Shotgun and Shotshell Facts: The Hard Truths Behind Smoothbores and the Payloads They Shoot

There are far too many shotgun and shotshell myths out there. Let’s clear things up
Joe Genzel Avatar
There are plenty of falsehoods being perpetuated by those that know very little about shotguns.
There are plenty of false narratives being perpetuated as to what shotguns can and can't do. Stephen Maturen

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There are plenty of shotgun and shotshell “truths” that simply aren’t, well, true. Many of these falsehoods are perpetuated by well-meaning folks that have not done the pattern work, don’t fully understand the engineering behind break-action, pump, gas-, and inertia-driven shotguns, or have misconceptions about the effectiveness of lead, steel, bismuth, and tungsten super shot (TSS) loads.

I’ve been shooting shotguns for over 30 years now, and still have much to learn. But in the last few years since joining Outdoor Life, I have spent most days either shooting a shotgun, reading books and articles by more experienced shotgun writers, or talking to ballistics experts and pro shooters (sometimes a combination of all three). In that time, I have discovered there are far too many shotgun and the shotshell myths. Most of them exist on Internet forums and social media, but there is also misinformation from media outlets and even the manufacturers themselves. I don’t think it’s done on purpose, but out of carelessness and sometimes sheer ignorance.

What’s great about shotguns, is anyone can put in the pattern work and find out what their smoothbore is capable of (and I encourage you to do it), but it takes a lot of time and ammunition, which isn’t cheap or always available these days. If you want to skip the sore shoulders and migraine headaches from touching off heavy payloads—and save some money—what follows will give you a good head start to understanding repeaters, break-actions, and the payloads they shoot.

Full Chokes Do Not Always Kill Birds More Cleanly

Full chokes can fringe ducks at close range.
An illustration from Bob Brister's book, Shotgunning: the Art and the Science, shows how a full choke can fringe a duck at close range. Bob Brister

I’m a duck hunter first, and plenty of the folks I hunt with shoot a tight choke because they think it will cripple less birds. That’s not completely true. Inside 25 yards, you can fringe a mallard with a more constricted choke in your shotgun much easier than you can with an open improved cylinder. Take your favorite duck load and pattern it at 25 yards with an IC and then try the tightest choke you can safely shoot steel through (if you shoot bismuth or TSS you can use a full choke). You will find that an IC choke casts a much wider net of pellets than the constricted choke, offering far more forgiveness should your point-of-aim be ill-placed.

A tight choke doesn’t give your shotgun rifle-like precision. It does however give you a better chance to wound a duck that’s in the decoys because it’s more likely to only deliver a small portion of the payload to the target, which may not be lethal enough to kill it. A payload that runs through a full choke stays together longer, but when it runs out of steam, it falls apart rapidly. That makes a full choke a better option at 40-plus yards if you are a good enough shot to put a proper lead on a passing drake, but it doesn’t have limitless capabilities. Payloads through more open chokes may not deliver a killing pattern at distance, but they also don’t depreciate as quickly. They steadily get worse after exiting the muzzle. So, if you shoot ducks in the decoys, you can make cleaner kills with an open choke. 

Also, it has been proven that harder, larger non-toxic shot will perform better from more open chokes. I have shot affordable steel BBs (under $25 a box) from modified and improved modified chokes on paper at 50 yards and seen 65 percent pattern percentages inside a 30-inch circle.

Plated Shot Does Not Automatically Make Pellets More Lethal

Plenty of non-toxic and lead shot is plated, whether that be nickel, zinc, copper, or some other metal. Many shotmakers tout the quality of their plating process and link it to more effective kills. But plating is often just a coating that protects pellets. Now, if the plating is thicker and applied properly through electrolysis—a process that uses electricity and an electrolyte solution to coat the pellet—that can improve the hardness of the shot and make it more lethal. But plating thickness is difficult to measure if you’re shooting commercial loads unless you have a digital plating gauge. If you’re a handloader, Precision Reloading makes nickel-plated lead shot that is applied through electrolysis, which makes it harder and penetrate deeper.

The composition of the shot is what makes it most effective. Plating helps, but if a shotmaker is applying a thin coating to an already soft lead pellet it’s not going to make it more deadly. For proof, ballistics expert Tom Roster found that nickel-pated lead pellets with 5 to 6 percent antimony (the metal element used to increase hardness in lead shot) produced 15 to 20 percent more penetration on wild pheasants over softer nickel-plated lead in his extensive necropsy studies.

Not Every Payload Patterns the Same

Identical payloads will pattern differently from different gauges.
The same payload will pattern differently from two different gauge shotguns. Stephen Maturen

If you shoot a 7/8-ounce lead payload of the same shot size and shell length chambered for a 12-gauge, and then one chambered in 28-gauge, the two loads will pattern the same, right? Not necessarily. The late Field & Stream shooting editor, Bob Brister, was infatuated with over boring the barrels of his shotguns. He found that slight increases in bore diameter resulted in better patterns at distance. He also found that the same payloads did not pattern equally out of two different gauges of shotgun.

For instance, if you shot identical charge weights from a Winchester Model 12 12-gauge and the Model 42 .410 with fixed full chokes, it’s likely you would get a better pattern from the 12-gauge at 40 yards because of its larger bore diameter (around .694 inches) than the .410. Conversely, the tighter bore of the .410 could give you a more pellet-dense pattern at 20 yards due to its smaller bore size. To summarize, patterns held up longer with fewer holes in them through larger bores but were denser at shorter distances through small bores, according to Brister’s data. Screw-in chokes changed that game because shooters can now adjust pattern density by swapping chokes. You can get a similar pattern from two different gauges with the same payload but will likely have to choke them differently.

Buffering Bismuth Stops Pellet Fractures

Buffering bismuth will yield better patterns.
Buffering bismuth results in better patterns. Winchester

Handloaders have buffered bismuth shot for years, but Winchester became the first to mass produce it this year by adding the small polymer balls to its new Bismuth shotshell. The buffering helps limit shot deformation and seems to eliminate most (if not all) of the fracturing that occurs inside the barrel when shooting a softer metal such as bismuth.

Shotmakers and shotshell experts continue to debate the causes of fracturing in bismuth. Some say it’s due to over choking and pressures inside the barrel that cause pellets to run into one another; others believe fractures occur on impact because the pellets are not sufficiently hard and break apart (it’s possible both are true). What I can tell you is that I have patterned Winchester’s buffered Bismuth and two other unbuffered bismuth loads using plywood as a backing to hold my pattern paper in place—the Winchester pellets did not fracture, but the others did.

Barrel Porting Does Not Reduce Free Recoil

Don properly, barrel porting makes a difference.
Barrel porting only makes a difference if done properly. Joe Genzel

There are shotgun makers that market ported barrels as a magic fix for incurring less recoil. But according to Roster’s work, porting does not reduce free reward recoil (the recoil of a free-standing firearm). Ported barrels will help tame muzzle jump if they are drilled into the top of the barrel properly. If you find a gun that has ports on the sides or bottom of the barrel, steer clear. Upon ignition, your barrel could move side-to-side or cause even more muzzle rise if the ports are drilled into the underside of the barrel because the gasses are escaping through the bottom, pushing your muzzle up. Also, ported chokes don’t mitigate recoil at all. If you need proof, go shoot a 2-ounce turkey load through an unported and ported choke and report back.

Speed and Longer Shell Length Does Not Necessarily Make a Load More Lethal

Early shot engineers found that for steel loads to be lethal on waterfowl they had to speed up muzzle velocities, which takes a precise burn rate and why handloading steel requires more attention to detail because of the higher pressures. You don’t need to be an expert to handload it, but you must be accurate with your measurements. The trend now is to super charge non-toxics, so payloads leave the barrel at 1,500 fps or faster. But Roster found through his lethality research—decades of observation in the field, pattern work, and necropsy data—that non-toxic shot doesn’t exhibit added effectiveness once it surpasses 1,425 fps. He also discovered that shotshells pushed past 1,425 fps see a drop off in pattern density compared to slower ones at 1,300 to 1,400 fps. At the same time, the shooter is experiencing more recoil from the faster loads.

His research on steel, bismuth, and Hevi-Shot also revealed that you can kill any duck (except for sea ducks) out to 50 yards with a 2¾-inch 12-gauge non-toxic load to a 95 percent confidence level. To kill geese, the data shows you need no larger than a 3-inch load with the proper size pellets, unless you’re shooting past 50 yards, in which case a 3½-inch shotshell is optimal because it holds more pellets.

Pattern Results Matter

Patterns can teach you a lot about your shotgun.
Patterning can teach you a lot about your shotgun. Stephen Maturen

There is no hard data to prove this, but it’s my belief that most hunters don’t pattern their shotguns. Which is unfortunate, because you can learn a lot about the capabilities of your gun from shooting it on paper. One of the most interesting facts is that your shot string does not impact all at once. The pellets strike the target within fractions of a second of one another, but the fartherthe pellets are from the core of the pattern, the later they are hitting the paper. Some pellets on the fringe of your pattern have become deformed and so they arrive behind the spherical pellets. This can be caused by the pressure produced after the firing pin strikes the primer, which essentially squeezes the pellets at the bottom of the payload, pellets striking one another as they travel down the bore, or it can be from poor engineering (shot that is not fully round).

Brister used a moving target—he had his wife pull a long pattern board behind the family station wagon at pre-determined speeds—to measure shot stringing. Mrs. Brister would race past her husband, and he would shoot the paper like it was a bird in flight to see how the shotshells patterned. His tests showed that shooting a moving target delivered a much different pattern than shooting paper from a fixed position. The shotgun isn’t throwing a different pattern because the shooter is swinging it on a bird, it’s just more difficult for the shooter to maintain a consistent point of aim, so that changes the outcome.

Read Next: The Best Duck Hunting Shotguns for Waterfowlers

Lighter, Faster Cycling Shotguns Won’t Make You a Better Shot

Just like mountain rifles, shotguns keep getting lighter. And shotgun makers continue building auto-loading platforms that cycle shells faster. But it’s not always a great combination. Phil Bourjialy, shotguns editor at FS, once performed a test in which he had participants shoot clays with heavy and light guns. He timed the shooters and found that they shouldered the heavy guns faster and shot more accurately with them than the light ones. Unlike rifles, when you shoot a shotgun, you’re likely to be moving it, unless you’re hunting deer or turkeys, and there is inherently more balance in an eight-pound gun than a whippy six-pound smoothbore, which makes the heavy gun easier to keep on target.

Also, recoil is more manageable in a heavy gun, making it faster if you need to shoot a follow-up or true double. It’s more difficult to be accurate with a lightweight gun if you’re shooting a heavy 1 3/8-ounce duck load, not to mention 2-ounce turkey shells, because the muzzle jump will be so much more pronounced (you can shoot over a gobbler’s head with a light gun because they are so much harder to control as the trigger is pulled), unless it’s a heavy gas gun with a superb recoil mitigation system.