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We’ve all been there -- standing in a sporting goods store staring at 50 shotgun shell choices, mulling the difference between size 4 and 6 or steel and lead.

More than a dozen major companies make shotgun shells and each has even more variations.

That can be an overwhelming number of choices, said Jesse Burd, assistant manager of Rocky Mountain Discount Sports in Casper.

If you’re lucky, you’ll choose correctly and take home a few grouse or pheasants. If you’re unlucky, you could choose poorly and ruin the barrel of your grandpa’s antique shotgun.

So before you grab a random box and hope for the best, read this quick and easy guide by Burd and two other Wyoming gun experts that should take some of the mystery out of your next bird hunt.

Shot size

At its most basic, the bigger the number the smaller the pellet. A size 8 shell, for example, would be best for dove and quail. A size 4 is usually best for pheasants and a size 2 should be used for bigger birds such as ducks or geese, Burd said. Even larger shot is BB and BBB, then a range of buckshot. “Your pellets are really big by that time, like up to a third of an inch. People hunt deer back East with buckshot. That’s why it’s called buckshot.”


Each gun is manufactured to hold up to a certain length of shot shell. You can shoot shorter shotgun shells, but not longer ones. All else being the same, a longer shell has more pellets. Duck hunters, for example, might want a 3-inch shell, but 2 ¾ is generally sufficient for pheasants.

Lead versus steel

Entire books could be written on the ethical debate between steel and lead shot, but for these purposes, you should know a few things: steel shot is nontoxic and required when hunting waterfowl. Lead shot is allowed for upland game birds. Some hunters believe steel doesn’t work as well as lead, others say it is equally effective. Because steel is harder than lead, steel shot can be harmful to older shotgun barrels, said Burd. If you’re not sure, check your gun’s manual or ask a gun expert.


This might seem a little self-explanatory, but yes, velocity is speed. In general, the heavier the load, the slower your shot will go. Most shells are going to have a muzzle velocity of between 1,200 and 1,400 feet per second. For new or inexperienced hunters, the faster the shell generally the better, said Bob Borden, owner of Riverbend Roosters in Casper. For experienced hunters, velocity of choice depends on your personal preference.


Dram itself is a bit obsolete. It literally means how many drams of black powder go into a shell. Since most manufacturers have long since stopped using black powder, it now is the black powder equivalent, said Bill Pinter, a firearm salesman at Rocky Mountain Discount Sports. “The higher the dram the higher the power of the shell.”


Know your shotgun’s gauge, Pinter said, because you can only shoot the corresponding shells. It should be stamped on the barrel of your gun.

Sight it in

Now that you’ve chosen the right shells, don’t forget to pattern your shotgun, Borden said. Each gun shoots a slightly different pattern. “Some guns will produce a hole in their pattern shooting certain shots.” Set up large pieces of cardboard and shoot at varying distances. Similarly, if you’ve been shooting lead shot and are switching to steel, be sure and practice and pattern your new shot.


While finding the right shot is obviously important, equally as important is your gun’s choke. A more open choke allows you to shoot a bigger pattern and a narrower choke is a tighter pattern. If you’re hunting with a pointing dog and the birds will be close, for example, use a wider choke to improve your accuracy, Borden said. If you’re shooting farther away, use a narrower one.

When in doubt

Ask for help.

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