Guide to Shotgun Shell Types

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I received a question from a reader recently on what the different types of shotgun shells mean, and I figured It would be a good time to do a general overview of the types of loads available for the venerable shotgun.

There are two basic types of Shotgun Loads; Shot and Slug.



This is the most common type of Shotgun ammo, basically small tiny balls (made from various metals such as lead, steel, bismuth, tin and zinc).

Lead is in my opinion the best choice for home defense and hunting, when fired the lead deforms as it leaves the barrel and presents a better and wider pattern than steel; some hunters report more wounding shots with steel vs lead.

With Shot Shells there are two different types, Birdshot and Buckshot.




Birdshot is often just referred to as “Shot” or the number associated with it such as “number 3 Shot”, the numbers are based conversely on their size, the smaller the number the larger the shot.

Size Nominal diameter Pellets per oz (28 g) Quantity per lb.[5]
Lead Steel
FF .23″ (5.84 mm) 35
F .22″ (5.59 mm) 39
TT .21″ (5.33 mm)
T .20″ (5.08 mm) 36 53
BBB .190″ (4.83 mm) 44 62 550
BB .180″ (4.57 mm) 50 72 650
B .170″ (4.32 mm)
1 .160″ (4.06 mm) 72 103 925
2 .150″ (3.81 mm) 87 125 1120
3 .140″ (3.56 mm) 108 158 1370
4 .130″ (3.30 mm) 135 192 1720
5 .120″ (3.05 mm) 170 243 2180
6 .110″ (2.79 mm) 225 315 2850
7 .100″ (2.54 mm)
.095″ (2.41 mm) 350 3775
8 .090″ (2.29 mm) 410 686 5150
.085″ (2.15 mm) 497
9 .080″ (2.03 mm) 585 892 7400

(table courtesy of


For Home Defense Birdshot is not the most ideal, Buckshot (explained below) is far superior and 00Buck is the standard, however if you have some larger birdshot like F or FF or even BBB it will do some real damage.  There are differing schools of thought in regards to birdshot for home defense.  Since say #9 has nearly 600 BB’s inside (not to be confused with the shot size BB, referring to the shape…like a BB), it will have a nice large pattern in a home hallway.  #9 also will not penetrate distant walls and possibly enter a sleeping child’s bedroom as easily as 00 Buck will.  Another good point I have heard is that by using birdshot, if you do use it now (not in SHTF but ‘normal’ times) you cant be accused by a prosecutor of ‘premeditation’ (sounds crazy, but crazier things have happened!) by loading up those scary ‘known’ man stopper rounds as this is a very common hunting round.  Personally if you were taking this approach i would put the first or second rounds as birdshot and the remaining rounds be 00 Buck.  If the first few didn’t dissuade them then you need to use something more potent.

Personally I would rather face prosecution for defending my family than face the morgue for using a sub par round. But this is your decision.

I have heard of people using what are called “Cut Shells” (See this Youtube Video for more information), basically this is a birdshot round turned into a “slug” by nearly cutting the in two )nearly halfway up) this causes the shell to fire out holding the shot inside and making it a nice little improvised slug.  This was used during the depression when slugs were more expensive.




Buckshot is a larger size of shot, primarily used for…you guessed it DEER!  The most common buckshot is the 00 BUCK that holds 9 .33″ shot inside and works perfectly for hunting deer or in home defense.   As your can see in the photo above, 00 Buck is on the right and #7 1/2 Birdshot is on the right, you can see the size difference.

Size Nominal diameter Pellets/oz
0.60″ (“Tri-Ball 12 “) 0.60″ (15.2 mm) 1.4
0.52″ (“Tri-Ball 20 “) 0.52″ (13.2 mm) 2.1
000 (“triple-aught”) .36″ (9.1 mm) 6
00 (“double-aught”) .33″ (8.4 mm) 8
0 (“aught”) .32″ (8.1 mm) 9
1 .30″ (7.6 mm) 10
2 .27″ (6.9 mm) 15
3 .25″ (6.4 mm) 18
4 .24″ (6 mm) 21
T .20″ (5.08;mm) 31.3


For Home Defense I would recommend 000, 00, 0, #1 or #4 Buck, however the larger .52″ and .60″ Tri Ball rounds offer better penetration and range, however you will lose a little of your faster follow on shots that 00 Buck can provide in a sticky situation.  There are also “Low Recoil” 00 Buck shells becoming more available, which will give you a reduced range and stopping power, but faster follow on shots.

While this post is not to be about different types of shotguns, their barrels and chokes, I will say that if you have a rifled shotgun barrel you do need to be careful about shooting a lot of buckshot or birdshot out of them as the wad (the plastic piece inside the shell that holds the shot together) will start to foul up the rifling, i have heard that if you clean it often this isnt as much of an issue, heat up the barrel with a torch or hair dryer then run brass brush and heavy patches and that should do the trick.  You also need to be aware that your buckshot and other shot rounds will have a wider pattern than with a smoothbore shotgun barrel as the rifling will cause the wad to open sooner.



Slugs can be molded chunks of heavy lead or copper, with or without a plastic tip depending on what kind you buy.  The main difference between slugs and shot are that slugs are one object while shot is multiple objects when fired.  They can come in a variety of shapes but they often are shaped like bullets, and you can also buy ‘rifled slugs’ which have grooves in them and cause them to spin in the air like a pistol or rifle round, improving their accuracy.

Brenneke Slugs

These are slugs that were developed in 1898, a solid lead slug with fins cast on the outside much like a rifled slug.  Since it is solid and not hollow it will not deform as much on impact and will provide more penetration, the Black Magic Slug is great for use against Bear, however they are not stable at long ranges and should be used in short range engagements.


Foster Slugs.

Developed in 1931 and was made to be used in non rifled shotgun barrels, however they can be used in rifled barrels, but lead fouling (lead that builds up in the grooves) can be an issue and will need to be cleaned often.  There is a deep hollow area in the rear of the round which places the center of mass at the tip of the slug and allows for stable flight out to 75 yards.


Wad Slugs

These are variant between the Foster (above) and the Sabot (below) Slugs, designed to be used in non rifled shotgun barrels (although fouling is not an issue like the Foster).  It has a deep hollow like the Foster which allows for stable flight but it also has a web wall moulded across it reducing the stress on the plastic wad when it goes down the barrel.  It is good to about 75 yards.


Sabot Slug

These are lead cored, full copper jacketed or solid copper projectiles supported by a plastic sabot outer, which is designed to engage the rifling in teh barrel and put spin on the round.  This allows you to get ranges out to 300 yards which is damn near the effective ranges of most rifle shooters out there.  These are great for longer distance shots, and this type of round is what makes a good shotgun such a great all around weapon.



Now this wasn’t meant to be a complete no detail spared overview, but a general one, since i skipped some types of shells that are out there for the sake of a quick down and dirty.




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