The shotgun is regarded as the “ultimate problem-solver” when it comes to personal and home defense. There is no denying its wound potential or hit potential. However, the shotgun is underutilized because many shooters do not take the time to master the piece.

The shotgun has a great measure of finality against felons and dangerous animals at close range and is a formidable and versatile firearm. However, do not be in the situation of being armed with a deadly weapon you are not able to use well. The good news is that quality shotguns need not be expensive.

While I own fine examples of 1911s, a SIG P210 and a Colt Python, I am not so particular when it comes to shotguns. I own a long-serving Iver Johnson single-shot and a couple of well-worn Remington 870 pump-actions. They are reliable, rugged, easy to use and effective. Were I to find myself in a deadly situation, my Beretta tactical self-loader would be my choice. But a homeowner on a budget may be better armed with a hundred-dollar shotgun than a thousand-dollar handgun.

Were I to find myself in a deadly situation, my Beretta tactical self-loader would be my choice. But a homeowner on a budget may be better armed with a hundred-dollar shotgun than a thousand-dollar handgun.

Where the shotgun gets complicated is in load selections. Lightweight birdshot may (and should) be used for practice, but it is ill-considered to recommend it for personal defense. Birdshot doesn’t offer sufficient mass and penetration. On average, birdshot loads penetrate 3 to 6 inches of gelatin, which is hardly adequate. Heavy clothing may also absorb the majority of birdshot’s energy. I won’t waste any more time on this inferior loading save to repeat that birdshot is designed to humanely down a small fowl weighing but a few ounces.

The shotgun — so called because it launches a number of lead balls called “shot” — sends those lead balls in a group called a “pattern,” but the resultant pattern is often misunderstood. The shot travels in strings, and the dispersion is greater at distance. At close range, such as those typical in home-defense contexts, the shotgun must be aimed as carefully as a rifle, and the only real choice is between the larger sizes of buckshot — namely 00, No. 1 and No. 4.

COMPARING THE LEGENDS On the left is a round of 230-grain .45 ACP, included for scale. To its right is a pellet of No. 4 buckshot (about .24 caliber), and next to that is a pellet of 00 buckshot (about .33 caliber). On the right is a 12-gauge “Foster” slug, which works out to about a .72-caliber hollow-based bullet. Most 2.75-inch 12-gauge shells will contain either 27 pellets of No. 4, nine pellets of 00 or a single slug, and they will all be loaded over a larger powder charge than you would find in a “field load” designed for shooting trap or skeet.

Shot Pattern of Behavior

It is important and very much neglected to pattern the home-defense shotgun, and the home defender must understand that pattern. Put simply, the pattern is the width and length of the buckshot load on paper. That is the first step in assessing a pattern (but hardly the last). Do the pellets strike high, low or to one side? As with all firearms, different loads will perform differently in a specific gun.

Also remember that, at normal personal-defense ranges, you can still easily miss your target with a load of buckshot. At longer ranges — 12 to 15 yards — the spread of the pattern makes the shotgun more attractive in addressing moving targets or partially exposed targets. But at close range, don’t kid yourself: People can and do miss attackers with shotgun fire.

Shells loaded with 00 buckshot can contain anywhere from eight to 18 pellets, but most commonly hold nine; No. 1 buckshot, 16; and No.4 buckshot, 27. Three-inch magnum loads may contain more, but their increased recoil generally makes them ill-suited for self-defense. The smaller buckshot balls are less likely to penetrate excessively and more likely to flatten on walls and supporting structures, and they also do not travel as far as larger ammo.

Put simply, the pattern is the width and length of the buckshot load on paper. That is the first step in assessing a pattern (but hardly the last).

As with handgun ammunition, it is important that shotshells be reliable and feed properly in your firearm. You may be surprised by how much can go wrong as a shell travels from the tube magazine to the chamber. Crimps can come apart during the feed cycle and, as with semi-automatic handguns, some firearms just plain don’t like certain brands and styles of ammunition. Whatever load you select for self-defense and home defense, be certain you have tested it for reliability as well as accuracy.

Testing Home-Defense Loads

When testing the following bullets for home defense, I used a standard silhouette-style target and fired at 7, 10 and 15 yards. I evaluated and averaged the performances. (Note: The Winchester PDX Defender uses only three buckshot balls loaded over a 500-grain slug.)

At 7 yards, there isn’t much real difference in the context of home defense. Twenty-one feet is a long hallway in most homes. If your shotgun is to be used for any kind of outdoor self-defense, then patterning at longer ranges is relevant. But as you perform your own tests, stick to distances most likely encountered in your residence.

No. 1 buckshot offers consistent penetration, good patterning and less recoil than 00 buckshot, though 00 is the more proven in wound ballistics. As Hornady implies in the name of its No. 4 buckshot — Varmint Express — that size is a good choice for fast-moving and small wild animals, such as coyotes. Any of the three loads is effective at moderate range. As for penetration in gelatin, No. 4 averages 10 to 13 inches, No. 1 buckshot averages 12 to 14 inches, and No. 00 averages 18 to 20 inches.

When these loads are tested, the No. 4 and No. 1 buckshot loads seem attractive for home defense. Penetration is adequate, and they are less offensive as far as recoil goes.

A word of caution, however: If the offender is heavily garbed or if the shotgun may be used for defense against big cats, 00 buckshot may be the better choice. Notably, reduced-recoil 12-gauge 00 buckshot will exhibit excellent patterns, and the loads generate penetration and wound ballistics similar to full-power 00 buckshot. This eliminates concerns with overpenetration, as the shot will stay in the body, though your greatest defense against overpenetration is to center your shot on the attacker.

Buckshot Load Pattern Testing

Defensive Power in Slug Loads

I would be remiss were I not to address slugs — traditionally lumps of soft lead with rounded noses, though they can be found in hunting iterations made from solid copper with hollow points. If we’re just going by the numbers, there is no shoulder-fired weapon that equals a shotgun loaded with a slug when it comes to wound potential at close range. Most slug loads launch a 500-grain solid projectile at 1,400 feet per second; for comparison, a classic .45-cal 1911 sends a 230-grain bullet at just under 850 feet per second. A 12-gauge shotgun slug is, in short, devastating.

Even with all of that power, the slug isn’t as offensive in penetration as you might think. Most exhibit 12 to 14 inches in gelatin, and some throw off a shard of lead in the wound path. The Remington slug, as an example, begins at 0.72 inches wide and expands reliably to 1.2 inches. While reduced-recoil slugs are an option, they exhibit inferior wound ballistics, which isn’t the case with reduced-recoil buckshot. The reduced-recoil slug is accurate and easy to use but penetrates up to 20 inches in gelatin, as it does not deform or expand at lower velocities.

Pick Your Home-Defense Popper

The shotgun’s natural handling makes it ideal for home defense. As long as you consider the likely targets and environments for its use and select the proper load, it’s a tough option with which to go wrong. But as in everything else in the world of self-defense firearms, you need to do your homework. After deciding on which size of pellet you intend to use for defense, it is your responsibility to figure out which brand and load patterns the best out of your gun and then run through a box to check for reliability. Once that’s done, you can switch back to the trap loads for training, but don’t shortchange your personal-protection plan.


SIG Sauer:

If you’re interested in home-defense ammunition options, check out “How to Choose Ammo for Home Defense.”