Understanding your shotshells

Selecting the proper ammunition for your shotgun is just as important as choosing cartridges for your rifle, the major difference being there are more factors to consider when it comes to shotgun ammo.

While rifle shooters are generally concerned about such things as velocity and bullet type, the shotgunner must think in terms of pattern density, shot size, what material the shot is comprised of and how hard it is, shotshell length, shot string, velocities, choke constriction and how all those things combine to affect shotgun performance.

Choke performance

Like rifles, shotguns sometimes prefer a certain type of ammunition and equally so on occasions, a specific choke may perform better than another. Regardless of whether your shotgun comes from the factory pre-choked or has interchangeable choke tubes, usually they’ve been imprinted with a word or measurement describing the constriction. But just because that constriction might read ‘full’ or one of the other designations, you should never assume the pattern will always be reflective of that label.

Every barrel and choke is unique in its performance and the patterning may change, sometimes dramatically, as the shotshell load is altered. This is particularly the case when comparing shotshells using lead shot with those loaded with steel or one of the other varieties of non-lead shot. For these reasons it’s important you pattern your shotgun with the specific ammunition you intend to use.


Some gun clubs have equipment set up specifically for the purpose of patterning shotguns. Some of these will have a roll of wide paper that can be pulled down, attached then torn free after being shot. But if you don’t have access to a system like this, a piece of cardboard or even butcher’s paper may get the job done. In order to achieve best results the patterning surface should be at least a metre square and larger is certainly better.

The distance at which you pattern your loads at will be dependent on typical length of your shots and choke constriction  you’re using, but commonly 40 yards is used. Some shooters will draw a circle around the patterning area in order to count the number of pellets falling within a 30^ (76.2cm) circle in order to calculate the percentage of impacts within that circle.

Some even go as far as to quarter that circle then count the number of shot impacts within each of the four quadrants, or draw a secondary smaller 20^ (50.8cm) circle in the centre all in an effort to look further into pattern consistency. But if you don’t want to go to that extent, a simple evaluation to look for holes in the pattern large enough for a bird to slip through is certainly worthwhile.

Dram equivalent

One of the most confusing terms in shotshells is ‘dram equivalent’. This is an antiquated term developed as the world of shotgunning began to move away from black powder to smokeless powder. Dram is a weight measurement once used to convey how much black powder was being loaded in the shells or, in the case of muzzleloaders, down the barrel.

Because shooters were used to relating the potency of their loads to how many drams of black powder was being loaded, the term ‘dram equivalent’ was adopted for the new era of smokeless powder shells. Even today some manufacturers still cling to this outdated method of categorising shells rather than simply displaying the muzzle velocity. For a rough estimate of how dram equivalent relates to actual muzzle velocities the accompanying chart may be helpful.

Lead v non-lead shot

I’m old enough to remember when the crackdown on lead shot first came about. Even though there have been great advancements in the various types of non-lead shot, I believe the disadvantages of using these alternatives far outweigh any preconceived advantages.

However, I’ve accepted the fact that non-lead substitutes are here to stay and where I’m forced to use them by law, I will do so. I don’t necessarily have to like it though and whenever I can shoot lead I’ll choose that simply because it’s more effective.

There are many other shot metals now available like bismuth, tungsten, HEVI-Shot and others. Some have weights and densities approaching that of lead but steel shot (sometimes called iron shot) remains the most popular option for one simple reason. Steel shotshells, even though considerably more expensive than lead, generally cost less than alternative metals. Too bad gold is so pricey as I could see myself shooting it as a perfect lead substitute.

Steel shot is made through a process called atomisation, which produces shot of various sizes and hardness. In most cases steel shot weighs about one-third less than lead, which results in reducing the killing power and range for hunters by as much as 10 to 20m – and steel takes up more space in the shell.

In order to offset some of the ineffectiveness of the steel, typically shooters increase the size of shot. But doing so means the number of the load pellets is reduced which will result in less pattern density.

Recommended steel alternative shot size


                                Lead                      Recommended steel alternative


                                    2                                                            BB

                                    4                                                             2

                                    6                                                          3 or 4

                                    8                                                             7   



High brass/low brass

Another factor adding to the confusion of shotshells pertains to the height of the base brass of the shells. Like ‘dram equivalent’, this too has its roots in the archives of shotgunning history. I suppose in early times when shotshell hulls were evolving from brass to paper it was thought you needed a ring of brass around the base of the shell for reinforcement purposes.

Somehow that led to the idea the higher the brass the more powerful the shell. Most shotshell hulls today are made of plastic and the height of the brass, or in some cases the lack of brass entirely, has nothing to do with the potency of the load.

Hard v soft shot

Trap shooters often like their lead shot to be high in antimony content which makes the lead harder. The basis behind that desire is that hard shot doesn’t deform as much while travelling down the barrel and through the constriction of the choke as the softer varieties do. But this can be a good or a bad thing depending on how you look at it. Shot that’s perfectly round with no flat or deformed sides will usually fly truer and thereby deliver tighter patterns, while deformed shot often produces more open patterns.

When steel shot first arrived it was so hard it sometimes damaged gun barrels and was even viewed in some quarters as being unsafe in certain firearms. Over the years steel shot has become softer but those metals still aren’t as malleable as lead and, as such, have a tendency to yield tighter shot patterns.

In order to counter that influence usually more open chokes are called for when shooting non-lead shot. In order to counter this effect some shotshell manufacturers are loading shells with irregular shaped pellets like the new Federal Premium Black Cloud ammunition. In this case the shot has a raised ring around its parameter, giving it the appearance of a tiny flying saucer. While this design helps open up the shot pattern it also increases the killing potential of the shot by inflicting a higher degree of damage to a bird’s flesh and bones.

The way I see it

Shotgunning is unlike any other shooting discipline. Where rifle shooters frequently have time to prepare for the shot, the shotgunner is usually pressed for time. Whether shooting clay targets  or hunting live birds, in both cases the target is quickly departing the scene and the shooter must in an instant shoulder the firearm, get on the target, calculate the appropriate lead and pull the shot off before the quarry has a chance to escape.

In these instances everything must come together in one fluid movement and if you, your shotgun and ammunition aren’t up to the task at hand you may walk away with nothing to show for the effort.

When it comes to the ammunition you shoot there are many things to consider. Whether you buy shells at your local store or load your own, careful consideration must be given to what’s inside and how that ammunition will perform in the shotgun you’ll be using.

All News