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 a shotgun 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—even 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.
Do you rely on a shotgun for home defense? Which ammunition do you use? Share your answers in the comment section.
Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooters Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.
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