An Informative Guide to Buying Shotgun Shells

Out of the three main types of guns (handguns, rifles, and shotguns), shotguns are the least common. However, they are among the most useful.

Most gun owners desire to own a shotgun at some point. Why? They can be extremely effective in a home defense situation, where rifles would be useless.

They are also very popular among hunters, as they are the primary choice for chasing birds and small game.

But those who are new to using a shotgun often struggle to purchase the right shells. There are countless types of shotgun shells on the market today, making it very tough to select a box to bring home.

Want to learn how to choose the right shotgun ammo for your gun and your goals? Keep reading below to find out now. 

What are Shotgun Shells?

Shotgun shells are a unique type of ammunition. Unlike rifles or handguns, which take individual bullets, shotgun shells come loaded with many tiny pellets.

When you are shooting a shotgun, you are creating a pattern of pellets. Most probably won’t hit your target. But you only need a few pellets to hit the target for the shot to be effective. 

The size of the pellets inside the shell, the number of pellets in the shell, the material of the pellets, and the size of the shell itself are all factors to consider when buying a shotgun and corresponding ammunition. 

Types of Shotguns

Before we dissect the different types of shells, let’s discuss the different types of shotguns. The term “gauge” refers to shotguns much like the term “caliber” refers to rifles.

Gauge is an old term used to describe the bore diameter of a particular shotgun. 

Today, the most popular option is a 12 gauge shotgun. The pellets used in 12 gauge are the biggest of all modern shotgun offerings.

Additional gauges, from largest to smallest, including the 16, 20, 28, and .410 bore (which is actually a caliber, not a gauge). 

As a shotgun newbie, the most important thing to remember is to always buy shells that match the gauge of your shotgun, which should be inscribed somewhere on your gun.

If you have a 12 gauge, only use 12-gauge shells. 

If you’re planning to buy your first shotgun, you’ll likely buy either a 12 gauge or 20 gauge. 20 is growing in popularity, but 12 is still preferred among target shooters, hunters, and self-defense experts alike. 

On a side note, 20 gauge shells are almost always yellow, while 12 gauge shells are never yellow. This is an industry standard to help prevent a mixup, which can cause damage to the gun or injury to the user. 

Shell Length

After choosing the right gauge, you need to select the appropriate shell length. Most commonly, you’ll see shells offered in 2.75 inches or 3 inches. 

Your shotgun will have a preference. Sometimes it’s listed on the gun itself; otherwise, you should consult your owner’s manual.

When in doubt, choose the shorter length, as you can fire it from any gun. A 3-inch shell, however, should never be fired from a shotgun designed for 2.75-inch shells. 

The length is important because the chamber of your shotgun is designed to accept and fire shells of a specific size. If they are too big, they might not be fired properly. 

Shot Size

Time to move inside the shell. Shot size refers to the size of the individual pellets inside each shell.

The smaller the number, the larger the pellets. Larger numbers mean smaller pellets. So a size 4 will be larger than a size 6. 

Shot size is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing between various types of ammunition. And it all comes down to why you are buying shells in the first place.

If you are hunting ducks, you’ll want a particular shot size. If you are hunting turkeys, upland birds, or small game, you’ll want different shot sizes that match your prey. 

Shells designed for waterfowl hunting (ducks and geese) are typically size 2 or 4. Since ducks are larger than upland birds and often fly at further distances, a larger shot is necessary.

Hunting turkeys? Since you are aiming for the head, a smaller shot is ideal. Turkey shells typically come in sizes 7-9. 


Another number you’ll see on a box of ammo is the velocity (power rating) of a particular shell. 

This is the “feet per second” that your pellets move once fired. 

More velocity means the pellets reach the target faster and with more power. So if you’re hunting fast-moving prey, it might be ideal. The tradeoff is stronger recoil, which may hurt your shoulder after a while. 

Shot Material

Most shotgun pellets are made of lead. Lead is the traditional pellet material, and all shotguns are capable of shooting lead shots.

However, hunting comes with lots of rules and regulations, which may affect the material you choose. Lead is toxic.

This means you are waterfowl or other migratory birds using lead shots. Only non-toxic shells (made of steel, bismuth, etc.,) can be used to hunt waterfowl.

Additionally, many states and specific hunting areas may limit the use of lead on other species as well. Make sure to study local hunting regulations to see if lead shots are allowed or should be avoided. 

If you have an older gun, however, you might not want to shoot steel out of it, as older, fixed chokes can’t handle the impact of hard steel. 

What About Slugs?

The last thing you’re likely to encounter when shopping for shells is the term “slug.”

Slugs refer to shotgun shells that have one large projectile inside rather than numerous small pellets. Slugs can often be fired from standard shotguns (with smooth bores).

But those that hunt regularly with slugs should choose a shotgun with a rifled barrel, which can fire slugs more accurately than a standard shotgun. 

Shotgun slugs are commonly used for close-range deer hunting and hunting other larger critters like hogs, coyotes, or even bears. 

Buy in Bulk and Save

Buying your first shotgun is always a fun experience. But there’s a lot to learn, from the various parts of a shotgun to selecting the perfect shotgun shells for each hunting or shooting session.

Once you know what type of shell you need, make sure to get some at the lowest price possible. At Target Sports USA, we have a large selection of shotgun ammo, available in both single boxes and bulk, to help you save money and shoot more often.