The shotgun is a American weapon. Split off from smooth bore muskets, the idea of firing a bunch of little balls of lead instead of one ball developed from an alternative load into its own weapon. The shotgun has evolved into a modern firearm with a variety of purposes, and here I’ll show those roles, the different options available, and what you can do with one for fun, sport, and defense.

Shot, Buck, And Ball

A single projectile is defined in caliber and grain. Conversely, a shotgun has the ability to fire a variety of lead, from a cloud of small shot to take down a dove or quail, up to a solid slug for hunting of bigger game.

There are many sizes of lead shot. Starting from the smallest, you have pest shot; that’s #12-#10 shot. Bird shot: dove and quail to turkey and geese, ranges from #8 shot up to #1 shot at the biggest. It then gets into B shot and BB shot (like a BB gun). The bigger the number, the smaller the pellets.

Shotshells and their loads, from birdshot through buckshot to a slug.

There’s some steel waterfowl shot, then we move into buckshot. Starting with #4 Buck at the smallest, we move up through #1, and then 0, 00, and 000. Pronounce that “Number 4 Buck” for #4, and “Double Ought Buck” for 00.

Shooting one solid ball of lead out of the shotgun was called ball. Now, they aren’t round and have grooves cut into them for some spin while in the air, so they’re called slugs. Slugs are typically used for deer hunting, but also are good for defense.

Gauge And Chamber

Shotguns are measured in terms of “gauge.” Gauge is how many lead balls that are the diameter of the bore of the shotgun that weighs a pound. There are, from biggest to smallest, 10, 12, 16, 20, 28, and .410, the last being a caliber. 10 gauge is obsolete due to magnum 12 gauges. 28 gauge is considered an artisan’s round, and 16 gauge splits the difference between 12 and 20, and is not as popular as either. .410 is a snake and critter round.

The 12 gauge shotgun is a man’s gun, and, unless you are a kid, old, or a woman, you should be able to handle one. The 20 gauge is its little brother and is for those people, and hunters who want to display mastery and make do with less.

Shotshells were 2 and 3/4 inches long originally. Starting around 1980, 3 inch long shells were developed, and the 1990s saw 3.5 inch magnum shells developed. Most 12 gauges these days will do both 2 and 3/4 shells, and 3 inch shells. Guns that will do 3.5 will also do the smaller two, as well. All shotguns will be stamped into the barrel with what ammunition they can handle.

Do not overpower a shotgun with a bigger shell above its rating.

12 gauge 3.5″ magnum, 3″, and 2.75″ shells

Lastly, there is “high brass” and “low brass.” This is a description of how tall the brass base of the shell is; low brass is typically light bird shot, and high brass is bigger bird, buck, and slugs. See the main picture for an example.

Choke And Barrel Length

Choke is a measurement of the constriction at the end of the bore, and it will adjust the size of the cloud of shot at the expense of the density of the shot in that cloud. Chokes run from no choke at all, called cylinder, through improved, modified, and modified improved to full. There is an “extra full” commonly called “turkey” named after the bird.

Barrels once had choke diameters machined in. Now, we have removable internal chokes, with sockets and threads to take a choke insert in the end of the barrel, and external chokes, which thread onto the end of the barrel.

Do not fire any sort of removable choke shotgun without a choke, you will FUBAR it. Run cylinder if you’re shooting slugs, full choke for deer and turkey hunting, and your selection will vary for wing shooting. Some barrels are specifically rifled for slugs; run sabot slugs, not rifled slugs, out of them.

Internal choke tubes.

Barrel length will mainly affect the handling of the gun. Wing shooting guns typically have long barrels to help following of the flying bird, whereas turkey guns and military style guns have short barrels (18 to 24 inches). A SBS (short barreled shotgun), as in “sawed off shotgun,” has a barrel under 18 inches and must have a stamp and form for it, otherwise it is illegal.

Actions And Magazines

The simplest shotgun is the break action. These are single barrel or double barrel in the side by side (SxS) or Over and Under / Superposed (O/U) varieties, and there are even some triple barreled and combination guns out there.

Girl holding a break action over and under.

Break action shotguns open with a lever, and the shells will extract partially from the barrels, or be thrown out. You then reload and snap it closed. The double barrel ones usually have one trigger that cycles between barrels, or two triggers. If your shotgun has two triggers, do not pull both of them at the same time. While the gun may be able to take it, it wasn’t designed to do it.

Girl running a pump shotgun.

Most “repeating” shotguns have a tube magazine slung underneath the barrel, although some have detachable box magazines coming out of the receiver. Manual action shotguns can be the pump or slide action, the less common bolt action, or the fairly obsolete lever action.

Levers and bolts are worked by the firing hand, while the pump action is worked by your support hand and the forearm of the gun becomes unlocked and able to slide back after you fire or push a lever.


The Terminator using a sawed-off lever action.

Semi-automatic shotguns are operated by the inertia of the recoil of the round going off, or an amount of combustion gas cycling a piston. Inertia guns are faster cycling, simpler, and harder on the recoil, while the gas guns are more picky on the power of the shot and require valves to tailor the gas to reliably run the action while not overpowering.

Aiming Versus Pointing

A traditional shotgun has one sight, called a bead, on the tip of the barrel. You look down the top plane of the barrel or sighting rib, track your flying target with the bead either on the bird or just below it (along with the appropriate amount of lead), and punch the trigger while continuing to arc the gun in one fluid motion. This is called “pointing.”

Wing shooting guns are typically patterned so that the center of the shot pattern is just above the bead at the intended range so you don’t cover the target with your barrel. Conversely, shotguns set up for hunting on the ground and defense will have sights more like a rifle, with a front blade and a rear sight, and be aimed in the normal manner.

Traditional bead sight.

The Home Defense Shotgun

Any shotgun will work for home defense, but a medium barreled pump action or semi auto 12 or 20 gauge is a good choice. Most tube shotguns will run 5 shells if you take the restrictor dowel out, and some have tubes out to the end of the barrel for more shells.

Add a side saddle shell carrier on the side of the receiver, or on a band around the stock, and you can carry a decent amount of shells with you. Use a sling. If you’re running a foreign gun, look up code USC 18 922r to make sure you have parts compliance if you are doing any modifications, and check your state laws before modifying any gun.

A tricked-out Benelli M4.

Use sights that you can see in the dark, or a light or laser on the gun to help with target identification and aiming. Be sure to do your thinking about the doors and windows in your home versus where your people will be ahead of time; buckshot and slugs don’t exactly respect drywall and will go right through.

If, however, you’re the only friendly in your place, shoot now and mud drywall later. A load for a defense shotgun is some form of buckshot (like 00 Buck) or slugs.

A tactical rear sight. Ghost ring aperture and tritium night sight inserts.

You DO have to aim a shotgun; it’s not a general direction thing. Any choke you run will have a pattern under a foot for the first 30 feet; it is quite possible to miss. A shotgun will run out of steam in about 50 yards for shot, and slugs will really start dropping after 100 yards, so it’s a “house and yard” gun. Consider your load for the distances; buckshot gets a good spread going at 15 yards or so, but slugs punch big holes.


I’ll do a brief brand rating for the shotguns to close out this one. I really can’t think of a modern junk brand.


These will work well, but may malfunction at times, and are missing some fit and finish of their more expensive brethren. I put Norinco, Baikal, Tristar, Stevens, H&R, Kel Tec, and Mossberg here.

Mid Range

These are solid guns that are the example of what a gun should be. Remington, Winchester, Ruger, Savage, Saiga, Franchi, CZ, and Stoeger go here.


Top end mass manufactured guns of the firms of Benelli, Beretta, Browning, FNH, Weatherby, Wilson Combat, Sig Sauer fit in here.

Best Guns / Bespoke

Some guns are truly expensive or custom made and are more works of art than firearms. Called Best, like London Best, Perazzi, Purdy, Krieghoff, and Fabbri are some examples of this ultimate field.

Some Purdy’s London Bests.


There’s a lot of fun to be had in hunting, and it’s a great skill to have and an experience to be shared. The competition community thrives, and you can find skeet and sporting clays on one end, and combat shotgun sports like 3 gun on the other. For home defense, the shotgun is a great thing with which to defend house and property from everything from rabid dogs, to home invasions, to drones.

“…just fire two blasts outside the house.”

The ammo is less expensive than many rifle rounds and it doesn’t usually sell out in a panic. Being a traditional American gun, it is less apt to get banned by Democrats and is even endorsed by Joe Biden.

Prices are generally cheaper than a comparable rifle, and the amount of lead you can dispense close up is fairly awesome. Every American home used to have one hanging over the fireplace; it’s a trend we should consider reviving.

Read More: A Beginner’s Guide To Carrying A Handgun

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