Shotgun Basics


Let us say that the first thing anyone should do when obtaining a new weapon or starting to learn to shoot is to get to a good gun safety course (required by most developed countries for first time hunters or shooters) and possibly even go take a lesson or two from a qualified instructor. Safety is paramount over all other issues and if your gun handling experience is limited, safety instructions is the absolute starting place. It's not a bad idea for experienced folks to take a safety course now and again as well.

The shotgun is a firearm used for hunting and competition, to hunt from close range big game to wing-shooting, all manner of small game, waterfowl and upland game such as rabbits, pheasants, and any number of other game bird species, or sporting clays activities, trap shooting, skeet or target shooting.  When used with single projectiles, rifled slugs or sabot-clad bullets, they are used like rifles.  Shooting shotguns with single projectiles involves careful aiming or sight picture control and trigger control for accurate shot placement.  For other purposes, they are designed to provide an adequate cloud of shot with enough energy to cleanly hit the target.  Timing and follow through are critical to hitting moving target effectively with a shotgun.  The gun should swing smoothly and shoot where you are looking.  The skilled shooter must learn to select the combination of gauge, choke, and load.

A shotgun fires a "shell", not a bullet. For our purposes, this plastic or paper shell contains dozens of small, lead( or steel with modern environment friendly cartridges) pellets that spray out in what might best be described as a cloud of pellets that spreads out as it leaves the shotgun. The shotgun is a short range weapon. Moving targets over about 30 yards away are in little danger when fired on with a shotgun in average hands. At 40 yards, even the best shooters are limited by the fact that this cloud of pellets is spreading out and slowing down very rapidly, thus limiting it's effectiveness severely.



Shotgun bore diameters are designated by gauge.  Formerly, the gauge of the gun was the number of lead balls, just bore diameter, that could be cast from a pound of lead.  Thus, a 10 gauge, the largest on currently in use, held a ball that weighed one-tenth of a pound.  Bore diameter lead balls for a 28 gauge weighed one-twenty eighth of a pound.  The larger the gauge, the smaller the bore diameter.  Today shotgun bores have been standardized by arms manufacturers, with 10, 12, 16, 20 and 28 gauge arms and ammunition readily available in many countries.  The .410 bore is the smallest shotgun generally available, but it is a caliber rather than a gauge. 28 gauge and .410 bore shotguns are wonderful size weapons for beginning youngsters and ladies.

Generally, the larger the bore, the greater the maximum shot charge available.  For example, many manufacturers offer two ounce leads for 3 ½-inch 10-gauge loadings.  The normal charge for a 28-gauge gun is ¾-ounce.  In addition to having a larger "payload," larger bores tend to have a shorter shot string with similar loads.  Shot would tend to be strung out further in a 1 ¼-ounce 3-inch 20-gauge load than it would in a 12-gauge load of the same weight.  The shorter shot string may increase the effectiveness of a load under hunting conditions.


Chamber Length

Of course, you can see that each gauge of shotgun would take a correspondingly larger or smaller shell. But that's not all. Shotguns also come with different chamber lengths. The chamber is where the shell fits into the gun for firing. It is extremely important that you load shells marked only for the gauge and chamber length that is stamped on your gun's barrel. In actual practice, the gauge of shell and gun must match exactly while the shells must be no longer than the length marked on the gun's barrel or shorter.

The standard chamber size is 2 ¾ inches for all gauges. Some guns are marked to take a shell that is a maximum of 3 inches long. Shells are most commonly made in the 2 ¾ inch length. Some shells, called "magnums" are manufactured in the 3 inch length. Thus, guns marked with a 3 inch chamber can safely fire these 3 inch or 2 ¾ inch shells as long as the gauge matches exactly. Some older guns have only a 2 ¾ inch chamber and must never be loaded with a 3 inch shell, for safety reasons. A gun so loaded can burst with fatal results to shooter and bystanders when fired. The 3 inch shells are commonly available, but they are usually very expensive compared to the 2 ¾ inch shells and so are used only in special situations such as turkey or goose hunting. Watch every box of shells and every gun you shoot very carefully to be sure they match.

A good rule is to not have shells on you that will not fit the gun you are carrying when you are hunting or shooting targets. Shells of a different gauge than the gun calls for will not actually fit that gun, however, shells from smaller gauge guns can be accidentally loaded into a gun of larger gauge. For instance, a 20 gauge shell can fit right clear into the chamber of a 12 gauge gun and become stuck, down in the barrel. If a 12 gauge shell is then loaded into the gun and the gun is fired, the gun will explode and the shooter will be seriously hurt or killed. Same for any bystanders. Shotgun shells are generally color coded by gauge, but one cannot even say that for sure. 20 gauge shells are generally yellow in color. Many 12 gauge shells are red, but shells of all gauges at times come in red, green, purple, black and other colors. The shell size is stamped on it's brass base, regardless of color.



Generally they hold about an ounce of lead pellets or "shot". Some shells hold a bit more shot, some a bit less. The shot too, comes in several sizes. The larger the shot size number, the smaller the shot size. Each size shot has specific application to shooting targets or game. The most common or "medium" sized shot is the #6 size. Other popular sizes include #4, #5, #7 1/2, #8 and #9. Those sizes larger than #6 (the smaller numbered sizes) are used mostly for pheasants and waterfowl with the sizes #6 and smaller being used for quail and dove sized birds for the most part. Sizes #8 and #9 are the most commonly shot for the clay target games folk play with shotguns to hone their shooting skills. It is important to match the shot size to the game or targets you are shooting. It is also important to remember that the bigger the shot, the fewer of them there are in the shell because the total weight of the shot charge is still always about an ounce in every shell.


Shotgun Types

The pump or slide action shotgun is probably the most popular in many emerging markets at this time. A pump holds several shells in it's magazine. Once a shot is fired, a new shell is loaded by pumping the slide which is actually the forearm of the gun. Pump guns are simple, tough and not very prone to malfunctioning. Almost every manufacturer who sells shotguns sells at least one model of pump shotgun.

The semi-automatic shotgun is also quite popular. Similar in appearance to a pump gun, this gun simply reloads itself after each shot is fired. These shotguns are very useful and have some advantages over other models of shotgun. However, they are generally more expensive and somewhat prone to malfunctioning if not properly cared for. They are a bit temperamental, due to the fact that their mechanisms are quite complicated and susceptible to dirt and the weather. The auto is the one type of shotgun that actually seems to wear out with extended use. Buying used automatic shotgun is not recommended.

This leaves us with double-barreled shotguns. As their name implies, these guns have two barrels. If you say "double barreled", you are talking about a gun whose barrels are mounted next to each other. We also call these guns "side-by-sides". In many developed countries, the over-under shotgun is the much more popular of the two at this time, for a variety of reasons. However, both types of two-barreled guns are gaining in popularity. In some countries in Europe and other parts of the world, there are simply are no other types of shotguns. There are many advantages to a two barreled gun for bird and target shooting. Let's just say that in general, these type of guns are generally of a higher grade of manufacture than most pumps or semi-automatic shotguns. They load and unload by breaking them open. When broken open, the gun simply cannot fire as the action and the barrels are no longer connected. This is a wonderful safety feature. Also, due to their design, pound for pound, a good two-barreled gun will seem lighter to carry and will generally be easier and safer to handle than pumps or automatic guns. Two-barrels guns are by far the easiest to clean and care for of any type of shotgun. Two-barreled guns are very reliable to operate and you will never wear one out with a lifetime of heavy use. If you shoot a lot, dropping a month or two's pay on a weapon you will truly enjoy shooting for your entire life and then pass on to your grandchildren is not a large expense at all. If you shoot a lot and have a poor shotgun to shoot, you will not enjoy it very much.

Let's leave out discussion of obsolete models such as lever, bolt and single shot shotguns, except to say that each, in their own way, distinguishes itself as an abomination to safety and/or function as far as shotguns are concerned and that, having owned and used at least one of each of these devilish creations, we would not wish one on our worst enemies.


Shotgun Selection

Selection is largely a matter of finding a gun that looks good to you, fits your shooting style and matches your pocketbook.  Shooting where you look is very important.  Matching the features to your intended use is also important.  Specialized guns for special uses are available, but many guns fit a variety of purposes.  Most skeet guns, for example, are excellent upland bird guns.  Short, light guns are fast, but not very smooth.  Long, heavy guns are slower but smoother to swing.  Slug guns and turkey guns are usually relatively short-barreled.  Turkey and goose guns are usually tightly choked and big bored.  Pass shooting guns tend to have long barrels for smoother swings.  Upland bird guns for dense cover are usually short and quick.  Interchangeable barrels and screw-in choke tubes make most modern shotguns extremely versatile.

The 3 or 3 ½-inch chambered 12-gauge shotgun with screw-in chokes or interchangeable barrels is probably the most versatile shotgun for all hunting.  The mighty 10-gauge is a heavy duty specialist for water-fowling, turkey, predators and perhaps deer.  The 20 gauge with 3-inch chamber is an excellent and versatile lighter gun that serves well in upland or marsh.  The 28 gauge and .410 are expert's guns demanding good shooting and better judgment.

No matter what hunting situation presents itself, ethical choices are critical.  Hunters need to keep their shots in a sure-kill range.  Leads and ability to hit must be considered as does the density of patterns and pellet energy.  Optimizing those factors reduces the chance of crippling or wounding loss.



All shotguns, regardless of model have a "safety" button or switch that is supposed to prevent the trigger from being accidentally pulled. This is a useful feature, but it is not a substitute for safe gun handling. Remember, most guns that accidentally kill people were either "unloaded" or "on safety". A shotgun is carried with the safety on while hunting until the very moment the bird flushes. The shooter pushes the safety to the "off" or "fire" position as the shooter is mounting the shotgun to his/her shoulder to swing on and fire at a flying bird.

Over/under and side by side double guns are safer for a number of reasons. One of the biggest reasons is; the gun can be carried unloaded and shells can be dropped into the open gun and the gun brought into action very quickly without having to carry a loaded gun around. A two-barreled gun that is broken open is much easier to carry over your arm or over your shoulder than any other model. In bird hunting, this is a huge factor because bird shooters carry their guns around much more than they shoot them. Likewise, the gun can be made unfireable and stone-dead safe very quickly simply by breaking the action open. This is a very reassuring feature when hunting or training dogs with other folks. It is for these reasons that two-barreled guns are normally the only types of guns that dog clubs permit gunners at their field trials and tests to carry during these events.



Early shotguns had uniform bore diameters from chamber to muzzle.  Someone discovered that constricting the bore a small amount caused the shot charge to stay together longer, increasing the effective range of the shotgun.  Chokes were used in a variety of ways.  Jug chokes were made by slightly increasing the inside diameter of the barrel just before the muzzle.  Swaged chokes were made by forcing the muzzle into a tapered jig, constricting the bore slightly.  Machined chokes are cut with a reamer.  They may be tapered or parallel.  Recently many manufacturers have produced choke tubes that could be screwed into the threaded muzzle of the shotgun.  They are an advancement of variable choke devices, which could be opened or tightened by turning a collet.

The most commonly encountered chokes are skeet, improved cylinder, modified and full.  True cylinder has no choke.  Most slug barrels are built to snug cylinder full length.  Skeet chokes are designed for optimum patterns at about 22-25 yards.  Improved cylinder is designed to be best at 25-30 yards.  Modified chokes are best at about 35-40 yards.  Full choke is designed for 40 yards and beyond.  Other borings include ¼ choke (strong I/C or Skeet 2), improved modified or ¾ choke (between modified and full) and extra full.

A pervasive myth in shotgunning is that longer barrels shoot "harder" and "tighter."  Barrel length beyond about 18-22 inches has little effect on velocity.  Choke, not barrel length , determines shot dispersion.  The major advantage of long barrels in long range shooting is having a longer "sighting plane" and a more  muzzle heavy, smoother swing.

We must emphasize that the choke setting of your barrel is actually more critical in hunting than the gauge of the gun is. Without going into mind numbing detail, lets just say that bird shooters generally don't use Full choke. It's the "tightest" choke and as such one's pellets don't spread out too much at close ranges when shooting a full choke and this causes many birds to be missed. Bird shooting over pointing dogs is a close range business. We generally want our pellets to spread out quickly so we have the best chance of hitting a flying bird. Let's just say that for shooting over pointing dogs, modified is a good choke and that Improved Cylinder is a better choke. With a two barreled gun, you get one of each, usually, which is another advantage to that type of shotgun. With a pump or an auto gun, I would really stick to improved cylinder. If you buy an older, used gun, be sure it's got at least a "Modified" choke barrel on it. Many older guns were made with "Full" choke barrels that are worse than useless to shoot over dogs. If you buy a new gun, be sure to buy a model that has "screw in" choke tubes so you can select the choke to match the hunting situation. If you find yourself with a "Full" choke barrel on the gun you intend to use for your shooting over bird dogs, you can take it to a gunsmith who can work on the barrel and change it to roughly a modified or improved cylinder setting for a nominal fee.


Shotgun Ballistics

All projectiles have kinetic energy when they are in motion.  That energy is defined by the mass and the velocity of the projectile.  In shotgun pellets, the range in muzzle energy is from about two foot-pounds to 225 foot-pounds.  Usually shotgun patterns become too thin to assure hits before the pellets lose striking energy.

Pattern density is an interaction of shot charge, shot size, choke and distance.  Larger shot charges hold greater numbers of pellets, yielding larger numbers of effective pellets in the pattern (usually measured in a 30-inch circle) at the same percentage.  Larger pellets have more energy but their pattern is less dense than smaller shot.  Shot size selection is usually a trade-off between energy and density.  Increasing the choke constriction usually increases pattern density, but excessive choke may cause patterns to begin to open again.  Finally, distance increases pellet dispersion.  Shot hardness affects the degree to which pellets drift from the pattern.  Softer shot, because of greater deformation (flattening) spreads more quickly than magnum, or hard, shot.  All these factors figure in selecting a shotgun load for game.

The effective ranges of 12 gauge standard loads were listed earlier.  Going to 3-inch magnums loads may add up to 10 yards to those ranges with similar shot sizes.  Dropping down to 20 gauge reduces the effective range a few yards, perhaps up to 5 yards.  The 28 gauge requires a reduction of about 5 more yards, with about 35 yards the maximum realistic range on game.  The little .410 is a gun for experts willing to limit shots to 20-25 yards.


Big Game Shotgunning

Shotguns can be very effective big game arms within their effective range.  Many states require shotguns either with slugs or buckshot.  Both slugs and buckshot carry high energies and are potentially very dangerous down range.  Therefore, backstops must be safe and sure.  The notion that distance is an adequate backstop, so common to shotgunners, must be reconsidered in this situation.

When hunting with slugs, good sights and careful sighting in are essential.  Shots must be kept inside the accuracy range of the slug/shotgun/shooter combination.  For most of them, that means keeping shots inside 75-100 yards.  Specialized equipment may be capable of a few yards more.  Slugs from 10 gauge and 12 gauge guns have impressive energy and killing power.  In fact, they are often the preferred choice for following up medium sized dangerous game that has been wounded.  In contrast, the tiny 2 ½-inch .410 slug is underpowered and inadequate for use on big game.

Like slugs, buckshot has better potential as a big game load in big bore guns.  Wise hunters will invest in patterning several sizes and brands in their gun/choke combination to be sure they are getting the best performance and to determine maximum ethical ranges.  Caution on shot selection is essential with buckshot to make sure of clean kills and to minimize wounding.  Careful attention to possible downrange hazards is also vital with these large, high energy pellets.



So, you can see, with all the different shotgun action types, gauges and barrel chokes, one has a wide variety of choice in what to look for and try in a gun. Multiply that by the dozen or more major makers of shotguns that are available and even experienced shooters can really become quite confused and lost in choosing a new gun. Generally speaking, it might be an advantage to visit with someone who has hunted a lot to get a better idea of what might suit you in a shotgun. You might even arrange to try out a couple of different guns on a target range before you even head out to a gun shop. Used guns are easily found, but have a gunsmith look over any gun you are considering buying off the used rack. As this not-so-brief journey into the topic shows, you are probably going to need some help with your first shotgun if you are a beginner. A shotgun is a simple thing with so many details and nuances that determine what is best for each shooter that it takes years to get it all figured out.

Experience and practice are the keys and we hope this piece will give you an idea, at least, of where to start.


Adaptad from Dr.R A. Howard Jr. and shotgunprimer blogs
BirdnClay Shotguns