Shotgun Boot Camp: How to Load Your Shotgun

Last Updated on June 8, 2024.
Shotgun Boot Camp How to Load Your Shotgun

Loading your shotgun is necessary to ready it for firing. Unloading your shotgun is necessary to ensure it’s safe for routine maintenance, disassembly, and transport. Learn how to do this to be a safe and effective shooter.

Shotgun Types and Magazines

Loading is the act of inserting ammunition into a firearm to ready it for firing. The exact loading procedure differs depending on the type of shotgun and its magazine, assuming it has one. 

In single- and double-barreled break-action shotguns, the number of shells the shotgun holds is proportionate to the number of barrels. Each barrel has a corresponding firing chamber into which you insert a shotgun shell. 

There is a magazine that holds multiple shotgun shells under spring pressure for feeding into the chamber in repeating shotguns. Most repeating shotguns, whether pump-action or semi-automatic, are fed from a tubular magazine located below the barrel. 

In 12-gauge shotguns, such as the Mossberg 500/590 and Remington 870, these magazine tubes typically hold between five and seven standard-length 12-gauge shells (i.e., 2¾”). 

However, magazine extensions are available for these weapons that can increase the capacity by two or more shells. If you use shorter shells or your gun can chamber magnums (3” or 3½”), the capacity may vary.

Shotguns fed from detachable box magazines are not as common as those fed from tubular magazines; however, they are gaining popularity. These magazines typically hold between 7 and 12 rounds.

How to Load a Shotgun

There’s typically an opening lever located on the tang of the stock above the safety catch in single- and double-barreled break-action shotguns. Rotating this lever unlocks the barrels from the frame and allows them to pivot downward, exposing the chambers for loading and unloading. Insert however many shells there are barrels and close the gun by lifting the barrels until they lock in place. 

In shotguns fed from tubular magazines, there is usually a loading port located directly behind the magazine at the bottom of the receiver. The procedure for loading these types of shotguns begins with retracting the slide to open the breech. If you’re right-handed, take a shotgun shell in your left hand, reach under the receiver, and insert the shell into the chamber through the ejection port. Close the breech. 

The loading port in Remington and Benelli shotguns is partially closed by the shell lifter. To load shotguns of this type, you’ll use the shotgun shell to raise the shell lifter and press the shell toward the magazine tube. You will usually insert your thumb into the receiver until the shell latch catches the round. Mossberg shotguns have open loading ports, so there’s less risk of pinching your thumb. 

There are a variety of ways to load tube-fed shotguns. Some shooters prefer to rotate the shotgun in the support hand, bracing the stock against the thigh or hip, with the loading port facing upward. The shooter then loads shells with their strong hand

Others load shells into the magazine tube with the support hand while the stock is still braced against the shoulder. This way, the shooter can top off the magazine while their firing hand remains on the grip.

The procedure for loading a detachable shotgun magazine does not differ significantly from loading a pistol or rifle magazine. Depress the spring-loaded follower using the head of the shell and slide the round under the magazine lips until the base hits the rear. 

Carrying Unloaded

When deciding how to load your shotgun, you also have to determine whether you want to carry it loaded or unloaded. If you want to carry your shotgun unloaded, you should first clear the weapon, as is customary with firearms of all types, by opening the action and inspecting the chamber for a live round. 

Once you’ve confirmed that the chamber is empty, close the action, disengage the safety catch, and press the trigger to drop the hammer. That way, after loading, the action will not be locked, and you can cycle a round into the chamber immediately without depressing the action release. 

A Word on Ammunition

There are a variety of shotgun shell lengths on the market. It’s important to know which shotgun shell types your gun can chamber and fire. Shotgun shell lengths are typically expressed in inches. 

Standard shotshells in 12 gauge are 2¾”. This is not the unfired length, however. The opening to the shotgun shell is crimped to hold the shot pellets in place. When you fire the shotgun, the expanding gases generated by the burning propellant force the wadding and shot charge forward, opening the crimped shotgun shell to its full length

A 12-gauge shotgun that has a 2¾” chamber cannot fire 3” magnum shells. Only load shotgun shells of the appropriate length for your gun. 

One of the most common additions to a shotgun is a choke tube. Choke tubes are tapered sleeves that you screw into the barrel of a shotgun to constrict the shot pellets, tightening the spreading pattern for increased range. If you intend to fire rifled slugs, cylinder-bore shotgun barrels are best, followed by improved cylinder. Anything tighter than this is not advisable


Learning how to load a shotgun is only part of the equation. You should also know how to unload it for transportation and storage. There are multiple ways to unload a shotgun safely. You rotate the opening lever in a break-action shotgun, pivot the barrels downward, and remove the spent or unfired shells manually with your fingers. Alternatively, a sharp rearward movement can force the spent shells out.

If the break-action shotgun has automatic extractors, the shells will partially extract for easy removal. If the shotgun has automatic ejectors, the act of breaking the gun open will also expel the shells. 

In shotguns fed from tubular magazines, the simplest way to unload the magazine is to depress the action release lever and cycle the fore-end until the magazine is empty. However, when you cycle the shotgun to unload it, you are chambering each shotshell before extracting and ejecting it. 

To avoid chambering ammunition during the unloading process, raise the shell lifter through the loading port, and find and depress the shell latch. The shell latch is a spring-loaded part designed to retain shotgun shells in the magazine. 

Depress the shell latch with your finger, and the magazine feeding spring will eject one shell. Repeat this action until the magazine has been unloaded, and you can see the follower through the loading port.

​Ammo Accessories

Although shotguns are relatively low-capacity weapons, a common way of compensating for the lack of magazine capacity is to have an onboard ammunition supply for quick reloading. 

This usually takes the form of a side saddle. Shotgun side saddles, also known as shell carriers, are metal or plastic loops that hold shotgun shells on the outside of the gun. These may attach to the receiver or the stock, depending on the model. Side saddles allow you to carry several additional rounds, usually between four and six, increasing the firepower available to you.

In Sum A magazine

If you can’t load your gun, you can’t fire it. If you can’t unload it, you can’t render it safe, take it apart, or clean it. Loading is essential for any firearm, and your shotgun is no exception.

Now that you're ready to load, are you now able to properly aim your shotgun? If not, then might as well visit this page to enhance your shotgun aim.

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