Guns 101: Shotguns

Published by the Author on January 14, 2010 at 12:01 pm > Guns 101 > Guns 101: Shotguns

This Guns 101 article provides basic information about shotguns:

A shotgun, the Remington 870 XCS Marine Magnum


Shotguns are a versatile type of firearm that can be used for many purposes including self defense, hunting, and target shooting.  The shotgun’s claim to fame is its ability to shoot multiple projectiles, rather than a single bullet, increasing the probability of a hit.  Also, unlike rifles and handguns, shotguns generally do not have a rifled barrel (meaning that the projectiles fired by shotguns are not spun as they leave the barrel).

The cartridge that a shotgun fires is called a shell.  The shell contains the projectile(s), a wad and shot cup that help cushion and hold the projectile(s) as they travel down the barrel, gun powder, and primer (which ignites the gun powder).  Nowadays, shotgun shells are usually made of plastic, with a metal base.  An example of a shotgun shell is shown below:

A shotgun shell

Shotguns come in various gauges, which is a measure of the barrel’s inside diameter.  12 gauge is the most common by far, however 10, 16, 20, 28, and other gauges are available.  The smaller the gauge number, the larger the interior diameter of the shotgun’s barrel.

Shotguns are usually considered shoulder arms, meaning that the stock (the back end of the shotgun) is placed against the user’s shoulder, and the user then presses the side of their face against the side of the stock, while looking down the length of the shotgun to aim.  The picture below illustrates that firing position:

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An American soldier firing a shotgun


There are three basic types of ammunition that shotguns can fire.  These are birdshot, buckshot, and slugs.

Birdshot refers to small pellets fired by a shotgun.  A birdshot shell may contain hundreds of pellets, and is suitable for hunting birds, as well as shotgun sports such as trapshooting and skeet.  Birdshot is not suitable for use on larger game or for self defense.

Buckshot refers to large pellets fired by a shotgun.  A buckshot shell may contain about 10 pellets, and is suitable for self defense and hunting roughly deer-sized game.

A Slug is a single large projectile fired by a shotgun.  Slugs are similar to rifle or handgun bullets, but are generally larger.  Slugs are suitable for target practice, hunting deer-sized and larger game, and self defense (although buckshot may be a better choice for self defense purposes).

A chart showing the size of various birdshot and buckshot pellets can be seen here.

Types of shotguns

There are three basic types of shotguns: semiautomatic, pump action, and break open.

Semiautomatic shotguns fire one shell each time the user pulls the trigger.  Once the shotgun is loaded, the user need not do anything other than pull the trigger for the shotgun to fire each shot, until it runs out of ammunition.  These shotguns use some of the energy from the previously fired shot to eject the spent shell and load the next shell.  Semiautomatic shotguns allow for a faster rate of fire than either pump action or break open shotguns, and generally have less recoil.  However they are more complex and therefore less reliable.  An example of a semiautomatic shotgun is the Remington 11-87.

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Pump action shotguns (such as the one pictured above) require that the user “pump” the slide (the forward corncob portion where the non-trigger-hand rests) to eject the spent shell and load a fresh shell.  Such shotguns are mechanically simpler than semiautomatic shotguns, yet allow for nearly the same rate of fire in the hands of a skilled user.  I prefer pump action shotguns when it comes to home defense.  An example of a pump action shotgun is the Remington 870.

Break open shotguns hold one shell (or 2 shells for a double barreled shotgun) at a time, and the user “breaks open” the shotgun to manually load and unload shells, by pushing a lever.  Break open shotgun are about as mechanically simple as can be.  On the negative side, they are relatively slow to reload, and therefore not recommended for self defense.  However, they are great for trapshooting and other shooting sports.  An example of a break open shotgun is the Browning BT-99.


Shotguns, like all firearms, vary greatly in price.  An inexpensive (but still good) shotgun such as the Mossberg 500 can be purchased new for around $300.  An excellent specialty shotgun such as the Browning BT-99 can cost over $1,500, and this author has seen some (rarer) shotguns that cost over $10,000.  That said, a more expensive shotgun isn’t necessarily better, and the key is to buy the shotgun that meets your needs.

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Shotgun ammunition also varies widely in price.  Birdshot is generally the least expensive, with buckshot costing more, and slugs costing still more.  Some specialty slugs can cost as must as several dollars a shot.

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  • Charles Johnson Jr

    I have to disagree with the statement that bird shot is not a home defense option. IF you factor in the distance to target, location of event and type of event then birdshot is every bit as effective as buckshot or slugs.

    The “Distance to Target” – in the normal circumstance of a private home shooting is from the bedroom or hallway to the point-of-entry. Bird shot, buck shot or slug will act much the same way. The impact will depend on angle, distance and shooting accuracy.

    The “Location of Event” – will almost always be in one of the “common” rooms of a dwelling. There for the entry will be a door or window. Most often it will be a door because of ease of entry.

    The “Type of Event” – will almost always be a home invasion where the intended victim will be away or asleep and surprise is the major factor of the event.

    As you are aware as long as you are inside a private dwelling almost always the distance from victim to invader will be less then the distance required for a birdshot or buckshot to start its spread.

    The major advantage of have birdshot is that it will not penetrate walls at the receiving end as often as a slug or buckshot will. When you live in a multi-residential building this benefit can be very advantageous.

    • The Author


      Thanks for the comment, but I must respectfully disagree:

      Even at close range, birdshot pellets just won’t penetrate deeply enough to reliably stop an attacker right away. Here are some ballistic gel tests showing that birdshot doesn’t penetrate more than about 6″ of ballistic gel:
      Note that ballistic gel testing tends to show less penetration than in the real world, since ballistic gel doesn’t wear clothing or have bones like a real criminal.

      As far as the proper amount of penetration for a self defense load, I would note that the FBI has recognized the need for at least 12″ of penetration, and demands their ammo meet that standard. I can’t say that I would object to a round that penetrates 11″, but under 6″ is not something I’m comfortable with.

      As far as wall penetration, it seems like most rounds that will reliably stop a person will also go right through the thin materials that make up the interior walls of most homes. That seems to be an almost inescapable fact, since humans are tougher than interior wall material. I would say the solution is good shot placement.

      My full thoughts on birdshot for self defense, and more on its limited penetration ability, can be seen here:

    • ionna


  • az firearms

    The shotgun is a flexible weapon, with uses ranging from sporting to military applications. To shotgun aficionados, however, only the best matter—and “best” takes on a particular meaning in the world of shotguns.

  • Ralph

    Thank you for the 101 my brother and i are planning on a shotgun for home defense and well lets say your 101 review has set our minds on the right path on buyer knowledge. Thank you.

  • William

    Thank you so much for this post. I found your site today online and have learned a wealth of knowledge! Thank you Sir and God Bless you!!