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When you buy a shotgun, regardless of the purpose, the effective range depends on the ammunition. There are several types of ammo available for shotguns, and it’s essential to know the differences for the best results.
When compared with rifles, shotguns are relatively close-range weapons. However, the shotgun also fires more varied types of ammunition than the average rifle, contributing to its versatility. When you’re selecting ammunition for your shotgun or assigning it to a particular role — e.g., sporting gun, defensive weapon, survival tool — understanding effective range can be vital.
Shotgun Effective Ranges
Your shotgun’s effective range depends on multiple factors, such as the gauge, barrel length, type of ammunition, choke, and more.
One of the most crucial factors, however, is ammunition type. Shotguns, generally speaking, fire three types of ammunition:
Birdshot is the standard for skeet shooting and hunting fast-moving game animals, such as birds. As a result, birdshot consists of many lightweight, small pellets, usually less than .20 caliber and sometimes as small as .01”.
Buckshot is the most common type of shotgun ammunition used for private self-defense, law enforcement, and military service. Buckshot consists of large pellets, usually .24 caliber and above.
Shotgun slugs can be the large, solid projectiles close to the nominal bore diameter or sub-caliber projectiles in a plastic sabot. Regardless of the design, slugs are designed for deep penetration and massive wound trauma. Outside of a hunting context, slugs offer increased barrier penetration compared with buckshot.
Birdshot and buckshot consist of multiple pellets that begin to disperse as they leave the muzzle. This dispersion is called spread. The farther the shot pellets travel, the more the shot pattern density dissipates, reducing hit probability. At the same time, air resistance, or drag, continuously slows the pellets, causing them to lose kinetic energy. The less energetic the pellets are when they strike a target, the less penetrative and disruptive they will be.
At 50 meters, you can still expect #00 buckshot pellets to meet or exceed the FBI’s minimum penetration standard. Lighter pellets, such as #1 and especially #4, will not meet that standard at extended ranges, penetrating to comparatively shallow depths.
Depending on the choke, buckshot loads in a 12-gauge shotgun can be effective against a human adversary out to 60 or 70 meters. However, in a cylinder-bore shotgun, the effective range of, for example, #00 buckshot is 40–50 meters. Beyond that range, the pattern is so wide that a reliable hit is not guaranteed.
Furthermore, as the pattern density diminishes, you will likely deliver fewer pellets to the target, which reduces the terminal effectiveness of the wound. The brand of shotgun ammunition and the wad or shot cup design can also affect the results.
For the best results with buckshot, consider limiting the range to 25 meters or less. Under this range, you can expect all of your pellets to remain inside a target the size of a man’s chest with a cylinder-bore shotgun barrel. This is ideal for most defensive applications.
Slugs are in a distinct category. As a single projectile, the shotgun slug is akin to a heavy rifle bullet. Shotgun slugs don’t tend to be that aerodynamic in design — they’re typically flat-nosed or hollow-point projectiles, so they’re more susceptible to drag. Despite this downside, they’re still able to reach out farther than shot pellets and many handgun bullets.
When you pair shotgun slugs with a set of rifle-type sights, you can increase the effective range of your shotgun to between 80 and 150 meters. You can hit targets beyond this distance, but the trajectory of the rifle slug will make this progressively more difficult.
To extend the effective range of buckshot, you can choose to use a choke. A choke allows you to control the spread of buckshot by constricting the shot as it leaves the barrel. This increases the pattern density, increasing the number of pellets remaining inside a target at varying distances.
However, if you want to increase the energy, the choke has no effect on this parameter. Instead, you’ll have to increase the propellant powder charge in the cartridge. The barrel length has a minimal effect on muzzle velocity due to low-pressure, fast-burning powders.
Risk of Dispersion
While you may be able to hit a man-size target at 50 meters with a shotgun firing buckshot, it’s possible that several pellets will not strike your intended target.
Depending on the environment, you may decide to select a more accurate weapon. Stray pellets increase the probability of injuring a bystander in proximity to the target. This is why it’s essential that you determine how your shotgun patterns with different ammunition and adjust your weapon, the choke, or the ammo accordingly until you achieve the desired results consistently.
Fire several shotshells at paper targets at varying distances, with different chokes or choke settings — if you have an adjustable choke — using different types of shot.
Likewise, slug cartridges will have distinct points of impact, depending on the weight and design of the projectile. Some slugs are more aerodynamic than others, while others are sub-caliber projectiles enclosed in discarding sabots.
While birdshot and buckshot rounds are relatively limited in range, comparable to handguns, there are other types of specialty rounds.
While the type of ammunition that you choose will determine, to a significant degree, your shotgun’s effective range, you shouldn’t neglect sighting systems. The standard sight for many shotguns is a bead with no rear sight. As noted, rifle-type sights can allow you to take full advantage of a slug’s increased range in relation to buckshot.
For increased precision, you can consider using a reflector, prismatic, or holographic sight. The latter type, which typically uses a 1-MOA dot enclosed in a 68-MOA circle, can also prove beneficial. In these sight reticles, the circle may correspond to the spreading pattern of your shotgun at varying distances.
Some shotgunners use a low-power variable optic (LPVO) when firing slugs. The magnified reticle can afford a degree of precision not available with iron sights or fixed-magnification red-dot sights.
To take full advantage of your shotgun, find out its range with the ammunition you intend to keep it loaded with. This will increase your chances of hitting your target, delivering enough power to achieve the desired effect.