It’d be wonderful to live in a world where your budget doesn’t matter when shooting.
However, every time you pull the trigger, you send money downrange.
If you’re like me and have to think about whether you can spare the money for each purchase then choosing even slightly more expensive ammo can add up over time.
Modern shotguns are typically found in 12, 16, 20, and 28 gauges, as well as .410.
We all want cheap ammo. Which gauge is the cheapest to shoot regularly?
That depends on how much you shoot, what you shoot, and whether or not you’ll reload your own shells.
Put simply, 12 gauge tends to be cheaper for people who buy all their ammunition. Sub-gauges are cheaper when reloading, with 20 gauge being in the sweet spot of inexpensive and effective.
Read on to learn why I made these conclusions.
Or skip to the end for some quick maths and easy answers!
What Is Shotshell Gauge, Anyway?
“Gauge” is one of those measurements that has a historical meaning lost to most people today.
Basically, it came from measuring the bore size of black powder cannons. Specifically, how much a lead sphere that fills the bore would weigh.
However, instead of using ammo that weighs multiple pounds per shot, the number before the word “gauge” refers to how many bore-sized lead balls it would take to weigh one pound.
So, a 12 gauge barrel can fit a lead sphere that weighs 1/12 pounds. The larger the gauge, the more balls are required to hit one pound.
.410 isn’t a gauge. It’s a caliber, much like rifle ammo.
So, .410 would be about a 67 gauge, and 12 gauge about .73 caliber.
I am not going to discuss 10 gauge in this article because it’s basically a vintage gauge. 3.5″ 12 gauge shells cover 10 gauge’s niche. Niche and budget do not mix.
Why It’s Important to Consider the Price of Ammo & Your Shotgun’s Gauge
The most expensive part of owning a shotgun is (typically!) not the price of the shotgun itself.
Instead, it’s ammo that racks up the charges on your credit card.
How many rounds do you plan on putting through that new trap gun?
If you’re shooting only one round of trap, that’s 25 shells per week minimum. Take a few weeks off per year and that’s still 1,000 shots per year.
Of course, you may want to shoot multiple rounds per day, or hit the range more than once a week. And sporting clays can involve 100 targets per course.
The last box of Herter’s 20 gauge target ammo I bought from Bass Pro Shops cost me $7.99 per box, or $0.32 per shell.
Without reloading, that’s $320 per year (before tax) of light trap shooting. These are for a used shotgun I picked up for $500, so after two years, I’ll have spent more on ammo than on the shotgun!
And this is a shotgun I expect to last many years.
You should be able to see now why part of your budgeting should be the ammo.
What Makes Certain Gauges Cheaper than Others?
Shotshells are made of multiple components:
Larger gauges require more raw materials. A 12 gauge hull needs more plastic than a .410 hull, a 10 gauge shell carries more lead shot than a 28 gauge shell, etc.
Following this, you’d think that the smallest gauges such as 28 or even 32 gauge, plus .410, may be the cheapest ones to shoot.
This isn’t the case if you’re buying ammo off your store’s shelves.
That’s because of the economy of scale. There are many more 12 gauge shotgunners than there are 28 gauge shotgunners.
So, while I could find 28 gauge ammo for sale even during ammo-buying panics, that doesn’t mean they were cheaper.
I just checked the prices of some 12 gauge and 28 gauge ammo, both by the same company. The 12 gauge with 7/8 oz of shot was $8.99.
Want to guess the equivalent 28 gauge’s price?
For 3/4 oz of shot, too!
Which is the Cheapest Shotgun Gauge to Buy?
12 gauge is just so much more popular than any other gauge that it’s almost always going to be the least expensive shotgun ammo you can buy.
This is the case whether you’re buying cheap target rounds in bulk or a single specialty hunting shells to knock down those darn kevlar-armored turkeys in one shot.
Notice that I said, “Almost always.”
I’ve found that 20 gauge ammo is often similarly priced to 12 gauge.
For example, Browning Tungsten Turkey Shotshells are the same price whether you’re shooting 1-3/4 oz out of a 12 gauge gun or 1-1/2 out of a 20 gauge gun.
You get 1/4 oz less shot in the 20 gauge shotshell but it’s the same price to shoot either.
And 20 gauge is easier to find during runs on ammo, though not as easy as 28 gauge in my experience.
So, you can shoot 20 gauge as economically as 12 gauge. If you are careful when selecting your ammo and don’t mind a little less shot in front of your wad.
Which is the Cheapest Shotgun Shell to Reload?
When you’re into shotgun reloading then sub gauges start to become more economical.
Wads are about the same price between all the gauges. Primers, too.
Powder and lead, though?
You’ll use a bit less powder per charge and a significant amount less lead per shell when you drop several gauges.
It’s hard to overstate how much of an effect this has.
A quarter-ounce difference in lead can gain you 100 more rounds out of a 25-pound bag of lead!
1-1/4 oz of shot gets you 320 loads from one bag. 1 oz gets you 400 shells. And 3/4 oz? A whopping 533 reloads!
With the price of lead these days I appreciate squeezing every little bit of value from my money.
You can experiment with this type of price/value calculation yourself by using a reloading calculator. I use the one from anycalculator.com.
“But wait!” I hear you say.
“You can load 12 gauge shells with 3/4 oz shot loads! Doesn’t that make them cheap shotgun shells?”
This is true. The small gauge advantage, if you’re a frugal shotshell reloader, is quite small.
You’ll probably have to spend a few cents on padding out the load with cardboard or fiber discs to get the components to the proper length.
And the initial cost of the reusable hull can take advantage of the economy of scale if you reuse your used shells, too.
Generally, though, the smaller the gauge, the cheaper it is to reload.
I prefer 20 gauge for reloading. It’s not as specialized as 16 or 28 gauge so the components are more common and, thus, cheaper.
It’s also able to comfortably carry less powder and less lead than bigger gauges.
I’m a fan of being environmentally responsible when shooting, which means using non-toxic ammo.
A Note About Shells for Vintage Shotguns
Since I’m using a mid-70’s shotgun and I don’t know if the barrel can handle steel shot, this means using the expensive non-toxic ammo.
Shotgun barrels used to be made with only lead shot in mind, which meant using softer steels.
The environmental movement lead to the introduction of steel shot, which can be harder than some shotgun barrels. This can lead to bore dings and scuff.
Worse, steel shot doesn’t compress well, which can stress the choke and cause a ring or bulge, potentially leading to a cracked barrel!
All modern-made shotguns are safe to use with steel shot so long as the choke is also steel-rated. Vintage guns should only be used with lead or soft lead-free shot. Bismuth is the best choice in my opinion because tungsten is too close to steel in hardness for comfort.
Every little bit of money saved here goes even further!
A Note on Reloading Safety
Here’s a word of caution:
Reloading shotshells is different from reloading metal cases.
Load development isn’t really a thing for common folks like you or me. That’s because of several factors.
The most important one is that, unlike with a rifle or pistol case, there are no overpressure signs that tell you when you are approaching dangerous pressures.
If you see signs of overpressure after firing your shotgun then you’re already in the danger zone. Lucky you that it didn’t explode!
And the way pressure builds in the wider chamber of a shotgun means that substituting one component for another, such as wads from different manufacturers, can have unexpected results on the peak pressure value.
What About Reloading Equipment?
Naturally, reloading involves purchasing the tools you need to reload those empty hulls.
This can be a large upfront purchase and should be taken into account when determining whether you should reload or not.
However, your choice of gauge will have little to no effect on the press’s price.
The only exception I’ve seen is the Mec 600JR Shotshell Reloading Press. The 12 and 20 gauge models are $15 cheaper than the .410 and 28 gauge versions.
I tend to roam the nation as much as possible, which means that my reloading kit needs to move with me. So, I have a Lee Load-All 2 Reloader.
It’s light, fits into a smallish box, and more importantly for me, can be easily changed from one gauge to another using an inexpensive conversion kit.
The Load-All isn’t as fast as the bigger, fancier shotshell presses, but it’s inexpensive and works well for me.
It’s bolted to a piece of wood so I can use several clamps to turn anything, even my truck’s tailgate, into a work bench.
Though, I do want to start loading 3/4 oz light loads for those long trap days. The Load-All’s bushings only go down to 7/8 oz. I’ll have to make my own bushing or modify an existing one.
This isn’t a problem I’d have with a more expensive loader like the Mec 600, but fringe desires like that are something to keep in mind when choosing your reloading press.
Does Shotshell Performance Affect Price?
Whether you’re hunting or sport shotgunning, you’ll typically only get one shot per target.
So, technically, I’d say that no, a shotshell’s performance doesn’t affect how much it costs to buy shotgun ammo.
I’ve found high-performance ammo, whether it’s specialty turkey shot or home defense loads, to be roughly equivalent in price between the most common gauges.
Note that this is the price per shell, not per ounce of shot.
The cost savings of reloading heavy-hitting non-toxic hunting shells is counterbalanced by how this type of shot is never found in stores so you will have to pay dearly to get a few pounds shipped to you.
I’ve calculated that it’s still cheaper for me to load my own 20 gauge non-toxic hunting shells than it is to buy them, though it isn’t much savings.
Do Accessories Make Some Gauges Cost More?
What about other aspects of your shotgun?
Will a 12 gauge shotgun cost more to operate than a 28 gauge shotgun while ignoring ammo?
Not that I’ve seen.
Most shotgunning accessories don’t care what you’re shooting. Your shell pouch doesn’t care if you’re throwing 10 gauge or .410 hulls into it. And your shooting vest doesn’t care what gauge shells it’s packing around.
Even choke tubes are almost always the same price regardless of which gauge shot you’re sending through them.
Overall, Which is the Cheapest Shotgun Shell?
1,000 shells per year is a good round number for a shotgunner who likes to do some trap, skeet, or sporting clays shooting and a little bit of hunting.
If you shoot that many rounds per year, then you’ll spend approximately:
- 12 Gauge – $360
- 16 Gauge – $560
- 20 Gauge – $360
- 28 Gauge – $600
- .410 Caliber – $600
(As of the time of writing: Prices presume the cheaper of Herter’s target or dove loads as of late 2021, but don’t include taxes or shipping.)
Then, if you saved all of those hulls and reloaded every one with #8 lead shot bought locally, that would cost you:
- 12 Gauge (1-1/8 oz) – $266
- 16 Gauge (1 oz) – $250
- 20 Gauge (7/8 oz) – $220
- 28 Gauge (3/4 oz) – $198
- .410 Caliber (1/2 oz) – $162
Please note that this doesn’t include the price of shipping lead, which can cost as much as the lead itself.
For example, including shipping ups the cost of reloading .410 to $217 and the cost of reloading 12 gauge to $392.
Based on the shipping cost the closest gun store quoted me before saying they would not order the lead. Be sure to scout around and visit other stores because I found another store that did carry lead shot.
Shotgun clubs sometimes order lead in bulk for their members if you need to get shot shipped to you and do not want to pay an exorbitant online shipping fee.
As you can see, buying a more common gauge saves you money, unless you reload, in which case shooting a smaller gauge saves you money.
20 gauge ties with 12 gauge for purchasing expense without giving up utility. I’ll gladly hunt pheasants with a 20 gauge gun, but not with a .410!
The cheapest shotgun shells you can buy are almost always 12 gauge shells. 20 gauge is often just as cheap, though.
When it comes to reloading, however, the smaller the gauge, the less lead and powder you’ll use, so the less money you’ll spend.
However, since you can load larger gauges with light loads, this isn’t as much of a savings as you’d expect. I know trap shooters who only put 7/8 oz of lead downrange each time they shoot and they still hit 25s.
This can save your shoulder, too.
12 gauge shotguns are heavier than sub-gauge shotguns, which means they’ll absorb more recoil. My 20 gauge over/under kicks harder than my 12 gauge semi-auto shotty!
So, my recommendation for a budget shooter is 12 gauge. It has the largest variety of ammo available and is generally the cheapest shotgun gauge to shoot despite being the largest of the common gauges.
If you want to reload your spent hulls then 20 gauge is more economical. Any smaller and you start to give up too much lead per shot for practical shooting.