Understanding Different 12-Gauge Shotgun Load Types

Photo of 12 gauge shotgun shells

12-Gauge Shotgun Load Types

The 12-gauge shotgun is one of the most versatile firearms you can own. With so many options for shot loads, from hundreds of tiny beads to a single heavy slug, there is plenty that you can do with your 12-gauge shotgun.

Understanding the different 12-gauge ammo shot patterns, as well as their best applications, will make you more productive in the field.

Birdshot

Possibly the most common type of 12-gauge shotgun load, birdshot comes in a variety of sizes, allowing hunters to target game from small to medium sizes. For birdshot, the larger the number, the smaller the pellet. With smaller pellets, you also get more pellets in a single load. For example, a shotgun shell with #9 shot will hold more total pellets than one loaded with #1 shot.

#9 Shot

photo of shotgun target shot with Federal 12 Gauge 2-3/4 Inch Shell, 9 Shot, 1145 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.
Federal 12 Gauge 2-3/4 Inch Shell, 9 Shot, 1145 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

At only 0.08 inches of diameter per pellet, #9 shot is one of the smallest sizes you’ll find. In most cases, this load is not used for live birds, but for clay pigeons. However, it’s also useful as a snake shot and for eliminating small birds; if this shot is used to kill something, it’s usually pest control, not game hunting.

Buying Guide: Federal 12-Gauge 2-3/4″ 9 Shot

#8 1/2 Shot

photo of shotgun target shot with Winchester 12 Gauge 2-3/4 Inch Shell, 8-1/2-Shot, 1145 Velocity, Shot at 25 Feet.
Winchester 12 Gauge 2-3/4 Inch Shell, 8-1/2-Shot, 1145 Velocity, Shot at 25 Feet.

With a diameter of .085 inches per pellet, this shot is not much larger than #9, but it does give slightly more weight to each pellet, which makes it useful for sporting clays and trap shooting at slightly longer distances.

Buying Guide: Winchester 12-Gauge 2-3/4″ 8-1/2 Shot

#8 Shot

photo of 12 gauge shotgun target
Federal 12 Gauge 2-3/4 Inch Shell, 8-Shot, 1145 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

Offering more power per pellet, the #8 shot remains popular for clay-pigeon shooting, but can also be used for some of the smallest game birds, such as rabbit, squirrel, and doves, but you’ll need to be close to do any real damage. Just be aware that animals taken with this shot will be full of many small pellets, making cleaning and eating more difficult.

Buying Guide: Federal 12-Gauge 2-3/4″ 8 Shot

#7 1/2 Shot

photo of 12 gauge shotgun target shot with winchester ammunition
Winchester 12 Gauge 2-3/4 Inch, 7-1/2 Shot, 1180 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

Sometimes called the “dove shot,” this is about the smallest legitimate hunting load. With pellets that are .1 inches in diameter, this load can be used for doves, pheasant, and ducks, assuming they are within close range. This is also a versatile load that can be used for smaller game and trap if necessary.

Buying Guide: Winchester 12 Gauge 2-3/4″ 7-1/2 Shot

#7 Shot

photo of 12 gauge shotgun target shot with Winchester 12 Gauge 2-3/4-Inch Shell, 7 Shot, 1200 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.
Winchester 12 Gauge 2-3/4-Inch Shell, 7 Shot, 1200 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

With good range and limited damage to the meat, #7 is an ideal load for pheasant, grouse, and dove. The shot is also one of the largest that is still ideal for trap shooting and shotgun-competition sports.

Buying Guide: Winchester 12-Gauge 2-3/4″ 7 Shot

#6 Shot

photo of 12 gauge shotgun target shot with Fiocchi 12 Gauge 2-3/4 Inch Shell, 6-Shot, 1330 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.
Fiocchi 12 Gauge 2-3/4 Inch Shell, 6-Shot, 1330 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

Moving into #6 shot allows you to begin pursuing medium-sized and even larger birds, and it’s generally the smallest load used for pheasant or duck if distance is a factor, which it almost always is. At .11 inches in diameter, this is pretty much the middle ground for birdshot, and can be used effectively for a variety of game from squirrels to turkey, assuming, of course, you hit the turkey in the head.

Buying Guide: Fiocchi 12-Gauge 2-3/4″ 6 Shot

#5 Shot

photo of 12 gauge shotgun target shot with fiocchi ammunition
Fiocchi 12 Gauge 2-3/4 Inch Shell, 5-Shot, 1330 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

#5 is generally considered the ideal load size for pheasant hunting, giving excellent penetration on these tough birds. Pellet diameter is .12 inches, giving the load enough power to be an effective duck shot, especially for shots that require greater reach.

Buying Guide: Fiocchi 12-Gauge 2-3/4″ 5 Shot

#5-6-7 Shot Mix

photo of 12 gauge shotgun target shot by Federal 12 Gauge 3-Inch Shell, 5-6-7-Shot, 1250 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.
Federal 12 Gauge 3-Inch Shell, 5-6-7-Shot, 1250 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

This is an interesting load that mixes #5, 6, and 7 shot into one shell. It’s primarily advertised to turkey hunters, and it’s best for open-field hunting where shot distance can be hard to estimate. They are usually loaded into larger shells of three inches.

Buying Guide: Federal 12-Gauge 3″ 5-6-7 Shot

#4 Shot

photo of 12 gauge shotgun target with spread
Winchester 12 Gauge 2-3/4 Inch Shell, 4-Shot, 1255 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

#4 shot, which should not be confused with #4 buck, has a pellet diameter of .13, giving each pellet greater force and penetration. It is commonly used as a turkey load, but can also be used for a variety of game birds. It’s also the smallest load that is considered effective for home defense, as #4 can deliver effective power without penetrating walls.

Buying Guide: Winchester 12-Gauge 2-3/4″ 4 Shot

#3 Shot

photo of 12 gauge shotgun target shot with 3 shot ammo
Fiocchi 12 Gauge 3 Inch Shell, 3-Shot, 1500 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

This ammunition is great for multiple applications, and hunters will find it effective for many different upland game birds, as well as waterfowl. Because of the thickness (.14 inches per pellet, #3 shot could be used for geese, although some may feel #3 is still too small.

Buying Guide: Fiocchi 12-Gauge 3″ 3 Shot

#2 Shot

photo of 12 gauge shotgun target shot by 2 shot ammo
Winchester 12 Gauge 2-3/4 Inch Shell, 2 Shot, 1400 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

With heavy pellets and the ability to place effective penetration at 40 yards, the #2 shot is one of the favorite loads for goose hunters. The pellet size is .15 inches, giving enough power for geese while remaining effective for distance shots on ducks and other waterfowl.

Buying Guide: Winchester 12-Gauge 2-3/4″ 2 Shot

#1 Shot

photo of 12 gauge shotgun target shot by 1 shot ammo
Fiocchi 12 Gauge 3-1/2 Inch Shell, 1 Shot, 1430 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

#1 shot has a pellet diameter of .16 inches, giving it effective power to knock down geese and other large birds. Although it is more rare, and some manufacturers don’t even bother making it, this can be an effective load for large waterfowl.

Buying Guide: Fiocchi 12-Gauge 3-1/2″ 1 Shot

BB Shot

photo of 12 gauge shotgun target shot with BB load
Hornady 12 Gauge 3-Inch Shell, BB, 1300 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

You might think “BB” means a small toy gun for children, but a 12-gauge shotgun shell loaded with BB shot, which measures .18 inches, is an effective hunting load. Primarily used for geese and large ducks, shotgun shells loaded with BB are popular for larger game at greater distances. There is also the smaller “B” pellets (.17 inches), as well as the larger “BBB” pellets (.19).

Buying Guide: Hornady 12-Gauge 3″ BB Shot

Buckshot

Using larger (and fewer) metal pellets, buckshot, as the name implies, is primarily used for harvesting deer and larger game, but also has a following as a home-defense load in 12-gauge shotguns.

#4 Buck

photo of 12 gauge shotgun target shot with 4 buck shot
Fiocchi 12 Gauge 2-3/4 Inch Shell,  #4 Buck, 1325 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

With a pellet diameter of .244 inches, #4 buckshot is popular for medium-sized game, including deer and coyote. This shot size is also used for home defense, as it gives a good balance of power and penetration.

Buying Guide: Fiocchi 12-Gauge 2-3/4″ #4 Buck

#1 Buck

photo of 12 gauge shotgun target shot with buck shot
Winchester 12 Gauge 2-3/4 Inch Shell, #1 Buck, 1250 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

With #1 buckshot, you are starting to get into some seriously heavy equipment. The pellets measure .3 inches and are used primarily for deer hunting. A properly-placed load of #1 shot, from the desired distance, will have no problem dropping a mature buck.

Buying Guide: Winchester 12-Gauge 2-3/4″ #1 Buck

#00 Buck

photo of 12 gauge shotgun target shot with 00 buck shot
Federal 12 Gauge 2-3/4 Inch Shell, 00 Buck, 1325 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

#00 buckshot, usually called simply “double aught,” is an effective round that can be used for deer hunting, but also has applications in larger game, including heavy hog and even large game animals found in the western United States. Usually holding about eight .32-inch pellets, the #00 shot delivers reliable penetration and energy transfer.

Buying Guide: Federal 12-Gauge 2-3/4″ 00 Buck

#000 Buck

photo of 12 gauge shotgun target shot with 000 buck shot
Federal 12 Gauge 2-3/4 Inch Shell, 000 Buck, 1325 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

Three-inch 12-gauge round loaded with #000 buckshot hold around eight or ten .36-inch pellets, so you can imagine how devastating it can be when it impacts a deer or game animal. This is one of the most devastating rounds for shotguns, and can be used for a wide variety of animals, although some consider it not powerful enough (and therefore unethical) to use on significantly large game like moose and bear.

Buying Guide: Federal 12-Gauge 2-3/4″ 000 Buck

Slugs

photo of 12 gauge shotgun target shot by a slug round
Hornady 12 Gauge 2-3/4 Inch Shell, Slug, 1575 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

“Slug” is essentially the term used to describe a shotgun bullet. These are one solid piece of lead, making them the most powerful ammunition for 12-gauge shotguns, but also the most difficult to place properly, as there is no spread. They are used primarily for whitetail deer hunting, as well as the pursuit of hog, black bear, and similarly-sized game.

Buying Guide: Hornady 12-Gauge 2-3/4″ Lead Slug

Rifled Slug

photo of 12 gauge shotgun target shot with a rifled slug
Remington 12 Gauge 2-3/4 Inch Shell, Rifled Slug, 1560 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

A rifled slug has spiraling grooves on the body of the projectile, giving it a spin that increases accuracy. Rifled slugs are generally useful for long-distance shots, although most rifled slugs will not perform better than a true rifle shot. The advantage to rifled slugs is that they give better accuracy in a smooth-bore barrel.

Buying Guide: Remington 12-Gauge 2-3/4″ Rifled Slug

Sabot Slug

photo of 12 gauge shotgun target shot with a sabot slug
Hornady 12 Gauge 2-3/4 Inch Shell, Sabot-Slug, 1825 Velocity, Shot At 25 Feet.

A sabot slug is thinner and longer, and the slug itself is wrapped in a casing, called the “sabot” (pronounced “say-bo”) that ensures a seal between the projectile and the barrel. Sabot slugs do not have rifling, so these are primarily used in shotguns with rifled barrels.

Buying Guide: Hornady 12-Gauge 2-3/4″ Sabot Slug

Now that you understand the basics of 12-gauge ammo shot patterns and loads, you can choose the right option for your specific needs. From a jittery squirrel to a thick-necked buck, you’ll be prepared to take any game!

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