Home Defense Shotguns
by Mark Freburg
A shotgun kept for home defense has some obvious pluses and some obvious minuses as well. Let's look at some home defense shotgun basics.
Once the decision to keep a shotgun is made I think the next decision must be chambering, ie., what gauge? This is probably more critical than it is with a handgun. I think it comes down to who will use the gun. A shotgun is not hard to handle for a trained shooter who practices, but it is not for the novice. And I'm not just talking about recoil, I'm talking about handling it in the confined spaces of your home, of loading it and reloading it, and handling it safely. Even a simple pump action requires some training and I don't mean shooting trap with it.
The 12 gauge is the most effective followed by the 16 gauge, 20 gauge, and .410 bore. A 10 gauge is too much gun for home defense, and I've never heard of the small 28 gauge and smaller shotguns being used in this role. The 16 is not commonly used today because of the lack of defensive loads, leaving us with the 12, 20, and .410. I think the .410 is underpowered but if it is employed well in trained hands it is better than many things people choose. I see some folks buy a .410 "for the little woman." I see that as a mistake. If she can't handle a handgun can she really handle a .410 shotgun? And if she CAN handle a .410 shotgun she can probably handle a 20 gauge or larger. Don't underestimate a woman's capabilities, which are really no different than a man's in this regard. Do have a clear understanding of the woman's--or man's--attitude, interest, background, training, and willingness to practice. Don't force a gun on anyone who doesn't want one; they won't use it well if at all. That said, the optimum choice for a home defense shotgun is the 12 gauge, with the 20 gauge a slightly less effective choice that will still get the job done and with less recoil. Load choice is better with a 12 than with a 20.
Pump (slide action) or semi-automatic? Today that comes down to personal choice. I favor keeping it basic. The pump is a very fast to use, reliable gun, and is my first choice. Part of that is because of my experience with a pump, which goes back a long way. If you are a regular shotgunner used to maintaining semi-autos, there is nothing wrong with one of the modern guns that will reliably handle most loads you will feed it. I wouldn't choose one of the older designs in an auto, however. The downside of the pump is that in the heat of the moment it is possible to short-stroke the gun, meaning that you don't bring the slide back and then forward fully, and so you don't pick up another round from the magazine--leaving you with an empty chamber. But like any other gun used for serious purposes, you must practice to achieve and maintain proficiency. If you won't practice then buy a watchdog and sign a contract with a security monitoring service and cross your fingers that you will not be a victim of crime. Self-defense with firearms is not for everyone, and like everything else you get out of it what you put into it. A final comment on action choice: if you choose an automatic, maintain it carefully. Keep it clean and well lubed. If you are the type of person who is a little more lax on maintenance, go with a pump, which can sit for a long time without a lot of attention and still work when you need it.
A pump can be kept with a loaded magazine and an empty chamber and still be brought into action very quickly. The pumping action is a natural movement when picking up the gun, and the noise of chambering a shell might even let the intruder know you mean business. Stored with the action closed, the pump is perhaps faster to load than the semi-auto also kept stored in Condition Three (full magazine, empty chamber).
Buy a repeater that holds a four or five or six rounds. A single shot or a double gun is too limiting. If the shotgun comes with a long magazine tube but only takes two rounds it is probably plugged for hunting. Learn how to take down the magazine and remove the plug, which will just be a wood or plastic dowel blocking the magazine tube. And although we want a gun that holds a few rounds, we don't need a gun that is as long as a broomstick. Shotguns pay for their power and effectiveness by being less handy and more unwieldy in tight spaces than the handgun. Stay with barrel 18 1/2" to about 22" maximum.
Another consideration is sights. The traditional sight is perhaps a groove on the receiver at most with a gold or brass bead on top of the muzzle. This can also be a colored bead, usually white or ivory. Another option is a inexpensive fiber optic sight. This is merely a short length of plastic rod mounted horizontally parallel to the barrel at the muzzle end. The rod is translucent colored plastic which absorbs or reflects light and which seems to glow brightly when viewed from the end as you would when sighting the gun. They will gather ambient light quite well and the bright colors used--lime green, orange, yellow, etc.--are a good contrast from the colorless background in your home in dim light. Red is a poor choice indoors in a dark home. Rifle sights (usually a square notch rear that is adjustable for windage and elevation coupled with a blade front, or especially, a protected aperture rear/blade front sight) are very popular today on "fighting shotguns." I'm going to buck the trend and say leave those to the police and military and to the folks who participate in combat shotgun matches. They are superfluous on a home defense shotgun where ranges are measured in feet rather than yards. If you also want to compete in three gun matches with yours, fine, get open or aperture sights, but otherwise don't waste the money.
One other option to consider is the red dot sight. The red dot has good application for a defensive firearm of any type, but again is probably not needed for home defense. On the ranch or farm where it may be employed outdoors I'd say the red dot is a good idea, although there it might be mounted on a carbine rather than on a shotgun. In the confines of our house or apartment, a red dot is probably not as useful, and the bulky optic mounted on the gun makes it more clumsy. While you want to aim your shotgun like a rifle whenever possible, it may not always be possible, and you must be able to shoot it effectively from other positions. If you come to depend on the red dot you will only be able to shoot it off the shoulder. Remember, we're talking about an electronic dot projected within the sighting instrument, NOT a laser, which projects a beam of light toward and against the target.
How about a laser? You should know that it isn't like on TV where the red dot of the laser sits motionless on the target. He'll be moving and you'll be following a dancing dot, and that can distract you from what you need to be doing, which is defending yourself and your family from a lethal encounter. That said, a laser can be a very useful tool in the dark.
These days most shotgun barrels come with screw-in choke tubes. (Choke is the degree of constriction at the muzzle end of the barrel.) Defense shotguns are often the exception, however, and may come with just a cylinder bore choke, which is to say no choke at all--cylinder bore being an unrestricted muzzle. I have used cylinder bore shotguns in law enforcement and home defense forever and like them very much. But if you can buy a gun which has the other options you desire as far as barrel and overall length, magazine capacity, and sights, and also comes with choke tubes, go for it. This will give you another options--if you also plan to use this gun for target games or hunting, the choke tubes or even another interchangeable barrel will make it that much more useful. It probably goes without saying, but a rifled barrel or rifled choke tubes intended for slugs are inappropriate on defensive shotguns. Slugs penetrate far too much for defensive use and should NEVER be used indoors. Leave those to the SWAT teams also, unless you're defending the ranch...and then you will probably grab your .223 or .308 rifle instead, eh?
Choose your ammo wisely. Shotguns will shoot through interior wall construction just like handguns will. Buckshot especially will penetrate typical drywall. Birdshot may not penetrate wall if fired from a long distance, but there are not many long distance shots in the typical home. But birdshot is also only likely to be effective against human attackers when fired from very close range in a straight on torso shot. One option is to load the gun with a couple of birdshot rounds followed by buckshot. If you are going to take this approach I would suggest something like high base #7 1/2 birdshot, which is a field load as opposed to a target load. If you do miss you should have less penetration through walls, although again, any load can penetrate walls, especially up close. How about larger birdshot? To me it seems a pointless compromise. If the 7 1/2s don't work you probably have a dangerous problem and need to switch to buckshot immediately, not a goose or turkey load.
Buckshot is a better choice. Number fours are easier to shoot and hold more pellets per cartridge. Double ought (00) Buck is heavier and penetrates much better. Number One Buck is actually a good compromise between the two. I used No.1 Buck for years until the advent of what the factories call "tactical loads" somewhere around a dozen years ago. These are usually offered in 00 Buck or No.4 Buck, the two most popular defensive loads, and are slightly reduced in power. They are still effective on human targets yet their recoil is greatly reduced. Federal came out with the first tactical loads but other makers have followed suit. I like the Federal 00 Buck Tactical load in my home defense shotgun. It patterns very well and it recoils LESS than my previous No.1 Buck loads. As I am a believer in the need for penetration if I have to shoot someone, I would not choose the No.4 Buck loads, but this is just my preference.
BTW, use lead shot. Steel shot is for hunting. You can use copper plated shot if you like, and buffered shot. This will be more expensive but might work better in your shotgun as the coppered/buffered shot is protected better and stays "rounder," so it flies truer. Experiment.
Start with three, four or five different loads from at least two different manufacturers. This will sound like a broken record to some, but ALL GUNS ARE AN ENTITY UNTO THEMSELVES, and shotguns even more so. Just because the XYZ Load works well in your friend's gun doesn't mean it will shoot well in yours. This is where TESTING comes in.
Take your clean and lubed gun to the range long with a few boxes of various loads. BTW, if the gun is new, it should be cleaned and degreased then relubricated. It won't hurt to shoot a few boxes of inexpensive target loads through it first either, mainly to acclimate yourself or your family members to shooting and handling the gun, but it will also help smooth up a new gun if it has any burrs or tight-fitting parts. Along with your gun and ammo, take a roll of butcher paper or brown mailing paper to the range. I actually recommend Reynolds and Reynolds freezer paper, which is plastic backed. It handles nicely and is more durable than plain paper, yet it is only a couple bucks from the grocery store. You might also take some one or two inch stick-on circles for use as aiming point unless you are comfortable aiming at the unmarked center mass of the target. Take a tape measure, too, for measuring ranges.
Staple a width of paper to the cardboard and add an aiming dot if desired. Measure off seven feet. Yes, feet. This is CLOSE but a very likely home defense distance. Shoot one or more rounds of one brand on the paper. Mark the brand and type on the target and replace the paper before switching to another round. Once you've shot all your test loads at seven feet, move back to about five to seven yards and repeat the exercise. You can also shoot from even further away, but I see this as a waste for home defense patterning, unless you live in the country and have outdoor scenarios to consider as well. If so, then by all means pattern your gun out to about 25 yards in perhaps a couple more distance increments. Don't forget to try different chokes with each load if this is an option on your gun. Finally, while at the range write down your immediate impressions of the recoil and gun handling with each load, while they are fresh in your mind.
Once you get home, sit down and analyze the targets. You're looking for the loads which shoot closest to point of aim, with good yet even dispersion of the lead pellets. Combine these results with your written impressions of each load's recoil characteristics and handling in your gun. If you shot with another family member they'll have to get involved in this analysis as well. Once you come to a decision, acquire a number of boxes of your chosen ammo, preferably all one lot number. Test this one more time if it is a different lot from your original batch.
I a not a big fan of bolting on a lot of gizmos on the home defense shotgun. It should have a full stock and not simply a pistol grip. Leave those to Hollywood. If you want a stock with a pistol grip as well as a shoulder stock that is fine, but I caution that these should only be used on shotguns which have a cross button safety at the trigger guard like a Remington 870 (shown above). A shotgun like the Mossberg 500 (also shown above) has the safety on top of the receiver. This is very handy to the thumb with a standard stock, but if you switch to a pistol grip type the safety can no longer be used with the hands in firing position. The forward pistol grips are not useful either. Pistol grips in general just bulk up an already bulky weapon. Think short and compact with a home defense shotgun.
Extra ammo carriers might be useful. Better to have extra ammo and not need it than need it and not have it. Some "combat gurus" recommend the Sidesaddle, which is a hard plastic piece that mounts to the left side of the receiver through existing pin holes and which holds about five extra rounds. This might be okay, but I think it gets in the way of carrying the shotgun. If the gun is a dedicated home defense gun only, a Sidesaddle is fine. If you plan to use this gun for other things I'd pass on it. A butt cuff--a wide leather or elastic piece that slips over the gun's butt--is pretty handy. They hold five rounds or so too. When using a Sidesaddle or butt cuff always place the rounds base down for the quickest loading. With the ammo oriented this way you can reload the shotgun's magazine tube with your left hand while holding it ready to fire in your right hand, or vice versa for you lefties.
How about white lights (flashlights)? A flashlight is something you need for home defense, just like you ought to have a cell phone (in case land lines are cut or go out). Should it be attached to the gun? I like to have a flashlight I can hold away from my body for searching, but a light on the gun is also useful. It should have a button accessible to your hand at all times so you can turn it on and off at will.
If you keep a shotgun, store it where you can get it especially at night. I recommend an empty chamber and a loaded magazine with a pump gun. This will give you one more step to take when going from being asleep to having a loaded and cocked gun in your hands. We're all different in this regard, but I like to be very aware of my surroundings before I am armed and dangerous. My family deserves that from me.
With an unloaded shotgun practice moving through your dark house with the gun in hand. Experts say you should not plan on clearing your house if you have intruders but should barricade yourself and the family in a strong position and wait for the police. That is absolutely correct, but most of us cannot sit still and "do nothing" while we wait. Understand that this is a likely reaction and plan ahead. If you are likely to clear your home on your own do it smart. Try to anticipate where someone will come in and where they will hide if they hear you coming. Move the gun around as you would for real. I like to use a low ready position--butt in my shoulder but muzzle angled down to a point at the floor just a few feet in front of me. The muzzle is not pointing at anyone and I can see over the gun. A standing intruder will have a harder time grabbing a low muzzle than a high muzzle if he does get a jump on you. Practice keeping the gun in close and tight to your body to prevent a grab, and because you really don't have a lot of room to be swinging a muzzle around inside your home. This is where the handgun excels, but what the handgun gains in handiness the shotgun takes back in problem-solving power. You've made your decision, so now make the best of the bulkier gun. By the way there is nothing that says you can't ALSO have a handgun, either on a belt and holster rig that you can strap on quickly, or in a robe pocket. If God forbid you do have the shotgun taken away, a second gun is the only thing likely to keep you on a close to even footing. And while you're off clearing the house, your spouse or next most responsible family member ought to be on the cell phone with the police and holding a backup handgun of his or her own.
You might not care to keep the loaded shotgun out during the day, when the risk is usually lower. Some of us lock the gun in the safe during the day. If you leave the home during the day it definitely should be locked up. If you really never have visitors, especially children, you can simply put the shotgun out of sight during the day, but my philosophy on loaded guns is that they should be under my control, preferably on my person but otherwise immediately to hand. When they are not under my control they are locked up. I have no young kids in the house, but in this day and age many if not most adults are not much safer than a child when they come across a loaded gun. It shouldn't happen without our being right there to intercede.
(The shotgun shown vertically in the article is a 870 customized by Wilson Combat.)
copyright 2005 by the author, all rights reserved