rifle vs shotgun

Rifle vs Shotgun

There are many different names for guns: gun, firearm, musket, musketry, riffles, and so on. However, some people still refer to guns as rifles and shotguns, and vice versa. In the great rifle vs shotgun debate, is a shotgun a rifle?

Rifle vs. shotgun: is a shotgun a rifle? The simple answer is no. A rifle has rifling, or cylindrical grooves cut in the barrel and a shotgun does not. While it is true that shotguns (i.e. a smooth-bore firearm shooting “shot”, or a charge of pellets) can be fitted with a rifled barrel shooting a single slug, making it a rifle and no longer a shotgun, despite keeping its commercial model and appearance as a shotgun.

It’s not easy to find the perfect firearm for the right situation. If you’re looking to buy a gun for personal protection, you might be deciding between a rifle and a shotgun (and others). Both are great for home defense, but a rifle is better for long distance shooting. Top shotguns can be just as accurate, but you have to be a lot closer to the target than a rifle. This article will explain in detail why a shotgun is not a rifle, and help you decide which one is right for you.

Rifle Vs Shotgun Difference and Sameness

is a shotgun a rifle?

The characteristics and differences between rifles and shotguns make for a fascinating intersection of history, practical application and the essence of firearms in general.

While the rifle, especially AR platform rifles and long range precision rifles have seen entire cultures and industries spring up around them in recent years, the shotgun has amazing practicality and underestimated and astonishing lethality under the correct conditions.

Examining this further we can learn some interesting quirks about ballistics and expand our appreciation for all of the flavors of guns sitting in our safes.

The main difference between a rifle and shotgun is the presence or absence of the namesake of the second. Simply, a rifle has rifling, or cylindrical grooves cut in the barrel and a shotgun does not.

The second big difference is the size of the bore. The smooth bore of a shotgun allows for massively increased delivery of payload, due to less friction of the projectiles’ contact with the barrel.

Take two of the most common offerings in the world: the twelve-gauge shotgun and the 5.56 millimeter rifle chambering of most AR platform rifles. Apples to apples comparison gives us a bore diameter or diameter of the barrel of .75 inches for the 12 guage and .223 inches for the AR rifle. That’s almost 3 and a half times larger for the shotgun, or roughly the same difference between a baseball and a basketball.

Our third main difference between shotguns and rifles is the number of projectiles present in each load. A rifle load consists of one projectile or bullet seated in a cartridge, while a shotgun, with the exception of “slugs”, generally fires a cluster of bb’s or “shot”.

Modern shotguns contain this shot in a plastic shell, and the shot stuffed in this shell can vary from 8 ½ bird shot in which each pellet has a diameter of .085 inches up to 000 buckshot in which each pellet has a diameter of .36 inches.

More Rifle vs Shotgun Differences (and Sameness)

Shotguns and rifles work in pretty much the same way:

1 trigger pull = one shot

One of the biggest differences besides the barrel design is the amount of ammunition they each hold. Typically, rifles are able to hold quite a few more shots than a shotgun. Standard rifles will hold anywhere from 20 to 30 rounds.

Shotguns will generally hold between 2 and 5 shells.

Obviously, this makes a huge difference when deciding what you are going to use your weapon for. If you are using your weapon for hunting, you should check your local Wildlife Association for information on regulations for the amount of ammunition your weapon can hold while hunting.

Another noticeable difference between a rifle and a shotgun is the range of effectiveness of each weapon. Because a rifle fires a single shot (through a rifled barrel), a rifle shot can accurately hit a target up to 100 yards away. In contrast, the distance of effectiveness for a shotgun is much shorter, usually up to about 50 yards. While both are used for self defense, the shotgun performs better for short range shots, slightly edging out the rifle as a preference for home defense purposes. 

Some of the similarities you’ll find between shotguns and rifles are the types of action they use. The action is the mechanism that works the gun. The action is what engages the projectile with the weapon.

Both rifles and shotguns come in:

  • Break-action: the user “breaks” the weapon open in half to load it
  • Pump-action: the user “pumps” the handguard back and forth to load and expel spent casings
  • Semi-automatic action: the weapon automatically cycles a new round once fired

In addition, rifles also come in:

  • Lever-action: a lever is pulled down and pushed up to engage the ammunition into the weapon and expel spent casings
  • Bolt-action: a bolt located on the weapon is pushed or pulled to engage the weapon

Ferrari or F-250?

So which one is the Ferrari and which one is the F-250? The shotgun or the rifle?

Neither and both.

The apples to apples comparisons pretty much die here and and the answers to relative lethality, usefulness, and practicality vary and blur like a bunch of sugar-high kids finger painting. 

Let’s look at a few common metrics of ballistics such as payload(weight of projectile), muzzle velocity, and muzzle energy of common rifle and shotgun loads. 

Take the first two metrics of payload and muzzle velocity, and we’ll compare the two. An AR rifle chambered in 5.56mm with common loads will be spitting out a bullet in the 55 grain range at around 3400 feet per second.

A 12 gauge 3” magnum shotgun shell in #1 buckshot will be belting 24 balls out totaling a whopping 960 grains (roughly 18 of the AR bullets at once, but they’ll be scooting along at 1040 feet per second. The Shotgun is the F-250, and the rifle is the Ferrari right?

Let’s keep digging though.

As far as muzzle energy in foot/lbs is concerned, the 12 gauge round will be delivering over 3,000 ft/lbs of energy, while the energy from common AR bullet will be half that,in the 1500 ft/lbs range due to the velocity advantage.

Wait, so now I just have to hit something twice with the AR which is doable given the faster firing rate to make up for it right? The Ferrari is catching up right? There’s still more to this equation.

Thunder or Lightning?

Range is the great equalizer with the rifle and the shotgun. While a shotgun packs an unbelievable, devastating wallop at close distances, if you have something that needs to be hit at much past 40 yards, you might as well be holding a stick, while even a light caliber AR rifle like the 5.56 is lethal to hundreds of yards, and larger caliber rifles much more.

This marks quite the contrast, and it may lead us to asking the question of whether a shotgun is like an F-250 that runs out of gas before you get out of the driveway. In some respects yes, but the rifle-round-ferrari can be like spinning off the road if you can’t hit what you’re aiming at. All of this leads us to use. What are you using it for?

Rifle or Shotgun for Home Defense?

Gun debates are like politics, you can make enemies quick and probably not change anyone’s mind, but here we try to determine which is better for one of the most common uses of the firearm, home defense.

When selecting a weapon for home defense, one must look at their individual needs and skills. Are you a gun-nut that has access to a range, and the time to practice like a navy-seal clearing a building with lights fitted to the rail of your rifle, or does an intruder running from the mere sound of  racking your shotgun slide while you kneel quietly hoping you don’t have to even use it sound more like your style?

Do you live in an apartment worried about a stray bullet harming the neighbors behind your walls, or do you live on 40 acres with a quarter-mile driveway and a garden and barn, referring to home defense more as protecting your castle?

Do you live alone or have a spouse and 5 kids who are always going bump in the night?

All of these questions matter as to which would best suit your needs, in addition to all of the pros and cons of the technical attributes of each weapon.

A few key points to consider when choosing a rifle or shotgun for your home defense needs are distance/time frames needed, personal accuracy/skill level, potential for collateral damage, and lethality.

Shotgun vs Rifle Distance and Time Frames

If you live rural and have land and space to defend, and truly believe you will ever have to defend yourself for an extended period of time, a rifle may be the better choice, due to the range and increased rates of fire discussed already.

However, if you live in an urban area, and know the police could respond to your house in minutes, the effective short range prowess of the shotgun shines.

Accuracy and Skill Level

One of the key attributes of shotguns is the numbers game:

Whether 9 pellets of 00 buck are loaded, or even a swarm of birdshot, the dispersion of shot loads make shotguns excellent choices for people who don’t have the training or skill to be an excellent marksman.

Potential for Collateral Damage

The vast increase in effective range of rifles versus shotguns brings with it a downside.

The same rifle that has the ability to be lethal at many hundreds of yards means that bullet has enough energy to pass right through a wall and harm someone in the next room or the next building.

The potential to hit something other than the target is very real, so be cognizant.

Despite showing the incredible lethality and general underestimation of the shotgun, there doesn’t seem to be an easy one size fits all answer to whether a shotgun or rifle is better suited to home defense. But then again maybe there is an easy answer.

Variety is the spice of life, so why not get both?!

Is a 12-Gauge a rifle?

Now that we’ve determined that a shotgun is not considered a rifle, is a 12-gauge shotgun a rifle?

A 12-gauge shotgun is the phrase most of us think of when we hear the word “shotgun”. This is because it’s the most popular size among shooters in the United States.

Let’s first examine what exactly 12-gauge means. Gauge is simply the measurement of the inner diameter of the barrel. The only thing the gauge does is determine what size ammunition the firearm will hold.

It’s important to remember that the gauge of the gun must match the gauge of the shell you are trying to load. You’ll find the gauge clearly marked on both the barrel of the shotgun as well as the box of the ammunition to prevent mix ups.

The smaller the gauge number, the larger the barrel size. Common shotgun gauge sizes are:

  • 10-gauge
  • 12-gauge
  • 16-gauge
  • 20-gauge
  • 28-gauge

Ok, so what does this mean? Is the 12-gauge shotgun a rifle or not?

The answer is no, the 12-gauge shotgun is also not considered a rifle.

Though the size of the barrel varies, the basic characteristics of the gun are still the same. Generally, the inside of the barrel is still smooth, regardless of size. While you can find rifled barrels for 12-gauge shotguns, the standard default design is a smooth barrel, making it a different weapon than your standard rifle.

While shotguns and rifles do have similar functions, there are several differences between the two, making them completely different weapons.

Conclusion: Are Shotguns Rifles?

It’s a pretty straightforward question with a seemingly straightforward answer – is a shotgun a rifle? No, a shotgun is not a rifle because a rifle has “rifling”, or grooves inside the barrel, while a shotgun does not. Rifles are accurate at hundreds of yards, shotguns are accurate only up to 40-50 yards.

Scroll up to read more in-depth explanation why a shotgun is not the same thing as a rifle.


Is it Better to Have a Rifle or Shotgun?

The preference between a rifle and a shotgun hinges on the intended use. Rifles offer precision and range, ideal for hunting and target shooting, while shotguns excel in close-quarters scenarios, making them a popular choice for home defense.

Why are Shotguns More Powerful than Rifles?

Shotguns deliver a higher level of stopping power at close range because they can fire multiple projectiles with each shot, creating a wider impact area. The energy dispersion, however, diminishes over distance, unlike rifles that maintain energy and accuracy over longer ranges.

Are Shotguns Used in War?

Shotguns have been utilized in warfare for their effectiveness in close combat situations. They are particularly valuable in urban and trench warfare, where the environment consists of tight spaces and close encounters.

What is the Difference Between a Shotgun and a Rifle Cartridge?

Shotgun cartridges typically contain multiple small projectiles, called shot, that spread out upon firing. In contrast, a rifle cartridge contains a single bullet, designed for accuracy and penetration at longer distances. The structural design and ballistic performance of the two are distinctly different.

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