different Types of Hunting or Shooting:

  1. Upland Game Birds (e.g., Pheasants, Quail, Grouse): For upland game birds, opt for a smaller shot size like #7.5, #8, or #9. These shot sizes provide a dense pattern, increasing your chances of hitting the target. A 12-gauge or 20-gauge shotgun with a 2 3/4″ shell length is typically suitable for this type of hunting.
  2. Waterfowl (e.g., Ducks, Geese): When hunting waterfowl, you’ll need a larger shot size, such as #2, #4, or #6, to ensure sufficient energy and penetration. A 12-gauge shotgun with a 3″ or 3 1/2″ shell length is recommended, as it offers more power and a larger shot pattern. Additionally, use steel or other non-toxic shot, as many areas have restrictions on the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting due to environmental concerns.
  3. Turkey Hunting: Turkey hunting requires a larger shot size for greater energy and penetration, typically between #4 and #6. A 12-gauge shotgun with a 3″ shell length is often recommended. However, some hunters prefer a smaller 20-gauge shotgun for its lighter weight and easier handling.
  4. Deer and Large Game Hunting: For deer and other large game, you’ll need a slug or buckshot. Slugs are single, large projectiles that provide massive energy and deep penetration, while buckshot consists of larger pellets, typically ranging in size from #000 to #4 buck. A 12-gauge shotgun with a 2 3/4″ or 3″ shell length is ideal for this type of hunting.

Shooting / Trap / Skeet Shotgun Shells:

For skeet and trap shooting, shooters generally use target loads specifically designed for clay shooting sports. These shotgun shells are optimized for consistent performance, clean-burning powder, and less recoil, ensuring better accuracy and less shooter fatigue.

Here are some typical characteristics of shotgun shells used for skeet and trap shooting:

  1. Gauge: The most common gauges for skeet and trap shooting are 12 and 20, though 28 gauge and .410 bore are also used, especially in skeet competitions with multiple gauges.
  2. Shell Length: Standard 2 ¾-inch shells are usually preferred for skeet and trap shooting, as they provide a good balance of performance and manageable recoil.
  3. Shot Size: Smaller shot sizes like 7.5, 8, or 9 are commonly used for skeet and trap shooting, as they create a dense pattern to increase the chances of breaking the clay targets.
  4. Shot Weight: A typical shot weight for 12-gauge target loads ranges from 1 to 1⅛ ounces, while 20-gauge target loads often contain ⅞ to 1 ounce of shot. Lighter shot loads contribute to less recoil and are easier to handle during extended shooting sessions.
  5. Muzzle Velocity: Target loads for skeet and trap shooting usually have a moderate muzzle velocity, typically ranging from 1,100 to 1,300 feet per second. This provides a balance of good target-breaking energy and manageable recoil.

Keep in mind that individual preferences and shooting styles can influence the choice of shotgun shells for skeet and trap shooting. It’s essential to try different loads and find the one that works best for you in terms of performance, recoil, and consistency.

Remember, the suggestions above for hunting and shooting are general recommendations. You should always factor in local laws and regulations, specific conditions, and personal preferences.  You can  always ask your friends for advice, too! Test different loads to see what patterns best in your shotgun, and feel free to ask us at KIR Ammo for further advice. We hope this clears up any questions about the numbers on shotgun shells and how to tell what shotgun shell might be best for your application.  We’re here to help you make the best ammunition choice for your hunting needs!

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