Unlike shotguns, once you’ve chosen a rifle or pistol, you have few choices for the type of ammunition you shoot.
Okay, maybe you can choose between hollow point and solid, and a few other tweaks like that, and maybe you have a few choices of bullet weight, and (at least in theory – in practice most cartridges are loaded at close to standard maximum all the time) the amount of powder used in the cartridge, but you’re almost certainly going to end up with one or two ‘favorites’ – a cheap round for plinking and practicing, a hunting round, and perhaps a third round for self-defense.
It is very different with shotguns. Even after selecting a particular caliber shotgun (and we hope you’ll choose 12 gauge) you now find yourself with an enormous variety of ammunition choices.
It could be said that one of the ‘fun’ things about shotguns is the variety of different types of loads you can shoot through them. You can choose from a dozen or more different sizes of pellet/ball, and even after choosing the size pellet/ball, you can then get to choose the quantity. That’s not all – you can change completely to solid slugs, or you can get some of the more exotic loads, ranging from flechettes and bolos to explosive rounds and ‘Dragon’s Breath’ type miniature flame thrower devices.
Note that, as ‘fun’ as these novelty loads may be, and as lethal sounding as their descriptions read, generally they are less effective than good old-fashioned lead shot. There’s a reason these are rare and ‘exotic’ – because ‘real’ experienced shooters have found them to be not as useful and effective as regular rounds.
It isn’t just a case of getting ‘nastier and nastier’ loads, either. You can also get ‘nicer’ loads – less-than-lethal loads – bean bags and rubber balls, for example.
One of the considerations few preppers think about is having an ability to have a graded level of responses to situations. Having some non-lethal ways to assertively respond to and control a threatening situation can often be very useful and avoid minor confrontations escalating way too far on both sides.
On the other hand, these less than lethal loads can be dangerous, potentially crippling, and possibly even lethal. If fired at an adversary at too close a range, or if hitting them in an unlucky place, you might create as many problems as if you’d used a regular round.
Furthermore, in a curious twist in most states’ criminal law codes, while it may be lawful to use lethal force in self-defense when you are in immediate fear of your life and have no other realistic choices/responses, it is seldom legal to do anything such as ‘fire a warning shot’ or ‘shoot to wound, not to kill’, and this would also apply to these less than lethal rounds. From the law’s point of view, there are only two scenarios – when you’re in fear of your life and authorized to use deadly force, or, when you’re not, and in such a case, you are not authorized to use lesser force.
This is perhaps not good law, but it is the reality in most of the country, and assuming you’re in a situation where the rule of law applies or can be expected to retroactively subsequently apply (and as you’ll know if you read through more of our site, we urge you to observe all laws at all times, no matter what is going on around you), you need to keep that in mind. Yes, this means that it is more lawful to kill a person than to wound or scare them, and that’s truly stupid, but the law is the law.
Talking about legal issues, note that not all these exotic types of loads are legal in all states. Be sure to check.
Anyway, with that as a lengthy introduction to the topic, let’s look at some of the factors surrounding shotshells and which ones you should choose.
12 gauge shotshells come in different lengths – most commonly 2¾” and 3″, and less commonly in giant-sized 3½” size.
Which is the best length of shell? It is fair to say that generally the longer the shell, the more powder and shot inside it. But more is not always better – more powder also means more recoil, and if you’re in a situation where the power and payload of a 2¾” shell is inadequate, something is very wrong. Maybe the best alternative is switching to a rifle or simply running away, rather than pulling out your 3″ or 3½” shells!
The larger and more powerful shells are not only more expensive, they also have appreciably greater recoil, and this makes them harder to shoot. You’re more likely to flinch when shooting, and it will take you longer to bring the shotgun back on target for follow-up shots.
Generally we shoot regular 2¾” shells, and don’t feel the need for larger shells and greater loads of powder and shot. There’s also another consideration – it is common that if you go over the ‘standard’ 2¾” length shell, then the capacity of your magazine tube might reduce down by one – perhaps from six to five rounds, or whatever. Sometimes growing the shell size still further to 3½” might see you lose one more round, and now you’re down to only four rounds. I’d rather have six rounds of 2¾” shells than four rounds of 3½” shells – wouldn’t you?
Just like, with regular rifle/pistol cartridges, there are variations within a caliber, with varying amounts of powder and varying weights of bullet, the same is true of shotshells.
Of course, there will probably be more powder and more weight of shot in a longer shotshell than in a shorter shotshell, but beyond that, there can be quite substantial variations in the amount of powder and the weight of the shot in shells of the same size.
This is usually explained on each box – telling you the weight in ounces of the load, and sometimes also the amount of powder, or, if not, it can at least hint at the amount of charge by indicating the muzzle velocity of the load when it exits your shotgun barrel.
The load weight is usually from slightly less than 1 ounce up to about 2 ounces of shot.
If you have a higher load of shot, you also need more powder so as to still be sending the shot out the end of the barrel at a decent speed. So look also at the weight of powder or the muzzle velocity to make sure that the load is a balanced mix between shot weight and powder weight.
There’s an interesting concept to keep in mind. Although the total force of a shotgun blast is awesome, that power gets split and shared by all the separate pieces of shot now flying towards the target. If each individual piece doesn’t have sufficient power to penetrate sufficiently, it becomes useless. So the more shot in a shell, the more powder you need to ensure each separate piece of shot still has its ‘fair share’ of energy.
Note that the amount of powder is sometimes described in terms of drams. A dram is 1/16th of an ounce, or 27.3 grains. But – and here’s the tricky thing. The dram weight of powder in a shotshell is not a measurement of the actual exact weight of powder. It instead relates to the equivalent theoretical weight of old-fashioned black powder.
Different equivalences apply for steel instead of lead shot, and for different calibers. So while more drams implies more powder, you can’t really use it as an absolute measurement of the powder in the shell.
In the last some years, there has been a growing popularity for ‘low-recoil’ loads. We all know that a shotgun can have a fearsome kick when fired, so low-recoil seems like a great innovation, and its popularity is understandable.
But what is ‘low-recoil’? Expressed in the simplest terms, it simply means that the shell has less powder in it. There’s nothing magic about low-recoil, and the underlying physics (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) can’t be overturned.
Low recoil shells typically have less powder, less weight of shot, lower muzzle velocity and less energy. How much less? Well, because there’s no standard weight/charge amount/velocity, it is impossible to answer, but some examples we’ve seen suggest that in total there’s as much as a 50% reduction in the energy exiting your barrel.
On the other hand, at very close range, a full charge shotshell is arguably ‘overkill’ (if there is such a thing), so losing up to half the energy might be thought acceptable by some people, and still represents more energy that from a single pistol bullet. This justification for low-recoil applies to short-range scenarios only.
There can be other possibly valid reasons to consider using low-recoil ammunition. If you have less of a flinch response to the lowered recoil, and if that means your first shot is more accurate and your second shot follows more quickly, then that probably is plenty of justification. Plus, if it means that instead of getting a mix of 20 gauge and 12 gauge shotguns for the men and women in your group, you can instead get all 12 gauge guns and merely adjust the ammo being used, that keeps things simpler, too.
So while – for many of us – we instinctively feel that more is better and less is worse, and are focused more on getting super double ultra magnum 3.5″ shells, perhaps we should be more in tune with the ‘zen’ of shotgun practice and discover that sometimes less can be more effective than more!
Shotshells can contain individual pieces of shot that vary in size enormously, from large balls as much as a third of an inch or more in diameter to tiny little pellets very much smaller. A single shell might hold as few as six or seven large-sized balls, or the better part of 1,000 or more tiny pellets.
There are two categories of shot that go into a shotshell. Smaller sized pellets are called ‘birdshot’ and larger sized pellets are called ‘buckshot’. They each have numbered sizes, and the lower the number, the bigger the size of each piece of shot.
Confusingly, a #1 piece of buckshot is not the same as a #1 piece of birdshot. For #1 buckshot, you are looking at a ball 0.30″ in diameter, and weighing 0.1 ounces each. For #1 birdshot, you are looking at a pellet 0.16″ in diameter, and weighing seven times less – 0.0139 ounces.
If you are shooting birds, you should use birdshot, and usually somewhere between number 2 to number 8. The bigger the bird, the bigger the size shot.
If you are shooting rabbits and squirrels, you’ll also use fairly small birdshot. But for larger animals, you should switch to buckshot (ie ‘buck’ as in deer), and particularly for defensive purposes, the most commonly used round is the 00 (‘double ought’) buck round.
Don’t think you can effectively use birdshot against a person. Okay, you’ll hurt them some, especially on exposed skin, at short-range, but you’re unlikely to disable them or take them out of the fight. While we’ve read some interesting studies that argue in favor of smaller sized balls than 00 size (ie maybe 1 or even 4 size buckshot) there seems close to universal agreement that birdshot is, well, for birds, and only for birds and other tiny critters, not for defensive use.
In addition to traditional shotshells that contain many small pieces of shot, you can also get solid slug type shotshells. These, as their name implies, have a single solid slug in them, the same diameter as the barrel.
Slugs typically have external rifling on them. But this is not so much to put a spin on them as they travel down the smooth bored shotgun barrel as it is simply to reduce the friction between the slug and the barrel.
Slugs come in different weights. The lowest weight commonly found slug is about 7/8 oz, or 383 grains. Compare that to the typical weight of a .308 bullet – 150 – 175 grains. A slug is more than twice the weight, and, of course, more than twice the diameter too (a .308 caliber bullet is .308 inches in diameter, a shotgun slug is about 0.7″ in diameter).
Other slug weights are commonly found up to 1.25 oz, and less commonly, heavier still.
Some people feel that a shotgun slug tends to generate a bit more recoil than the equivalent weight of shot.
Shotgun slugs leave the barrel at velocities in the order of about 1800 feet per second (depending on their weight and the amount of powder charge), but because they are not aerodynamically efficient, they quickly lose their weight and energy. They probably have a maximum range of about 400 yards, but a maximum effective range of 75 – 100 yards.
The Best Shotgun Ammo for a Prepper
If you plan to use your shotgun for hunting birds, get the appropriate sized birdshot shells for the types of birds you expect to be shooting.
If you plan to use your shotgun for defensive purposes, we first suggest you think twice about that decision! But if you insist on using a shotgun for defensive work, then for close in work, you should use 00 buck, and for longer range, solid slugs.
Generally, we suggest the best shotshell for defensive use is the 00 buck.