The shotgun has been around for centuries and will continue to thrive because of its versatility. The best shotgun shell types of varying gauges are used for self-defense and hunting purposes.
Below you'll find many recommendations based on personal experience, velocity, stopping power, and price.
Let's get started!
The 12ga shotgun is one of the most popular guns for home defense and hunting.
It's an excellent home defense weapon because over-penetration is less of a concern than it is with a rifle, you don't have to be overly accurate in a high-pressure situation, and it has a high ammo capacity that's easy to reload.
Most hunters use the 12 gauge for hunting game birds and deer, using differing shot sizes depending on the intended species.
Let's get to announcing the best 12ga shotgun shell types and uses.
The sound of racking a shotgun should be enough to send shivers down the spine of any intruder, but when it's not, you need ammunition you can trust with your and your family's lives.
The general consensus is that 00 Buckshot is the best shotgun ammo for home defense purposes. While I agree there are a few drawbacks to using it that are worth mentioning.
The first is that it has more recoil than birdshot. However, it doesn't have as much kick as a slug.
The second drawback is the reduced amount of pellets in the shell. Because the pellets or BBs are larger than birdshot, the shell can hold fewer. So you'll need to be relatively accurate, which you should be anyways.
The last downside I'll discuss is the expense. Buckshot is not cheap ammo; even if you buy it in bulk, it's still more expensive than birdshot.
So why is buckshot better for home defense?
The increased recoil comes from packing more of a punch. This means you'll be able to take out a threat much easier.
Unlike a slug, which is only one projectile, buckshot has many pellets, which increases your chances of hitting the target.
The best 00 buckshot ammo based on muzzle velocity is YAF 1-1/5 ounce 00 Buckshot ammunition. Coming in at 1,378 FPS muzzle velocity, it's one of the faster factory 00 buck loads on the market.
It's also relatively inexpensive when bought in bulk, costing around $0.70 per round.
Another viable option is Winchester 00 Buckshot. It tops out around 1,325 FPS muzzle velocity and is almost double the price per round, even when purchasing it in bulk.
In recent years TSS has been all the craze amongst turkey hunters. Despite being much more expensive than traditional copper-plated pellets, it offers hunters a better opportunity at an ethical kill on a turkey.
However, the high price is still challenging for many turkey hunters to swallow despite the benefits it shows to have on paper.
I've harvested a few turkeys using Winchester Long Beard XR #6, as this load has a decent muzzle velocity of 1,200 FPS. However, it's less dense than Federal Premium Heavyweight TSS, which means it won't be as capable of bringing down a Tom at 50 yards or more, but you won't be paying the high price of TSS ammo either.
Check out our Winchester 12 Gauge ammo page for more options.
Upland game birds don't require as dense of pellets to bring one down ethically. They're much smaller birds than turkeys and generally have thin skin.
This is why small shot sizes like #7 or #8 are the go-to sizes for most upland hunters. This also means they kick less than other shotgun shell types.
Upland hunting shells are typically the least expensive shotgun shell because they're the most common since they're also used for target shooting.
Fiocchi Shooting Dynamics Target Loads help give the hunter the edge on quick upland game birds with increased velocity.
A box of shotgun shells with 1,145 FPS muzzle velocity, like the Winchester SuperTarget loads, make great clay shooting rounds and can be confidently added to an upland hunter's shell bag.
Due to federal regulations, waterfowl hunting requires a non-toxic shot, usually steel, tungsten, or bismuth.
Steel is not as dense as tungsten or bismuth so you will get better penetration with tungsten/bismuth shotshells. However, you'll also pay a lot more for them.
For the value, it's tough to beat Winchester Super-X Xpert Hi-Velocity Waterfowl Steel Shotshells. They offer plenty of muzzle velocity of 1,625 FPS and come in multiple shot sizes so you can choose your favorite.
I prefer 4-shot or 2-shot when hunting ducks and 2-shot or BB when goose hunting.
Suppose you don't need all of the speed of the Winchester Super-X. In that case, another steel pellet option is Federal Premium Black Cloud FS Waterfowl Shotgun Shells with FliteControl FLEX Wad offering 1,450 FPS of muzzle velocity.
Hevi-Shot Hevi-Hammer offers 1,500 FPS from a steel pellet coated with bismuth that helps it penetrate deeper. Though it's slightly cheaper than tungsten pellets, it's more expensive than pure steel projectiles.
The effective range of a shotgun while deer hunting is greatly diminished compared to a rifle. However, some outdoorsmen enjoy the challenge of getting as close to the animal as possible, which makes deer hunting with a shotgun an exciting time.
There are two primary choices for a deer hunting shotshell. You can go with a slug or buckshot. Shotgun slugs come as sabot slugs or rifled slugs. Buckshot loads come in multiple sizes, but the most popular is double-aught.
The Federal one-ounce rifled slug offers hunters 1,610 FPS muzzle velocity at $1.12 per round, so it's not outrageously priced, yet you have a round capable of ethically killing a deer.
If you're set on using a buckshot round, I recommend YAF 12g 00 Buckshot ammunition because of its increased velocity over other buckshot rounds.
Slightly smaller than a 12 gauge, the 20 gauge is often used for the same purposes as the 12ga. Many young shotgun hunters learn to hunt with a 20ga after graduating from a 410.
20ga shotshell types remain very similar to 12ga shotshells. The main difference, besides the size, is generally the number of projectiles and the amount of powder housed in the round. Depending on the firearm, this decrease often means a reduction in recoil, which is why the 12ga vs 20ga is heavily debated.
I would much rather use a 20 gauge shotgun than a handgun for home defense because it's easier to handle, but that could be because I grew up hunting with a 20ga shotgun.
For a self-defense situation, I still prefer buckshot pellets in a 20ga for the same reasons I like them in a 12ga; plus, the low recoil of a 20 makes the decision even more apparent.
Aguila #2 Buck clocks in at 1,220 FPS muzzle velocity, which is impressive for 20ga rounds with less powder than 12ga shells.
The buckshot is plenty big enough to stop any threat walking through your door, and since it's a 20ga, it will kick a little less than a 12ga.
I'm not a big fan of using a slug in a defensive situation because it is more likely to penetrate multiple walls. However, if it's all I had, I would grab the Winchester 3/4 oz rifled slug that hits 1,600 FPS.
Because of the increased lethal range of TSS, many turkey hunters are downsizing their shotguns. 20 gauges and 410s are becoming more sought-after by turkey hunters because a 12ga is no longer needed to harvest a mature Tom ethically.
Be prepared for sticker shock with Remington Premier TSS because it's expensive. However, it offers a solid muzzle velocity of 1,100 FPS of 1.5 ounces of #7 shot.
You'll be able to increase your shooting distance by several yards, so you won't have to worry about that gobbler hanging up at 60 yards anymore.
If you're not convinced that TSS is worth the money, Winchester 3-inch shell 1-1/4 oz. of #5 Shot also works on turkeys. It's slightly faster at the muzzle clocking 1,185 FPS, but it won't pack as much punch, especially at further distances.
For upland game and target shooting with a 20ga, the number to beat is around 1,210 FPS, which is plenty fast to harvest a pheasant or quail.
Federal is right in the middle on price, yet it delivers the same ballistic performance as similar shells from different brands.
If you're okay with increasing the shot size but losing almost 50fps you can choose the #8 shotshells for a harder-hitting load for larger upland game birds.
Fiocchi and Winchester have shotshells with similar ballistics. The prices are also similar, especially when buying bulk 20ga ammo, but Winchester is slightly more expensive, followed by Federal, and Fiocchi is the least costly.
Duck hunting with 20ga shotgun shells is similar to hunting with 12ga shotshells. I often use Winchester Super-X Expert Steel, but many manufacturers offer quality tungsten and bismuth 20 gauge loads.
It is wise to step up your shot size when waterfowl hunting with a 20 gauge because you are losing a little bit of power due to the decreased amount of powder. I tend to stick is #2s in my 20ga.
My deer hunting picks are the same as my best 20ga ammo for self-defense picks, except flip-flopped. When deer hunting, I need a projectile that penetrates the vital organs of a deer, and a slug does that best.
I recommend using Winchester 20 ga 3/4 oz—rifled slug ammunition because a slug carries its energy longer than buckshot.
It's a little more expensive for some brands, but Winchester Ammunition is a brand trusted by many deer hunters.
If you're willing to give up a few feet per second and one ft-lb of muzzle energy, you can save money by purchasing Federal 3/4 oz. rifled slug ammo.
Aguila for buckshot ammo, but Winchester and Federal have excellent buckshot alternatives.
410 shotguns are special to me because I toted one around on my first hunt, searching for a dove. I was happy to see their rise in popularity, maybe due to nostalgia amongst turkey hunters.
Though I've harvested many rabbits and doves with a 410, I didn't consider it a viable option for other situations until recently.
Thanks to handguns like the Taurus Judge, the 410 is a very popular personal defense caliber. The 410 Hornady Critical Defense is a testament to the popularity and effectiveness of the 410 as a self-defense caliber.
This is one shotshell than can be used in a handgun or shotgun. In close quarters it's tough to beat for self-defense.
Hornady Ammunition is one of the most trusted brands for personal defense loads and continues to produce high-quality ammunition with which you can trust your life.
Turkey hunters willing to spend a little more on 410 ammo often opt for TSS rounds because the extra density is needed to kill a turkey at 50 yards ethically.
There are fewer options for 410 ammo, and you'll most often have to handload the shotshells for turkey hunting because once the factory loads hit shelves, they're quickly scooped up.
You have to be an expert shot to hit an upland game bird with a 410 because there are so few pellets in the shell.
This challenge, plus the very low recoil, is precisely why some upland bird hunters hunt with a 410.
The ammo for shooting clays and upland birds is the same, so there is much more available than turkey loads.
Slugs and buckshot are available in 410 rounds; however, it lacks the needed stopping power to harvest a deer past a maximum of 100 yards ethically. But at a close range, it can make for an exciting hunt.
Understanding shotgun ammunition is confusing until you understand a few primary attributes of all shotshells.
You first need to understand how shotgun bore sizing affects your shotgun shell loads. Once you know this, we can move on to the different loads and discuss pellet size.
Shotgun bores were not measured initially in the same way as a rifle bore. Now there is a standardized bore size for all shotgun gauges, and some find it a little confusing because it's backward.
Here's what I mean, the smallest shotgun bore is a 410, followed by a 28 gauge, 20 gauge, 16 gauge, 12 gauge, and 10 gauge. As the numbers decrease, the bore increases in size. Except for the 410, this goes back to how shotgun bores were initially measured using lead balls.
Because a shotgun is a smoothbore firearm, it can fire many different projectiles. Those projectiles have differing weights and densities, so they need different amounts of powder to propel them down the barrel. This is how you can feel more or less recoil from differing loads.
For instance, target loads and birdshot, typically 7 or 8 shot, are known for little recoil. This is because they don't need as much force i.e. powder, to propel them out of the barrel.
On the other hand, Slugs and buckshot have much more kick to them because you're firing a heavier projectile.
On the box of shotgun ammunition, the shot size should be displayed alongside how heavy that shot is and the estimated velocity, length, and gauge of the shell so you can be confident you're getting the correct ammunition.
Shotgun loads come in differing shot sizes. They are typically ranging from 12 shot to 000 buck.
The size of the shot is measured similarly to gauges because the larger the number, the smaller the shot. So 8 shot is smaller pellets than 2 shot which is smaller than BB, which is smaller than buckshot.
When hunting, you want to match your shot size with your intended target. So for small game birds like quail, 8 shot is plenty, but when deer hunting, buckshot or slugs are needed to penetrate better.
Purchasing the correct shotgun is very important; while you can use a hunting shotgun for self-defense, it's best to choose the right tool for the job.
There are many different styles and types of shotguns, such as single-shot, double-barrel, over-under, pump action, and semi-auto. Each has its place, but not all are ideal for every situation.
A pump action shotgun is often the best place to begin in most cases.
Once you've bought a shotgun, you'll need a choke. Most shotguns come with a few interchangeable factory chokes that get the job done.
I hunted waterfowl for many years using a factory choke. Eventually, I upgraded to an aftermarket choke, but you must be careful because some chokes only work with certain materials.
For instance, most aftermarket turkey chokes are unsuitable for shooting steel shots. You could damage your gun or injure yourself if you attempt to shoot the wrong shot through the choke.
Chokes come in different "sizes," meaning they pattern differently at various ranges.
An open choke allows the pattern to spread quickly, so it's best in close range. A moderate forces the pattern to hold together for longer than an open choke and is best for medium-range shots.
A full choke is best for long ranges because it forces the pattern to stay tight for farther distances. For maximum distances, use an extra-full choke.
Once you have a shotgun, choke, and ammunition, it's vital to pattern your shotgun. This means taking your shotgun to the range and shooting a paper target to see how it shoots.
You'll find that certain brands and specific shot size pattern better than others out of your gun. For instance, I had a Mossberg semi-auto than didn't cycle or pattern very well until I changed ammo. Once I switched, it made a big difference. However, my Retay semi-auto could handle that brand of ammo just fine.
Figuring out your shot pattern will help you be more accurate when it matters most.
Choosing the best shotgun shell types will heavily depend on your situation.
The best self-defense shotgun ammo is usually buckshot. While the best shotgun shells for hunting depends on what animal you're hunting.
All the above recommendations will lead you in the right direction on your next shotgun ammo purchase.
The Best Shotgun Shell Types for Home Defense & Hunting originally appeared in The Resistance Library at Ammo.com.