There are myriad factors to choosing a firearm for defense and protection. Will you get a long gun or handgun? Which type of long gun or handgun? It is important to think about the firearm’s main purpose when making your decision. And then, collect some facts and stats. For home defense, one will likely choose between a handgun or shotgun. When choosing between these two (or maybe purchasing one of each), keep in mind the effective range. Effective range is the distance at which the shooter can place shots in a location likely to stop the threat and end the fight. So let’s explore the effective range of shotguns and handguns.

Gauging a shotgun’s range, as it turned out, is easier than a handgun. With the handgun, variables such as shooter’s experience and training, as well as model are more important than with a shotgun. The shotgun is more consistent across the spectrum. Keep in mind other conditions, including amount of light, whether the threat is moving and an attacker’s mental state, will also have an effect on shot placement in the moment.

Choosing Your Shotgun and Load

Let’s look at the shotgun first. Most shotguns chosen for home defense are manually operated repeaters. The pump-action — sometimes called the slide-action shotgun — is reliable and simple to operate. But pistol grip shotguns are a terrible idea for control.

Shotguns should be loaded with buckshot. Buckshot is offered in several sizes with a payload of 8 to 27 pellets. For home defense, No. 1 or No. 4 buck is effective, but 00 delivers the greater weight and a tighter pattern. Some have recommended birdshot or other light loads as a home-defense load. Birdshot is made to kill a bird you could hold in your hand. Weight is but a few grains and penetration in gelatin a few inches. These loads are ineffective.

Calculating Shotgun Effective Range

The shotgun’s maximum effective range can be easily figured. Simply put a clean target up at the range and fire the shotgun at increasing range until the target is no longer covered by more than 50 percent of the shot.

Inside of 7 yards, the shotgun must be aimed as carefully as a rifle. The pattern has not begun to spread yet, and the load must be centered to be effective. As range increases, the pattern spreads. The longest effective range for most loads is 20 yards. This is the range at which the pattern has spread to the extent that it is no longer an aid in engaging moving targets.

After 20 yards, the pattern has spread to the point that more than half of the buckshot may not strike the target. This varies with the load. As an example: Federal Flite Wad buckshot may maintain a tight pattern as far as 30 yards in some shoguns. In general, the best shotgun pattern is delivered with eight pellet 00 buckshot.

A target shows the effective range of a shotgun test.

Shotguns are impressive, but the pattern of shot falls apart rapidly at longer ranges.

However, you can load solid shot. A slug weighs about an ounce. This is a solid projectile used in hunting deer and boar as well as for personal defense. A slug increases the shotgun’s effective range as far as you can keep the shots on target. For some shotguns, this is 100 yards, but for most, it is 50 yards. However, for home defense, the shotgun’s effective range is still 20 yards. As far as maximum range, these round balls do not buck the air very well. The loads are calculated to drop 4 feet or more at 300 yards.

Handguns for Home Defense

Calculating the handgun’s effective range is more complex. The shotgun locks up tight against the two arms and the cheek — a three-point weld. The handgun is held by one or both hands. The sight radius (distance between the sights) is shorter than on a long gun. This invites greater error.

On the other hand, handguns are light, handy, portable and not as likely to be grabbed by a threat as you round a corner. Though power isn’t the focus in this article, there are significant differences between handgun cartridges and wound potential. Quite a few calibers are practically worthless. A home-defense handgun should not be below .38 caliber. There are differences in magazine capacity and speed loading as well, but in home defense, it is unlikely there will be a need for more than a few shots.

There are various means of testing a handgun’s accuracy potential. One is to fire the pistol at benchrest. But this is the most unrealistic test of handgun effectiveness. At 7 yards or so, a handgun will place all its shots into one hole if properly handled. Much of effective range depends on the size, weight and recoil of the handgun and the shooter’s skill.

Effective Range Drill

Begin this drill standing at the range, facing a target set up at 10 yards. The handgun should be loaded in the normal ready mode and resting on the shooting bench before you begin. Make the handgun ready by taking the safety off, racking the slide or simply pulling the trigger depending on how it is kept at ready in the home. Aim carefully and fire. As the pistol recoils control the movement, realign the sights and fire again. Fire a five-round group, reload and fire again.

A 5-inch circle is an excellent gauge of effective range.

The final group of 10 shots should be no larger than 5 inches. If the group is smaller than 4 inches, you are firing too slow. Larger than 5 inches means you are firing too quickly. The maximum effective range of the handgun and shooter combination is the range at which you consistently keep your shots in a 5-inch group. If you run this drill a few times, you will have a much better understanding of your ability with the handgun. (You will also understand how much more effective the shotgun is in most hands.)

Final Thoughts

The shotgun is easily rated while the handgun is more dependent on the operator. Shotgun loads give out at longer range, but so do handguns. As an example, when test-firing a long slide 9mm at 100 yards, I made a decent showing on the target. I noticed, however, the bullets were lying behind the target, barely dug into the dirt. A shotgun loses about half its penetration at 100 yards. Shotguns and handguns are relatively short-range firearms.

Both handguns and shotguns have merit. But the shotgun is easily the most effective with the greatest predicted effect and the greatest hit probability. The primary advantage of the handgun is that it may be carried concealed. The shotgun, an affordable and effective firearm, comes out ahead based on effectiveness.

Read More:

First Gun: Rifle or Handgun?
Which Is Safer: Shotgun or Handgun?