You cannot shoot a shotgun without loading it first, and you absolutely have to know how to load and unload a gun if you’re going to use it safely. Not every shotgun loads as intuitively as you might like it to. Here’s a quick rundown of how to load and unload various types of shotguns.

How to Load a Shotgun: Safety Rules 

When you load any shotgun, observe the following safety precautions:

  • Make sure it’s not already loaded: Treat all guns as if they are loaded because sometimes they are. First, open the action, check the chamber, and check the magazine. Once you see the gun is unloaded, you should also check the barrel for obstructions.
  • Be certain you are loading the right ammunition: Most guns have the gauge and the lengths of shell they can accept stamped on the side of the barrel near the receiver. Be sure you’re using only ammunition the gun is chambered for. Longer shells will fit into shorter chambers, but they create potentially dangerous pressures and they won’t eject or cycle.
  • Be sure the gun is on safe before you load it: Learn how to operate the safety on your shotgun and make sure it’s on before loading the gun with ammunition.
  • Keep your finger off the trigger when loading and unloading a gun.
  • Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction as you load and unload: I once loaded a brand-new pump gun on a skeet field. It slam-fired when I closed the action due to a manufacturing defect. Because I had the gun pointed downrange, nothing bad happened. I blew a hole in the ground and was very surprised. Always make sure the muzzle of your shotgun is pointed in a safe direction.
  • Consult the shotgun’s manual: If you aren’t sure how to load and unload your shotgun, read the manual. New guns all come with a manual, and you can find almost any gun’s manual online, too.

With those general safety rules established, here’s how to load break-actions, pump-actions, and semiauto shotguns:

How to Load a Shotgun: Break-actions

Loading a break-action shotgun.
It’s easy to see when a break-action shotgun is loaded. Federal Premium Ammunition

1. Open the Action

Most break-action guns—O/Us, side by sides, and single-shots—have an opening lever on top of the frame. Pushing it to the right opens the gun. On some inexpensive single shots like the H&R Topper, you push down. Break-actions are easy to inspect for obstructions, and it’s always a good idea to glance down the barrel(s) first. After that, drop the shells in.  

2. Close the gun

Close the gun firmly without slamming it shut. There is disagreement among break-action owners on whether you should close the gun with your thumb on the lever so you can ease it shut or not. It doesn’t matter. If I am looking at someone else’s gun, I’ll usually close it with my thumb on the lever as a courtesy. I just close my own guns.

3. How to Unload a Break-Action Shotgun

To unload the gun, push the lever to open the action. Depending on the model, it will either have extractors that lift the shells for easy removal or ejectors that pop the empties out. It’s an easy matter to hold one hand over the breech of a gun with ejectors when you open the gun and let the gun kick the empties into your hand so you can keep them for reloading or disposal.

How to Load a Shotgun: Pump-actions

Hunter loads a shotgun.
A hunter loads a shell into the chamber of a pump-action shotgun. Federal Premium Ammunition

1. Open the Action 

There’s a flat slide release button on the trigger guard. Push that and the slide unlocks so you can pull it back and open the action. 

2. Load A Round in the Chamber

Drop a shell, brass pointing back, into the loading port on a side-ejecting pump, then close the action by sliding the forearm forward. 

Some guns, like Browning’s BPS, are bottom-ejecting models with no loading port on the side. You can either turn the gun upside down with the action open and drop a shell in and close it, or you can leave the action closed, put a shell in the magazine tube, then push the release and cycle the action to chamber that shell.

3. Load the Shotgun’s Magazine

Load the rest of the shells into the magazine by pushing them into the magazine tube through the port in the bottom of the gun.

4. How to Unload a Pump-Action Shotgun

The easiest way to unload a pump is to cycle the shells through the action, ejecting them. Push the slide release, open the action slowly and you can pluck the shell out of the ejection port instead of shucking it onto the ground where you have to pick it up. You’ll have to depress the bolt release button each time before you unload a shell.

With some pumps (and with some semiautos, as well) you can leave the action closed and unload the shells from the magazine tube first by reaching into the loading port on the bottom and depressing the shell latch near the mouth of the magazine tube. Pressing on the latch releases the shell in the magazine so you can pluck them out one by one. When the magazine is empty, push the bolt release button to open the action and remove the shell in the chamber.

How to Load a Shotgun: Semiautomatics

Handling a semiautomatic shotgun.
Semiautomatic shotguns have magazines under the barrel, just like pump-action shotguns. Mossberg

1. Open the Action

Pull the bolt handle back to open the action. With some guns, mostly Italian-made semiautos and all inertia guns, the bolt will only remain open if you first push the cartridge drop lever, a flat button on the trigger guard. You’ll hear it click.

2. Chamber a round

Drop a shell into the loading port and push the bolt release button. On most guns the bolt release sits just below the ejection port. The Remington 1100 and 11-87 have a large, rectangular bolt release button on the bottom of the gun in the loading port at the base of the carrier/shell lifter.

Browning semiautomatics have a feature the company calls “speed loading.” You can load the gun like any other semiauto, or you can, with the bolt open, push a shell most of the way into the magazine tube and let go, and it will be whisked into the chamber as the bolt closes.

Read Next: Types of Shotguns: A Complete Guide

3. Load the Shotgun’s magazine

Use your thumb to push shells into the tubular magazine through the loading port on the bottom of the gun. 

4. How to Unload a Semiautomatic Shotgun

To unload the gun, open the action to remove the shell in the chamber. It will cycle the next shell. Repeat until you can confirm there are no shells left in the magazine or in the gun’s chamber.

If the gun has a cartridge drop lever, you will have to push the cartridge drop lever to release the next shell from the magazine so it can be cycled through the action and repeat until the gun is empty.

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