Ask Foghorn: Self Defense Shotguns

A reader writes:

I’m a new reader and was wondering if you’ve ever posted about home defense shotguns and what to look for when purchasing one. If not, would you be able to point me toward a few good resources, or perhaps do a post on this topic at some point in the future? I’m sure I’m not the only one with questions about this.

Personally I can’t imagine a better suited firearm for home defense than a handgun. It’s compact, accurate, and easy to maneuver around the house. But for some the shotgun is their firearm of choice, requiring less fine motor skill and easier to aim in a high stress situation. So today’s question: If I were to get a self defense shotgun, what would it be?

There are certain benefits to a shotgun for home defense. Buckshot is big benefit #1, placing more holes in the target in a shorter period of time and having a greater probability of hitting something vital and stopping the threat. Slugs are the other major benefit, giving not only the ability to hit a target at distance but also easily penetrate some forms of cover (walls, car windshields, etc) and create a massive wound channel. Maximizing these benefits is the key to using a shotgun for a home defense weapon.

Like most things there are a number of companies that have products that meet my criteria. So instead of just listing my ideal home defense shotgun I’m going to rattle off my “wish list” of features that a good home defense shotgun needs to have and you can decide what company makes the right gun for you.

Pump Action

There are hundreds of stories of home intruders being scared away simply by the sound of a pump action shotgun being racked, but that’s not the reason it makes my list. Making a loud noise gives away your position to the attacker and is probably one of the last things you want to do (but, if they already know you’re there, it wouldn’t hurt).

Pump action shotguns have a feature that makes them ideal: reliability. Semi-automatic shotguns may have increased in reliability over the last few years but when my life is on the line I want to know that the action is going to cycle and that next round is going to be loaded, and a pump action is the only type of shotgun that gives me that reliable cycle and can tell me instantly if the round didn’t seat. If anything goes wrong with a pump you’ll know it well before you try and pull the trigger, possibly saving yourself precious seconds to fix it and stop the threat in time.

Short Barrel

The shorter the better. 18 inches is the legal minimum length for a shotgun without venturing into $200 tax land, but if you have the time and the money it might not be a bad idea to get the stamp and break out the hacksaw.

Long guns have a disadvantage in close quarters situations because they give the attacker something to grab, namely the barrel. As soon as they get hold of the barrel they can make you miss or even try to take the gun out of your hands. That’s why I love pistols for close quarters situations — they don’t have that problem. Still, if the shotgun is your weapon of choice grab the 18″ or 18.5″ barrel versions.

Attached Shell Holder

Shotgun ammunition is gigantic. The only thing in my ammo closet that takes up more room is the .50 BMG rounds, and since ArmaLite politely asked me to return their AR-50 its going to be sitting there for quite some time. Due to their massive size you can’t really load all that many into the gun at one time. So if you get into a protracted gunfight you may very quickly become screwed. The solution is simple: keep extra rounds on the gun.

Why not just have some spare shells strewn about, you say? Because in the middle of the night if something happens where I need my gun I know exactly where it is and exactly where the extra ammo can be found. Keeping both together in one easy to grab package is essential.

The other reason for a shell holder is to take advantage of both buckshot and slugs. Keeping the shotgun loaded with buckshot is a good idea, as if you are attacked you’re probably going to need some “close range” power and that’s what buckshot is great for. But if your attacker starts shooting at you from a distance you’ll need to switch to slugs to engage them, and if you have some distance between you and the attacker you’ll have some time to make that swap. The only way you’ll have that capability is if (you guessed it) the shells are right there on the gun.

This is a feature that is probably easier to get after you buy the gun than it is to buy from the factory, so don’t exclude a shotgun just because it doesn’t have this in the box.

Pistol Grip

While the standard shotgun stock will work just fine a pistol grip makes the whole thing a lot more ergonomic. There’s no fancy explanation behind this criteria, I just like it. So there.

Full Length Stock

Some people advocate for shotguns that have a pistol grip and then no stock to hold against your shoulder, citing their increased maneuverability and shorter overall length. But you instantly lose an amazing level of accuracy for the average shooter the second that stock goes away. The full length stock on a shotgun not only gives the shooter more control over the gun during firing but can also be used as a blunt weapon in a worst case scenario.

Ghost Rings

Most shotguns sold use a “bead” sighting system. Sight down the top of the gun, put the bead on the target, and bye bye target. But sometimes you need a little more accuracy, and that’s where ghost rings come in.

A ghost ring sight uses a large ring at the back that the shooter looks through and a post in the front that the shooter aligns with the target. Not only are these more accurate than the bead sights but they’re often easier to use and faster to acquire than the other types.

I know what you’re thinking, and I’m thinking it too. “Hey Foghorn, it sounds an awful lot like the KSG is your ideal gun.” But it’s not. In the hands of our writers the KSG has proven to be a somewhat finicky shotgun, and the magazine switching capability (while increasing capacity) is one more thing to forget in a gunfight. While on paper a KSG seems like a great idea and the perfect weapon, just like with a number of other Kel-Tec products the quality and reliability often isn’t the same as a standard firearm.

If you want to know my ideal shotgun down to the make and model it’s a toss-up between the Mossberg 500 SPX and the Remington 870 Express Tactical. Both guns feature close to 18″ barrels, pistol grips, and ghost rings installed from the factory. The Mossberg firearm also includes a shell holder in the stock, so that might be something to consider when shopping for your gun.

If you have a topic you want to see covered in a future “Ask Foghorn” segment, email guntruth@me.com.