Shotguns are perennially popular home defense firearms in the U.S. for several reasons. One reason is their easy availability, and cost effectiveness. A quality shotgun can often be had for significantly less coin than a rifle of equivalent grade. Another reason is that many owners default to it because they already own one for hunting or other sporting purposes. And the final, perhaps most important reason is that a shotgun is capable of inflicting truly impressive damage.
At close range, a shotgun with an appropriate load is pound-for-pound one of the most damaging and effective firearms on earth, capable of creating dreadful wounds with one pull of the trigger. Even compared against many intermediate caliber rifles, at 30 yards and in the shotgun reigns supreme in its ability to deal out show-stopping wounds.
The humble shotgun has much to recommend it, and even in our age of carbine dominance in civilian and law enforcement use, many scattergun fans stubbornly refuse to retire their trusty boomsticks. But some users or admirers of more advanced “tactical” shotguns may be led to believe that their wood-stocked and blued steel brethren are somehow inadequate to the task of protecting home and hearth, that only the current breed of hot-rodded sleek shotguns are capable of performing when the chips are down.
While purpose-made defensive shotguns may have significant advantages to offer shooters, the essential characteristics that make shotguns as a class effective- namely dreadful wounding performance and the versatility to tailor a load to your specific needs at low cost- are possessed by pretty much every scattergun.
The trick is simply to minimize your gun’s shortcomings, and utilize a few, basic, inexpensive modifications for best effectiveness. With a little care and a lot of practice, even a utilitarian hunting gun or reliable old junker can become a formidable defensive weapon.
Basic Considerations for Defensive Shotguns
I am presenting the content of this article specifically in the context of defensive use, not weighed against hunting, sporting or any other use. In short, my recommendations revolve around the shotgun as a weapon of defense first, then everything else. So when you see me preach about getting that long hunting pipe replaced with a shorter barrel or cut down to a more reasonable length, that’s why. If you can’t, won’t or are unwilling to do that, fine. That’s your call; I won’t make fun of you, but I recommend what I do for good reasons.
My basic take on shotguns as a class of firearm for defense is this: you will give up much in the way of desirable characteristics in all areas except the one where shotguns excel, and that is bone-crunching, horror-show wounding ability (with the right load, more on that in a bit). Shotguns, be they break action, pump or semi-auto, all suffer from the same basic drawbacks: low capacity, cumbersome reloading and, with most major gauges, strong recoil.
A break-action shotgun will rarely hold more than two shotshells (I see you dudes in the back with your hands up. I know about the Chiappa triple-barrel and others, put ‘em down), a long tube-fed shotgun rarely more than 7 or 8 and even detachable box-mag fed shottys will only hold an average of 5 or 6 without employing a very long box mag or bulky drum mag.
Reloading is slow and fumble-prone without considerable practice; individual shotshells are bulky and tough to carry. These will be inserted into most shotguns one at a time. Detachable magazines, a comparatively rare feature in the shotgun realm, make topping up the gun much quicker, but the magazines themselves are large and hard to carry at the ready.
Recoil is a factor with shotguns, at least if you are using 12 or 20ga. Untrained shooters, especially those of slight build, will have a hard time coping with the pounding in practice. While plenty of shooters can handle the recoil well enough, there is no escaping the fact that shotguns, especially manually operated ones, are usually slower to recover with shot-to-shot than other guns. I am not talking about burning up Instagram with your crazy-fast splits, I am talking about running the gun quickly to process single or multiple assailants with speed.
Take into account the fact that, when utilizing shot, misses present more significant downrange hazards as a single trigger pull can launch anywhere between 8 and 15 or more pellets, each one lethal all on its own. Knowing your pattern, background and potential backstops is crucial when employing a defensive shotgun, especially inside the home.
So with all that to consider, is the shotgun worth messing with for defense? Yes. Make no mistake, it may not be a good choice for you, or someone else. The learning curve to achieve proficiency with a scattergun is steep, and you are dealing with all the shortcomings I just listed.
But if a shotgun is all you have, just what you want or all that is available to you, you are far better off embracing it, warts and all, and learning how to run out it than getting analysis paralysis or a bad case of should-I-shouldn’t-I.
A shotgun in the hands of a skilled shooter is damn near the last thing you would want to be facing down at conversational distance. A flamethrower is probably worse, but get serious, folks: they are really hard on your homeowner’s insurance.
So with all that being said, it is time to stop polishing your worry stone and learn to love The Gauge. Below I’ll get into some factors you should consider for your personal shotgun. Some pertain to the guns themselves, others are inexpensive performance enhancements and still others are things you must consider when choosing ammunition.
A Word on Gauge
In the context of this article, I am assuming that what you have is what you have, so your gauge is what it is. If you have any choice in the matter, or are willing to buy to suit, I would go with a 12 or 20 gauge, and give much thought to the 20ga.
If you or a family member who may use the gun are not shotgun savvy. 20ga. guns are often smaller and lighter than their larger brethren, and when loaded with modestly recoiling loads are less abusive to the shooter and easier to run while still being heavy medicine for scumbags.
Both chamberings are entirely adequate for hunting and defense, are very common, and have a wide array of loads to suit any purpose. Of the two, the 12ga. is the standard and overwhelmingly more popular, but 20ga. is far from scarce.
Other rare or less commonly encountered chamberings include the 16ga., 28ga., and .410 bore. If you have one of these uncommon shotguns, do your best when selecting good ammunition for defensive purposes, as load choice is limited and all are harder to come by than the 12 or 20ga. Always opt for buckshot or slugs over birdshot. More on that later in the article.
Considering Action, Barrel Length, Capacity and More
When considering actions, all shotguns have their perks and flaws. Below is a quick list of the different actions you’ll likely encounter or already own, and what they bring to the table. I have left off bolt and lever action intentionally due to the rarity of both.
Break Action- Arguably the simplest to operate, but are hampered by very limited capacity. No chance of feedway malfunction. Often have very long barrels. Older guns less likely to handle modern high-pressure ammunition. Not ideal, but still workable.
Pump Action- The model of what a shotgun is for many people. Most have a capacity advantage over break-actions. Vulnerable to user-induced malfunctions if pump is short-stroked or meekly cycled.
Semi-Auto- Less recoil than other designs. Easy to shoot well when loaded, but most ammunition-sensitive and loading procedure may be more complex than pump action.
Whichever action you choose, your biggest hurdle to an effective, inside the home shotgun will be barrel length. Many guns intended for hunting or sporting purposes have very long barrels, 22” and over is common. A very long barrel makes for risky, awkward maneuvering inside a structure. They may work fine in a protect-in-place or barricade situation where you do not need to move through the house to defend other occupants or family members in the home, but are a liability any other time.
Luckily, most pump action and some semi-auto shotguns have barrels that are very easy to swap for a shorter one. Some break action shotguns can likewise switch barrel assemblies easily and may very well have a shorter factory option. If your shotgun has a fixed barrel, or you cannot come up with a shorter one, you’ll be forced to have it cut down to length. I recommend you have this action undertaken by a competent gunsmith, as it is a relatively simple job and usually inexpensive.
A major concern for nearly any common shotgun is capacity. As a general rule, I am happy if I have 5 rounds or more in the gun total. For a break-action, what you have is what you have. Semi-auto and pump action shotguns with tube magazines (which is nearly all of them) usually ship from the factory with a piece of rod or pipe in the magazine tube to restrict capacity down to 2 or 3 in the tube for hunting regulatory purposes. This is easily removed in most situations, freeing up the magazine tube to its full capacity. Even if it is just one or two rounds, it is worthwhile.
Quite a few tube-fed shotguns can accept a thread-on magazine extension that can increase capacity anywhere from 1 to 3 rounds handily. These extensions are inexpensive, often easy to install, and help ameliorate one of the shotguns greatest weaknesses. Don’t forget a stronger magazine spring! Do note that adding more shotshells in the tube increases weight, and moving that weight farther toward the muzzle negatively affects handling characteristics.
Regarding furniture, if you have a roll with wood, who cares! You needn’t waste any cash on synthetic furniture unless you are concerned with weatherizing the gun. Wood is really in this year, anyway. I’m just kidding, but truly, wood furniture is totally fine so long as it is not too slippery. If you are dealing with slick wood forends, especially on a pump, you need to enhance your grip. You can add grip tape to any area of the gun you want after thoroughly cleaning and degreasing it, or even checker it yourself with appropriate or improvised tools.
Another option for the grip or wrist of the stock is to wrap and secure a few turns of thin leather around it. This usually gives good purchase and is removable later if you desire.
Enhancements and Accessories
There is a TON of nonsense circulating in the minds of unwitting shotgunners as to how they really perform and best practices. The worst by far is that you don’t need to aim a shotgun thanks to the wide spray of pellets going to issue forth from the muzzle. Malarkey! Even shotguns with wide open bores or minimal constriction will print a much tighter pattern at in-the-home distance than you are probably imagining. While this still results in a greater hit probability than a single bullet, it is nowhere close to the firehose effect some claim.
You do certainly need to aim a shotgun, and to do that we use sights, even if our sights are nothing more than primitive bead at barrel’s end. For close range, beads often serve just fine, but the vast majority of stock beads are tiny and hard to see even in good lighting conditions. To rectify this, look at a replacement front sight for your shotgun.
Styles vary, but the best will be large, rugged units with a sharply contrasting color scheme or insert. Installation will vary depending on your make; some thread in, others install over an existing bead and still others epoxy or solder on. A great upgrade and a typically inexpensive one.
Whatever type of shotgun you have, consider additional ammo carriage on the gun mandatory. Keeping a shotgun fed and topped off is a full time job, and in a typical home-defense encounter you will have exactly no time to toss shotshells in the pockets of your Iron Man PJ’s, or strap on belts, bags and other accoutrement.
The most prominent pump and semi-auto shotguns, think Remington 870 and 1100, Mossberg 500 and 590, Benelli Super 90 series and M4, etc., have aftermarket shotshell carriers that fit on their receivers, often called side saddles. They work well, but nice models that will retain their shells upon firing can be expensive. If you want to spring for one, go for it, you won’t regret it. Another option is a lace-on or elastic shotshell cuffs that ride on the stock. Don’t use slings that hold shotshells for this purpose; they are too unwieldy, hard to load from and unbalance the gun. I know they have that rad 80’s action movie vibe, but pass on them.
If you don’t want to use or cannot use a side saddle or stock cuff here are a few things I do to save money while still getting excellent performance and the ability to use a universal carrier across all my scatterguns.
First, purchase yourself a few shotgun “cards” from Esstac, then a roll of industrial strength Velcro kit. The shotgun cards are fabric and strong elastic side saddles with a male Velcro backing. Good gear, and only about $15 a pop. Next select a mounting location on your shotgun, typically the side of the receiver opposite the ejection port, but the stock can work if you want.
Next clean and degrease the daylights out of the mounting location. If you think it is degreased, do it again. Wait until totally dry, and then apply a strip of female (soft) Velcro to the mounting location according to manufacturer’s instructions. Allow it to fully cure and blam! Stick on a reserve of ammo, and detach it at will. These work great for multiple guns of different makes.
I know some of you already have reservations about this, wondering about its ruggedness, longevity or something similar. I get that. So did I, until I rolled with it. I used that exact setup on my shotguns for years and years, and my primary shotgun would often go well past 1 year of near constant use, rain, snow, mud and more before it needed replacement. The Esstac cards themselves are very tough, and the elastic is very long wearing, and grips the shells tightly. Get you some!
Another option you must consider is adding a light to your shotgun. Long guns for defense must have a light if at all possible, as using a handheld with one is a recipe for frustration and failure; you need both hands to run the gun! Sure, fancy tactical shotguns have rails galore that you can hang a purpose built weapon light on, but our trusty field guns usually don’t. This is where the DIY’er can make the difference by attaching a clamp, piece of rail or something else to securely hold a light in place.
Here are a few key principles before you go at this all willy-nilly: First, do no harm. Do not attach the light or mount to the gun in such a way it might hinder the action, sighting or manipulation. Think carefully before attaching a homebrew mounting solution to the forend of a pump shotgun. Second, choose your light carefully. The recoil of shotguns will bust lesser lights in short order. LED is more rugged than incandescent. If you have or can afford quality light like Surefire or Streamlight, use that. Surefire’s G2X series lights, while not offered as weapon lights, are very tough. Third, place your light where it can be easily activated by your support hand thumb or index finger.
There are many ways to accomplish this. I have used a few methods with success on a more or less permanent basis: you can screw or epoxy a rail section onto the forend. Attach the light to that directly or by using a ring mount adapter. Alternately you can use a barrel clamp mount positioning the light just ahead of the handguard. For the desperate or very cheap, I have myself seen a handheld light attached to a shotgun by way of hose clamps. It held up well enough.
If you are really, really in a pickle, a few strategic wraps of heavy-duty duct tape can fasten a light to your shotty, but aligning the light to shine where you want it will take a little fidgeting before you commit. Obviously this solution should be expected to degrade faster than the others, and don’t blame me if your buddies rib the Hell out of you.
With a small investment of funds and a little craftiness, you can significantly improve the most important of your shotguns features.
Your only real choices for defensive loads are going to be buckshot, in one form or another, and slugs. Forget birdshot! This is another commonly cited piece of pigeon religion that birdshot for home defense is a good idea on account that it will not penetrate walls, or penetrate more than one wall. It stands to reason that if birdshot won’t penetrate drywall much, it will not penetrate people adequately, and adequate depth of penetration is key to effectively stopping a human being. The inconsequential mass and diameter of each tiny BB or pellet equates to tiny wound channels.
Sure, birdshot can cause pretty nasty looking wounds, but they are superficial in nature. You must not count on the intruder simply giving up because he’s been shot; we must seek to stop him on our terms, and we accomplish that by dealing out serious wounds. Don’t convince yourself that birdshot is in any way ideal for defense or listen to anyone else that does.
While we are talking about non-optimal loads for defense, also forego any novelty shotshell such as flechettes, bolas, dragon’s breath or any other nonsensical ammo. This stuff may make for legendary YouTube fodder, but has no place in a shotgun stoked for serious social purposes.
If choosing buckshot, the old standby of 00 is certainly effective, as are most other sizes of buckshot, but you’ll actually get maximum tissue destruction (as calculated by the frontal surface area of each pellet creating its own permanent cavity) by utilizing No.1 buckshot. The biggest issue with No.1 buck is that it can be tough to find on shelves in most loads, and really tricky to track down in a duty or defense-specific incarnation.
Slugs are a viable choice for home defense, but their greatest strength, high penetration, is also their biggest weakness, as many makes of slug, especially Brenneke slugs, will penetrate deeply even through multiple intermediate barriers. This can be mitigated somewhat by selection of a slug load designed for reduced penetration.
If using only a front bead sight, you must put in the time to learn exactly how a given load, slug or buck, will shoot to your sights. You will have little or no ability to zero the load to the gun, and the time to find out how buckshot patterns or if a slug hits high or low is not 3AM with windows breaking and dogs barking, or after the balloon has gone up and you are desperately fending off looters. Precise slug usage at anything beyond medium range will be very challenging if using a bead only.
Pay particular attention to the pattern of shot from your gun at different distances; this is vital information to help prevent collateral damage from errant pellets. Remember: every single one gets a home, and it’s all on you. To understand what a given load of shot will do in your scattergun, setup your target at close range, fire a round, then draw a line connecting the outermost pellets. This shows you a coarse representation of size and density of a given load. Next, back the target up (or you move back) by a few yards, shoot again, and repeat the process, increasing the distance by the same increment until you notice your pattern getting too wide for comfort. This will show you your max effective ranges for keeping all pellets on targets of varying sizes, as well as give you some idea of what you can expect if taking a shot at extended ranges.
Pointers and Tips
The single most important thing you can do to improve your effectiveness with a shotgun is practice. Manually operated shotguns must be practiced with until running the action is second nature, as any bobbled or weak cycling may induce a malfunction.
Many teachers drill students on reloading relentlessly for good reason: shotguns run out of ammo quickly. Especially when using a break action or other ammo-limited gun you must practice reloading the gun fully and topping it off. As the old saying goes, if you aren’t shooting it, you should be loading it. Come up with some dummy rounds that simulate the weight and balance of a live shotshell to practice loading safely at home during your dryfire regimen.
Take care that you do not mix loads for self-defense unless you have no other choice. Their patterning or accuracy may be quite different from one to the next, and semi-auto guns do not cycle all ammo equally well.
Do not be afraid to add a good recoil pad to the stock of your gun if practice becomes painful. If you don’t practice, you cannot hope to get good. Shotguns, especially non-semis, pack a wallop on both ends, and I will attest to feeling pretty tired after a good day of training, and that was with a tuned and ported shotgun with low-recoil buckshot.
Additionally, you can wear a shoulder pad under or over your clothing to help mitigate some of the pounding you will take on the range. You may decry it as unmanly, or an artificiality, but if you are not able to train, you will not get better.
You don’t have to own a state of the art tactical shotgun to use a shotgun for defense. Most shotguns can perform adequately in the role if you have the ability. They aren’t magic wands, and they aren’t good guns for the untrained, but they are certainly effective, and can be made more so with dedicated practice and a few conservative upgrades. Stop worrying, start practicing and make The Gauge work for you.
Do you use a shotgun for defense, or general preparation? What make and model do you like best? Do you have any upgrades you consider mandatory on your defensive shotgun? Let us know down in the comments!
Chad Nabors specializes in firearms, with a strong focus on concealed carry and pistols. His background is in commercial sales and training, and armor development and testing. He has trained many citizens on the pistol from basic to advanced skills. He is a vociferous proponent of the 2nd Amendment, and believes that defense of self and family is a moral obligation. He can be reached at grimgunner (AT) gmail.com.