Shotguns. Boomsticks. Scatterguns. Gauges. The most ubiquitous, and one of the most versatile guns in the world, equally at home afield putting meat on the table, eliminating pests or digesting rioters and home invaders, the humble shotgun for all its modern trappings has not changed an awful lot since we took to cartridge ammunition.
That’s with cause, too, as evidenced by America’s ceaseless hunger for shotguns in all their guises. The simplicity and brutality of the shotgun has been one of its major selling points since its inception. A shotshell goes in, and a cloud of destructive shot comes out with the pull of a trigger, plucking birds form the air or hewing down larger critters with multiple, lethal wounds.
Tough to argue with that for a defensive weapon, and most of America agrees. Shotguns are overwhelmingly the long gun of choice for home defense across the U.S. and the past decade or so were the police long arm. All those cops and citizens cannot be wrong, but it isn’t all gumdrops if you want to worship at the temple of the gauge.
Shotguns have lots of perks, but several disadvantages also. In this article, we’ll be taking a deep dive on the pros and cons of shotguns in a defensive context for the average citizen.
Considerations for Any Defensive Firearm
Any firearm, including shotguns, chosen for defensive use must be possessed of certain fundamental characteristics. Mechanical reliability is a prime consideration, as you must be able to depend on any tool you are staking your life on. If you do not have all confidence, with cause that the gun will go bang when you pull the trigger you may not want to bet the farm on it. A quality shotgun of any type will generally be reliable, though manually operated guns require more user practice to ensure you obtain it.
A potent cartridge is also a necessity as humans are tough critters. Sure, many dirtbags will give up or flee when shot with anything, but in my opinion it is a poor idea to rely on subpar performing or too-puny projectiles when more decisive loadings are an option. Any common shotgun chambering, save perhaps the .410 bore, is more than adequate in that department with the right payload.
Capacity is not the end-all be-all of perks in a defensive arm but is nonetheless important: each round carried on board in the magazine or in the chambers is an opportunity to save your life or someone else’s, so don’t discount it. Considering shotguns as a class are cumbersome and slow to load compared to other guns, adequate capacity is even more important.
Lastly, and this applies specifically to long guns, we should consider the length of the gun. While stocks can be shortened a little bit both for fit and reduction of overall length, we net most of our length-savings on a shotgun by keeping the barrel short and manageable.
A long barrel of 22” or more is getting pretty ungainly for inside the home use, and anything longer turns into a liability pretty quickly when rounding corners or moving through door frames. An 18” barrel, the shortest over-the counter legal length for a properly stocked gun, is ideal for home defense. Shorter barrels can be had over the counter in the form of arm-brace equipped “firearms” ala the Mossberg Shockwave and Remington Tac-14 series.
In the following sections, we’ll be examining do’s, don’ts, pros and cons of shotguns for home defense.
Pros and Cons
Shotguns, like any gun, bring strengths to the table but those strengths come with some baggage. The serious and skilled shooter will work to maximize the strengths and mitigate those weaknesses so they don’t turn into showstoppers.
A shotgun’s single greatest strength is in its raw destructive capability compared to other small arms.. With an optimal loading, say for instance No. 1 buckshot, a single pull of a trigger can create 15 individual, deeply penetrating, permanent wound channels in bad guy. That is at “extended” ranges for a shotgun of 15 yards or so.
At typical inside the room distances, that same load will produce a tight furrow of utterly destroyed tissue, a grievous wound that other shoulder-fired guns cannot hope to match. If a slug is loaded in lieu of shot, you can expect a very large wound channel and serious penetrative capability with most modern designs, ideal for punching through auto bodies, glass and light construction material. It is this massively destructive performance that lends a shotgun much appeal.
The other major advantage of a shotgun is its versatility, though for defensive use this strength is somewhat overblown thought it does make a big difference if considering a shotgun for legitimate SHTF scenarios where harvesting game is a bonafide concern.
By simply changing ammunition (and chokes if applicable) a shotgun can be optimized for very close range engagements or long range engagements with a fair degree of precision. This allows a shotgun to function as a very powerful weapon at all ranges out to about 125 yards or so as long as the correct ammunition is chosen.
Every rose has its thorns. Enjoying a shotgun’s bone-crunching power means you will have to sacrifice much in the way if a simple manual of arms when it comes to operation and reloads, or a one-size-fits-all firing solution afforded by a rifle or carbine.
A shotgun requires significantly more thought, understanding and practice to use effectively compared to a rifle or handgun. All shotguns using shot will pattern differently with different load at different ranges. It does not take a genius to see how errant pellets could lead to disaster in a home-defense scenario. It is up to you to take your shotgun out to pattern it at different ranges, and work through what that means for you in the context of a defensive scenario.
Slugs offer more precise shot placement with less risk of a lone pellet shanking off target, but all but specialty slugs present significant penetration concerns, especially inside a dwelling. If one were planning to run slugs exclusively you might be able to make a better argument for selecting a rifle instead.
Shotguns are often heavy, lengthy guns, and their ammunition is similarly heavy and bulky compared to a svelte rifle magazine with 30 or more rounds inside. Loading a shotgun, even a detachable magazine-fed shotgun is no easy or quick task, and is prone to fumbling without significant practice. You’ll need lots of practice, too, as most shotguns only hold 5 or 6 rounds, meaning topping off as a fight continues is a crucial skill. A double barrel shotgun gives you two and done before you need to break the action and stoke the chambers once more.
Lastly, and definitely not lease, shotguns, especially non-autoloading guns, are famous for stout recoil, especially in 12ga. and stouter 20 ga. chamberings. While this can be overcome with training, and the last thing you’ll be worried about in a defensive encounter is a tender shoulder, this recoil can make high-volume or regular practice downright torturous. You will never mistake touching off a load of full power 12 ga. buckshot for pulling the trigger on a mild by comparison 5.56mm carbine.
If it seems like a fair bit to overcome in pursuit of scattergun nirvana, it is. It really is. There is a reason why shotguns are being relegated to specialist weapons or breaching tools in military and police usage. Shotguns also fare very poorly against body armor, but that is another discussion.
So, why choose a shotgun at all? Refer back to the pro’s section: with the right ammunition, there is no gun you can hold in your two hands that will wreak more carnage on a human body than a shotgun. Except maybe a flamethrower, but let’s be serious- they are tough on your homeowner’s insurance.
Whatever cases we make for and against them, many people like, prefer or own them, so below you will find a list of do’s and don’ts to help you get the most from a scattergun as a defensive implement.
photo: the 12 Gauge Remington 860 shotgun
Do’s and Don’ts on Defensive Shotguns
Like any gun, defensive shotguns can be optimized for best performance, no matter how adequate or excellent they are out of the box. Conversely you should take care to avoid the biggest pitfalls, misconceptions and outright myths associated with shotties if you want to make your life easier.
Upgrades and Ammo Storage
Defensive shotguns benefit greatly from 2 additions: a white light and ammo storage on the gun. The utility and necessity of a white light should be obvious for a defensive gun. Most shotguns will accept an aftermarket rail section or clamp to allow the attachment of a light. Shotguns being typically low capacity and ammo hungry, means on-gun ammo storage is nearly mandatory. This ensures you will have extra ammo close at hand should you need it, without needing to stuff loose shells in pockets.
Options for storing the ammo on the gun include bolt or clamp on receiver caddies, cuffs mounted or laced to the stock, and so called match-saver or spare pair holders just ahead of the receiver on the forend of autoloaders or break action shotguns. Definitely avoid the slings that have an integrated bandolier of shells, as these are heavy and ungainly to load from, though their convenience factor makes them attractive to some.
Your next order of business will be improving the sights. A plain bead is fine on a shotgun intended only for close-in work, though the lack of adjustment will mean zeroing, learning and applying correct holds at range will be difficult and risky. If you decide to rock a bead alone, you should consider an upgrade to a high-visibility version, either fiber optic or a “big dot” model as typified by XS Sights. The ability to pick up the front sight quickly under stress and in less than ideal lighting is essential; most factory bead sights are tiny, dull and thus hard to see.
If the gun may be used with slugs or at longer ranges try to select one with both a front and rear sight, or have them installed. An aperture or “ghost ring” sight is best for this purpose, as it allows a high degree of precision and the ability to zero to your chosen load.
Also be sure to choose your action based on your needs and objective. Pump actions are seen as iconic and invincibly reliable, but they create the biggest workload for a shooter, and are vulnerable to “short-stroking” which creates a malfunction that must reduced before firing again. Break actions are very simple to load and unload, and their simple nature will be a benefit to some, but they are obviously hampered by very low capacity. Autoloaders have less recoil, and are fast and easy to shoot well, but are more ammo sensitive than other types.
Any can serve well for self-defense, but you, the shooter, must be willing to put in plenty of practice to get the most out of a shotgun.
If you have a choice, choose a 12 or 20 gauge shotgun. Both are more than adequate in the performance department for tackling 2 legged critters and both also have plenty of market availability and varieties of loads available. Even so, the 12ga. is the standard shotgun chambering and far outstrips all others in the price and availability department.
The others can perform adequately with proper ammo, but good luck finding appropriate loads for defense.
Let us dispense with the greatest mistake when stoking a defensive shotgun, and do so decisively: do not rely on birdshot for defensive use of any kind! Unless you are going to be attacked by birds, of course. Birdshot is too light and too tiny, penetrating too shallowly except at point blank range to deliver the kind of wounds we need to decisively stop an attacker. It can and will cause very gnarly looking and disfiguring, but ultimately superficial wounds, but it is not an optimal choice for defense in any capacity.
It’s often cited as a good choice for home defense because it will not penetrate walls, or penetrate them very far, and this is true. But people are a far tougher medium than sheetrock, and logic informs us that if something will not penetrate sheetrock it will not penetrate people very well either.
Instead, select either buckshot (No.1 is ideal, 0, 00 or 000 are all very adequate performers) or reduced penetration slugs for defensive work. Load the gun with one type and one type only. Do not engage in any such lunacy as loading mixed or staggered runs of bird, buck and slug, or any other such nonsense. The chaos of a lethal encounter will furnish plenty of problems without you making your job difficult with a variety of loads in the gun.
If a gun loaded with buck is needed for a long range shot in a hurry, the rounds in the gun can be replaced with slugs by performing a “select slug” drill. If you anticipate needing a shotgun at longer ranges as a rule of thumb, or have concerns about penetrating barriers, you may choose to simply keep the gun loaded with slugs from the get go.
Shotguns are perennial and effective self-defense tools, and their power and destructiveness are to be respected. That being said, a big part of shotgun methodology revolves around overcoming its inherent weaknesses. So long as you have the smarts and the discipline to overcome these hurdles on your road to proficiency, you can make nearly any shotgun work well for you in a defensive role.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.