Various Types Of 12 Gauge Buckshot: The Buck Stops Here! By: Jim Davis


Everyone knows about OO Buckshot (Double O, Double Ought). It’s synonymous with the 12 gauge, and many people reflexively blurt out, “Getcha some double-ought!” No doubt, double-ought is some pretty good stuff. But are there any other good buckshot rounds on the market that we might be able to count on?

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We’re glad you asked, because we’re going to examine a few.

Lots To Choose From!

The terminology can become confusing. As mentioned, the O’s in any buckshot are referred to as “Oh” or “Ought.” So OO Buck is referred to as double-ought buck.

But how about O-Buck? It’s commonly called single-ought buck. OOO-buck is called triple-ought buck.

Four rounds of buckshot.
Different case lengths offer different payloads. These range all the way up through 3½ inches. Many 12-gauge shotguns will only accept cases up to three inches. (Photo: Shooting Illustrated)

When I worked in law enforcement, one of the loads were were issued was called #4 buck, pronounced “number four buck.” There are also #3 buck, #2 buck, and #1 buck.

Confused yet? We’re just getting started! We haven’t even mentioned the bird shot yet, and it has a slew of various numbers too. But that’s for a different article.

To be completely honest, as I wrote this article, it drove home the point of just how many buckshot possibilities there are. Trying to organize it into something coherent is like trying to herd cats!

Let’s examine the sizes of buckshot next so we have some reference as to how large the pellets are.

Buckshot Diameters

Here are the caliber diameters of pellets for various buckshot sizes.

  • #4 Buck – .24 – 20.7 grains per pellet.
  • #3 Buck – .25
  • #2 Buck – .27
  • #1 Buck – .30
  • #0 Buck – .32
  • #OO Buck – .33 – 53.8 grains per pellet.
  • #OOO Buck – .36
Chart of buckshot sizes.
Buckshot comes in many sizes, which adds to its versatility. (Image: Sportsman’s Warehouse)

An interesting tidbit to throw in here: Back in WWI, our doughboys were using shotguns to clear trenches of German soldiers. The German high command complained that the shotgun was an inhuman weapon and demanded its use be stopped immediately. When we consider this, the irony is that the Germans are the ones who invented the flame thrower. They thought the shotgun was inhuman but were perfectly content to barbecue people alive.

Does it really matter?

For a moment, let’s address practicality. What mission are you going to assign to your shotgun? Since we’re talking about buckshot, let’s assume that the vast majority of you are reading this from a self-defense standpoint, in which case it’s very possibly home defense. I’ll break that down into a few categories that should hit the vast majority of what we’re after:

  • Inside the home.
  • On our property.
  • Zombie Apocalypse
Remington 870 Tactical in action.
Firing the shotgun at various ranges helps us understand how the shotgun patterns. Each shotgun can be a little different. This is a Remington 870 Tactical. The recoil of the 12 gauge is not mild, nor pleasant.

Inside the Home

Inside the home is basically repelling boarders who have breached our doors or windows and have entered the home with intent to harm our families. Inside-the-home distances are typically going to be a couple of yards at most in the majority of cases. At that range, an attacker likely won’t be able to tell if you shot him with OOO buck or #4 buck because, at close range, that pattern is going to be extremely small and tight. This dispels the idiotic myth that shotguns just need to be pointed in the direction of the target as opposed to being aimed. They absolutely do need to be aimed!

While I’m on my soapbox, I’m going to quell another myth: the one that claims that racking the slide of the shotgun is such a terrifying noise that people within a 500-yard radius will all flee in terror. That is utter BS. There are plenty of criminals who will keep coming despite hearing that ominous sound. Please don’t believe it. If it happens to work, that’s wonderful. But don’t hang your hat on that one.

On Our Property

On our property means that ranges are likely to open up considerably, as will the shotgun’s pattern. The general “rule” thrown out there is that a pattern opens approximately one inch per yard. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, though. The longer the shotgun’s barrel, the tighter the pattern will stay for a longer time. Chokes on the shotgun (if yours has one) can influence pattern size, too. The smaller the shot size, the faster the pellets lose steam. People in rural locations might have long shots, depending on their property lines. We can generally expect a 30-yard shot with a 12-gauge to yield a pattern of about 30 inches.

Zombie Apocalypse

Zombie Apocalypse means it has hit the fan and there is a societal breakdown (at least in our given area). It’s an every-person-for-themselves scenario. Ranges could be indefinite. We’ll have to evaluate whether or not a shotgun will even be a good tool for us at this point; perhaps a rifle, with more reach, might be better.

Folks using the scattergun in areas where there are friendlies will want to keep all pellets inside the target so as not to endanger said friendlies (remember, we are accountable for every round that we fire). In rural settings where there are no bystanders, we have the luxury of not really caring if half the pellets we fire miss the target. As such, we can use the shotgun at longer ranges.

Buckshot effects at 7 yards.
This is Federal Tactical OO Buckshot at seven yards. Patterns typically spread about one inch per yard. Federal’s Tactical normally gives fairly tight patterns. This is from a Remington 870 Tactical with an 18-inch barrel. The larger hole is from the wad.

Six of One, Half-Dozen of the Other

Large buckshot loads have fewer pellets, but because they’re bigger, they have more energy left when they hit the target. The farther away the target is, the less chance of getting many pellets on the target because the pattern opens, and pellets can miss.

The smaller buckshot loads (such as #4) have lots more pellets, but they’re smaller. There is a better chance of them hitting targets farther out, but at extended range, the pellets’ effectiveness declines dramatically. The shooter will have to try to figure out if they want harder-hitting pellets, or more of them, depending on the range they plan to be using the shotgun at. Of course, given the variety of buckshot loads available, the balancing act can be adjusted somewhat via ammunition selection.

#4 Buck

Looking at #4 buckshot for a moment, we see that it usually has 24 of those .24 caliber pellets in one round. That is around 497 combined grains being unleashed with one pull of the trigger. It’s a fairly impressive payload for close range. For home defense in populated areas, those smaller pellets will lose energy faster than larger loads. That can be an advantage for the homeowner/defender because the pellets won’t be as lethal for as long of a distance to innocent bystanders.

When I worked in the prison system, this is one of the loads we were issued. Ranges on cell blocks could be very close range, or could stretch out to over 100 yards.

#3 Buck

This round usually has around 20 pellets (give or take) that are slightly larger than #4 buckshot. The size of #3 shot is .25″ (.25 caliber). It offers a slightly better range than the #4 buckshot load.

#2 Buck

The size of the projectiles for this round is .27″, or .27 caliber. Typically, there are about 14 pellets contained in this round of 12 gauge ammunition.

#1 Buck

This round contains twelve to sixteen pellets that are .30″, or .30 caliber. Now we’re seeing a significant increase in pellet size/weight while still keeping a goodly number of shot. This is a nice in-between round, splitting the difference between the smaller buckshot and the larger pellets, while still maintaining a respectable number of pellets.

#O Buck

This one has pellets in the .32 caliber range. Typically, nine pellets are round in this load, which is the same norm as with #OO buckshot. Considering that OO and O buckshot carry about the same number of rounds, the slightly smaller size of the O buckshot would make this round not quite as efficient as OO buckshot. I’d likely just go with OO buckshot.

#OO Buck

Most OO buckshot rounds have eight or nine pellets in their payload. The pellets are .33 caliber. This is, by far, the most prevalent buckshot load that will be found on store shelves. And for good reason—it splits the difference between all the other buckshot loads out there. And really, it’s an excellent balance of pellet size and number of pellets per round. This is the load that all others are compared to and judged by.

This is one of the rounds that we were issued by my agency, and it always served us well.

With the 3-inch shells, more pellets are sometimes added by manufacturers.

#OOO Buck

We’ll find eight .36 caliber pellets in this round. It’s about the most heavyweight buckshot that we’re going to find on the market. It’s a heavy hitter in the buckshot field. It will offer the most penetration and power in the buckshot realm. For hunting dangerous game such as bear or mountain lions, this would be the most effective buckshot selection if you can find it on store shelves.

Buckshot rounds sizes from 000 to #4
Sizes from the entire gamut of buckshot. Seeing them side by side helps to visualize the differences. (Photo: Lucky Gunner)

Practical Availability

It’s neat to peruse all the possible buckshot profiles that are made. As a matter of fact, I learned a few things while researching these loads. 

I have to say, the vast majority of defensive 12 gauge shotgun ammunition that I see on the shelves of gun stores that I visit comes in two loads: OO Buckshot and slugs. I just don’t see much else on the shelves for the 12 gauge, other than birdshot. OO buckshot is absolutely the king when it comes to being available online or in stores.

Most of the rounds I run across are 2 3/4-inch loads. I’ve fired 3-inch and even 3-inch magnum loads and have found the recoil of the Magnum loads to be excessively punishing. Often, manufacturers include more pellets in the 3-inch loads than they do in the standard 2¾-inch cases. For the extra recoil (that is brutally punishing), we often get more pellets with a bit higher velocity. You have to determine for yourself if the extra recoil is worth it.

Buckshot innards.
OO Buckshot is the most popular defensive round for the 12 gauge, by far. (Photo: Aiming Expert)

The Shotgun’s Lethality

The projectiles that are fired by the shotgun in the form of buckshot are not particularly efficient. They’re round balls that are not aerodynamic. Their penetrative abilities are poor compared to pistol and rifle bullets which are spun by rifling and penetrate much more efficiently.

No, the shotgun’s claim to fame is that it delivers a swarm of projectiles at once into the given target. That produces massive trauma and shock.

When someone says that getting hit by OO Bucks is like getting shot with nine bullets at once—no, it is not. Those balls that just bounced against each other down the barrel of the shotgun and deformed along the way are not like bullets. They’re like partially flattened balls—which is exactly what they are. They’re just hitting the target in overwhelming numbers and the target typically cannot absorb that kind of abuse and still be well.


We’ve long heard some people advocating for birdshot to be used inside dwellings for defense, on the premise that it won’t over-penetrate, but will stop bad guys.

Here’s the thing, though: birdshot definitely can penetrate drywall, which most house and apartment walls are constructed from. So that “safer” birdshot that you’re firing can go through a wall and wound friendlies. Be guided accordingly.

For a few yards, birdshot will act like a solid projectile (just like any buckshot) because of the very tight pattern. So yes, it will be effective against an attacker at close range, and is certainly better than nothing.

Just realize that it’s not necessarily an optimal alternative. At a range of several yards, it spreads out enough that the tiny pellets might not be effective at stopping a determined attacker.

Is a shotgun a guaranteed stopper? 

No. Nothing is.

A friend of mine was a cop once upon a time. He had to engage an armed suspect, and he hit said suspect four times with OO buckshot before the suspect ceased his criminal activities (his hits were center mass). This occurred after the suspect in question absorbed a ridiculous volume of pistol rounds from other officers. So no, the shotgun is not a guarantee that the bad man will cease his actions immediately.

Mental illness, drugs, rage, adrenaline, or sheer determination can sometimes allow people to absorb obscene amounts of damage that would normally result in instant death. And yet they somehow continue to function for a little while past their expiration date. I have personally seen this happen and can assure you that it’s a real thing. To watch it in person is macabre and terrifying.

All that said, the shotgun is one of the most reliable man-stoppers that we can get for close range. The instances of people being hit with a round of buckshot and still continuing to fight are rare, indeed.

In Summary

There are lots of options available for the shotgun as far as buckshot is concerned. The 12 gauge’s performance can be tweaked and tailored for the performance we’re after. It might take some rooting around online or in various gun shops to find exactly the load we’re after. However, that effort might well be worth it in the long run.

Even if we can’t find the more obscure buckshot loads, we’ll certainly be able to land some OO buckshot, which will serve us for 99% of our defensive needs. The OO buck is an effective workhorse that gets most jobs done.

The 12-gauge shotgun is a specialty tool that is devastating at close range. Feeding it properly enhances its utility. The good news is that any store that sells ammunition is very likely to have 12-gauge ammunition on its shelves.