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What You Should Know About Shotgun Shells

What You Should Know About Shotgun Shells

a female bird hunter holding shotgun shells

A complete look at the facts and myths of shotgun shells

Imagine it’s 1880 and you live in New York City. Like most people, you have no running water in your apartment. If you want to contact your uncle in London, it takes at least two weeks to get him a letter. And the side-by-side shotguns being built Parker Bros. and Westley Richards use centerfire shells.

Now let’s jump back to the present. Indoor plumbing is everywhere, and you can connect with almost anyone, anywhere, in seconds. But shotguns, even the latest models, still use centerfire shells.

As much as the world has changed, isn’t it odd we’re still stuffing this old technology into our bird guns?

Great-great grandpa’s shells

A box of Winchester shotgun ammo from the 1900s has a lot in common with what we use today. Old shells came in different gauges (12-gauge, 20-gauge, 28-gauge, etc.) and different lengths (e.g., 2½-inch, 2¾-inch, 3-inch).

Like modern shells we use today, old shotgun ammo had six major components:

  1. Base: The bottom of the shell. Holds the primer and helps the shell retain its shape and fit into the shotgun’s chamber. Most are brass, some are aluminum.
  2. Case: Rises out of the base to hold the powder, wad, and shot. Were first made of brass, then paper. In the ’60s, plastic replaced paper.
  3. Primer: The button-like tab on the bottom of the case. Contains a flammable substance which ignites the powder.
  4. Gunpowder: The propellant. Inside case, at the base of the shell. Old shotgun shells used “black powder.” Today, they are “smokeless” powders (a.k.a. “nitro” powders).
  5. Wad: Inside the shell between the powder and shot. First made from fibrous materials. Today, usually plastic.
  6. Shot: The pellets released when the gun’s fired. Comes in different sizes (e.g., 8, 6, 4). The lower the number, the bigger the shot. Usually made of lead, but can also be steel, bismuth or other metallic substances.

How it all comes together

  • First, the shell is loaded into the chamber of your shotgun.
  • When the gun is fired, a firing pin strikes the primer. The primer ignites the powder.
  • As the powder burns, it releases gases which create pressure and force the wad forward (and shell and shotgun backward).
  • The wad cushions the force released by the powder. It also seals the barrel’s bore, so all this force pushes against the shot.
  • Finally, both the shot and wad exit the barrel’s muzzle. While the wad usually falls to the ground 15-20 yards from the gun, shot can travel well over 100 yards.

Read: First-Timer’s Guide to Buying Shotgun Shells

The lowdown on loads

As mentioned, shotgun shells vary by gauge and length. They also differ by the amount of powder and shot they contain.

The amount of shot in a shell is called its “load.” Loads are categorized in ounces (oz.)

  • 12-gauge, 2¾-inch shells often come in 1⅛-oz. loads. They contain 1⅛ ounces of shot.
  • 20-gauge, 2¾-inch shells often come in 7/8-oz. loads. They contain 7/8 ounces of shot.

Unfortunately, the amount of powder in a shotgun shell is not expressed in as direct a fashion. Instead of using weight, shell manufacturers express powder amounts by velocity. Basically, the higher a shell’s velocity, the more powder it contains.

Quiz: Which holds more powder?

  • 12-gauge, 2¾-inch shell loaded with 1⅛ oz. of shot and having a velocity of 1200 FPS (feet per second).
  • 12-gauge, 2¾-inch shells loaded with 1⅛ oz. of shot and having a velocity of 1400 FPS.

The answer is: the second. It takes more force and more powder to push the same amount of shot at an increased velocity (FPS). Manufacturers also categorize shotgun-shell strength with names like “Target,” “Game,” “Field,” or “Heavy Field.”

  • “Target” loads are usually the weakest
  • “Game” load come next
  • “Field” loads follow
  • “Heavy Field” loads (a.k.a. “Duck and Pheasant” loads) are the strongest

Big enough is enough

What it comes to decoy spreads for Snow geese, bigger is always better. But when it comes to shotgun ammo, that’s not the case. Because of recoil, “just big enough” is what you want to aim for when shopping for shells.

To bust clay pigeons and bag birds, you don’t need to stuff high-velocity, high-power shells into your gun. Instead, shells generating a maximum of 1200 FPS and loaded with the following amounts of lead will usually knock down whatever you’re shooting at (that is, if you can shoot).

  • Clays: ⅞ oz.
  • Woodcock, quail, grouse, and doves: ¾-1 oz.
  • Wild pheasants: 1 ⅛ oz.
  • Preserve pheasants: 1 oz.

High-brass BS

“High-brass” shells are something to watch for. Most shotgun shells come in low-brass or high-brass styles. “Low-brass” and “high-brass” refers to the height of the metal base at the bottom of the shell. People assume high-brass shells are more powerful and better. Ammunition makers know this, so they charge more for this high-brass ammo.

But here’s the truth: not all high-brass shells are different from their low-brass counterparts. Some makers use the extra brass to get you to pay more money for less shell. Besides, high-brass shells pushing more lead at higher velocities are probably more potent than you need. Why pay extra for them? They won’t make you a better shooter.

Instead, if you’re having trouble busting clays or bringing down birds, stick with lower velocity, low-brass shells and spend your money on practice rounds at a local club.

View Comments (12)
  • Fred, this is as fine an article as I could have asked for – it is all, indeed, factual and accurate. We forget that marketing sells shotguns shells – but I learned sometime ago, that less is more – especially in the field. We ll done my friend. BRAVO!!

  • The great thing about shotgunning is its hard to modernize it. Its basically the same as it was 100 years ago except for a few upgrades here and there. I think part of the reason I love grouse hunting so much is that its a vintage sport that you really cant modernize, like archery. I have a few 2-1/2″ 20 gauge guns and if the weather is nice I’m shooting RST paper shells. I guess in a way it’s like the guy that hunts with a recurve bow. And let me tell you, you wont know the difference between plastic and paper when you pull the trigger, except they smell different. The RST’s are awesome in any of their configurations. Theyre a bit pricey but well worth it.

  • Actually the same is true for rifles, the 30.06 in a Mauser actions (only scopes have made tremendous strides), and pistols, the 1911 in .45 ACP; both were perfected in the early 20th century.

  • A good article that would be even better if it included two cartridges near and dear to vintage shotgunners — the 16 and the 2 7/8-in. 10 bore. Great choices with excellent ballistic profiles for upland and waterfowling, respectively, for anyone drawn to classic doubles. A fine selection of loads is available for both, especially the 16, if you look beyond the big box retailers. I agree with an earlier comment about “less is more.” The shells and guns I mention were built to carry payloads that seem light and slow by modern shotgunning standards, but the pheasants and ducks I’ve introduced them to never seem to notice the difference.

    • Please explain. I have no idea why it’s in “yellow” hulls — other than the distinguish from other ammo. If there’s something about the color yellow that links it to 20 gauge ammo, please explain.

  • To avoid inadvertently inserting a 20ga into a 12ga chamber. It will not fall through and is a disaster if a 12ga is fired behind it.

  • Another point that needs to be covered. I recently purchased two Mossberg 940 semi-automatic shotguns for my kids. But the first time we planned to break them in with a day of shooting clays, it was one misfire, misload and jamb after another. Apparently, at least according to the dealer and numerous reviews of not just this gun but nunerous others, the lower power shells just don’t have enough gas power to operate the gun resulting in a lot of problems. My local gunsmith also offered that the high brass shells are less likely to get stuck in the barrel (like mine were) than low brass and steel.

    • Hey Dave,
      This is not an ammo issue but a flaw in the design/manufacturing of the gun.
      I have a Remington 1187 semi auto that cycles everything I put through it.
      As well my son was the shooting instructor at the local scout camp and the CZ semi autos they had were junk…..
      Maybe they claim to have “improved” them but by your post it would appear not !!

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