Both slugs and buckshot were designed to take deer-sized game at moderate range. They are often used for hunting in areas deemed unsafe for high-powered rifles. However, these loads can also be used for home defense. With a high likelihood of stopping a threat using minimal well-placed shots, why are these often underutilized in the defensive sphere? Let’s look at the pros and cons of 12-gauge slugs and 12-gauge buckshot.

Shotguns for Home Defense

The shotgun offers high-hit probability with its fast handling and cloud of shot but must be aimed as carefully as a rifle. Shotguns fire several lead pellets in a group. Light loads such as birdshot may hold 175 (#7) to 292 (#9) pellets, which form a large pattern. The large pattern aids in hitting a flying bird a running rabbit or a scampering squirrel. These small pellet loads lack penetration and should never be used for defense.

Buckshot Loads

Buckshot’s shot load impacting simultaneously on the target offers good wound potential.

Buckshot’s shot load impacting simultaneously on the target offers good wound potential.

Buckshot loads use larger pellets, ranging in amount from 8 to 27. Several makers offer reduced-recoil loads that may clock 1,100 feet per second rather than the 1,500 feet per second of full-power loads. Just the same, the reduced-recoil loads offer adequate penetration and wound potential.

The most commonly recommended buckshot size for home defense is #00. There are eight to nine pellets in this load. In the smaller #4, there will be 21 to 27 pellets, and there are 16 pellets in #1 buckshot. The pattern helps to strike a moving or partially obscured target, but the goal is still to center the shot.

Loads differ, and full power and reduced power loads will exhibit different penetration depths. As a rule, #4, the lightest buckshot, penetrates 14 inches in gelatin. The #1 goes 15 to 16 inches, and #00 will go 18 to 19 inches. This is ideal penetration for personal defense. Some may be leery of penetration when it comes to shotguns, but this is about the same penetration as most personal defense handgun loads. The real problem is if you miss.

To limit overpenetration, strike the target. A centered load of buckshot at 7 to 10 yards will stay in the body. As for wound ballistics, I favor #00. Either #4 or #1 should also prove effective. The payload weighs the same, but there is a greater number of smaller pellets or balls.

Testing Buckshot

My results were obtained via a common defense shotgun with an 18.5-inch barrel. It has an open cylinder choke with practically no restriction. A full choke barrel with more restriction might produce a tighter pattern, but buckshot doesn’t always follow choke rules. Be certain to check your shotgun’s pattern.

In pattern testing, #00 provided the most cohesive pattern. However, this is not the whole story. In one pattern test — firing the shotgun at paper to test maximum spread — the 10-yard spread of #4 buckshot was 19×17 inches, with a tight center of 10 to 12 pellets. The spread was 6×7 inches for #00 Winchester Super X loads. If the shotgun’s role included taking coyotes and other predators or rapidly moving threats, a larger pattern may be an advantage, but most experienced shooters prefer a cohesive pattern.


A slug features a projectile and a cushioning wad over the powder charge.

Slugs are a single projectile fired from a shotgun. With a 540-grain weight, lead slugs present a very effective personal defense loading. (Sabot slugs and top end slugs designed for use in a rifled barrel shotgun should not be considered for home defense.)

Penetration in gelatin is usually 17 to 20 inches. The typical soft lead, round-nosed slug will break off shards of lead in the wound channel. The big round-nosed slug will not carry as far as a rifle
bullet. Just the same, they are useful as a substitute.

Slugs are offered in standard velocity and reduced-recoil loadings. The Federal Truball slug averages 1,350 feet per second in an 18-inch barrel. The Fiocchi Exacta low-recoil slug will average 1,100 feet per second, and the Fiocchi 12S slug was more than 1,450 feet per second. These figures were obtained from typical 18-inch defense shotguns rather than 28-inch barrel sporting guns. Reduced-recoil slugs are fine choices for most uses, while the most powerful loads would serve for defense against larger animals.

Which Load Is Better for Home Defense?

Per my research, the big slug is more effective than buckshot. However, my home-defense shotgun — the Mossberg 590 — is loaded with #00 buckshot. The ability to quickly handle the shotgun and the wide pattern provide excellent hit potential. The first four shells are #00 buckshot, followed by four slugs. The slugs will address a threat behind cover or a particularly insistent attacker. The shotgun is a versatile home-defense firearm and will handle a wide range of chores simply by changing loads.

Note: 20-gauge shotgun loads are also viable for defense and have the same comparative relationship between buckshot and slugs. The 12-gauge hits harder, while 20 offers a low recoil, light and fast handling alternative.