What do Shotgun Shell Color Codes mean?

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Have you ever looked at a pocketful of shotgun shells and thought to yourself, now that's a lot of color there in those hulls. Well that's a funny story. Did you know back in the old days, shotgun shells were separated by color so that users could tell the size just by glancing at the hull? True story.

Federal was the first company to color-code our shot shells for safety and identification. They started this practice in the early 20th century back when most shells were either brass or paper hulled rather than plastic. Plastic hulled shells didn't make an appearance until after WWII.

While paper shells used dyed craft board, plastic hulls have their color variations made by mixing colored pellets in with the white ones during the spinning process.

Federal's original color scheme went like this :

  • Brown for 10-gauge
  • Red (or black) for 12-gauge
  • Purple for 16-gauge
  • Yellow for 20-gauge
  • Red for .410
  • Green for 28-gauge


Well back in the day, tragically, not all Americans were literate. This was seen increasingly in rural communities where education was often limited due to the need to help with the farm or by a need to go out and get a job at an early age to help keep the farm. These same communities were those in which a shotgun was as common as a bicycle or baseball bat in the home.

With various gauge shotguns floating around these communities from 10-gauge water fowlers to 16-gauge deer guns and 20-gauge dove swatters, this led the local hardware store to stock quantities of all of the above as well as the occasional 12, 28, and .410. (Triva: the most popular shotgun shell caliber in the US up until the 1960s was the 16-gauge).

This is when Federal, soon followed by other makers, started switching up color schemes on shell sizes to help keep everyone strait.

Even if you could read Ulysses in the original Greek, the shell size stampings on both paper and plastic hulled shells tended to wear off, especially if they were a little old or got handled by a wet or sweaty hand then shoved into a coffee can for later use.

However, if you knew all the 12 gauge shells you bought were red while the 20 gauge ones you had were not, you were in business.

(today the most popular hull color is red no matter what the size is, while some companies such as Remington, prefer green to help set them apart. One shell size that has remained constant over time however does appear to be the often overlooked 20-gauge, which is commonly banana or canary yellow)

By 1969, the numbers of adults that were illiterate in the US fell to under 1% for the first time in history and has continued to fall even since and the headcases on shells are stamped to where it didn't matter if the hull got wet or old, you could still read just what it was.

Today manufacturers have often gotten away color-coding such as this. There are orange, white, and silver colored hulls these days as well as clear ones. However, they often still keep up these old color/gauge combinations for traditions sake.

Of course, there are also olive drab or tan colored military grade shotgun shells out there.
This gives us as good a reason as any to roll this video of a pumpkin being taken out by some military grade buckshot

Enjoy, be safe out there, and always make sure you have the right shell no matter what the color is!

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