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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Primer: The button-like tab on the bottom of the case. Contains a flammable substance which ignites the powder.
- 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).
- Wad: Inside the shell between the powder and shot. First made from fibrous materials. Today, usually plastic.
- 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.
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” 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.
Gregg Elliott is the Shotgun Editor for Project Upland. He's been interested in shotguns and gundogs since he was a kid. Today, he blogs about both at www.DogsandDoubles.com and posts to Instagram @dogsanddoubles