shotgunshellShotguns can be tricky when you’re first getting used to them. There’s a lot to know, as people who are new to “scatter-gats” have a number of different dynamic factors to consider that you wouldn’t think about in the world of rifles and handguns which fire simpler bullets.

Taking a look at a picture of Winchester Elite shotgun shells at Cabela’s, we can see that on the box we’re given a number of pieces of information.

First, we know the shotgun shell is “12 gauge”. This refers to the shell’s diameter. Projectiles fired out of barrels need to be of a uniform diameter or else the hot, rapidly-expanding gas pressure that comes upon firing could behave in an undesirable manner (along with the payloads pushed out of the barrel). This is one reason shells contain “wadding”, which is not found in most rifle or handgun cartridges.

Second, we know that the shell length on these shells are “3 inches”. This is important, because if you exceed the maximum chamber length the shotgun could burst or be over-pressured, “grenading” the chamber into a redirection of gas pressure that you really don’t want upon firing. Most chambers are stamped with either a maximum length, or a range of lengths. For example, a shotgun could state “2 3/4 inches” for a maximum length, or “2-3 inches” for a range.

Third, we’re given the velocity. This is typically given in feet-per-second (in this case, 1400 FPS). Most of the time in the firearms world for North America, we use the imperial system as it happened to be the prevalent system in use. Note that the velocity is measured by Winchester at the muzzle (end of the barrel) and decreases as the pellets (or a slug) travel downrange.

Fourth, we’re given the shell weight in ounces. In this case, 1 3/8 ounce. The more mass a shell has at firing, the heavier recoil tends to be. You’ll also find that slugs come in different weights – the smaller ones tend to be lighter and may or may not carry a faster velocity at the muzzle.

Fifth, we’re given the actual number of shot in this type of shell. “5 shot” corresponds to #5 birdshot. There are charts you can find which detail the different numbers of shot, which will help you match your application (target shooting, hunting birds, hunting larger game, etc) to the shell which will work for you. As you have probably surmised by now, shotguns are highly customizable.

It’s worth noting that past the five criteria listed here, the shotgun shells we happened to focus on are listed by Winchester as “lead free shot”. While the Canadian Firearms Safety Course teaches that lead is the most common bullet and shot pellet material, there’s been a recent focus on environmental efforts to reduce waterfowl lead exposure as it is highly toxic to ecosystems, even in relatively small amounts. If you’re going bird hunting, you’ll certainly want an alloy pellet that does not contain lead. It’ll lead to tastier meals for you too, even if it means spending a little extra on your ammo.