Q and A: What Type of Injury Results From a Shotgun Loaded with Birdshot?

16 Jan

Q: How long would it take a healthy 50-year-old man in excellent shape to get back home and be up and around and taking care of himself after a 12-gauge birdshot wound to the side of his chest? How much and what kind of damage would he suffer? Would he likely suffer arm damage, too? Would that part require physical therapy? Is three months reasonable?

A: A shotgun is not like a rifle or pistol. It fires shells that contain several small, round projectiles, called shot. The exception is what is called a “deer slug.” This is a single, large, cylindrical hunk of lead. It moves slowly and has tremendous “knock-down” power.

Shotguns come in several gauges. The lower the gauge number, the larger and more powerful the shotgun is. At the low end of the spectrum would be 410 and 20 gauges. Middle would be a 16 gauge. Larger would be 12 and 10 gauge shotguns. Where does this number come from? The gauge is the shotgun equivalent of a rifle or handgun caliber, which is simply a measurement of the barrel’s internal diameter. A shotgun’s gauge is a measure of the number of lead balls the diameter of the barrel that would weigh one pound. So, 12 balls the size of a 12G would be one pound while it would take 20 balls the size of a 20G barrel to weight the same.

The shot comes in varying sizes, which are classified by numbers 00 through 9. Double OO buckshot is large and is used for deer hunting. No.2 shot, which is approximately 0.15 inches (3.81 mm) in diameter is also used often for deer and larger animals. No.8 shot is 0.09 inches (2.29 mm) in diameter and it, along with No.9 shot, is used for dove and other birds–thus it is called birdshot. In between would be sizes such as No.4 shot, used for duck and geese, and No.6 shot, used for rabbit and squirrel.

Most of these “shots” come with a choice of “load.” The load is the amount of gunpowder packed into the shell. The more powder, the more power (muzzle velocity) that is imparted to the shot. Loads are typically light, standard, or magnum, in increasing order of explosive power. Duck hunters might use No.4 magnums, since ducks are tough and have thicker feathers, while a dove hunter might use No.8 lights. Doves are easier to kill and a heavier load and/or a larger shot might damage the flesh and render it unusable.

In your scenario, the nature of the injury depends upon the location of the wounds, the distance between the muzzle and his chest, the size of the shot, and the type of load used. As mentioned above, bird shot is typically No. 8 or No. 9 lights.

If your attacker was five feet away, the shot could do a great deal of damage. It could penetrate the chest wall, collapse a lung, damage his heart, and could kill him. If he survived, he would need surgery, several days in the hospital, and several weeks of healing. Very variable, depending upon the exact nature of the injuries he suffered.

If he were 50 or more feet away, the shot would likely embed in his skin and muscles. If he were 100 or more feet away, the shot would likely only enter the skin. In these situations, the shot would be removed in the operating room or perhaps the emergency room. He might be admitted to the hospital overnight for observation or even for a couple of days. He would be treated with pain meds and antibiotics and after leaving the hospital would rest at home for a few days but likely be none the worse for wear.

If the shot were from close range and directed at his arm or shoulder, it could severely damage the arm or shoulder joint and possibly the blood vessels in the area. This might require surgery of an orthopedic or vascular nature and a prolonged recovery period. In this situation, he would likely need physical therapy for a few weeks or months after his wounds healed. Again, depending on the exact nature of his injuries. For a damaged shoulder, lung, or heart, three months or longer to fully recover would be reasonable.


Posted by on January 16, 2011 in Medical Issues, Q&A, Trauma


28 responses to “Q and A: What Type of Injury Results From a Shotgun Loaded with Birdshot?

  1. rudy

    January 16, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    On the close-up shot, how much damage would the wad actually cause, and what type of damage? My 12-gauge can send that downrange a fair piece.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      January 16, 2011 at 1:20 pm

      More at close range than long but it varies widely from case to case. Some people are luckier than others. It could damage the bones and joints and muscles so badly that major surgery could be required and return to normal even with surgery and rehab will never happen, or it could be simply a flesh wound–and anywhere in between.


  2. rudy

    January 16, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Thanks. And thanks for your blog. Always something interesting.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      January 16, 2011 at 2:28 pm

      Totally different. The salt would sting but wouldn’t have the penetrating power of lead shot. Most of the salt would powder from the force of the powder explosion but some would make it out of the barrel intact and this could sting. Might penetrate the skin a bit which I imagine would burn like crazy. Salt on a wound and all that. Rice is also used for this. Neither is likely to be lethal but very likely to teach a lesson in property rights.


  3. Jonathan Quist

    January 16, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    How about the euphemistic “load of rock salt”?

    That used to be the rumored load for defending one’s cabin or garden from mischievous kids.

    According to specific gravity data found online, lead is about 14 times more dense than salt. After allowing for the air surrounding the shot, the theoretical muzzle velocity of the rock salt load is still more than double of a same-volume shot load. Rock salt is irregular, and hence accuracy is reduced and velocity will bleed off faster, and once in the body, rock salt would presumably just dissolve over time. But it also has sharp edges…

    How the injuries would compare?


  4. Craig Faustus Buck

    January 17, 2011 at 1:05 am

    Fascinating, as usual. You are a treasure, Doug.


  5. pete

    January 17, 2011 at 7:32 am

    How about the spread pattern? From 100 feet, I’d guess the spread would be at its maximum already, which might mean that shot would range perhaps from his ear to his waist, no?

    How big would the spread be with a 12 gauge #4 shot from less than 10 feet? And would one assume that the blood spatter from that would be rather messy?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      January 17, 2011 at 8:11 am

      The spread pattern depends on distance between muzzle and victim, barrel length, type of shot used, and the choke of the barrel. Choke means how much the barrel is narrowed at the end. The more it is narrowed the less the spread. If there is no choke it called a Cylinder choke, then as the narrowing progresses the terms applied would be Improved Cylinder, Modified, and Full. There are sub-classifications for some of these. A Cylinder Choke will allow much more spread than would a Full Choke. When a suspect gun is found it can be test fired from various distances and the spread pattern can be analyzed. This can tell investigators if this was the gun if they know where the gun was fired from or if they know they have the right gun this information can tell them where the shooter was standing relative to the victim.


  6. Dr Lloyd

    June 21, 2011 at 6:51 am

    I wonder if you could advise the best method of removing birdshot under local. I have a number of patients that have been caught with birdshot wounds who cannot access hospital and I only have a clinic setting with local and minimal equipment. haemostats and tweezers. I am trying to leave as many as possible in situ but some patients are complaining about the pain associated with it being stuck in their hands or feet. I am worried about hunting for it and causing more damage. any suggestions on some simple equipment I could buy that may help. None are penetrating below subQ tissue.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      June 21, 2011 at 7:17 am

      I’m sorry but for MedicoLegal reasons I don’t comment on or offer advice on any real life situations.


  7. Dalel

    July 6, 2013 at 7:46 am

    Hypothetically speaking, someone is suffering from several birdshots; say, family camping/ hunting in the forest, someone gets injured and going to the hospital is a long trip. What do you recommend in such a situation? What do you recommend people to have in their first aid kit? If the injury is on the skin/ muscle level would it be ok for someone present there to take the shots out? How do you recommend they do that?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      July 6, 2013 at 8:58 am

      I don’t answer story question here but only thru my website as I require certain information before doing so. Please visit my site, supply the needed info, and submit your question there.


      • Dalel

        July 6, 2013 at 9:03 am

        Will do. Thank you so much.


  8. TheguythatknowsS***

    October 1, 2014 at 6:26 pm

    I think at even 20ft with a decent barrel laught it could be lethal. If not, it the person would need serious help right away. The longer the barrel the closer together the pellets would travel causing a big hole. Hope this gives you a little help.


  9. jr

    October 13, 2014 at 8:31 am

    7/8oz #8 20ga skeet choke at approximately 30 yards will penetrate the skin after going through clothing, including heavy pants. The double front of your brush pants may stop it . Most of it seems to penetrate only a 1/4″ or so. You won’t even feel leg, torso, and arm shots unless they hit something. Thigh and forearm etc you actually have to look for the hits. Head shots smart pretty good.


  10. jennifer

    November 10, 2014 at 6:40 am

    I was shot with a 20 gauge double barrel shotgun, thankfully the bullet was filled with birdshot,I was attacked and domestic violencesituation and the shot was received at close range. While the perpetrator intended and neck shots at about 1 inch away. I was a able to push the gun away when the trigger was being pulled. This resulted in the shot hitting my left shoulder. I was fortunate I did not loose the limb, one doctor wanted to save it because of my tender age of 19. My entire shoulder is unrecognizable almost 14 years later I still get extra pain during hugh humidity and winter months. My pain tolerance is very high, in fact despite having no deltoid muscle and only 40% use, I still function reguarly. On the other distances…as I ran for my life, I was shot a second time, at about 15 ft away I received several pellets to my rear skull, back and ear. The damage was far less then the point blank shot. Eitherway, I’m very thankful to be alive. Scarystuff. For those curious my attacker was also my children’s father, he committed suicide with a point blank shot to the chest…same gun but buckshot was uncovered. I under went several surgeries, weeks at an in patient rehab, weeks of therapy and years of pain. Hope this helps in some way.


    • Julie

      October 25, 2018 at 10:12 pm

      I was shot at close range (6-8 feet) with a sawed off 12 gauge shotgun containing 00 buckshot. Long term injuries — nerve damage to my back, all 9 pellets are still in my torso. One went thru my spinal column nicking my spinal cord. I survived but my life is not as it was.


      • kevan hubbard

        October 29, 2018 at 9:25 am

        I’d say a 20 gauge is a middle gauge along with 16,things like .410,28 gauge,9mm flobert are small gauge shotguns.mind all will make a nasty hole in you!best to avoid being shot with any of them!


      • D.P. Lyle, MD

        October 29, 2018 at 10:11 am

        True, any of tgem can ruin your day—but a 12 gauge with buckshot will do so even more readily


      • kevan hubbard

        October 29, 2018 at 10:16 am

        A 10 gauge more so!


      • D.P. Lyle, MD

        October 29, 2018 at 10:21 am

        For sure.


  11. Shehryar

    January 25, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    Is birdshot size 9 safe for shooting clays in a field that 400 feet long?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      January 25, 2016 at 3:10 pm

      On;y if the field is surrounded by open land with no one there.


  12. Shane

    December 7, 2016 at 2:29 pm

    Dr. Lyle, I just ran into this article. I have a question about rock salt in shotguns. If a person is shot at under 10 feet range with an open choked 12 gauge, utilizing a cheap common shell like a Winchester super x low base bird round filled with rock salt. I would assume that it would be lethal and the wad itself could penetrate a torso of an adult male and the salt (projectiles) exit from the body. What would your opinion be on this? And to your knowledge are there any homicide cases that involve shotguns with a rock salt round?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      December 7, 2016 at 3:46 pm

      No, that wouldn’t happen. The wadding would do nothing–it’s simply cardboard—and the salt might imbed in the skin but that’s about it. It would not penetrate very deeply and definitely would not go through someone.


  13. Paula ross

    April 23, 2017 at 2:00 pm

    Trying to find out what kind of gun i have i know its a 410


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      April 23, 2017 at 2:20 pm

      A 4i0 is a shotgun produced by many different manufacturers. The 410 is the gauge–as are from larger to smaller 12 gauges, 16 gauges, and 20 gauges. It has to do with the size shells used by the weapon. A 410 is the smallest gauge.


  14. kevan Hubbard

    January 4, 2018 at 10:29 am

    All shotguns will make a nasty hole in you at close range.the longer the range the more the damage is reduced, except for solid slugs. 12 gauge is by far the most common probably followed by 20 gauge then .410.10,16 and 28 gauges are uncommon so it’s hard to say how lethal they are(although I’d warrant 10 gauge is very!).both 12 and 20 gauge are very potent at close range.a .410 is much weaker than 12 and 20 but still lethal. You may also come across a 9mm flobert shotgun,a rimfire round.I think the 9mm flobert is only ever loaded with very small shot,stuff like 9 and 12 rat shot. I guessing at point blank in the head a 9mm shotgun would kill a human?guessing it’s about half the power of a .410?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: