Whether you grew up in a rural area or just go out hunting every year, it’s easy to take the ingenuity of the shotgun for granted. But understanding the different parts of a shotgun, as well as its ammunition, can help you develop a greater respect for this indispensable tool and weapon.
After all, knowing how to aim and fire a shotgun isn’t the same as understanding where it came from and how it works.
A Brief History of the Modern Shotgun
Today, firearms are a hot topic across the nation. Regardless of your personal stance, though, it’s impossible to deny just how important the shotgun was throughout United States history.
So, where exactly did the modern shotgun originate?
Of course, the invention of gunpowder is over a millennium old. But the shotgun itself is much younger.
Some of the first examples of the modern shotgun appeared in 1600s France, where these firearms were used for bird hunting. As this technology improved throughout the years, the popularity of the sport continued to grow.
As for the “father of the modern shotgun,” Joseph Manton, his innovations would take hold around the end of the 1700s. Manton brought together the key aspects of a variety of shotguns to create the predecessor of our shotguns today.
Several more centuries would pass, and innovators like John Moses Browning would come onto the scene. But perhaps the biggest moment in shotgun history was in 1909, when the Remington Rochester 11 was invented.
This particular gun was the first true modern shotgun. The rest is, as they say, history.
Obviously, a lot more went into the development of the modern shotgun throughout all of those years. But if we dove into the nitty-gritty details here, we’d never get to our main subject:
That is, the most important parts of a shotgun and how they work.
The 3 Major Parts of a Shotgun You Should Know
So, what makes a shotgun a shotgun? It all starts with the basic construction.
While there are countless models of shotguns out there, some more popular than others, all modern shotguns have a few basic parts in common:
A shotgun stock goes by numerous different names, including buttstock, gunstock, or shoulder stock. As the last of these names suggests, the stock is the part of the shotgun that sits against the shoulder.
While the stock doesn’t play much of a role in actually firing the ammunition, it does offer essential structure and support to the entire gun. Without the stock, there would nothing holding everything else together!
Although the stock doesn’t have anything to do with manually firing the ammunition, it’s integral to safely aiming and shooting the shotgun.
Out of all of the major parts of a shotgun, the stock helps the shooter aim and brace the gun. So, if it weren’t for the stock, shotguns would be much more unpredictable and dangerous to operate.
If your shotgun’s stock isn’t properly fitted, however, it can increase the chances of injury when shooting. Anyone who’s shot a long-barrel shotgun knows how much force can be behind a single firing. The stock helps brace this force against your shoulder for the least amount of physical impact.
When it comes to actually firing a round, the shotgun’s action is where the, well, action happens.
Located just in front of the stock, the action is almost always 100 percent metal. This is where you load shotgun shells into the rifle. It’s also the part of the shotgun that fires and unloads the shells.
Without a doubt, the action is the most important of the three major parts of a shotgun. But there isn’t just one type of action used in modern shotguns.
One of the most popular types of shotgun action is the break-action. You can easily identify these shotguns by their hinging design, which opens up to allow for loading shells.
Most firearms enthusiasts also consider this the safest type of shotgun action.
In a break-action shotgun, loading and unloading are both completely manual. The shooter must break open the shotgun at the hinge and place the round(s) before firing. After firing, they must then open the hinge again to remove the spent cartridges by hand.
Bolt-action shotguns aren’t very popular in day-to-day modern shooting, but there’s a good chance you’ve seen one used in an old Western or other media.
This type of shotgun action features a lever-like handle sticking out of the metal body. To load the firearm, the shooter must pull the handle up and back to open up the chamber. This movement also engages the firing mechanism. Once the shell is in the chamber, the shooter then reverses the handle movement to prepare to fire.
Bolt action shotguns are frequently used with magazines. Each time the back-and-forth handle movement is completed after firing, it will also expel the recently used cartridge from the chamber.
The pump-action shotgun is another one you won’t see much in everyday modern life. But in many ways, it’s a cultural icon.
Internally, pump-action shotguns are quite similar to bolt-action ones. However, the action movement is controlled with an outer sleeve, called a fore-end, rather than a bolt. Hence, the “pump” motion required to load and unload one of these shotguns.
Of all of the key parts of a shotgun, the barrel is absolutely the most straightforward. In short, it’s the long, metal tube extending from the shotgun’s action.
Some shotguns feature a double-barrel design, meaning they have two barrels side-by-side. This allows the shooter to fire two shotgun shells at once.
The Anatomy of a Shotgun Shell
While the different parts of a shotgun are obviously important, they only make up a small portion of the big picture. After all, without the shotgun shell, a shotgun is pretty useless!
But what all goes into a shotgun shell, anyway?
The shotgun shell case might be the simplest part, but it’s also one of the most important. Without the case, you’d just have a pile of powder and ammunition rather than a real shell!
Typically, shell cases are plastic — often a bright color, so they’re easy to find and collect after firing. Most ammunition manufacturers crimp the ends of this plastic to keep everything inside the shell.
Base and primer
On the opposite end of the crimped plastic are the base and primer. Unlike the case, these are normally made from brass.
The base adds stability and shape to the plastic case. The primer is located at the center of the base.
The primer is extremely important because it’s responsible for actually firing the round. When the shotgun’s firing pin strikes the primer (which occurs when the shooter pulls the gun’s trigger), a compound inside explodes.
Then, when the primer is struck and explodes, the powder inside the shotgun shell ignites. As this powder burns, it produces rapidly expanding gasses.
Obviously, these gasses need to go somewhere. In the case of a shotgun, that “somewhere” is out the end of the barrel.
But since the shotgun shell is located between these gases and the exit, they propel the shell out at the same time.
Shot or slug
Finally, one of the most important parts of a shotgun shell: The shot or slug. In simpler terms, these are the actual bullets shot from the barrel.
Shotgun shells come in two main types:
Shot refers to small metal pellets. When fired, these pellets spread out into a cluster as they propel through the air. While each pellet does far less damage than a larger bullet, the increased range makes it easier to hit birds, clay pigeons, and other small game.
Meanwhile, slugs are more traditional, large bullets. While they have a much smaller range, they do quite a bit more damage than an individual pellet. Slugs are typically used for deer hunting and other large game.
No matter your experience with firearms, the history and construction of the modern shotgun is undeniably fascinating. And when it does come to firing these weapons, knowing them in and out can help you better understand and respect their power.
Plus, if you’re looking to get into shooting, either for hunting or for sport, knowing the different parts of a shotgun will be crucial for cleaning and maintenance down the road! It will also help you choose the right firearm and ammunition for your specific needs.
So, whether firearms are a personal hobby or a passing curiosity, it’s impossible to deny just how important they’ve been to both the United States’ and global histories. Without these revolutionary tools, who knows where we’d be today!
When did you first learn to shoot a shotgun? Do you or your family have a specific model you’re particularly loyal to? Let us know in the comments below!