When it comes to our most effective shoulder-fired firearm, it is a fact that the shotgun is underutilized.
Many shooters have only a handgun for home defense, and some keep rifles or carbines ready. In my opinion, this goes against the grain of historical experience.
The shotgun is a proven house-clearer, trench fighter and (if need be) will drop larger animals. The deterrent value is unquestioned.
A single guard with a shotgun has often handled many prisoners. The problem of recoil control (and perhaps even a fear of recoil) keeps many of us from mastering the shotgun.
This is a shame because, with proper technique, the shotgun may be mastered. There are shotguns that are reliable, effective, and which offer a devastating effect on the target.
There are very few firearms I feel that way about. The shotgun simply is a proven fighter. Master the shotgun with proper technique and consider the load for the job.
The load for personal defense is buckshot. There really isn’t any argument to the contrary that makes it up the rungs of the logic ladder.
Advantages of Shotguns
As I have stated, the shotgun is underutilized because many shooters do not take the time to master the piece.
Do not be in the situation of being armed with a deadly weapon you are not able to use well. The shotgun’s greatest advantage is wound potential.
The shotgun has a greater measure of finality against felons and dangerous animals at close range and is a formidable and versatile firearm.
Unlike the rifle and handgun, there are few drawbacks to purchasing an inexpensive shotgun. A Stevens, Iver Johnson or Maverick pump will serve well for home defense.
Those on a limited budget may even find a single shot shotgun a last-ditch home defender. Some recommend saving for the best gun you can afford.
I believe if you need a gun right now then you must obtain what you can.
The shotgun is a projectile launcher with predicted more likelihood of stopping the fight with a single load of buckshot than any handgun or rifle with a single shot.
Shotgun Load Behavior
Shotgun shells offer many different shot sizes. Some are designed to throw a cloud of shot in order for a few of these balls to strike a small animal (such as a bird or rabbit) and quickly dispatch it.
Larger shot is used for ducks and varmints and must be centered on the target. Buckshot is necessary for any animal over 50 pounds and for personal defense.
For practice, any load is fine. Light recoiling birdshot loads are good for initial familiarization and some types of training.
It is wrong, short-sighted in fact, to recommend small shot (such as birdshot) for personal defense. There isn’t enough mass for adequate penetration.
I have tested the theory with gelatin and water testing. Birdshot seldom penetrates even six inches of gelatin, often as little as three inches.
This shot is designed to humanely kill a bird weighing but a few ounces. Keep it confined to that purchase. Buckshot, heavy shot, is used for hunting deer and for personal defense.
Shotguns launch shot in a string. The load may have tighter cohesion at closer range and the load spreads as range increases, resulting in an ever-increasing pattern.
The shotgun must be aimed as carefully as a rifle at close range. The advantage is that most shotguns handle in a naturally smooth manner with a natural point that rifles do not possess.
The load of choice for personal defense is buckshot. As may be expected, buckshot earns its name from the original intent, to bring down deer-sized game.
A pattern of heavy shot penetrates well and causes rapid blood loss. On the other hand, unlike rifles, buckshot offers little danger to citizens that are just a few hundred yards away.
Most buckshot gives up its energy well within 100 yards or less. The round ball isn’t very aerodynamic. The standard sizes of buckshot are #0, #00, #000, #1 and #4 buckshot.
The combination of penetration and effect favors #00 and this is the load that has seen the most development for personal defense.
Some of the other sizes —#1, #4—may have an advantage against running game or coyote, but this is primarily if the shotgun is used for predator control.
As an example, the Hornady Varmint Express is a great all-around performer for its intended purpose.
Know Your Range
Some loads, such as the Hornady Critical Defense 12-gauge buckshot, offer a remarkably cohesive pattern out to 20 yards.
The reality is that, at typical home engagement ranges, the load choice matters less. Low recoil loads typically use eight rather than nine pellets.
These were intended to give peace officers a load that is effective at longer shotgun ranges, but which also offers low recoil.
The new Hornady Black is a powerful loading with much to recommend. Whichever load you choose, it is imperative that you pattern the load.
You should be certain that you understand the pattern size from seven to 15 yards and if the load patterns left or right or low or high.
Usually, the difference between the point of aim and the point of impact is just a few inches,; often the load is perfectly centered or just above the bead.
All that is really needed is a simple front bead. My personal shotguns wear XS sights tritium front beads and the Benelli features a ghost ring rear sight.
These are excellent sights with many advantages. While not strictly necessary, they are very nice to have and a great aid in hit probability.
The Benelli is effective to 100 yards with the Hornady American Gunner slug—but that is another story.
Know Your Limitations, Too
When you practice, keep in mind that the shotgun must be aimed at all ranges, and aimed more precisely at seven yards or so.
As the range increases, the pattern increases and hit probability, especially on running targets, increases. Running targets are often mentioned when the shotgun is praised.
Many overlook the fact that a load of buckshot is also an advantage if the adversary is partially obscured by cover. The shotgun offers much greater hit probability than a rifle in these circumstances.
When you understand the problems that may be encountered, the number of buckshot balls in a load of choice may have a bearing on your tactics:
- #00 buckshot throws eight or nine balls. (Some Magnum loads contain 12-15 balls—with harrowing recoil.)
- #1 buckshot holds 16
- #4 buckshot 24 to 27
The smaller buckshot penetrates less and is more likely to be stopped in a wall. But the best means of achieving safety and preventing over-penetration is to center the shot in the body of the adversary.
There are differences in gelatin penetration. #4 penetrates the least at 12-14 inches in gelatin and #00 penetrates 18 to 20 inches.
There are makers I trust and they have earned military contracts and enjoyed brisk police sales. Federal agencies in particular have conducted extensive testing.
If you choose a load, then be certain that it is feed-reliable and the crimp holds up when the shell is jostled by repeat firing as it rides in the magazine.
Final Words of Advice
As for what is a desirable pattern, the Hornady Critical Defense #00 buckshot load is among the best performers.
In my Remington 870 with cylinder bore, the Critical Defense patterns a tight two inches at seven yards, increasing to six inches at 15 yards.
In the Benelli M4, the pattern holds four inches at 15 yards. Shotguns are individuals and may pattern differently even in identical models, but loads that perform well in one shotgun will do well in others.
Some #4 and #1 buckshot loads pattern twice as wide as #00, but then they have many more pellets. The actual center of the pattern may be cohesive.
Buckshot is very interesting and can take up a lot of time in testing, but the bottom line is to choose a proven load and proof it in your shotgun. I have used #00 buckshot for more than 40 years.
The effect on game and pests and varmints is good, without any complaint. Neither is it a death ray and occasionally a backup shot is needed.
If the offender is very large or heavily clothed—and this isn’t predictable—#00 offers the best margin of success.
Against feral dogs and the big cats, #00 is the best choice, perhaps even one of the Magnum loads if you are able to master the recoil.
A heavier shotgun or a self-loader helps reduce the effect of recoil. Don’t base your choice of personal defense load on the opinion of those that are not qualified to comment.
Don’t use a load intended to drop a bird weighing a few ounces! Meet the author halfway with self-testing and range work.
I think you will find that #00 buckshot, either eight or nine pellet reduced recoil loads, will be ideal for home defense.
It is up to you to practice with the chosen load to make it truly effective.
Shotgun Shot Sizes
A standard loading is an ounce of shot in a 12-gauge shell. To end things, let’s take a look at different sizes:
|Shot Size||Diameter||Number of pellets per ounce|
Birdshot weights perhaps 1.45 grains per pellet, #00 54 grains per ball. Take this up the logic ladder!
Do you have any insights on buckshot you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below.