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Shotgun Cartridges

Physical size

Shotgun cartridges come in a range of sizes to suit your gun and it is important that you select the right physical size.

Firstly and maybe obviously is the diameter ... generally expressed as bore or gauge ie. is your gun a 12 gauge (12 bore /12g), 20 gauge (20 bore / 20g) or something different?

The diameter you buy must be right!

The next most important thing is the length... do you know your gun chamber size / length? The cartridges you buy have to fit.

Many older shotguns have a shorter 2.5inch chamber, many cartridges are measured in mm so the equivalent is 65mm.

More modern shotguns typically have a 3” chamber (76.2mm) so will happily take 70mm cartridges.

shotgun cartridges
You can use a smaller length cartridge in a longer chamber, but definitely not the other way around!

That's the important part taken care of but there is more to consider when you are buying your cartridges.

Wad (fibre or plastic)

This is a small disk of material that separates the powder from the lead shot inside the cartridge. The most important thing here, is where you are going to shoot and what their rules are.

Fibre or felt wads are biodegradable and plastic is not, so some shooting grounds can be very specific.

There are apparently performance differences and shooters will have their preference, but this is not something to worry about as a newbie.

Load weight

This refers to the weight of the actual shot in the cartridge and is measured in grams. A typical load for clay shooting is 21-28g and many clay shooting grounds will insist nothing heavier is used. Heavier loads are generally used for game shooting, typically 30-32g of shot.

Shot size

A bit like fishing, the higher the number the smaller the size, so if you choose a bigger number shot, there will be more of them for the weight you have chosen. Typically for clays you would be looking somewhere between a size No 7 1/2 to No 8 1/2 shot (8 1/2 being smaller, but more of them)


The speed of the shot is measured in FPS (feet per second) and is often marked on the box as velocity. Personally I have tried fast and slow ones, I can't tell the difference except that maybe the faster ones give a bit more recoil. 

The experts again will have their preferences, it could be patterning or the speed, but I'm sure if it gets to the target a fraction of a second earlier it wouldn't make a discernable difference to my scores! rubbish shot

So to sum up a typical description of a cartridge would be:

12ga 28gr plastic No8

There are obviously lots of technical reasons not mentioned here for your choices, but if you point your gun in the right place any shot size, weight or speed will break the clay!

How it works

Thanks go to Gunner17722

Steel or lead shot?

Most readily available cartridges will have lead shot. Steel shot is classified as either standard or high performance.

Can I fire steel shot through my shotgun?

If your gun is nitro-proofed (i.e. it can fire modern lead loads) then it should be safe to fire standard performance steel providing it is not choked tighter than half. The shot is generally steel of size 4 or smaller. Older guns may have been nitro-proofed but not have the proof marks for steel . High performance steel must be marked up as such on the box, and should only be fired through guns bearing the fleur-de-lys proof mark, and usually with the words “STEEL SHOT” stamped on the barrel.

If your gun isn’t proofed for steel, you should still be able to use ‘standard’ steel loads. As a guide, guns which are proved to ‘nitro’ (930 bar) will be safe to handle standard steel loads. To shoot ‘superior’ steel loads, your gun needs to be proofed to at least 1,320 bar. As more people switch, a variety of steel loads will become more widely available I’m sure.

If your gun has multichokes, you will be able to select the most suitable chokes for the job – you will probably find that you need to use slightly more open chokes when shooting steel to achieve similar patterns to what you’re used to with lead shot at equivalent ranges.

If you have any doubt about your gun, seek the advice of an expert gunsmith.

Why do chokes affect a guns ability to shoot steel?

When a gun is choked tighter than half, the shot is being forced to constrict as it moves through the chokes. Lead shot is more malleable than steel and therefore adapts when it meets the choking in the barrels. Steel on the other hand being much harder, could cause considerable damage to the barrels and be a safety risk to the shooter and those around them.

How does steel compare to lead?

Steel is only around 70% as dense as lead, and also less soft (and malleable). Modern steel shot cartridges are actually “soft iron”, not steel, and are significantly better than they used to be. Steel must be used in a shot cup to protect the barrels from direct contact, which would otherwise cause damage. In the main these are made of plastic, but other options are available, such as Gamebore’s fibre shot cup Silver Steel and Eley’s PRO ECO, as well as other materials which are currently under development.

When lead shot is fired down and out of your barrels it gets a good hammering. Those neat round spheres start to deform, and as they become less regular they tend to spread into a broader pattern. Steel being much harder deforms less easily as previously mentioned, leading to tighter patterns.

In clay shooting, a steel pellet travelling at speed will break a clay as effectively as lead, perhaps more so. Steel is also far less dense than lead. Pellet for pellet, steel shot is a third lighter than lead shot, and loses momentum more quickly, putting a dampener on its effective range. To counter the density issue, you can use pellets two sizes larger than equivalent lead shot, but there’s a trade-off, larger shot means that fewer pellets can be packed into a cartridge meaning fewer pellets available to collide with that tricky clay that’s moving a lot faster than you perhaps originally thought. On the other hand, a 28g steel load will contain more pellets than a 28g lead load, because steel is lighter and it takes more pellets to make up the weight.

Steel does do a great job of busting clays but some shooting grounds will not permit them.

Why do some grounds not like steel shot?

In contrast to lead, steel rusts away relatively quickly and isn’t anywhere near as toxic so is more environmentally friendly than lead but are more often than not supplied with a plastic wad ... so not environmentally friendly.

Steel shot also has very different ballistic characteristics and is more likely to ricochet off hard surfaces such as trap-houses so many considered it to be less safe.

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