A Primer on the Shotgun

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Recently I’ve had the itch to buy a shotgun. It started after I read Creek’s post on how to build a survival shotgun. The itch only grew stronger after I became a homeowner (I kind of feel like Kevin McAllister). The shotgun is the perfect weapon for home defense and disaster prep. It’s powerful, reliable, and versatile. You can use it to fend off home intruders, hunt for food, or even shoot skeet with your buds.

But as I’ve discussed before on the site, I’m a complete novice when it comes to guns. I grew up around them, but I just didn’t take an interest in them until recently. Before I brought a shotgun into my house, I wanted make sure I knew how it worked and how to fire it safely and correctly.

So I headed over to the U.S. Shooting Academy here in Tulsa, OK to talk to Mike Seeklander, President of the Academy and co-host of Outdoor Channel’s The Best Defense. Mike’s helped me out before with articles on how to fire a handgun and a rifle. On this trip, he explained the very basics of understanding and firing a shotgun. Today I'll share what I learned from Mike for those folks out there who are also interested in becoming first-time shotgun owners.

Types of Shotguns

Mike's pump-action and semi-automatic shotguns

Shotguns are fired from the shoulder and are typically used to hit targets at short distances. Unlike rifle and handgun cartridges that can only fire a single projectile, a shotgun cartridge typically fires multiple pellets called “shot” that spread out as they leave the shotgun’s barrel. Because the power of a single cartridge charge is divided among multiple pieces of shot, the energy of the shot decreases greatly as it travels away from the gun. That’s why shotguns are short-range weapons.

There are a variety of shotguns out on the market that serve different purposes. Below we highlight the most common types.

Break-action shotguns. Break-action shotguns have a hinge between the barrel and the stock that allows you to “break” or open the barrel to expose the breech in order to load your ammo. If you’ve ever seen pictures of old big game hunters or cowboys holding a shotgun, they were probably holding a break-action shotgun. Break-action shotguns are usually double-barreled, with the barrels either side-by-side or placed one on top of the other. They’re typically used by hunters and sport shooters. The big disadvantage of break-action shotguns is that they’re single shot guns, meaning once you fire the single round in each barrel, you have to reload.

Mossberg 500 pump-action shotgun

Pump-action shotguns. A pump-action shotgun is a single-barrel shotgun that holds multiple rounds (unlike break-action shotguns). The way you extract spent shells and chamber a fresh round is by pulling a pump handle towards yourself, and then pushing it back into its original position along the barrel. Pump-action shotguns are widely used by police forces around the world because of their reliability and ability to hold multiple rounds. The Remington 870 has been the standby shotgun for American police forces for years, while the U.S. military has been partial to the Mossberg 500.

The general consensus in the firearms community is that pump-action shotguns are the top choice for home defense. They're relatively easy to use, nearly impossible to break, and are super reliable. More importantly, the sound of chambering a hot round into a pump-action 12 gauge is sure to soil the britches of even the most hardened criminal. As an added bonus, they’re relatively cheap, with prices beginning around $200.

One of the things you have to watch out for when firing a pump-action shotgun is short-stroking. That’s when you don’t push the pump all the way back to its original position, resulting in a failure to chamber the next round in the magazine.

Browning semi-automatic shotgun

Semi-automatic shotguns. A semi-automatic shotgun fires a single shell each time the trigger is pulled, automatically ejects the spent shell, and automatically chambers a new shell from a magazine. This allows you to fire off shots quickly. Some states ban hunting with semi-automatic shotguns, so be aware of that if you plan on using your gun to hunt.

Because rounds are automatically loaded and the design is more complex, semi-automatic shotguns are more prone to jamming failures than pump-action or break-action shotguns.

Diagram of a shotgun

Understanding Shotgun Ammo

Shotgun ammo is broken down into three categories: birdshot, buckshot, and slugs.

Birdshot. Birdshot is smaller than buckshot and is used primarily for hunting, you guessed it, birds. Birdshot size is categorized by a number: the larger the number, the smaller the shot. The smallest birdshot is #12 shot and the largest is size FF. All birdshot pellets have a diameter smaller than 5 mm. Birdshot is so small it’s simply poured into a shotgun shell until the shell reaches a certain weight.

Buckshot. Buckshot is typically used for hunting small to medium-sized game and for police and home defense purposes. As with birdshot, the buckshot is categorized by a number that decreases as the size of the shot goes up. The smallest buckshot is #4 and from there the sizes go past #1 to 0000 (quad-ought), 000 (triple-ought), 00 (double-ought), and 0 (ought). Unlike birdshot, buckshot is too large to be poured into a cartridge. Rather, the buckshot pellets are stacked into the shell in a fixed geometric arrangement in order to fit.

Slugs. Slugs are basically a giant bullet. Instead of firing multiple pellets, a shotgun shell with a slug in it only fires a single slug. Slugs are primarily used to hunt large game and for military and police purposes. Slugs are rifled which gives them spin as they leave the barrel of the gun, making the slug much more accurate and stable in flight.

Understanding Gauge, Chamber Length, & Choke Tubes


Unlike handguns and rifles that use caliber to measure the diameter of the barrel, shotguns use gauge. Measuring gauge goes back to the days of muzzle-loading guns. A shotgun’s gauge number is determined by the number of lead balls that are the size of the gun bore’s diameter that can roll down the gun’s barrel to make a pound. So for example, in a 12 gauge shotgun, twelve lead balls with a diameter equal to the diameter of the barrel adds up to one pound.

Confused? Don’t worry. It takes a bit to wrap your head around it. Just remember this: The smaller the shotgun gauge number, the larger the barrel; the larger the barrel, the bigger the boom from your boomstick.

The most common shotgun gauge sizes are: 10 gauge = .775 inch, 12 gauge = .729 inch, 16 gauge = .662 inch, 20 gauge = .615 inch, 28 gauge = .550 inch.

The 12 gauge shotgun is the most common shotgun gauge sold in America and is a good all-purpose gun — great for home defense, hunting, and skeet shooting. Because of their widespread use, ammo and accessories for 12 gauge shotguns are much easier to find than for other size shotguns. If you’re going to use your shotgun primarily for hunting or skeet shooting, you might follow the advice of shotgunning expert Bob Brister and go with a smaller gauge gun like a 20 or 28 gauge.

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