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

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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.

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. These achieve a lot in a small package — recoil is light, accuracy is on point, and they are an absolute blast to shoot.

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.

Summary of Our Top Picks

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 inches to 2.5 inches. But when I say “mini shells,” I’m talking about the 1.75-inch shells.

The 2.25-inch and 2.5-inch 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-inch mini shells.

Aguila Mini Shell Loaded into Mossberg 590
Aguila Mini Shell Loaded into Mossberg 590

The good news is that 1.75-inch 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.

(See, our favorite PGO-style guns here!)

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.

OPSol Mini-Clip 2.0
OPSol Mini-Clip 2.0 installed in a Mossberg 590 Shockwave.

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.

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 the 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 8-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 than 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.

Best Birdshot Mini Shells

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.

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 8.5×11 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.

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. 

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.

What do you think of Aguila Mini Slugs? Rate them below.

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 are 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. 

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-inch loads have difficulty penetrating the full 12 inches 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 10-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.

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

What About Other Lengths?

So far, we’ve talked a bit about 1.75-inch shells, but what about other lengths of mini shells? They do exist, and I’ve recently gotten my hands on 2- and 2.5-inch shells.

Takho Mini Slugs

While Ukraine might be battling Russians as I type this, they still found some ammo to spare.

Servicemen ride on an armored vehicle with the letter ‘Z’ on it in Armyansk, Crimea, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, February 24, 2022. (Photo: Stringer/Reuters)

Kind of, I’m not sure when these shells were imported, but these mini slugs are 2-inches long and fire a 3/4 ounce chunk of lead.

They are a little longer than traditional mini shells by just a bit. I hoped they would improve reliability without the use of adapters. Do they? Well, kind of.

These shells won’t cycle in a semi-auto, and believe me, I tried. They do cycle in a number of pump guns. The guns they won’t cycle in are guns with skeletonized shell lifters, like the Mossbergs.

Takho Mini Slugs

They flipped and got caught in the skeletonized shell lifter. However, in guns like the Remington 870 and Benelli Supernova, they ran without complaint. They were smooth shooters.

It bears mentioning that the velocity isn’t mentioned, and recoil is downright soft. These slugs are made for “Practical Shotgun” competition. Do you know how people use little cheats to get an advantage in competition?

This seems to be an example of that. They increase capacity by two rounds, run mostly fine, and have very little recoil. Not to mention, they are fun to shoot and accurate — but the listed range according to the box is 50 meters.

These aren’t your grandpa’s slugs for deer hunting, and I would only really use them for hunting smaller predators like coyotes.

Nobel Sport MiniBuck

Nobel Sport is an Italian firm I stumbled across in an out-of-town gun store. They carried boxes of 12-gauge shells that were a mere 2.25 inches long. Sadly, the store had a limit, and I could only score two boxes.

These short buckshot shells contain six pellets of 00 buckshot at 1,250 feet per second. Not too bad.

How do they run? Well, honestly, absolutely perfectly.

They run in my Benelli M4 and Mossberg 930 SPX without issue and are the first mini shells to do so. The MiniBuck loads run very well in pump-action shotguns too.

They are a little longer but allow shooters to pack an extra round in their tubes on average. Nobel Sport MiniBuck rounds even tend to pattern fairly well, at least good enough for home defense purposes.

Benelli M4 Thunder Ranch
Benelli M4

The velocity and payload make them the most practical of these mini shells. Recoil is fairly light, and they function reliably. This seems to be the optimum size for universal use among guns.

The downside seems to be the fact they cost as much or more than my favorite buckshot loads, Federal FliteControl. That makes their only benefit one extra round in the gun.

I’m not sure if they’re worth that kind of premium price point.

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 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

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. 

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.

Final Thoughts

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.  

Get out there and shoot!

They are a niche product that capitalizes on the shotgun’s versatility — 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.

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! Also check out 6 Best Home-Defense Tactical Shotguns [Hands-On] and Best Shotgun Ammo [2020]: Home Defense & Target Shooting.



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