One of the earliest defensive weapons was the 18th century fowler, a single-barrel flintlock loaded with a charge of small lead pellets that was more commonly used for getting dinner to the table than for driving away unwelcome guests. The fowler was also a contemporary of the blunderbuss, a flintlock musket with a flared muzzle designed to spread a load of lead shot over a wider area at close range. Favored by our British ancestors and by those who sailed the seas, this was for driving away unwelcome guests such as pirates and other seafaring miscreants. But the blunderbuss worked as well on land, defending dwellings and farmland from outsiders and plunderers. From these humble beginnings came double-barreled flintlock and percussion-hammer guns that, by the 1860s, had proved their worth during the Civil War. By the early years of the Western Expansion in the 1870s, the double-barrel shotgun was in common use by homesteaders, farmers, lawmen, stagecoach gun guards and just about anyone with property to defend. And the long-barreled double-hammer gun still made a great hunting arm when it came to putting food on the table.

Hunting for fresh game is more of a recreational sport these days, with shotguns designed for taking small game birds, wild turkey, and even slug guns designed for deer. But the purpose of these guns remains similar to that of guns used in the days of the Old West, when a shotgun was the most practical way of arming oneself to defend family and property. The big difference now is that there are shotguns designed for specific jobs.

Today’s Shotguns

The same side-by-side, over/under, slide-action or semi-auto shotguns used for hunting, shooting skeet, trap or sporting clays can certainly serve the needs of home defense. However, there are certain disadvantages to a long gun intended for the great outdoors, in a not-so-sprawling indoor environment. This is why most leading shotgun manufacturers also offer tactical shotguns for law enforcement, military and civilian use. Short-barrel slide-action shotguns for law enforcement and the military have been around for more than 100 years—with few changes since the early 1900s, many are still in use today. This is also the most prevalent type of shotgun used for home defense: a single 2.75-inch round of 12-gauge 00 buckshot delivers nine roughly .33 caliber pellets (the equivalent of nine rounds from a .38 caliber revolver). In defensive firearms tactics, shooters are instructed in the “double tap,” or firing two consecutive shots to incapacitate an intended adversary. An accurate 00 hit multiplies that 4.5 times. Even smaller 20- and .410-gauge 00 and 000 buckshot are nearly as effective, and any will surpass a single shot or even a double tap from a small caliber (.380 or .38 Special) semi-auto pistol or revolver. Shotguns are ideally suited for home defense.

Pick A Winner

There are four basic types of shotguns: side-by-side (the venerable double-barrel scattergun); superposed (over/under-style for bird hunting and shooting sports); semi-auto (also for shooting sports and hunting); and slide-action (the classic pump shotgun). There are also single-barrel single-shot shotguns, but for home defense these are not ideal.

Deciding which shotgun to purchase for home defense depends on your skill level and degree of need (i.e., if you have never handled a shotgun, less is more because you’ll get simple operation, ease of familiarity, choices in gauge—very important—and a good price). The tried-and-true backup for lawmen has long been a short-barrel slide-action shotgun like the Mossberg 500 Cruiser. Mossberg pumps are easy to learn and available in versions chambered in both 12 gauge and easier-to-handle 20 gauge for the civilian market. Though not as powerful, a 20 gauge can deliver devastating stopping power with defensive buckshot loads.

Note that shotguns should never be stored with a chambered round. Having additional rounds close at hand or mounted on the shotgun (either with a “sidesaddle” carrying six rounds mounted to the shotgun receiver, or with a tactical stock designed to hold extra rounds) provides not only a ready reload but also the tactical option of shot-shell changeover as conditions dictate. If the magazine holds six shells, load five and maintain the option of loading an alternative first round before racking the slide.

The venerable Mossberg 500 series is another time-honored model that offers a special version for home protection called the Just in Case 500 Cruiser. It’s a complete system in 12 gauge that features a JIC Cruiser with an 18.5-inch barrel, a pistol grip and a survival kit, all contained in a water-resistant storage tube. There is also a marine version for folks who live near or on the water, with a corrosion-protective Marinecoat finished receiver and barrel. The JIC Cruiser has a capacity of six rounds and costs around $450.

Tactical Pumps

Going full-tactical in a slide-action shotgun is another option. There are a wealth of makes and models with adjustable shoulder stocks, pistol grips, special sighting systems, optical sights mounted on the top Picatinny rail, and combinations of laser sights and tactical flashlights. Full-tactical models are generally larger and heavier, requiring greater practice and familiarity. An outstanding new example is the Mossberg FLEX 590 Tactical Adjustable in 12 gauge with a 20-inch barrel, a six-position shoulder stock, a tactical forend, and a capacity of nine rounds of standard 2 3/4-inch shells. The FLEX can be easily changed to a full-length shoulder stock or tactical pistol grip in seconds, making it a more versatile shotgun for the money. There is also the new 500 Cruiser 12-gauge with an Insight Tactical Light forearm in a six-shot pistol grip configuration—it is a strictly tactical-style shotgun. Another highly versatile tactical model is the new Citadel LE Pistol Grip 12-gauge with Picatinny rail receiver and forend. This model, with an overall length of 32.5 inches and a seven-round capacity, has a top-mounted rail and rails on the slide handle for mounting multiple accessories.

The game changer in the slide-action category is the most tactical of all new shotguns: the formidable Kel-Tec Shotgun with dual seven-round side-by-side magazines for a total capacity of 14 rounds of 12 gauge. This is also a remarkably compact shotgun at only 26.1 inches in overall length. The Kel-Tec can be set up in multiple configurations with optical sights, ghost ring sights, a tactical flashlight or a laser sighting system.

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