What are the basic Parts of a Shotgun Shell? Parts of a Shotgun Shell explained

Parts of a shotgun shell

1 - Shot

There are multiple projectiles fired through a shotgun barrel. The shot size is adaptable to the game being hunted. As pellet diameter decreases, more shots can be placed in a standard shot shell load. The smaller the shot number, the larger the shot size.

2 - Case

The case is the container which holds all other ammunition components.

3 - Wad

The wad, made of paper or plastic, separates the powder charge from the shot or slug. This seal prevents gas from escaping through the shot. The wad used in modern shotgun ammunition has a plastic cup attached. This cup holds the shot together as it passes through the barrel.

4 - Powder

Low-explosive mixtures used as propelling charges in firearms.

5 - Primer

The primer is an explosive compound that ignites the powder charge when struck by a firing pin.

What are the different types of shotgun shells?

Types of shotshells
  1. Birdshot
  2. Buckshot
  3. Slug

Things you must consider when selecting the correct Shell?

With shotgun shells, there are several things you must consider when selecting the correct shell:

  • correct gauge of shell
  • correct length of shell (as measured after the shell has been fired)
  • correct shot type and size
  • "magnum" load vs. "light" load
Shotgun gauge - stamp 12 gauge

Match the ammunition to the data stamp on the barrel of your firearm. The first consideration is the gauge of the shotgun. Be sure to purchase ammunition of the correct gauge.

Firearms barrel stamp

The shotshell must have the correct length for your firearm. Shotguns may be chambered for 2 3/4 inch, 3 inch, or 3 1/2 inch shells. This refers to the length of the shell AFTER IT HAS BEEN FIRED. The data stamp on the barrel of your shotgun will tell you which length of shells you can use.

A shotgun shell must be allowed to open entirely in the chamber. If a shell is too long it will not open fully when fired. This creates very dangerous pressures that could cause the barrel to rupture.


Wrong ammunition



Should I use steel or lead shot?

Federal regulations will not permit the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting. Over the years, many areas have built up lethal concentrations of lead in the waterfowl habitat. When this lead is ingested by feeding birds, they can develop lead poisoning.

We as hunters, want to do the best we can to stop this problem. All major manufacturers now produce and sell steel shot for this purpose. The following chart shows some comparisons between lead and steel shot.

How does a steel shot "pattern" compare to lead shot "pattern"?

Steel shot tends to deliver a tighter pattern than lead shot. For this reason, many users of steel shot use more open chokes than with lead shot.

To check the pattern of your shotgun:

  • select an area with a safe backstop
  • set up a patterning target 36 to 40 inches square
  • place a mark at a point near the center of the paper for a target
  • measure a shooting distance that will approximate the conditions you expect in the field
  • from that point shoot three to five test patterns, each on a different "pattern" paper
  • draw a 30" circle around the most dense portion of the pattern
  • count the pellet holes within the circle.

How much will steel shot affect my shooting style?

In most cases, the switch to steel shot will not require significant changes to your shooting style. It is true that steel shot is lighter and down range velocities will be lower, but this also means steel shot leaves the muzzle at higher velocities than comparable sized lead shot. These two factors seem to balance out.

However, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. Steel shot tends to create a shorter and more compact "shot column" than lead. As a result, you are more likely to get either a clean kill or a clean miss on a target as there are less "straggling" pellets in the shot pattern.

Will steel shot damage my firearm?

Most modern shotgun barrels are designed to shoot steel shot. Some shotguns may not be capable to shoot steel shot. When in doubt, check with the gun manufacturer.

While steel shot is processed to be softer than the steel of your barrel, many shotguns might experience a slight expansion in the barrel near the muzzle. This will be particularly noticeable on barrels with full choke. This will have little effect on the performance of your shotgun and is mostly a cosmetic problem.

Hunter safety course

To learn more about shotgun shells, cartridges and firearms, our hunter safety course meets the Safety Course Standards set forth by the Department of Natural Resources and by the International Hunter Education Association (IHEA).