Best Shotgun Mini Shells: Birdshot, Buckshot & Slugs [Hands-On]

In the world of shotguns, “DoEs iT tAkE mInI ShElLs?” has pretty much become the new “Does it take Glock magazines?”

And it’s a shame because shooting mini shells can be really fun.

Mini Shells

Sure, mini shells have their pros and cons, and the critics have some valid complaints, but it’s important to remember that mini shells were designed to maximize performance by reducing recoil.

That’s it.

Mini Shells are great for plinking, skeet shooting, and certain types of hunting. Some people also swear by mini shells as a means of home defense.

But you can’t shoot a mini shell and expect results beyond the limitations of its design. It’s not a standard shotgun shell and never will be.

For example, I would never rely on mini shells to hunt big game. They can be lethal, sure, but why test your place in the food chain hierarchy?

Bear Gif
Spoiler alert: The bear always wins.

Mini shells achieve a lot for having such a small package: the recoil is light, the accuracy is on point, and they are an absolute blast to shoot.  

These perks are why I recommend mini shells for new and smaller shooters.

When it comes to recoil, standard shells tend to have some kick, which makes them harder to control.

Some people like getting smacked by their shotguns (including yours truly), but a new shooter may get discouraged if they have trouble making that follow-up shot.

In this regard, mini shells can be an excellent training tool.

Mini Shells
Aguila, Federal, and Challenger are three big-name ammunition companies selling mini shells in the United States.

But mini shells aren’t just for newbies. I’m a grizzled vet and a long-time gun enthusiast, and I certainly have fun shooting mini shells.

Today, I’m going to stoke your appreciation by delving into the history of mini shells, exploring the pros and cons surrounding this type of ammo, and evaluating the performance and best uses of slugs, buckshot, and birdshot.

Before we get started, I recommend that readers new to shotguns also check out Demystifying Shotgun Shell Terms, Shotgun Reloading Like the Pros, and Best Semi-Automatic Shotguns.

Table of Contents

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What Is a Mini Shell?

The science behind the mini shell is simple: increase capacity and reduce recoil by making the shell shorter.

In other words, a mini shell is just a small shotgun shell—a self-contained cartridge filled with shot and manufactured for a good time.

As far as I can tell, mini shells only exist in the 12 gauge variety at this time. 

Mini Shell Size Comparison
Size comparison:
Aguila 12GA Buckshot Mini Shell | Hornaday 12GA 70mm Buckshot Shell

There are various shell lengths these days, running from to 1.75” to 2.5”. But when I say “mini shells,” I’m talking about the 1.75” shells.

The 2.25” and 2.5” shells are not in the same boat. Not only are they hard to find, they’re also less…mini. If anything, they should have been called short shells, not mini shells.

These short shells are neat, but not in the same class as the 1.75” mini shells.

Aguila Mini Shell Loaded into Mossberg 590
Aguila mini shell loaded into Mossberg 590.

The good news is that 1.75” mini shells are getting a set of SAAMI specs, so we’ll likely see more companies producing these bad boys.

What a win for mini shell fans and shotgun lovers!

A Mini History Of The Mini Shell

Mini shells became popular when PGO 12 gauge firearms like the Mossberg 590 Shockwave hit the market.

The OPSol Mini-Clip was released around the same time, and the two forces simultaneously triggered a perfect storm that catapulted these goofy little shells from niche to mainstream.

Three big-name companies produce and sell mini shells in the United States.

Aguila Ammunition started the mini shell trend by designing and manufacturing their fairly popular buckshot, birdshot, and slugs.

After witnessing Aguila’s initial success, Federal quickly jumped on the mini shell bandwagon and started producing similar rounds.

And rounding out the competition was Challenger, who started manufacturing “Super Shortshells” to sell through Brownells.

Of course, there are other smaller companies producing loads, but they’re rarely in stock and tend to be quite expensive.  

Cheating
Aguila vs. The World

The Ups & Downs Of Mini Shells

These little cartridges have come far since their inception.

Over the last decade, manufacturers and powder companies have been tinkering with mini shells to improve their load density and efficiency.

But, like everything else in gun world, mini shells have their pros and cons.

Pros & Cons

The immediate advantages include:

  • Lower Recoil: The recoil from a 12 gauge mini shell is comparable to a 20 gauge buckshot load on the high end and a 410 birdshot load on the low side.
  • High Capacity: These mini shells allow you to squeeze in a few extra shells in a magazine tube. A Mossberg 590 Shockwave can hold 8 mini shells, while a Mossberg 590 eight-shot magazine tube can hold 12.

As for the downsides, we have:

  • Reliability Issues: These shells work like a dream in single- or double-barreled guns and Mossbergs equipped with an adaptor. But they won’t run in most pump-action shotguns and 99.9% of semi-autos.
  • Low Power: The smaller the shell, the less power; unfortunately, less power also equals less penetration and range.

I know, that might have left you with more questions that answers. No worries, we’re going to analyze these little shells so you have a full understanding of what you’re getting into.

I Gotchu

Mini Shell Loads: The Breakdown

Like most shotgun shells—or any ammo, really—mini shells tend to vary quite a bit in performance.

To give you a solid breakdown of the different mini shells available, I’m going to review the birdshot, buckshot, and slugs sold by the big manufacturers.

This should give you a general idea of how each mini shell performs on its own merit, as well as in competition with its key rivals.

Mini Shells
The inner workings of the mini shell.

Birdshot

Birdshot rounds are pretty similar across the board. You can’t go wrong no matter what brand you choose to try out.

Aguila and Challenger deliver 7.5 shot loads that are a light 5/8 ounce of a shot at 1,200 feet per second.

However, Federal went a different route with a light eight-shot loaded to 15/16 of an ounce at 1,145 feet per second. 

But performance-wise? There really isn’t a difference between these shells.

They are super light recoiling loads that spread remarkably fast. So quick, in fact, that they’re not really useful for most tasks, including hunting birds or shooting trap/skeet.

Not much else to see here, kids.

Dead Dove

Your relationship with birdshot is highly dependent upon your expectations and needs.

Want to go plinking? Birdshot has your back. These little bad boys shine at the range, especially out of a Mossberg 590 Shockwave equipped with an OPSol Mini-Clip. 

Mossberg Retro Shotguns 590 on a stump
You can even use minis with a Mossberg 590 Retro!

New to shooting? Look no further; these are fun target rounds that double as excellent training tools for new and young shooters.

Need a solid shell that can stop a home invader in their tracks? Look elsewhere. Anything will serve you better than birdshot.

8
at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Buckshot 

Buckshot loads are where things get interesting. Unlike birdshot, you’re going to see a significant difference between these shells.

In my opinion, the Aguila load is the most interesting buckshot option on the market. Whether it’s the “best” option comes down to personal preference.  

We’re dealing with low-powered ammo, so I want more penetration. This swanky little shell encases a combination of four #1 pellets and seven #4 pellets.

However, in use, Aguila’s buckshot patterns widely and is way less consistent than Federal shells.

It patterns left, right, in a circular shape, or maybe strung out horizontally—it’s almost frustratingly unreliable.  

Aguila Buckshot
Aguila buckshot pattern. Notice that big hole in the left-hand corner?

The recoil is more significant than the birdshot, but still very light and comfortable. To me, that extra bit of recoil makes shooting PGO firearms a lot more fun. Recoil is just part of the experience. 

Fortunately, the recoil from these shells is not at a dangerous level, and even new shooters should be able to handle it.

These rounds are a bit more capable and useful than birdshot, but understand that your range is limited.

16
at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Challenger sells a #4 buckshot caliber that contains 14 pellets at 1,200 feet per second.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any Challenger mini buck on hand, so you’ll have to rely on my past impressions of that ammo as we proceed through. this article.

It was impossible to find pre-apocalypse 2020, and now it lives on as but a character in song and myth.

Myth
You tell him, Scully.

The Federal load is also a #4 buckshot caliber, but with 15 pellets at 1,200 feet per second.

Federal really pulled a Price is Right by adding that one additional pellet.

Your move, Challenger. Prove your buckshot is real and worth the loss of one pellet.

When fired, Federal’s buckshot loads can cover an 8.5”x11” piece of paper at 10 yards, so they are far from FliteControl standards.

Not only is the recoil noticeably light, but the spread patterns are tight and impressively consistent to the point of predictability.

8
at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Slugs

Slugs are by far the most useful of the mini shell family when it comes to power.

They don’t pack the same effective range as a standard slug, but they also have a lot less recoil than a 1,600 fps slug. 

Slugs are quite stout, and I’m pleasantly surprised at their limited recoil and overall efficiency.

Unfortunately, they also share a trait that I could do without: When my bead sight was equipped, the slugs tended to land high from where I was aiming.

This isn’t a deal-breaker for me, but it’s absolutely something you should keep in mind when deciding which mini shells to purchase.

berg 590 shockwave grip with xs big dot
Mossberg 590 Shockwave grip with an XS Big Dot

Of course, all three brands have their differences and vary in weight.

For example, Federal’s mini slugs are the heaviest at 1 ounce, and they fly at 1,200 feet per second.

These slugs are your most potent option. They’re also the most accurate.

Federal Mini Slug Pattern
Federal Mini Slug Pattern

I produced the best groups with these slugs; the end result was typically one ragged hole. They land almost dead-on.

As you can probably guess, Federal’s slugs are my favorite and definitely my go-to mini shell for serious use.

It’s almost up to par with their standard reduced recoil law enforcement slug, which is 1 ounce at 1,300 FPS. 

7
at Federal

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

The Challenger slugs are the lightest at 3/4 quarters of an ounce, and fly at 1,200 feet per second.

They were acceptably accurate and seemed to group well enough. Not as precise as Federal’s slugs, but the results were respectable. 

I could safely count on them for accuracy in a pinch against medium game or for home defense. 

Challenger Mini Slug Pattern
Challenger Mini Slug Pattern

Lastly, the Aguila slugs fall right in the middle, the Goldilocks porridge, if you will, with 7/8 of an ounce at 1,300 feet per second.

These are fast little fellas. And Aguila’s slug would be a great option if speed was all we needed in a mini shell.

But speed doesn’t change or hide the fact that Aguila’s slugs are incredibly inaccurate and tend to fly wherever they please after approximately 25 yards.

Aguila Mini Slug Pattern
Aguila Mini Slug Pattern

Honestly? Even at 15 yards, there appeared to be inches between rounds. This was never an issue with its two rivals.  

As you can probably guess, this is not my favorite mini slug.

16
at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Are Mini Shells Worth Buying?

This is a big question and the answer, again, is highly dependent upon how you intend to use your mini shells.

The yes or no is always going to come down to personal opinion, so let’s explore how people use mini shells for target shooting and home defense.

Plinking With Mini Shells

When it comes down to it, plinking is all about experimentation, informal target practice, and stress relief.

Any type of ammo can be “useful” when you’re shooting for fun, and mini shells are no exception.

Sometimes you just need to waste some ammunition, and firing birdshot, buckshot, and slugs is one way to chase that catharsis.

Federal Buckshot
Federal Mini Buckshot Pattern

From a training perspective, these mini shells are also a great tool. New shooters can learn how to safely operate a shotgun and slowly work up to more powerful rounds.

Mini shells are also a safe bet if you’re not ready for the recoil of a full-powered round—no shame there, my friend; if anything, your shoulder thanks you.

Stupid Fun

Mini shells may not be your most cost-effective ammo option, but life is all about taking chances and trying new experiences.

So, go forth and wear your plinkster badge with pride!

Hunting With Mini Shells

Are mini shells good for hunting? That’s a doozy of a question.

Yes, no, maybe so? Once again, it depends entirely on what and where you plan to hunt.

Puppies Question the Universe
Puppies can make anything cute, even vague answers.

For instance, the birdshot could be useful for squirrels and small ground game, as well as tiny birds—especially if they are trapped on the ground.

That’s not very sporting, but sportsmanship isn’t a priority in a prepping or survival scenario. 

If anything, birdshot shells are great for prepping because they are small, lightweight, and can be easily stored and carried.

Crushing the Apocalypse

Sure, you could use buckshot loads for deer and medium game hunting, but I highly recommend sticking to standard shotgun shells.

As far as ethical hunting goes, I want a full-powered buckshot load for the range and power it offers for medium-sized game. 

For smallish predatory-sized game, like coyotes, you can probably take your pick of the mini buckshot loads.

I prefer the Aguila for its #1 pellets, but you’ll need to get pretty dang close for buckshot to be of any (ethical) use.

But if I found a coyote in the chicken coup, then one of these rounds would be perfect for dispatching it. 

16
at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

It should come as no surprise that slugs are your most potent option when it comes to hunting game with mini shells.

True, they don’t offer the same range as true full-powered slugs, but they’re still reliable for chasing down medium-sized game, especially within 30-50 yards.

Their power level surpasses any magnum handgun, and those are common choices for deer and hog hunting.

Personally, I would go with Federal’s mini slugs, especially if you want lighter ammo with limited recoil. But the others should work just as well.

Pick Me

Home Defense With Mini Shells

Here we are, saving the best for last, as they say.

Many people buy mini shells for home defense. The increased ammo capacity is a huge perk, and the low recoil makes it a relatively safe and accurate option for homeowners.

Burglar
Always be prepared for a worst-case scenario!

But there are a few questions you need to ask yourself before relying on mini shells for home defense, particularly if you’re a new shooter or someone who rarely picks up a gun.

Is this ammunition reliable? Does it cycle? Does it cycle all the time, regardless of how you manipulate the pump?

If the answer is no, then you need to switch the ammo out for something different.

And if you aren’t certain, I recommend taking your home defense gun and a few ammo options out to the range.

After all, it’s always best to prepare and experiment before a worst-case scenario occurs.

Be Prepared

Alright, now we can get into the nitty-gritty: Which mini shells are the best for home defense?

Off the bat, we can go ahead and strike birdshot off the list. I mean, I feel that way about full-powered birdshot, so why would I recommend a lower-powered shell?

Firing birdshot at an intruder can result in a messy, painful, and possibly even fatal wound. But the injury probably won’t incapacitate an armed burglar, let alone scare them off.   

Do Not Do That

The buckshot loads may work, but why bother?

You want your shotgun to deliver a sledgehammer’s payload per trigger pull. Reducing the payload per round minimizes the gun’s effectiveness and cuts one of its biggest selling points as a home defense weapon. 

Also, #4 buckshot can be tricky. Full-powered 2 ¾” loads have difficulty penetrating the full 12” of ballistic gel, as outlined in FBI testing procedures.

So, how can lower-powered mini rounds deliver optimum performance?

Tap Forehead

If I had to choose one of these buckshot loads, I would pick the Aguila because it has the most lethal potential with its #1 buckshot.

I wish it patterned more consistently, but a ten-yard shot aimed at center mass will take the bad guy down, no problem.

Finally, we get to the slugs, which are quite suitable for home defense.

Not my personal choice—I don’t like to rely on minis when it comes to protecting my house, but the numbers don’t lie.

Even the lightest Challenger slug weighs in at 328 grains and moves at 1,200 feet per second. That level of power makes for an effective home defense round.

11
at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

When fired from a long gun, mini slugs are controllable and slightly soft. Any brand will get the job done.

In my testing, Federal’s slugs were easily the most accurate out to 25 yards.

But, since distance isn’t an issue inside your house, any mini slug can do the job.

However, the heaviest ones tend to be the most accurate, so Federal’s slug (437 grains) still gets my vote.

Favorite

Which Shotguns Fire Mini Shells?

I can’t talk about mini shells without giving you a rundown of what types of shotguns work best with these little monsters.

As a general rule, you should always double-check that your firearm is compatible with your ammunition.

But there’s a lot to learn if you’re new to the world of shotguns and shooting. If you’re researching mini shells as a starter ammunition, I recommend visiting our Beginner’s Guide to Guns and Ammo & Reloading [The Definitive Resource].

Mossberg 500 Series With OPSol Mini-Clip

The Mossberg 500 series—specifically the 500, 590, and the 590 Shockwave—is the GOAT with mini shells so long as you rock that OPSol Mini-Clip.

In my experience, this combination works 100% of the time.

Editor's Pick Not-A-Shotgun
360
at KY Gun Co

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

If you aren’t familiar with the OPSol Mini-Clip, it’s a chunk of rubber that squeezes into the loading port and acts as a space filler.

As you cycle the gun, the OPSol Mini-Clip prevents the mini shells from bouncing around and ruining your shot.  

17
at OpSol

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

SRM 1228

Remember when I said that 99.99% of semi-auto shotguns can’t cycle mini shells? Well, the SRM 1228 is the .01% that can.

In fact, the SRM 1228 is a unique shotgun that only functions with mini shells. 

It can hold 28 mini shells between four magazine tubes that rotate much like an IWI TS 12. However, this system is detachable and allows you to effectively change magazines. 

2150
at SRM Arms

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Kel-Tec KSG 

The Kel-Tec KSG reportedly works very well with mini shells.

I have no experience with this combo, but I can say that the KS7 does NOT like mini shells.

Since I’m listing the Kel-Tec KSG on pure hearsay, verify for yourself before making a purchase.

700
at Rainier

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Mini Shells And Me 

And that wraps up our mini shell review!

We covered the history of mini shells, the “what” and the “why,” and even reviewed the practical uses of this unique ammunition.

Aguila minishell
Aguila mini shell and Fiocchi ammo with the Mossberg 590 Shockwave

While their uses may be limited, mini shells have certainly earned their place in the ammunition pantheon.

Are mini shells a replacement for standard shotgun shells? No, never.  

They are a niche product that capitalizes on the shotgun’s versatility. They are great for training new shooters and, depending on your mood, the perfect addition to your plinking lineup.

Some people use mini shells for certain types of hunting and even home defense. But in most cases, you should probably stick to your standard shells.

Good Time

Did any of these mini shells spark your interest? Have any solid advice for people new to mini shells? Let us know in the comments below!

And if you have questions about home defense, shotguns, or standard shotgun ammunition, I recommend reviewing 6 Best Home-Defense Tactical Shotguns [Hands-On] and Best Shotgun Ammo [2020]: Home Defense & Target Shooting.

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13 Leave a Reply

  • John Danner

    Rem 870 doesn't feed/fire mini shells.

    3 weeks ago
  • BJI

    I own no Mossberg pumps so I only shoot Aguila 5/8 ounce # 7-1/2 shot Mini-Shells in my Stoeger Coach gun for Cowboy Action. The Mini-Shells have NEVER failed to knock down the CA targets with authority!

    3 weeks ago
  • Briley

    A few years back a fellow trap club member brought a sleeve of Aguila shorties to the range, gave each of us three and we had a shoot-off from about the 29 yard "line." Using our trap guns, none of us had a problem breaking targets so my experience with the little critters for trap shooting is positive. Several of the fellows load 7/8 ounce of 7.5 or 8's for 16 yards and use these for handicap on occasion for fun...and they consistently break targets. I shoot 1 ounce at 1145 for everything out to 24 yards then switch over to 1 1/8 ounce at 1200 for 27 and longer. The little shells have plenty of oomph.

    3 weeks ago
  • Guillermo Maguire

    Great article....thanks for mentioning our product, the Opsol adapter. The adapter was developed on a Mav 88 with Aguila shells. It went on sale in May of 2015. We handed a few to Mossberg at Shot show 2016. At Shot show 2017, Mossberg rolled out the Shockwave, and marketed it with our adapter and Aguila shells. In 2018, Challenger entered the mini shell market. At Shot show 2019, Federal entered the market. The adapter was specifically developed for our wives and daughters. Minishells, though, are being developed that are becoming more powerful, etc. Personally, I have tested mini bucks with 6 00 pellets. They pass cleanly through two real 3/4" sheets of plywood. I agree with the author on Federal slugs....accurate at 100 yards for me (and I am not a good shot). For buckshot,all 3 rounds pass through 1 sheet, and a few pellets through the second. The federal, though, is buffered, and consistently has a tighter pattern. One thing to understand about minis, their potential is just now being explored. There is all sorts of power that can be developed in that short shell. I have tested 20g 1 oz minis slugs that go clean through 5 sheets, which Aguilas cant.... As for KSGs, they will flip a shell. They did for me, and a customer recently advised me he had same issues. Not often, but they will.

    4 weeks ago
  • Marcus Aurelius Tarkus

    One thing not mentioned in this article is shooting ranges. The ones in my area prohibit any load other than slugs indoors. So if you're training for close-quarters home defense, mini-shells take on a significant role. For the heavyweight (6'4"/240#) shooter, such as I, minislugs (with the Opsol clip) are good warm-up/practice rounds, followed by full size shells. For my petite better half, minis are the max on the range. However, as the designated operator of the household Mossberg 500, I keep it loaded at home with full-size, 00 buck rounds: stock folded, side-saddle filled and at the ready.

    4 weeks ago
  • Jacob

    My Winchester 1300 Defender cycles them pretty reliably so you could add that to the list.

    4 weeks ago
  • Ian VanVranken

    I love the minishells! I have a mossberg 500 with the opsol clip and a benelli supernova...the benelli seems to cycle them pretty well as long as you are firm with you're racking. Also, the SRM was my idea ;) though it was only in my head

    4 weeks ago
  • Sean

    I have run 2 boxes aof the Aguila slugs in my KS7 with no issues. I have even mixed them with 2 3/4 rounds with no failures.

    4 weeks ago
  • Tom

    I have a 12 gauge 2 and 3 Quarter grizzly with a 12" barrel and a 5 round magazine Pump action. Are these guys going to work in my magazine or should I stick with my double 00 and 000 buck for home defense?

    4 weeks ago
  • Dave

    I have the KSG and it loves the Aguila shells - you need shells with the high brass for the KSG. I can't think of a better load for home defense than 24+1 buckshot rounds :)

    4 weeks ago
  • Brian

    The KS7 doesn't like minishells? Maybe it's something that's individual between KS7s. Mine appears to like them just fine so far.

    4 weeks ago
    • terry_tr6

      same here. there were some issues in loading my KS7(sharp corner on magazine tube would catch shell) and the early releases sometimes needed to go back upgraded parts, but minishells function just like full size shells. Makes, in my eyes, his comments on ammo suspect also. Anything i have read suggests that the primary impact on shot spread is barrel choke .

      4 weeks ago
      • Travis L Pike

        Author here. There is a lot more to spread that choke, especially with buckshot. Wad or shotcup is a massive factor. The shot cup is why Flitecontrol works so well. Also my individual experiences with the KS7 are my own and I wrote a loving review of the KS7 and have no reason to lie about it.

        4 weeks ago
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