Without a doubt, the most popular shotgun is the 12 gauge. It is the most versatile, with many different shell offerings -- all the way from hunting to self defense to target loads. They are seen in the hunting field, the target field, movies, homes and pawn shop windows. The next time you are watching a movie and a shotgun comes on screen, you can almost always be certain it is a 12 gauge. For instance:

The sound of the shotgun never quite translates to what the best foley artists have tried to capture. A bullet from a rifle or pistol can zing by, or can make a sharp crack. A shotgun, on the other hand, sounds like a low, thunderous roar.

Quick Facts:

  • There are more 12 gauge shell offerings than there are for any other gauge. This is in part to the wide acceptance in many countries of the 12 gauge. It is also in part because the 12 gauge does any of its intended purposes well.
  • The beginning of dove hunting season accounts for the largest amount of shells sold throughout the rest of the year. The majority of these shells are 12 gauge.
  • The nominal bore diameter of the 12 gauge is .729 inch.
  • The 12 gauge is second only in nominal bore size to the 10 gauge. Also, it is certainly more popular than the 10 gauge.
  • The 12 gauge has been made in every shotgun action that is available — semi-automatic (autoloader), pump action, bolt action, lever action, break action (over and unders along with side by sides) and break action single shot.

A Bit of History about the 12 Gauge

As we know it today, the 12 gauge made its grand entrance into firearms history in the 1870's. When I say "as we know it today", what I mean is that 12 gauge cartridges and firearms had been developed such that we would recognize the same thing of those times in relation to what we can purchase today. The cartridges have changed somewhat, first being all brass shells, then paper shells to the plastic shells of today. The guns have changed, too. Instead of exposed hammer side by side shotguns, we now have semi-automatic shotguns.

With the mainstream introduction of the 12 gauge, the 10 gauge was to take a back seat for the rest of its spot in firearms history (though it is currently seeing some limited revival). The 12 gauge can handle shot charges of anything from 7/8 ounce to 1 5/8 ounce, in the 2 3/4 inch shell alone. It is simply the most versatile shotgun produced. That hurt the 10 gauge, especially considering the wholesale banning of lead shot for waterfowl hunting, the propellant conversion from black powder to smokeless powder and the lackluster offerings in terms of payload. Without a better cross section of cartridge offerings, the 10 gauge can only do so much.

There was another reason why the 12 gauge came to dominance in the shotgun world — that reason is recoil. The sales of the 10 gauge declined due to the heavy recoil whereas the 12 gauge picked up the slack and has done quite well ever since. The 12 gauge is really the de facto hunting shotgun for dove, ruffed grouse, duck, pheasant and to some extent, rabbit, crow and blackbirds. One can hunt all day and not come home feeling all beat up in the shoulder or cheek after a hard outing of shooting.

There are two stories to tell with the 12 gauge- that of the shells and the guns themselves.

The Shells

Currently, 12 gauge shells range in size from 2 3/4, 3, and 3 1/2 inches in length. This was not always so, with special sizes such as 2 and 2 1/2 inches in length. The majority of shells produced today for the 12 gauge are 2 3/4 inches in length. These type of shells are target and small game hunting type loads. The 3 and 3 1/2 inch shells are designed for hunting larger type game, such as deer with buckshot and slugs or the shells contain larger payloads of shot for game such as waterfowl.

The maximum working pressures of this cartridge, according to the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute (SAAMI) is as follows:

  • 2 3/4 inch — 11,500 PSI
  • 3 inch — 11,500 PSI
  • 3 1/2 inch — 14,500 PSI

To give some reference in terms of other firearms chamber pressures (on average):

I mention these figures to give one an idea of how little PSI it takes in order to make the 12 gauge work.

Most reloading manuals give data that has average working pressures of 8-9,000 PSI. This makes the 12 gauge quite forgiving for loading accidents, such as using the wrong primer or charging too much smokeless powder. Even so, care must be taken while reloading the 12 gauge shell.

The majority of reloaders for the 12 gauge are target shooters. The shotgun games of Skeet, Trap and Sporting Clays are not inexpensive to shoot; however, with reloading, one can bring the price down. Some hunters handload their hunting fodder in order to get something they cannot otherwise purchase. However, with the recent importation of cheap shells, many people are no longer reloading, as they gain very little in the way of savings.

Reloading as it is, the vast majority of any manufacturers catalog for shotshells is made up of 12 gauge cartridges. Winchester lists 73, Federal Cartridge Company lists 71 and Remington lists 70. For comparison, Winchester lists 22 20 gauge offerings.

The Guns

Originally, shotguns were like every other firearm- it was a muzzle loader. Times progressed and we came to the point of firearms designed to shoot a self contained cartridge; around the 1850's to 1860's. Originally, there were only single shot and double barrel (side by side) shotguns. After the initial period, there were some lever action shotguns. Times progressed further and we came to the first pump action shotguns and eventually to semi automatics. It is conceivable to speculate that development can go no further in action types of any shotgun. But all modern action types for shotguns, more or less, originated with the 12 gauge.

The most famous of the side by side double barrel shotguns are those made by the English firm of Holland and Holland and in America, L. C. Smith. Winchester and Remington both have made single shot shotguns. Over and under shotguns, where the barrels are stacked one upon the other, have been made by such reputable makers as the Italian Perrazi and the German Kreighoff. Semi-automatics and pump guns have been made by Winchester, Remington, Benelli and Beretta. The most famous semi automatic shotgun from the American makers would be the Remington Model 1100 with the Italian Beretta Model 391 surpassing it today. The two most famous pump action shotguns are the Winchester Model 1912 (or simply, Model 12) and Remington Model 870.

The guns of the 12 gauge have been the ones to take more game than any other shotgun. Also, they have accounted for the most targets shot in any shooting discipline. The 12 gauge shotguns are the ones that typically are engraved and turned into works of art; at least, more so than any other gauge shotgun. You can purchase a 12 gauge at any gun dealer; they are easy to build and maintain. Shell availability is no problem. This is the go to shotgun for just about any hunting, target shooting or self defense needs.

12 Gauge Uses

As has been mentioned, the 12 gauge is used in a wide variety of hunting — from dove to ducks, to deer to turkey hunting. The 12 gauge makes an excellent self defense weapon, which accounts for police departments across the country using 12 gauge slug and buckshot rounds — primarily because of this reasoning. In terms of target shooting, the 12 gauge dominates both trap shooting and sporting clays, both sports which do not give consideration to any other gauge. Skeet shooting also holds its own with many 12 gauges being shot.

The 12 gauge dominates the shotgun world because of its availability, cost and selection. For any of its intended purposes, it shines the brightest.


http://www.alliantpowder.com (For reloading and PSI data.)

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