Shotgun Shells Vs. Pellets: What’s The Difference?

One of my earliest recollections of seeing someone fire a weapon is my grandfather firing off his old H&R single barrel shotgun. I was about five years old at the time and can’t recall what he was shooting at. I’m sure no doubt that it would have been some critter threatening his treasured chickens. The blast of the shotgun made a distinct impression on me.  

Shotgun shell describes a loaded bullet designed for use in a Shotgun. Typically, this shotgun shell would contain pellets or shots. Pellets are thus the projectiles that are ejected from a shotgun when fired.

Shotguns are incredibly versatile weapons that can fire a huge quantity of projectiles simultaneously. The most common are pellets, which is the collective name for a variety of spherical designed projectiles. 

shotgun shells vs pellets

Shotgun Shell?

Shotgun shell is a general term used to describe the cartridge or ammunition fired from a shotgun. Shotgun shells differ from traditional bullets as they generally do not have a brass shell or casing. In addition, the projectile fired from a shotgun comprises pellets as opposed to a solid projectile fired from pistols and rifles. 

Variations of the shotgun shell have come about over time and now include what is called slugs. Slugs are solid projectiles that can be loaded into a shotgun shell instead of pellets. Further improvements in technology have also lead to the development of Sabot slugs which are made of a brass alloy or lead and brass combinations.

Sabot slugs are encased in a plastic sleeve that separates from the bullet head when the projectile exits the shotgun’s barrel and, for all intents and purposes, becomes a rifle bullet.  

The traditional slugs and sabot slugs have all aided to increases the versatility of the shotgun. 

Pellets For A Shotgun?

Pellets, or shot, are spherical-shaped balls made from either lead, steel, tungsten, or bismuth. 

A shot is available in several sizes that are designed for specific uses. Traditionally shot was only manufactured from lead. Since 1991 the use of lead shot has been banned across the USA for use in hunting waterfowl due to its negative health and environmental qualities. This change in legislation forced the manufacturers of ammunition to offer alternatives which have turned out to be steel shot, tungsten alloys, and bismuth.

Understanding Pellet Sizes

Pellets for use in shotguns are available in various sizes ranging from 0.069 inches (1.75mm) to 0.230 inches (5.84mm). In the USA, the manufacturers have pretty much standardized shot sizes. They have allocated either a number or letter to the relevant shot size to make identifying your favorite shot size easier. In terms of the identification, the above 0.069 inches (1.75mm) shot size is the smallest and is called the number 10 shot.     

The larger the size of the shot, the lower the number becomes. ’00’ Is the largest in terms of numeric identification. To make things a bit more confusing, lettering is used to identify even larger shots. The biggest available shot is labeled “FF,” which is 0.230 inches (5.84mm) in diameter. 

The UK and other countries have their own identification systems, which you’d need to familiarize yourself with before buying imported ammunition.

What Are Shot Shells Used For?

Shotshells were originally designed to replace the muzzle loading reloading system of old. Self-contained cartridges started gaining popularity in line with advancements in ammunition and weapon design. The self-contained cartridge greatly reduced the hassle of reloading a shotgun after the shot had been fired. 

The cartridge also did away with the need to carry around separate containers housing the primer, percussion cap, black powder flask, and heavy shot. Reloading the old muzzle loaders was a tedious affair and often led to the hunter going hungry due to missing the opportunity to down a bird while reloading his gun.  

Shotshells are available in many options, including different calibers suitable for hunting, target shooting, self-defense, and vermin control.

Shotgun Shells Vs. Pellets: What's The Difference? 1

Components Making Up A Shot Shell

The design of shotshells has remained basically unchanged since coming into being in the 1800s. Shells are comprised of a primer, brass primer housing, casing or shell, powder, wad, and shot.

Shotshells have undergone several changes over time in terms of appearance and materials from which they’re made, but the basic design has stayed constant.  When the very first shotshells were released well over 150 years ago, the case was made from brass, not unlike modern rifle cartridges today. The straight-walled case contained a primer, black powder, a wad separating the powder and shot. The brass case was closed with a substance called water glass (sodium silicate) which prevented the pellets from calling out of the case.

Around 1850 the cardboard or paper case became popular, replacing the brass cases. During this time, smokeless propellants became available and took over from black power. Cardboard or paper shells saw the introduction of the roll crimp and fold crimps to close the cartridge preventing the shot from falling out. This design was used for about 100 years, and some manufacturers still offer this option.

The next significant development in the shotshell design came in about 1960 when plastics became popular. The paper shell casing, powder, and shot wads were replaced with plastic versions. The plastic case and wad system are still in use today. Interestingly both the roll and fold crimp options are still used today.   

Patterning A Shotgun

While the general perception exists that you can’t miss with a shotgun, given the spread and number of pellets loaded into a shotshell, the opposite is true. You can miss with a shotgun. Ask anyone who has tried shooting a moving target. 

Shot or pellets can behave surprisingly erratic after the shot leaves the barrel. Wind resistance, the shape of the pellet, if not perfectly round, and the forces that the pellets exert on each other while traveling down the barrel and through the air all play a role in the accuracy of a shotgun.

One important aspect of shooting a shotgun that shotgun users overlook is determining the pattern that their shotgun and ammunition brand combination produces. In the same way, as rifle and pistol bullets vary in their point of impact, not all brands and types of shotgun ammunition shoot to the same point of aim. The goal is to achieve an even spread of pellets over a given surface area, maybe 2 or 3 feet at a given distance, to ensure that sufficient pellets hit your target.

Another factor that influences the average pattern is to reduce the amount of deformation of the pellets themselves during the firing process. Manufacturers consider a multitude of factors when constructing a shotshell, and this is only one. Forces exerted on the shot during acceleration from standstill to terminal velocity are significant. 

Shot pellets themselves can deform with the pressure being exerted on them while exiting the barrel. As we know, a round pellet will be less influenced by air resistance than a deformed one. To address this, a good balance between the hardness of the pellet and the weight of the shot has been found.  A compromise between good pattern and terminal performance should be found. 

Shotgun Shells Vs. Pellets: What's The Difference? 2

Uses Of A Shotgun

Shotguns are very versatile in terms of their various applications. Most commonly, shotguns are used for hunting winged and small to medium-sized game, target shooting sports, and self-defense or security applications.

Tradition plays a big part in determining which guns are to be used for which purpose. This brings to mind an English gentleman strolling through the countryside in pursuit of a pheasant with his side by side shotgun broken over his arm. This would hardly look right if he were carrying a semi-automatic single barrel shotgun fitted with a night sight. Both would undoubtedly get the job done, but it just doesn’t look and feel right and would be frowned on.

Interestingly, a shotgun is referred to as a gun by purists, not a rifle. 

Shotguns come in many designs and brands, but generally, the following types are used for:

  • Side by side or also referred to as a double-barrel: Hunting
  • Pump-action: Hunting and Self Defense or Security
  • Semi-Automatic: Hunting, Combat Sports, and Self Defense or Security
  • Over and Under: Clay target shooting and hunting
  • Bolt Action: Hunting (Primarily with Slugs or Sabots)
  • Single Shot: Hunting and Self Defense  
  • Bullpup: Security work

Is Steel Shot As Effective As Lead Shot?

Steel and other shot types were introduced in the early 1990s due to the banning of lead shots for waterfowl hunting. The pollution caused by the lead shot in the water and the immediate proximity of the wetlands was why its use was banned.

Steel shot is lighter than the traditional lead shot; therefore, the shooter needs to make up for the lower momentum in two ways. 

  1. Use larger steel shot to achieve the same penetration.
  2. Velocity has to be increased to achieve the same results.

Ammunition loaded with steel shot has a higher velocity than its lead equivalent to making up for the lighter steel properties. However, along with the increased velocity comes increased pressure, which unfortunately is not suited to older guns. In addition, the steel shot creates excessive wear to the internal barrel of old guns due to the softer metals used to manufacture traditional lead shooting guns.

New shotguns designed specifically to shoot steel shots are more robustly built using stronger metals and often have chrome-lined barrels to reduce the wear caused by the steel shot. 

Shotgun Shells Vs. Pellets: What's The Difference? 3

Does A Shot Shell Generate Recoil?

Newton’s 3rd law of relativity comes into play when exploring if a shotshell generates recoil. The law dictates something along the lines of for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. Given that shot has a certain mass that is accelerated at a significant velocity within a very short amount of time, a certain amount of recoil is generated when the shot is fired

Factors That Determine The Amount Of Recoil Experienced

The amount of gun powder used to propel the shot down the shotgun’s barrel and the mass of the shot itself. The heavier the combined mass of the pellets, the more force is required to propel the charge to the desired speed. 

The weight of the gun and how well the gun fits the shooter will also influence the amount of felt recoil that will be exerted onto the shooter. As a general rule, the heavier the gun, the less the recoil will be felt.

As a general rule, shotguns do ‘kick’ or generate recoil. The recoil is by no means excessive and can be managed by ensuring the shotgun fits you well. Always match the shot size to what you’re comfortable with in terms of recoil and yet suited to the purpose for which you require it, e.g., clay target shooting. 

How Are Pellets Made?

In 1906 the UK had three shot-making facilities, each producing roughly three tons of shot per day. How this worked was interesting due to its simplicity. These consisted of a brick tower 190 feet tall. Each housed a smelter that melted a combination of lead and antimony alloy ingots at a temperature of 700 to 800 degrees Fahrenheit.  

The molten lead was released from the smelter in a controlled manner. The lead was poured through a sieve with specific-sized holes, which determined the shot size. The lead droplets then fell 130 feet to a velocity of 130 miles per hour, which formed the round balls, and landed in a bath of water which cooled the lead pellets. The shot was then collected out of the water, allowed to dry, and was ready for use.

Today, different techniques have been developed to manufacture the shot. Steel, tungsten, and bismuth each present the manufacturers with unique manufacturing challenges.  

In countries where the home reloading of ammunition is permitted, like South Africa, a mini shot maker is available. This works on a similar principle to the old British factories.

It consists of a small smelter in which the lead alloy is melted, usually old wheel weights. A dropper releases one drop of lead at a time. The lead droplet runs down a short tube and into water. Although this is a slow method of making a lead shot, it does work.

Pistol Shot Shells

Pistol shotshells are available for a variety of calibers. I’ve personally seen them in .22LR, 9mm, .45ACP, and .44 Rem Mag. These are manufactured for use on snakes, rats, and other small vermin. Although not a self-defense round, I’d hate to be shot by one. They’re quite capable of causing significant injury to a person at close range.  

In terms of design, the pistol shotshells utilize traditional brass cases and have a rounded hard plastic head containing the shot or pellets. The hardhead is there purely to facilitate reliable loading in pistols. Generally, these shotshells use very small shots suited to their intended use.


Shotguns are very popular and highly versatile weapons. They have many uses, besides just hunting. The type of shot loaded into the weapon plays an important role in its performance. A shotgun shell is a complete bullet that is loaded in a shotgun. The shot is the actual pellets that shoot out of the shotgun’s barrel towards the target when fired. A shot is another name for the pellets.


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