The Right Way to Load, Discharge, and Clear a Shotgun Safely
Learn these core practices to make the most of your shotgun ownership.
- Always follow the golden rules of shotgun handling
- Proper loading practice depends on the firearm model
- Discharging requires precise shouldering, pointing, and trigger management
- Clearing a shotgun fully requires a visual check
Shotguns are a perennial favorite with American firearm owners due to their wide range of applications ranging from home defense to competition shooting to hunting. Some sources say a third of all gun sales can be attributed to shotguns, while others cite 63% of gun owners having a shotgun.
Few firearm models suffer more from the impact of movies and television than the shotgun, which is consistently shown as a one-pump, no problem weapon that never fails to fire. The reality is that shotguns take dedicated care and attention to preserve their function and safeguard everyone in their vicinity.
With gun sales soaring in 2020, now is a good time to dismiss Hollywood gun practice and review the right way to handle this popular and powerful firearm. This guide will cover the three core shotgun steps to keep you and others safe.
The right way to load a shotgun
Before learning how to load a shotgun, you’ve got to know the right way to buy ammo. Once you’ve got the proper shells selected, it’s time to put them in place. Let’s look at loading three common shotguns: the pump action, the break-action, and the semi-automatic.
Start by following the golden firearm rules of engaging the safety: keep your finger off the trigger, point the weapon away from anything you don’t want to shoot, and assume it’s already loaded. Next, make sure the shotgun’s cycling grip (which is variously called a fore-end, forearm, or forestock, but typically the “slide” on a pump-action shotgun) is in the forward position.
Position the shotgun sideways and firmly under your arm and put the shell, primer end rearwards, into the open loading port before pressing the shell slowly and firmly forward. Listen for the click. Pull the slide back and push it forward again.
Loading a break-action involves following the golden rules before engaging the barrel breech mechanism. Lower the barrel and insert the shell primer rearward before closing the barrel again to a tangible and audible clicking sound.
Loading a semi-automatic shotgun requires shifting the bolt forward and inserting the shell, primer rearward, into the open magazine tube. Pull back on the bolt to chamber the round for firing.
The right way to discharge a shotgun
Proper shotgun discharge is a three-step process requiring good shouldering, pointing, and pulling practice. Start by raising the shotgun stock to your cheek before bringing it back into your shoulder; don’t lower your head to meet the gun.
This cheek positioning brings the shotgun close to your eye so you can effectively sight along the barrel to your intended target. Be sure you know how to find your dominant eye and can only see the front sight of the barrel; any other part of the shotgun in your field of vision will cause an inaccurately low or high shot.
The next pointing factor is stance selection. Your dominant eye will typically dictate the best stance. For example, a left-eye dominant shooter will have their feet shoulder-width apart and their right foot a little further forward and vice versa for right-eye dominant shooters. With your weak hand on the foregrip and strong hand on the standard grip, make sure the knee of your leading leg is slightly bent to help compensate for the shotgun’s recoil as it fires.
Trigger management with a shotgun is different from a rifle, where a slow squeeze and full follow-through are the rule. Shotguns require a strong, one-pull trigger motion commonly known among owners as a hard “slap.” This is because the pressure necessary to engage a shotgun trigger can range from four pounds or more depending on the model.
The right way to clear a shotgun
Proper clearing once again depends on the model of shotgun you’re using, which may also dictate if there’s a safety on the weapon (which should always be engaged during clearing if you have one).
Clearing a pump-action shotgun can be done in one of two ways. Where the shotgun doesn’t have a shell release mechanism, holding the slide release and repeatedly cycling the action is necessary to empty the magazine. Models with a shell latch let this slide aside to remove shells from the magazine before depressing the release and pulling the slide back to eject a shell from the chamber.
Unloading a semi-automatic shotgun can also be done in one of two ways. Depressing the loading ramp will release the shotgun shells from the magazine one at a time before manually releasing the last shell. Alternatively, the bolt can be repeatedly worked to kick rounds clear of the chamber. Whichever method you use, visually inspect the chamber to confirm all ammo is safely removed.
Once you’re certain the weapon is empty of all rounds, double-check the action is open, place the shotgun butt on the ground and visually inspect the bore — position yourself from the side or at an angle that doesn't put you looking directly down the barrel. Check for any blockages or performance obstructions like rust, scratches, or worn grooves or lands (the raised spiral parts and recessed parts inside a barrel).
You may want to look into buying a borescope if you don’t feel comfortable looking down a barrel even when it’s successfully cleared. Remember to always ensure the barrel is pointed in a safe direction and your fingers are away from the trigger during every step of clearing a shotgun.
Get shotgun smart with Ammunition Depot
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