While this may strike many experienced hunters and shooters as common knowledge, we could all stand a refresher on the building blocks of shotgunning. In the realm of scattergun ammunition, few of us, in fact, take advantage of the entire array. There are birdshot loads and slugs, buckshot, specialty shots, and more sizes than one can inventory. 

After you select a firearm, bore or gauge, and application, our primer on shotgun ammo is intended to help narrow your ammo selection. At the end of the day, picking the most appropriate ammunition can make or break your hunt, competition, or even defense situation. 

Table of Contents

Three Major Classes
The Importance of Proper Selection

Three Major Classes


Pump action, lever action, break action, semi-auto shotguns
There's a shotgun to suit every personality, from Old West-style lever actions to tactical semi-autos and all the classic break actions and pumps in between. (Photos: Guns.com)

Call them what you will – shotguns, scatterguns, or smoothbores. In the industry, a good shotgun is one of the most versatile and capable firearm platforms. That’s due in large part to the wide range of ammunition it can handle. 

There are three major classes of shotgun rounds: birdshot, buckshot, and slugs. Each can be further quantified and defined by its many subsets. 

Related: Why (and How) Hunters Pattern Shotguns



Boxes of various sized birdshot shotgun ammo
Birdshot ranges from the smaller shot for clay shooting to the larger goose-sized #1 and #2. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/Guns.com)

This is by far the most common subset of shotgun ammunition. These loads are filled with tiny pellets known as shot. Many sizes of shot are available, each suitable for different pursuits. For instance, a skeet shooter might select size #8 or #9, while a trap shooter prefers #7. 

Upland hunters might grab #6, while wild turkey chasers often gravitate to something in the #4 or #5 size. Goose hunters, by contrast, seek the larger shot sizes, often selecting #1, or moving up to BB or BBB which leads into a subsequent buckshot category. 

Birdshot Applications: Clay shooting, pest control, and hunting for game including upland birds, waterfowl, and small game. The most common type of birdshot is lead, followed by steel. Specialty materials are also on the rise, with Bismuth and Tungsten quickly gaining popularity with hunters. 

Related: Post SHOT Show Wish List – 2023’s Fresh Hunting Shotguns



Targets shot with 12-gauge shotgun in pattern test
Results of a pattern test with a Mossberg 500 SPX Tactical 12-gauge shotgun are shown at 7, 15, and 30 yards (left to right). Red is 00 buckshot, while green is BB shot. The black + measures 7x7 inches. (Photo: Ben Philippi/Guns.com)

While birdshot is typically defined as the smaller end of pellet size, buckshot picks up where its predecessor leaves off. Buckshot offers larger projectiles, naturally with fewer pieces inside the same size casing as compared to birdshot. 

Buckshot, however, characteristically penetrates more deeply. For instance, 00 – or double-aught buck – is a favorite for defense. For comparison, while a 2.75-inch shotshell holds roughly eight pieces of 00 buckshot, the same hull would pack upward of 500 pellets of #9 birdshot.

Boxes of various sized buckshot shotgun ammo
Watch out, Wile E. – a 2.75-inch shotshell holds just eight 00 pellets, compared to the 500 pellets of #9 birdshot that fit in the same shell. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/Guns.com)

Buckshot Applications: Because of its properties, buckshot is often reserved for more serious uses and harder-to-bag game. Some styles of buckshot are loaded specifically for home defense, while others are tailored to coyote, hog, or even deer hunters. 

Related: 12-Gauge Shotgun Pattern Test



Sabot versus rifled shotgun slug
A sabot slug, left, versus a rifled slug, right. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/Guns.com)

The final step in shotgunning involves the slug, a single solid projectile. Slugs are often constructed of lead, copper, or a comparable alloy. They come in two most basic types: rifled or sabots. The prior is exactly as it sounds, with rifled grooves in the body of the projectile, variants of Brenneke and Foster slugs. These are ideal for firing from smoothbore barrels. 

Sabot slugs, meanwhile, use a smaller projectile inside a polymer housing or wad. Sabots are designed to be fired through rifled slug barrels, using the same principles as a centerfire rifle. 

Boxes of sabot and rifled shotgun slugs
Slugs are most often seen in hunting applications and are a popular choice for taking down large game like black bear. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/Guns.com)

Slugs offer perhaps the greatest distance in the shotgun world, but effective ranges depend on many factors, including firearm type, rifled versus smoothbore barrel, and the ammunition itself. For instance, Savage’s dedicated bolt action 220 Slug is built similarly to a rifle and boasts MOA accuracy at 100 yards and effective ranges out to 200 yards. 

Slug Application: Though occasionally seen in defense and law enforcement applications, the most common use for slugs is hunting. While some areas limit hunters to shotgun-only firearms, still others prefer the hard-hitting power of closer-range slugs over centerfire rifles for game like black bears. 

The Importance of Proper Selection

Just as birdshot would be unethical to use on deer due to its small shot size and lack of terminal energy, so would slugs and buckshot be inappropriate on small game. They would destroy meat, should the shooter even make contact. While it may not be dangerous, per se, to use less-than-ideal types of shotgun ammunition, situations could arise involving both legality and safety. 

For instance, waterfowl hunters are legally required to use non-toxic shot like steel. Some areas require non-lead or copper alloy slugs for bigger game hunting. Many older firearms, due to the construction of their barrels and actions, cannot safely fire steel shot, requiring instead softer options like Bismuth. In those vintage firearms, using the wrong type of ammunition can cause irreparable damage to the barrel, and in extreme cases, to  the shooter. 

The extended, ported Mossberg AccuChoke that comes with the 940 Pro Waterfowl shotgun is a fine choice for duck hunters, but might not be right for home defense. It also shouldn't be used with slugs. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/Guns.com)

Likewise, slug hunters must be mindful of their barrel type and choke constriction. Though there’s some debate, most every firearm manufacturer warns against firing slugs through chokes that are tighter than cylinder or improved cylinder. A full choke – the tightest constriction at the muzzle of a shotgun – is not ideal for slugs and even has been noted to damage the firearm, while subsequently resulting in poor accuracy. 

Related: Shotgun Chokes 101 – All Basics from Birds to Clays


While this is mostly general information, selecting the proper shotgun ammunition not only sets the shooter up for success but also maintains safety and compliance with the law. 

For the hunter, packing the right load grants the best chance to connect with the target, along with a clean harvest. And in the case of home defense, the right ammunition could, at its most critical level, mean the difference between life and death. 

revolver barrel loading graphic