Used by hunters, sport shooters, military, and law enforcement – the 12 gauge is the most used shotgun shell today and it has existed in its current cartridge configuration since the late 1800s.
Twelve gauge rounds, often seen written as 12ga, are used in a variety of situations, including hunting birds and small game, recreation shooting, and home defense. These ammunitions provide a variety of options in close quarters, but don’t perform well at long distance shots. , Because the projectiles quickly lose their velocity, they require a close-range target, typically 45 yards or less.
What Is a Shotgun Shell?
A shotgun shell is a self-contained cartridge that’s filled with metallic “shot,” small spherical projectiles contained in a plastic or paper tube called a hull. The shot is often metal and can consist of lead, steel, tungsten, or bismuth. Non-lethal shotgun shells are available and can be loaded with rubber, rock salt, or small bean bags. Shooters can also find shotgun shells loaded with slugs – large, single metal projectiles.
Beneath the shot lies a wad or wadding, made from paper or plastic, which creates a barrier between the shot above it and the powder beneath it.
While original shotgun shells used black powder, today’s 12 gauge ammo uses smokeless powder.
This tube, and all it contains, is mounted to a brass base that houses the large shotgun primer, which is longer than both pistol and rifle primers.
Understanding Shotgun Gauges
Shotgun shells are measured in gauge, which equals the number of lead balls (with a diameter the size of the shotgun’s bore) it takes to make a pound. So for a 12 gauge shotgun, which has an internal barrel measurement of .73 inch, it would take 12 lead balls, each with a diameter of .73 inch, to weigh a pound.
To say it another way, if one were to create a pure lead ball the same size as the bore of a 12 gauge shotgun barrel (.73 inch), that ball would weigh 1/12 of a pound – making it a 12 gauge shotgun.
So when discussing the differences between a 12 gauge vs. 20 gauge, one can determine that the 20 gauge is smaller, as it would take 20 lead balls the diameter of the barrel to make a pound, where only 12 are needed with the 12 gauge.
Development of the Modern Shotgun Shell
Shotgun shells originated from the German blunderbuss, which was a shotgun-like, shoulder-firing musket gun, that developed during the 1600s. By the 1700s, similar firearms spread throughout Europe and bird hunters in England were shooting fowling guns that fired small shot.
Finally, in 1776, the term shotgun was used to describe a firearm that propelled shot. The gun’s popularity soared through the American Civil War and the Wild West. By the mid 1800s, shotgun shell casings were made from full-length brass. And by around 1877, paper hulls with brass bases started to replace the brass shells.
In 1884, Frank Chamberlin patented a machine with the ability to load 1,500 shotshells per hour, a remarkable feat when all shotgun shells of the time were still hand loaded, with supplies only available in the U.S. by Winchester and the Union Metallic Cartridge Company.
With Chamberlin’s success, he was soon in direct competition with the two companies. By 1887, Winchester and the Union Metallic Cartridge Company refused to sell Chamberlin any hulls, primers, or wads, forcing him to purchase supplies from England.
What’s more, both companies, realizing the world of shotgun shells was changing, jumped on the machine-loading bandwagon and bought their own equipment to mass produce shotgun shells. Soon, all three companies were producing box after box of 12 gauge shells.
Winchester and Union Metallic Cartridge Company didn’t just copy Chamberlin’s machine concept. They even mimicked how he shipped ammunition. Because shotgun shells were large and heavy, the average 12 gauge ammo case was fragile and collapsed under the weight. This led Chamberlin to package the shells in boxes of 25, packing 20 together in wooden crates, creating his own case of 12 gauge shells.
Unfortunately, this was the beginning of the end for Chamberlin, as he was competing against his suppliers. By 1900, Chamberlin left the ammunition industry and focused instead on trapshooting devices.
But his influence remained, as he made factory shotgun shells that were quality made, effective, and inexpensive. Although some continued to handload their own wildcat cartridges, most shooters opted for premade shotgun shells.
Today’s 12 Gauge Shotgun Shells
Shotgun ammo technology grew by leaps and bounds in the first 50 years of the 1900s. Brass hulls were replaced by paper hulls, and smokeless powder (cleaner and more powerful) replaced black powder.
By the late 1960s, plastic cases grew in popularity and soon became universal, with fewer shooters, both in hunting and sport shooting, opting for paper hulls.
As time went on, 12 gauge ammo became available in a huge variety of forms and functions, mostly a variation in shot size – which refers to the measurement of the individual projectiles inside the shotgun shell.
There are numerous ways to measure shot size, including the American, Euro (which is sometimes called the Standard system), Spanish, Australian, Italian, and more.
With the American system, which is what is used here at Ammo.com, the smaller the number, the larger the shot. For instance, a #8 shotgun shell has smaller shot than a #4 shotgun shell.
Types of 12 Gauge Ammo
The 12 gauge shotgun has been called one of the most versatile firearms ever created, mostly because of the versatility of the ammunition. From fowl hunting and trap shooting to taking whitetail deer and self defense, 12 gauge shotgun shells come in a wide range of uses.
Shotgun shells containing pellets, aka shot, come in sizes ranging from 000 Buck at the largest size to #9 shot at the smallest (it should be mentioned that there is #12 Shot, which is commonly known as snake shot or rat shot and is designed for handguns, but can be found in small bore shotgun shells).
This range of pellet size is often divided into 12 gauge buckshot and birdshot, as well as rounds for trap and skeet shooting. The rounds with the smallest projectiles, like #9 and #8 shotgun shells, are often used in skeet shooting and are known for their short, high-density patterns. Trap shooting, which requires a longer shot, typically sees shooters using a #7.5 shotgun shell.
Birdshot is used for fowl and other small game, including squirrel and varmint. It contains a large amount of fairly small projectiles, ranging from #9 shot at the smallest end, used for doves, to #4 at the large end, appropriate for large birds such as turkey and geese.
Shot found in #3 bridges between birdshot and buckshot, and can be used in brushy area to hunt duck or in close-quarter whitetail deer hunting, where permitted by law.
Those who hunt medium-sized game with shotguns often opt for bulk 12 gauge buckshot, of which the 12 gauge 00 buckshot is the most popular. These rounds can be found in multiple sizes, including (from smallest projectiles to largest):
- #4 buckshot
- #3 buckshot
- #1 buckshot
- #0 buckshot (pronounced “aught”)
- #00 buckshot (“double aught”)
- #000 buckshot (“triple aught”)
- .4 buckshot
Before hunting with buckshot, check with local jurisdictions, as some places do not allow shotguns for medium or large game and others restrict certain types of ammunition, including lead shot.
Some shooters chose to shoot a 12 gauge ammo slug, which features a single solid projectile designed for hunting large game closer than 100 yards. They work well in hunting because the large size transfers high energy into the target.
Most shotgun barrels spin the slug with rifling. For added accuracy, other slugs are wrapped in a sabot – which is designed to increase range and accuracy of the slug in exchange for projectile weight and energy transfer.
Knowing What 12 Gauge Shotgun Shell to Use When Hunting
When hunting with a shotgun, it’s necessary to understand what ammunition is best for the specific hunting expedition and why. Hunters should consider multiple factors, including range and size of the game, to ensure that the ammunition provides a humane kill (which is most reliant upon penetration).
In most cases, lead shot gives the best ballistic performance, but many hunting areas have environmental restrictions, especially in wetlands where waterfowl hunting is popular. When lead isn’t an option, opt for bismuth, tungsten, or steel. Be aware that when using steel shot, most hunters phase up to a larger shot. This matches the performance of lead shot and provides a good option for cheap 12 gauge slugs and shotshells.
Hunters should choose shotgun shells within a specific range, depending again on their expected range and hunting environment. In addition to shot size, hunters may also look for narrow or wide patterns, again depending on what they are hunting and the environmental conditions.
Narrow patterns, which keep the projectiles closer together, provide a harder shot with reduced deformation. This ammo is best for medium-sized animals and slower-moving game. To achieve the narrow pattern, ammunition manufacturers add buffering like sawdust or plastic to fill the space between the shot.
For wider patterns, which are ideal for smaller animals that move quickly, hunters can opt for ammo that uses a softer lead, which can often be found in cheap 12 gauge shells. Spreader wads can increase the width of a shotshell pattern, as can using projectiles that are deformed, elliptical, or cubical in shape.
Shooters can also find brush loads. Designed for dense cover, this type of 12 gauge ammo combines spreader wads with non-spherical projectiles to blast through vegetation in short-range shots.
Shotguns that Made the 12 Gauge Popular
Multiple shotguns lead to the consistent popularity of the 12 gauge shotgun shell. In the early 1950s, Remington blazed the trail with new products for shotgunners, including the Model 870. Since its introduction in 1950, the Model 870 has proven to be long lasting and smooth, and has become the world’s best-selling shotgun with over 11 million sold.
A decade later, Remington introduced shotgun shells with plastic hulls – which featured a more robust case and kept the contents of the case dry even in the field. Within the next year, O.F. Mossberg & Sons introduced their iconic pump shotgun, the Model 500.
The iconic Model 500 is the only pump action firearm to be given military specs and has proven itself versatile and effective in the field, in the home, and on duty with over 10 million sold throughout the years.
One of the qualities that make 12 gauge shotguns stand out, is their versatility. From the same firearm, shooters can engage in shooting competitions like skeet and trap, they can hunt everything from squirrels to deer, and they can even protect their home – all without doing anything other than changing the gun’s ammunition.
12 Gauge for Self Defense
The use of the 12 gauge for self defense was once the norm, but fell away through the latter half of the 20th century. It’s once again on the rise and for good reason. Shotgun proficiency comes quicker than it does with a handgun, mostly due to the greater accuracy of a long gun.
Twelve gauge shotguns also enjoy the advantage of imparting greater energy than a handgun, as well as an increase in velocity. The average 12 gauge shotgun shell has twice the velocity of a .44 Magnum.
Plus, shotguns are easy to use: Pump the gun. Flip the safety. Pull the trigger. And let’s face it, the telltale click-click sound of a pump-action shotgun is enough to stop most perpetrators in their tracks.
Opting for birdshot can give shooting novices the time to adjust to the firearm’s recoil, as well as reducing the risk of over penetration, especially in self-defense situations.
Because of the resurgence of the self-defense shotgun, specialty ammunition is being produced and includes options for low recoil and combinations of buckshot and smaller pellets. Shooters can choose between rounds like the Personal Defense Buckshot Federal 12 Gauge shotgun shells, which use Flight Control wads and are engineered specifically for in-home use, or the PDX1 Winchester 12 gauge shotgun shells, which features both #00 shot and 12 gauge slug ammo.
From personal protection to many different types of hunting, the 12 gauge is a good choice for many tasks – which is why this shotgun ammunition will remain popular for years to come.
History of 12 Gauge Shotgun Shells originally appeared in The Resistance Library at Ammo.com.