Methods of Murder: Shotguns For Writers Who Don’t Shoot

This is the sort of ammunition that shotguns fire. credit

Who doesn’t shoot? I mean everyone knows what the difference between a shotgun and a rifle is don’t they? If that was the case I would not have read articles and E books where the author obviously doesn’t know. This article is not about making anyone feel silly. I am a Brit but I am of the old school. When I was born and brought up the opportunity to shoot was not right there in front of you, but only a little effort would get you on a range.

Over the last 30 years though the UK has tightened up so much that many people in the UK have never fired a gun. So I will do a few of these pieces looking at how firearms work and what they can do. I hope it helps your threatening bad guy sound like he is holding a real gun.

The Short Version Of Methods of Murder: Shotguns For Writers Who Don’t Shoot.

Never say you loaded your shotgun with bullets. I have seen it so written. Shotguns use cartridges consisting of a plastic tube with pellets of metal inside. At the top they are sealed, at the bottom is a metal base which has a gunpowder charge. Shotgun shells is a good term too.

Never say a marksman looked down the sight of their shotgun and studied the target 300 meters away. Shotguns are for close range shooting. Lethal up to about 10 metres, possibly lethal up to about 36 metres. If you think of standing in the street looking at an average urban house. The door is open and you can see right through to the back garden fence. About 25 metres. That is about as far as you can accurately shoot a shotgun and hit a person. If you want ‘edge of the seat’ action and a shoot out over varying distances, try a rifle or handgun.

Unless your character gets or adapts a farmer style shotgun to shorten it it will be hard to hide. Think of a big walking stick. It will not go easily under a rain coat.  Also remember that if the shotgun is being used in a house the barrel will make it hard to swing around on a landing or in a doorway.

You cannot put some sort of silencer on a shotgun. You can quiet it down but they are loud. Think of a house alarm siren… They are probably about 2/3 louder than that. So if your character is going to use one, they will be heard.

Ammo from a shotgun can go through doors, windows, garage doors, the door of a car. Seldom will it go through tree trunks and it will not go through brick walls. One exception to that is the slug or single lump of metal that can be fired. Even then it will be a flook shot hitting a decaying wall.

Shotguns V Rifles

A shotgun is usually about as long as a rifle and some even look very much like a rifle. The difference is the inside of the barrel and the type of ammunition they shoot. Now if you are a gun expert from the USA or elsewhere by all means pick me up on any details you are not happy about. I would ask that you bear in mind this is for people who have not been trained as shooters yet want to get their brilliant crime stories right.

Rifles have what is called a rifled barrel. On the inside is a spiral of grooves cut into the metal. When a bullet is shot out of that sort of barrel it spins because of these grooves. A shotgun barrel is a tube, smooth on the inside. What is fired from it comes straight out, no deliberate spinning.

Shotguns use ammunition that comes in a cartridge ( shotgun shell is another term used).

This is a sealed tube. It varies in width and length. Normally the outer case of the tube is plastic and the base is metal. They are called shotguns because often in these tubes are loose pieces of metal in small balls. These are sometimes big like pea sized and other times they can be very small. These collections of ‘metal pellets’ are called SHOT.

This is the sort of ammunition that shotguns fire. The reason the top is jagged is that they have opened them to show the shot inside. Normally they are sealed and smooth on the top. credit


I will start with a basic shotgun. It has a long barrel, it has a stock that you put to your shoulder and a trigger. You click a lever on the top and the tube will ‘break’ and drop forward on a hinge. At this point you have the stock, trigger and back bit of the gun in your hand. The barrel is sloping downward and right in front of you is the end of the tube closest to you.

Credit to


You take a cartridge and put the plastic bit in the tube and push it as far as it will go. A lip on the metal base stops it from sliding all the way down. You then raise the barrel and it clicks into place so it once again looks like a shotgun. The barrel and the stock are in line.

You raise the gun to your shoulder, hold the piece under the barrel halfway down with your other hand. You are now able to fire. As you pull the trigger you will get quite a jolt into your shoulder. The end of the barrel will try and jump up.

What has happened is as you pull the trigger a mechanism shoots a pin forward into the metal base of the cartridge. It ignites some gunpowder and because the explosion that follows is contained the force has only one way to go. The plastic tube opens under the force and the explosion carries the shot along the barrel and then out of the other end.

Another view of the same shotgun.


The gun we are imagining is a single barrel shotgun. When you hear the term ‘ double barrel shotgun’ that is the same method but you have two barrels. You can have two next to each other or one on the top and one under that.

You will see on the top of the mechanism is one piece I have not mentioned. This is the hammer. Sometimes you have to use your thumb to pull this back. Like a hammer hitting a nail, when you pull the trigger this hammer strikes forward, hits the pin and you get the explosion in the cartridge. Old shotguns often had very ornate and obvious hammers. Many modern shotguns have a hammer mechanism out of your sight inside.

 Different Types of Shotgun

Above is a simple shotgun. They are tools basically. Farmers traditionally use them to get rid of vermin. Rabbits can undermine land with their burrows to the point it collapses. Foxes can rip through coups of chickens, magpies and crows can reek  havoc on lambs. For a long time you had single or double barrelled shotguns. No real change. They come with barrels that are different diameters, fire various types of ammunition, but nothing much varied from one century to another.

Along came pump action shotguns, automatic shotguns and lever action shotguns. I explain them here, but if you just want to describe standard shotguns in your epic crime story skip to the next bit.

Lever Action

This where you load a gun with several shotgun cartridges. You do the same then as with the single barrel shotgun I described. The barrel does not break. You have loaded the cartridges and snap out the lever and it puts a cartridge in the chamber. Any hammer is then ready to strike. You might well have a safety button. Click that off, aim and fire. Then you pull the lever quickly all the way it will go. That puts another cartridge in the chamber and off you go again.

Hammerless lever action shotgun. The cartridges are loaded into the bottom and slide into that tube under the barrel. Credit The Hunter Fandom.

Pump Action Shotgun

Pump actions are similar to the above but instead of having a lever you crank to get another cartridge in the chamber on these you pull back the grip under the barrel. Both the lever and pump shotgun are normally loaded under the gun. The cartridges go into the tube one behind the other. The plastic end first.

A Mossberg pump action shotgun. Notice there is no shoulder stock. This sort of weapon is harder to get accurate shots from but is shorter and can be concealed easier. Also when used as a home defence weapon they are easier operated in a house, through doors etc. Credit Sony on Russian Wikipedia.


Automatic Shotguns

As a writer of crime I would probably not touch this category. Maybe if your main character strayed into Eastern Europe or was embroiled with shady militia groups in the Americas but as for UK etc, I wouldn’t bother. This type of shotgun is military more than anything else. Lever action and pump action shotguns are tools as I say. They can fire six cartridges normally without reloading. A single, one shot, a double barrelled is two. These auto shotguns can fire twenty or so shotgun cartridge loads ( of shot) in seconds.

I have never fired one, but going off the jolt you get from some large ammo in shotguns an auto would take some practise. It doubtless tries to bounce about all over the place.

Big bad and nasty. Yet very effective. The Auto shotgun by Maxwell Atchisson .
Credit: Defence Review


Automatic weapons ( pistols, rifles, shotguns, sub machine guns) will empty the magazine so long as you keep the trigger pressed down.  Double barrel, single barrel, pump and lever shotguns are a case of pull the trigger and you get one shot, pull again and you get a second shot etc.

Shotguns As Revolvers

Relatively recent in the gun word is the revolver shotgun. This is a big chunky hand gun. They fire all manner of ammo. The picture is of one called the Governor. It fires .410 cartridges and can take a load of six of them. In the house when faced with a burglar it might well do the trick. It will make a big bang and close up do damage. By all means take a look at them and arm your character with them. I wouldn’t do this though if your character wants to aim and have a shoot out across a warehouse or open space. Up front and personal sort of weapon which I would guess you need a firm grip to fire in any way accurately.

The six shot Governor Shot Revolver. Looks fun unless you are on the short business end.

Different Bores/Gauge of Shotgun

In rifles and pistols and submachine guns you have calibres. The calibre is the diameter of the inside of the barrel. It is how you can be sure you buy ammo that will fit the gun you use.

With shotguns you have the same diameter measurement but it is called a Bore, Bore size or Gauge. In the UK we often say ’12 bore’. In the US, 12 gauge, but the terms mean the same thing. As a rule of thumb I would call it 12 gauge unless my character was an old British aristocrat or rural gamekeeper type.

When writing about one in a sweaty villain’s hand you would seldom use the word bore.

Standard ammo size for shotguns is the 12 gauge for example. That is because it is one of the most common diameters of barrel. The way you pick the right size ammo for a shotgun is by knowing the diameter of the gun. You can have:

10 gauge

12 gauge

16 gauge

20 gauge

28 gauge

There are more right down to pretty small but they are less common.

To complicate it the lower the number the bigger the diameter of the barrel. To complicate it further there is one shotgun size that is only really called by the bore size…the .410.

I will try and lift the mist a bit. It is all to do with the measurements of old and I am not going into it. If you are writing historical fiction by all means shout me if ancient shotguns are your ‘must have’ weapon.

The size of the diameter of the barrel that faces your hero or victim is best described using the measurement of an inch. A .410 for example is 41% of a inch wide, a 12 gauge is about 72% of an inch wide.

‘I found myself looking down the barrel of a 12 gauge shotgun. I guess it could have been smaller but at the distance between us the hole would be killer big.’ 

I could go on but simply put until you get into it a 12 gauge pump action, or a 12 gauge double barrel is good for scare in any novel. There are some common types that can be just as good. A 410 or a 20 gauge are smaller but your hero or bad guy will do damage with it. Here we are in a tech minefield. Not only do you have the diameter of a barrel, but you can have significantly different ammo.

I would not get too bogged down in the intricacies of this if you are just putting weapons in the hands of your characters as incidental to your story. If you are doing a story on illegal weapons dealing or something similar then you need to read way more. Start with Wikipedia and work out. I will help if I can so by all means contact me:

Extra Bits You Need To Know

I mentioned ammo. You can have a big gauge shotgun that has ammo that comprises of very small bits of metal. You can have a smaller gauge with ammo of only a few big round bits of metal. Then you can have a shotgun with one large lump of lead in the cartridge. It depends mainly on what you are looking to shoot at. The ammo is designed for shooting critters not humans. At least generally speaking. As shotguns are used by the military and law enforcement other ammo has been developed. In our stories specifics are not normally needed.

When it comes to say a ‘professional hit man type’ or an ex military tough guy I wouldn’t put a shotgun in their hands at all. Shotguns in novels are more weapons that are grabbed by domestic style murderers. Another type of criminal would be a guy or girl who make their way robbing banks or jewellery stores. For a professional you might consider, pistols, revolvers and rifles.

What happens when you fire a shotgun is you release the pellets of shot and they fly up the barrel. They come out of the end in a lump. The further your target is, the more this lump separates and flies as a pattern that spreads out as it goes.

Take birdshot as an example. This is comprised of light round bits of lead. As it comes out of the barrel you do not want to be in its way. After about five metres ( five yards) a human probably would not be killed by a load of birdshot. After about 15 metres ( 15 yards approx ) the wounds they got would be nothing major usually. I am not saying that means at that range it is safe to shoot anyone. It never is safe to shoot at anything you want kept safe. I’m just pointing out that birdshot is light and has limits. It is used to spread out wide to kill what it indicates, birds.

00 Buckshot on the other hand (with say nine larger pellets) comes out and spreads but even at about 40 metres (36 yards) a stray single pellet could kill. This sort of ammo would be obviously more lethal than birdshot at shorter ranges.

Close up any shotgun load will hit in a big horrible way. You are looking at a wound the size of a fist going in and twice that size or more coming out of the other side. You are at short, close and personal range here so beware of your wound description (depending on what ammo is used) and how close the killer is to the victim.

A single slug ( one lump of lead in a cartridge) is lethal for a long way. It is not unusual for a single slug to travel 365 metres (400) yards if it hits nothing first.  To shoot that accurately is almost impossible at that range but it can travel that far.  Anything it hits that is human will be at risk of death.

Aiming a shot gun is different than say aiming a rifle. In most cases you raise the barrel, put the shoulder stock into your shoulder and point it as if it were a stick. At the end of some there is a single round tiny ball ( a bead). You are meant to line your eye along the barrel with this little ball. You can get all sorts of sights on them but never see them as long range, sniper type, weapons. Shotguns are intuitive weapons in that practise allows the user to sort of naturally raise and accurately shoot without much thought of technical aiming. The fact that the shot spreads out is how they are so effective. Close up they have high power, man stopping ability, at longer range- the spreading out pattern of pellets makes up for the lack of aiming.

A shotgun close up will blast through your average door. This sort of ammo will struggle to go through one side of a vehicle to another and will not go through dense trees or brick walls. They intimidate very effectively as well.

You can have a long (24 inch plus) barrel on your character’s shotgun but alternatively you can have a stubby cut down barrel. The shorter the barrel- the less accurate range it will have. The shorter the barrel the more the shot will spread out as well. Sawn off shotguns, as they are often called, are pretty useless unless you are shooting from one side of a room to the other for example. They will make a horrible mess of something at about two or three metres though.

Finally, though this subject feels as if it is without end, a standard shotgun is fired like a rifle. You put the shoulder stock to your shoulder etc. The jolt ( kick) can be savage. There is a shotgun I fired called a Turkey Gun. It had a long barrel and a very big gauge. It bruised me up no end and I am pretty good at getting a shoulder stock in nice and tight.

You can have your character with a 12 gauge in one hand and flashlight in another for example. Just remember that if he or she fires it will kick up something wicked and accuracy is virtually nil unless the target is right up close. The lighter the build of your character- the less this is practical but I have held smaller 20 gauge shotguns at arms length single handed and fired them. I have also held 12 gauge pump action in a similar way, but only when on a firing range that was effectively a mountain pasture with no people for miles. I missed everything I was aiming at by the way.

I have probably missed some bits but as a rule of thumb you should be okay to describe shotgun action with your head held high.

Any comments welcome

Take care