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Most shotgun shells are designed to be fired from a smoothbore barrel, but dedicated shotguns with rifled barrels may take a number of different rounds. A rifled barrel will increase the accuracy of slugs, but makes it unsuitable for firing shot, as it imparts a spin to the shot cup, causing a centrifugal force that makes the shot form a hollow "O" shape in flight. Non-lethal shotgun ammunition is available in the form of slugs made of low-density material, such as rubber. See shotgun specialty ammunition for more information.
Early shotgun shells used brass cases, not very unlike rifle cartridge cases of the same era. These brass shotgun hulls or cases closely resembled rifle cartridges, in terms of both the head and primer portions of the shotgun shell, as well as in their dimensions. Card wads, made of felt, leather, and cork, as well as paperboard, were all used at various times. Waterglass was commonly used to cement the top overshot wad into these brass shell casings. No roll crimp or fold crimp was used on these early brass cases, although roll crimps were eventually used by some manufacturers to hold the overshot wad in place securely. The primers on these early shotgun shells were identical to pistol primers of the same diameter.
Starting in about 1877, paper hulls started to replace brass shotgun shells. Paper hulls remained popular for nearly a century, until the late 1960s. These shotgun shells using paper hulls were nearly always roll crimped, although fold crimping also eventually became popular. The primers on these paper hull shotgun shells also changed from the pistol primers used on the early brass shotgun shells to a primer containing both the priming charge and an anvil, unlike rifle and pistol ammunition, making the shotgun shell primer taller. Card wads, made of felt and cork, as well as paperboard, were all used at various times, gradually giving way to plastic over powder wads, with card wads, and, eventually, to all plastic wads. Starting in the 1960s, plastic cases started to replace paper hulls for shotgun shells. By the 1980s, plastic cases had largely replaced nearly all paper hulls for shotgun shells.
Today, modern shotgun shells typically consist of a plastic case, with the base covered in a thin brass covering. As noted previously, paper shells used to be common, and are still made, as are solid brass shells. Some companies have produced what appear to be all-plastic shells, although in these there is a small metal ring cast into the rim of the shell to provide strength. Often the more powerful loads will use "high brass" shells, with the brass extended up further along the sides of the shell, while light loads will use "low brass" shells. The brass does not actually provide a significant amount of strength, but the difference in appearance provides shooters with a way to quickly differentiate between high and low powered ammunition.
The base of the shotshell is fairly thick to hold the large shotgun primer, which is longer than primers used for rifle and pistol ammunition. Modern smokeless powders are far more efficient than the original black powder used in shotgun shells, so very little space is actually taken by powder; shotguns use small quantities of double base powders, equivalent to quick-burning pistol powders, with up to 50% nitroglycerin. After the powder comes the wadding or wad. The primary purpose of a wad is to prevent the shot and powder from mixing, and to provide a seal that prevents gas from blowing through the shot rather than propelling it. The wad design may also encompass a shock absorber and a cup that holds the shot together until it is out the barrel.
A modern wad consists of three parts, the powder wad, the cushion, and the shot cup, which may be separate pieces or be one part. The powder wad acts as the gas seal (known as obturation), and is placed firmly over the powder; it may be a paper or plastic part. The cushion comes next, and it is designed to compress under pressure, to act as a shock absorber and minimize the deformation of the shot; it also serves to take up as much space as is needed between the powder wad and the shot. Cushions are almost universally made of plastic with crumple zones, although for game shooting in areas grazed by farm stock or wildlife biodegradable fibre wads are often preferred. The shot cup is the last part of the shell, and it serves to hold the shot together as it moves down the barrel. Shot cups have slits on the sides so that they peel open after leaving the barrel, allowing the shot to continue on in flight undisturbed. Shot cups, where used, are also almost universally plastic. The shot fills the shot cup (which must be of the correct length to hold the desired quantity of shot), and the shotgun shell is then crimped, or rolled closed.
Shotgun shells are generally measured by "gauge", though in Britain and some other locations outside the United States the term "bore" is used with the same meaning. Rifles and handguns are almost always measured in "caliber", which is simply a measurement of the internal diameter of the barrel measured in millimeters or inches and, consequently, is approximately equal to the diameter of the projectile that is fired. By contrast, shotguns are usually measured by "gauge", which is the weight, in fractions of a pound, of a pure lead round ball that is the same diameter as the internal diameter of the barrel.
For example, a shotgun is called 12-gauge because a lead sphere that just fits the inside diameter of the barrel weighs 1⁄12 of a pound. This measurement comes from the time when early cannons were designated in a similar manner—a "12 pounder" would be a cannon that fired a 12 pound (5.5 kg) cannonball; inversely, an individual "12-gauge" shot would in fact be a 1⁄12 pounder (38 g). Thus, a 10-gauge shotgun has a larger-diameter barrel than a 12-gauge shotgun, which has a larger-diameter barrel than a 20-gauge shotgun, and so forth.
|No.of lead balls in one pound||diameter of the requisite pure lead ball|
|10||0.78" (19.7 mm)|
|12||0.73" (18.5 mm)|
|16||0.66" (16.8 mm)|
|20||0.62" (15.6 mm)|
|28||0.55" (14.0 mm)|
The most popular shotgun gauge by far is 12-gauge. The larger 10-gauge, once popular for hunting larger birds such as goose and turkey, is in the decline with the advent of longer, "magnum" 12-gauge shells, which offer similar performance. The mid-size 20-gauge is also a very popular chambering for smaller-framed shooters who favor its reduced recoil, those hunting smaller game, and experienced trap and skeet shooters who like the additional challenge of hitting their targets with a smaller shot charge. Other less-common, but commercially available gauges are 16 and 28. Several other gauges may be encountered but are considered obsolete. The 4, 8, 24, and 32 gauge guns are collector items. There are also some shotguns measured by diameter, rather than gauge. These are the .410 (10 mm), .380 (9 mm), and .22 (5.5 mm); these are correctly called ".410 bore", not ".410-gauge".
The .410 bore is the smallest shotgun size which is widely available commercially. In the UK, 9 mm shotguns are quite common for use in "GardenGuns" and folding shotguns. For size comparison purposes, the .410, when measured by gauge, would be around 67- or 68-gauge (it is 67.62-gauge), The .410 is often mistakenly assigned 36-gauge. The 36 gauge was in fact a .360 diameter cartridge which was 1.5" in length and is now obsolete. They are not the same cartridge at all.
Shotshells are also available in non-shotgun calibers, for use in rifled barrels from .22 Long Rifle upwards through .38 Special to .44 Magnum; these are often used in revolvers to kill snakes at very close ranges, or for killing small pests such as rats. A number of single shot pistols and rifles are made in .45 Colt with special screw-in chokes allowing the use of .410 shells—usually the chokes are designed with deep grooves parallel to the bore designed to stop the spin of the shot column, as the .45 Colt barrel is rifled. Taurus sells a model called The Judge, which accommodates both .45 Colt and .410 shotshells. Recently, S&W came out with a similar revolver dubbed the "Governor," which not only shoots .45 Colt and .410 shotshells but also .45 ACP with the aid of moon clips.
The standard definition of shotgun gauge assumes that a pure lead ball is used. With this assumption, since the room temperature density for lead is 11.34 g/cm3, and with there being 7,000 grains to a pound, the following formula results:
This formula accurately estimates the diameter (dn) in inches of any shotgun gauge size (n). For example, a 67.62-gauge equates to a lead ball diameter of 0.410-inch by this formula, hence the .410 shotgun shell nomenclature.
Another source for a gauge diameter formula can be found in gauge (bore diameter).
Due to environmental regulations, lead-loaded ammunition must be used carefully by hunters in Europe. For instance, in France, they cannot fire in the vicinity of a pond. In fact, the laws are so complex that some hunters in Europe prefer not to risk getting into problems for firing lead pellets at wrong places, so they opt for composite pellets in all situations. The use of lead shot is also banned in Canada and the United States when hunting migratory game birds, such as ducks and geese, forcing the use of non-toxic shot in these countries for upland waterfowl hunting. (Lead shot can still legally be used in the United States for hunting game other than waterfowl. This means that manufacturers need to market new types of lead-free shotgun ammunition loaded with alternative pellets to meet environmental restrictions on the use of lead, as well as lead-based and cheaper shotshell ammunition, to remain competitive worldwide.)
The C.I.P. enforces approval of all ammunition a manufacturer or importer intends to sell in any of the (mainly European) C.I.P. member states. The ammunition manufacturing plants are obliged to test their products during production against the C.I.P. pressure specifications. A compliance report must be issued for each production lot and archived for later verification if needed.
Besides pressure testing, shotshells containing steel pellets require an additional Vickers hardness test. The hardness VH1 must be below 100 for the steel pellets used but, even so, steel is known to wear the barrel excessively over time if the steel pellet velocities become too high, leading to potentially harmful situations for the user. As a result, the measurement of pellet velocity is also an additional obligation for shotshells in 12-, 16-, and 20-gauges in both standard and high performance versions sold in Europe. The velocity of pellets must be below 425 m/s (1,390 ft/s), 390 m/s (1,300 ft/s) and 390 m/s (1,300 ft/s) respectively for the standard versions. Another disadvantage of steel pellets is their tendency to ricochet unpredictably after striking any hard surface. This poses a major hazard at indoor ranges or whenever metal targets or hard backstops (e.g. concrete wall vs. a dirt berm) are used. For this reason, steel shot is explicitly banned at most indoor shooting ranges. Any shooters who are considering buying ammo loaded with steel for anything other than hunting purposes should first find out if using it won't cause undue hazard to themselves and others.
However, it should be noted that data supporting the danger of firing high velocity shells loaded with steel shot causing barrel wear has not been published and the US equivalent of CIP, SAAMI, does not have any such restrictive limitations on the velocity of commercial steel shotshells sold in the United States. Similarly, shotgun manufacturers selling shotguns in the United States select their own appropriate standards for setting steel hardness for shotgun barrels and for velocities of steel shotshell loaded ammunition.
Some indoor shooting ranges prohibit the use of steel shot over concern of it causing a spark when hitting an object down range and causing a fire. Another problem is ricochet. Steel is very elastic and can reflect back to the shooter.
Shotshells are loaded with different sizes of shot depending on the target. For skeet shooting, a small shot such as a #8 or #9 would be used, because range is short and a high density pattern is desirable. Trap shooting requires longer shots, and so a larger shot, usually #7½ is used. For hunting game, the range and the penetration needed to assure a clean kill must both be considered. Shot loses its velocity very quickly due to its low sectional density and ballistic coefficient (see external ballistics). Small shot, like that used for skeet and trap, will have lost all appreciable energy by around 100 yards (91 m), which is why trap and skeet ranges can be located in relatively close proximity to inhabited areas with negligible risk of injury to those outside the range.
Birdshot sizes are numbered similar to the shotgun gauges. The smaller the number, the larger the shot. Generally birdshot is just called "shot", such as "number 9 shot" or "BB shot". A useful method for remembering the diameter of numbered shot is simply to subtract the shot size from 17. The resulting answer is the diameter of the shot in hundredths of an inch. For example, #2 shot gives 17-2 = 15, meaning that the diameter of #2 shot is 15/100 or 0.15". B shot is .170 inches, and sizes go up in .01 increments for BB and BBB sizes.
In metric measurement, it is easy to remember that #5 shot is 3 mm. Each number up or down is 0.25 mm more or less in diameter. So #7 shot is 2.5 mm. There are small differences in size of Italian, standard (European) and English shot to make matters more complex.
|Size||Nominal diameter||Pellets per oz (28 g)||Quantity per lb.|
|FF||.23" (5.84 mm)||35|
|F||.22" (5.59 mm)||39|
|TT||.21" (5.33 mm)|
|T||.20" (5.08 mm)||36||53|
|BBB||.190" (4.83 mm)||44||62||550|
|BB||.180" (4.57 mm)||50||72||650|
|B||.170" (4.32 mm)|
|1||.160" (4.06 mm)||72||103||925|
|2||.150" (3.81 mm)||87||125||1120|
|3||.140" (3.56 mm)||108||158||1370|
|4||.130" (3.30 mm)||135||192||1720|
|5||.120" (3.05 mm)||170||243||2180|
|6||.110" (2.79 mm)||225||315||2850|
|7||.100" (2.54 mm)|
|7½||.095" (2.41 mm)||350||3775|
|8||.090" (2.29 mm)||410||686||5150|
|8½||.085" (2.15 mm)||497|
|9||.080" (2.03 mm)||585||892||7400|
Number 11 and number 12 lead shot also exists. Shot of these sizes is used in specialized shotshells designed to be fired at close range (less than four yards) for killing snakes, rats and similar-sized animals. Such shells are typically intended to be fired from handguns, particularly revolvers. This type of ammunition is produced by Federal and CCI, among others.
For hunting, shot size must be chosen not only for the range, but also for the game. The shot must reach the target with enough energy to penetrate to a depth sufficient to kill the game. Lead shot is still the best ballistic performer, but environmental restrictions on the use of lead, especially with waterfowl, require steel, bismuth, or tungsten composites. Steel, being significantly less dense than lead, requires larger shot sizes, but is a good choice when lead is not legal and cost is a consideration. It is argued that steel shot cannot safely be used in some older shotguns without causing damage to either the bore or to the choke due to the hardness of steel shot. However, the increased pressure in most steel cartridges is a far greater problem, causing more strain to the breech of the gun. Since tungsten is very hard, it must also be used with care in older guns. Tungsten shot is often alloyed with nickel and iron, softening the base metal. That alloy is approximately 1/3 denser than lead, but far more expensive. Bismuth shot falls between steel and tungsten shot in both density and cost. The rule of thumb in converting appropriate steel shot is to go up by two numbers when switching from lead. However, there are different views on dense patterns versus higher pellet energies.
|Pheasant||4 to 6||2 to 3|
|Turkey||4 to 6||2 to 3|
|Quail, dove,||7½ to 8|
|Rabbit||6 to 7½|
|Geese||BB to 2||TT to 1|
|Ducks, low||4 to 6||2 to 4|
|Ducks, high||2 to 4||BB to 2|
Larger sizes of shot, large enough that they must be carefully packed into the shell rather than simply dumped or poured in, are called "buckshot" or just "buck". Buckshot is used for hunting larger game, such as deer (hence derivation of the name). Buckshot size is designated by actual diameter or (traditionally) by letter or number, with smaller numbers being larger shot. Sizes larger than "0" ("ought") are designated by multiple zeros. "00" ("double-ought") is the most commonly used size.
The most commonly produced buckshot shell is a 12 gauge, 00 buck shell that holds 9 pellets. Buckshot is generally used for two purposes, self-defense and hunting medium to large game. Loads can be tailored through altering the size of the shot, pellet count, length of the shell, powder charge, and in other ways to fit individual weapons and purposes. For instance, loads of 12 gauge 00 buck are commonly available in 8 to 18 pellets in vendor-stated lengths from 2 3/4" to 3 1/2". On packaging, vendors state the length of the cartridge as expanded after firing. Before firing, the crimped cartridge starts off approximately one half inch shorter. Also, precise length varies depending on manufacturer and model. Reduced-recoil shells are becoming increasingly available. Low-recoil 00 buckshot allows the shooter to make fast follow-up shots, which may be needed in a combat situation. They are also useful for training shooters who are not yet used to the recoil of fullpower shells.
|0.60" ("Tri-Ball 12 ")||0.60" (15.2 mm)||1.4|
|0.52" ("Tri-Ball 20 ")||0.52" (13.2 mm)||2.1|
|000 ("triple-ought")||.36" (9.1 mm)||6|
|00 ("double-ought")||.33" (8.4 mm)||8|
|0 ("ought")||.32" (8.1 mm)||9|
|1||.30" (7.6 mm)||10|
|2||.27" (6.9 mm)||15|
|3||.25" (6.4 mm)||18|
|4||.24" (6 mm)||21|
Most modern sporting shotguns have interchangeable choke tubes to allow the shooter to change the spread of shot that comes out of the gun. In some cases, it is not practical to do this; the gun might have fixed choke, or a shooter firing at receding targets may want to fire a wide pattern immediately followed by a narrower pattern out of a single barrelled shotgun. The spread of the shot can also be altered by changing the characteristics of the shell.
A buffering material, such as granulated plastic, sawdust, or similar material can be mixed with the shot to fill the spaces between the individual pellets. When fired, the buffering material compresses and supports the shot, reducing the deformation the shot pellets experience under the extreme acceleration. Antimony-lead alloys, copper plated lead shot, steel, bismuth, and tungsten composite shot all have a hardness greater than that of plain lead shot, and will deform less as well. Reducing the deformation will result in tighter patterns, as the spherical pellets tend to fly straighter. One improvised method for achieving the same effect involves pouring molten wax or tar into the mass of shot. Another is a partial ring cut around the case intended to ensure that the shot comes out tightly bunched along with the portion of the case forward of the cut, creating a 'cut-shell'. This can be dangerous, as it is thought to cause higher chamber pressures—especially if part of the shell remains behind in the barrel and is not cleared before another shot is fired.
Shooting the softest possible shot will result in more shot deformation and a wider pattern. This is often the case with cheap ammunition, as the lead used will have minimal alloying elements such as antimony and be very soft. Spreader wads are wads that have a small plastic or paper insert in the middle of the shot cup, usually a cylinder or "X" cross-section. When the shot exits the barrel, the insert helps to push the shot out from the center, opening up the pattern. Often these result in inconsistent performance, though modern designs are doing much better than the traditional improvised solutions. Intentionally deformed shot (hammered into ellipsoidal shape) or cubical shot will also result in a wider pattern, much wider than spherical shot, with more consistency than spreader wads. Spreader wads and non-spherical shot are disallowed in some competitions. Hunting loads that use either spreaders or non-spherical shot are usually called "brush loads", and are favored for hunting in areas where dense cover keeps shot distances very short.
Most shotgun shells contain multiple pellets in order to increase the likelihood of a target being hit. A shotgun's shot spread refers to the two-dimensional pattern that these projectiles (or shot) leave behind on a target. Another less important dimension of spread concerns the length of the in-flight shot string from the leading pellet to the trailing one. The use of multiple pellets is especially useful for hunting small game such as birds, rabbits, and other animals that fly or move quickly and can unpredictably change their direction of travel. However, some shotgun shells only contain one metal shot, known as a slug, for hunting large game such as deer.
As the shot leaves the barrel upon firing, the three-dimensional shot string is close together. But as the shot moves farther away, the individual pellets increasingly spread out and disperse. Because of this, the effective range of a shotgun, when firing a multitude of shot, is limited to approximately 20 to 50 m (22 to 55 yd). To control this effect, shooters may use a constriction within the barrel of a shotgun called a choke. The choke, whether selectable or fixed within a barrel, effectively reduces the diameter of the end of the barrel, forcing the shot even closer together as it leaves the barrel, thereby increasing the effective range. The tighter the choke, the narrower the end of the barrel. Consequentially, the effective range of a shotgun is increased with a tighter choke, as the shot column is held tighter over longer ranges. Hunters or target shooters can install several types of chokes, on guns having selectable chokes, depending on the range at which their intended targets will be located. For fixed choke shotguns, different shotguns or barrels are often selected for the intended hunting application at hand. From tightest to loosest, the various choke sizes are: full choke, improved modified, modified, improved cylinder, skeet, and cylinder bore.
A hunter who intends to hunt an animal such as rabbit or grouse, knows that the animal will be encountered at a close range - usually within 20 m (22 yd) - and will be moving very quickly. So, an ideal choke would be a cylinder bore (the loosest) as the hunter wants the shot to spread out as quickly as possible. If this hunter was using a full choke (the tightest) at 20 m (22 yd), the shot would be very close together and cause an unnecessarily large amount of damage to the rabbit, or, alternatively, a complete miss of the rabbit. This would waste virtually all of the meat for a hit, as the little amount of meat remaining would be overly-laden with shot and rendered inedible. By using a cylinder bore, this hunter would maximize the likelihood of a kill, and maximize the amount of edible meat. Contrarily, a hunter who intends to hunt geese knows that a goose will likely be approximately 50 m (55 yd) away, so, that hunter would want to delay the spread of the shot as much as possible by using a full choke. By using a full choke for targets that are farther away, the shooter again maximizes the likelihood of a kill, and maximizes the amount of edible meat. Also, this guarantees a swift and humane kill as the target would be hit with enough shot to kill quickly instead of only wounding the animal.
For older shotguns having only one fixed choke, intended primarily for equally-likely use against rabbits, squirrels, quail, doves, and pheasant, an often-chosen choke is the improved cylinder, in a 28 inches (710 mm) barrel, making the shotgun suitable for use as a general all-round hunting shotgun, without having excess weight. Shotguns having fixed chokes intended for geese, in contrast, are often found with full choke barrels, in longer lengths, and are much heavier, being intended for fixed use within a blind against distant targets. Defensive shotguns with fixed chokes generally have a cylinder bore choke. Likewise, shotguns intended primarily for use with slugs invariably also are found with a choke that is a cylinder bore.
"Dram" equivalence is sometimes still used as a measure of the powder charge power in a shotgun shell. Today, it is an anachronistic equivalence that represents the equivalent power of a shotgun shell containing this equivalent amount of black-powder measured in drams avoirdupois. A dram in the avoirdupois system is the mass of 1⁄256 pound or 1⁄16 ounce or 27.3 grains. The reasoning behind this archaic equivalence is that when smokeless powder first came out, some method of establishing an equivalence with common shotgun shell loads was needed in order to sell a box of shotgun shells. For example, a shotgun shell containing a 3 or 3 1/2 dram load of black-powder was a common hunting field load, and a heavy full power load would have contained about a 4 to 4-1/2 dram load, whereas a shotgun shell containing only a 2 dram load of black-powder was a common target practice load. A hunter looking for a field or full power load familiar with black-powder shotgun loads would have known exactly what the equivalence of the shotgun shells would have been in the newly introduced smokeless powder. Today, however, this represents a poorly understood equivalence of the powder charge power in a shotgun shell. To further complicate matters, "dram" equivalence was only defined for 12 gauge shotgun shells, and only for lead shot, although it has often been used for describing other gauges of shells, and even steel shot loaded shells. Furthermore, "dram" equivalence only came around about 15 years after smokeless powder had been introduced, long after the need for an equivalence had started to fade, and actual black-powder loaded shotshells had largely vanished. In practice, "dram" equivalence today most commonly equates just to a velocity rating equivalence in fps (feet-per-second), while assuming lead shot.
A secondary impact of this equivalence was that common shotgun shells needed to stay the same size, physically, e.g., 2-1/2 or 2-3/4-inch shells, in order to be used in pre-existing shotguns when smokeless powder started being used to load shotgun shells in the place of black-powder. As smokeless powder did not have to be loaded in the same volume as black-powder to achieve the same power, being more powerful, the volumes of wads had to increase, to fill the shotgun shell enough to permit proper crimps still to be made. Initially, this meant that increased numbers of over powder card wads had to be stacked to achieve the same stack-up length. Eventually, this also lead to the introduction of one-piece plastic wads in the late 1950s through the early 1960s, to add additional wad volumes, in order to maintain the same overall shotgun shell length.
Dram equivalence has no bearing on the reloading of shotgun shells with smokeless powder; loading a shotgun shell with an equivalent dram weight of smokeless powder would cause a shotgun to explode. It only has an equivalence in the reloading of shotgun shells with black-powder.
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