Shotguns are commonly utilized as home defense firearms and are further regularly chosen for indefinite term SHTF guns. Their versatility and all around utility make them attractive for the latter role and their decisive effectiveness against soft targets makes them highly attractive for the former.
What’s more, everyone has a shotgun, or has a relative who does. Plenty of folks don’t own a tricked out tactical gun, but instead have handy a trusted hunting or sporting shotgun.
While any gun beats having no gun at all, and any shotgun beats no shotgun, obviously, choosing the right shotgun will be a major boon. Any shotgun is capable of being pressed into service as a defensive arm, ones that are purpose made for defense or tactical use will be designed accordingly with a feature set that will make your task easier should it come time to make that thing belch lead.
If you have time and opportunity any gun intended for self-defense or long-term survival use should be chosen with considerable care. The factors involved in selecting a shotgun from a purely defensive standpoint are not the same as those concerned with hunting, sporting or other purposes.
That’s why I have put together this article in the form of a Shotgun 101 guide to help you understand what factors should take priority for selection, and I’ll also be including a list of what I believe are the best scatterguns for in home defense and general survival use when the SHTF. Whether you are a neophyte to The Gauge or a seasoned shotgunner, you are bound to learn a few things.
Understanding Action Choices
The two best choices among shotgun actions, at least for self-defense use, are semi-auto and pump action. Of course, this assumes the shooter is a reasonably motivated individual who will practice with their shotgun. For less enthusiastic shooters (or those who already have one) break-actions may be best as their manual of arms is somewhat simpler.
However, for the purposes of our article I will be relegating the discussion to pump and semi-auto shotguns, not any kind of break-action, lever-action or anything else. My concern for this article is what is best, what is optimal, and for most defensive purposes either of our two subjects are the current best options.
A break –action may indeed be the best choice for you or for someone else, but that is not what I am trying to describe or determine with this short article. Pumps and semis are most often the best choice, for the most people, and those are the guns I am dedicating space to today.
Regarding our two subject actions:
Pump-Action: Adaptable, versatile and ammunition insensitive compared to semi-autos. Very simple mechanically and can be shot rapidly with practice. Practice is indeed a must with these guns, as they are vulnerable to short-stroking, a shooter induced malfunction where the action is not cycled fully or briskly enough and the result is often a pretty gnarly malfunction
Additionally a pump action, as with all manually operated shotguns, requires two hands to operate at all. If you have one hand down from either injury or from being preoccupied with some other task you will hardly be able to run the slide.
Ammo capacity varies greatly depending on model and variant, but for purpose-made defensive shotguns using a tube magazine it is often between five and eight 2 ¾” shotshells. Newer box-mag fed pump guns can hold anywhere from five, ten, fifteen or even twenty rounds in a giant detachable magazine.
One great perk of pump actions is they are often inexpensive compared to other designs, with even high quality examples going between $400-$600. Buying used will save even more money.
Semi-Auto: Easy to shoot and mild recoil compared to pumps are the biggest advantages to be had with a semi-auto. In return, they are more ammo sensitive than pump actions, often requiring the use of high-brass hulls or full power loads though this is not a hard rule.
Capacity is often the same as pump actions based on magazine type, so five to eight shells nominally for a tube-fed gun and upwards of ten or more for detachable magazine guns.
The other bad news is that high-quality examples of this breed are pricey, often starting north of $800 for top-shelf makers, and regularly exceeding $1,300. That’s a lot of scratch for a humble shotgun, but if you are dedicated to the craft they represent the pinnacle of the platform.
Important Characteristics of Defensive or SHTF Shotties
A defensive gun must possess many positive attributes but foremost among them, as always, is reliability, plain and simple. You must be beyond confident that the gun will go “boom” when the trigger is pulled, you must know!
If you have any doubts as to your shotguns reliability, it is probably not reliable enough or you have not shot it enough to know for sure. Similarly, a gun that is reliable but only with one or two brands of ammo may be considered fussy, and depending on your planning and values may or may not be a deal breaker.
Take care that you understand that reliability is not simply a function of design and mechanism: manually operated guns like our trusty pumps up there are very vulnerable to their users screwing up the cycle of operations.
Some designs and models are more or less vulnerable to short-stroking and other bobbled maneuvers but no pump gun will suffer errant handling for long.
Gauge is a topic of constant comment, but for practical reasons should be constrained to 12ga. or 20ga. to ensure the most variety of loads and availability of the shotshells themselves. 10ga. is almost always a waste, 16. and 28ga. are far too uncommon to consider and the .410 is fairly wimpy, though it may have merit for those of very small stature or dealing with physical infirmity.
Lastly, the overall length of the gun and specifically the length of the barrel is of prime importance for defensive purposes inside a structure or other cramped quarters.
Maneuvering a shotgun with a full stock and even a 20” barrel through doorways efficiently takes skill and practice to prevent telegraphing your movement and preventing grab attempts, and even 20” is pushing it.
Shorter is definitely better for the general purpose shotgun, and 14” to 16” is ideal. Of course this means you will need to register your gauge as an SBS and kiss the ring but what can you do? Also, you should not be enticed by the nimbleness of a pistol-grip only (PGO) shotgun or the new craze swirling around the “not a shotgun” shorty shotguns like the Mossberg Shockwave and Remington Tac-14.
These little-bitty scatterguns are highly attractive for their small footprint and sheer handiness, but the lack of a stock severely hampers their effectiveness outside in-the-room distance, and even shooting them well at that short range takes a bunch of work. That being said, you can equip these guns with a pistol brace and drastically improve their handling…
If your shotgun has a long 22” plus barrel, most models can easily swap the barrel to a shorter version if you have the cash. Start by contacting Brownells, your local gunshop or the manufacturer.
Sights are another matter. A simple, plain bead is fine for buck use up close and in decent light, but many are hard to see and zeroing your loads to your shotgun consists of memorizing your holds at varying distances.
Easier said than done, and very, very dicey with slugs. Ghost ring or other rifle sights are excellent options and allow swift, sure acquisition of the sight picture and also allow you to zero your loads to your shotgun easily.
A red dot sight is as good an idea on a shotgun as it is a rifle or handgun, and furnishes the shooter a single, clearly defined and permanently illuminated aiming point that also allows you to zero your ammo to the gun.
Don’t listen to Bubbas who would have you omit one because “you don’t need to aim a shotgun.” They are wrong and you’ll be wrong if you listen to them.
Lastly, consider the constriction of the bore, or choke. A wider choke will make for a looser, wider pattern while a tight choke will do the opposite. Note that neither is necessarily a bad thing; it depends as always on context, on what you are doing.
If you want maximum range out of buckshot, you’ll want a tighter choke to prevent dispersal of your shot package. If you desire maximum hit portability at close and medium range, an open choke is best. Slug usage will dictate that you do not use a choke too tight as it could be damaged by the slugs’ passage.
Guns that feature barrels threaded for interchangeable chokes can be tailored to the situation or to your specific preference, or even by brand of shotshell.
For most defensive guns though, you can get by fine with a cylinder bore. A cylinder bore is a fixed choke and will allow you to use rifled slugs with no problem and any kind of shot, though patterns are very wide as a general rule.
If more range is needed, you can opt to utilize a slug, or one of the new breeds of tightly-patterning shotshell, which work independently of the firing shotgun’s constriction. Shells of this nature were made famous by Federal’s Flite-Control lineup of buckshot.
Defensive Load Selection
There are as many proponents for various loading in shotguns as there are loads themselves. Some choices are optimal for certain situations, some are acceptable, and some downright suck. Some loads commonly employed for self-defense by the unwitting and unknowing are terrible for anti-personnel use.
While there is no such thing as a cure-all loading in a shotgun, there are some general guidelines we can adhere to in order to separate wheat from chaff, or rather shot from wad, natch.
For defense against human beings, any projectile should exhibit between 10-12” of penetration at the minimum. This ensures that the projectile can reach vital organs in the body and do so through common intermediate barriers.
The two bread-and-butter loads for defense in shotguns are 00 (“double aught”) buckshot and full-caliber rifled slugs. Other acceptable choices in buckshot are 0(“single aught”, 000 (“triple aught”) and No.1. Number 4 buck is preferred by some, but it does not do well through intermediate barriers, including auto glass and heavy clothing.
Note I specifically left out birdshot here. Why? Birdshot is for birds, not people! I have said it and said it till I think I am taking crazy pills. Birdshot pellets, of any size, but especially common No.6 or No.7 shot, lack the weight and diameter to cause anything but superficial wounds at any distance except very, very close range.
Many misguided users of shotguns like the idea of buckshot because it will not blow through the average wall in a home. Well, if it won’t penetrate walls, it sure won’t penetrate people, will it? No. No it won’t, precious.
Between buck and slugs, buckshot offers an increased hit probability at moderate and extended ranges and causes truly awful damage to a human body, with multiple, .28 or .30+ caliber holes, each penetrating deeply.
A slug is simple a giant bullet for all intents and purposes and acts accordingly, its tremendous mass and velocity making light work of most common barriers and plowing through people with ease.
You must take care with both as either will handily penetrate common residential building materials and background hazard from misses, especially with shot, can be significant. Generally speaking most shotgunners will carry a load of both to utilize when circumstances call for one or the other.
The 5 Best Shotguns for Home Defense and SHTF Use
The proceeding list consists of my recommendations for excellent all around defensive shotguns. Some are new, some are older, but all are reliable and are setup to make your life easier when you are having the worst day of your life.
A long-serving military issue shotgun, the 590A1 is a heavy and heavy-barreled scattergun built to take a pounding. Ruggedness, not refinement is the word here. This gun boasts extreme reliability and durability as design mandates and carries 8 shotshells in its long mag tube, with another in the chamber.
This Mossberg is nicely equipped from the factory with a tang mounted ambi safety, adjustable high-vis ghost ring sights and a bayonet lug for crowd control or really, really bad days. While not the smoothest cycling gun, 590’s are boringly reliable and built with durability and longevity in mind.
Able to handle brutal firing schedules, all kinds of ammo and harsh weather and still come out singing, the 590A1 is a beast, and made even better by a modest price.
There is no more iconic pump-action shotgun than Remington’s 870 series. With millions and millions produced, these shotguns make up a significant portion of the firearms present in the U.S.! The 870 has long been a favorite for a nice action and rugged reliability, but also for the number of variants and customization options that exist for it.
Any 870 can serve as a base gun for a custom project shotgun, from the simple to the completely insane. Want a shotgun slathered with rails and additional ammo storage? No problem. How about a folding stock, accurized slug gun. Done. Optical sight and flashlight? A cinch.
Any 870 is a pretty sturdy gun out of the box, but if you really want to get set up with a nice one, either bone stock or as a base to work from, seek out a Wingmaster or 870P, the former being a higher grade of gun than the express models and the latter being a Police model made to exacting specifications. Both are significantly better made and more reliable than the Express and Tactical trims.
While most folks imagine a sleek and expensive over-under shotgun when you mention “Beretta” and “shotgun” in the same breath, they have also been turning out excellent tactical guns for some time, as befits their heritage. The 1301 is the latest in that long line of tactical shotguns that kick wholesale ass.
The 1301 is a gas operated semi-auto, and comes out of the box completely equipped to do work. Fast cycling and lightweight, the 1301 shoots like a dream and runs reliably. It features excellent sights, intelligent control placement and a thriving aftermarket of accessories and custom parts along with factory support.
If the 1301 has a weakness, it is one small design flaw: the stock shell release. This exposed control on the right side of the receiver, if bumped inadvertently, will release an additional shell from the mag tube into the action, tying up the gun badly.
This is very obviously a bad thing if it happens in the middle of your next gunfight. Luckily the fix is in: 3rd party companies like Aridus Industries produce raised fences that protect this control from inadvertent activation, and are affordable and easily installed.
Don’t let that minor quibble put you off of the 1301, which stands among the best tactical semi-auto shotguns on the market today. Even better, the 1301 is priced below several competitors tactical semis.
Another gas operated shotgun and military issued to boot, the Benelli M4 is without doubt the single most rugged and durable semi-auto in the world today, and had been tested to Hell and back.
Its ARGO gas system requires no adjustment and will fire nearly any load without a hiccup. Only the very lightest loads will give this Benelli pause. Topped off by great sights and excellent human engineering and in many ways you have the shotgun to beat.
It cannot be overstated how durable and rugged this shotgun is, and it should be, as it is one of only a few that has ever passed testing for military adoption. This makes it a superb choice for any defensive use or other situation where abuse and neglect might be issues.
The only thing holding the M4 back from ubiquity and superstardom is, of course the price tag. Retailing at around $1800 with a street price not much lower than that, and you have one of the most expensively stickered shotguns ever. That is a ton of cash for any shotgun, even a semi. Only you can decide if it is worth it, but rest assured if you have the scratch you will not be disappointed.
The Winchester 1300 was gone too soon. While based on a venerable and respected design, it was always the weaker sister to Mossberg and Remington. That is a real shame as the 1300 is a solid defensive shotgun, and one with a perk not seen in either of the competitors that saw it forced from the market. The modern Winchester guns are shadows of their former glory.
The 1300 action makes use of a very fast, smooth action, easily identified at a glance by its prominent and rotating bolt head. This speedy action makes it fast for a pump-action shotgun, one that can keep pace with semis in the hands of a skilled shooter. This attribute makes it something of a cult classic among scattergun connoisseurs.
As mentioned, the 1300 is no longer in production but is commonly found used in sporting good shops and pawn shops across the land. Spare parts are plentiful and still in production, easing logistical concerns somewhat.
While there are not nearly as many options and accessories for these guns as either the Mossberg or Remington above, you will not have any issues adding additional ammo, slings, lights and the like, so you most important bases are still covered.
The 1300 is actually the favorite pump action of your intrepid author here, and I would challenge any of you who have not shot one to give them a try if you are able. You might find that its slick action will endear itself to you.
The following shotguns are all models that were serious contenders for a place on my list above, but for whatever reason just did not make the cut. Some have quirks that the prime-time guns lacked. Others were simply too new and unproven for me to give them my unreserved blessing. And still others are just not the best value, all things considered.
Whatever landed them in the runner-up category, you can rest assured that all of them are still great, reliable guns, and if one of these should catch you eye, or just so happen to offer the ideal feature set you need, you should not hesitate to choose it.
Benelli Supernova Tactical
Benelli makes more than just kickass semi-autos. Their pump action Nova and Supernova series guns are phenomenally tough and weather-resistant guns that make heavy use of synthetics throughout, along with a host of innovative features.
Both are also notable for their ability to chamber up to 3 ½” shotshells, which are completely bonkers for defensive use but might have some utility for hunting if it came down to it.
Between the two, the Supernova gets the nod from me: it features a better stock arrangement with additional options, as well as a receiver that is drilled and tapped for accepting an optic base. Aside from this, the guns are at heart the same.
Both have receivers that feature steel skeletons wrapped in synthetic material and an interesting shell stop button located on the belly of the forend that allows one to clear the chamber without dispensing a round from the magazine tube. That, if mastered, will surely come in handy for slug exchange drills.
This Italian stallion is not without a few warts, however. The Supernova is a large and bulky shotgun thanks to its over-long receiver that enables it to handle such colossal shotshells.
Additionally, its field-length forend telescopes back fully over the receiver when cycled to the rear. This rules out the use of receiver mounted shell caddies and other ammo storage solutions unless one wants to trim down the forend themselves. Not a difficult task, but it is still a design flaw in my mind.
At any rate, the Supernova Tactical is a well-equipped and dead-tough pump action that may appeal to those who anticipate using it in very harsh conditions. If you need that kind of capability, or just like the idea of using huge shotshells, the Supernova Tactical is just the ticket.
While Winchester of old may be dead, and the 1300 with it, the spirit of the gun lives on in the P-12 from F.N. Mechanically identical to the 1300, the P-12 improves upon that classic gun in many ways, both in ergonomics and options.
Most noticeable is the cantilever mount hovering over the receiver, integral to the barrel. This provides an easy mounting solution for optics of all kinds.
Second, the wrist of the stock and forend are sharply checkered for sure grip in any and all conditions. Sights consist of a front post and flip up “buckhorn” rear which allows a fair amount of precision and can be zeroed for use with slugs.
Lastly, the magazine tube was shortened from the 1300’s common 7 shots to a more reserved 5. The loss of capacity is a sticker for some but this has done much for the gun’s balance. 1300 specific magazine extensions are available and are easily installed if one is just not happy with less than that. The P-12 retains the 1300’s famously fast and slick action right out of the box.
Overall, a great pump-gun at a great price, and I for one am very happy to see the 1300 action persist today.
Mossberg 590M Mag-Fed
Detachable magazine shotguns are quickly gaining steam in the U.S. market after a period interminable disinterest. That era is at an end, with Remington and Mossberg both coming out swinging in this new and emergent segment. Both are essentially their flagship pump actions converted from tube-fed to utilize a detachable magazine.
The advantages are obvious: better balance, faster reloading and enhanced capacity. What is not to love? I give the nod to the Mossberg for its use of a double stack magazine (an industry wide first) versus Remington’s single stack design.
The advantages are twofold: It allows more ammo in a smaller overall footprint. A ten round double stack magazine is manageable in a Mossberg, but long and unwieldy in a Remington.
Magazines, while bulky and heavy when loaded, are surprisingly easy to manage and load into the gun. Furthermore they can be had in capacities of 5, 10, 15 or 20 rounds, all in a sturdy and reliable box format.
I have little doubt drums with even higher capacities will be along soon. Keeping all of that ammo onboard does add weight, but in the bargain the magazine keeps it centrally located under the guns center of gravity, instead of hanging wayyyy out in front of the receiver and the shooter’s hand.
Of additional note, the conversion of the 590 to detachable magazine feed necessitated the removal of the elevator, since it was no longer needed to lift a shell from the magazine tube to the chamber for loading, as the 590M feeds more or less in line from the magazine.
The removal of this elevator means one less thing that must be actuated by the passage of the action bars through the receiver, noticeably smoothing and lightening the stroke needed to cycle the shotgun.
A win on all fronts.
Wilson Combat CQB
What do you get when you combine Wilson Combat’s legendary attention to detail and gunsmithing prowess with the most popular pump action shotgun on the planet? One hell of a scattergun, that’s what! The Wilson CQB begins life as Remington 870, but that is where the comparisons end.
Wilson spares no expense on kitting this shotgun out, and the feature list is proof of their work: a Surefire Tactical forend light, Mesa Tactical shell caddy, an AR stock adapter that features a Rogers Super-Stoc and plenty of sling mounting locations.
Extended magazine tube. Trak-Lock ghost ring rear sight and a fiber optic front sight. Jumbo dome head safety. Crowning it all, Wilson’s attractive, corrosion resistant Armor-Tuff finish, applied in a pleasing blue-gray color.
This shotgun has it all, and it has been expertly fitted and installed by the masters at Wilson Combat. The downside (and don’t tell me you didn’t see this coming) is a price tag that rivals the Benelli M4 up near the top of this list. That may be a bitter pill to swallow, but if you want the absolute best performance from a pump action you can get, this is one of the top contenders.
Shotguns are versatile guns, and this versatility makes them attractive to preppers of all stripes. But for defensive use, what we are most interested in is the shotgun’s most standout attribute: it’s terrible, spectacular destructive capability.
Against home intruders or bandits pillaging society, a shotgun has been since its inception very heavy medicine in close quarters fights, capable of inflicting wounds that even rifles have trouble matching. The doctor is in, and the prescription is a shotgun off of this list.