Shotgun Basics

Shotgun Basics

The shotgun is unique in its ability to fire shells containing varying numbers of pellets, different sized shot and slugs. It is really quite a versatile defense tool that can be a lot of fun to train with. Let’s go over some shotgun basics:


The term “gauge” describes bore diameter. Unlike “caliber”, used for handguns and rifles, the larger the number, the smaller the bore. (The “bore” is the inside diameter of the barrel.) So a higher gauge number means the internal diameter of the barrel is smaller. A smaller gauge number means the internal diameter of the barrel is bigger. For example, a 12-gauge bore is bigger than a 20-gauge bore. Shotgun ammunition is measured in gauge rather than in caliber.

Gauge was defined by the number of solid balls the same diameter as the inside of the barrel that could be made from a pound of lead. Thus, the 10-gauge shotgun is larger than the 12-gauge, which is larger than the 20-gauge. There are many different sizes, or gauges, of shotguns, the two most often recommended for home defense are 12 and 20 gauge.

Which Gauge is best for a woman?

Generally, the 20 gauge is a better choice for a woman for home defense. A 20 gauge will be easier to handle, have less recoil and provide more than adequate stopping power. Many woman can handle and prefer the added power of a 12 gauge. Your physical size and your ability and/or sensitivity to recoil will be determining factors.


There are two types of shotguns and “action” describes how they cycle rounds.

  • Slide Action shotguns – A slide action, also known as “pump action”, will require you to have to slide the action backward and forward to load each shell. They are low-maintenance and, in experienced hands, deadly fast. They can hold as many shells as the tubular magazine under the gun’s barrel can hold, meaning you can shoot multiple shots in fairly rapid succession. This does however require practice.
  • Semi automatic shotguns – A semi automatic action uses the force generated by a previous shot to automatically eject the empty shell case and chamber the next round after each shot (cycle). They can be fired as fast as the shooter can pull the trigger. Semi automatics have less recoil which makes them appealing to many women. As with many semi automatic firearms, there can be an issue with ammunition sensitivity. Because the the rounds are “automatically” chambered after the first round is fired, the gun assumes the round or shell is “perfect” and will move perfectly into place. Because of this, the shotgun shell can potentially get hung up and chamber incorrectly. The quality of the ammunition you use is a key factor in preventing these issues. Practice with multiple brands will also help you to figure out which shells your gun “prefers.”


Which is better for a woman to use for home defense?

I would suggest a gas-operated semi automatic 20-gauge for most women. The gas-operated semiautomatic has a much softer kick than any other shotgun type firing the same shell. The 20 gauge is readily available in an 18″ length and in junior sizes which tend fit woman’s size better. The semi automatic shotgun can shoot multiple shots quickly and without any manual action. However, the semi automatic shotgun is more expensive than a pump action shotgun. It is a more complex machine and requires proper cleaning and care.

The advantages of manual operation are the lower cost and the gun’s ability handle a variety of ammunition. A number of semi automatic shotguns will not cycle low-powered bird shot, a common and inexpensive choice of ammunition for training. Since the shooter does all the work manually, a pump action shotgun can fire a greater variety of ammunition. Pump action shotguns can also operate when dirty or not properly lubricated. On the down side, the pump action shotgun will have more felt recoil than a semi automatic shotgun of the same gauge and must be manually “pumped” for each shot.


Size matters in two important aspects: length of barrel and length of pull.

The length of the shotgun barrel typically ranges from 18″ to 28″. A long shotgun barrel is difficult to maneuver around corners and through a house so the 18″ barrel is the best option for home defense.

Length of pull refers to the distance from gun butt to the trigger. If the size of the shotgun is wrong, you are going to be less accurate and it will be difficult for you to work the controls on the gun. While after-market (add on) stocks allow for an adjustable length of pull, consider purchasing a youth-sized shotgun. These shotguns have a shorter stock and are typically less expensive.

As a general rule, when the butt of the shotgun is held in the elbow crook of your bent arm, the first joint crease on your index finger should fully contact the trigger. The 20 gauge youth shotguns fit this dimension perfectly for many women and should be seriously considered when buying a home-defense shotgun.

If a youth model is too short, you can add a recoil pad which both dampens the felt recoil enormously and adds length to the stock.


Choke is the degree of constriction machined into the muzzle end of the barrel. It’s a way of controlling the size of the pattern or spray at a given range. The tighter the choke, the tighter the pellets are squeezed together so the pattern holds tighter over a longer distance. Conversely, the less restriction you have in the shotgun choke the more loosely the pellets are held together and the faster the pattern opens up.


Shotgun ammunition is measured in gauge rather than in caliber and because shotguns are very versatile firearms, ammunition manufactured for them comes in a wide variety of types, sizes and power. The gauge number is on the shotgun ammunition box. Your shotgun ammunition must match the gauge of your shotgun.

Shell Length

The length of the shell is another very important factor. Not all lengths will feed in all shotguns. The common lengths are 2-3/4 inches, 3 inches, and 3-1/2 inches. The longer the shell, the more shot pellets and powder it can contain. Shotguns which are designed to load a shorter shell should never be used to fire a larger shell, even if the larger shell physically fits within the gun. This can be extremely dangerous as the gun may not be able to handle the higher pressures a more powerful ammunition produces.

Shell Type

There are three basic types of shells:

  1. High brass shells are shells that have a brass base which extends up the shell body by about 3/4 of an inch.
  2. Low brass shells are characterized by a relatively narrow band of metal around the base of the shell. Low brass ammunition is generally less powerful than high brass.
  3. Active shells are formed entirely of plastic, except for a miniature metal button which holds the primer in the center of the case head. Active shells are useful for hunters and others whose ammunition might get wet in the field because they are nearly impervious to rust.

Dram Equivalent (power)

Dram Equivalent describes how powerful the ammunition is. Originally, drams were a black powder weight measure but modern shotgun ammunition uses smokeless powder. Shotgun ammunition manufacturers use dram equivalents to indicate how much power the load has. The higher the dram equivalent number, the more energy the ammunition has and the faster the shot will travel.

To quickly stop an attacker, the pellets must penetrate his body deeply enough to cause internal damage and stop him immediately. Shotgun pellets are classified into three general categories:

1. Birdshot, of which individual pellets are typically less than .20 caliber in diameter. Not recommended for a defensive round but excellent and less expensive for practice.

2. Buckshot, which varies in diameter from .24 caliber to .36 caliber. The recommended round for home defense.

3. Slug, which is an individual cylindrical projectile designed to be discharged from a shotgun. As a single projectile, slugs must be carefully aimed to be effective.

Buckshot is generally recommended for home defense. The larger the buckshot, the greater the stopping power and chances of over-penetration which could lead to injuring innocents in other rooms or buildings. If you are in a densely populated home or neighborhood you can minimize the risk of over-penetration by using small game loads of #6 Birdshot or smaller. However, his sacrifices a great deal of effectiveness. Versatility in available ammunition is a great strength of shotguns. Just remember to choose your loads carefully and tailor them to your environment. The largest shot size commercially available is #2 buck.


For home defense, a shotgun is superior to a handgun in terms of being able to stop a violent intruder quickly. A reliable, well-made, pump action shotgun can usually be purchased for less than the cost of a handgun of comparable quality. Inexpensive birdshot ammunition, typically used for training applications, is about 3/4 the cost of comparable handgun ammunition.

If you’re considering a shotgun for home defense or already have one, we strongly suggest you attend a “defensive shotgun” training course from a reputable shooting school. It is one thing to be armed with a well-equipped, high-tech shotgun and premium personal defense ammunition, but if you’re not comfortable or a skilled shotgun shooter, you’re the weakest link in your home defense weapon system.

Skill with the shotgun, like any other defensive firearm, requires competent instruction and dedicated practice. When these skills are mastered, it becomes a powerful and effective weapon and a wonderfully fun sporting activity.

Shotgun Links:

More detailed information about shotguns, shotgun ammunition, and shotgun use can also be found on Chuck Hawkes’ site at


Continue reading the next section of Step 2: Guns and Children