Yes, You CAN Miss With a Shotgun: Guns for Beginners

“Rochester police are investigating after an officer fired a shotgun while executing a search warrant,” reports. “Police say during the search warrant someone at the location reached for a weapon. An investigator then fired a shotgun at that person. No one was injured by gunfire.” Yes, well . . .

There are two ways to look at this incident. Either someone reached for a weapon while an officer was holding a shotgun or they didn’t. The account could be a cover story for an officer’s finger-on-trigger negligent discharge. Or it could be proof that you can miss — in this case thankfully — with a shotgun.

Indeed you can. When you fire a shotgun, the shot leaves the gun in a tight cluster. As shotgun pellets are balls — rather than the aerodynamic spinning bullet-shaped objects fired from a handgun or rifle — the pellets immediately begin to disperse or spread out.

The degree of spread on a number of variables, such as the “choke” (if any) on the end of the gun and the size and number of pellets in the shell you fired. Distance is the critical factor. The longer the shot travels, the wider the spread.

Depending on the gun and choke, shooting at a target seven yards/21 feet away — self defense distance — the spread of pellets will be somewhere between two and a bit under five inches.

Think of the cluster as either golf ball- or a softball-sized. If a bad guy’s standing seven yards away, could you miss them if you were throwing a golf ball or softball? What if you bloodstream is suffused with adrenalin?

Twenty feet is a long way inside the average American house; it’s slightly farther than the length or width of a medium-sized bedroom room. (Click here for average room sizes for small, medium and large rooms in the average American home.)

In a small bedroom — say four yards/12 feet from wall to wall — we’re definitely talking a golf ball-sized spread. Or smaller. You’re not likely to be firing from against the back wall to the edge of the entrance.

So yes, you can miss. Easily.

The good news: a shotgun is lot easier to aim than a thrown ball. That 18-inch barrel — the minimum size for an easily available shotgun — makes accurate pointing a cake walk. Unless one of your hands is busy doing something else.

Yes, there is that.

Image: Chris Dumm for TTAG

A shotgun is a two-handed firearm. You won’t be shooting accurately if one hand’s holding the gun while the other hand’s calling 911. Or turning on a light. Or opening a door. Or grabbing a kid.

Which is why a pistol is better than a shotgun for most home defense situations, save the situation where someone else is calling, illuminating or kid-wrangling. And you’ve assumed a defensive position, waiting for the bad guys/guys to appear. (The chances of a bad guy grabbing that long barrel during a walkabout is a thing.)

Then again, a shotgun is a devastating defensive weapon. Especially when loaded with double-ought buck, which [generally] fires nine .33 caliber projectiles. If you do manage to hit your target, it’s going to be a real conversation stopper.

If you don’t hit your target, try again! But always remember to aim your shotgun. Bottom line: a shotgun is a not a “room sweeper.” Your life may depend on understanding that fact — which can be easily appreciated with a little range time.

Oh, and don’t forget to have a shell in the pipe, turn off the safety and keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot. Know what I mean?


  1. avatar former water walker says:

    Pretty SURE a legal shotgun length is usually 18″…16″ for rifles. Not that I’m an expert. The rest is OK…

    1. avatar Robert Farago says:

      D’oh! That’s what happens when you write over 1m words per year. Text amended. Thanks!

      1. avatar TX_Lawyer says:

        I think you meant that’s what varying arbitrary laws about the length of guns will get you.

  2. avatar Timmy! says:

    The fact that one CAN miss with a shotgun was very apparent when I went to a clay shoot a few years ago. I will neither confirm nor deny whether it was yours truly doing all the aforementioned missing though… ok, I’ll confirm it.

    1. avatar jwm says:

      There’s a reason we take enough ammo to unspring the truck when dove season opens. And quail season we’re allowed 10 a day. I should only have to carry 10 shells, right?

      I’m going on the first rabbit hunt of the season in the morning. I usually take an H&R single shot for that.
      We ought to have a TTAG pool on guess how many times I miss the bunny.

      1. avatar Jeff O. says:

        Let’s see…25 shells to the box…10 boxes to the case…

        Add in the average ground speed for an unlaiden rabbit.

        Subtract for the phase of the moon.

        It’s not a leap year…

        Soo…hmmm…187 times?

        1. avatar jwm says:

          Damn, the maths is strong with you.

        2. avatar Whoreson Beast says:

          What is the ground speed of an unladen rabbit?

          If he has big, nasty, ugly teeth….

          African or European?

      2. avatar jwm says:

        Run Away!

        1. avatar Higgs says:

          Throweth thou the holy hand grenade on the count of 3……

        2. avatar Joe R. says:

          Do not prceedeth to four. Five is way out.

        3. avatar tmm says:

          One, two, five!

          Three Sir!


      3. avatar Kaban says:


        Single-shots make for humiliating hunting stories. I have once managed to put entire load of #3 buck in a tree while squeezing a nicely aimed shot upon a running hare. Apparently a member of Hare Team Six or something, because he perfectly timed the moment of getting to cover! 🙂

        And of course the blasted critter was gone before I could break ol’e Izh-18 and reload.

        1. avatar uncommon_sense says:

          #3 buckshot for a hare?

        2. avatar jwm says:

          He’s Russian. Maybe they gots really big hares?

        3. avatar jwm says:

          Kaban, I can embarrass myself, and have, regardless of action type. We have a 3 shot limit where I hunt with shotguns. 3 of us fired our limit at a single quail. 9 shots and he barrel rolled out without a scratch. I swear I think he gave us the finger as he made it past.

          More than once I’ve done the same deal as you with an animal timing a duck behind a tree and I missed completely.

          It is written in the book of life that I will occasionally screw up.

        4. avatar Kaban says:

          Hell, did I embarass myself. #3 shot, not #3 buck, of course.

          Not that it made a lot of difference, with that unerring shooting of mine it could be .416.

    2. avatar Jake says:

      First time I went clay pigeon shooting, I realized that Winchester for some reason loaded 1/2 the shells with blanks.

      1. avatar sagebrushracer says:

        only half?

        Not judging tho, just going from personal experience.

  3. avatar Mustrum says:

    There is one other way to open the pattern a bit more from a cylinder bore shotgun.
    they are called spreader loads and while they used be available i have not seen them on the shelf at the local gun shops in years… as best as i can recall the effect was like going from a modified choke to an improved cylinder in as far as how much more open the pattern was at 20 feet… so about one choke more open than the actual bore.
    note this was with chilled #4 lead shot not buck shot.

    1. avatar Ardent says:

      Removing the shot cup, wadding the shells with something uneven (a plastic block flat on one side and cut at 45 on the other works), removing any filler, and intentionally deforming the shot to anything but round before reloading it into the shell makes for some rapid and unpredictable expansion. It also shortens the effective range to almost nothing, but then one can simply make cut shot of these in a pinch if they are all that is available and more range is needed.

      The bigger question to me is why? Unless you need to service multiple targets with each round there isn’t much point. At ranges too close for the shot from commercial loads to spread, the load blows gigantic holes all the way through living targets resulting in dramatic, instantly incapacitating and generally unsurvivable wounds. There is no need to spread the hits out to effect incapacitation as there is with a handgun or carbine, anything hit at non-spread ranges becomes instantly unserviceable, and tends to drag the rest down with it in short order as a result of shock and blood loss, or as a direct effect of necessary organs being rendered inoperable.
      From slugs to birdshot, no one shakes off a 12 or 20 gauge hit from across the room. Rather than be concerned with spread on the near side, practice rapidly following up with more shots, same as any firearm. Just because the shotgun at close range offers what amounts to overkill on human targets doesn’t mean one shouldn’t continue to shoot until the threat has clearly ended. When in doubt about the effects of a shotgun blast, it’s always advisable to deliver another. I like to serve them in pairs anyway, my theory being that if the target is still up right in front of the gun by the time I’ve cycled it and brought it back on target it likely needs another dose.

  4. avatar TexTed says:

    “which is why a pistol is a better choice”…

    Pistols are convenient, but lousy stoppers. Shotguns are inconvenient, but magnificent stoppers.

    Which makes the Judge so popular; five 000 buckshot balls per shot, from the convenience of a handgun.

    1. avatar Outwardhound says:

      Popular maybe, but a .410 out of an extremely short barrel is not the equivalent of a shotgun and it lacks the capacity of almost any pistol, so it’s not really the best of both worlds, but to each his own ?

      1. avatar TexTed says:

        I said it was popular; didn’t say it was great. 320 grains of lead at 850 fps is no slouch, but it pales compared to a 12-gauge, even with s reduced recoil load.

    2. avatar former water walker says:

      Brenneke makes a magnum slug for the Judge. Claimed 1500fps/578foot pounds(!)out of a 2.5″ barrel. Better than the 45Colt. No I don’t own a Judge or want one…

      1. avatar twency says:

        Sounds like something designed to keep orthopedists in business.

      2. avatar uncommon_sense says:

        I wonder what velocity that load develops out of a .410 shotgun with at least an 18 inch barrel?

        And, are any/most/all .410 shotguns capable of shooting a “Magnum” .410 shell?

        Edit: I just looked up those slugs. It looks like they produce something like 1750 fps out of a long barrel. BUT they are only 109 grains.

    3. avatar Jonathan - Houston says:

      Have you had trouble with extracting the spent shells from the Judge’s cylinder? I do like the concept of a .410 revolver, but the shells get jammed in the cylinder so bad that it takes prying them with a screwdriver to get them out. That’s a ridiculous pain and essentially renders the firearm unusable.

      1. avatar TX_Lawyer says:

        I’ve heard that it has a problem with Fiocchi, but not American made shells like Federal. I don’t have one, so don’t take my word for it. My general knowledge of shotguns is very limited. My knowledge of shotguns is pretty much limited to my shotgun.

  5. avatar TX_Lawyer says:

    “Which is why a pistol is better than a shotgun for most home defense situations.” I’m going to disagree on that one.

    I can wait until there is a mess to call a clean up crew, and if I can’t for some reason, I can make calls with my voice.

    Additionally, the chance of me being home alone with a non-ambulatory child who can’t follow directions are exceedingly small. In the situations in which I am, I’ve usually got a whole gaggle, and my best option is either to use young hands to help the ones to young to help themselves, or charge forward with as much violence as I can manage because it’s too late for anything else.

    1. avatar Joel says:

      Pistols are better for some scenarios, shotguns better for others. Rifles excel in certain situations as well. it’s always good to have options, and almost any firearm beats a sharp stick or a rape whistle.

      1. avatar TX_Lawyer says:

        I have two handguns, a rifle, and a shotgun all ready to go. Handguns are for strangers at the door or drunk/high high school kids who “just want to come inside.” The rifle is for just about everything else. The shotgun is for … well like you said, options.

  6. avatar jwm says:

    If you live in a 2 story and have your house properly hardened so that you’re not surprised by the bad guy in your bedroom a shotgun is just about perfect. Wait at the top of the stairs.

    My grandkids have moved out. It’s just me and the wife now. We both have handguns and shotguns.

    Pity the fool.

  7. avatar Outwardhound says:

    Popular for sure but a .410 out of an extremely short barrel is not the equivalent of a shotgun, and it lacks the capacity of almost any pistol. Not exactly the best of both worlds but to each his own ?

  8. avatar Darkman says:

    Hitting clay birds is one thing. A very difficult thing. Being able to hit minute of man is a somewhat easier thing. Especially in a home defense situation. I realize adrenaline and surprise can be factors for both sides. Unfamiliarity to the situation can also be a factor. Keep in mind that the perp is most likely not truly prepared to have a shotgun or any gun pointed at them. You have to really know your home in the dark. That can be your advantage. Think this scenario through in your mind. You may never need it. Being prepared is half the battle won. Practice when you have a chance. Go through the scenario in your home. Using an unloaded gun when no one else is around. I know this may sound silly but familiarity with the situation may save your families lives. No you may ever need the skill. Will you regret it if you need it and it fails you because you weren’t prepared. It costs so little time to be prepared compared to the lifetime you or your family may lose.

  9. avatar Lucas D. says:

    Just for shiggles, I used my MC312 with a full choke at 15 yards on a standard-size silhouette target. Five shells neatly removed the entire head area of the silhouette, and the remaining five cut the plywood backboard in half down the middle. Whenever someone wants to argue with me that shotguns don’t need no aimin’, I just pull out my phone and show them the before/after pics of that target.

  10. avatar Larry says:

    Well to call the RPD investigators shot a ND, you have to consider he fired three times as the guy reached for his shotgun . Now I would like to have seen at least one of those find its target , especially since the houses on Rustic St. Are single family 2 1/2 s running about 1,200 SF.

    But I don’t know if both were moving and other details , like what was between them and so on.

  11. avatar Curtis in IL says:

    “… always remember to aim your shotgun.”

    If you don’t know the difference between AIMING a shotgun and POINTING a shotgun, then you probably should aim it. Or perhaps choose a different weapon for self-defense.

    If you know how to POINT a shotgun and can do so effectively, so much the better. It involves both eyes open, focused on the target (threat), and can achieve a level of accuracy that would be more than sufficient for self-defense.

  12. avatar David says:

    One of the biggest problems is that people don’t pattern their defensive shotguns like they do say their turkey guns or other hunting shotguns. You need to know what the gun can do at certain distances with the load you’re going to use to know exactly what it can do. I pattern mine at 5, 10, and 15 yards with the buckshot loads, either 00 or #4 buckshot (not birdshot because I believe it shouldn’t be used for personal defense) to know what my gun will and will not do.

    1. avatar Justin says:

      1000% agree and people need to pattern what they are going to shoot, Not all 00 buck is equal. Shooting the Olin (Winchester) 00 buck vs say the Federal 00 with flight control wad is night an day at 21 feet. I haven’t patterned anything smaller then 00 buck but I don’t have that in my HD shotgun so I don’t feel lacking.

  13. avatar TrappedInCommiefornia says:

    For my current home I do not have much of a home defense plan besides grab the pistols, grab the kids, retreat and call 911 when possible. But I will be moving soon back into my childhood home, and I ready have a more specific plan laid out for it. It starts basically the same, get the easily accessed handguns and retrieve the children. Move wife and kids to master bedroom walk-in closet, which is where the safe is. Then retrieve a long gun and cover the hallway. The question I need to answer is: AR or 12ga? So my plan is to measure the hallway and see how different loads perform from my shotty at those distances. If I don’t like how it performs at that distance with what I have, then the AR will move up to the primary position.

    1. avatar Ardent says:

      Unless that hallway is very, very long for a private residence, I believe you’ll find the shotgun more than adequate for the range.

  14. avatar Mark N. says:

    A sawed -off double barrelled 10 gauge was pretty popular in the ’20s and ’30s for clearing out entire rooms. I think that was what Mr. Miller was packin’ when he got busted.

  15. avatar adverse4 says:

    Aim the shotgun. No excuses, no work arounds. I have an empty chamber, firing pin forward, 5 in the magazine, safety off. Rack and shoot, no hesitation.

  16. avatar Libertarian says:

    Regulary shutguns are to long and lack of capacity for me.

    Only keltec ksg and an saiga 12 bullpup conversion have enough capcity and compact size for homedefense.

  17. avatar Anonymouse says:

    Wouldn’t be the first time a cop negligently discharged a shotgun around these parts. Or didn’t.

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