Shotgun Boot Camp: How to Aim a Shotgun (Not Always the Same as a Rifle)

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Last Updated on August 3, 2021.

Writer for Minuteman Review, handgun aficionado and artisan firearms reviewer. 

Shotgun Boot Camp: How to Aim a Shotgun (Not Always the Same as a Rifle)

As with handguns and rifles, you need to aim a shotgun to hit your target reliably. The aiming process is no less important for shotgun shooters, although it does differ from that of other firearms. Learning the basics of aiming with different sighting systems can seriously improve your shooting experience.


Shotgun Sights

Shotguns are equipped with a variety of sighting systems. The traditional sight for a hunting shotgun consists of a brass bead front sight and no rear sight. While this serves for hunting, clay-disc shooting, and close-range self-defense, more precise sights are available for longer ranges.


How to Aim a Shotgun

How to aim a shotgun?” It’s a common myth, perpetuated both by folklore and media depictions, that you can’t miss with a shotgun. A shotgun firing buckshot is not a Claymore mine that launches ball bearings in a fan-like pattern. Buckshot leaves the barrel as a cluster of pellets, which disperses the farther it travels from the muzzle. 

However, at relatively close range, such as the inside of your home, the shot pattern is roughly equivalent to the size of your fist. If you don’t aim, you can miss.

The aiming process for a shotgun can differ significantly from that of a handgun or rifle, depending on the type of shooting that you intend to engage in and the nature of the target. 

In shotguns with front- and mid-bead sights and ventilated ribs, the bead acts as a reference point or index. You don’t focus on the bead or the barrel, however — your focus should be on the target, not the sight. This type of pointing is suitable for shooting fast-moving aerial targets, such as clay discs and birds, using birdshot. The dispersion of the shot pellets and lead renders this method of shooting highly efficient. 

It’s a popular misconception that you look down the barrel of a shotgun so equipped. Your eyes should be on the target. Attempting to focus on the front sight when shooting birds or discs in flight is not practical, as you can only focus on one object at a time. If you focus on the front sight, the target will become blurry. 

This is in direct contrast to handgun and rifle sights. In iron-sighted firearms, your focus should be on the front sight, with the rear sight and target blurry. The human eye can only focus on one object at a time; therefore, it’s necessary to shift your focus between the rear sight, the front sight, and the target.

For more accurate shooting, whether using buckshot or slugs, you can select rifle-type sights for your shotgun. These can fall into two broad categories: open sights and “peep” or aperture sights. In open-sight shotguns, there’s a front sight, typically a blade or bead, and a rear “V” notch, both mounted on the barrel. 

Open sights are fast and work well with both buckshot rounds and slugs. Aiming using open sights is comparable to that of aiming a handgun. You place the tip of the front sight in the center of the rear notch with the tops of both sights level. You then place the front and rear sights, aligned, on the target. The point of impact should be above the front sight.

In the second category are peep or aperture sights. The most prominent example on a shotgun is the “ghost ring,” which is a large rear aperture sight with a thin rim. One of the principal advantages of the ghost ring in comparison with the open sights’ shallow “V” is that the aperture doesn’t obscure the field of view below the target. This allows more light to pass through the aperture and improves situational awareness. 

Aiming aperture or peep sights on a shotgun is comparable to aiming the sights on an AR-15 or other modern military rifle. You place the tip of the front sight — blade or post — in the center of the rear aperture sight. Your eye naturally attempts to center the front sight in the rear sight. 

When using iron sights, whether open or aperture, it’s important that you always place your cheek on the same part of the comb every time. The comb is the top of the stock. A consistent stock weld will ensure that your eye relief is also consistent, which affects your perception of the sights.


Optical Shotgun Sights

When learning how to aim a shotgun, you’re not limited to iron sights. There are also optical systems. The use of telescopic sights — i.e., magnified optics — on a shotgun is less necessary than on a rifle under most circumstances. In shotguns firing buckshot, the effective range is typically 40 to 50 meters. Depending on the choke tube, you may be able to extend this to 60 or 70. 

When using slugs, however, the effective range with rifled slugs is 80 to 100, although sabot slugs in rifled barrels can extend this to more than 150

In other words, the maximum effective range of a shotgun is limited by the types of ammunition available. Buckshot pellets begin dispersing immediately upon leaving the muzzle of the gun and lose energy rapidly due to their non-aerodynamic design, relatively lightweight construction, and low velocity. 

Slugs — whether rifled or sabot — are heavier and more energetic, so they fly farther. However, slugs are also non-aerodynamic and are highly susceptible to air resistance, resulting in a rainbow-like trajectory and more pronounced drop at distance. This is one of the reasons that slugs are often the preferred choice of ammunition for hunting in environments where rifle bullets would pose an undue risk to bystanders. 

These reasons render the use of variable-power and high-power rifle-type scopes inappropriate for most shotgun shooting at close–medium ranges. A magnified optic is also wholly inappropriate for any kind of fast-moving target, whether in the air or on the ground, as it doesn’t afford you the necessary peripheral vision or situational awareness

If you choose to use a magnified optic on a shotgun when firing slugs, there are other, better reasons. The advantages are improved light gathering and target identification, which can be beneficial to you if you’re shooting under low-light conditions or your vision isn’t what it used to be

Reflector and Holographic Sights

The 1× reflector/reflex or holographic sight offers a non-magnified optical alternative to the rifle scope, allowing for rapid target acquisition under variable lighting conditions. These types of sights use a red, amber, or green sight reticle that appears on the target field. You place the reticle on the target and press the trigger. 

In holographic sighting systems, dual-reticle designs are common. These reticles consist of a 1–2-MOA dot enclosed in a 65–68-MOA circle. Depending on your choice of ammunition and choke tube, the wider circle can correspond to the spreading pattern of buckshot pellets, allowing for an effective close-range sighting solution. The type of sighting system that you need depends entirely on the type of shooting that

On a related matter, do you already know how to properly load a shotgun? If not, you may check out our full guide on this topic.

Now to accurately aim a shotgun, you have to know how to properly shoulder a shotgun so you won't injure yourself on its kickback.


Tailor Your Sights to the Target

No matter what you’ve heard, you do need to aim a shotgun to achieve reliable hits, and you can miss. Find the sighting system that suits you best. You should be able to see the target, or acquire a sight picture, rapidly, depending on the type of shooting.