Ammunition | Hunting

Shotgun Ammo Types: Buckshot vs. Birdshot vs. Slug

Shotgun Ammo Types: Buckshot vs. Birdshot vs. Slug

You’ve probably heard the terms “buckshot,” “birdshot,” and “slug” before when dealing with shotgun ammo. If you’re not entirely sure how each one is different or all of the different uses for each one, that’s OK. We’re here to help! Now, it might not seem like it, but talking about different types of shotshells can get pretty in-depth pretty quickly. There’s more to it than just simply defining three different terms.

There’s a lot that we’ll cover, so feel free to skip ahead:

The Differences Between Buckshot, Birdshot, and Slugs

The TL;DR version is that shotshells containing buckshot and birdshot have multiple projectiles (of varying sizes, covered more later) instead of just one projectile inside of them. Buckshot has bigger (and fewer) pellets, while birdshot has smaller (and more) pellets. Slugs, on the other hand, are more like a traditional cartridge. They contain one large projectile. Buckshot is good for hunting large animals, birdshot is good for hunting birds, (obviously), and slugs help extend the reach of a shotgun’s potential.

Shotgun Shell Sizes: 12 Gauge vs 20 Gauge

Two of the most common shotgun shell sizes are 12 gauge and 20 gauge. For the uninitiated, you might assume that 20 gauge is bigger, but it’s not. In terms of shotshells, the smaller the number, the bigger the diameter (or gauge) of the shotgun’s bore. This all has to do with weight – specifically, one pound. In a 12 gauge shell, it will take 12 spherical balls (or shot or pellets or projectiles) of equal size and weight to equal one pound of shot. In a 20 gauge, it will take 20 balls of equal size and weight to equal one pound of shot.

This is where the smaller-is-bigger concept becomes clearer. Because the individual pieces contained within a shotshell are bigger in a 12 gauge than in a 20 gauge, 12 is bigger than 20.

Shotgun Ammo Types: Buckshot vs. Birdshot vs. Slug

The three main types of shotgun ammo are buckshot, birdshot, and slugs. We’ll take a look at how each one compares and contrasts to the other below.

Buckshot vs. Birdshot

Shotshells loaded with buckshot contain larger (and fewer) pellets or balls than a shotshell loaded with birdshot. This is because of the size difference between the main types of game that each shotshell was designed to hunt. Deer are, obviously, much larger than birds, so you’ll need larger, but fewer, individual projectiles to successfully harvest one.

The larger pellets found in buckshot would decimate a bird. Additionally, the success of your shot would be lower because you’d have fewer projectiles in the air with which to hit the bird than you would with birdshot. That’s why birdshot shells contain more, smaller pellets. This increases your chances of a successful harvest while minimizing the damage done by each individual pellet.

Buckshot vs. Slug

The difference between buckshot and a slug can be summed up with the phrase, “strength in numbers.” Both buckshot and slugs can (and are) used by hunters to harvest larger game, but it takes more buckshot to do it than with a slug. Buckshot takes advantage of the multiple larger size projectiles to accomplish what is generally able to be done by one slug.

Birdshot vs. Slug

Just like the buckshot comparison, there’s strength in numbers with birdshot, too, it just requires quite a few more numbers to muscle up the strength – and even then, the strength isn’t an even match. Birdshot and slugs are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to their intended purposes. Hunting quail with a slug would be just as inefficient as hunting deer with birdshot.

Birdshot: An Overview

As the name implies, birdshot is designed for shooting birds. The smaller size of pellets in each shotshell means that there are more of them in each cartridge. This increases the likelihood of hitting your intended target, but with the benefit of each individual piece of shot inflicting less damage. This is important because large pellets would produce significantly more damage, rendering the shot bird unsuitable for food purposes.

What is Birdshot Used For?

There are a lot of uses for birdshot, including but not limited to:

  • Bird hunting (ducks, geese, pheasant, etc)
  • Sporting games (skeet, trap, and sporting clays)
  • Small game hunting (squirrels, rabbits, etc)
  • Pest control (dangerous snakes, etc)

How Many Pellets are in a Birdshot Cartridge?

This depends on the size of the pellet and the shell in which they are loaded. For example, a 12 gauge 2.75” shell with No. 2 shot would contain 97 pellets. That same shell with No. 9 shot would have 715 pellets in it. There are a ton of variables, but if you had to put a number on the average, it would be around 250 pellets.

Common Sizes of Birdshot

Just like shotshells themselves, the numbers associated with the sizes of birdshot are the opposite of normal numbers. For example, No. 2 shot is larger than No. 9 shot. No.’s 7, 7.5, 8, and 9 are all common sizes that you’ll see on the label of a shotshell box.

Birdshot Range – How Far Will it Travel?

It depends on several different factors, but a commonly-cited average effective range of birdshot is 40 yards.

Buckshot: Birdshot’s Larger Cousin

As the name implies, buckshot is designed (in a literal sense) for bucks, or male deer. The design of the cartridge is the same as birdshot, but the size of the shot within the shell is comparatively larger because of its intended purpose. It’s only logical that you need larger projectiles to take down a deer than you would for a dove.

What is Buckshot Used For?

There are a lot of uses for birdshot, including but not limited to:

  • Large game hunting (deer, etc)
  • Target shooting
  • Home defense

Common Sizes of Buckshot

Just like shotshells and birdshot, the numbers associated with sizes of buckshot are the opposite of normal numbers. No. 4 Buck is smaller than No. 1 Buck, with the former having 21-25 pellets per ounce and the latter having just 10-12 pellets per ounce.

The most common size of buckshot that most people have heard of is 00 Buck, often pronounced, ‘double-ought,’ which is larger than No. 1 Buck, but smaller than 000 Buck.

How Many Pellets are in a Buckshot Cartridge?

This depends on the size of the pellet and the shell in which they are loaded. Because the shot is larger in general than birdshot, buckshot cartridges have considerably fewer pellets in them. A typical 12-gauge, 2.75-inch 00 Buck shell holds 8 pellets, while a 3-inch shell most often contains 12 pellets.

Buckshot Range – How Far Will it Travel?

Again, there are a lot of things to consider, but it’s safe to say that the average effective range of buckshot is 30-40 yards.

Slugs: The Shotgun’s Heavy Hitters

Slugs are a shotgun’s equivalent of an ace up the sleeve. Because shotguns were originally designed to shoot multiple projectiles at once, they spread out after leaving the barrel, thereby limiting their effective range.

Slugs, on the other hand, perform more like standard bullets. They can even be fired from special slug barrels that contain rifling grooves to help stabilize the slug in flight. This means that a slug can deliver significantly more energy upon impact than buckshot or birdshot, and do it at a greater distance as well.

What are Slugs Made out of?

Slugs can be made from a variety of materials. Lead and steel are two of the most common, but there are others. For example, rubber slugs can be utilized in ‘less-than-lethal’ applications. Slugs designed for more precise shots, like those required in competition or hunting, can be made of brass and may even be contained within a plastic sabot for more stabilized flight.

How Far will a Shotgun Slug Travel?

Because of its design, the average effective range of a shotgun slug is 75 yards – further than buckshot or birdshot. Because the projectile is more similar to that of a regular bullet, it will perform better at longer distances than the multiple smaller projectiles that make up birdshot and buckshot. You can even stretch it out to 100 yards if you’ve got the right load in the right gun.

What are Slugs Used For?

There are a lot of uses for slugs, including but not limited to:

  • Large game hunting (deer, bear, boar, etc)
    Home defense
  • 3-Gun competition shooting
  • Situations where a rifle would be ideal, but you only have a shotgun.
  • Breaching barriers, such as doors, cars, etc

Common Slug Sizes

Slugs are generally used in larger bore shotguns, like the 12 gauge. Slugs in these shells are commonly found weighing 0.875, 1, and 1.125 ounces. For comparison, a standard .30-06 rifle bullet weighs 0.34 ounces.

Buckshot vs. Birdshot for Home Defense

Some people may disagree, but we do not recommend that you use birdshot for home defense. When your life is on the line, the purpose of making a shot for self-defense in the home is to end the threat.

Many cases have been seen in hospitals the world over where a patient comes in filled with tons of little pellets found in birdshot. As long as no major organs, arteries, or veins are compromised, the patient will undergo a painful procedure to remove the many pellets, but they will go on to make a full recovery.

A good example of this is the hunting accident involving Vice President Dick Cheney. He shot one of his partners with birdshot and the man went on to make a full recovery.

Buckshot, on the other hand, delivers far more stopping power in a self-defense situation in the home. Far fewer patients have been seen in hospitals with buckshot wounds who go on to make full recoveries.

You might only get one shot in a self-defense situation. If that’s the case, make sure it counts. Don’t use birdshot. Unless, of course, that’s all you have available at the time. In that case, birdshot is certainly better than no shot at all.

What about Slugs for Home Defense?

If multiple large projectiles are good for home defense, then one even larger projectile must be even better, right? Well, sort of.

With any shooting situation (defensive or recreational), you have to be aware of your target, your surroundings, and what lies beyond your target. A slug will do a good job of neutralizing a threat in a home defense scenario, but it also has the highest likelihood of overpenetration.

Whether using buckshot, birdshot, or slugs, you always have to be aware of the consequences of overpenetration, as loved ones in the next room could be impacted by your shot.

Reduce Noise and Recoil on Your Shotgun

Regardless of how you choose to use a shotgun, one thing is certain across the board: a suppressor helps reduce its noise and recoil. Whether you’re out hunting or defending your home, those reductions are very beneficial. Naturally, we’d recommend you look into getting a suppressor for your shotgun.

At Silencer Central, we are passionate about compliance, knowledge, and community education in firearm sound suppression. With more than 15 years of experience in the industry, we are the nation’s largest silencer dealer. We’re also the only one licensed in all 42 suppressor-legal states that can sell, process, and ship your new suppressor directly to your door.

Like all things in life, there’s always something more to learn. Hopefully, the information in this article helped answer a lot of your questions. Of course, it’s also possible that it brought some new questions to mind that you hadn’t thought of before. Or, we might have overlooked your question altogether. Whatever the case, we’re here to answer any and all of your questions.

Our experts are ready to help you by phone or email, Monday through Saturday from 8:00am – 8:00pm (CT).

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