What Is The Difference Between A Shotgun Slug And Buckshot

Comparing A Shotgun Slug To Buckshot

About Shotgun Loads

Shotguns can be a little confusing, as they use a few different terms from other types of firearms. They also can be used in highly versatile ways, which can create more confusion for a shotgun newbie. Some of the most common questions are typically related to the type of caliber (gauge) and the type of load. A lot of people want to know the difference between a shotgun slug and buckshot. Enthusiasts then begin to wonder about the various applications, and experimenting with birdshot. But before comparing the different types of shotgun shells, it is a good idea to understand some basic shotgun shell terminology.

Crash Course On Shotgun Ammo

Shotgun Gauge

Shotgun ammunition is not measured in caliber like handgun or rifle ammo. Instead, shotgun ammunition uses the term “gauge” for measurement. Many different types of shotguns exist, but only a limited number of gauges exist. Typically the gauge is printed on the ammo box itself. It is important that the correct gauge is selected for the shotgun, as shotguns only come in one gauge. Gauge can be defined as the interior bore diameter. In terms of size, the larger the gauge, the smaller the diameter (and thus the smaller the diameter of the shell). A higher gauge measures a larger bore and shotgun shell. For example, a 10-gauge shotgun is going to fire larger shells than a 12-gauge shotgun (both very common gauges).Gauge refers to a measurement of a number of lead balls which match the size of the bore diameter, adding up to one pound.2

Shell Length

Various shell lengths exist and work with various shotguns. The most common lengths are around 3 inches (give or take a quarter or half an inch). As expected, longer length shells can be packed with more pellets and powder, creating higher power loads.

Disclaimer: Only load longer shells in shotguns that can fire them. Firing large shells in shotguns intended for shorter shells can be a critical hazard.

Shell Types

The actual shell type refers to the encasing that holds the shotgun load type. There are three types of shells most commonly used: high brass shells, low brass shells, and plastic (or active) shells.

High Brass Shells – A shot shell with a brass base that reaches up to 3/4” up the body of the shell. These are typically create the most power.

Low Brass Shells – A shot shell with a brass base that barely covers the bottom of the shell.

Active Shells (Plastic Shells) – A lower quality shell usually used as back up shells for wet conditions, given they are rust-resistant.

Dram Equivalent

Also known as power, dram equivalent defines the overall potency of a shotgun shell. In older times, drams were literally a measurement of black powder (by weight), however, today’s powder is now smokeless. Simply put: the higher velocity, more powerful loads will have higher dram measurements.

The Different Types Of Shotgun Shells

Shotgun Slugs

Shotgun slugs are typically defined as cylindrical projectiles fired from a shotgun. It is a single projectile and requires excellent accuracy. They are heavy projectiles and most commonly made of lead or copper (other material is sometimes used, however, less frequently). As simple as it may sound, there are a rather diverse amount of slug variations available, all made for different purposes. There are even slugs created specifically to be non-lethal. Non-lethal slugs are usually made of a rubber or rubber-like material. There are even wax slugs. Speaking of other materials and types, one can find brenneke slugs, cut shell slugs, foster slugs, plumbata slugs, sabot slugs, steel slugs and wad slugs. They are all different in terms of power and attributes. Heavier, metal crafted slugs will create the most power and damage, but lighter and less powerful slugs are better for the amateur.

Slugs are the best round for longer range shotgun shooting due to having the greatest accuracy. Slugs act in the same sense and way bullets do. The sabbot slug is worth addressing one more time as it is a special slug with a copper jacket, specifically for shooting out of shotguns that have a rifle bore. Most shotguns have smooth bore barrels, which means there is no rifling twist within the bore to spin the bullet to greater velocity. For those barrels with a rifling bore, sabbot slugs are meant to help the shotgun reach its maximum potential.

Warning: Many jurisdictions have shotgun slugs banned for hunting due to their lethal capability. Many states and jurisdictions are required to use buckshot (or birdshot) instead.

Shotgun Buckshot

Buckshot is a shotgun ammunition using medium-to-large sized pellets typically ranging .24” or greater in diameter. And as a general rule, the larger the pellets, the less of them loaded into the shell. As a buckshot is fired, the pellets discharge outward in a scattering-like fashion. This scatter effects is known as shotgun spread. Buckshot can do a lot of damage, and is sometimes used to hunt bigger game (such as deer).

Despite the many people who recommend using slugs for home defense, there are a lot of police forces and military units which prefer buckshot in close quarters combat. In fact, some argue that heavy buckshot loaded in a semi-automatic shotgun is the most devastating load out for close quarters.3

Buckshot is measured by a number or letter corresponding to the size of the contained pellets. Similar to how gauge is measured in reverse, the larger the buckshot number, the smaller the pellets. The largest used pellets are marked #000, but they go much smaller too (#3 and up). Size #000 buckshot is far more accurate than the larger numbers, which lose their accuracy with greater spread. Many modern shotguns have a device called a choke tube, which is adjustable and allows the shooter to control the pellet spread. Older and less fancy shotguns have only a fixed choke, forcing the shooter to rely on the predetermined spread.

A Word About Birdshot

Birdshot is the third type of shotgun ammunition, albeit much less discussed. The birdshot works a lot like buckshot, only instead of medium or larger sized pellets, it is filled with much smaller pellets measuring less than .23” or less in diameter. The discharge creates a spread of the pellets which works very well for bird hunting (hence the name of the load). Typically hunters will use birdshot sizes ranging between #9 (.08”) to #1 (.16”). Like buckshot, birdshot does not require 100 percent accuracy in order to hit a target. Another difference between the sizes of birdshots (for example, a #1 birdshot compared to a #9 birdshot) is the amount of pellets packed into the shell. #1 size birdshots contain 72 to 103 pellets, depending upon whether lead or steel pellets are used. #9 size birdshots contain 585 lead pellets, or 892 steel pellets. When shooting long range targets, it is always better to select a lower size shell. This allows the fewer pellets to achieve less spread for further reach. The higher size numbers are packed with more pellets and work better at closer distances. This is because they spread more quickly after exiting the barrel.

Birdshot is sometimes used to hunt other small game beyond birds. Common targets include rabbits, rodents, and snake.

Which Is Better: A Shotgun Slug Or Buckshot?

Although each type of shotgun shell, the slug and buckshot, hold their value and purpose, the shotgun shell is generally preferred for stopping power and its ability to more easily take down game. There are still purposes for either shotgun load which are best left to that particular shell type. For example, there is a reason birdshot is named as such: it works great for spraying smaller targets that are able to rapidly escape the line of sight. Buckshot can take down bigger game, like deer; however, many experienced shotgun hunters explain a more accurate slug shot will be more likely to kill rather than maim the deer. Regardless, most hunters own a variety of shell types and loads. Especially if they hunt a variety of game. In terms of home defense, a 12 or 20 gauge shotgun is frequently recommended with slugs.2

To summarize, choosing the right shotgun load means identifying the purpose of the load, accuracy, and power needed.


1Hunter ED. A Shotguns Gauge. Retrieved from: https://www.hunter-ed.com/michigan/studyGuide/A-Shotguns-Gauge/20102301_700169295/

2Internet Armory. Shotgun Ammunition, Self Defense. Retrieved from: http://www.internetarmory.com/shotgun_ammo.htm

3Police One. The Police Shotgun: Versatile, Powerful & Still “The Great Intimidator”. Retrieved from: https://www.policeone.com/police-products/firearms/shotguns/articles/1286216/

About the Author:

Mark Doberman, The Proprietary Gun Smith

The Proprietary Gun Smith is a marksman, expert gun handler, ammunition specialist, survival guru, and lifetime gun enthusiast. He owns (or has owned) nearly every legal firearm and ballistic available, has fired nearly every gun, and regularly consults professionally in the firearm world. He has studied firearms and similar tactical lifestyle for more than 40 years. In addition to writing for ArmoryBay.com, TheProprietaryGunSmith has guest written for more than a dozen other sites and/or magazines in the industry.

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