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Shotgun Shell Holder Guide: Feeding the Beast

Some of the common complaints about the shotgun as a fighting tool center around ammunition management — that it has a relatively low capacity, spare ammunition is bulky to carry, and it’s slow to load. These are, in a way, valid complaints, but when you look at how many shells it typically takes to solve your issues, the shotgun’s lower capacity isn’t as much of a problem. Similarly, while it takes a while to fully replenish a shotgun’s tubular magazine, it’s generally very quick to get one round into the chamber via the ejection port, and one round of 12-gauge buckshot can do a lot. That said, ammunition is still bulky compared to rifle or pistol ammo, and carrying individual shells is a bit different than carrying spare magazines. 

Pile of shotguns shotgun shell holder shotgun accessories
Whatever your needs, there’s an on-board ammo carriage option that should meet them.

The most important place to carry more ammunition is on the gun itself. On-gun methods have become exceedingly popular over the years — with good reason. By and large these days, the shotgun isn’t a primary weapon carried by a soldier on patrol in a war zone, replete with vests, belts, or pouches carrying a full combat loadout of shells. For the homeowner groggily picking up their shotgun at the sound of breaking glass, or the cop snatching their gauge from a rack on the way out of the patrol car with an active shooter’s gunfire ringing in their ears, there might not be time to grab and don separate load carriage gear. What you have on the gun may be all you’ll have available to solve your problem. So, in this article, we take a look at various methods of carrying extra ammo on or in your gun, as well as their pros and cons.

Shotgun shotgun shell buttcuff

MAGAZINE TUBE EXTENSION

The first and easiest option is a magazine tube extension. Not every shotgun allows for this, but most do. This gives you additional magazine capacity and reduces the time until you run out of shells in the gun, but it adds length and weight to the gun far from the balance point. A typical Remington 870 has a four-round magazine tube when using standard-length 2¾-inch shells, and it’s very common to see a +1, +2, or even a +3 extension on such a gun configured for a fighting role. Note that barrel length plays an indirect role here: a typical 18-inch barrel will come up even with the end of a +2 extension on an 870, while a +1 tube generally comes flush with the muzzle of a 14-inch barrel. Any extension will protrude past the muzzle of a 12-inch barrel, negating the entire point of having such a short barrel. Many prefer a +1 extension regardless of barrel length, taking balance and maneuverability over an extra round of capacity. Still, others like +1s on 14-inch guns, a mix of +1s and +2s on 18-inch guns, and three-gunners even more. We’ve had great luck with extensions from Vang Comp Systems, Wilson Combat, and Nordic Components.

SIDE-MOUNTED CARRIER

The next on-gun carry method is a side-mounted receiver carrier, often called a shot shell sidesaddle. Aridus Industries and Vang Comp Systems both make excellent systems, with detachable spare carriers that you can swap out when the one on the gun is depleted. The Aridus Quick-Detach Carrier is more expensive and bulkier than the Vang Comp offering, but it’s a bit more secure if you prefer to carry your shells brass-down, guaranteeing that they’ll be in a repeatable alignment. The Vang elastic shell card, meanwhile, is a bit easier to extract your shells from under stress, and costs less with less physical bulk. Both are quality, well-made products that’ll give you years of service, so pick the one that fits your specific needs and preferences and drive on. HSGI and Esstac also make shotgun cards.

Additionally, many spare carriers will fit in fabric AR-15 magazine pouches, and Dark Star Gear makes a molded belt carrier specifically for the Aridus cassette. That said, many find it faster to load from a belt pouch or caddy directly into the mag tube than to replace an empty carrier and load from it. 

Swap carriers during a lull, or as a way to swap out shell loadouts for different situations. For example, you might keep a sidesaddle loaded with three slugs and three spare rounds of buckshot, but maybe you want an all-slug loadout for camping, all-birdshot for training, all-dummy-rounds for dry-fire, or all-buckshot in a hotel or dedicated home-defense mode. Having swappable sidesaddles makes this a lot more convenient.

Shot shell sidesaddle
Shorter sidesaddles sacrifice capacity in favor of less weight and an easier grip on the gun’s balance point for manipulations.

There are also fixed sidesaddles, most commonly from TacStar and Mesa Tactical. The TacStar is the OG of the genre and have been used for decades. They’re inexpensive, not terribly bulky, and work well for a while. They do eventually wear out and start dropping shells — a big reason why the shotgun cognoscenti of the ’90s preferred to carry their shells brass-up to prevent losing them under recoil. They can also cause reliability issues if the end-user over-tightens the crossbolts attaching them to the gun, especially on aluminum-receiver Mossbergs.

detachable shotgun sidesaddle in chest rig
Many detachable sidesaddles come in multiple capacity choices, and most will fit into fabric AR mag pouches for ease of carrying spares.

Mesa came up with a better way of retaining the shells, using a length of rubber tubing inlet into the body of the sidesaddle to provide friction against the hulls. This tubing can be replaced when it starts to wear out, bringing the sidesaddle back to its original tension. This is a solid option if you feel that you don’t need or want detachable carrier capability, but they do add a bit more lateral bulk than other models.

shell cards shotgun shell holder shotun shell caddie shotshell sidesaddle

Another note on sidesaddles: length and capacity does come with a trade-off. More shells adds more weight on the gun and takes up more space on the left side of the receiver. Many people opt for a shorter sidesaddle to allow for an easier grip around the receiver at the balance point for reloading or other manipulations. Some even resort to modifying a standard TacStar sidesaddle, hacksawing it down to a three-round capacity and leaving the front of the receiver free and clear. A left-handed shooter will also find it awkward to put their trigger finger in a register position with a sidesaddle in the way. Many lefties opt for a Vang Velcro shot shell sidesaddle and simply put a short three- or four-round shell card further forward on the plate, leaving room for their trigger finger alongside the receiver.

BUTT CUFF

shotgun shell buttcuff
Butt cuffs generally aren’t as optimal as a sidesaddle, but they may be your only option if you’re running a break-action gauge.

Before the advent of sidesaddles, it was common to carry spare ammunition in a leather (or later, stretchy nylon) butt cuff. This met the requirement of carrying extra ammunition on the gun, but it was relatively slow to load from and not conducive to shooting from the off-side shoulder. It still works, but it’s suboptimal compared to a sidesaddle. They can still be had from a variety of makers, at a variety of price and quality levels. 

SPEEDFEED 

Speed feed stock

Another popular method from the ’90s (and sort of an evolution of the butt cuff) is the SpeedFeed stock. These fixed buttstocks had miniature magazine tubes inlet into them, allowing the user to carry additional ammunition inside the stock itself. This eliminated the off-side shoulder issue of the butt-cuff but introduced its own issue of stock length. Because of the internal tubes, you couldn’t just cut the stock down to your desired length and refit a new butt pad, so you were stuck with a stock that was, in general, at least an inch too long. I don’t see too many of these stocks on the line anymore.

MATCH SAVER

The various action shotgun sports spawned a new on-gun reloading accessory: the MatchSaverz. This is a small plastic clip positioned just ahead of the ejection port and carries a single shell that can be wiped back into the ejection port for an emergency reload. There’s no faster way to reload one round into the gun, but at the same time, it’s only a single round and adds bulk to the right side of the weapon. Some folks use them specifically to load their shotgun’s chamber upon retrieval for use.

BAD-IDEA BANDOLIER

Shotgun Shell Caddy holder on gun side saddle
Do you want all this swinging around beneath your shotgun while you’re trying to stop a lethal threat?

Finally, there’s the bandolier sling. This is a simple two-point carry strap sewn with a series of shell loops to hold anywhere from 5 to 25 rounds of ammunition. Unfortunately, this results in a lot of weight swinging around underneath the gun while you’re trying to use it. Most examples on the market today are cheaply made, although you could certainly commission a leatherworker to make a high-quality one if you wanted to. However, they tend to drop shells all over the range while swinging and getting in your way. While they may look cool in movies, they’re generally far more trouble than they’re worth and should be avoided.

LOOSE ROUNDS

All in all, I find that a quality magazine tube extension, sidesaddle, and perhaps a MatchSaverz as well strikes a good balance between carrying enough bang and overloading the gun to the point that it becomes unwieldy. My own home-defense gun is a Vang Comp-modified 14-inch 870 SBS, with a +1 extension and a six-round Vang sidesaddle on the gun. Stored cruiser-ready for safety with a round of “dead space” in the tube, that gives me 10 rounds of Federal FliteControl buckshot on board. That’s potent medicine.

dark star gear for the aridus industries q-dc system
Dark Star Gear’s dedicated carrier for the Aridus Industries Q-DC system.

One more thought — it’s one thing to learn from others’ experiences, but the final arbiter is actually getting out and using a shotgun shell holder under time stress. Go out and get training from a reputable shotgun instructor. Go compete in some matches of different types, to get a broader understanding of what works in different contexts. Hunt with your shotgun, whether it be medium or large game with buckshot or slugs, or small game with birdshot. Get some dummy rounds and practice loading and operating your shotgun safely.

Knowledge is refined and expanded by experience, so get out there and train! 

[Photography by Patrick McCarthy.]


About the Author

Matt Haught is the vice president and a senior instructor for Symtac Consulting LLC, working alongside his father, Rob Haught. Matt has a long history of competitive and practical shooting as a frequent pistol, shotgun, two-gun, and safari rifle match competitor. He brings an armed citizen’s perspective to Symtac’s curriculum.

URL: sym-tac.com


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One response to “Shotgun Shell Holder Guide: Feeding the Beast”

  1. David Kees says:

    I would be remiss not to mention/comment the best way to hold extra ammo in a shotgun stock is TACTALOAD.
    you should review them…
    http://www.tactaload.com

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