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Personal Defense

Shotguns For Home Defense

by Dave Spaulding   |  October 14th, 2006 25

Here’s how to choose and use a shotgun–the most effective tool for home defense.

I remain a staunch advocate of the 12-gauge shotguns for home defense. While it is true that the 5.56mm carbine has made great inroads in the American law enforcement community, few agencies that adopt or approve this weapons system scrap the traditional police scattergun. There is a very good reason for this The shotgun is incredibly effective.

If there is one handheld weapon that is more likely than others to offer a one-shot stop of a hostile opponent, it would be “the gauge” or “12 banger” as it is known on the street. During my almost three decades in law enforcement, I spent seven years working in the county jail. While I hated every minute of it, I now realize that it was educational because it allowed me to spend time around my potential adversary.

One of the things I heard over and over from prisoners was their respect for and fear of the shotgun. One inmate who was incarcerated for murder and drug-trafficking charges told me “A determined man with a ‘gauge’ should not be messed with. That gun can cut you in half!”

Okay, so the gun won’t actually cut you in half, but in a situation where a potentially hostile individual has forcibly entered your home and you have confronted him in an effort to protect your family members from death or serious physical injury, you need to stop the attack quickly and decisively. In my opinion, there’s no gun that can do this with greater effectiveness than the 12-gauge shotgun.

The 870 Express is a four-shot, pump gun with an 18-inch barrel and synthetic stock and fore-end that is reliable in the extreme.

The 870 Express is a four-shot, pump gun with an 18-inch barrel and synthetic stock and fore-end that is reliable in the extreme.

I use a Remington 870 Express pump that I bought at Wal-Mart. Many will ask why I use a “budget” gun for this purpose while, as a gun writer, I certainly have access to a wide variety of guns. The answer is that the 870 Express is all I need.

XS Sight tritium dot front sight

The author added an XS Sight tritium dot front sight.

Another modificatin to the author's gun is the addition of an accessory rail on which he mounted an Insight Technology M3 light.

I have long subscribed to what I call the SIG principle Simple Is Good. If I can meet my needs without superfluous extras that cost more money–great! The 870 Express is a four-shot, pump gun with an 18-inch barrel and synthetic stock and fore-end that is reliable in the extreme. The only additions that I have made to the gun is an XS Sight tritium dot front sight (which I glued over the factory bead using J.B. Weld) and a piece of Weaver rail that I screwed and glued under the front edge of the fore-end. This allows me to slide an Insight Technology M3 light onto the gun.

For those who want a gun that is a bit more advanced, I would look at the guns that are designed for law enforcement and military operations. Guns designed for this purpose are perfect choices for any defensive function.

The Remington 870 and 11-87 Police guns are two of my favorites. The 870 is a street-proven design that has saved the lives of police officers and military personnel the world over. The 11-87 is a semiauto 12 gauge that has a gas system that’s tweaked for defensive/law enforcement loads. The Remington guns come with a variety of sights (bead, rifled or ghost ring), magazine capacities and other related accessories.

George Wehby from PDTV shooting Mossberg 590A1 shotgun

The host of PDTV, George Wehby, often uses a Mossberg 590A1 shotgun.


Mossberg also has a law enforcement/military line that is built around its pump-action 500 and 590 series. These guns are well built and will stand up to rough use. Like the Remington models, guns from Mossberg are also available with a selection of sights and other accessories, as well as that wonderful tang-mounted safety that will meet the needs of most anyone interested in home defense.

For those who prefer a semiauto due to its simplicity while shooting (pressing the trigger versus pumping the action and pressing the trigger), the place to look is Benelli USA. Its Special Purpose series of both pump and semiauto shotguns is quite impressive. The Nova series is a bit more economically priced than the Tactical series, but both offer a level of reliability that you can bet your life on. As with the others, Benelli offers a full line of accessories and features for its guns. I must admit to a bias toward the M2 Tactical with ghost-ring sights. I used this gun while I was on SWAT, and it never failed to fire–which is pretty darned important.

Benelli M2 Tactical Shotgun.

Benelli M2 Tactical Shotgun.

One piece of advice I’d give anyone in the market for a home-defense gun. I strongly recommend against picking a shotgun that has only a pistol grip and no buttstock. While the compactness of these guns appears to be an attractive asset, the guns are hard to shoot accurately and quickly.

Remember, it is very possible to miss the first shot–even at home-defense distances with a shotgun–under the stress of a fight, so a fast followup shot may be needed. A buttstock will make second and third shots much more accurate. And besides, shooting a 12 gauge outfitted with only a pistol grip really hurts. Quite distracting.

Hornady Critical Defense 00 Buckshot

The author prefers Hornady 00 buckshot for home defense.

Regardless of what gun you select, make sure that it functions with total reliability. Jeff Cooper’s admonitions regarding semiauto pistols certainly applies to shotguns as well–good sights, good trigger (yes, it is possible to get a bad trigger on a shotgun) and total reliability are essential.

While the pump-action gun will work quite well with most any load, the semiauto is a bit more finicky. Police-grade semiauto shotguns are designed to work with ammo that is intended for defensive purposes.

All of the major manufacturers make ammo that is directed to the law enforcement market, and these are the loads to buy when thinking about home defense. Most are designed to shoot tight patterns from cylinder-bore or improved-cylinder barrels. They also feature reduced recoil, which makes them easier to shoot and less abusive on the shooter.

My preference is the 12-gauge 00 buck load from Hornady because I’ve found it shoots tight patterns regardless of the guns I shoot it from. This being said, the reduced-recoil loads from Federal, Winchester and Remington are also quite good. For those using a pump gun, the eight-pellet 00 buck load from Remington is exceptional.

George Wehby from PDTV in the low ready position with a Mossberg 590A1 shotgun.

George Wehby from PDTV in the "indoor ready" position with a Thunder Ranch Mossberg 500 shotgun.

What about slugs for home defense? Many are concerned about the overpenetration potential of a projectile that is weighed in ounces instead of grains. At one time I would have recommended against slugs, but I’ve had a lot of conversations with wildlife conservation officers across the Midwest who investigate accidental shootings during hunting season. They tell me that shotgun slugs don’t overpenetrate the human torso like many think. Quite often, these soft lead slugs flatten out and stay in the body or are found just beyond the body–not always, mind you, but more often than many think.

Anti-personnel, hollowpoint slugs made for the military and police communities are an excellent choice for home defense and are proven man-stoppers in a large number of actual shooting incidents.

Preparing for home-defense situations on the range with the shotgun is similar to the training that police cadets undergo in the basic academy. The first thing the homeowner needs to do is make sure he or she fully understands how the selected shotgun works.

It’s critical to know how to load, unload, speed load and “top off” the gun. Practice using dummy loads–nonfiring replicas of 12-gauge ammo–that can be purchased at most any gun store or sporting goods establishment that sells hunting equipment. These inert cartridges allow you to practice with the gun without fear of inadvertently firing the gun.

When shooting a shotgun, Pull the shotgun tight into the shoulder, and press your cheek firmly to the stock.

When shooting a shotgun, Pull the shotgun tight into the shoulder, and press your cheek firmly to the stock.

Live-fire practice should reinforce good shooting fundamentals. I like to start out with single shots from both the high and low ready positions as well as the “indoor ready” position, which is an extremely compressed position that points the gun’s muzzle at the ground to the side of the support-side foot. Practice bringing the gun quickly on the target without overtraveling, which would make the shot go too high.

Once single shots are mastered, I move on to multiple shots, working on recoil control, trigger reset and target accuracy. A simple trick to timing the pump action with the trigger action is to think of the forward hand and trigger finger as working together on the same piece of string. When the trigger is pressed, the pump action also moves to the rear. As the trigger goes forward, so does the pump.

Shooting a Mossberg 500 from the fighting stance.

When shooting a shotgun defensively, take a squared up "fighting" stance.

While it is impossible to perform these actions at exactly the same time, the symmetry of the two actions together can create a quite effective shooting rhythm that allows the shooter to work the gun fast. This drill will also help you avoid the most common malfunction with a pump gun the “short stroke” in which the pump action is not fully cycled forward and back.

Pull the shotgun tight into the shoulder, and press your cheek firmly to the stock. The strong hand shoots the gun while the support hand holds the gun up, and working the action is necessary. Forewarned is forearmed–Make sure that you keep the shooting-hand thumb straight down, as it could possibly strike you in the nose when the gun recoils.

I have quit using the word “stance” when referring to how one stands when shooting; I now use the phrase “body position,” as this is far more important to effective combat shooting than the position of one’s feet. The important thing, whether shooting a handgun, shotgun or rifle, is to keep the shoulders over the toes in order to control recoil for fast follow-up shots.

You can use birdshot to practice with your shotgun, if your gun is a pump. Less expensive and lighter-recoiling loads may not cycle the action of your semiauto. You’ll have to do some testing.

Practicing with birdshot in a home defense shotgun.

It is perfectly fine to practice defensive shotgun tactics with birdshot. Many experts even suggest using birdshot for defense inside homes where overpenetration is a concern.

Practicing with slugs will require the use of slugs, as there is no substitute for these. Using a less expensive, lighter-recoiling practice load will allow you to practice more often, which is always a good thing when it comes to one’s personal defense. Additional things to practice are shooting at multiple targets, working around cover including the classic “slicing the pie” drill and shooting while moving.

You also want to be sure to pattern your gun with your chosen defense load. Each gun will pattern differently with different brands and loads of ammo. Know what this pellet spread will be before you must shoot at someone in your home.

Last but not least, practice clearing your own home with your unloaded shotgun. Do this in both daylight and at night. Know what to expect before the unthinkable happens. The brain does not know the difference between a dry run and the real thing, with the exception of the “fight or flight” chemicals crashing into your system.

Being able to clear your home without having to figure out the best way to do it may be the difference between life and death. Right now, someone out there is preparing to invade someone’s home. You should prepare also, in the event that that home is yours.

  • http://none Lopaka

    I like your information on home defense 12 gage pump shot gun. I have what you suggested as what is needed to do the job at home defense. I purchased a Remington 12 gage pump 18 inch barrel and it was a budjet low cost of $250. I have Remington 00 bucket shot with 5 in the magazine and one in the barrel ready to fire. I don't plan to use this, only as a defense when it is needed. I have my wife trained and ready to use it as a home defense when needed. I also have her trained to use her 357 and hit in the vital zone. We pratice shooting as much as we can each month. Dave we enjoyed reading all your great comments on guns fire power. Thanks!

    • Troy II

      Yea, minimum handgun bullet:





      nothing smaller (9mm, .38special, .380)

      • Dave

        This is an interesting decision you have chosen to bet your life on. The size of the round has very LITTLE to do with the damage it does if the round does NOT HIT the target. A well placed round from a 9mm with brass jacket hollow point ammo, will quite certainly end your life. Training seems to be the key factor here. IF you just spray and pray, large or small rounds will make no difference to you. If you train with your weapon of choice, you will quickly come to understand why the 9mm is the most COMMON ROUND OF AMMO on earth. It is compact, light, easy to carry a lot of it,with out fatigue issues, and when I empty the magazine of my sig, I have a higher chance of getting reloads from multiple sources in a combat situation. After all, its COMMON ammunition so it will be easier to find. .44 and .357 are nice show off weapons but unless you really shoot all the time, its just for show. They are heavy, and rounds in hand may be the difference in a real life situation

  • Tom Wozniak

    It seems that keeping the chamber empty but loading the feeding tube would be a good way to store the shotgun. With all due respect to keeping the weapon away from those who might unknowlingly fire the thing…How long can a 7/9 round magazine be kept loaded with an empty chamber before spring fatigue causes feeding problems.

    • Troy II

      My two cents: I keep only three rounds in my pump gun. and frequently rotate the gun with another.

      Slug first, oo buckshot, and then #2 birdshot. All in the magazine.

      I also take the gun from the bedroom and place it inside a gun safe for a day or two with magazine empty.

      So I did answer the question: keep only three rounds in the magazine, rotate the gun with another, and remove it from use, and unload it for a period of time.

  • Troy II

    Any PUMP shotgun is ok as a defense gun but the semi auto may be the better choice. Pump guns are heavy and have smaller magazines. The semiauto Saiga has a detachable ten round magazine, and that makes it a much better choice than a PUMP gun. The extra weight of the Pump shotgun is stored away from the body while the Saiga with detachable magazine keeps the loaded magazine weight inward where it is easier to handle. Semiautos fire the next round faster too.

    I'm not the expert that Wehby is, and IMO, this is the best article on shotguns I've read.

    • sonny

      they all have the same capacity, and pumps are a lot more reliable than autos…dont jam as often.

  • George Smith

    It's perfectly fine to keep a shotgun mag tube fully loaded. Every time you decompress and compress the spring, as in unload the mag tube and reload it… that's where the weakening of the spring SLOWLY occurs overtime. I personally keep all my guns with no ammo in the chamber and mags full. It's wise to rotate the ammo at least once in a year if in non active use, and 6 months perhaps if you carry the gun around exposed to the elements.

  • pyrolighterfighter

    I have the Mossberg 935 for home defense 7+1+1 with a ghost load. Just finished up a tactical shotgun course. Using Hornandy 00 buck I was able to hit the per hiding behind a victim at 10 yards, completely devastating the per with no hits to the victim


    In the old days # 00 buck was in the cruiser 870… In my home today it is #4 buck…… After all the range will be short and mortality rates are nor reduced…….

  • http://MSN HULAGU

    #00 buck in the cruiser 870 ( retired now)….Home now has #4 buck in 835 turkey gun…..

  • Joe Six-pack

    First two shots out of the six in my 870 Tactical magazine are #7 1/2 birdshot, remaining four are #4 buckshot. Lots of people will poo-poo my shot choice, but, it works for me and my situation. I think the REAL key is to have a system that works, and to have confidence in that sysem, but, most of all, to have the mental resolve to put the system into action if needed.

    • mattbeals

      I like the idea of #4 buck. If I recall correctly isn't each shot the same size as a .32 pistol round? Plenty of power.

  • Steve C

    While training handguns, shotgun and AR on the range two days ago, I commented to two experienced deputies that the shotgun is more feared than the AR. They both agreed. I always laugh when some politician tries to criticize me for "training LEO's to intimidate". When I point out that they might think that compliance by intimidation is better than compliance by injury of death, they pretty much shut up.

  • http://Peacenik C.P. Langford

    Don't underestimate the instant credence given to the unmistakeable sound of pump shotgun being cycled. A professional thief once told me he would freeze at the sound.

  • Lynn Hyland

    I have set up a Mossberg Maverick 12 gauge for home defense. The Maverick may well be the best for the price at $225 out the door. I have used shotguns since I was a kid and a pump gun is ideal for home defense. One thing to keep in mind is that the sound of racking a round into the chamber is not just Hollywood BS. Most people who know that sound will probably run. This may prevent you from having to deal with the fire storm after a shooting!

  • shane

    Is that dog the bounty hunter on the target?

  • shane

    I keep a youth model for home d. My wife can hadle it well cus its small and light.Some day i can pass it down to my son.

    • Greg

      that's a great idea. I've been building a healthy collection of handguns and realize that I also, to be truly prepared for the possibility would best make my next investment in a shotgun — glad I found this article as a recent pic of a mossberg 500 pistol grip had me salivating, but I want to be SMART in my choice and determine by FUNCTION not FORM .. i.e., reliabable, easy to use (for myself and other family members with less upper body size/strength), easy to maneuver. This article and the intelligent responses have provided a great starting point for me to continue my research — would love to hear any other owners and their selections of make/model and benefits they've found. Best to all.

      • VA Sailor

        I already had a Savage 12 Ga. with full stock and 18" barrel. Having a multi-floor home I went with the Mossberg 500 Blackwater edition (pistol grip) for upstairs. Having read that the pistol grip turns it into a "useless pile of junk" I did my own research. From the bed to the top of the stairs is 15' from my wife's side of the bed and 21' from mine. The total width of the room is 25'. We set up silhouette targets at 15' and 25'. With minimal "aiming" both I and my 5'2" wife hit the target 100% of the time at both distances with both shotguns. The only surprise of the day was how tight the .00 Buck was grouped at 15'. In my opinion the short LOA works great in tight quarters and no one was injured by the recoil. Hardly a "useless pile of junk".

  • mattbeals

    If the 9mm isn't enough I have a Remington 1100 semi-auto with #4 steel shot.

  • f3368636

    mossberg 590 8+1= first round is a less lethal bean bag, next #4, next few 00 buck,, then a couple of slugs for good measure, plus a side saddle with 6 more 00 buck and slugs- incase

  • rdchv

    f336836 sounds like a humane person. I never thought of bean bag rounds. I'm going to make my first shot a bean bag also. Try selling your house after someone's been killed in it ( I know, I know, hopefully it won't be me) …or even try living in it. God Bless America.

  • Bryon

    Just the rack of the slide is usually enough to put the average would be thief in overdrive to get away.

  • guest

    racking the slide always gives the would be assaulant awareness of your position. just a thought. i also have the same thoughts on flashlights and lasers on a shotgun. what about the use of several nightlights to illuminate rooms. it might be enough to see any intruder and give them a bad day! If that person has his/her own weapon, shooting toward the gun mounted flashlight would be a good point of aim.

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