A few years ago, a particularly dangerous burglar was active in my home city. More than one citizen awoke to see this sociopath at the foot of their bed, and since most burglars avoid breaking into an occupied home, it was obvious this man was extraordinarily dangerous. As is often the case in situations like this, firearms sales skyrocketed, and most of the firearms purchased were shotguns. Since the threat was perceived as invading the home rather than attacking people on the street, a shotgun was chosen.
The shotgun is seen as the all around problem solver for home defense. To an extent this is true but without proper selection, training, and forethought, the shotgun will be underutilized as a proper tool in defending your home and property.
The shotgun is easily the most effective among the common defensive sidearm. From the single shot shotgun to tactical models with extended magazines and AR-15-type stocks, the shotgun is widely used for home defense.
“SOME BELIEVE THAT THE SHOTGUN HAS GREAT DETERRENT VALUE, AND THE RACKING NOISE OF A NEW SHELL IN THE CHAMBER IS AN UNMISTAKABLE SOUND.”
Some believe the shotgun has great deterrent value, and the racking noise of a new shell in the chamber is an unmistakable sound. A burglar motivated by profit may decide that “feet don’t fail me now” is a good option. For those choosing the shotgun for rural defense, there are plenty of deadly predators in the country, such as feral dogs, mountain lions, and other dangerous animals.
When you choose a shotgun first have the mission in mind. Personal defense is terribly important, but a shotgun is a very versatile firearm. The shotgun will take the smallest game- birds and squirrels and do it very cleanly. With different loads and choke tubes, medium game such as deer may be taken. Boar hogs and bear are not out of the question at moderate range with a slug gun.
Some duties conflict. As an example, a rifled slug bore shotgun often gives poor patterns with buckshot. Fortunately, most commercial shotguns have readily changeable barrels. A short open choke barrel for home defense and a long barrel with removable choke tubes for all around game shotgun isn’t overwhelmingly expensive considering the versatility. Choke is simply the restriction in the bore and this squeezes the shot pattern to provide a tighter pattern. For example, a covey of quail that jumps up quickly demands an open, wider shot pattern, while a goose flying high demands a tight pattern.
For general home defense, an 18 to 20 inch barrel is ideal. This type of shotgun handles quickly. Single shot, double barrel and repeating shotguns each have merit, but you must consider how the shotgun will be stored. No one recommends storing the shotgun with a loaded chamber. This means the single shot and double barrel shotguns must be loaded before being put into service, while a pump shotgun need only be racked to make it ready. The Rossi line of affordable single shot shotguns is a standout, as they feature a transfer bar hammer system, which just might be the only single shot system that allows safe storage of the shotgun with the chamber loaded.
Double Barrel: The double barrel should never be discounted as an all around field-grade sporting gun. The double is also a capable personal defense shotgun. For example, I took my old Stevens 12 gauge double to the range and loaded it with Fiocchi’s reduced recoil 12 gauge buckshot. At 15 yards the pattern from each barrel was perfectly centered on the front bead. Another surprise was that Fiocchi’s Aero slug also struck to the point of aim, dead on the target using only the front bead as a reference. When walking in the field, I can keep the breech open for safety and instantly close it.
Pump Action: A pump-action shotgun is probably the best choice for most of us. With an 18- to 20-inch barrel and a magazine capacity of four to eight shells, the pump-action shotgun is simple to manipulate, reliable, and versatile. And while I stress the action is fairly simple, it can be mishandled. A short cycle occurs when you do not properly operate the trombone-like action. You might not completely rack the bolt to the rear and push it forward too soon. This may result in a feedway jam that is difficult to clear. A redesign of the Remington shell carrier has made the Remington 870 less susceptible to shooter error, for example.
Self-Loader: I would think long and hard before choosing a self-loading shotgun. If you are willing to deploy a quality self loader, proof it extensively, and keep it well maintained and lubricated it could be a good choice. Self-loaders demand full power shells and will not function with reduced recoil loads, which is an important consideration. Among the self-loaders I have tested with good results are the TriStar shotguns, particularly the Raptor.
HANDLING A SHOTGUN
A shotgun is handled largely by feel. The conventional stocks with semi pistol grip handle well and the natural point is attractive. While the shotgun must be aimed as carefully at short range as a rifle, as the pattern is very tight, just the same we are moving to a firearm that must be handled more like a rifle when we go to a pistol grip tactical stock shotgun.
“THE MOST VERSATILE AND POWERFUL CHOICE IN SHOTGUN GAUGES IS THE 12 GAUGE.”
While commonality with the AR-15 rifle is fine, the shotgun is a far different firearm than a rifle. At moderate range, 10 to 20 yards, the traditional stocked shotgun swings quickly and features a fine natural point. I prefer the standard stock on my personal Remington 870. I would certainly give both a try before dedicating to the modern tactical- type shotgun. A simple bead front sight offers rapid sight alignment and a brilliantly fast shot on target. Rifle sights are the superior choice for work with slugs. My old Remington 870 smooth bore shotgun is accurate to 50 yards with the Remington slug. The Winchester 1300 rifled barrel shotgun is far more accurate to 100 yards. The pistol grip shotgun with no stock is the least desirable of all shotguns, tactically, and very difficult to control. They have some merit in very tight corners. You should carefully consider your likely scenario and choose accordingly.
CONSIDER THE PRICE
There are many shotguns available with a wide variety of price tags. The price leaders are the ones made in China, the Philippines, and Turkey, and those may be all that you need, as you don’t see yourself shooting for recreation or sport. The Tri Star guns, made in Turkey, are decent performers and economical, however, the primary reason they are inexpensive is that fit and finish is not held to a high standard. The Stevens 320 pump, an import, and the Harrington and Richardson pump action are often found on sale for around $200. That is a good price for a pump gun that will save your life, but not one that will see a fair amount of use, either at the range or in the field. Check the forend and be certain it isn’t loose and that the action works smoothly enough. If you are not interested in a hard-use shotgun that may be fired often, then you may find these shotguns acceptable. On the other hand, the Remington 870 is proven and often found at an attractive price for a high-quality shotgun.
The most versatile and powerful choice in shotgun gauges is the 12 gauge. I find the .410 acceptable for those that simply cannot handle 12 gauge recoil. When loaded with buckshot, the .410 demonstrates about the same penetration as the 12 gauge, however, the payload is much lighter. The .410 is on the low end of acceptable but certainly has merit. The .410 slug as loaded by Winchester has demonstrated impressive performance on coyotes at moderate range. The 20 gauge is a step up. The 20 gauge offers acceptable performance for home defense when loaded with buckshot. The 12 gauge is preferable for those that feel comfortable with the recoil. And the recoil is simply something to be mastered with practice. The 12 gauge reduced recoil loads are available in both slug and buckshot loads that offer excellent performance. The 12 gauge 2¾ inch reduced recoil buckshot load is ideal for home defense. The rest comes from practice. There are purpose- designed loads for home defense that have much appeal. The Hornady Critical Defense and the Winchester PDX are among these. These loads offer a dense pattern for home defense use.
Never consider birdshot or a light shot load for defense use. Birdshot is designed to reliably kill a bird weighing a few ounces. Only a few of the pellets will strike the bird- or squirrel or rabbit, depending upon the game. A man and a deer are about as hard to put down as the other. Birdshot has such limited penetration it may be stopped by heavy clothing or even a down jacket. Reduced recoil buckshot offers a reliable dense pattern with acceptable close range power.
Magnum buckshot simply isn’t needed for close range defense and demonstrates excess recoil. Slugs are a favorite of professionals for many reasons. Slugs offer even better wound potential than buckshot. The shotgun must be carefully aimed for slug use but the same is true of buckshot inside of ten yards. Managed recoil slug loads such as the one offered by Remington have good penetration and excellent accuracy potential. However the full power slugs will often fragment to an extent and produce a more complex wound. Penetration is sometimes less in the body but damage is more severe compared to a reduced recoil slug. The full power slug drops less at long range and has more effect. A proven performer at long range that has earned my respect is the Fiocchi Aereo slug. Remember – use a load appropriate for the size of the threat. Birdshot is fine for initial training but not for serious use.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.