Calibers for Beginners: 12 Gauge Shotgun Shells

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Many a tyke got their first taste of a ‘real gun’ when they put dad’s slug gun to their shoulder and under the old man’s supervision, pulled the trigger. The awakening, for so many poor, innocent younglings, came rudely.

Every November I get to watch little kids wearing puffy coats and gloves struggle to see through cheap scopes and hold steady while being poorly coached by what seems like every male relative in the family…simultaneously. For some reason, it’s a time-honored tradition in many families to subject unwitting children to a 12-gauge blast.

Ah, yes, the 12 gauge. There may be no other cartridge that has brought so many children to tears. In this series, we’ve looked primarily at pistol and rifle cartridges, but it’s time to move on to smooth bore rounds.

The shotgun is a tool that almost everyone has used at one time or another. That’s because it’s able to fill almost every role that is demanded of a firearm: hunting birds and beasts, self-defense, warfare, law enforcement, law breaking, and sport shooting (including sporting clays, 3-Gun, trap and skeet). It even serves well in less-lethal roles such as crowd control.

The reason behind the continued success of the 12 gauge above other shotgun cartridges is that it occupies a very sweet spot in terms of power, recoil, and types of payload available. Unlike rifles shotguns — I know there are a number of exceptions here, so take it easy in the comments — typically don’t fire single-piece projectiles that have spin imparted on them by rifling.

Most shotguns are smoothbore, meaning that the barrel has no rifling grooves cut into it to impart projectile spin. A notable exception to this is that some shotguns have rifled barrels, but aren’t classified as rifles. Maddening, I know.

The 12-gauge cartridge has been loaded with almost anything you can imagine putting in it from birdshot, buckshot, slugs, beanbags, rock salt, incendiary shot, nail-like flechettes, noise-making blanks, and much, much more. Even spices so the game on your plate is tastier.

The versatility of the 12 gauge bore makes it a prime contender for innovation and widespread acceptance of new designs. Novelty 12-gauge ammo even makes a great gift around the holidays.

Excellent guns are available from a world-wide array of makers. Shotguns haven’t seen the same prejudice and persecution as some rifles and pistols in most countries and civilian ownership is relatively common across much of the world, and are sometimes not as severely regulated. This speaks to the fact that even in countries that routinely abuse their citizens, the utility of the shotgun simply can’t be denied.

Common, hard-use American shotguns such as the venerable Remington 870 and Mossberg 500 are usually the first that come to mind when one thinks of a 12-gauge. These are pump-action guns and hold anywhere from three to eight rounds.

Dan Z. for TTAG

Other shotguns that are in common use, although more expensive, are break-action double-barrels and semi-automatics. The double guns are what many sport shooters use for clays, most commonly in an under/over configuration where the barrels are one atop the other instead of side-by-side. It could be argued that there’s no finer bird hunting gun than a double-barreled 12-gauge.

The beginner shouldn’t take the 12-gauge lightly. Despite the fact that they’re extremely common and can be quite inexpensive, they’re extremely powerful and can make for a bad day at the range for beginners. The 12-gauge is many things, but it’s rarely called forgiving, especially to the unaware.

What the beginner should know who’s going into shotguns is that there are many other options besides 12-gauge, such as 20-gauge, 28-gauge, and .410. The only problem with these is they aren’t in the same power class as the big Number 12 and typically have reduced range and shot density. The 12-gauge is arguably the best shotgun chambering for 98% of all users, types of hunting and sport shooting scenarios.

The big problem for a beginner with 12-gauge is, of course, recoil. Some of you may scoff at this notion, and of course there are reduced-power loads, but the 12-gauge is powerful and has a long learning curve.

Most slug guns are ungainly when compared to rifles and generate much more noise and blast. This is a consideration where young hunters are concerned. A better choice than Gramps’ old Winchester might be something like a Ruger bolt action or a Henry lever gun in .44 Magnum, which weighs substantially less and generates far gentler recoil and less noise.

Good mass market shotguns are made by a huge number of companies such as Remington, Mossberg, Browning, Winchester, Franchi, Beretta, Benelli, Stoeger, Kel-Tec, and many, many more. It’s even possible to find historical shotguns in good condition. There’s a substantial market for trench guns and other war-used shotguns.

Some 12-gauge guns command ultra-premium price tags on the collector’s market. One of the world’s greatest gunsmiths is located in my city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Bachelder Master Gunmakers is the world’s sole leader in restoration and sales of the legendary Parker gun.

Parker Brothers Gun Shotgun

If you don’t know the Parker gun or haven’t had the chance to see or hold one in person, I don’t fault you. They are quite valuable and regularly go for upwards of $10,000-$40,000. I have had the opportunity to visit their facility several times and it’s always like a trip to the candy shop.

Rarely do rifles ever climb as high in overall value. And that’s just the Parkers. Custom English guns from Boss, Purdey and Holland & Holland go for well into six figures.

Ammunition for the 12-gauge can be had from a dizzying number of makers including Remington, Winchester, Federal, Hornady, Rio, Fiocchi, Estate, S&B, Wolf, Herter’s, and many others. Particularly notable modern 12-gauge models include:

Remington 870: As mentioned, this is an American classic that millions rely on for daily use. You can get more expensive guns, but most hunters will never wear one out.

Mossberg 500/590: Another very widely owned, widely available gun that’s often sold for just a few hundred dollars. That said, the Mossberg sees hard use and is fielded by dozens of military groups and combat units. It is a rugged, reliable gun that serves both the hunter and soldier.

Benelli M4: This is military shotgun that has seen considerable use in combat. Unlike the others here, it’s a semiautomatic. This gun is on the expensive end, but it isn’t even close to the cost of collector guns. The standard model has rifle-like iron sights and other cool features.

Kel-Tec KSG: Call of Duty fans will instantly recognize this unusual-looking bullpup gun. The KSG is a pump-gun that has dual magazine tubes and a downward loading/ejection port. The compact overall length makes the KSG a great home-defense weapon. The design has had some criticism over the years, but it is refined now and quite reliable. It may surprise some, but it is available in a design that holds an entire box of 25 shells.

The 12-gauge shotgun is a modern staple across the world. It can be had at almost every store that doesn’t cater to SJW’s and can probably be found in a large percentage of the garages and barns in America. The utility of the 12-gauge is absolutely undeniable and every shooter can do themselves right by learning how to use one. It isn’t really the best beginner’s hunting gun, but is more often than not the gun that lots of people start with.


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  1. I always start newbie guests with .22LR, leading up thru the calibers to end at the venerable 12-ga. The point is to inspire confidence and interest, not spook newbies so they’ll never become POTG.

    BTW, the Kel-Tec KSG has the worst ergonomics of any gun (of any caliber, bore, or type) I’ve ever fired. It’s nothing more than a range toy. If you’re serious about using a shottie, get an R870 or M500.

  2. Solid info, but perhaps a bit light on details of available loads for an article titled “12 gauge shotgun shells.” Perhaps an edit to cover birdshot, buckshot, slugs, mini shells would be constructively additive? Doubtlessly someone from the internet will fill in the blanks here.
    Great selection of “notable” shotguns, I’ve owned them all and with exception of the M4, that list seems to represent a lot of what one sees in the field or range. I’d probably add something like the Browning Citori or Beretta 686 as an example of a great “value” (as in price/quality ratio) over/under which are both great guns and can be had around $2000. Would be great to have a follow up article from y’all covering an intro to clay shooting and O/U guns.

  3. I don’t have a shotgun in my collection and pretty much don’t know where to start. A home defense would be nice but I love my 300BLK and it is perfect for the home. My buddy has a bullpup but being a lefty it wouldn’t suit me. The Benelli M4 looks great but you can keep the bird dropping pistol grip thanks. Henry lever action 44, M4, 44, M4. Decisions decisions…

    • Benelli Montefeltro in a left handed configuration. Bought one last year for $800 (not many need a left handed gun). It’s smooth, it’s beautiful if you want that, it can be used to hunt, you can use it for home defense, but if you set that .300 AAC up for that scenario that will be better (no barrel longer than 18.5 inches in the home for me). Just an idea for a left handed shooter!

    • Easy and cheap, grab a Maverick, holds 7/8 and put the Choate pistol grip stock on it. I have one, seems great for cheap shottie.

      But i also have a 300blk with suppressor and Extreme Expansion rounds that would
      End a home invasion quickly. This is my gram from safe.

    • If you don’t have a Mossberg 590 or Remington 870 I would start there. If you want a self defense semi auto I would go Mossberg 940 with a Holosun 507K – designed with Jerry Miculek’s input. I have a Benelli and it’s great, but the M4 is pricey and if you aren’t a door kicker I don’t see the value in it. My $.02k, but I’ve actually used a shotgun for self defense.

  4. Ok. I have curiosities.

    At what point and by what definition separates a ‘turkey gun’ from a ‘defensive weapon’ from one meant for dear? All this has been very confusing to me. What it really looks like is whatever someone wants to use. But then that could just as easily be a 10mm revolver. It seem to me that one shotgun could do all this?

    • Your question requires a long answer. Let’s pick a mossberg 500. It and the Remington 870, amongst others, are pump action shotguns that have quick change barrels. My 500 came with 2 barrels. One was 28 inchs long with a vented rib and would be considered a bird and small game barrel. It has screw in chokes that allow for a wide variety of hunting situations. Every thing from dove to goose and turkey. For the turkeys you use really hard hitting heavy loads of bird shot. With the right choke you can shoot ‘deer slugs’ out of your bog standard smoothbore for big game.

      The other barrel was a 20 inch ‘security’ barrel. Optimized for putting out buck shot at close range. The barrels take less than a minute to swap out.

      My son bought a rifled barrel for his 500. It shoots sabot slugs that are more like rifle bullets than shotgun slugs. It came with factory iron sights and is rifle accurate to 300 yards while firing, I believe, a .50 caliber projectile of copper.

      Yes, one shotgun can do it all. If all you had was a ‘standard’ 28 inch barrel hunting shotgun with no extra barrels or chokes you could still do all the jobs needed.

      • It sounds like the only real difference is in the barrel itself. I know that for birds you would want a longer barrel choked. Security and defense are typically 18 to 20 inches. I seen turkey guns at 18, 24, and even 28 inches. So it gets a bit confusing as one bleeds into the other. I’ve also seen rifled shotguns refered to as defensive and 18 inch guns threaded for chokes (have one of those).

        Now, I can see using a 28 inch for birds in flight but why use something so long for turkeys?

        • Some folks don’t have the cash for ‘specialized’ tools. If you have a 28 inch barrel run that. The last barrel I bought for my 500 was somewhere around 180 bucks if memory serves. That could be pricey for a person that just needs a turkey gun.

        • Jethro you hit on one of the big selling points for shotguns, the firearm itself can be found cheaper than replacement barrels at times. The ammo on the other hand does limit volume shooting to clay loads but realistically you will not be using as much defensive shotgun ammo unless you are heavily involved in 3 gun or similar activities so for a shotgun and a box or two of buckshot you have a defensive firearm supplied and ready for $200 or less at the lower but still functional end and around 400-600 for the mid/average range. For revolvers that are not charter arms or low pressure 38 special………….well that would be more.

        • other than the camo i think the distinction is the choke, if it says turkey it’s more focused even than full. the longer barrels are nice for sight radius as you aim at turkeys.
          deer slugs (foster sabots) impart there own spin in smoothbores, rifled shotties need straight slugs, confusingly also called sabots designed more to contact the rifling.

        • Safe. Bingo. I bought my 500 combo pack for a little less than 170 bucks. Years later I buy a screw in choke barrel for the same gun and it was 180.

          Pump guns will run forever with very little upkeep. Part of their charm.

        • I appreciate all that. As I don’t hunt, it’s not really something I would know but I am primarily here to learn.

  5. One important thing that’s often overlooked when introducing a new shooter is length of pull. The shotgun and rifle should fit the shooter. If not, it’s better for it to be on the short side. Just watch out for knuckles and scopes. A length of pull that’s too long makes the weapon unwieldy and, consequently, heavy recoil is harder to control for a new shooter.

    • I’m putting together a replica Vietnam era AR15 with a Colt upper. I’m going to donate the proceeds of the sale to a worthy charity. When I decided on the standard stock it was because my LGS said the military took an average length of pull from many infantrymen and averaged it out. It turns out that it is nearly perfect for me. I asked about sighting in the irons on the carrier handle and got a lengthy but certainly not boring education as to how the sights were developed and how when you really learned how to use them you could be lethal from ridiculous ranges. I would like to upload the finished product if I figure out how to.

        • Thank You Darkman! I really appreciate this info. My lgs sold me this upper for 850.00 Never fired Colt. Did he rip me off? I don’t think so. And I intend to sell it and give the proceeds to the Wounded Warrior project or DAV, or both. I welcome all requests for a reputable charity.

        • Ok Darkman! I went to Brownells and checked it out. This is awesome! And it might bring in a few more dollars for our heroes. Thanks again Sir!

      • Muckraker, that’s a cool project. Do you intend to build an A1, or are you going back to the ’50s? A finished product update/pic would be appreciated.

        • I had to do some research. I hope to know what I’m selling! I think from various pics online that it is an A2. I will try to upload pics.

        • I just took pics of the upper and the buttsock that holds the buffer and spring inside. I don’t know how to upload the pics. A little help Dan, Josh, Wayne, Grace?
          Unfortunately Gadsden it looks like the handle is removable and I thought early AR’s had fixed handles. Either way this build is going to a worthy charity regardless of how much I can get for it. I want to give back something for our heroes. As far as I’m concerned if you take time out of your life to support our nation and come back wounded to the point of not being able to support your family we should be required to pay off your mortgage, give you health insurance (of your choice), and do everything we can possibly do to make you whole again instead of giving billions to foreign countries that don’t give a flying rat’s butt about their own citizens.

  6. 870 made during the time Remington was owned by the Cerberus group can have a really rust friendly finish and may require refinishing if not cerakoting. Also the extractor is rough on aluminum snap caps if you want to do loading/firing drills to get the muscle memory to reload in between shots without having to look/remove your trigger finger. No complaints with the mossberg 500 series unless you have trouble with the safety.

  7. I’ve owned the 870 and 1100 Remingtons which were sold to my huntin’ brother. For me I have a pistol grip Warthog 12 GA. semi Made in Turkey. For the price delivered from GunPrime not bad at all. For the amount of work to make it right not good at all. I.E. The hammer bore for the hammer pin was sloppy way too large so it had to be bushed, the mag well had to be flared, sights reworked, etc. etc. etc. There is a version under another name with a 2 pin secured FCG, those have less things to do to make it right.

    • So you have a turkey shotgunm.
      The Ithaca37 I have is for pheasants and ducks cause it’s got them engraved on the reciever.

      • Possum:
        I was wondering if anyone was going to mention the Ithaca Mod. 37. It’s my favorite. I’ve had mine for a long time ago when Ithaca Gun Co. was still in Kings Ferry, NY. Despite the pheasants and ducks, I’m sure it’s okay to use it for turkeys (though I never have).

  8. The most wonderful feature of the 12 gauge shotgun is that utterly corrupt attorneys (such as Geoffrey Silverman of Portland Oregon) can easily convince imbecile judges (such as Yamhill County Judge Ladd Wiles) and ignorant jurors that there client really wasn’t a threat to the people that they were shooting at because they ” only load their shotgun with buckshot.”

    • E Fudd, you’ve been complaining about that for at least two years. I’d get rid of them tenants one way or the other. I’m mean like turn off their utilities or something? Maybe a match? Maybe pay someone to give them a good ‘tune up’?

  9. I would never start off a new shooter with a 12 gauge for the same reason I wouldn’t start them off with a .44 mag revolver or 30-06. You’re simply going to turn them off. Start with .22 or 9mm or 5.56.

  10. Hey fellow shotgun fans, I have a question for you. Does the variety of loads and shells available nowadays for the 12 Gauge make all other gauges redundant? I say yes, even though I’ll be shooting my Remington 870 Express Youth Model in 20 Gauge until the end of time, so I’m not throwing off on any other shotguns.

    • I’ll likely never have anything but 12ga but who knows. Someone might leave me something in a will (maybe a rich uncle). Having something else might come in handy if there is ever a 12ga ammo shortage.

      • Based on the last two shortages (obviously next can be different) 20 will be on the shelves for a bit after 12 gets panic purchased out but would be out of stock far longer after. On the handgun equivalents better than 357 sig and 44 special but worse than 40sw 10mm or 357 magnum and hilariously worse than 9mm 380 and 22lr. With that said I could always buy shotgun primers and usually saw relevant powder on the shelves….. shame I didn’t have the equipment at the time.

    • Yes. Basically. I was always fond of the 16 in my youth. But it is pretty much gone these days. I also like the .410. But ammo is 2-3 pricier than 12 when last I shopped. And it doesn’t have near the versatility of the 12 or 20.

      20 is still hanging in there. But really, the 12 will do it all.

      My wife is 5 foot tall. I got her a youth model 20 for a house gun. But with full power self defense loads a youth model 20 is a brutal gun to hang onto. She’s actually more comfortable shooting a full sized 12. Lesson learned.

      • Only time I saw 16 was with 28 and either shotgun was worth more than a halfway decent used car.

        • Much more common in my youth. My first 16 was mail ordered and sent straight to our door. America was a different place then.

          We also used to get paper hulled shells.

        • Have a few paper hulls as well as full brass. Will be interesting to see if environmental nonsense brings either back into occasional use from collector status.

  11. I’ve never understood why larger shot sizes, i.e. #4 up to 000 are so ludicrously expensive. Bird shot is relatively cheap, but anything suitable for four or two-legged animals scrapes the underside of $1 per round at the minimum. It’s roughly the same amount of lead either way, so why the huge discrepancy in price?

    • I mean, I do understand the manufacturing process is a little more involved compared to birdshot, but the price difference just seems a hell of a lot bigger than it needs to be.

      • Volume of manufacturing (trap vs hunting/defense) and other components powder (more in hunting/defense) and high vs low brass all add up to more cents per round. Good comparison would be 9mm fmj steel/aluminum vs brass vs self defense loads.

  12. DP12 is the way to go if you want a shotgun for defense. yiu dont want to lug it through tge woods to hunt but 16 rounds of 12 gauge with pump reliability is hard to beat.

    • One of my classmates brought something like that once. Recoil is somehow worse than a traditional design despite being heavier and good luck reloading at all let alone quickly under stress. With that said getting a rapid 2 shot burst per pump and a lot of shots if loaded is cool.

  13. I got the Biden Special, made by Hunter Gunm and Paint company, it’s a double barrel, however only the left barrel partially works and it wont eject the spent shell unless you open the breach with a diaper.

  14. If recoil is the greatest problem, you should have included some hints about reducing the pain new shooters are apt to feel. The key to shooting a 12ga without feeling the kick is to tuck it in tightly against your shoulder. If held tightly it simply pushes backwards. If you hold it loosely it moves and actually hits your shoulder. That is the part that hurts!

  15. Something that people need to remember about shotguns vs. rifles:

    You can make a rifle that doesn’t fit you work. You can put rounds on target with a rifle that has an atrocious fit to your shoulder and cheek – because it has a rear sight (or scope) and if you put the sights (or scope) on target, you will put the bullet somewhere near the target.

    This is not true for a shotgun. Most all shotguns have only a front bead sight, and your eye that is on the comb of the gun is the rear sight. If you don’t get a gun that fits you and allows you to mount the gun in a way that gets you a repeatable sight picture, you will miss birds or clays at a very high rate. A shotgun needs to fit you, and this is one of the things that differentiates a more expensive shotgun from a cheaper one. The more expensive mass-produced shotguns (eg, Beretta) will have plates, shims and such that can be mounted between the buttstock grip and the action to move the buttstock up/down, right/left to make the gun fit you better.

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