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Beginner's Guide to Shotguns

by Jason Wimbiscus
It is likely that the very first firearms were shotguns of a sort, born when medieval Chinese soldiers improved the performance of their fire lances by packing bits of rock and metal over the weapon’s charge of gunpowder. While the design has evolved greatly over the millennia, the shotgun (a usually smooth bore firearm that discharges multiple projectiles per pull of the trigger) is as relevant to the modern hunter or home defender as it was to the 10th-century warriors who spawned the concept.

Shotguns: What are they good for?


The short answer is everything. While the typical niche of the shotgun is hitting small, flying, or otherwise fast moving game and targets, its applications are not limited to such uses. In fact, a shotgun is arguably the most versatile type firearm currently available for civilian purchase.

With a reliable shotgun and an appropriate selection of ammunition, the shooter is equipped for hunting game of all sizes (within its range limitations, of course), defense of hearth and home, and a number of shooting sports that involve turning fast flying clay pigeons into dust clouds.

shattering-clay-target-for-shooting-on-white-skyAdmittedly, there are tasks (such as hunting big game at long distances) that a shotgun simply won’t handle as well as rifle. Centerfire rifles will consistently outmatch shotguns in terms of range and accuracy. A good rifle might print tight groups at the range (a measurement of accuracy) past 200 yards, long after a slow, fat, and heavy shotgun slug as dropped into the dirt.  A shotgun would be a poor choice of weapon for hunting pronghorn on a prairie or whitetail deer across a soybean field.

However, in hunting situations where thickly wooded or bushy terrain means shots will often be taken at close range at moving game, the raw power shotguns pack at spitting distance, coupled with their quick handling ergonomics may give them an edge over a typical bolt action hunting rifle.

Ultimately, a person who can only afford one gun to fill multiple niches would be hard pressed to find a better option than a shotgun.

Common Shotgun Terms and Definitions

Before delving into the minutiae of shotguns, some explanation of common terms is in order to help the beginner make sense of shotgun-specific jargon.

Gauge: A measurement of a shotgun’s bore diameter.  Gauge is determined by the number of lead balls the same diameter as the shotgun’s bore that are equal to one pound in mass. To clarify, 12 lead balls the same diameter of a 12-gauge shotgun’s bore weigh one pound.

Choke: A length of constricted (narrower than nominal diameter) bore near the muzzle of a shotgun. The greater the constriction, the tighter the pattern will be.

Pattern: When shotgun pellets leave the muzzle of a shotgun, they immediately begin to spread out into a sort of cloud of shot. The size and density of this “shot cloud” determines the pattern. To simplify, a pattern is to shotguns what a group is to rifles. 

The slow motion video below demonstrates how shotgun pellets behave in flight to form a pattern.

Shotshell: A complete unit of shotgun ammunition.

Hull: The outer casing of a shotshell, most commonly consisting of a metal base and a plastic body.

Shot: Small lead (or other metal) pellets that are the projectile component of a shotshell.

Wad: A disk of cardboard, fabric, or other material placed between the powder and shot that forms a gas seal against combusting powder and cushions the shot upon firing.

Slug: A solid, one-piece projectile that takes the place of shot in some types of shotshell. Slugs are an attempt to afford shotguns some qualities of a rifle and are typically used for hunting large and medium game animals.
Above: A shotgun slug atop a wad column prior to be loaded into a shotshell.

Shotgun Gauges and Their Applications

While shotguns have been manufactured in dozens of gauges throughout history, there are presently only six different gauges a modern hunter or shooter is likely to encounter. They are:

The .410: Nominal Bore Diameter: .410”

Unlike the other gauges on the list below, the .410’s diameter is expressed as caliber rather than a gauge (it would be a 67 gauge if expressed as such).

Above: A .410 shotshell (left) compared to a 12-gauge shotshell (right)

This small bore shotgun is often a first shotgun for young hunters due to its mild report and low recoil. Unfortunately, the small quantity of shot (1/2 to 11/16-ounces of lead) contained within a .410 shotshell translates to a sparse pattern that can make hitting moving targets (such as flying birds) extra difficult.

While in capable, well-practiced hands the .410 can be used to break clay targets and down flying birds, it is arguably best suited to taking stationary or slow moving game at close ranges. The .410 may not be a great choice for pheasants on the wing, but it’s near perfect for knocking squirrels off tree limbs without getting too much shot in the meat.

The 28-Gauge - Nominal Bore Diameter: .550”

A step up in bore diameter and shot payload (3/4-ounce to 1 ounce of lead) the 28-gauge is a capable upland game gauge that typically comes chambered in light, easy to carry, pleasant to shoot, shotguns. While it packs adequate power for smaller birds such as quail and most species of grouse, its comparatively narrow bore diameter and limited capacity shotshells mean it cannot accommodate adequate numbers of the larger sized shot needed for hunting waterfowl and other large, tough birds.

Though it is less popular than its bigger-bored brethren, most major shotgun manufacturers currently produce 28-gauge guns in at least one model. Ammunition for the 28-gauge tends to be more expensive than for the 20 and 12-gauge as there is less demand, less production, and less economy of scale.

The 20-Gauge – Nominal Bore Diameter: .615”

With shotshells that typically contain 7/8 to 1-1/4-ounces of lead shot, the 20 gauge is more than adequate for hunting all upland game, turkey, and small waterfowl species. As the 20-gauge cannot accommodate many of the large diameter shot typically used for tough, high flying, waterfowl such as geese, it is best not to press it into such a role if better options are available. A 20-gauge loaded with a good slug load also makes a capable close-range deer gun.

Above: The author’s trusty and true Remington 870 in 20-gauge.

While inherently bulkier than a similar gun chambered in 28-gauge, it’s not difficult to find 20-gauge guns that are lightweight and a joy to carry all day.

The 16-Gauge- Nominal Bore Diameter: .660”

With shotshell payloads weighing between 1-ounce and 1-1/8 ounce of lead, the 16 gauge is a fine upland game gauge that effectively mirrors the ballistic performance of lighter 12-gauge loads. The 16-gauge is at home in fields and forests in pursuit of upland game birds and can hold its own against smaller waterfowl and even turkey. Presently, no manufacturer offers 16-gauge ammo that is reliably up to the task of taking large, tough, waterfowl.

While fans of the 16-gauge often comment that guns chambered for this gauge carry and kick like a 20 while performing like a 12, the 16 has waned in popularity over the last few decades. Newly manufactured 16-gauge guns are fairly uncommon and ammunition comparatively rare and expensive.

The 12-Gauge –Nominal Bore Diameter: .730”

The 12-gauge is the undeniably the most ubiquitous of any shotgun chambering to have ever existed. Adopted by hunters, home defenders, police forces, and militaries worldwide, there are more options for specialized 12-gauge guns, ammunition, and accessories than for all of the other gauges combined. If there is a hunting or shooting niche, there is a 12-gauge gun/ammo combo to fill it.


From a hunting standpoint, the 12-gauge is the quintessential all-around chambering that is capable of taking all North American game within its range limitations when loaded appropriately for the task at hand. A one-gun hunter who wants to pursue everything from doves to geese to deer would do well to choose a 12-gauge.

The 10-Gauge-Nominal Bore Diameter: .770

The 10-gauge (once king of the goose blind) has largely fallen out of favor among hunters. 10-gauge guns are unavoidably heavy and the heavy payloads of shot contained in 10-gauge shells (up to 2 ounces of lead) makes for brutal levels of recoil. 10-gauge ammunition is both uncommon and expensive when compared to the more popular 20 and 12-gauges.

Above: A Browning BPS shotgun in 10-gauge. One of the few 10-gauge shotguns still produced by a major manufacturer.

While the 10-gauge has largely been replaced by specialized 12-gauges in its traditional role as a goose gun, it is still a highly effective chambering in this niche.

Choke: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

As noted above, a shotgun’s choke is a length inside of the bore near the muzzle that is slightly narrower than the rest of the bore. This portion of the bore constricts, or chokes, the shot column in order to tighten the pattern (the greater the constriction, the tighter the pattern). 

While there are numerous and nuanced specialized chokes available, the most common shotgun chokes in order from least to greatest bore constriction are:

Cylinder: There is no constriction near the muzzle. A cylinder choke pattern is approximately 40-inches in diameter at 25 yards.

Improved cylinder: The pattern is approximately 40-inches in diameter at 30 yards

Modified: The pattern is approximately 40-inches in diameter at 35 yards

Full: The pattern is approximately 40-inches in diameter at 40 yards

In years past, shotgun chokes were integral to the bore. If a hunter wanted to change chokes, the purchase of a new barrel or possibly a new gun would be required. Mercifully, improvements in technology have made such inconvenience and financial burden a thing of the past. Most modern sporting shotguns are threaded to accept choke tubes, which are cylindrical metal insets that screw into the bore at the muzzle. Going from a cylinder choke for grouse to a full choke for turkey can be done in seconds.

The optimal choke will depend on the specifics of a particular hunting or shooting situation. If shots will likely be taken at close range, as is common in thick woods ruffed grouse hunting, an open choke will yield the best results as a rapidly expanding pattern will increase hit probability. If shots are likely to be of the longer variety, a full choke is the best choice as it will do a better job of maintaining pattern density at distance. A pattern that is too wide becomes too diffuse and may result in a miss or too few pellets in the quarry to ensure a clean kill.

The video below provides a great overview of how various chokes perform, as well as a demonstration of how easily choke tubes install.

Shotgun Ammunition: A Quick and Dirty Primer

There are three typical categories of shotgun ammunition, each suited to particular role:

Birdshot Ammunition: While, as its name implies, birdshot is for shooting game birds, it’s also a capable choice for other small game such as rabbits and squirrel and such inanimate quarry as clay pigeons. The payload of birdshot load consists of hundreds of small lead (or steel, tungsten, or bismuth) pellets that deliver a wide, dense, pattern of shot to the target.

Birdshot ranges in size from #12 (.05” pellet dia.) to #1 (.16” pellet dia.) with sizes #8, #7, #6, and #4 (.09” to .13” pellet dia.) being the most common. Smaller shot means more pellets per shotshell and, as a result, a full, dense, pattern. However, small light, pellets shed energy rapidly limiting their effectiveness at great distances and against larger animals.  As distance and game size increase, so too should shot size. #8 shot might be great for quail, but not so much for geese.

Buckshot Ammunition: The payload in a buckshot round consists of a relatively few large pellets that may range in size from #4 (.24” pellet diameter) to #000 (.36” pellet diameter). Buckshot trades pellet count for per-pellet energy as large, heavy buckshot pellets will penetrate deeper and hold energy at greater distances than birdshot.

Above: A 12-gauge shotshell broken open to show the buckshot inside.

Though its name implies that buckshot is intended for deer hunting applications, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the topic of using buckshot on medium game animals. Many hunters assert that buckshot does not reliably deliver quick, clean kills and many states prohibit its use on big game. Buckshot is most commonly used in a personal defense role.

Slug Ammunition: Rather than consisting of multiple projectiles, the payload in a shotgun slug round consists of a single large, heavy projectile.  Some slugs are designed for use in standard, smooth bore shotguns while others are intended only for use in specialized, rifled-bore shotguns (a topic for another article).

While slugs will never match the accuracy and range potential of bullets fired from centerfire rifles, they can be highly effective on big game in situations where distances are fairly short.


More to Come

With the above introduction to shotguns established, more nuanced and specialized topics on the subject of shotguns can be explored. Stay tuned for upcoming posts that cover everything from what to consider when buying your first shotgun to how to reload shotgun ammunition at home.