Delaware’s white-toothed wonder may have been on to something when he advised his subjects to defend themselves with shotguns. Most of Tailgunner Joe’s reasoning was cynical claptrap: he wants you to only have a shotgun so the Jackboots can take you out more easily with their ARs. And the part about warning shots? Vintage Bidinsanity. But he was right about one thing: defensive shotguns kick ass . . .
In Praise Of The Humble Shotgun
The right shotgun can be the ultimate home-defense weapon. The shotgun’s main tactical disadvantages of limited range and modest magazine capacity aren’t critical concerns in a home-defense setting, and no rifle or handgun can throw lead downrange more rapidly than a pump shotgun firing buckshot. And that’s just a pump: nothing this side of a Minigun can ventilate a target faster than a semi-auto smoothbore.
What do you get when you multiply six rounds times nine .33″ buckshot pellets times 58 grains times 1350fps in a home-defense situation? A scene of destruction that’s hard to describe or visualize, unless you’ve read Massad Ayoob’s ‘Stressfire II: Advanced Combat Shotgun.” (I do hope you’ll forgive the slightly sloppy shooting; it was his first day out with his new Benelli M4. You’d be excited too.)
But Not Too Much Praise
Shotguns have many drawbacks in combat when compared to modern sporting rifles. They’re heavier and produce more recoil than 5.56mm-class rifles, and they’re all but useless at long range. They shoot heavy, bulky ammo and they don’t hold very many rounds of it. They also reload slowly, one round at a time.
These disadvantages have relegated the shotgun to a small role on the modern battlefield, but they don’t cramp your style when you’re defending your own home. Home-defense scenarios almost always involve brief firefights at short range, against small numbers of attackers armed with handguns. In these settings, the shotgun reigns supreme.
Pump Or Auto?
I won’t dump any dogma on you when it comes to the age-old pump vs. auto debate. If you have the money for an auto, make sure that your chosen buckshot and slugs cycle through it perfectly. Most guns like certain loads better than others, and you want your shotgun and your buckshot to be BFFs. If you have a pump, practice to make sure you don’t short-stroke it. That’s about the only thing you can do wrong with a pump.
There are so many good pump shotguns out there that I won’t even try to list them all. Best of all, most of them are so cheap you could buy three or four of them for the price of an entry-level AR right now. Mossberg 500s and 590s are cheap and reliable (and made in the US) and Winchester’s SXP is a more modern design with a rotary bolt and a shorter pump stroke. They’re each available in combo kits with short and long barrels for about $350. The venerable Remington 870 is more costly than either of these, but it still won’t break the bank unless you spend too much on a special ‘Police’ model.
Fifteen years ago there weren’t many choices for utterly reliable semi-auto shotguns (okay, there were basically two choices) but there are a few more now. If you can find a Benelli M4 or an FN SLP these days (and if you’ve got the coin) don’t let me stop you. The Mossberg 930 SPX is another competition-proven design that’s a good bit less expensive. Foghorn loved his 930 for 3-Gun shooting, before he joined Team FN and switched to the SLP.
The CZ 712 ‘Utility Shotgun’ shown above is an appealing prospect at less than $500, although I’ve never tested one and can’t vouch for its reliability. It has only a 4+1 round capacity, but gun forum gurus report that it accepts Benelli Nova/Supernova magazine tube extensions if you do the 922(r) compliance dance. (h/t to reader John Fitz, who informed me that 870 extension tubes will ruin the CZ’s threads.)
Unlike most defensive shotguns with short barrels, the CZ is threaded for (and includes) choke tubes. That’s not a frivolous luxury, because choking up your shotgun can shrink your buckshot patterns (and extend your effective range) dramatically.
My 12-guage 870 has an 18″ cylinder-bore barrel. It throws any charge of 00 Buck into a 15″ pattern at 15 yards. This pattern is just about ideal for home defense (because 15 yards is the longest indoor shot most of us could take in our homes) but it really limits its effective range to no more than 25 yards. Unchoked shotguns tend to spread their pattern by about an inch for each yard of distance to the target, so mine is fairly typical in that regard. Inside 15 yards, 00 Buck is a death ray. Beyond 25 yards, many of the pellets will scatter and miss a bad guy-size target.
That sucks, because those pellets aren’t just a lost opportunity to stop an intruder: they’re potentially lethal projectiles flying downrange toward innocent life and property. The right choke can narrow those buckshot patterns by half, and extend the safe and effective defensive range to 40 yards.
Ammo And Accessories
Birdshot can kill instantly at hand-to-hand distances, but it won’t reliably incapacitate an adversary who is more than a few yards away. Go ahead and shoot mountains of it in practice (it’s cheaper than any centerfire handgun ammo) but don’t carry it in harm’s way. Birdshot is for the birds; bad guys get buck and slugs.
Nine pellets of 00 buckshot at about 1350fps is the traditional defensive buckshot load, but any buckshot will be devastatingly effective within 25 yards. My home defense shotgun is loaded with #4 buckshot because it has a good combination of pattern density and penetration, but less chance of blasting through multiple walls and doors.
Slugs are vastly overpowered for home defense; they can blow straight through a bad guy and continue through several walls and doors behind him. They’re not as forgiving of imperfect aim as buckshot is, but that shouldn’t effect you because you need to train and practice until you hit center-mass with every shot. The main benefit of slugs is that they extend a shotgun’s effective range out to 50 or even 100 yards. Even with smooth bores and a simple bead sight, shotguns can be surprisingly accurate with slugs.
And speaking of sights and accessories, there are a few toys you’ll definitely want for your defensive shotgun.
- Elastic buttstock shell carriers are really cheap, and they mitigate the shotgun’s limited magazine capacity. ‘Sidesaddle’ shell carriers do the same thing better, but they cost more.
- Extended magazine tubes can give you 2,3 or 4 more rounds to work with, depending on your barrel length.
- Large-aperture ‘Ghost Ring’ sights are a great feature (or a great addition) for any defensive shotgun.
- A mounted weapon light is almost a necessity for a home-defense shotgun, because when you’ve got both hands on the shotgun you won’t have any hands available to hold your flashlight. Hopefully the home invaders will illuminate themselves while you hide in the shadows, but you can’t count on it.
I don’t use or suggest putting optics on a shotgun, although YMMV. Only high-quality red dots (and the budget Bushnell TRS-25) will survive the shock of buckshot and slug recoil for very long. Except for the Bushnell they’re all fairly expensive, and they don’t add much accuracy at home-defense distances anyway.
Even a broken clock is right twice a day, and I guess Tailgunner Joe was (at least partly) right about shotguns.