Military Wiki
Shotshell 001.jpg
From left to right; a .45 ACP, a .410 bore shotshell, a 20 gauge shotshell, and a 12 gauge shotshell
Type Shotgun
Place of origin Various

The gauge of a firearm is a unit of measurement used to express the diameter of the barrel. Gauge is determined from the weight of a solid sphere of lead that will fit the bore of the firearm, and is expressed as the multiplicative inverse of the sphere's weight as a fraction of a pound (e.g., a 112th pound ball fits a 12-gauge bore). Thus there are twelve 12-gauge balls per pound (etc.). The term is related to the measurement of cannon, which were also measured by the weight of their iron round shot; an 8 pounder would fire an 8 lb (3.6 kg) spherical cast iron ball and had a bore diameter of about 91 mm (3.6 in).

Gauge is commonly used today in reference to shotguns, though historically it was also used in large double rifles, which were made in sizes up to 2 bore during their heyday in the 1880s, being originally loaded with black powder cartridges. These very large rifles, sometimes called elephant guns, were intended for use in India and Africa for hunting dangerous game.

Gauge is abbreviated "ga.", "ga", or "G". The space between the number and the abbreviation is often left out, as in "12ga".

Calculating gauge

An n-gauge diameter means that a ball of lead (density 11.352 g/cm3 or 6.562 oz/in3) with that diameter has a mass equal to 1/n part of the mass of the international avoirdupois pound (453.59237 grams). Therefore an n-gauge shotgun or n-bore rifle has a bore diameter (in centimeters) of approximately

Another source for a gauge size formula can be found in Shotgun shell.

It should be noted that the results of the calculations given above need not be carried out to further than one decimal place, as shotgun and rifle gauges are stated in integers. Furthermore, the density of the lead that was once used as the standard varied, since bullets and slugs are not made of chemically pure lead, but are instead made of lead alloyed with a variety of materials.

Gauges in use

From left to right: 9×19mm Parabellum, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, 5.7×28mm, 5.56×45mm NATO, .300 Winchester Magnum, and a 2.75-inch and 3-inch 12 gauge

Since shotguns were not originally intended to fire solid projectiles, but rather a compressible mass of shot, the actual diameter of the bore can vary. The fact that most shotgun bores are not cylindrical also causes deviations from the ideal bore diameter.

The chamber of the gun is larger, to accommodate the thickness of the shotshell walls, and a "forcing cone" in front of the chamber reduces the diameter down to the bore diameter. The forcing cone can be as short as a fraction of an inch, or as long as four inches on some guns. At the muzzle end of the barrel, the choke can constrict the bore even further, so measuring the bore diameter of a shotgun is not a simple process, as it must be done away from either end.

Shotgun bores are commonly "overbored" or "backbored", meaning that most of the bore (from the forcing cone to the choke) is slightly larger than the value given by the formula. This is claimed to reduce felt recoil and improve patterning. The recoil reduction is due to the larger bore producing a slower acceleration of the shot, and the patterning improvements are due to the larger muzzle diameter for the same choke constriction, which results in less shot deformation. A 12-gauge shotgun, nominally 18.5 mm (0.73 in), can range from a tight 18.3 mm (0.72 in) to an extreme overbore of 20.3 mm (0.80 in). Some also claim an increased velocity with the overbored barrels, up to 15 m/s (49 ft/s), which is due to the larger swept volume of the overbored barrel. Once only found in expensive custom shotguns, overbored barrels are now becoming common in mass marketed guns. Aftermarket backboring is also commonly done to reduce the weight of the barrel, and move the center of mass backwards for a better balance. Factory overbored barrels generally are made with a larger outside diameter, and will not have this reduction in weight—though the factory barrels will be tougher, since they have a normal barrel wall thickness.

Firing slugs from overbored barrels can result in very inconsistent accuracy, as the slug may be incapable of obturating to fill the oversized bore.

Sizes in use

left-to-right: .410, 28ga, 20ga, 12ga

Certain sizes are more common than others; 12 gauge is the most common size,[1] with up to 50% of the overall shotgun market in the United States. The 20-gauge shotgun is popular with shooters who are uncomfortable with the weight and recoil of a 12 gauge gun, and is popular for upland game hunting. The next most popular size is a tie between the 28 gauge and .410 bore shotgun, which is not actually a gauge but rather a caliber. 10, and 16 gauges, while less common, are still readily available.

Shotguns larger than the 10 gauge are rarely manufactured nowadays. Eight gauge is rare in the United States due to its prohibition in duck hunting. However, it is still used in many parts of the world (notably: Britain) for bird hunting. Its shells are usually black powder paper cartridges as opposed to the plastic/wax cartridge and smokeless powder of today.

The 11, 14, 18, 2, and 3 gauge shells are the rarest of them all;[citation needed] people who own these types of rare shotguns will usually have their ammunition custom reloaded by a company that specializes in rare and custom bores for a high price. The very small 24 and 32 gauges are still produced and used in some European countries and Brazil. Punt guns and special purpose guns, such as the Russian 23 mm KS-23 (approximately 6 gauge), do exist, but are rarely encountered.

Also seen in limited numbers are smoothbore firearms in calibers smaller than .410, such as .22 Long Rifle, .22 WMR, and 9 mm rimfire, designed for short range pest control.[2][3]

To further complicate matters, special shot cartridges are available for typical handgun chamberings such as 9 mm Parabellum, .45 ACP, .38 Special/.357 Magnum, .44 Special/.44 Magnum, and .45 Colt. These rounds are either crimped in or in a plastic casing replacing the bullet. These are not generally considered "shot shells" by shotgun users, and the patterning performance is questionable since they are fired through rifled barrels. Thompson/Center makes special pistol barrels in .38/.357, .44 and .45 Colt that have "straight rifled" chokes in them to reduce the spin of the shot column and produce better patterns, but they are still suitable only for pest control at very short ranges.

Gauge and shot type

The 10 gauge was headed into obsolescence until steel and other nontoxic shot became required for waterfowl hunting as the larger shell could hold the much larger sizes of shot needed to get the low-density steel shot to the ranges needed for waterfowl hunting. The move to steel shot reduced the use of 16 and 20 gauges for waterfowl hunting, and smaller 2.75" 12 gauge shells as well. However, the advent of the 3.5 in (89 mm) 12 gauge shell, with its higher SAAMI pressure rating compared to standard 12 gauge guns, begin to approach the performance of the 10 gauge loads. Newer nontoxic shots, such as bismuth and tungsten-nickel-iron alloys, and even tungsten-polymer blends, regain much or all of the performance loss, but at much higher cost than steel or lead shot.[4] However, scientific research indicates that tungsten alloys can actually be quite toxic internally.[5]

Conversion guide


Portrait of Frederick Courteney Selous with his 4 bore single-shot Boer rifle and African hunting regalia, 1876.

A table showing the various gauge sizes with weights. The bores marked * are found in punt guns and rare weapons only. The .410 bore and 23mm caliber are exceptions; they are actual bore sizes, not gauges. If the .410 and 23mm were measured traditionally, they would be 67.62 gauge and 6.278 gauge, respectively.

Diameter Weight of unalloyed (pure) lead ball
(mm) (in) grams ounces grains
AA* 101.60 4.000 6225.52 219.6 96,080
* 76.20 3.000 2626.39 92.64 40,530
0.25* 67.34 2.651 1814.36 64.000 28,000
0.5* 53.45 2.103 907.18 32.000 14,000
A* 50.80 2.000 778.19 27.45 12,010
0.75* 46.70 1.838 604.80 21.336 9328
1* 42.42 1.669 453.59 16.000 7000
* 38.10 1.500 328.3 11.58 5066
1.5* 37.05 1.459 302.39 10.667 4667
2* 33.67 1.326 226.80 8.000 3500
3* 29.41 1.158 151.20 5.333 2333
4* 26.72 1.052 113.40 4.000 1750
B* 25.40 1.000 97.27 3.43 1501
5* 24.80 .976 90.72 3.200 1400
6* 23.35 .919 75.60 2.667 1166
6.278 23.00 .906 72.26 2.549 1114
7* 22.18 .873 64.80 2.286 1000
8 21.21 .835 56.70 2.000 875
9* 20.39 .803 50.40 1.778 778
10 19.69 .775 45.36 1.600 700
11/C½* 19.05 .750 41.24 1.454 636
12 18.53 .729 37.80 1.333 583
13* 18.04 .710 34.89 1.231 538
14* 17.60 .693 32.40 1.143 500
15* 17.21 .677 30.24 1.067 467
16 16.83 .663 28.35 1.000 438
17* 16.50 .650 26.68 0.941 412
18* 16.19 .637 25.20 0.889 389
20 15.63 .615 22.68 0.800 350
22* 15.13 .596 20.62 0.728 319
24 14.70 .579 18.90 0.667 292
26* 14.31 .564 17.44 0.615 269
28 13.97 .550 16.20 0.571 250
32 13.36 .526 14.17 0.500 219
36 12.85 .506 12.59 0.444 194
C* 12.70 .500 12.16 0.429 188
40 12.40 .488 11.34 0.400 175
67.62 10.41 .410 6.71 0.237 104

Note: Use of this table for estimating bullet masses for historical large-bore rifles is limited, as this table assumes the use of round ball, rather than conical bullets; for example, a typical 4 bore rifle from circa 1880 used a 2,000-grain (4.57 oz) bullet, or sometimes slightly heavier, rather than using a 4 ounce round lead ball. (Round balls give progressively much worse external ballistic performance than conical bullets at ranges greater than about 75 yards.) In contrast, a 4-bore express rifle often used a 1,500-grain (3.43 oz) bullet wrapped in paper to keep lead buildup to a minimum in the barrel. In either case, assuming a 4-ounce mass for a 4-bore rifle bullet from this table would be inaccurate, although indicative.


  1. Carter, Greg Lee (2002). Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif.; Oxford: ABC-CLIO. p. 361. ISBN 978-1-57607-268-4. 
  2. Clair Rees (March 2000). "Marlin's 'Garden Gun'—Model 25MG". Archived from the original on 2012-07-13. 
  3. Frank C. Barnes (2003). Stan Skinner. ed. Cartridges of the World (10th ed.). Krause Publications. ISBN 0-87349-605-1. 
  4. Randy Wakeman (2007). "Why The 10 Gauge Shotgun is Obsolete". 
  5. John Kalinich et al. (2005). "Embedded weapons-grade tungsten alloy shrapnel rapidly induces metastatic high-grade rhabdomyosarcomas in F344 rats.". Environmental Health Perspectives. 

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