The Importance of Shot Choice

The shotgun is a very versatile weapon due to its ability to fire a wide range of shotgun cartridges. On the one hand this is great but on the other it opens up the opportunity to choose the wrong shell for a particular shoot. I have written this article in order to help you make the right choice.


Shotgun Cartridges – a Potted History

There are two basic types of shotgun cartridge, each with two sub-types:

  • Shot-shells: shells filled with multiple round pellets for use with smooth (non-rifled) barrels.
    • Shotgun-shells, filled with birdshot: small pellets for use on smaller animals or targets
    • Buck -shot rounds: shot-shells filled with buckshot, large pellets for use on larger animals
  • Slugs: shells loaded with a single bullet
    • rifled slugs, for use in smooth-bore barrels
    • sabot slugs, for use in rifled barrels

Shot-shells are generally loaded with lead balls, sometimes steel for legal reasons, (see my article on lead pollution), and occasionally extra-dense alloys.

  • 12ga shot-shells (the most common) are available in 3 lengths:
    • Regular 2 3/4″
    • Magnum 3″ (more gunpowder, more lead, more pain to both target and shooter)
    • Super-magnum 3 1/2″ (just more!)
  • Larger shot numbers mean smaller pellets:
    • The diameter of birdshot is equal to .17″ minus the shot number; #4 shot is .13″ in diameter.
    • 000 buckshot; is .36″, 00 is .33″, #4 buck is .24″. Got that!

Larger shot penetrates deeper, so it is used on larger animals.

  • Small animals such as doves, squirrels, or clays, can be taken with shot as small at #8. Some people like to use larger shot because it can kill at slightly longer range and reduces the number of pellets you have to remove from your food!
  • Larger animals, such as pheasants, turkeys, or rabbits should be taken with slightly larger shot such as #6 or #4.
  • Bigger animals, such as ducks or geese, require larger shot, compounded by the use of steel, #4-BB is recommended for ducks, #1-TT (TT = .21″) for geese.
  • The largest animals that buckshot is suited for, such as deer, coyotes, men, or dragons, should be shot with pellets no smaller than #4 buck.
  • Steel shot is less dense than lead, so it loses speed faster in air and penetrates less in tissue. Larger shot (rule-of-thumb: 2 birdshot sizes bigger) is required to get performance similar to lead.

The Shot Pattern

This is independent of the particular type of shotgun cartridges in the gun. The choke dictates how much the shot spreads out during flight and this is ultimately determined by the type of choke in the barrel. Lead pellets that pass through the choke can be dented, this is not a good thing as it can cause the pellets disperse more – and disperse erratically, making for uneven patterns. The choke also assists pellets to remain in a tight cloud, the tighter the choke the tighter the cloud formation. Bear these things in mind: –

  • The tighter the choke, the more denting
  • The more lead in a load, the more serious this effect is
  • In addition the softer the lead the worse the pellets will be damaged

One way that the denting can be avoided is through the use of buffered shotgun cartridges.

These have padding that is packed around the lead pellets to protect them. A bonus is that this padding also results in tighter shot patterns.

In modern guns chokes are interchangeable; the inside of the end of the barrel is threaded, and chokes can be screwed in and out. Generally, the following chokes are the most common:

    • Cylinder bore, which has no restriction, throws open but very uniform patterns; it is useful for close-range shooting
    • Skeet choke
    • Improved cylinder
    • Light Modified choke
    • Modified choke
    • Improved Modified choke
    • Light Full choke
    • Full choke, which has a lot of restriction, throws very tight patterns when fed quality shot. However, when fed soft lead, a full choke tends to shoot awful patterns: uneven and possibly larger than those produced by a looser choke.

Slugs, as previously mentioned, are large pieces of lead propelled by powder, loaded one per shell. Think bullet! The power of a slug -shot is determined in the same way as buck shot, with standard, magnum, and super-magnum loadings. Magnum and super-magnum are often loaded with heavier slugs.

The rifled slug, used in smooth-bore shotguns (most) has rifling or ribs on the slug. These ribs are designed to prevent damage to the gun if fired through a barrel with some choke applied.

A properly constructed 12 gauge slug which is durable and made of hard lead essentially transforms a shotgun into a .73 calibre rifle capable of killing large game animals but the range is compromised.

NOTE: rifled slugs don’t work well in rifled barrels.

Sabot Slugs

Sabot shotgun cartridges use a covering which is smaller than the bore of which it travels through. In real terms a sabot slugs wear a plastic jacket that is discarded once they leave the barrel. Below is an image of a Sabot shell leaving the barrel, it’s not particularly clear but you can see the slug leaving it plastic jacket.

sabot shell being fired

sabot shell being fired

Sabot shotgun cartridges are generally more accurate, higher velocity, and more aerodynamic than rifled slugs, but they require a rifled barrel to be fired accurately.

Both types of slugs are fairly low velocity, and thus have arc shaped trajectories that are not helpful to long-range shooting. It is fair to say that rifled slugs can reach out to 100 yards without too much difficulty; sabot slugs about 150 yards.

Note that generally buck shot and slugs in the same size as bird shot will have much more recoil than bird shot. So, the first time firing slugs or buck shot, be prepared for extra kick (if you use magnums or super-magnums, be prepared for a lot of extra kick!

shotgun cartridges


Steps to Selecting Shot Loads

Check the size of shells you need to buy. It’d be embarrassing to come back from the store with 12ga shotgun cartridges for your 20ga shotgun! Even worse, a 20 gauge shotgun cartridge will chamber in a 12 gauge gun, then slide about halfway down the barrel and stick. If a properly sized 12 gauge shell is then chambered and fired into the blocked barrel, the gun will blow up. Not a good scenario.


shotgun cartridges

shotgun ammunition types

Decide what you are to be shooting at, and at what kind of range you expect to engage your target.

Selecting shotgun cartridges & choke combination

This is an art, or at best, an inexact science. The aim is to get the right pattern of shot through the correct selection of shotgun cartridges and choke.

shotgun cartridges

different shotgun chokes

Shoot one of your shotgun cartridges at a piece of paper big enough to record the impact of all, or nearly all, of the pellets at the range you expect to use the load. At 40 yards, expect to get a pattern with a diameter of roughly 20-40″, depending on choke and shotgun shell used.

shotgun cartridges

Choke spread test

Examine the pattern:

How big is the main cluster of holes? Will it be hard to hit a moving target with the pattern?
How dense is the pattern in this main cluster? Will enough pellets hit the target to kill/break it?
Is the pattern uniform? Are there large holes in the pattern where targets could escape?

If pleased with the results of this test, you have found shotgun cartridges which will work in your gun with this choke for this purpose. If you change your range substantially, your conclusion may change.

If not pleased, change some variable in the shot: choke, shell, or range; try again.

Selecting Shotgun Cartridges – Slugs

The easiest way to test shotgun cartridges and their respective slugs is to buy a variety of different types in the proper gauge.

shotgun cartridges

As a rough guide: –

  • For lighter game (deer), select a slug which will expand
  • For heavier game (elk, buffalo, bears), select a slug which will not break up or fragment if it hits a large bone. This doesn’t really apply to the UK.

To test them simply shoot 3 to 5 shot groups (several shots at the same point of aim from a stable rest, using the sights) at a paper target from a reasonable range; I would suggest 50 yards for ‘rifled’ slugs, and 100 yards for sabot slugs.

Sighting your Shotgun

  • If your patterns are the wrong size or don’t have the density required to kill game, change the choke.
  • If your patterns are uneven, you are probably trying to push too much soft lead through too small a hole. Sometimes less lead and a looser choke will actually allow you to be effective at longer range.
  • If you don’t have time or space to pattern your load, all hope is not lost; you just won’t be able to check if the rules of thumb apply to your barrel.
  • If you don’t know the range you will be using your shotgun cartridges, it is customary to pattern bird-shot at 40 yards and to pattern (defensive) buck-shot at 20-25 yards.

Things to be Wary of

  • Non-toxic (non lead) shot is often required when hunting ducks and other waterfowl. Please see my article on Lead Pollution here
  • Don’t shoot slugs through a tight choke.
  • Don’t shoot steel or other very hard shot through a full choke; you are likely to damage it.
  • It is not recommended for younger shooters to shoot anything other than bird shot or target shot because hi-velocity or buck shot has enough recoil to damage your shoulder if you don’t hold and maintain the stock in the correct position.

I hope that you found this article helpful. If you would like to be know when the next one comes out and receive our special offers please fill in the form to the right of this post.

Thank you


shotgun cartridges

Mark Treverton


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