How Many Shells Can a Shotgun Hold?

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Ever since it first came out in the early 1600s, a shotgun has been an irreplaceable weapon for fast-moving targets and close-range shooting.

Unlike rifles or handguns, shotguns are designed to fire a group of small projectiles that can’t travel far but can cause massive damage to the target.

How many shells can a shotgun hold? Before we answer this question, let’s cover some basics first.

What is shotgun ammo?

Shotgun ammunition is called a shell. The shell is filled with little balls that are called shots. Shots can be made from various metals, typically lead, steel, tin, bismuth, or zinc.

Lead shot is most effective for shooting games and target practicing. Because lead is heavier and softer than other materials, it tends to change its shape when exiting the barrel, thus providing a more spread-out shot pattern.

Due to their harmful effects on wildlife and potential risk of water contamination, lead shots have been forbidden in waterfowl hunting in the United States since 1992.

When it comes to types of shotgun shells, you will often come across terms like “birdshot,” “buckshot,” and “slug.”

[Source: rem870]

“Birdshot” is made of smaller same-sized balls that scatter onwards, making a shot to a flying target easier.

Compared to other types of shotgun ammunition, “birdshot” has the smallest spheres and causes the least amount of damage. This is why a “birdshot” is mostly used for bird hunting.

“Buckshot” has larger metal balls that spread outward and cause massive damage and greater impact on the target. This is why this type of shotgun ammunition is mostly used for big game hunting such as bucks, hens the name “buckshot.”

“Slug” is the most powerful shotgun ammunition. Its projectiles are either made of lead or filled with lead and covered in copper. Sometimes “slugs” can have added plastic tips that serve to inflict more damage into the target.

A “slug” fits more into the definition of a bullet as it exits the shotgun barrel as a single projectile and has an effective range of 75 yards. With good shooting skills, you can kill anything from deer to bear and moose with a “slug.”

What types of shotguns are there?

Shotgun type is defined either by its gauge or its action style. Shotgun gauge refers to the bore’s diameter or, in simple words, the barrel’s inside diameter. We will differentiate six gauges in descending order:

  • A 10-gauge shotgun is a heavy weapon with a powerful recoil. It is not popular as it used to be, but it is still used for small bird game hunting such as turkey, duck, goose, etc. The ammunition for a 10-gauge shotgun is almost impossible to find.
  • A 12-gauge shotgun is the most popular one of all. It is also the most versatile and has a large range of ammunition choices. A 12-gauge shotgun is mostly used for hunting ducks, geese, turkey, and even bears.
  • A 16-gauge shotgun is a multipurpose weapon, typically used for upland hunting. Due to its decrease in popularity, the ammunition is not easily found.
  • A 20-gauge shotgun is the most popular amongst the smaller shotguns. It is lighter in weight and has less recoil power than the 12-gauge shotgun. A 20-gauge shotgun stands out in upland and small game hunting.
  • A 28-gauge shotgun is a lightweight firearm with mild recoil, mostly used for upland and small game hunting. The ammunition can be found, but, most of the time, it is not readily available.
  • A .410-gauge shotgun is the smallest one of all and is typically used for pest control. It is light in weight and has an insignificant recoil power. The ammunition is somewhat easy to find.

Based on the action type, shotguns can be divided into six most common categories:

The bolt-action shotgun refers to a mechanism where a rode is attached to a spring with the handle sticking out of it. Loading is done by twisting the bolt handle up and pulling it back. This action exposes the chamber and cocks the firing mechanism at the same time.

Pulling the action back and then forward after firing, will eject the spent shell, take the next shell from the magazine and prepare it for firing.

Mossberg 183 [Source: ssusa]

The pump-action shotgun has a moving bolt operated by a wooden slide often referred to as the fore-end. The magazine is placed in a shorter tube under the barrel.

Pulling back the fore-end will eject the used shell (if any), cock the hammer, and load a new shell into the chamber. Pushing the slide forward will push the block and firing pin into the firing position.

[Source: cabelas]

The semi-automatic shotgun uses the force generated by recoil to eject the spent shell, take a new one from the magazine and place it in the chamber.

[Source: trimports]

The break-action shotgun has a hinged opening in the place where the chamber meets the barrel. The barrel brakes open on its hinge, revealing the chamber or chambers (if it is a double-barrel shotgun) where the shells are placed and the used ones are manually removed. [Source: ammunitiontogo]

The lever-action shotgun has a large metal lever placed behind the trigger. Pushing the lever downward and upward will extract the shell (if any) from the magazine, eject it, and reload the next shell into the chamber. [Source: adlerarms]

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s answer the burning question.

How many shells can a shotgun hold?

The most common shell capacity for shotguns is between three and five shells. The exceptions are riot shotguns that can hold anywhere between six and ten shells.

In some cases, the number of shells that can be loaded in shotguns is limited by the law. These limits mostly apply to hunting and often depend on the species that are being hunted.

General law implies that it is illegal to:

  • hunt small game with a shotgun that can hold more than three shells both in the magazine and the chamber;
  • use a shotgun shell loaded with a single projectile for small game hunting;
  • hunt big game with a slog, using any shotgun smaller than 20 gauge;
  • hunt migratory game birds with a shotgun that can hold more than three shells both in the magazine and the chamber;
  • hunt migratory game birds with a shotgun shell loaded with a single projectile;
  • hunt migratory game birds with a shotgun larger than a 10 gauge;
  • have more than one shotgun when hunting migratory game birds, unless the extra shotgun is unloaded and secured;
  • hunt migratory game birds using anything other than non-toxic shots.

Pump-action and semi-automatic shotguns have tubular magazines that can hold more than three shells.

When used for hunting migratory game birds, the tubular magazines must have an added plug.

This plug serves to limit the shotgun shell capacity to no more than three shells – one in the chamber and two in the magazine.


We hope we managed to convey the message of the importance of knowing many shells a shotgun can hold.

Next time you go on a hunting adventure with your shotgun, make sure you follow the rules and regulations to avoid any potential charges for unlawful acts.

Author bio

Travis Dillard is a business consultant and an organizational psychologist based in Arlington, Texas. Passionate about marketing, social networks, and business in general. In his spare time, he writes a lot about new business strategies and digital marketing for DigitalStrategyOne.

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