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Cutaway view of shotshells

The ammunition used for shotguns is called a shell (or a shotshell). All modern shotguns shoot shotshells. Bird hunters use shotshells containing small shot, or pellets. Deer or bear hunters use shotshells which contain very large shot pellets or slugs. All waterfowl hunters must now use approved non-toxic shot. Not all shotguns can shoot steel shot safely. Contact a qualified gunsmith or the manufacturer to learn if your gun is approved for steel shot.

All modern shotshells use centerfire primers located in the (bottom) center of the ammunition. Just as with rifle and handgun cartridges, shotshells are also called centerfire ammunition. Centerfire shotshell hulls can be reloaded.

Shotshells have five main parts.

  • Hull (or case): The hull holds the primer, powder, wad, and shot pellets (or slug).
  • Primer: The primer compound explodes when struck by the firing pin and ignites the powder.
  • Powder: The powder burns and creates gas to move the wad and shot down and out the bore.
  • Wad: The wad protects the shot and/or barrel and seals the gas behind the shot charge.
  • Shot: The shot (pellets) strikes the target.
Different shotshell lengths

The bottom of the shotshell usually has the gauge stamped on it. Be sure to check your ammunition before you shoot your firearm! A 20-gauge shotshell will disappear in a 12-gauge chamber, making the gun explode when another 12-gauge shell is inserted behind it and fired. Make sure your ammunition matches your shotgun!

Never shoot 3-inch shotshells unless your shotgun is chambered to shoot 3-inch or longer shotshells!

Most shotshell manufacturers color-code 20-gauge ammunition to help prevent accidents. Many 20-gauge shotshells are now yellow in color to help shooters quickly identify 20-gauge ammunition. Don’t rely on color alone to identify shotshells!