WON Landing Page OCT 2022

How to Buy Your First Box of Shotgun Shells

As part of my series of “Creating Moments of Belonging with Beretta,” I wanted to share how to buy your first box of shotgun shells. As a new hunter, standing in the ammunition aisle, looking at shotgun shell boxes can be intimidating. There are so many choices and lots of markings and numbers on the boxes. This post is meant to be a basic starting point on how to buy shotgun shells. It is not meant to explain all choices of shotgun shells on the market. My hope is that it is good enough information to get you started and help you with your first-time purchasing shells. 

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Before we embark on a Sisterhood Outdoors event, many of our guests ask what shells they need to bring. This leads to the first question: What gauge is your shotgun?” For simplicity purposes, this post will address two common gauges – 20 and 12. 

Where Can I Find the Gauge of My Gun?

Your shotgun’s gauge can be found on the barrel. The term “gauge” simply refers to the inside diameter of the barrel, aka the bore, of the shotgun. A 12 gauge is larger than a 20 gauge. Correspondingly, a 12-gauge gun will shoot 12-gauge shells and a 20-gauge gun will shoot 20-gauge shells. The gauge of the shells always is the first number on the box. While not a legal rule, most 20-gauge shells are yellow in color. This is an industry standard that helps identify 20-gauge shells. The 12-gauge shells come in all colors of the rainbow. 

What Size Shotgun Shell Should I Choose?

The second question to ask is what size shells your gun will shoot. This is the length, measured in inches, of the shotshell. The length of the shell is the second number printed on each box of shells. The smallest shells measure 2-¾ inches, then graduate to 3-inch shells and top out at 3-½ inches. It is important to look on the barrel of your shotgun and determine which size shells it will shoot. The barrel will be engraved with all sizes that are capable of being shot in the gun. I have the Beretta A400 Xtreme Plus in a camouflage pattern. It is hard to see the engraving. So, here’s a beneficial tip: I used my phone to take a picture of the engraving in good lighting and then enlarged it so I could read it. This information also is available in the owner’s manual. 

Note: It is a good idea is to keep all your owner’s manuals and boxes when purchasing a new firearm. Babbs keeps all her gun manuals inside a three-ring binder, with plastic inserts – one per gun. She can even slip a little Allen wrench or special tool into the corresponding envelope, if necessary.

shotgun shell ammo

Realize this about shells: 2-¾-inch shells can be shot in a gun that specifies 3-inch shell guns; however, never shoot a 3-inch shell from a 2-¾-chambered barrel. Doing so can damage your shotgun and be unsafe for the shooter. I prefer to have a shotgun that will shoot both the 2-¾ shells and 3-inch shells. I use 2-¾ inch shells for clay targets and 3-inch shells for hunting. If you do shoot different sizes of shells, pay attention to how the gun works with ejecting the spent shells. Some guns prefer a particular size over the other.

The gauge and length information are the only information on the barrel of the gun. The next two numbers on the shell box are related to the game you are hunting or targets you are shooting. The shot size and the weight are the last two numbers on the box. The size is listed commonly as BB, 2, 4-6, 6-9, etc. This can be confusing because the size of the pellet gets larger as the number on the box gets smaller. For example, 2 shot is larger than the 4 shot, and the 4 shot is larger than the 6 shot and so on. 

What is great about most boxes is the imprinted graphics of target, ducks, or pheasants – or even flying clay birds. These graphics help you determine which type of shot will match up to your critter or clay. The weight of the shot pellets inside the shells is listed in ounces. The ounces of shot per shell can range from ½ to 2 ounces. 

Beretta Reading Ammo Box

The last number on the box is “FPS” or feet per second. This denotes the speed at which the shot leaves the end of the barrel and the speed at which it will reach a target. The higher the FPS, the higher the load of gun powder in the shot shell. As a new shooter, I didn’t notice much difference in FPS of shells. As you become more skilled, you may be interested in improving your shooting by experimenting with different FPS units.

Getting the ‘Lead’ Out

One last note of importance for new hunters is lead versus non-toxic shotshells. Lead shells are not legal for hunting waterfowl. Ducks and geese will consume shot shells and lead is toxic them. Steel is the most common metal for waterfowl shotshells. Lead is used for upland bird hunting, dove and small game. 

Note: It is important to not have any boxes of lead shot in your bag while waterfowl hunting. Game and fish officers can fine you just for having it on you while in the act of hunting waterfowl. 


At Sisterhood Outdoors we want everyone to feel comfortable asking questions. It is OK and encouraged that you ask us for help. We all start somewhere, and the journey only gets better. We want everyone to feel like they belong. 

Shotgun shells shouldn’t be intimidating. All the information you need is printed on the box. And as a reminder, always check the gun manufacturer’s specifications before firing any type of ammunition. 

Check out the fantastic line of Beretta’s shotguns and pair them with the best ammo you can find for your next trip afield.

  • About Amy Ray

    Amy Ray is the owner of The Sisterhood Of The Outdoors, an organization that creates opportunities for women to hunt, shoot and fish. Amy is a pro-staff shooting instructor with Shoot Like A Girl. Amy is certified as an NRA pistol instructor and Refuse to Be A Victim instructor. As a member of the Freedom Hunters advisory board, she helps to expand hunting opportunities for servicewomen, Gold Star wives and daughters of fallen heroes. She also is an avid hunter and shooter and loves mentoring others in the outdoors.