Picking The Right 12-Gauge Ammo

Picking The Right 12-Gauge Ammo

Whether for home defense or hunting, a 12-gauge shotgun is most effective when paired with the right load of 12-gauge ammo.

Shotguns are among the most versatile firearms in existence. And in this class of gun, the 12-gauge reigns supreme.

Hunting, home defense, recreation–nine times out of 10, shooters opt for the good ol' 12 bore. Further aiding its popularity, the wide variety of 12-gauge ammo available today for nearly any application.

Such a wealth of loads is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, no matter how specialized, likely there's a load tailored for it. On the other hand, how the heck do you know which of the hundreds of options to use?

We'll hash this out a bit in this 12-gauge ammo guide, go over what's used for what and help you figure out the best shells for your purpose.

12-Gauge Ammo: Deciding Your Purpose

Like so much in the shooting world, decisions are best made by defining your particular parameters. A dove hunter requires a much different shell than a LEO breaching a door.

Additionally, not only would using the wrong load for the wrong situation be suboptimal, but it can also be dangerous for yourself and others. For example, one wouldn't want to try and stop a home invader with birdshot, and one wouldn't want to try and stop a bird with buckshot.

The former case may only result in an even angrier intruder and the latter with a puff of red mist and feathers. Shotguns are only as versatile as they are because of the wildly different styles of projectiles they can fire, so it’s important to use the appropriate type for the task at hand.

Besides selecting 12-gauge ammo based on its inherent physical traits, other factors come into play as well such as local laws and regulations. For example, California legally requires that lead-free ammunition be used when hunting due to the state’s environmental concerns. Someone hunting in California would need to select something that complies with the lead-free requirement when choosing their load.

For every conceivable realistic use that a shotgun has, there are numerous loads of 12-gauge ammo that fit the bill. The trick to getting the most out of the gun is knowing how to pick the right load for the job.

Choosing The Right 12-Gauge Ammo:

When it comes to hunting with a shotgun, the general type of load that should be used is pretty cut and dry. Birds and varmints are generally best dispatched with some kind of birdshot, and medium to large game is best dealt with using slugs or buckshot depending on various factors.

When it comes to the realm of 12-gauge home defense ammo, however, the choice between buckshot and slugs is less clear. While the two types of loads are both good for self-defense, they achieve their performance in very different ways.


Buckshot loadings create dynamic wound channels and energy transfer by firing multiple pellets. The pellets in a load of buckshot are fewer than those in birdshot but are significantly larger in diameter.

For example, common 2 ¾-inch shells of 00 buck are typically loaded with eight .330-inch diameter projectiles. With each ball of shot weighing about 54 grains, that makes each projectile roughly equivalent to a .32 ACP bullet in terms of weight and caliber.

Screenshot from a Brassfetcher video showing 12-gauge buckshot performance in ballistic gelatin. Note that the projectiles are still in motion in this image.

While multiple projectiles are in play when it comes to buckshot, this doesn’t mean that there will automatically be a dramatically wider spread of pellets. In fact, buckshot patterns generally remain quite tight within ranges of about 30 yards.

Certain loadings feature wad technology and plated projectiles that further aid in keeping the pattern tight during flight. Of course, the tightness of buckshot projectiles can also be influenced by a barrel’s choke. Buckshot is particularly effective for self-defense as each projectile will create its own dynamic wound channels upon impact and impart a high degree of energy transfer.

Shotgun Slugs

Slugs feature a single, solid projectile rather than multiple projectiles. This generally results in higher velocity than buckshot and a much greater effective range as well. Granted, when in the context of home defense, it is highly unlikely one would need to take any shots at extended ranges.

The benefit of the higher velocity possessed by slugs is evident in its effect on the target and its efficient fight-stopping capabilities. The velocity of slugs multiplied by their impressive mass results in a lot of energy and devastating terminal ballistics. Another potential advantage of slugs over buckshot is the fact you are only responsible for a single projectile as opposed to multiple.

Screenshot from a Brassfetcher video showing 12-gauge slug performance in ballistic gelatin. Note that the projectile is still in motion in this image.

That last point is worth some consideration when it comes to selecting home-defense 12-gauge ammo because you are legally and morally responsible for every projectile that you send out the barrel. Bullets can behave strangely, and 00 buck provides eight to nine times the likelihood that one of those lead balls ends up somewhere it shouldn’t.

The specific factors of one’s home environment, such as potential engagement distances, will impact whether or not slugs, buckshot or something else entirely will be the safest and smartest choice. Regardless of your selected load of 12-gauge ammo, it is prudent that you practice and familiarize yourself with how it behaves with your specific firearm.

Chokes and Patterns:

When it comes to shotguns, an important aspect of this class of firearm is the effect that chokes and bore tightness have on the patterning of projectiles. Many shotguns feature barrels with internal threads that accommodate a variety of chokes, making them tunable by the end user to match their chosen loads and needs.

Other shotguns, particularly base model defensive shotguns, feature bores that are fixed to a given choke size. For example, a Mossberg 590A1 features a fixed-cylinder bore while a Benelli Montefeltro comes with a set of Crio improved cylinder, modified, and full chokes.

The resultant spread sizes from various kinds of 12-gauge ammo. The patterns could be influenced by adjusting the choke as well.

There are a variety of chokes on the market that exist for both common and specialized uses. The most common chokes one will find when looking for a shotgun are cylinder, improved cylinder, modified and full chokes.

A cylinder choke will produce the widest dispersion of projectiles as the bore diameter is not tightened in any way. An improved cylinder choke tightens the bore, resulting in a tighter pattern than that of a standard cylinder bore. Full chokes feature the tightest bore diameter, conducive to ensuring that the projectiles maintain as concentrated of a pattern as possible during flight. Between improved cylinder and full chokes are modified chokes, providing a middle-ground option when it comes to pattern tightness.

Just like factoring ammunition options into one’s shotgun usage, being cognizant of a shotgun’s choke and bore diameter is an important step in optimizing your shotgun for its given task.

12-Gauge Ammo Shell Size

The most common size of shell when it comes to 12-gauge ammo is 2 ¾-inch, but other sizes exist as well. Excluding smaller mini shells which are mostly a novelty, 12-gauge ammo can also be found in 3-inch and 3 ½-inch shells. Naturally, the larger the shell size the more powerful it can potentially be.

A standard 2.75-inch 12-gauge shell (left) versus a 3-inch 12-gauge shell (right). Photo: Wikipedia.

These days, most 12-gauge shotguns come with at least a 3-inch chamber, but double-check before trying to jam anything larger than a standard 2 ¾-inch shell into it. To fire 3 ½-inch shells, one will usually have to go out of their way to find a shotgun with a chamber that can accommodate them. If the task at hand calls for the most powerful 12-gauge ammo available, such as self-defense in grizzly country, it may be worth tracking one down.

12-Gauge Ammo Buyer’s Guide:

Home Defense:

Hornady 00 Buckshot Critical Defense


This 00 buck offering from Hornady is optimized for self-defense and ensures maximum effect on target. With ten rounds per box, that’s enough for most people to fill their gun’s magazine and have a few shells left over to pattern with or throw in a side-saddle. Hornady’s Versatite wad technology utilized in this loading aids in sending a tight and consistent pattern down range. This Critical Defense option is designed to function reliably in semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns alike, making this 12-gauge ammo viable for home defense regardless of your shotgun model.

Shotshell Length: 2 ¾ Inches

Velocity: 1,600 fps

Shot Size: 00 Buck

Shells Per Box: 10

Federal Premium Personal Defense Shotshell With FLITECONTROL Wad


This buckshot loading from Federal Premium is versatile and effective. This load functions reliably in autoloading shotguns such as the Beretta 1301 and Benelli M4, proving itself as a quality option for home defense. Short-barreled shotguns can also effectively utilize this load due to the tight patterns provided by the FLITECONTROL wad. The copper plating on the projectiles is also conducive to producing a tight spread as the pellets will be resistant to deformation and disruption during their flight.

Shotshell Length: 2 ¾ Inches

Velocity: 1,145 fps

Shot Size: 00 Buck

Shells Per Box: 5

Winchester PDX1 12 Defender


This offering from Winchester combines three plated 00 buckshot projectiles with a 1 oz rifled slug. Essentially, this load draws aspects from the two best types of 12-gauge self-defense ammo and offers them in a single package. The inclusion of the 00 Buck projectiles allows for a form of insurance of sorts when it comes to hitting your designated target. This round will provide fight-stopping capabilities that are effective at both close and extended shotgun ranges.

Shotshell Length: 2 ¾ Inches

Velocity: 1,150 fps

Shot Size: 00 Buck + 1-Ounce Slug

Shells Per Box: 10

Small Game Hunting:

Winchester Rooster XR


Winchester’s Rooster XR is a purpose-built pheasant load. The load is advertised as being capable of penetration beyond 50 yards, allowing hunters to efficiently dispatch upland game at further distances. The extended range of the Rooster XR load is complimented by the Shot-Lok technology that helps keep the pattern tight when in flight. This offering from Winchester is a great choice for those who want a reliable upland hunting load that lets them clip wings at longer distances.

Shotshell Length: 2 ¾ Inches

Velocity: 1,300 fps

Shot Size: 4

Shells Per Box: 15

Federal Black Cloud FS Steel


This Federal Premium Black Cloud variant is an excellent load for waterfowl hunting. Federal’s FLITECONTROL FLEX wad will aid in the projectiles flying in a consistent and tight pattern when paired with standard or ported waterfowl chokes. The payload of this Black Cloud loading consists of 40 percent FLITESTOPPER steel pellets and 60 percent Premium steel pellets. This mixture of pellets enhances the lethality of the load and produces a dense pattern.

Shotshell Length: 3 ½ Inches

Velocity: 1,500 fps

Shot Size: 3

Shells Per Box: 25

Remington American Clay & Field


This 2 ¾-inch offering from Remington is a versatile ammunition choice for your shotgun. Remington’s American Clay & Field load will fit the needs of a variety of shooters. If you want to engage in recreational shooting activities and vaporize sporting clays, this load is a solid option. If you need some birdshot for field use, this Remington load is a viable option. Regardless of your intended use, you are getting 25 versatile rounds with consistent patterning and velocities.

Shotshell Length: 2 ¾ Inches

Velocity: 1,200 fps

Shot Size: #9 Shot

Shells Per Box: 25

Medium/Big Game Hunting:

Remington Magnum Buckshot


This 3-inch buckshot loading makes this loading particularly effective for dispatching predators and game alike such as coyotes and deer. Granulated polymer is packed into the case to prevent deformation of the 41 pellets during flight and ensures the pattern’s tightness as it proceeds downrange. This magnum load from Remington is an excellent choice for dispatching medium game.

Shotshell Length: 3 Inches

Velocity: 1,225 fps

Shot Size: #4 Shot

Shells Per Box: 5

Federal Premium Trophy Copper Sabot Slug


This 300-grain slug option from Federal Premium boasts the highest advertised velocity of the options on this list. It should be noted that this load is optimized for use with rifled shotgun barrels. Federal claims that this load is capable of achieving sub-4-inch groups at 200 yards when fired through a rifled barrel. The touted velocity of 2,000 fps paired with the sabot properties of the projectile is conducive to an accurate and hard-hitting load. This load shines for those who plan on utilizing a rifled shotgun for hunting a variety of medium to larger-sized game at potentially extended distances.

Shotshell Length: 3 Inches

Velocity: 2,000 fps

Shot Size: 2/3-Ounce Slug

Shells Per Box: 5

Hornady American Whitetail


This load from Hornady features a 1-ounce rifled slug that is optimized for non-rifled barrels. These Hornady slugs are packed with a serrated, hollow-point 325-grain InterLock projectile that promotes consistent expansion and effect on target. The projectile of this load also benefits from a high velocity due to the inclusion of a compression-style wad. Hornady claims that this 1,600 fps slug has an effective lethal range of 200 yards or more, making it a viable option for longer-range shotgun hunting. Like the round’s branding suggests, this load would be an effective choice for whitetail hunting.  

Shotshell Length: 2 ¾ Inches

Velocity: 1,600 fps

Shot Size: 1-Ounce Slug

Shells Per Box: 5

Draw A Bead On Shotguns:


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