Welcome back to my American shot sizes video
guide. In the previous video, I established some basic shot-related concepts, and discussed
standard American birdshot sizes. Now in part two, I’ll talk a little more about the distinction
between birdshot and buckshot, go over standard American buckshot sizes, and wrap up with
a little bonus gift. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend
watching part one before continuing. This video should stand on its own for folks who
have a basic understanding of shotguns; but complete newcomers should at least watch the
first three-and-a-half minutes of part one, which goes over the basic terms and concepts
I’ll build upon here. Alright, let’s get going.
Like birdshot, buckshot pellets are simply spherical projectiles loaded and fired manifoldly.
But whereas birdshot is used on birds and other light game, larger buckshot pellets
are used on medium and large creatures like – obviously – deer.
For hunting, buckshot is primarily used at short ranges in locations where the much longer
effective ranges of rifle bullets or shotgun slugs would present a significant collateral
danger to others in the surrounding area. Buckshot‘s increased hit potential and substantial
stopping power has also made it a popular option for close-range defense against both
four- and two-legged attackers. And modern buckshot shells gained real popularity
in offensive military roles during the early 1900s, soon after the first successful repeating
shotguns were introduced. Now obviously, the fundamental differences
between birdshot and buckshot stem from their size. As I mentioned in the last video, there’s
no huge jump between birdshot and buckshot; the smallest .24-caliber buckshot is just
one step above .23-caliber FF birdshot. So what makes .24-caliber so special?
Well, most importantly, .24-caliber is where spherical lead projectiles at typical shotgun
velocities start to have enough energy and mass to reach the vitals of large, tough creatures.
Since they’re essentially musket balls individually, lead pellets in this size range are roughly
equivalent to lower-power handgun bullets of similar size and mass. Not modern hollowpoints,
but solid cast or full-metal-jacket bullets as fired from pistol-length barrels.
A single .24-caliber buckshot pellet can be compared to a light .22 rimfire bullet, for
instance, and larger buckshot sizes are similar to the projectiles of other small-caliber
cartridges. There are some differences, but mass and muzzle energy are in the same ballpark,
and their wounding mechanisms are very similar. Now, low-velocity handgun FMJs are not exactly
outstanding performers – and the same goes for buckshot. These simple projectiles tend
to poke fairly narrow holes through a target with little permanent damage to surrounding
tissues. Unless they score a direct hit to a critical structure like the heart or central
nervous system, neither can be counted on to quickly and reliably incapacitate a large
creature. So then why is buckshot so well-known for
stopping power? Well, it’s simply a matter of quantity over quality.
No responsible hunter would try to use a small-caliber handgun loaded with FMJs to take a deer; but
a single well-aimed shotgun shell can deliver the equivalent of dozens of shots with one
of these, making up for the 16th-century projectile technology.
Another important thing about .24 caliber is that it typically marks the point where
pellet counts really start to be limited by their mass, and their ability to physically
fit inside common shotgun shells. Pellet counts for buckshot loads are generally
tens at the most, and can be as few as two or three. So while approximate numbers of
birdshot pellets can be simply poured into shells by weight or volume, load consistency
with buckshot requires precise numbers of pellets, and those pellets must be stacked
in specific geometric arrangements in order to fit into the shell.
The arrangement of spherical pellets in a cylindrical volume is actually an interesting
geometric relationship that plays an important part in determining which sizes and quantities
of buckshot pellets can be used in a given shotshell. I won’t get into it much here,
but look for a future video on the subject. This all leads to a third major distinction
between birdshot and buckshot: their patterns. As I explained in the last video, birdshot
is used to produce a wide cloud of pellets that is larger than the target in order to
improve the chances of hitting it. This approach works because the pellet counts are in the
hundreds or even thousands, while dropping a bird or breaking a clay requires only a
handful of hits. It’s a common misconception that buckshot
can be used the same way, thanks in no small part to depictions in entertainment media.
But remember that buckshot is used on targets that are much larger than birds. Since buckshot
pellets can’t be fired by the hundreds, a pattern larger than the target would be
nowhere near dense enough to ensure a sufficient number of vital hits.
So in the real world, buckshot patterns tend to be smaller than the target. An ideal group
would be tight enough to make every pellet a hit with an accurate shot. Here, the pattern
is less about improving the chances of hitting the target, and more about improving the chances
hitting the vitals inside the target. So, a quick recap:
Birdshot pellets are fired in large quantities to create a pattern that is larger than the
target. They’re small and lightweight, and used on things that are easy to kill, but
tough to hit. Buckshot pellets are fired in small numbers
in tight groups. Not very useful for small or fast-moving targets, but their mass and
penetration makes them very effective on larger creatures that you can draw a bead on. Alright, on to sizes. Like birdshot, American buckshot sizes are
also split up between multiple naming conventions. The two primary systems are the larger ”aught”
sizes, and the smaller numbered sizes, which is where we’ll start.
As stated, the smallest buckshot size is .24-caliber #4 buckshot. For those that are into airsoft,
that’s essentially the same size as 6mm airsoft BBs.
Above #4 buck is .25-caliber #3 buck, .27-caliber #2 buck, and .30-caliber #1 buck.
As with birdshot, smaller buckshot size numbers mean bigger pellets.
Unlike birdshot though, the steps between these sizes vary, so there’s no simple formula
relating these numbers to their corresponding pellet diameters.
But, if you can remember that #4 buck is .24 caliber, you can keep track of the other three
by remembering that the difference between sizes increases by one hundredth of an inch
each time. Now, the fact that there are numbered sizes
for both birdshot and buckshot can be a source of confusion.
Context aside, when the type of shot is not explicitly mentioned, it’s generally assumed
that the reference is to birdshot rather than buckshot. If someone says “#4 shot”, “4 shot”,
or just “#4”, they usually mean birdshot. When discussing buckshot, the size should
be qualified as such; either explicitly, or with an obvious shorthand.
If you’re trying to tell ammo apart, remember that birdshot is usually loaded and specified
by weight, while buckshot loads are described by pellet count. A 1 ½-ounce #4 load is probably
a birdshot shell, while a 27-pellet #4 load must be buckshot.
The numbered buckshot sizes frequently show up in the smaller gauges, where larger pellets
fit poorly. #1 buck is common for the 16ga, while #4,
#3, and #2 buck are readily available in 20ga shells.
But numbered buckshot is also used in larger gauges, for situations where higher pellet
counts are more desirable than maximum range or penetration.
12ga #1 and #4 buckshot loads especially are popular choices for personal defense and close-range
hunting. Buckshot sizes larger than #1 follow a naming
convention similar to the “B”s in birdshot, but instead of letters, zeros are used.
When pronouncing these sizes aloud, a tuple of the old-school “aught” is proper.
If you walk into a gun shop and ask for a box of “double-zero” or “oh-oh” buckshot,
people will probably know what you mean, but they’ll likely have a chuckle over it after
you leave. There are four “aught” buckshot sizes;
.32-caliber single-aught, .33-caliber double-aught, .36-caliber triple-aught, and .38-caliber
quadruple-aught. Again, there’s no consistent step between
these sizes, and thus no simple formula. But they’re not hard to remember.
Most folks who are at all familiar with buckshot know that 00B is .33-caliber. A trick for
recalling the others is to start at .30-caliber, and add .02 inches for each “aught”.
The “aughts” offer more range and penetration than the numbered sizes, at the expense of
pellet count. They’re primarily used in large-bore 12 and 10ga shells, as they don’t
fit very well in smaller gauges. The most well-known is 00 buckshot. Nine 00
pellets in a 2 3/4” 12ga shell is a classic combat load that famously proved itself in
the trenches of World War 1, and is still a standard military load today. Double-aught
is also widely used for hunting, often in magnum loads containing up to eighteen pellets.
Just one hundredth of an inch below 00, 0 buck can offer very similar performance with
less recoil, and in 12ga shells, tends to be a better fit in cup-style wads that can
improve patterning. Larger 000 and 0000 buck loads have primarily
been used for hunting due to their high penetration, heavy recoil, and poor packing efficiency.
000 buckshot is common in 12ga shells, but factory 0000 buck loads can be tough to find,
though the shot itself is readily available from reloading suppliers.
000 and 0000 buckshot are also used in .410 shells. Since any buckshot size will only
fit one at a time in these narrow shells, these large sizes make the most of the limited
space and low muzzle velocities. The four numbered sizes and four “aughts”
are the big eight of American buckshot. Nearly all mainstream factory buckshot ammo uses
one of these sizes. But for specialty ammo and handloaders, there’s
a whole lot more to choose from. One noteworthy addition to the primary eight are the half-sizes.
As we’ve seen, the differences between adjacent standard buckshot sizes is usually greater
than one hundredth of an inch. Wherever there’s a gap of two hundredths or more, these named
half-sizes help fill those gaps. The naming convention for these half-sizes
is to add “1/2” to the next-smallest whole buckshot size.
This is intuitive enough for the aughts; .34-caliber 00-1/2 is between 00 and 000, and .37-caliber
000-1/2 would be between 000 and 0000. But for the numbered half-sizes, the result
is a little wonky because those numbers descend with size. #3-1/2 buckshot sounds like it
should be between #3 and #4 buck somewhere, but since half-sizes are named after the next
smallest whole size, it actually sits between #3 and #2 buck at .26 inches in diameter.
Likewise, .29-caliber #2-1/2 buck is between #2 and #1, and .31-caliber #1-1/2 buck is
between #1 and single-ought. These half-sizes are… semi-official at best.
I’ve yet to see these included in a SAAMI publication or printed on commercial ammo
packaging. But they are readily available for reloaders,
and do a good job of filling in the gaps between the standard buckshot sizes. For handloaders
looking to fine-tune a custom buckshot load, these half-sizes are worth learning about.
So we’ve added five more sizes, but we’re still stuck in a pretty narrow range that
tops out at .38-caliber. Is that it? Well, we have one last size system to go over
– the ball sizes. Here we go, another weird old size system
to remember, right? How does this one work? Well, you take the diameter of the pellet,
tack “ball” or “round ball” on the end, and that’s the name!
Yes, with ball-buckshot we finally have a straightforward notation that doesn’t require
any math or memorization, and doesn’t limit us to a specific number or range of sizes.
This really opens up a lot of options, especially for handloaders.
Smaller-caliber balls provide additional choices between standardized sizes that are helpful
for fine-tuning a custom load, or better fitting a stack of pellets into a particular shell
or wad. Larger ball-sizes show up in some novelty
and specialty shotshells such as duplex buck & ball loads, or less-lethal ammo containing
large rubber or polymer balls. Shells containing 2-3 very large buckshot
loaded single-file are marketed for hunting very thick-skinned game like hogs.
Hunting laws can sometimes be fuzzy when it comes to very large ball sizes, so if you’re
in a buckshot-only area, do your homework. Some of these ball sizes are marketed specifically
as buckshot, but a lot more variety is available in balls sold as projectiles for muzzleloading
firearms. It may not say “buckshot” on the box, but a ball is a ball.
Molds for casting round balls are also readily available in a variety of calibers, and you
can special-order ball molds in pretty much any custom sizes you can think of.
If you know your way around a mill or drill press, you can even create your own buckshot
molds. Ginsboy2003 has a nice, detailed video on milling a custom multi-cavity buckshot
mold. Casting your own buckshot gives you more control
over the alloy, and thus the hardness of the pellets. Many round balls on the market are
made of pure lead, which is very soft and may not pattern well out of a shotgun.
The upper limit on ball sizes, of course, is the bore diameter of the shotgun being
used. However, bore-size or near-bore-size lead
balls – especially for the larger gauges – are so heavy that they’re more commonly fired
just one at a time in what’s called a “pumpkin ball” load – which is actually a simple
type of shotgun slug. But, we’ll save slugs for another video.
A couple closing notes before I wrap up here. First, industry tolerances for buckshot are
pretty wide, and the actual diameters of the pellets in commercial buckshot loads can vary
quite a bit from the nominal diameter of the size printed on the box. Look for a future video with more detail on this. Second, large birdshot sizes can be used much like buckshot when hunting smaller, thin-skinned
species like foxes or coyotes, especially if the pellets are made from something denser
than lead. Because of this, letter birdshot sizes are sometimes referred to or sold as
buckshot. However, these sizes are still used on birds
as well, and since they follow birdshot sizing conventions and are loaded by weight like
birdshot, it’s most accurate to classify them as such. Just don’t get confused if
you hear someone mention “T-” or “F buckshot”, it’s the same size as T and
F birdshot. So that’s buckshot. Kind of a lot to take
in, and much of it is hard to keep track of, but don’t feel too overwhelmed.
Until you get into advanced handloading or real specialty ammo, you’ll mostly just
be dealing with these eight standard sizes. If you can remember these, you’ll be pretty
well-off. One last thing.
As I mentioned in the last video, I’ve never been able to find a single complete resource
that includes every shot size. So, I’ve created my own original guide, which can be
viewed and downloaded free of charge at the link in the video description.
This will be an exhaustive list of every pellet size I’ve ever heard of, with nominal diameters,
approximate figures for pellet masses & counts, mathematical formulas, and other information.
I’ll be updating this guide from time to time as I think of new features or come across
new information; and I’ll leave an annotation here with the date of the most recent version.
Please let me know if you find any errors, or if there are other things you’d like
to see me add. Well, I hope y’all found this interesting.
I could really talk about shotgun shot for hours, and I glossed over a lot of things
in these videos to keep them focused. There’ll be many more shot-related videos in future
installments of this series, so if there’s something in particular you’d like to see
me explain in detail, please let me know. And of course, questions and feedback are
always welcome. Until next time, have fun, shoot safely and
responsibly, and encourage others to do the same.