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Shotgun gauge and shot size

By Vin T. Sparano

Shotgun gauge and shot size

Vin T. Sparano, as excerpted from Complete Outdoors Encyclopedia: Camping, Fishing, Hunting, Boating, Wilderness Survival, First Aid

The system of referring to shotguns by gauges was started many years ago. The inside diameter of a shotgun’s bore was designated by the number of lead balls that would fit the bore and would make up one pound. For example, a round lead ball that would fit the bore of a 12 gauge would weigh 1⁄12 pound, and 12 of these balls would weigh one pound. A 20 gauge would take 20 lead balls that would weigh one pound, and so on. The .410 is the only departure from this system. The .410 is not a gauge at all, but the actual measurement in inches of the diameter of the bore.

The accompanying illustrations show in actual size the diameters of shotgun bores in the common gauges. Gauge is also converted into measurement in inches.

Shotgun Shot Size

1. The 12 Gauge, An All-Around Shotgun

The typical hunter looks for one shotgun that he can shoot well and use on everything from small game to deer. There is no doubt that such an all-around shotgun has to be a 12 gauge. In the early 1900s, the 10 gauge with 1 1/4 ounces of shot was a hot item and considered a good choice for an all-around gauge, but modern shotshells have changed the scene. Today, the 12 gauge can do anything the 10 gauge did, and sometimes do it better.

Gunning for small game and upland birds, a hunter can get by very well with the standard 2 3/4-inch, 12-gauge shotshell loaded with 1 1/4 ounces of shot. The waterfowl hunter who takes his birds at greater range should use the 12-gauge, 2 3/4-inch magnum load with 1 1/2 ounces of shot or the three-inch magnum load with 1 3/8 to 1 7⁄8 ounces of shot. If it’s deer you’re after, use the 2 3/4-inch magnums loaded with 12 pellets of 00 buckshot, or the three-inch magnum with 15 pellets of 00 buckshot or 10 pellets of 000 buckshot. Shotgun slugs are another option.

The 12-gauge shotgun, however, is heavier and bulkier than guns in the smaller gauges. The ammunition is also bigger and heavier to carry. This may not mean much to the duck hunter sitting in a blind, but the upland gunner who carries his shotgun all day may find the smaller gauges more suitable. 

2. The 16 Gauge

The 16 gauge shotgun simply refuses to die, even though the 12 gauge has it beat as an all-around gauge and the 20 gauge comes off as a better choice for a light, quick-handling shotgun for small game and birds. Some hunters claim the 16 gauge is a good compromise between the 12 and 20 gauge, but this is a tough argument to prove.

The standard 16-gauge load carries 1 1/8 ounces of shot, exactly the same as the 2 3/4-inch, 20-gauge magnum load, and 1⁄8 ounce less than the standard 12-gauge load. The 2 3/4-inch, 16-gauge magnum shell has 1 1/4 ounces of shot, the same as the standard 12-gauge field load and the 20-gauge, three-inch magnum. 

True, the 16-gauge gun is a bit lighter than the 12 gauge, but it’s not as light as a 20 gauge. What does all this mean? If you have a 16 gauge, keep it and you will be happy with it. But if you’re buying a new shotgun, you’re better off narrowing your selection down to the 12 or 20 gauge. 

3. The 20 Gauge

The 20-gauge shotgun makes the grade as a top choice for all-around upland gunning and waterfowl shooting over decoys. It’s lighter and slimmer than the 12 gauge, which makes it a faster-handling gun and a more comfortable one to carry in pheasant fields and through briar patches. The ammunition is also lighter to carry.

And it’s a fact that most upland game is shot at under 30 yards, so the 20 gauge has more than adequate killing range. The standard 20-gauge load carries one ounce of shot, which is enough for just about all upland hunting. If a hunter expects to take birds under tougher conditions, he can use the 20-gauge, 2 3/4-inch magnum load with 1 1/8 ounces of shot. For ducks over decoys, the 20-gauge, three-inch magnum is the ticket. In fact, the three-inch magnum load will also do the job at pass shooting.

Hunters who have both 12 and 20-gauge guns in their racks admit that most often they will pick the 20 gauge when heading for favorite rabbit patches and grouse covers.

4. The 28 Gauge and .410

The 28 gauge seems to have a growing number of fans and it’s with good reason. The 28-gauge shotgun is slim and light with not much recoil. On a skeet range, it is a pure joy to shoot. For the average upland gunner, the 28 gauge may not be big enough. The skilled shooter, however, should take a closer look. The 28 gauge is available in a load with 7⁄8 ounce of shot, which makes it adequate for woodcock, quail, doves, and similar birds. If you’re shooting over dogs, the 28 gauge is more than enough gun. 

The .410 is another load that has limited use. It’s fine for the smaller species that can be taken at close range, but it’s not recommended for anything else. True, at one time or another, a hunter has been seen knocking down pheasants with a .410—but these men are generally skilled shotgunners. The average hunter would be far better off with a 12 or 20 gauge. The same reasoning can be used to discourage a parent from buying his child a .410. A wiser choice for a youngster would be a light 20 gauge. 

About the Author: Vin T. Sparano is the author of Complete Outdoors Encyclopedia as well as three other guides for Rizzoli

He has been an outdoor editor and writer for more than fifty years. He is editor emeritus of Outdoor Life, and has written and edited more than fifteen books about the outdoors. In 2013, he was inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.

As local communities continue to update Covid-19 regulations, local destinations for outdoor recreation may be closed. Please visit official websites for the latest information.