Why Shotguns Have Plugs (Plus the laws you need to know)

Waterfowl season begins on October 2nd in Montana. Like the rest of the country, we have 107 short days to go out into the field and get some of the best tasting, beautiful game on the planet. For many hunters, this fall will be their first year out on the water or in the dove fields. They’ve got their camo, their decoys, and their guns, but federal law requires an alteration to most shotguns, a shotgun plug.

Plugs are used in shotguns to limit the capacity of a tube magazine. A plug can be made of any material, but are most commonly made of plastic or wood. The plug must be measured and cut to a specific length which varies depending on the gauge and magazine length.

Some gun owners only find out about shotgun plugs right before their bird hunting trip, and an unlucky few find out only after a warden tickets them for having enough room for more than three shells in their gun. Of course, many first time bird hunters will ask why these laws are in place and how they came to be. After all, isn’t that an infringement on the 2nd Amendment? The answers might surprise you!

Shotgun Plugs and Bird Hunting

To satisfy a young industrialized America’s demand for fur, feathers, and wild meat, a type of hunter came to prominence in the 19th Century that was very different from hunters in the present day. These hunters didn’t shoot game for personal consumption or for sport, they killed animals for profit. The ‘market hunters’ as we call them over hunted the wild populations of animals, sometimes to extinction.

When it came to waterfowl, market hunters would typically employ a fleet of small canoes or pirogues. Hunters would encircle rafts of ducks, letting the currents drift them into range. Then, the hunters would unleash volleys from large bore shotguns. 3 gauge (1.158 inch bore), 4 gauge (1.052 inch bore), and 1 gauge (1.669 inch bore) were the most common sizes. Bigger ‘punt’ guns were employed too.

At the same time, the late 19th Century saw a push from gun makers to produce multi-shot firearms. The Winchester repeating rifles were some of the most successful, but the man behind many of those designs, John Moses Browning, was also responsible for the first pump-action shotguns.

So how does this relate to shotgun plugs? Well, by the early 20th Century game bird populations had been decimated. Over hunting resulted in some sport hunters rallying together to save the dwindling game bird populations across the nation. These ‘gentlemen hunters’ were some of the first conservationists and played a large part in advancing the early environmental movement.

At the behest of these hunters, laws were passed to better regulate hunting in the United States. Laws created bag limits, possession limits, sectioned off certain plots of land as refuges for birds. This is also were we got laws banning the sale of wild game meat (if you have a source of venison that you purchase, it is from a farm.

One set of game laws that rose out of that early movement was magazine capacity limits. The idea was that a recreational hunter would only kill one or two birds out of a flock, it wasn’t considered sporting to blast dozens of ducks out of the water. Limiting shotguns to 10 gauge and smaller with only few shells played a big part in ending market hunting for birds.

Many laws and hunting etiquette from those early days has carried over into the 21st Century. One such law is shotgun magazine capacity. In 1935 the first federal law restricting waterfowl hunters to three shots was enacted. As it happened, waterfowl populations began to rebound after an all-time low in the mid-30’s.

Shotgun Plugs Today

Plugs are still used today because, quite frankly, having higher capacity magazines for bird hunting isn’t needed. Hunters have a daily limit for most game birds that can be filled quickly. There are many times where Dad and his friends would go out and shoot a limit of ducks before kickoff on TV.

When shooting a flying bird, usually only one shot is needed to bring it down whether the bird be a small grouse or a huge swan. Occasionally, the second or third shot is needed to bring down a bird wounded by the first. It is very rare to miss on the first shot but down a bird on the second shot, because the animals are usually out of range in a couple seconds.

An extra 5 shells in a tube magazine adds a half pound to the overall weight to a 12 gauge. All that weight will be forward of the trigger hand, making the gun feel and handle like it was even heavier. While anyone can adapt to such a change in balance after a few shots, carrying around unneeded weight when marching through a mile of swamp or weeds gets tiring quickly.

Having more shells in the gun than is practical for shooting one or two birds at a time is considered unsporting by many. Admittedly, it is a prejudiced attitude that many gun owners find elitist. Such attitudes are not without precedent, however. The hunting opportunities we can enjoy today are a direct result of people putting game animals before their own desires. This is ultimately why we still have plugs.

Shotgun Plug Laws

Bird hunting can be separated into two distinct types based on species, migratory and non-migratory. Migratory bird hunting such as waterfowl is federally regulated, and this includes magazine capacity limits. Non-migratory bird hunting is usually state regulated. Both kinds of bird hunting can have more restrictions at the local level.

The best way to find out more about local laws is to contact a game warden in the area you will be hunting. Since the laws can vary significantly from one piece of land to the next, these local laws won’t be covered here. However, knowing which states require gun plugs is a fairly simple task.

Federal Shotgun Plug Laws

This one is fairly easy to remember. The US Federal Government, specifically US Fish and Wildlife Service, regulates all migratory bird hunting in the country. States and local areas can add restrictions, but the federal laws are applied universally across the nation. Hunters are limited to 3 shells in their gun (two in the magazine, one in the chamber) for all migratory bird species. These include:

  • Ducks
  • Geese
  • Coots
  • Swan
  • Crane
  • Doves/Pigeons
  • American Woodcock
  • Rails
  • Snipes

Federal regulations are included with the state regulations for these species, so all a hunter has to do is read their states’ regulations and he or she will know the law.

State Shotgun Plug Laws

Some states also have shotgun plug laws in place for hunters. With migratory birds, the federal government already limits shotguns to three shells so state laws for those same species would be redundant. However, non-migratory game bird species are regulated by the states, so state magazine capacity laws do apply when hunting those birds.

Since state laws can vary depending on the species, including big game species which are sometimes hunted with a shotgun. Some states have no capacity limits, others have capacity limits on certain species, and a few states go with the federal “2 + 1” limit. After skimming the regulations for every state, here are the states I found had some kind of shotgun capacity limit:

  • Colorado: 2+1 for all bird hunting and small mammals. 5+1 for big game.
  • Connecticut: 2+1 for migratory birds, turkey, and state land deer.
  • Delaware: 2+1 for all game species except special snow geese season.
  • Illinois: 2+1 for all game species.
  • Louisiana: 2+1 for all shotgun hunting.
  • Maine: 2+1 for migratory birds. 5+1 for Semi-Autos with other species.
  • Michigan: 2+1 for migratory birds. 5+1 all other shotgun hunting.
  • Missouri: 2+1 for birds and small game.
  • New Jersey: 2+1 for all species except for spring goose season.
  • New York: 2+1 for migratory birds. 5+1 for all other species.
  • North Dakota: 2+1 for all small game hunting.
  • North Carolina: 2+1 for migratory birds only.
  • Ohio: 2+1 for all shotgun hunting.
  • Oregon: 2+1 for all bird hunting.
  • Pennsylvania: 2+1 shells for all small game hunting. No plug needed for big game.
  • Vermont: 2+1 for migratory birds. 5+1 for other species.
  • Washington: 2+1 for all bird hunting.

Because it would take an eternity to fully understand the hunting regulations for all fifty states, hunters should not take this list to be complete. These results came from several afternoons of reading and research but there’s a good chance I misread or missed some clause buried in the regulations. I suggest that anyone who plans to hunt with a shotgun read their state’s regulations cover to cover just to be sure.

Also, regulations change every year. Usually it is minor changes such as bag/possession limits, but occasionally a state lifts or applies a new regulation concerning firearms. For instance, states that are opening up big game hunting to rifles may apply new capacity regulations to upland birds or small game with shotguns. It’s impossible to predict how regulations will change in the future, so be aware!

That being said, there are some general trends we can see. First, since migratory birds are regulated federally, ALL states will have a “2+1” rule for migratory birds. This means no more than two shells in the magazine and one in the chamber for a total of three. A few states have taken this regulation and applied it to all bird hunting. Illinois apparently goes even further, with a 2+1 capacity for all hunting.

Another common regulation is “5+1” or six shells total in the gun. Some of these states have shotgun capacity limits for ownership, which means all legal shotguns in the state must comply, hunting or otherwise. Thankfully, the typical pump or auto-loader shotgun has a capacity of only four or five rounds anyway, so most shotguns on the shelf will meet these requirements without a plug.

Some states technically have a capacity limit of 8 or 10 rounds that applies to firearms used for hunting, but again most shotguns do not have that capacity anyway, so a plug isn’t needed in those situations. Basically, a plug is only needed if the capacity of the shotgun is greater than the capacity limit in the regulations.

Local Shotgun Plug Laws

At the local level, regulations can also be more restrictive. Notably, hunting on public land will have different regulations depending on who manages the land. This is where doing research ahead of time pays off. Each state will have a list of restrictions for certain plots of land in the regulations. It is a good idea to start there and find out as much as possible.

If there is still confusion after consulting the regulation booklet, the next best thing to do is contact the office of whomever is managing the land you wish to hunt. There are local and regional offices for all departments in every U.S. state and a big part of their job is educating hunters. If the land is private, there shouldn’t be any local restrictions other than what the land owner demands of hunters.

Finally, in the case of block management areas or certain wildlife refuges, there will be regulations posted at the entry points, usually by a sign-in sheet. These regulations will apply to everything within the boundaries of the property.

If you find out that the place or species you intend to hunt requires a plug in your shotgun, the next thing to do is buy a plug and install it before your hunt!

How to Plug a Shotgun

Most bird hunters these days rely on pump-action and semi-automatic shotguns as their weapon of choice. These hunters not only need to know shotgun plug laws, but also how to install a plug into their firearm. Buying or making a plug isn’t difficult. Plastic plugs can be bought for a few dollars, or a wooden dowel can be purchased. Either one will usually have to be trimmed to fit a specific gun.

The good news is that inserting a plug is easy to do. In fact, it’s usually a four step process:

  1. Remove magazine end-cap either by twisting it off or with a special wrench, depending on the shotgun.
  2. Measure the length of the magazine tube and subtract the length of two shotgun shells that are the maximum length the shotgun will allow (3.0 or 3.5 inches for 12 gauge).
  3. Trim the plug to this final length, being as accurate as possible. If in doubt, cut a bit long then cut more off if necessary.
  4. Insert the plug into the magazine tube, and replace the end cap. Test the capacity by trying to insert three shells into the magazine. If you can only fit two, then the gun is properly plugged!

It’s important to note that even if you are only using shells of a certain length, the warden will check your magazine capacity with the shortest shell length commercially available for your gauge. Basically, even if you can only fit two 3.5 inch shells in your 12 gauge, the warden will want to make sure you can’t fit three 2.75 inch shells.

The other thing to be careful of is that a shotgun shell’s stated length is when it is open, not closed. A loaded shotgun shell that has been properly closed will be a bit shorter than it’s stated length. A 3 inch shell is more around 2.3 inches long when closed up for a 12 gauge. That’s why it’s important to measure the shells, not use their stated length.

Some Closing Words

While gun ownership in this country is a right, hunting is very much a privilege. The opportunities we have today are the result of wise game management and conservation efforts from past generations. To protect these opportunities and create new ones, some level of regulation is required and shotgun plugs are one of many tools that can be used to conserve game animals for the future.

Plugging your shotgun where and when required is fair to the game, to other hunters, and to future generations. Plus there is no excuse for getting a ticket over something so trivial, so know the law and follow it even if you think no one is watching.

While I’ve done my best in researching the laws of every state, it is possible, if not likely, that I have made a mistake. Since readers will usually know the laws of their home state better than someone halfway across the country, please feel free to leave a comment, question, or correction. If I’ve made any errors, I’m happy to go back and correct them.

Otherwise, happy hunting!