View Full Version : All about SHOTGUN ammo...

April 1, 2009, 05:30 AM
Paraphrased from an article by Jack Lee.
Edited by me, Bill Krithinitis


Forget everything you know about pistol calibers.
Shotguns are different beasts entirely.

The gauge is the single most important number to remember, but a box of shotgun ammunition provides a lot more information that you will need to understand. Because shotguns are very versatile firearms, ammunition manufactured for them comes in a very wide variety of types. Within the types, there's also a large variation in size and power.


Shotgun ammunition is measured in gauge rather than in caliber. Gauge refers to how many lead balls the same diameter as the bore would equal one pound. In the case of a 12-gauge shotgun, a lead ball that exactly fits within the barrel weighs 1/12th a pound. So it would take twelve lead balls the size of the shotgun's bore to equal a pound.

Counterintuitively, the smaller the bore, the more lead balls the same size it would take to equal one pound. So a higher gauge number means the internal diameter of the barrel is smaller, while a smaller gauge number means the internal diameter of the barrel is bigger.

Remember... The smaller the gauge number, the bigger the barrel's internal diameter will be. Thus, a 12-gauge bore is bigger than a 20-gauge bore.

In the past, shotguns were made in many different gauge sizes. Today, the most common shotgun sizes are 12-gauge and 20-gauge. There are also 10-gauge, 16-gauge, and 28-gauge shotguns, as well as .410 bore shotguns.
It can be difficult to find ammunition for the less common gauges.

The gauge number is the most important number on the shotgun ammunition box. If you have a 12-gauge shotgun, only 12-gauge ammunition will work in it. A 20- or 28-gauge shell accidentally loaded into a 12-gauge shotgun can become entirely lodged in the barrel. The next shot fired could result in a potentially lethal mess!!! ALWAYS BE SURE OF YOUR SHELL GUAGE!

Safety Note
It is very important that you use the shell length your shotgun was designed for, or shorter, but nothing longer. If you use a longer shell, it may have too much energy for your shotgun to handle.

Shell Length

The second most important number you will see on the box is the overall length of the shotgun shell. Not all lengths will feed in all shotguns. The common lengths are 2-3/4 inches, 3 inches, and 3-1/2 inches.

The longer the shell, the more shot pellets and powder it can contain. For this reason, shotguns which are designed to load a shorter shell should never be used to fire a larger shell, even if the larger shell physically fits within the gun. The gun may not be able to handle the higher pressures a more powerful ammunition produces.

Shell Type

There are three basic types of shells:

High brass shells are shells that have a brass base which extends up the shell body by about three-quarters of an inch.

Low brass shells are characterized by a relatively narrow band of metal around the base of the shell. Low brass ammunition is generally less powerful than high brass.

Activ shells are formed entirely of plastic, except for a miniature metal button which holds the primer in the center of the case head. Activ shells are useful for hunters and others whose ammunition might get wet in the field, because they are nearly impervious to rust.

Dram Equivalent (power)

To figure out how powerful the ammunition is, look at the number marked "dram equivalent." Originally, drams were a black powder weight measure. Although shotgun ammunition uses smokeless powder, in order to standardize measurements, shotgun ammunition manufacturers use dram equivalents to indicate how much power the load has. The quantity of smokeless powder in the load is compared to the amount of black powder that would produce the same velocity with the same projectile(s).

The higher the dram equivalent number, the more energy the ammunition has and the faster the shot will travel downrange.

Shot Size

Ok, here's where it gets a little bit more confusing.
Shot sizes range from the smallest, No. 9 which is .08 inches in diameter, up to 000 buckshot at .36 inches in diameter.


Multiple pellets contained in the shell and sent downrange when the shotgun is fired. No matter how many pellets there are, shot is pluralized without adding an 's' to the end: "a handful of shot." "The case was filled with #6 shot."

Common shot sizes are No. 9 (.08 inches), No. 8-1/2 (.085 inches), No. 8 (.09 inches), No. 7-1/2 (.095 inches), No. 6 (.11 inches), No. 5 (.12 inches), No. 4 (.13 inches), No. 2 (.15 inches), No. 1 (.16 inches), and BB (.18 inches). Plus, there are larger pellets classified as BBB (.19 inches), T (.20 inches) and TT (.210 inches).
Did I mention it was going to get confusing? Those numbers above were for plain old shot. Buckshot is something else again.

Buckshot ranges in size from the smallest, No. 4 (.24 inches) to the largest at 000 (.36 inches). The categories between No. 4 Buckshot and 000 Buckshot include No. 3 Buckshot (.25), No. 2 Buckshot at (.27 inches,. No. 1 Buckshot (.30 inches), No. 0 (.32, 00 Buckshot (.33 inches) and 000 Buckshot (.36 inches). 5

What this means is that Number 4 Shot is substantially different in size from Number 4 Buckshot. Memory cue: remember that Buckshot, the bigger word, is usually bigger than Shot, the smaller word. : )

Shot Type

Shotgun pellets are formed from heavy, dense metals. The name of the metal will usually be marked on the box. If the shot is formed from lead, the pellets will often be coated with copper or nickel plate to preserve their round shape during flight.

Be aware that because of environmental concerns about lead, EPA regulations prohibit hunting waterfowl with lead shot. Unless you are hunting larger game, before you go afield with your shotgun, you'll need to find ammunition loaded with non-lead alternatives, such as steel, tungsten iron, or bismuth shot.

Amount of Shot

The number of projectiles inside an individual shotgun shell is indicated by their weight in ounces for all but the large steel and buckshot sizes. In the larger sizes, instead of a weight in ounces, you'll find the number of shot or buckshot which will fit within one shell.


Not all shotgun ammunition contains shot. Sometimes, instead of shot, the shell will contain a slug. A slug is a single, very large bullet. Sometimes the slug will have rifling on the outside, sometimes not. The slug might be partially encased in a sabot (pronounced saa-bo), which is a plastic-type substance designed to improve the way the slug fits snugly within the bore.

Exotic Ammunition Types

Shotgun shells can be loaded with nearly anything, ranging from less-lethal types to types that are most decisively lethal.

Less-lethal types include rubber buckshot, bean bags, and pepper balls. These are somewhat less likely to kill someone than traditional ammunition, but despite common perception, it is entirely possible to kill someone any of these. Because it is possible to kill with less-lethal ammunition, shooting someone with this type of ammunition will usually be treated the same, legally, as shooting them with traditional ammunition. Less-lethal ammunition is most often used by law enforcement in situations where extraordinary action is required in order to contain a riot or subdue a suspect. Department regulations generally require that if less-lethal ammunition is used, officers have immediately available backup who are ready to fire with traditional weapons. This is because less-lethal ammunition does not always stop determined criminals. Because less-lethal ammunition does not reliably stop determined attackers, or those who are hyped up on drugs, less-lethal ammunition is not recommended for self-defense use.

Some shotgun cartridges are loaded with flechettes instead of shot. Flechettes are small, steel, pointed dart-like projectiles with aft stabilization fins. Despite online mystique, these aren't best for defense because each flechette has a very low cross sectional area, and because only a few flechettes can be loaded into each shotshell. That makes flechettes an inferior choice for home defense when compared to buckshot.

There are other various exotic shotshells: incendiary Dragon's Breath, bird bombs, ceramic slugs, bolo projectiles, and so on.

Many of the most exotic shotshells are handloaded by amateurs, rather than coming from factory production. It can be very dangerous to fire ammunition that someone else has constructed. If you want to sample exotic shotgun loads, and always try to stay with factory-produced ammunition!
Shoot straight, stay safe.

April 1, 2009, 06:30 AM
Nice. A couple more ideas.
Shot sizes go all the way down (or up?) to #12 (.05" dia.)
About reloading high brass and low brass - they can be reloaded to the same level of power as the brass height has nothing to do with the strength of the case.

27 Beck
April 1, 2009, 08:11 AM
Great infor on shotgun ammo.

April 3, 2009, 04:14 AM
Thanks for the info! Good stuff :)

May 9, 2009, 12:44 AM
The little .36 caliber 68 grain 000 buckshot pellets are not the largest buckshot pellets available in factory ammo.

Factory loaded buckshot sizes go up to three pellet loads of .60 caliber
3/4th ounce pellets.

.45 COLT
May 9, 2009, 07:04 AM
The higher the dram equivalent number, the more energy the ammunition has and the faster the shot will travel downrange.

Another bit of misinformation about Dram Equivalent. DE is a measure of velocity, dependant on charge weight. A 3 1/4 DE load of 1 1/2 ounces of shot is travelling considerably slower than a 3 1/4 DE load with 1 1/4 ounces of shot.

A minor oversight, no mention of F and FF shot (,22" & .23").

Other than that, some pretty fair information.

Dixie Slugs loads the .60 load that RMcL refers to, so I reckon that makes it a factory buckshot load.


May 9, 2009, 11:34 AM
Activ is a brand of shell, not a type. The "type" might be called "all plastic" and predates the Activ brand. Many of us gray-breads us recall when Wanda and Herters marketed transparent all plastic hulls back in the 1960s.

Dram Equivalent can be confusing and probably should be replaced by a "power level" or "energy" index. When shot shells transitioned from black powder to smokeless, shooters needed some way of knowing how the new shells preformed compared to the ones they were familiar with. In those days the black powder shells were marked with the powder charge in drams. Why? Because when shotguns shells were first introduced, folks were metering their muzzle loader's powder charge in drams.

In muzzle loading days, shooters didn't have a clue about feet-per-second or 1 1/4 ounce shot loads. They loaded by volume and they knew that consistent volumes of powder and shot resulted in uniform performance. When you added more powder, you got more power (or energy) as witnessed by longer range and/or greater penetration. If you added too much more powder, you might get more excitement than you'd expected.

These days we don't cut our teeth charging a muzzle loader using a dram-based measure. Perhaps the use of "Dram Equivalent" in shot shell labeling has outlived its usefulness. Would folks find a simple load marking of "Energy" more useful, and less confusing?

.45 COLT
May 9, 2009, 12:51 PM
Dram Equivalent, as used today, is not a measure of energy. It is simply an indication of velocity.

A 12 Gauge 3 DE load with 1 ounce of shot gives a MV of 1,235 FPS and a total ME of 1,481 Ft .Lb.
A 12 Gauge, 3 DE load with 1 1/8 ounces of shot gives a MV of 1,200 FPS and a total ME of 1,576 Ft. Lb.
A 12 Gauge 3 DE load with 1 1/2 ounces of shot has a MV of 1,095 FPS and a total ME of 1,746 Ft. Lb., or roughly the same ME as a 3 1/2 DE load with 1 ounce of shot.

I still think in terms of Dram Equivalent loads. I don’t care what labels the manufacturers put on their boxes, but if they do away with DE labeling I’d be willing to bet that their published velocity figures will still (usually) fall along the DE values. They do today.


May 9, 2009, 03:25 PM
Many of us gray-beards recall when Wanda and Herters marketed transparent all plastic hulls back in the 1960s

If I consider all the Herter's stuff I have, zippy13 has just reminded me what I am......:D

May 9, 2009, 04:08 PM
This is an excellent thread with a lot of good info! I just thought I would add a pic I took a while back for a quick shot size comparison.


May 9, 2009, 05:40 PM
.45 Colt.. If dram equivalent (DE) as used today, is a simple measure of velocity then it can be a defined (as all scalar velocities, or speeds are defined) by units of time and distance. There would exist conversion ratios between DE measurements and other velocity measurements like miles per hour or feet per second. This is clearly not the case. Your examples show that different applications of 3-DE result in three different velocities. Plainly, DE is not a velocity but a factor contributing to differing velocities. That factor being the power or potential energy of the powder charge.

Your apparent misunderstanding between variables and constants supports my original comment: Dram Equivalent can be confusing and probably should be replaced by a "power level" or "energy" index. Perhaps the word "energy" confused you. The potential energy of the powder charge and the ballistic energy of the shot charge are not the same.

My premise has nothing to do with altering the various velocities we have available to us with existing factory loading. As I said, continuing the reference to black powder is confusing. Shooting forums frequently have threads on DEs being explained to shooters new and old. Instead of a shell box saying 3-DE, it might say Power-300. Every load with a Power-300 would deliver the same velocity and ballistic energy as the old ones labeled 3-DE.

These days, with all the in between loadings of heavies and lites and reduced and target and super some of the old DEs don' t seem to run true. One manufacture's 3-DE 1 1/8 oz load might come in at 1200 fps while another at 1225. I just checked Remington's web site: Two of their 28-gauge offerings (STS28 and STS28NSC) are listed as 2-DE with 3/4-oz shot, one at 1200 fps the other at 1300 fps. What's with that? No wonder there's confusion. With the revised labeling you might see Power-300 on one box and Power-302 on another. You would know that they were a little different. Now, these differences hide under the same DE number.

Many of Winchester's hunting and target loads no longer specify a DE. The ammo manufacturers may be phasing out the DE references. Perhaps discussions like this will be moot before long. Many of Remington's field loads no longer have a DE indication, instead they state the velocity in pfs. I can understand how this might have lead you to believe DE was a velocity.

.45 COLT
May 9, 2009, 09:51 PM
.45 COLT wrote:
DE is a measure of velocity, dependant on charge weight.
Which it absolutely is. The velocity of a 12 Gauge 3 DE 1 1/8 ounce load of shot is 1,200 FPS. The velocity of a 12 Gauge 3 DE load of 1 1/4 ounces of shot is 1,165 FPS. Of a 1 3/8 ounce load, 1,110 FPS. And so on. Given any two factors, Weight, DE and Velocity, the third is defined. If a manufacturer puts only shot weight and DE on the box, the Velocity is defined, and its printing on the box is unnecessary. Dram Equivalent, as it is used today, defines Velocity, in FPS, of a given weight of shot.

Zippy 13 wrote:
Two of their 28-gauge offerings (STS28 and STS28NSC) are listed as 2-DE with 3/4-oz shot, one at 1200 fps the other at 1300 fps. What's with that?
That’s a mistake or a compromise. In 28 Gauge, with a 3/4 ounce load, a 1,200 FPS load is slower than 2DE, but faster than 1 3/4. 1,300 FPS should have been labeled ”2 1/4 DE”, although it is just a bit quicker than a 2 1/4 DE load. They actually should not have labeled any DE, just the velocity. Winchester tries to break DE down into tenths of a DE, to match velocities of some of their loads.


Superhouse 15
May 10, 2009, 06:25 AM
A video with gel pictures.
Rounds of Authority (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ievbU3xIYGQ)

My personal favorite is the flare (around 10 mins in) :eek:

May 10, 2009, 11:10 AM
I'm with Zippy on this Dram EQ issue - and it seems to me the info on the Remington site he points out - makes his point for him.

.45 COLT
May 10, 2009, 03:21 PM
OK. Look at any 12 Gauge loads. All 1 ounce loads at, say 1,235 FPS. Are 3 DE. All 1 ounce loads at 1,390 FPS are 3 1/4 DE. Given the DE and charge weight, the velocity is defined. Period. Now, back when somebody was working out the DE mess, he/she/they hit upon a difference of 55 FPS for 1/4 DE for a given shot charge weight. It can be a little sticky when velocity differences don't fall neatly into 55 FPS differences. That's why Winchester and Fiocchi have played with 1/10 (.1) De designations - like 3.2 DE or some such. As far as energy goes - A 3 1/4 DE 1 ounce load (Defined to be 1,290 FPS) has, by any measurable parameter, less energy when fired than a 3 DE 1 1/2 ounce load (1,095 FPS). Now, you may talk of potential vs kinetic energy, but the KE is lower. Momentum is less. What else are you measuring? And how are you measuring it? And what happened to it upon firing?

That .226 CI figure mentioned earlier - that's the Apothecary's Dram. If that were used to measure black powder, a 4 dram load wouldn't leave enough room fot wadding and shot, and would be around 220 grains (by weight) of Black. I don't believe it is correct.


May 10, 2009, 09:40 PM
.45 Colt

We may never see eye-to-eye on the application of Dram Equivalent markings on shot boxes. But, it seems we're able to apply our interpretations to our needs without confusion. Your comment about the shell capacity made me wonder: You're correct, I pulled an apothecaries dram volume from the table, it should have been a avoirdupois dram with a volume of 0.1028 in**3. Thanks for the heads-up.

Muzzle loading shotguns typically are loaded with equal volumes of shot and powder. This got me to wondering what would be the equivalent shot volume to your 4 dram load. Mathematically it worked out to 1-7/16 oz.

Curious how modern loadings compare to the old ones, I plotted powder and shot volumes on a graphic scale. If my numbers are in the ball park, things haven't changed much. With equal measures, a 1-1/8 oz of shot would be loaded with about 3-1/4 drams of black powder.

Here's a graphic of various load heights:

May 11, 2009, 06:47 PM
what caliber is each pellet of turkey load

May 11, 2009, 11:31 PM
^It depends on what size shot you use. Most folks use #4, #5 or #6 shot on turkeys. These have 0.13, 0.12 and 0.11-inch diameters. So, you could say an average turkey pellet is .12 caliber.

May 11, 2009, 11:47 PM
Thanks for the photo. I will use it to train my 11 year old , if you don't mind. He is building a data base and reference book on firearms.

May 12, 2009, 12:06 AM
Great read guys, thanks.

And a special thanks to zippy; your careful and patient explanation has helped me quite a bit.

May 24, 2009, 12:31 AM
Awesome follow ups in this post!
Photos of the different shot is excellent!
Keep it coming...

May 24, 2009, 01:55 AM
Correctomundo Z13. The Dram Equivalent was meant to be the measure of black powder that was equal to what was in the shell. This number was an invalid number though due to several different things such as how fine the black powder was, the potency of the black powder etc. The fps is just a reference as to how fast the shot SHOULD go if it were three drams of black powder. Dram is not a measure of velocity but a measure of weight. You can actually google how many drams of black powder equals how many grains of smokeless powder. As one of these grey beards, I have misplaced the bookmark I had on this or I would have posted it here.


May 25, 2009, 07:13 AM
Almost, thank you for the info, this post really helps me explain shot to my two boys. (Who shoot better than me some times!)

.45 COLT
September 15, 2009, 05:54 AM
I’m resurrecting this thread because, while looking up some information, I came across this statement.

From the Alliant Powder Reloaders’ Guide, 2004 Edition, page 56:

Simply stated, the dram equivalent is an indicator of the velocity of a particular shot load.

Which is exactly what I argued.


September 17, 2009, 12:17 AM
.45 COLT,

From the Alliant Powder Reloaders’ Guide, 2004 Edition, page 56:

Simply stated, the dram equivalent is an indicator of the velocity of a particular shot load.

Which is exactly what I argued.

IMHO, I beg to differ, that's not exactly what you argued. Your initial statement (reply #6) was: "… DE is a measure of velocity, dependant on charge weight…" The Alliant Guide definition is qualified by: Simply stated and an indicator of. Yours is unqualified. Blue litmus paper turns red under acidic conditions. It's an acid indicator; but, it's not an acid. DE may be an indicator of velocity (as stated by Alliant), but it is not a measure of velocity (as you originally purported). Hopefully you appreciate the difference.

You may wish to ponder: A measurement is a constant; therefore, it can't be a variable (dependent or independent).

.45 COLT
September 17, 2009, 02:29 AM
Dram Equivalent tells you the velocity of the shot charge as it leaves the muzzle. Period. Now if you want to call it an indicator or a measurement, I don't care. A Speedometer indicates how fast my pickup is going. I'll maybe say it measures the speed. My contention that energy isn't part of the equation stands.