How Shotguns Work

Action and Barrel Types

12-gauge Winchester model 1200
Photo courtesy Integrated Logistics Support Center (ILCS)

Besides firing, another thing shotguns have to do is set a new cartridge in the chamber and get rid of what's left over from a cartridge that has just been fired. Over time, shotgun manufacturers have developed several different technologies to accomplish this. As new innovations have come along, most of the old designs have stuck around, though. Some of the simplest ways to accomplish the task are still the most effective and dependable.

One way individual shotguns differ in loading and unloading is in their anatomy. The vast majority of shotguns are either single-barrel, double-barrel side-by-side or double-barrel over-under.


The action, or method a shotgun uses for loading and disposing of cartridges, can be:

  • autoloading
  • pump action
  • break action
  • bolt action

In the following sections, we'll examine each of these action types.