The shotgun has been a part of American culture in some form since the first settlers arrived. The early blunderbuss developed slowly, but it has consistently been used for hunting birds, fighting wars and personal defense since its inception. Often maligned and frequently misunderstood, there is perhaps no other weapon available today that evokes so many strong opinions, or so many false notions about its true capabilities and limitations.

Shotgun Basics

With so many developments, someone setting up their shotgun for home defense might feel a little overwhelmed. Here are steps I recommend for selecting a first-rate weapon.First consider the basic shotgun. I prefer pump actions because of reliability, but several companies are making some highly dependable auto-loaders these days. Stick with brands that have proven track records of quality and reliability. You can then find aftermarket parts to improve on any of these brands or repair them if they break.

Often these weapons are out of sight and out of mind, except for the few times a year we get them to the range. We don’t want anything that is finicky or difficult to manipulate. Oil tends to disappear from weapons over time, and it has to be well lubed to function.


Double-ought buckshot is best. “Online experts” might suggest birdshot because it usually stops after penetrating through one sheet of drywall. Guess what? That under penetration on walls equals under penetration on bad guys. Millions of dollars have been spent developing people-stopping rounds–use the rounds designed for the task at hand.

Most law enforcement agencies realized years ago that they needed limits on how little and how far their bullets would penetrate. A round that does not go deep enough will probably not incapacitate a bad guy. One that over-penetrates may punch clear through and cause less damage because the force of the round travels through him instead of being imparted on him. Think about this, if you swing a baseball bat through falling feathers it doesn’t do much–the bat sails right on through. If you take the same bat and hit a baseball it sends it flying. All of the force of the bat is imparted into the baseball. We want our bullets to do the same thing to the bad guy. It is better if he feels the full force rather than it sailing right on through. How do we measure penetration? It was decided to use ballistic gelatin, because it closely mimics the resistance given by the flesh of a human being sans bones. Many years ago the FBI published that optimum penetration should be greater than 12 inches and less than 18 inches in a 10% ballistic gelatin solution, and those numbers have pretty much remained the yardstick. Most slugs today have no problem falling within this range. Surprisingly, double-ought buckshot will penetrate farther than slugs, and typically farther than 18 inches. However, with “reduced recoil” and “low recoil” rounds now available, this may be less of an issue.

With buckshot rounds carrying anywhere from 8 to 12 .30 caliber balls per round, the shotgun defines “one-shot stop.” Shooting an assailant with one round of double-ought buckshot can roughly be compared to emptying a full magazine of most .380’s into him.

Barrels, Sights and Lights

An 18-inch, smooth bore barrel is best, since anything longer makes it difficult to wield. Slugs today have rifling built into them to stabilize their flight. Any shorter than 18 inches and you need a $200 tax stamp from the BATFE, and you have to live in a state that allows Short Barrel Shotguns. If you are going to the trouble of getting a tax stamp, don’t go shorter than 14 inches and realize that you are limiting yourself to a magazine tube length that will only hold five rounds. If it has rifling, it can screw up your buckshot pellets and send them all over the place.

Barrel length can affect shot patterns. Critics of the shotgun love to claim that the spread of the shot is so great that it will hit anyone and anything in the vicinity of where the shotgun is pointed. One quick trip to the range will prove this wrong. We usually say that the diameter of a shot pattern increases approximately 1 inch for every yard it travels down range. At the 7 yard line, you should see a pattern that is approximately 7 inches across; 15 inches at the 15-yard line and 25 at the 25. This puts the shotguns maximum range for buckshot at less than 25 yards. At that distance, you would probably be missing some pellets off of either side of a human silhouette target.

There are lots of opinions about sights on shotgun barrels. I used to carry a Remington 870 with an EoTech holographic sight mounted on the receiver. When I would qualify for duty, I had to shoot five slugs from 50 yards. The barrel only had the front bead sight and qualifying could be a little tricky, but with the EoTech, it was a piece of cake.

That said, I am not a fan of electronic sights on a home defense weapon. It is one more thing you have to manipulate to get the gun ready. It can obscure view, and it is completely unnecessary when your maximum range will be the distance down your longest hallway or across your largest adjoining rooms. Bead sights are good for this type of work. I prefer rifle-style sights with a blade front sight and a leaf-style rear sight. Several companies make a rear peep sight for the shotgun, but I find them slower to acquire a sight picture and wholly unnecessary, since it isn’t being used as a precision weapon. XS Sight Systems out of Fort Worth, Texas is currently making excellent shotgun sights that have a tritium insert in the front sight for low-light shooting.

Replacing a factory forend with a SureFire Shotgun Forend Weaponlight is recommended. There are several reasons for this. You don’t get the option of walking across the room and flipping on the light before the shooting starts. Imagine it is 3 AM; you just heard your living room, picture window shatter; you run to the scene and shoot the dark silhouette standing at the window. Do you think you will ever be able to forgive yourself if the silhouette turns out to be your 16 year-old? Due to patent restrictions, no one else makes a forend weapon light for shotguns like SureFire. There are a few companies that mount lights on barrels and use a coiled wire running to a pressure switch, but none of these work well. I know of one enterprising gun writer who in his younger days mounted a short picatinny rail to the forend and slipped on a small pistol light (I still cringe when I remember how badly it jammed my thumb). At the end of the day, Surefire makes an outstanding weapon light and, although they are expensive, I think my family members are worth it.

Taming Recoil

The 12 GA shotgun packs a punch, but it is far from uncontrollable. Petite female officers can handle the weapon flawlessly. The correct grip, stock placement and cheek weld have more to do with shooting this gun well than anything else. Factory stocks are fine as long as they aren‘t too long for you. It used to be that thicker, rubber butt pads were about the only thing to tame recoil. Today, Blackhawk Knoxx Stocks offer a number of shotgun stocks that are nothing short of remarkable. I have had their Compstock stocks on every pump shotgun that I own for many years. However, if I were buying one today, I would look to their Specops Adjustable shotgun stock. I keep a bullet resistant vest next to the bed and I can slip in on at a moments notice. However, being blessed with short arms and a small stature, the Compstock is a little long for me when it butts up against the vest. The Specops Adjustable stock fixes this problem and reduces recoil. The only downside is the stocks are so good at reducing recoil, they cannot be used on semi-automatic shotguns because they will stop them from functioning.

A few of you will ask, “What about replacing the stock with a pistol grip? Won‘t they be shorter and more maneuverable?” Besides hurting your hand, pistol grips make the gun almost impossible to aim accurately. They have a CDI factor (Chicks Dig It), but no realistic practical application other than on a door-breaching weapon. Even then, it is immediately slung and forgotten after the door is breached. However, pistol grips can be found relatively cheaply. I fully support anyone trying one out for a day at the range.

Odds & Ends

A magazine tube extender allows loading two more rounds into the magazine. It also makes the weapon more front-heavy. This in turn slows down how fast the weapon can be brought to bear on a target. Recently, I took two identical shotguns to the range–one had the extended magazine and one did not. The lighter and faster worked better for me. It also made the decision easier to send $200 to the BATFE to have the barrel shortened to 14 inches like my work shotgun, which I love.
Slings hold the weapon when you need your hands free to do other things. The one exception is a pump shotgun. Shooters under stress can accidentally grab their sling with the forend and be unable to work the action to the rear. There are other after market modifications–like oversize safeties and side saddles with extra rounds. Side saddles can throw off the balance and I frequently bump oversize safeties into the “fire” position when they shouldn‘t be.

Final Thoughts

Despite all of its capabilities, I have heard the shotgun defamed and reviled by officers more than any other weapon. Many refuse to carry it, and some even go so far as to recommend that it be banned from non-sporting use entirely. In my experience, the individuals who hate the shotgun typically are the ones who lacked familiarity or could not shoot it well. The shotgun, like any weapon, is only as good as the shooter employing it. Careful preparations and regular practice can make it the best choice for home defense.

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