The debate over which firearm is best for defense can go in many directions. Many are fans of AR or AK rifles as a primary defensive long gun. And a tactical shotgun also touts many benefits. Before choosing a defensive shotgun, one must determine the type of action is best. There are advantages and disadvantages of both the pump-action and semi-automatic shotguns.
The Semi-Automatic Tactical Shotgun
There are two basic types of semi-automatic shotgun actions: gas-operated and inertia-driven.
Gas operated semi-autos use a piston and operating rod, harnessing gas from a fired shell to cycle the mechanism. Gas-operated semi-autos generate the lowest amount of recoil of any shotgun type. One example of a gas-operated shotgun is the Mossberg 930.
The inertia-driven action, developed by Benelli, is also used by Benelli’s subsidiary, Stoeger. It is the simplest semi-auto action. Inertia-driven actions are also the cleanest shooting semi-auto shotguns I’ve ever fired. However, recoil is a bit sharper than the gas piston semi-autos. The ejecta is blown out of the barrel during firing and not recycled into a piston system that would eventually need to be cleaned.
Disadvantages of Semi-Auto Shotguns
Semi-automatic shotguns designed for tactical or defensive use have two disadvantages. The first disadvantage is ammo sensitivity. Semi-autos sometimes won’t cycle well with light-recoiling loads. And only some gas-operated models allow for adjustment of the gas operating systems. While most are quite reliable, today’s ammo shortages might find you using ammo brands you are unfamiliar with, possibly causing cycling issues. Further, specialty less-lethal loads like Lightfield’s might not cycle at all.
The second disadvantage of semi-auto is that charging the chamber from condition three (bolt forward, hammer down, safety-off, full magazine) will require the shooter to disengage one hand from the shotgun to run the charging handle. That motion takes you temporarily out of action and off-target while readying to fire.
Neither disadvantage is a deal-breaker in using a semi-automatic shotgun as a primary defense gun. However, the user needs to be aware of them to adjust defensive plans accordingly. Semi-autos shotguns are often more expensive than pump-action guns as well. Comparing guns by the same manufacturer, the tactical version of the Mossberg 930 with pistol grip has an MSRP of $1,078, while the 9-shot Mossberg 590 Pump with pistol grip is $659 — a $419 price difference.
The Pump-Action Tactical Shotgun
I believe the pump action to be superior to the semi-auto as a tactical shotgun. It is more versatile than the semi-auto due to its ability to cycle nearly any type of ammo. With a 3-inch chamber, everything from Aguila Mini-Shells to 3-inch Magnum rifled slugs will run with aplomb and without the need for any adjustment. This versatility explains why the 12-gauge pump shotgun is today’s law enforcement weapon of choice for launching less-lethal rounds.
Another advantage of the pump shotgun is, unlike the semi-automatic shotgun, the pump shotgun does not require removing your hands from their firing positions to bring it to condition one (round chambered and ready to shoot). Quickly racking the action will allow you to almost instantly chamber a round and fire. In police training and qualification courses, nearly every course of fire starts in condition three. As the shotgun is brought to bear on the target, the round is chambered and fired on command. In law enforcement situations, I never carried a shotgun with a round chambered but stood ready to do so.
I tend to recommend those looking for a defensive shotgun to go with a pump shotgun. However, when it comes to sport shooting, the semi-auto is superior. It is faster for follow-up shots with less recoil unless you are very skilled with the pump. But talking about real-life defensive use, it’s important to go with the firearm you feel comfortable with and will train and become familiar with.