Any firearm can be dangerous if mishandled. But there are no modern firearms where operation is inherently unsafe, whether handgun or shotgun. Product liability laws have seen to that. However, each type of firearm has design characteristics that need to be understood for completely safe and effective operation. And there are plusses and minuses for both. Understanding the individual characteristics can help you better decide which defensive weapon may be the safest option for you and your loved ones.

The Shotgun

The shotgun — particularly in pump or semi-automatic form — is a tremendous defensive weapon. I personally favor the pump-action. I carried one in a cruiser for 35 of my 40 years in law enforcement and I’ve trained a myriad of police cadets and in-service officers in its use since 1986, mostly using the legendary Remington 870.

As good as the 870 or others are, it is important to be familiar with the operation to ensure proper firing. While that can be said of any firearm, it is particularly true of the shotgun because the manual of arms is distinctly different than that of either a revolver or semi-automatic pistol. During many in-service firearms training sessions, I found several officers would forget the basic operation of the Remington 870, including loading, unloading and cycling the action for additional shots from previous training the year before. Unlike the pistol, the shotgun was not a take-home weapon, and officers didn’t have enough of a chance to stay familiar with them.

Shotgun Functioning

The pump shotgun just doesn’t function like a semi-auto pistol. For example, to clear a fully loaded 870 with a round chambered, you must first clear the chamber and then the magazine. That is opposite of the procedure for a semi-automatic pistol or box-magazine-fed rifle. As an owner of a pump-action shotgun, familiarity shouldn’t be an issue. You can practice at your convenience with dummy ammo. ST Action Pro manufactures what are likely the best dummy rounds on the market. If you don’t shoot your shotgun regularly, practice the operational basics regularly with dummy ammo.

One final safety issue with the pump shotgun is the safety. Pump-action shotguns were originally developed as hunting guns. Not meant for combat use, the manual safeties are found either on the trigger in the form of a small button on the trigger guard or, as in the case of Mossberg, as a sliding safety on the tang. If you are not used to shotgun safeties, it can lead to a lot of fumbling during emergency operations.

The Handgun

The main reason people carry or have a handgun for defensive use is that its size makes it convenient to keep relatively close at hand. With that being said, handguns’ compact size can lead to more carelessness or pointing the muzzle in the wrong direction. Just one small movement of a couple of inches can send a bullet to an unintended target with devastating results. Yet, the handgun is a safe defensive tool when handled carefully.

So Which Firearm Is Safer?

In my estimation, there is no clear-cut answer to this question — no clear-cut winner as to which weapon is safer. The shotgun and the handgun each have their own characteristics to consider. What works for one person as a safe reliable defensive firearm might not work for another. The key to keeping either gun safe is to be thoroughly familiar with them, to receive proper training from a qualified instructor, follow the appropriate safety recommendations and practice.


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