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The United States legal code USC 18 defines the shotgun as "a weapon designed or redesigned, made or remade, and intended to be fired from the shoulder and designed or redesigned and made or remade to use the energy of the explosive in a fix the shotgun shell to fire through a smooth bore either a number of ball shot or a single projectile for each single pull of the trigger." United Kingdom law requires that a shotgun not be capable of holding more than three rounds; if it holds more it is classed as a firearm.

This definition, however, does not exactly match the technical use of the term, which would include the growing number of shotguns specifically designed to fire single projectiles instead of shot. Rifled slugs, which have fins or rifling on or behind the bullet designed to keep the bullet tracking straight at the target, is an example of a single projectile. Some shotguns have rifled barrels and are designed to be used with a "sabot" bullet. A sabot bullet is typically encased in two-piece plastic ring and the plastic is designed to fall away after it passes the end of the barrel, leaving the bullet to continue toward the target while twisting (from passing through the rifled barrel) to keep it's trajectory. These shotguns although they have rifled barrels still use a shotgun-style shell instead of a rifle cartridge. Hunting laws may differentiate between smooth barreled and rifled barreled guns.

Also, technically speaking, many people would likely call a fully automatic shotgun a shotgun, even though legally it would fall under a different category.

There are many types of shotguns. There is the over and under shotgun, the side-by-side shotgun, both of which are types of double barreled shotguns. There are pump action shotguns and semi-automatic shotguns[?]. The NeoStead 2000 is an example of how shotgun technology has developed.

The caliber of shotguns is measured in terms of gauge. The gauge number is determined by the number of solid spheres of a diameter equal to the inside diameter of the barrel that could be made from a pound of lead. So a 10 gauge shotgun has the inside diameter equal to that of a sphere made from one-tenth of a pound of lead. Common gauges are 12 and 20, although 8, 10, 16, 28 gauges and .410 calibre are also produced.

Despite the above mention of slugs and sabots most shotguns are used to fire "a number of ball shot". The ball shot or pellets are used to be lead but this has been replaced by bismuth, steel, tungsten-iron, tungsten-nickel-iron and even tungsten polymer loads. They are termed either birdshot or buckshot depending on the shot size. Informally birdshot pellets have a diameter smaller than 0.20 inches and buckshot larger. Pellet size is indicated by a cartridge number, for birdshot this ranges from the smallest 12 (0.05") to 2 (0.15") and then BB (0.18"), for buckshot the numbers usually start at 4 (0.24") and go down to 1, 0, 00 and finally 000 (0.36").

Shotgun barrels come in a range of chokes, that is the degree of constriction in the barrel that keeps the shot in a tight pattern. Cylinder barrels have no constriction. In increasing order of constriction: Improved (or 1/4), Modified (or 1/2), Improved Modified (or 3/4), and Full choke.

In hunting circles, the shotgun is used for bird hunting, although it is also increasingly used in deer hunting in semi-populated areas where the long-distance travel of the rifle bullet may pose too great a hazard. Many modern smooth bore shotguns using rifled slugs are extremely accurate out to 75 yards or more, while the rifled barrel shotgun with the use of sabot slugs are typically accurate to 100 yards and beyond -- well within the range of the majority of kill shots by experienced deer hunters using shotguns.

Law enforcement often use shotguns, especially for crowd and riot control where they may be loaded with non-lethal rounds such as rubber bullets or bean bags. The shotgun is also commonly used for home defense in the United States and Canada. It is particularly suitable for this purpose because it is very intimidating and will often end the assault with a single shot, if it comes to that.

"Shotgun" can also mean the passenger position next to the driver of a vehicle, from the tradition of that person defending the vehicle with a shotgun. In America, there is a tradition known as "calling shotgun", which determines who gets to sit next to the driver.

Among smokers of cannabis, shotgun can have several meanings:

  • On many glass pipes, there is a small hole on the side of the bowl. This hole, a shotgun, is plugged with a finger while the material is lit inside the bowl. Once the hollow pipe is full of smoke, the shotgun is let go, thus allowing the smoke to empty.
  • When smoking a cannabis cigarette of some sort, most typically a hollowed-out cigar called a blunt, two people can participate in the blowing of a "shotgun". When the cigarette is nearly burned all the way through, the lit end is placed in one person's mouth, with his lips clenched tightly on the unburning end. Another person (or both) forms a tube with his or their hands, and the person with the cigarette in his mouth exhales forcefully, forcing the smoke into the other person's mouth. This practice is widely regarded as intimate, and is usually performed between friends or lovers.
  • A gravity bong[?] (a type of water pipe) consists of a container, generally a two-liter soda bottle, with the bottom cut off and placed in a pail of water. With the cap of the bottle converted into a hitter (which functions as the bowl in a pipe), the cannabis can be lit and air pressure will force the smoke into the bottle as it is slowly raised, lowering the water level inside the bottle. When the bottle is mostly full, the cap is unscrewed and the smoke inhaled. A shotgun occurs when the smoker carefully inhales and exhales repeatedly in sync with raising and lowering the bottle, repeatedly forcing the smoke into his lungs.

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