An expert’s tips on selecting the optimum home defense shotgun.
The misconceptions surrounding the defensive shotgun could easily fertilize California’s Imperial Valley for months, if not years. Such statements as “Use a shotgun–you can’t miss” or “My 12 gauge will cover that wall” are plain BS. The stuff Hollywood puts out is even more misleading. For the record, you can easily miss with a shotgun, and the pattern covers only very small walls at short yardage. Cinematic scatterguns may lift grown men completely off their feet or stop large cars in their tracks, but real ones don’t do anything of the kind. Nevertheless, the shotgun remains an excellent choice of armament for use in home, camp or ranch defense–just about anywhere concealment is not an issue.
Shotguns have a long history in combat roles. They have proven effectiveness in that they launch multiple projectiles. When the sportsman swings his long-barreled Browning Auto-5 at the leader in a wedge of high-flying Canadas, he is using the multiple-projectile concept to increase the probability of a hit. But when he triggers the same firearm at an armed intruder in his home, he is trying for terminal effectiveness–a centered hit on the intruder where all of the pellets strike vital areas.
The point is simple–proper selection of a fighting shotgun and effective ammunition, combined with training, give the defensive shooter one of the most devastating firearms possible. In this article we’ll spend a little time on ammo but mostly look into choosing an appropriate shotgun for home defense.
Gauges, Pellets, Chokes
How about some yardsticks for choosing a gauge? I believe there is at least some use for anything from a 10 gauge to a 20 gauge. That means 10, 12, 16 and 20 gauge, all of which have some form of buckshot load available. The best choice, by a wide margin, is the 12, which has dozens of different buckshot choices. The 10 gauge is usually large, heavy and inclined to recoil so hard as to be intimidating. Going down the scale, 16s and 20s are OK, but gun and ammunition choices are limited. That leaves the 12, where, again, the ammo choice is very wide.
Also, for about the last 10 years, the American ammunition industry has responded to a law enforcement request for shotgun loads with less recoil. At the same time, it has made most of these 12-gauge loads in such a way that they also shoot much tighter patterns.
Let’s consider pellet size. Regular shot runs from No. 12 all the way up to 000 buckshot. The odds-on favorite for combat (read anti-personnel) use is 00 Buck. Double-ought pellets are approximately .33 caliber and weigh around 52 to 54 grains apiece. You can get as many as 12 of them in a 2 3/4-inch “short magnum” shell, but standard and low-recoil loads use either eight or nine pellets. This is probably the best all-around choice. However, there is a low-recoil load from Federal that uses eight 000 pellets that I feel is the best possible compromise. But to be frank, this is an area where there’s a lot of leeway. At “inside the house” ranges, 10 to 12 yards is a long shot, and shot size isn’t critical. Even No. 8 birdshot will pattern into a six- to eight-inch circle at these distances. And it’ll do plenty of damage, too.
What kind of barrel do you want on your fighting scattergun? First of all, you want as short a tube as possible. This is not because a short-barreled shotgun has any ballistic advantage but rather because it handles better in confined spaces like hallways. The legal minimum is 18 inches (as long as that length does not result in a gun with an overall length less than 26 inches). Many shotguns are currently made and sold with 18-inch barrels, so they aren’t hard to find. You can have a shorter barrel if you live in a state that permits it, can qualify for the transfer and are willing to pay the $200 Federal Tax Stamp. I am sort of a shotgun nut, so I have a 14-inch 870 Remington, and I guarantee you that it handles much better than an almost identical gun with an 18-inch barrel.
When you talk about shotguns, the subject of choke always comes up. Choke is the degree of constriction machined into the muzzle end of the barrel. It’s a way of controlling the size of the pattern at a given range. For many years, most fighting shotguns came in cylinder bore. But we have come to understand that, even with buckshot loads, a certain amount of choke is a good idea. Improved-cylinder or even modified chokes work very well with buckshot, tightening patterns a bit and thereby extending the gun’s effective range. So if you can get your scattergun with a choke (improved-cylinder or modified) in its short barrel, by all means do so.
What You Need, What You Don’t
If you watch the movies or read too many gun magazines, you may be puzzled by what the typical Hollywood fighting gun looks like compared to the plain J.C. Higgins pump your grandfather gave you on your 13th birthday. Actually, there may not be much real difference. Today’s modern warriors have convinced themselves that they have to have all of those things all over the gun in order for it to be “real-world effective.” I hold a contrary view, and my own guns have very little in the way of extras bolted on.
Let’s take a look at some of these devices and modifications. For one thing, a blue-steel-and-walnut shotgun works just as well as one that is tactical black all over. If your daily business involves kicking in crack-house doors, you might have need for a few extra shots, but the extra-long extensions screwed to the front of your magazine tube probably aren’t going to be used. Other forms of ammo supply–sidesaddle carriers, butt cuffs or the Speed Feed stock–certainly carry some extra rounds close at hand, but they are equally questionable. A dedicated combat shotgun needs ghost-ring sights so the gunner can get the most out of slug loads, but a gun intended purely for dealing with home invaders probably doesn’t. Nor does it need any form of laser or red-dot sighting system. You are unlikely to have to carry the gun on a 13-mile recon patrol, so you probably won’t need a sling.
You do, however, need a buttstock. Pistol-grip stocks that are widely sold turn a decent shotgun into a useless piece of junk. Shotguns are amazingly easy to miss with under the best of circumstances, but cutting off or radically shortening the butt simply removes your ability to point the gun as it was intended to be pointed.
One other item that can be added to today’s shotguns with relative ease is a strong, simple-to-operate weaponlight. SureFire seems to have the only game in town here. A powerful light mounted on the gun not only gives you something of a shield of light behind which you can work, it also allows you to be sure of your target. Basically, I’m against any modification or accessory that lengthens, widens, unbalances, complicates, adds weight, requires a battery (OK, except for a light), creates extra edges and corners or otherwise adversely impacts your ability to quickly use your shotgun. Just keep it simple.
Double, Pump Or Auto?
Let’s move on to selecting an actual action type for your home-defense needs. It should be obvious that your choice must be utterly reliable. It has to work. By the same reasoning, the gun has to be quick and easy to use. Finally, it would be a really nice bonus if the whole shebang carried a modest price tag. The overwhelming majority of fighting shotguns are really nothing more than sporting guns with short barrels. And, yes, it is possible to shorten an existing gun to fulfill your home-defense needs. Just be sure the shortening job goes to a gunsmith who has the necessary skill and equipment to do it properly.