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Best 12 Gauge Ammo: Top Loads for Defense, Deer, Ducks, and More [2022]

FOR DUCKS, DEER, OR BURGLARS — A SHOTGUN CAN SERVE YOU WELL IF YOU FEED IT RIGHT

Shotgun versatility is the stuff of legends. When loaded with appropriate ammo, these popular scatterguns can be used to hunt everything from pint-sized partridges to monster bucks.

The 12-gauge isn’t just for scaring bad guys off your balcony. When loaded with the right ammunition, there isn’t much these scatterguns can’t do.

The key is matching your 12-gauge loads to the job in front of you. 

Think of your 12-gauge as a toolbox. It isn’t the toolbox but the tools you pack inside that get the job done. To be an effective handyman, you need to make sure you’re grabbing the right tool for your task.  

You could try to drive a nail with a screwdriver, but you’re just going to end up frustrated. You could also punch partridges with your whitetail loads, but you probably won’t have more than a handful of feathers to show for it.  

UNDERSTANDING SHOTGUN LOADS

The single thing that makes the 12-gauge such a flexible weapon is the wide variety of loads you can feed it. Different loads hold projectiles of different weights and sizes. Options range from shotshells that hold hundreds of tiny round beads to ones that hold a single hefty slug.

The first step in finding the best 12-gauge ammo for the job is understanding the different types of projectiles they shoot. 

Here’s a brief overview of shotgun projectile sizes. 

Birdshot

Birdshot is generally used for… you guessed it… hunting birds (although it also does a number on small game animals). 

Because even the largest birdshot is incredibly tiny, these loads generally aren’t recommended for home defense.

The most important thing to remember when it comes to birdshot is that the larger the number on the box, the smaller the pellets in the shotshell. 

Also, the smaller the shot, the more pellets each shell holds. 

The tiniest birdshot is #12, which are mostly hard-to-find specialty loads. #12 shot is seriously itty-bitty and measures only .053 inches in diameter. These loads are designed for popping rats, snakes, and other pests at halitosis range (think five yards or less). 

The largest birdshot is #FF, which has a diameter of .23 inches. These heavyweight pellets are handy to have for dropping long-range waterfowl.

Buckshot

As the name implies, buckshot is primarily used for deer hunting (especially in rifle-restricted areas). However, buckshot is also a common option for home defense, probably because the size, body weight, and depth of vitals aren’t all that different when comparing a big buck to the average home intruder. 

Like birdshot, buckshot pellet sizes shrink as the numbers get bigger. The smallest buckshot is #4, which shouldn’t be confused with #4 birdshot. #4 Buckshot has a .24-inch diameter, while #4 birdshot is smaller, coming in at .13 inches.

Types of Buckshot
Types of Buckshot

Yes, we acknowledge that the world of shotguns is a confusing place, but we didn’t make the rules.

Buckshot doesn’t max out with #1s. Shot sizes continue to increase, with 000 (pronounced “triple-ought”) through 0 (just say “ought”). The more 0s, the bigger the shot size. 

00 buckshot is the most popular for both hunting and home defense. Each 00 12-gauge shotshell is typically packed with eight or nine pellets, all measuring .33-inches across.

Slugs

Shotgun slugs contain a single large “bullet” rather than multiple round pellets. These heavyweight projectiles carry tons of energy, penetrate deeply, and create massive wounds. They also punch through tough barriers like drywall, car doors, and thick whitetail shoulder bones without breaking a sweat. 

Shotgun 12ga Slug
Shotgun 12ga Slug

Because slugs are single projectile, they also deliver better accuracy and on-target energy at longer ranges. Essentially, a slug takes a close-range weapon and makes it an effective medium-range weapon. Both police officers and hunters swap out their buckshot for slugs when engaging longer-range targets. 

BEST 12-GAUGE AMMO FOR HOME DEFENSE

Federal Premium Personal Defense

Recoil may not seem like a big deal until your teenage daughter or elderly mother-in-law needs to stare down bad guys in your front hallway. 

Federal Premium Personal Defense
Federal Premium Personal Defense

12-gauge shotguns are known for being abusive to shoulders. Using a reduced recoil load like Federal Premium Personal Defense ensures your shotgun is an effective weapon everyone in your house can use. 

Featuring nine payload pellets of copper-plated lead 00 buckshot, Federal Personal Defense is fine-tuned for personal protection applications. These loads are made with an exclusive rear-braking FLITECONTROL wad that keeps patterns tight to prevent stray pellets from creating collateral damage.

Winchester PDX1 Defender

If you get high on ammo innovation, Winchester’s PDX1 Defender shotgun loads will definitely leave you buzzing, especially if you’re partial to shotgun slugs.

We don’t usually recommend shotgun slugs for home defense, but the Defender series features several cutting-edge defensive solutions that have us reconsidering our stance. 

The PDX1 Defender is a slug and buckshot combo; each 2 ¾-inch shotshell is stuffed with both a rifled slug AND three pellets of 00 buckshot. The concept attempts to combine the massive energy transfer of a slug with the multiple-projectile advantage of buckshot. 

Winchester PDX1
Winchester PDX1

The design naturally compensates for aiming errors that can happen when a shooter is under stress, like when masked thugs bust through your front door and attempt to rape your dog. If the slug misses your mark, those three extra pellets increase your chances of striking your target before they get to Fido. 

The design has one major drawback – it doesn’t address the serious over-penetration issues generally associated with slugs. If your kids are slumbering soundly on the other side of that flimsy drywall, you should probably choose a different home defense load.

The Winchester Defender line also features a segmenting rifled slug. Featuring unique notches inside and outside of the one-ounce slug, these projectiles are pre-programmed to bust into three separate pieces when they hit soft tissue. The design maximizes internal damage while eliminating concerns with over-penetration, making this a much safer option for defending Fido’s honor in your front hallway. 

Winchester Super X 00 Buckshot

Although there are tons of 12-gauge loads marketed specifically for home defense, there’s nothing wrong with using plain old boring Winchester Super X 00 Buckshot

00 Buckshot has long been praised as the crown jewel of home defense loads. Even the US military and most law enforcement agencies use good old-fashioned 00 buckshot.

Winchester Super X
Winchester Super X

While there’s nothing ballistically fancy about this ammo, it doesn’t need bells and whistles to be effective. It goes boom every time you pull the trigger, and it will cycle reliably through pretty much every shotgun on the face of the planet. Ultimately, those two things are more important in a defensive load than anything else. 

BEST 12-GAUGE AMMO FOR DEER HUNTING

Hornady SST Slugs

While most of the hunting world agrees that a rifle is a superior option for hunting whitetails, some areas restrict deer hunting to shotguns. That sucks for deer hunters looking to stretch their shot opportunities. However, a top-notch slug helps close the gap between a long-range rifle and a close-range scattergun.

Hornady SST Slugs feature the company’s patented Flex Tip technology, which produces a more aerodynamic profile. If you need to stretch the effective range of your shotgun, this slug will certainly help you do it. 

Hornady SST Slugs
Hornady SST Slugs

The 300-grain SST stays true out to at least 200 yards, and it hits like a freakin’ freight train when it gets there.

Federal Power-Shok Buckshot

Buckshot can be your best friend if you’re jumping bucks in thick woods or hunting in front of hounds. Federal Power-Shok loads feature the Triple Plus wad system and a granulated plastic buffer to keep shot patterns tight. It’s also priced for a working man’s budget.

Federal Power-Shok Buckshot

BEST 12-GAUGE AMMO FOR TURKEY HUNTING

Federal Premium Heavyweight TSS

The 1991 national lead ammo ban was one of the best things to ever happen to turkey hunters. Without it, we’d still be shooting sub-par lead loads. However, the ban forced ammo designers to explore innovative solutions. As a result, we ended up with TSS (Tungsten Super Shot), and the turkey hunting world has never been the same. 

Federal Premium Heavyweight TSS
Federal Premium Heavyweight TSS

TSS is a non-toxic alternative to lead. Because it is denser, it hits harder, patterns better, and kills deader than traditional lead shot. 

Federal Premium Heavyweight TSS uses a tungsten alloy that is 22 percent denser than standard tungsten and 56 percent denser than classic lead. These gobbler-getters also feature a full-length wad to keep those extra-hard pellets from banging up your bore. 

Browning TSS Tungsten Turkey 

If you thought Browning only manufactured top-notch guns, you couldn’t be more wrong. They also have a fine line-up of ammunition, and their TSS Tungsten Turkey loads have gobblers literally shaking in their metaphorical shoes. These loads can drop toms at 70 yards without breaking a sweat.

TSS Tungsten Turkey features hard-as-nails shot that is 60 percent denser than standard lead. It also has an aerodynamically stabilized wad that keeps your shot pattern tight, consistent, and effective. 

BEST 12-GAUGE AMMO FOR DUCK HUNTING

Hevi-Shot Hevi-XII

Hevi-Shot revolutionized the world of waterfowl hunting with the first denser-than-lead pellets. The tungsten shot inside their shotshells looks like factory rejects, but their misshapen design is intentional, and these loads pattern better than the round stuff time and time again.

The Hevi-XII line features the company’s original Hevi-Shot tungsten pellets. This stuff leaves the muzzle at lightning-fast velocities and carries a ton of energy downrange. 

At more than $3.50 a shotshell, these loads might be a bit rich for some waterfowlers, but their performance is unmatched in the field. If you want more dead ducks and fewer cripples, these are the loads you want with you in the duck blind.

Remington Wingmaster HD

After a brief hiatus, Remington is again rolling their popular Wingmaster HD loads off the factory line. Duck hunters everywhere are rejoicing. 

Remington Wingmaster HD
Remington Wingmaster HD

Wingmaster HD features super-hard, super-dense tungsten shot that delivers super-dense shot patterns for long-range waterfowling. 

And as the name implies, these loads team perfectly with a Remington 870 Wingmaster. 

BEST 12-GAUGE AMMO FOR UPLAND BIRDS

Winchester Elite Rooster XR

Winchester Rooster XR features copper-plated lead pellets surrounded by resin in the shotshell. The resin fractures during the firing process and works to preserve pellet integrity as it passes through the choke. The result is perfectly round shot that hold a tight pattern in the air and penetrate deeper on target. 

The line features #6 shot loads perfect for smaller upland birds, and #4s that are ideal for busting spring toms. 

Federal Premium Hi-Bird

Federal Premium Hi-Bird loads combine high-velocity performance with hard-hitting lead pellets to maximize effectiveness on tricky, often acrobatic upland birds. 

Federal Premium Hi-Bird
Federal Premium Hi-Bird

These loads also use a special two-piece wad with SoftCell technology. Designed to reduce felt recoil and improve shot pattern consistency, these loads are perfect for long, high-volume shooting in the field. 

LOOSE ROUNDS

The brand of ammo you choose to feed your 12-gauge is important, but not nearly as important as your skill with the weapon. No ammo, no matter how fancy or expensive, is a substitute for confidence and proficiency. Be sure to spend some time sending lead (or steel, or tungsten) downrange in practice. Not only will it help familiarize you with the limitations of your loads, but ultimately it will also make you a better shooter. 

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