Not long ago, the conversation turned to shotguns at the gun shop. While even the folks that are not the ones we call “gunny” know the merits of shotguns for home defense, there are many opinions on the proper load and the best shotgun. The shotgun is primarily a projectile launcher and it is best to use what you are comfortable and familiar with. I have checked my notes before writing this article and I have a good recollection of incidents that have occurred in the past 40 years.
In these incidents—and there were many—when civilians defended their home with a shotgun, in no case was the shotgun a riot gun or special personal defense-type shotgun. The shotguns were single shots, pump-action shotguns, Browning Automatic shotguns, and double barrel shotguns.
While we may think these are not the ideal shotguns for home defense, they certainly served these individuals well. These shotguns have been lifesavers and the only time they have not performed well was when they were loaded with shells not suited for personal defense. In some cases, the shotguns were used to kill deadly attacking animals. The simple smoothbore is a credible defense option. However, some forethought and training is needed to have real security with the shotgun.
My grandfather kept a Winchester Model 12 at home ready for many years, in case he had a chance to go hunting or confront a robber—whichever was the rule of the day. Later, he replaced it with a Remington 11-87. I have kept a Remington 870 at home ready for most of my life, but I also own a special Browning Automatic Shotgun with Weaver Choke, and a modern Mossberg 590. All are credible options, but the plan isn’t just to get a shotgun and keep it ready.
The plan must have more depth than that. The sound of a shotgun being made ready will deter only the least motivated attacker and firing a warning shot is a very bad idea. Those motivated by profit may not wish to face a shotgun. The ones motivated by a perverse need to hurt, kill, rape, and cause human suffering are another matter. The tool itself doesn’t win the fight. There are several steps that must be taken to prepare for the worst-case scenario we all fear.
If there is any general shortcoming among students, it is a lack of familiarity with the shotgun. The shooter should know how to load, unload, fire, make safe, and aim the shotgun properly. If you practice often, you are ahead of the game even if you use a double barrel or older pump-action shotgun.
If you are on a budget, purchase an affordable shotgun and practice often. This is better than putting the majority of the budget into the shotgun without leaving a practice budget. There are affordable shotguns that are reliable and effective. Along with practicing combat shooting and the proper technique the shotgun must be patterned on paper to learn how the shotgun throws the shot.
Shotgun pellets or buckshot are not traveling in a big circle but a string with some leading and some trailing. Shotguns are individuals. They may pattern generally well with some loads, better with others, and pattern differently with different brands of shells.
Some loads, such as the Hornady Critical Defense, give good results in most shotguns. The shooter must take aim and see how the shotgun pattern lands on target at 7 yards. The load may hit to the right or left or high or low. Most commonly the shot load is centered and slightly high.
I have little patience with those giving off-the-cuff advice to shooters who may make dumb moves due to bankrupt advice. If you are shooting bad men, use the appropriate load. Birdshot is intended to kill a small animal weighing but a few ounces.
That cloud of hundreds of small pellets flying around the house isn’t going to be very effective if the invader is heavily clad. Birdshot penetrates but a few inches in ballistic gelatin. The shotgun should be loaded with 00 buckshot. This is the preferred anti-personnel round.
Slugs are effective, but better suited to area defense or use against dangerous animals than home defense. Your situation should be resolved with a few shells during a home invasion. You will not have time or the ability to think of the type of loads in the shotgun much less choose a different shell to quickly load. It is reasonable to keep a couple of slugs in a shell carrier on the shotgun or speed feed stock, but the shotgun should be loaded with 00 buckshot.
As for the shotgun chosen, there are important considerations. Most of us are well served with a simple bead front sight for home defense. The pump-action shotgun is the best choice for most shooters. A security-type shotgun with a barrel length of 18 to 21 inches is ideal. While most riot guns feature an 18.5-inch barrel, the Mossberg 590 with 20-inch barrel and the Browning Automatic shotgun with 21-inch barrel are each excellent all around defense shotguns.
For sights, the XS Big Dot tritium front is recommended. Ghost Ring rear sights and a fiber optic front sight is a great combination that offers high hit probability. But don’t pass up a good buy on a simple bead front shotgun.
Length of pull is the distance between the end of the stock and the trigger face. Some have shorter arms than others. A youth model stock or AR-15-type stock is a good choice for some shooters while others will find a traditional stock works fine. While the 12 gauge shotgun has the better wound ballistics, for some shooters a 20 gauge shotgun is a good solution. The 20 gauge makes a bloody rat hole to 25 feet or so and should not be underrated.
When training with the shotgun, the proper technique is important. The shotgun kicks—no doubt about it—so you should use light birdshot shells for primary training. An aggressive stance leaning forward into recoil is essential. The shotgun is tucked hard into the shoulder and the support hand keeps a firm grip on the forend. (A good rubber recoil pad is a wise addition.)
The shooter should practice moving, manipulating the slide action, keeping the shotgun at ready, and quickly raising the shotgun to eye level to fire. I also recommend learning to quickly take cover and always fire from cover. Standing in a doorway or the center of a hallway creates a funnel for the adversary to fire into.
The home defender should keep his position of security. It is also a good choice to fire from kneeling when possible. At close range, a shotgun fired from the kneeling position and aimed slightly upward will direct buckshot into the threat and upward, relieving concerns for overpenetration.
Fast repeat shots should be practiced—buckshot isn’t infallible. Remember the spread of the pattern is such that at short range the shotgun must be aimed as closely as a rifle. The advantage is often that a shotgun has a superior natural point of aim that makes getting hits easier. Practice to take advantage of these advantages.
What are your favorite defensive shotguns? Which load do you prefer for home defense or area defense? Share your answers in the comment section.
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like the Mossbergs better than others-tang safety is inherently safer[and more usable for southpaws!.Close up 00 is OK,but it patterns poorly at >=25 yards.Better to go with #4 buckshot.
Yes to large opening[aka ghost ring]rear sight,proper length of pull.
Ithaca 37s were[or still are]temperamental about ammunition feeding/ejection.
#4 Buck penetrates poorly, even up close. 00 Buck is much better, #1 Buck is just about perfect when you can get it.
Bought a Benelli Nova Tactical at Basspro when they were on sale a couple of years ago for $330. A few more bucks than many, but it is perfect for home/personal defense with no modifications, right out of the box. In the world of shotguns, it is not much good for anything else, but it serves this specific purpose well.
Mossberg Maverick 88 is a great all around shotgun for the money and a first shotgun. Rigged with an AR-Style stock (I replaced the pistol grip on mine with something for the shoulder), I think it is a cheap rig that can’t be beat for the price. No tang safety, but I carry without one in the chamber, safety off and hammer already dropped, so all ya gotta do is pump it.
May not work for everyone, but I find it an excellent way to carry or keep in the house.
Jeffrey Slotnick says
Patterning your shotgun with the ammunition you intend to use is critical. Depending on the load, quality, and type of ammunition you can experience a spread of 8 inches to 18 inches or more at 25 yards. I pattern my shotguns using the same load starting at 5 yards and working my way out to 25 yards. This way a shooter will know where their pellets are hitting and adjust point of aim appropriately. I have found exceptional performance using Federal Flite Control ammo in 9 pellet or 8 pellet 00 Buck which has an 8″ pattern at 25 yards, pretty impressive.
Picked up a Maverick 88 Security (12 gauge, 20″ bbl, 7+1) at the local shop for just under $200 incl. tax. Keep her stocked with 00, but I’ve run birdshot on the range also. Cycles smooth and shoots true and that’s all I ask.
#4 Buck penetrates poorly, even up close. 00 Buck is much better, #1 Buck is just about perfect when you can get it.
M. D. Brinley says
For home defense, I have a Saiga 12 with a 20 round magazine loaded with alternating slugs and 000 buckshot. I’ve installed a front grip with a spotlight and a laser designator. Any home defense event will be close range. The Saiga 12 has very little kick and I can fire it easily with one hand but the front folding grip makes handling and accuracy much better. The front grip has the squeeze on/off switch for the spotlight and laser making it very easy to operate especially in an emergency when you don’t want to take your eyes off the target. If the intruder manages to escape the hail of slugs and .38 sized pellets from the 000 buck, I also have an SKS with a folding stock and 30 round magazine. Also handy is my S&W .40, my Colt model 1911 and my .32, all kept handy and loaded with hollow points or R.I.P. rounds. I have several BB air pistols to practice instinctive shooting as well as a laser target board. With all that, if I can’t stop an intrusion, at least I’ll go down knowing I took a few with me.
M. D. Brinley says
For home defense, I have a Saiga 12 with a 20 round magazine loaded with alternating slugs and 000 buckshot. I’ve installed a front grip with a spotlight and a laser designator. Any home defense event will be close range. The Saiga 12 has very little kick and I can fire it easily with one hand but the front folding grip makes handling and accuracy much better. The front grip has the squeeze on/off switch for the spotlight and laser making it very easy to operate especially in an emergency when you don’t want to take your eyes off the target. If the intruder manages to escape the hail of slugs and .38 sized pellets from the 000 buck, I also have an SKS with a folding stock and 30 round magazine, loaded with jacketed hollow point rounds. Also handy is my S&W .40, my Colt model 1911 and my .32, all kept handy and loaded with hollow points or R.I.P. rounds. I have several BB air pistols to practice instinctive shooting as well as a laser target board. With all that, if I can’t stop an intrusion, at least I’ll go down knowing I took a few with me.
I load a moss. 500 or Moss Jerry m. Special with federal #3 or 4 flite control duck load load 3”.
I’ve spent many years as LE and trained with the Rem. 870. Hard to beat a 870. I’ve shot several thousand rounds practice and more duck loads thru it.
My brother in law hunted for 20 plus years with a 870 and never cleaned it. ( I know ), the reason I know is it jammed while duck hunting one morning and I took it a part in the boat ( not recommended) it was filthy.
But this is testament to its realibility ( just saying )
But it’s hard to beat a AR or AK for protection. More rounds available.
I have a mod97 Winchester trench gun downstairs and a moss berg riot gun in bedroom. 12 gauge 00 buck after first round #4 is my choice. Mod 97 has stock bead but moss berg has a red dot sight.
I agree with the author, get the gun that you fell comfortable with. Then practice practice, practice. There is NO substitute for the confidence and skill gained from practice.
Dan C. says
Any shotgun (or gun) is better than no gun in a defense situation, but more rounds are better than a few rounds. How many bad guys need to get shot? Maybe one is enough? Maybe there are going to be more threats than you have rounds for? Did they make an appointment with you so you know how many are coming?
I agree 00 Buck is a solid choice, not mention economical and readily available, but other shot size has a place if your home has over-penetration concerns. You have to know how to defend your home with pre-determined firing points, lanes, and choke points. You have to consider what lies at the end of your firing lane. Research ballistic gel penetration, home construction penetration, shot spread for your maximum and minimum distance in your home’s firing lanes for your choice of shotgun ammo. (I think you will find that Bird shot is too small though.)
Shotgun size and gauge should be considered for everyone that would possibly use the gun. 12 Gauge is IDEAL for defensive purposes, but may be a bit much for smaller users . 20 gauge is a reasonable stepdown that is still quite effective yet easier to control. Don’t discount stepping all the way down to a .410 as they are still effective and easily controlled by nearly every sized person. A .45 long colt/.410 Circuit Judge puts the small shotgun round into a carbine sized shoulder gun that has no safety or action to work as it is a double action revolver style gun. It is limited to five rounds though.
For southpaws or anyone wearing gloves,a tang safety is mandatory.I keep the action closed, magazine tube loaded,safety off.All one needs to do is either pull the trigger or work the slide release in order to chamber a round.40 years ago I tried patterning 00 buck at 25 yards with an Ithaca mdl 37 12ga Deerslayer.At 25 yards I was lucky if I got 2 pellets in a 2 ft box.Perhaps #1 buckshot is a viable alternative.For really close[7 yards),consider 2 oz turkey loads of BBs or #2 lead.SN the Ithaca was temperamental about loads cycled or ejected[Federal and Winchester didn’t].
Kenneth Sooy Sr says
As far as ammunition for home defense in the shotgun, it is unlikely that you would be more than 10 yards away from an intruder inside of your home. At 5 yards or less even #4 bird shot in a high brass shell will blow a pretty mean hole in any soft target. i prefer 12 gauge 3 inch #4 buckshot for several reasons. I have killed a Deer with it at 25 yards and the pellets penetrated quite well, with some passing all the way through. I really do not want any projectiles penetrating walls and injuring or killing people or pets in my home, or a home close by. My shotgun preference is a Mossberg or Remington pump as the sound of the action when racking that first shell will send most intruders on their way. If I was in a state where wild animals were a possible problem I would probably alternate 3 inch #00 buck with rifled slugs in the magazine.
Bob: I enjoyed this article as I do with all of your articles. However I have to disagree with several of your recommendations. First, your recommendation of a barrel length of 18 to 20 inches. Not tactically sound; understanding that your article is about home defense. With that configuration it is difficult to round a corner in one’s house without “printing” your location to an intruder. To be conspicuous, one must have the barrel lowered of raised, otherwise an intruder can see your barrel coming around the corner, door, etc.- that’s not good. A bull pup design is preferable as it is easier to maneuver in a house-type invasion. The Kel Tec KSG is an example of a bull pup shotgun. Remember, you are in a dwelling with tables, chairs, sofas, TVs etc. ease of maneuver and concealment is important. A long barrel (traditional-style) shotgun hinders your movement and concealment. Secondly, the use of buckshot in a home situation would not be my recommendation. Is buckshot effective at stopping a human? Yes, definitely and it will be effective against persons in the next room or next apartment as the buckshot travels through door, walls, windows. Buckshot greatly increases your chances of collateral damage; in human terms, that might be your son or daughter, wife or husband, next door neighbor- I think you get the point. In a home invasion, your typical shot is going to be around 7 meters (~21 feet) usually at the most. The talk of degrading shot patterns at 25 meters is ludicrous if you are discussing home defense, which your article is about. Using 9 or 8 shot from a shotgun at a distance found in a typical shot in home defense (7 meters or less) is going to lethal. At seven meters or less, the shot has barely started to spread and will inflict mass trauma on a human; such trauma is usually lethal. The use of the smaller shot size also reduces the chances of inflicting collateral damage to people in the next room or area. (No, I’m not an armchair warrior- my recommendations are based on my experience as an Infantry officer, my decades around weapons, and my experience as the chief operations officer of a firearms manufacturer/dealer.). I look forwArd to your next article. Thank you.
E gadz, lots to say here. Well…I always have my shotgun at the ready with a shot shell partially in the barrel. All I have to do is rack the slide forward. I had to do just that during one of the first attempted home invasions. I told the sheriff I was grabbing my shotgun because talking to him on the phone was doin’ nuthin’ to mitigate the imminent danger that was within seconds of my home. Just sweeping and pointing my shotgun towards the entrances was enough of a deterrent to scare all four guys away. The partially disabled mother and I later identified all four, but we thought that there were only 3! That’s the scary part of a home invasion…you really never know how many criminals there are. The first shot shell partially loaded is 00 #1 buckshot with 9 pellets, followed by 00 buckshot with 15 pellets. The former is law enforcement, low recoil but the rest are more lethal. Now after that incident I reconsidered my choice of weapon because of over penetration. There’s a home next door and a park across the street on the other side. There are houses behind and in front of my house but not as close. Still, I prefer a less penetrative round like .223 or a .40 caliber handgun with strobe and green laser. Although, I won’t count out my trusty Mossberg 500. If anything, the very bright Surefire light that acts as a forend/grip will deter most criminals. I still feel that my shotgun would be overkill and I would hate to see the aftermath of what it can do to a human.
I suspect any buckshot will do, though I can’t testify to the penetration of #4. Since #1 buckshot was the choice of many professional hunters when they had to go into the tall grass after a wounded large cat, it is my choice also.
The size of the buckshot is a whole lot less important that (1) knowing and being comfortable with the action and gauge your choose, (2) hitting at or near center mass with whatever load you choose to shoot (3) at an appropriate range for buckshot (<20 yds).
I will make one comment regarding the use of #6 birdshot. IF you live in a house with with drywall and stud walls, using #6 shot and aiming for the head offers much less likelihood of penetrating the walls into a child's room the pellets retaining lethal energy, which is what I advised for one of my family members.