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First-Timer’s Guide to Buying Shotgun Shells

First-Timer’s Guide to Buying Shotgun Shells

Stack of various shotgun shell boxes in a gun store.

To the uninitiated, the gun counter can be an intimidating place; learn how to navigate your first purchase of shells with confidence

I stood stock still, staring at the wall of ammunition behind the counter. Glancing over the multi-colored labels of flying pheasants, committed ducks, and scampering rabbits, my eyes glazed over. What did all of those numbers on the front of the boxes mean? I knew my shotgun was a 12-gauge, but beyond that I had no idea what I was doing. I was kicking myself for not asking more about the shells my mentor had handed me over the weekend. After several long moments of silence, without an attendant in sight, I lost my nerve and left empty-handed. It was a pretty rough day in my newly-fledged hunting career.

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Humbled, I reached out for guidance. That evening we dissected a shotgun shell from packaging label clear to the wad. Holding the pellets in my hand and seeing the gunpowder made it all click. The next time I was at the gun counter, still a bit awkward, at least I knew which box of shells I wanted.

Looking back, my greatest failure in trying to purchase ammunition for the first time was not understanding the complexity of shotgun shells. Of course, I had taken the online hunter’s safety class, but at that point I had held a gun in my hand only once or twice. The language of “all things hunting” was still way above my head. I needed a bare-bones, just-the-basics, tutorial. Something kind of like what follows.

Decoding the shot shell box

Shotgun gauge

The shotgun shell box contains all the information you need to know about the rounds found inside. Let’s start with the shotgun gauge. The gauge specifies the compatibility with a given shotgun barrel diameter. Thus, the 12-gauge shotgun shoots 12-gauge rounds. Most commonly you will see 20- and 12-gauge rounds on the shelf (there are more, but we are going for a simple start). Of note, 20-gauge shotgun shells are (almost) always yellow, whereas 12-gauge comes in many colors but not yellow. More of an industry standard than a legal requirement, the move to 20-gauge rounds getting exclusive rights to yellow shells began in the 1960s to help prevent accidentally mixing them up with 12-gauge shells, a potentially lethal mistake.

Shell length

Next is the length of the shotgun shell itself, which is given in inches and correlates to the length of the gun’s chamber. Knowing which size you need does require more than “point and shoot” knowledge of your gun. If you don’t know where to begin, the owner’s manual or someone who is familiar with your make of gun is a good place to start. Also, check your barrels, as you may find the chamber length stamped into the metal. Typically, the rounds you find on the shelf at your local sportsman store are either 2¾- or 3-inch rounds. A tip I was given early on was “when in doubt, opt for 2¾,” since it will fire from a 3-inch chamber. On the contrary, a 3-inch shell should never be fired from a 2¾-inch chamber. It may seem to fit, but a 3-inch round in a 2 ¾-inch chamber can be a costly error.

Shot size and weight

Skipping now from the left side of the box to the far right, you will find the shot size of the rounds. That is, the size of the individual pellet within the shell. This is what ultimately hits the target. As the shot size gets larger, the diameter of the pellet gets smaller…so 6 shot is smaller than 4 shot, 4s are smaller than 2s, and so on. There is so much controversy over shot size, I would hate to unduly simplify it. However, for a neophyte, this was a very helpful way for me to think about it:

The measured weight of the shot contained in each shell is the number just to the left of the shot size. It is denoted in ounces. Usually shells range from ½ ounce to 2 ounces. For reference, there are roughly 135 4-shot pellets per ounce.

Power or velocity of the load

The final number on the box we have not talked about yet is the “FPS” or feet per second. This value is related to the gunpowder load within the shell. Once the gun is fired, this value is roughly equivalent to the shot’s velocity as it leaves the end of the barrel. Occasionally you will see a measurement for dram equivalent or “Dram Eq” that is sometimes on the box in addition to, or in lieu of, FPS. It is also a value for shot velocity that is a bit antiquated and not used as often these days. A higher-power load will allow the shot to reach your target faster and with more inertia, but will also hit your shoulder harder.

Lead vs. non-toxic shot

The last piece of information on the box that the new ammunition purchaser needs to appreciate is the “Lead” or “Non-Toxic” label (i.e., steel, bismuth or tungsten). These are found in varying locations, sometimes within a phrase (such as “high velocity steel shot”) or as an isolated label at the top of the box. Because hunting rules differ from location to location, it is particularly important to know what species you are hunting, where you are going, and what the shot regulations are for that specific property. If you are hunting waterfowl or if you plan to be at a location that requires non-toxic shot, you need to pick lead-free shells. If you are hunting upland birds in a place that doesn’t have restrictions on shot composition, lead is a viable option. Even where lead is legal, however, the cultural opinion on its use appears to be shifting. Many hunters view non-tox as an environmental stewardship responsibility, while more and more states are expanding non-tox-only rules and regulations.

When selecting non-toxic shot, please be aware that some older shotguns and guns with fixed chokes cannot safely shoot steel. Not to inappropriately simplify it, but such guns were not designed to withstand the impact of the harder steel pellets. If you’re unsure, don’t be afraid to ask someone who is familiar with your gun.

A quick recap

  • The gauge size relates to the shotgun barrel diameter
  • The size of the shell relates to the length of the chamber
  • Shot size is related to the diameter of an individual pellet; it decreases as the number gets bigger
  • The weight of shot in ounces relates to the number of pellets in the round
  • Feet per second (FPS) is the shot’s velocity once the gun is fired
  • Shot composition is broadly grouped into either lead or non-toxic categories

Safety reminders:

  • Be sure to purchase the correct shot shell gauge
  • Know the length of your gun’s chamber
  • Be mindful of the gun’s ability to shoot steel rounds, especially for older guns and those with fixed chokes

Final thoughts

Hunting for the first time has plenty of new, unnerving moments; purchasing ammunition doesn’t need to be one of them. Please remember, it’s okay to be new! Not knowing everything is expected when you are first starting out. Hell, lifelong hunters learn new things about ammunition all the time.

And if you have an experience like mine, where you have to walk up to a gun counter to buy ammunition instead of just grabbing a box off the shelf, know that you are not alone. Every upland hunter has a first time buying shotgun shells.

View Comments (4)
  • Another quick thing to consider is that you will vary shot size with shot material. I tend to drop 2 shot sizes when shooting steel and 1 shot size when shooting lead. For example I use 5 lead for pheasant and grab 3 steel or 4 bismuth when hunting non-tox areas.

  • Have only purchased non-toxic shot now for two years. The handwriting on is on the wall for lead, and having seen a loon die from lead poisoning, I will only shoot non-toxic.

  • This is a GREAT article, Callie!! Succinct, loaded with accurate information and easy to read. Thank you!!

  • For once, an article which claims to provide “X” information actually provides “X” information! No additional fluff, no politics, just the data. Thank you sir! While I’ve been shooting my whole life, admittedly, my shotgun experience is primarily as a child with my father teaching me to shoot and shooting a friend’s shotgun on occasion. This is the first time I’ve actually bought a shotgun for myself (yes, that’s kind of sad, but there it is) and I didn’t appreciate the difference between “regular” ammo and shotguns. Thanks for giving me exactly the info I needed.

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