How to Load a Shotgun Safely [Steps With Pictures]

How to Load a Shotgun Safely

HuntingMark is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn More

Loading a shotgun is not hard. Shotguns are one of the simplest types of firearms to operate, so if you’re new to it, don’t worry: you got this. Since loading a shotgun is easy, it would be natural to assume that loading one safely is also easy. This is a correct assumption.

The steps might vary a little bit depending on the type of shotgun you have, but it’s all fairly similar across the board. We’ll go over each type of shotgun individually, but you’ll see as you read through the article that there’s not a lot of difference between types.

How Do You Load a Shotgun Safely?

How Do You Load a Shotgun Safely

First, make sure the shotgun stays pointed in a safe direction at all times. Then, open either the chamber, the tube (magazine), or break the action. Insert rounds into whichever you needed to open until you reach the shotgun’s capacity. Close it up and get shooting.

As much as I would like to say that it can get more complicated than that…it really doesn’t. The major differences between shotgun types is where you stick the shells and how you open and close it all up. For those that would like more clarification, below are some more thorough instructions based on the type of shotgun you have.

How to Load a Double-Barrel Shotgun

These steps are good for both over-under shotguns and side-by-sides.

Step 1: Break the Action

Break the Action

Shotguns are designed to be simple to operate, and double-barrel shotguns are made to be quick to reload. A large part of this is simply because when you can only load two rounds at a time, you might have need to reload quickly.

Usually to break the action there’s a lever on top of the stock right above the trigger guard, like you see in the photo above. Whether you need to push it down, up, left, or right will depend on the shotgun you have, but moving that lever the direction it needs to go should release the catch that holds up the front half of the gun, giving you access to remove or insert shells.

Step 2: Remove Spent Shells

Remove Spent Shells

Some shotguns will have an ejector that will kick the used shells out for you when you break the action, but many will not. In that case, you can experiment to see if the clearance in the breech is loose enough that you can simply tip your gun backwards and let the shells fall out, or if you’ll need to pull them out by hand.

Step 3: Insert New Shells

Insert New Shells

Put the new shells “business end forward”, meaning that the you want the primer (the metal end) facing you and the folded plastic end pointing the same direction as the barrel. If you’re not worried about speed, just put the rounds in one at a time.

If you’re trying to get faster reloads, you can practice inserting both rounds at once. This takes a lot of practice and a predictable way to grab the two rounds at the same time (like an ammo belt), but can drastically reduce your reload time.

Step 4: Close the Action

Once you’re all loaded up, just lift the barrel back in position and the action should click closed. Do it slowly the first few times to make sure that you got the shells in all the way. If you don’t and you try to close the gun too quickly, you could dent or damage the shells. The more you shoot the more you’ll get a feel for how it all works.

How to Load a Semi-Automatic Shotgun

How to Load a Semi-Automatic Shotgun

Step 1: Close the Action/Release the Magazine Tube

This depends on how your semi-auto shotgun works. If it uses an internal magazine tube (usually a tube that runs under the barrel), then you’ll need to get access to the tube. This typically happens by ensuring that the shotgun is not currently loaded and closing the action as though you were going to take a shot.

Once that’s done, on the bottom of the semi-auto shotgun directly under the action, there will usually be an opening. That is the opening you’ll want to insert new rounds into.

If your shotgun uses an external magazine tube, then you just need to release the magazine tube from the semi automatic shotguns and load up. 

The functionality of the internal and external magazines are the same, just two different ways of doing things.

Step 2: Insert New Shells

Once you’ve either opened the internal magazine tube or released the external magazine tube, just load a shotgun as many rounds as the magazine tube is designed to hold. I would always recommend counting the rounds as you put them in to make sure you don’t try to put in too many.

I’ve never seen a shotgun magazine tube, either internal or external, that physically allows more than the stated capacity to be inserted, but it’s never bad to be sure. In case it needs to be stated, all the shells should be inserted in the same direction and with the primer gun pointed back towards where the hammer is going to hit. 

If you want to maximize your capacity, you can fill the magazine tube to get a round in the chamber, then put another round into the magazine tube. With an external magazine tube, you would need to release the magazine tube with one round in the chamber to add another round.

Step 3: Close the Magazine/Insert the Magazine Tube

Now that you’ve successfully got all your shells loaded up, just pop the external magazine tube back in (you should hear a click or something and the mag shouldn’t come back out when you tug on it). In the case of an internal magazine tube, you often don’t need to do anything except rack and shoot.

Congrats, you have now loaded your semi-automatic shotgun.

How to Load a Pump Action Shotgun

Pump Action Shotgun

Step 1: Open the Magazine

These steps are very similar to the steps for a semi-automatic shotgun with an internal magazine. As they both rely on attached tubes as their magazines, the way to load them is basically the same. Shooting them is obviously different.

In case you scrolled down here because you own a pump action shotgun, I’ll put the steps here as well. 

Depending on the shotgun you have, you may not have to “open” the magazine at all. On the bottom of the gun there should be an opening with what looks like a metal flap. That is where you want to put new shells into.

If you don’t see one of those, or it doesn’t work when you try to put rounds in, there may be a lever or switch you need to hit pump action shotgun in order to slide the pump all the way back so the chamber is open. In this case, you need to insert shells into the magazine through the chamber.

Step 2: Insert New Shells

However you end up getting into the chamber, start putting in the shells. Make sure they’re all business end forward and that you don’t try to load more rounds than the magazine has the capacity for. There are some tricks to loading shotguns, but they don’t apply to all types, so it might be worth googling your specific model to learn the ins and outs of loading.

Step 3: Close the Chamber

If you loaded shells into the magazine though the chamber in your pump action shotgun, you’ll need to close it up via the pump action. All you should have to do is slide the pump back up to its closed position. If you loaded the shells from the bottom of the shotgun, you’ll have to do the full pump motion. That means pulling the pump back and then make your forearm forward again to load the first round.

How to Load a Single Barrel Break Action Shotgun

Single Barrel Break Action Shotgun

Step 1: Break the Action

The steps for a break action shotgun are the same as a double-barrel shotgun, since all double-barrel shotguns are break action. I’ve never seen a single-barrel break action shotgun that didn’t function exactly the same way. 

There should be a lever on the top of the break action shotgun right above the trigger guard that you can hit to break the action open and reveal the breechof your break action shotgun. The break action shotgun will fold up with the help of trigger guard just enough to give you access to reload.

Step 2: Remove Spent Shell

If your break action shotgun has an ejector, the spent shell should fly out on its own. If not, you can try to shake your break action out or just pull it out with your hand. The cowboy shooters will sometimes oil up the breech and even file down parts to make break action shotgun easier for spent shells to slide out.

Step 3: Insert New Shell into your Break Action Shotgun

Once the breech is clear, just put a new shell in with the primer pointing back towards you and the folded plastic end pointing the same direction as the barrel of your break action shotgun. The break action probably won’t let you insert the shell incorrectly anyway, but it’s always good to know the right way to do things without relying on the equipment to save your bacon.

Step 4: Close the Action

This is usually as simple as just lifting the front half of the break action gun back up until it clicks back into place. If that doesn’t work you’ll want to just look up your specific model of break action and see if you can find some break action model-specific instructions. You must be curious to know, how much does a shotgun cost? This break action is around $1,025. You can check above to read in detail.

Visit Ben Baker article on ‘Best Shotgun Scope’.

Safety Factors to Consider Before Loading a Shotgun

Factor #1 – Is the Shotgun Pointed in a Safe Direction?

Is the Shotgun Pointed in a Safe Direction

This is especially important with semi-automatic shotguns and pump action shotguns, but I strongly advise you to practice this rule regardless of what firearm you’re using or how certain you are that it is empty.

Think of it this way: if your firearm never spends a single second pointed at another person, it is no longer possible for someone to get shot by it. If you’re new to firearms, I would encourage you to really drink the kool-aid on this one. Breaking this rule is one of the quickest ways to get kicked off of gun ranges or get an angry guy in your face. 

More importantly, any time you’re lax on this rule, you are making it that much more possible that someone around you will be accidentally shot by your gun. 

Every person who has been around guns long enough has had an experience where the gun has fired unexpectedly. I’ve seen it happen in just about every context imaginable, and every single time the only reason someone wasn’t hurt was because the firearm wasn’t pointed at anyone even though the operator thought it was empty. 

Check out our article on Best Shotgun Lights.

Factor #2 – Are You Loading Right Before You’re Ready to Shoot?

Are You Loading Right Before You’re Ready to Shoot

One of the other main firearm safety rules is to keep your firearm unloaded until you’re ready to shoot. There are exceptions to this rule – concealed carry, for example – but unless you need your gun to be in a high state of readiness so that you can fire on a moment’s notice, then don’t follow these instructions to load your shotgun until you’re on the pad ready to shoot.

Factor #3 – Keep Your Finger Off the Trigger While Loading

Keep Your Finger Off the Trigger While Loading

This should be pretty easy. After all, why would your finger need to be on the trigger during the loading process? Make sure as you handle the shotgun, turning it to put new rounds in, shifting it, etc. that you maintain trigger discipline at all times. 

Also, If you wish to know how to clean your shotgun? Read this article.


How Many Shells Can You Load Into a Shotgun?

Shockingly, this varies from shotgun to shotgun. The most I’ve ever seen was a semi-automatic shotgun with an 8+1 internal tube capacity. It’s much more common for a shotgun capacity to be anywhere from 2 to 6. 

An important note on this is to not try to load more rounds into a shotgun than it is designed to hold. Most guns won’t physically allow more rounds to be loaded, but with enough forcing you could damage the magazine or the shells, making them less predictable. 

What Is the Term for Loading a Shotgun?

The only other term I’m aware of for “loading a shotgun” is that sometimes they say “pump” the shotgun, but only when using a pump-action shotgun. You may also hear things like “chamber a round” or using the word “hot” to describe a loaded firearm. 

How Many Rounds Does a 12-Gauge Shotgun Hold?

This also depends on the make and model of the shotgun. Anywhere from 2-5 rounds is what I would consider “common”, but there are plenty of single-shots and some pump-actions and semi-autos that will get you 6 or more rounds. The main reason you won’t see more than that is simply because shotgun shells are comparatively huge.


While loading a shotgun is not difficult, it’s also not necessarily obvious for first-timers. Even today, when I’m picking up a shotgun I’m not familiar with, I have to look around a bit and figure out how that particular shotgun does things. Hopefully this article was helpful in connecting the dots between what you’re seeing on your gun and how to get new shells into it.

If you want more detail on the specific type of firearm that you have, YouTube is full of helpful videos on that topic. For the experts out there, is there anything I missed in these instructions? Anything I can add to make it more clear or apply to more models of shotgun?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *