Shotguns are popular and effective weapons for solving close range conflicts with gory efficiency. It is this tremendous efficacy at close range that leads to plenty of shooters choosing them over handguns and carbines for their home defense or general readiness long gun.
This is interesting because, as I and others have espoused previously, you give up a handful of advantages you’d net with another kind of firearm to get that close-in power.
One of those advantages is capacity; it is the rare shotgun, of any make, that will hold more than 7 or 8 shells tops. In anything but a short, sharp fight, this can be a liability. It can also be a liability in the event that you miss, or need to deal with multiple assailants.
Another advantage you give up is endurance, meaning how easy it is to keep the gun fed and in a fight. This is more pertinent to battlefield use of the shotgun but has some applicability for preppers, too.
A shotgun’s ammunition, any variety, is bulky and heavy compared to rifle or pistol cartridges and carrying it ready for use is much trickier than any detachable magazine.
Together, these two drawbacks make up one of the shotgun’s biggest shortcomings: they require regular loading, and that loading is not the simplest operation. This is exacerbated when your spare ammunition is carried in an inefficient or haphazard way.
Half the battle of loading a shotgun quickly and with certainty is carrying your ammunition properly. Easier said than done, but with the right knowledge and the right equipment you can make feeding your favorite boomstick smooth and quick. In this article, I’ll teach you how.
Before You Buy…
Assess your needs! Your purpose for the shotgun will largely inform how you approach ammunition carriage. Your objective (or “mission”) will dictate your gear.
Do you need a handful of extra rounds for home defense, just in case? Or are you relying on your shotgun as your Social Gun when and if society collapses into anarchy and mayhem? Those setups will look very different, even if they have a common element or two.
Likewise, are you carrying buck, slug or both? Shotguns are versatile, but squeezing that versatility out of them with swift selection of load type requires a whole ‘nother set of skills, and ammo storage solutions to boot.
Things are simpler if you carry just one shell or the other, but carrying both means you’ll approach your ammo carriage a little differently.
Compared to carrying rifle and pistol ammo, you will see a lot of variation in the pouches, caddies and gadgets employed by shotgunners. Only in the most specialized disciplines like Three-Gun competition will you see shooters running nearly identical “rigs” for their shells.
Everyone else that is skilled will be stashing and storing ammo in a way that both keeps the ammo secure, easy to access, separated by shell type and moving up toward the gun. As the proverb goes, “there is more than one way to skin a cat,” so too is there more than one way to carry your shotgun shells.
But. Some ways of skinning a cat are better than others. Some just plain suck. Same thing with carry of our shells. Context matters, as always, and what is ideal for me may not be ideal for you, but beware the battlecry of “it works for me!”
This is often the last redoubt of the intellectually lazy, a person who no longer cares to learn new techniques or benefit from best practices. Because they can do it, and have done it with no ill-effect, does not make a technique a good one; good luck covers all kinds of bad practices.
Ponder those questions, and then we’ll move on to the how and why of carrying those little red party poppers.
Shotshell Carry Methods
Most of the methods we’ll discuss in this article are intended for loading tube magazine fed and break action shotguns. Detachable mag-fed shotguns are far rarer than these venerable designs, and make up the massive majority of all shotguns.
I will touch on box magazine-fed shotguns where appropriate, but ignoring the great length and bulk of the magazines themselves, effective carry and loading of those shotties has more in common with a carbine than their tube-fed cousins.
In the broadest terms possible, you will carry shotgun shells in three possible locations: on the shotgun, on your belt and on your chest. There are a couple of others but we’ll get to that later.
Which of these, or how many, you utilize depends principally on your objective and how much time you have to don all the pouches, holders, caddies and other accoutrement that help you wrangle those slippery little suckers.
Generally speaking, shells will be quicker to load the closer they are to the gun. The fewer steps needed to grip the shell properly for loading and move it toward the loading port, the better.
For these reasons, it is usually a great idea to store ammo on the shotgun itself, most often in the form of a side-saddle or detachable caddy mounted on the left side of the receiver.
This has the added perk of supplying a loaded shotgun with ready reloads even if you can grab nothing else. If you wake up at 3AM in your underoos and grab the gauge, you have some spares. We’ll look at all the various solutions in the next section.
Now, this has some drawbacks: shotguns are often beefy and heavy. Shotshells are heavy. A loaded pump or semi-auto shotgun can feel downright portly. Now Velcro on another full magazine’s worth of shells. Or two. Now we are getting very heavy.
There is a balance to be struck for most of us, and some shooters are diehard on keeping their gun as light and lively in their hands as possible. This is fine. But even with that logical goal in mind, mounting at least a spare pair of shells to the shotgun will ensure you have an emergency shot or two if all you can grab is the gun itself.
Also keep in mind you will be loading the shotgun through either the ejection port or through the loading port, perhaps both, depending on the status of the gun (break action guys, you go straight in to the chambers every time.
Box mag guys, you simple rock a new mag in, that’s it). This means you will grab the shell one way for the ejection port and another way for the magazine port. Careful forethought and practice may see you placing shells facing one way or the other for ease of access. Don’t forget that!
If you don’t want to carry ammo on the gun, or need more ammo then you’ll need to move to your own body. Going to belt or chest does not matter much at this point, as the gear you select will be preferential. I go with my beltline first, as I do much of my work with a handgun and going to my belt feels very natural and instinctive for me.
A member of the military may be happier going to their chest, in which case even a lightweight panel with a few shell holders will make them feel right at home.
No matter which location you choose, you have a fork in the road here. You can set up your ammo carry system to either load the gun directly, or to move a ready supply of ammo back up to the ammo storage on the gun.
With the latter, the idea is you want your fastest, easiest ammo storage site to stay topped off so you can emergency reload from there on demand.
Remember what I said about shotguns having low endurance? This is part of that issue: as your ammo sources get depleted (a dry hole) you are forced to access less and less convenient sources to feed the gun, greatly slowing and complicating the reload.
You’ll see shotgunners who are going heavy with their boomsticks often have two distinct ammo storage systems on their person. Fast, easy to access/easy to replace storage on the gun and perhaps on their belt, used to load the gun directly and replenish our supply on the gun itself, and slower but more secure bulk ammo storage on their chest or behind their hips, used to refill all other sources when depleted.
Given time and opportunity, you will see a shotgunner equipped thus as busy as a beaver moving ammo from one location to another. They are setting themselves up for success in the next firefight or stage, as they know but know that that shotgun runs dry so, soooo quickly.
If this seems like a lot to think about, and a lot to do, you are 100% correct! As I have written about several times before, shotguns of all stripes take a lot of blood and sweat compared to handguns and rifles to run anywhere near their potential.
And just think; we haven’t even covered separating slugs from buck yet!
Good Grief, Charles! Is this Really Necessary!?
Do you want to be good? Yes? Then yes, it is. If you are content to look like a scrub out there with your shotgun, and risk getting killed because you load the thing so slow it can be timed with a calendar, go ahead.
You’ll notice something when people are practicing hard and fast with shotguns; shells get dropped or go flying off the reload. They pop off of saddles and wiggle out of elastic. People botch a grab and try to load a shell into the gun backwards. Things are not so clean and tidy as they are most times with a carbine.
Shotguns. Take. Work. And lots of it if you want to be proficient. Yeah, you can drop one into someone’s hands, give them a little instruction and they can get to banging, but when the gun runs dry it suddenly looks like their first day out of the womb; a nasty, wobbly mess.
Don’t be that guy or girl. If you are committing to the shotgun, then commit! Learn to run it as well as you run your other guns. No excuses.
Separating Shell Types
If you choose to carry both slugs and buckshot on your rig, you will need to devise a system to keep them separated and easily distinguished until you select one or the other for loading.
Part of this is procedural and the other part is equipment based. Your first step toward success in this endeavor is ensuring your slug and buck loads have drastically different colors, identifiable at a glance.
The second is either isolating one type to one closed system somewhere on your body, or placing one type in a specific location somewhere in the order of shells and training accordingly so are used to loading “in close proximity” to them without grabbing them by mistake, for instance, placed with brass up or down, as a rule, in a card, or perhaps occupying the last two holders on a side saddle every time.
Understand this: this requires much thought and practice. Loading one shell when you intended the other will have negative consequences. The severity of those consequences will range from botched shot to utter tragedy.
You must not screw this up. Some shooters seek to obviate the possibility entirely and carry only a single shell type, period, running the gun with all buck or as a straight-up slug gun.
Others compartmentalize their alternate load in a secure pouch or caddy that must be deliberately opened to access, reducing the chance that the wrong one could be accidentally grabbed.
If you have any doubt as to your capabilities loading under stress, make sure your loads are well separated.
Shell Carry Systems by Type
There are over two dozen types of shell carrying gear you can get on the market. I will not be covering all of them, only the ones that have the most merit for defense and readiness. These systems are grouped by type- on gun, on belt, on chest, with the miscellaneous that does not fit at the end.
A rigid holder, usually plastic or alloy, that firmly holds shells vertically on the side of the receiver. A ubiquitous and common upgrade, ideal for a general purpose shotgun. Shells can be carried brass up or brass down to either differentiate shell types or to expedite loading procedure depending on technique used.
Beware, lesser models will not hold shells firmly, which will begin to work loose under recoil. Some models are quick-detachable for fast replacement. Can be had in various capacities.
Highly efficient, and pairs well with bulk carry systems to be refilled from them.
Usually a leather, nylon or elastic unit that laces or otherwise attaches to the stock of the shotgun opposite the shooting side cheek. Not very efficient to load the gun from here, but not terrible for refilling the side saddle or segregating ammo types. Also available in various capacities.
Really a pain in the ass if you have to switch shoulders. Be warned.
Odd name for good kit. These are heavy nylon or kydex panels, Velcro backed, with strong elastic loops attached to hold the shells. These essentially work like a detachable side saddle.
Typical use is to place a field of industrial strength Velcro on the receiver or stock of the shotgun, or both, and perhaps a mating panel on the belt, to allow for rapid replenishment of ammo on the gun.
For instance, an empty card on the receiver can be torn off quickly and replaced with the one on the stock, or brought up from the belt. Also allows for modular carry of ammo on belts and in packs. Just like the two above options, can be had in several sizes.
Good ones last a good long while, but these do wear out faster than other options, necessitating replacement to maintain retention of the shells they carry.
A special unit that holds one or two shells on the right side of the gun, ahead of and parallel with the ejection port. Can be strapped on if elastic or will be semi-permanently affixed if a hard kydex or plastic. Allows one to very rapidly get a shell chambered from empty.
Most commonly seen on semi-autos, but occasionally seen on pump guns attached to the far end of the forend. These can actually be ideal on double barrel guns for a quick, sure reload of
Caution: you must not use a strap-on version (save your chuckles) with a pump-action as they will interfere with cycling the action.
Exactly what it sounds like. A big ol’ belt that is designed to hold shells around its circumference. Convenient to put on and carry, but not great for fast loading as shells tend to hug the waist.
Also interferes mightily with anything else you have on or may want to carry on your waistline.
Not a bad option if all you are toting is shotgun shells, though, and is usually affordable compared to a more comprehensive rig.
A rigid holder, kydex, plastic or leather, that holds a pair of shells vertically off of the belt a bit for quick and easy access. Ideal for quickly clipping on a few extra shells of any kind, or adding your lucky slugs for long shots in a different location from other shells to segregate.
A large bulk storage solution that looks like a big bi- or tri-fold wallet hence the name. Often holds shells in loops or nested inside and then folds securely over them, snapping or velcroing shut and giving them protection from the elements and loss. Some models have a few external loops for speedier reloads.
Best used as bulk storage solution, but these can get wide and heavy.
A rigid carrier that holds shells in an open framework horizontally, and stacked loose atop one another. Kind of like a skeletonized magazine. Shells are accessed by grabbing however many are needed at once at and withdrawing them through the top opening.
Ideal for loading techniques where three or more shells are brought up to the gun at one time to load the magazine tube. With practice, one of the fastest ways to fully load the shotgun from the belt.
Take care with model selection; shells are retained by detents or leaf springs, and lesser units will allow enough slop that shells may jostle loose if they are not kept full. Usually noisy.
A large, open bag that rides on the belt and is filled with shotgun shells, like a pillowcase full of candy on Halloween. Nicer units have overlapping elastic on top to help keep shells from bouncing out all over the place like candy corn, otherwise have poor security.
Convenient to wear, and cheap, but only ideal for bulk storage. Mishmash loose fill of shotshells makes consistent acquisition of shell for loading difficult or impossible. Segregation of shells impossible unless you like surprises.
Larger bags are very heavy and are super noisy.
The classic over-the-shoulder shotgun shell holder. A giant loop of leather or fabric worn across the torso that holds shells. Enough said. Highly convenient and flexible, but heavy, and not the most consistent or quickest system to load from. Can be easily stuffed into small bags or compartments, so has some value as a backup bulk storage system for feeding other storage options.
Looks incredible, but looks won’t win the day. These do have utility, but should not be your first choice.
A nylon panel integrated or attached via PALS webbing onto our chest rig, plate carrier or chest rig. Sometimes integrated kangaroo style onto rifle magazine pouches.
Strong elastic holds shells pretty securely, and not too tough to reload from. A good all around option for chest carry.
Same as above entry on shell wallet, but mounted to the chest.
Shell Card in AR Mag Pouch
What witchcraft is this, Charles!? You read that right, reader: most loaded shell cards are the perfect shape to ride in an AR-15 magazine pouch.
If you run a bunch of shell cards, you can stash them in pouches you likely already have and simply move them up to the gun when the one on the receiver runs dry, ready for more speedy loading.
Sounds goofy, but works splendidly and encourages similar techniques to other weapon systems. One of my favorites.
A unit resembling a brace that straps onto either arm and holds shells with elastic. A specialty item, but one that can be highly effective with the right techniques.
Worn on outside of the shooting hand forearm, allows one to rapidly load the chamber when gun is empty, easing burden on side saddle or card. Worn on the inside of the support hand forearm, allows rapid loading of magazine by flipping gun upside down or using stock-on-collar technique and loading with shooting had.
Seems odd, and maybe it is, but very effective with either of the two techniques described, and valid location for spare ammo if you are pressed for room elsewhere on your chest or belt line.
You may use one, two or a combination of the above pieces of gear to craft your ideal ammo carriage solution for your needs. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and if you don’t have access to much of this gear, try to find a local Three Gun or action shotgun match. Competitors will have much of it, and most are friendly types that would be happy to give you a demo or let you try it.
For work or play, I have two basic shotgun rigs I depend on, which I will detail below thoroughly to give you some ideas for your own setup.
One is basic, grab-and-go, fast, essentially the gun and a few reloads. I can use this no matter what I am wearing as long as I have a belt on and pockets. All sources are on gun or belt, and very fast to don and doff.
The other is heavier, but still a fairly light load in the scheme of things. This setup employs a small chest rig and additional belt pouches.
My light setup is simply a loaded shotgun with a 7-round Velcro side saddle attached. Gun alone that is 14 shots of No. 1 buckshot. These particular loads are Federal Flite Control, and completely effective out to 35 yards, mitigating my need for slugs on board a little.
Not content with that, I have a second 7-round card of buckshot that I slip into my pocket. For a small slug supply, I have a 4-shot card I slip into my back pocket, plus two clip on spare-pairs with slugs that I can instantly attach to my belt in seconds. These I locate at 10:30-11:00 on my belt.
Easy, and heavy medicine for nearly any threat imaginable. Dressed for the office or just lounging in shorts I can still carry all of my spare ammo.
My Heavy setup is the shotgun equipped as above, with the addition of a Velcro panel on my belt to carry a pair of 7-round cards loaded with buckshot from my 10:00 to my 12:00. My pistol magazines ride in their usual spot behind this.
I keep slugs on the opposite side of the belt buckle in a brace of spare-pairs. My small chest rig holds four double-stacked AR pouches, three of which carry buckshot on 7-round cards openly, and the other carries a 7-round card of slugs in case I need to commit to lobbing pumpkins out past 100 yards.
The remainder of the chest panel carries a 16-shell wallet for refilling any source that needs it, and my first-aid kit complete with all the trauma goodies.
That sounds like a whopping ton of shotgun shells, and a lot of gear, but it only totals 80 rounds. That is less than three loaded AR magazines. There is the difference in practical terms when considering the weight and bulk of shotgun ammo.
Effective carry and organization of shotgun shells is a skill in itself, and essential for running your trusty scattergun at peak performance. Think through carefully what you need your shotgun to do, and what the circumstances will look like when doing it, and outfit your gun and self accordingly.
With the right combination of ammo carriage and plenty of practice, you can keep your shotgun barking long after someone else’s has gone silent.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.