Beginners guide to Shotgun Cartridges

When I first started shooting one thing I didn't fully understand were Shotgun Cartridges and all the jargon that came with them. Today a few years on, I still don't fully understand the entire technical specs and everything there is to know. However, I certainly know a lot more than I did and there are some real basics that you need to know to help you get by when you are new in to the shooting world.

I think it is good to start by setting one thing straight, and that is that someone will always know best and be very pernickety when it comes to cartridges. I have found people are very quick to dismiss one type of cartridge over another and also give you a lot of (at times) unwanted advice. But generally by understanding the basic concepts below, you cant go far wrong. There will be people who swear by one cartridge or shot type over another, but as long as you know the basics it is up to you to try and test a few out to find which you prefer. After shooting for six months or so you will already start to notice small differences and get a feel for the cartridges you prefer. In honesty, a lot of it comes down to brand loyalty, budget and availability. I also find it can be psychological, if you have a particularly good day out shooting you can suddenly find your new favourite cartridge right there!

That being said please do take care when selecting a shotgun cartridge. It is important that the cartridge is suitable for the quarry you are shooting to ensure a clean and ethical kill. It is also important to consider the environment when thinking about the material your cartridge is composed of. Price is also a factor, some cartridges are a lot more expensive than others and offer slight improvements in shot pattern and felt recoil etc. But in reality these tiny variations are often only noticeable in a laboratory under test conditions and wont make any difference to your shooting. A simple solution is to just tell the guys in the shop what you intend to shoot and they will get you started with the best cartridge for the job.

Understanding Shotgun Cartridges:

12 Gauge Eley 1st Select 28g 7.5 Plastic 70mm? What does that mean? To an untrained eye it looks like gobbledygook. So lets break it down in to a couple of basic components. This can vary slightly but should give you a good idea.

12 Gauge (Bore size) Eley (Manufacturer) 1st Select (Product Line) 28g (load) 7.5 (Shot size) Plastic (Wadding) 70mm (Length)

Manufacturers There are a number of main manufacturers of cartridges in the UK. I am not going to go in to them in detail nor start a debate on who is better than who etc. However, it is good to know who the main manufacturers are, equally there are a number of good cartridges out there from lesser known brands that you can pick up at a better price. Some of the most common manufacturers include; Eley Hawk, Hull Cartridge Co, Gamebore, Lyalvale, Fiocchi and RC. According to the most popular shotgun cartridge brands in 2017 were roughly broken down as follows:

Gamebore 26.93%

Hull 22.57%

Eley 21.73%

Lyalvale 9.31%

RC 9.15%

Fiocchi 2.71%

OTHER 2.22%

Product Line

Every cartridge manufacturer has different product lines depending on the intended application. Normally these titles are more for marketing purposes and to increase sales but also help guide the user as to the most suitable cartridge for its use. Product names such as 'Clear Pigeon' or 'The Partridge Cartridge' or 'VIP Game' are present in the market currently and tell the consumer what the cartridges are suitable for straight away. It is fair to say that sometimes this just encourages the consumer to buy various products for different uses when one of these may suit several applications. I have found in my personal experience that unless you are shooting at a professional level you do tend to use, or at least come across the same few product lines very often. There are more specialist and expensive loads but will they make much of a difference to a novice shot? If you are just wanting to break clays you certainly don't need to spend too much on a cartridge.

So what do you need to know?


Weight of the shot in the cartridge or the shot load is expressed in grams. A 21 gram cartridge will vary to a 32 gram cartridge in that there will be only 21 grams of lead shot vs 32 grams etc. What does this mean? Lighter loads (21g) will be easier on the shoulder and produce much less recoil. However, lighter loads may be more suitable for breaking clay targets rather than shooting pigeons for example. If you had 28g 7.5 shot and 21g 7.5 shot you will have exactly the same shot size just in differing quantities.

Shot size

Shot size tells us the size of the ball bearings or shot in the cartridge. The size of shot would need to be much larger to shoot a fox or a rabbit than it would to break a clay target for example. The Shot size works in reverse to what you may expect. The higher number, the smaller the shot. The below chart gives you an idea of what the shot sizes are:

The most common shot sizes for clay shooting are typically 7.5 to 8 shot whilst driven game shoots more often use 5 to 6 shot.


A cross section of a Fibre wad shotgun cartridge

A wad in the cartridge sits between the shot and the powder or nitro. This is typically made of either plastic or fibre and is used to appropriately seal the cartridge to allow the build up of gas from the lit powder and propel the shot. It also helps prevent the powder and shot from mixing in the case. Some shoots and grounds do not allow plastic so I tend to typically go for fibre wad cartridges where I can as you wont have restrictions on these and they are more environmentally friendly. On the other hand, some shooters prefer plastic as they say plastic wads provide a better shot pattern. Personally, no matter where I am, I do not like the idea of firing bits of plastic around the countryside so I always opt for Fibre.


The chamber on your gun is where the cartridge will sit at the beginning of the barrel when it is loaded and ready to be fired. The cartridge length tells you if it will be suitable for your gun. Most guns are chambered in either 2.5" or 3" with some larger guns being chambered in 3.5". If you have a catridge that is 70mm or 75mm for example you will need a gun with a 3" chamber. In reality, most modern guns come with a 3" chamber but it is always worth checking as you could end up with a broken gun or serious injury if loading the wrong ammunition in to your gun. You can normally find what chamber you gun has by the printing on your barrel.

Bore/ Gauge

The term bore refers to the diameter of your barrel where as Gauge refers to the volume of lead that will fit down your barrel. A shotgun bore is measure in inches for example the .410 shotgun. On the other hand, a 12 gauge will fit a solid ball of lead that weighs 1/12 of a pound, a 28 Gauge will fit a solid ball of lead that weighs 1/28 of a pound and so on. With this being said, you may hear people refer to their gun being a 12 bore which isn't actually correct at all. A 12 gauge's diameter works out to a "bore" of approximately 0.720"!!

Shot size vs Quarry

One area where I would strongly advise knowing you cartridges is when selecting the appropriate cartridge for your intended target. We all want to ensure shots that are taken provide a quick, clean and ethical kill. Using inappropriate shot can cause unwanted harm and distress to your target. Below is a good overview of some of the shot types you need for different game:

Courtesy of

Components of a Shotgun Cartridge

There are a number of key components that make up a shotgun cartridge, they are as follows:

- Primer

- Powder

- Wad

- Shot

- Case

Lead shot Alternatives

On a final note, there are some restrictions to the use of lead shot which must be obeyed at all times. If you are shooting over a foreshore for example, you will be required to use an alternative to Lead shot such as steel or bismuth. You can find out everything you need to know here -


When purchasing shotgun cartridges, there are a number of different factors that will need to be considered, these relate to both the gun you’ll be using, as well as what your target will be. If in doubt, just ask! You will soon find what works best for you but don't over complicate it. As long as it does the job it will be fine. There are loads of videos on YouTube you can watch that will provide lots of great information on cartridges. You could try looking at the channel 'SRSPower' which provides some informative content on cartridges.

If you are still not sure, whether you are at the clay ground or your local gun shop, ask for some advice and you will be well looked after. I hope the above sheds some light, as I said, I am no expert but I get by OK with the above information and hopefully it gives you somewhere to start from!