Justin T. Huang
December 1999, revised March 2000, May 2002.
Incorporates comments from Julius Chang, John O. Newell, Esq., RJ, Doctor Zox and others from the Glock and AR15-L lists.
Prelude: why choose a scattergun?
I will analyze this issue from the perspective of the non law enforcement or military person. If you're LE or military, most likely you haven't got much of a choice as to your longarm -- you're probably going to be stuck with your issue weapon.
Some persons maintain that a good battle rifle chambered in 5.56 NATO is the better overall choice over a shotgun. Of the many reasons given, one issue is overpenetration. As will be discussed below, shotgun loads, like any rifle or handgun load, can do damage even after passing through typical interior walls and similar barriers. They might be right -- I won't debate that issue here. But you should always be thinking about overpenetration, especially in terms of your surroundings -- do you have ten miles between you and your closest neighbor, or are you in a tightly packed apartment complex? Your tool will have to fit your surroundings appropriately.
Another reason is capacity. Normally, the social shotgun, even with magazine extension, will hold anywhere between five and seven rounds (I am not considering the relatively scarce magazine-fed shotguns like the SPAS 15 or the USAS 12). The typical battle rifle's magazine holds anywhere from twenty to forty cartridges, depending on caliber. High capacity drums are offered for certain battle rifles, expanding the capacity to 75, 100 or 125 rounds. However, with the restriction of high capacity (>10 round) magazines, thanks to the auspices of William Jefferson Clinton and his ill-conceived "Crime Bill" of 1994, the disparity of capacity between the fighting shotgun and the fighting rifle or handgun as been reduced. Pre-ban magazines for rifles are still relatively available, unless you live in California. Keep in mind that the capacity of certain semi-automatic shotguns was also affected by the Crime Bill -- in addition to any particular rules under local or state law. In sum, take capacity into consideration when you are looking at long arms for home defense.
Lastly, the maximum effective range of rifles is typically greater than the range of any shotgun. Ken Hackathorn, in an article entitled "Combat Shotgun Shooting" in Modern Firearms magazine, opines that shotgun is best suited for ranges of 25 meters or less. Consider, however, that for interior home defense situations, you will rarely see one hundred yard shots. Unless you are using your long arm to defend a large parcel of land (e.g., farms, ranches, etc.) then you probably won't need the extra effective range of a battle rifle. This is not to say that having extra reach is bad (unless it causes overpenetration problems), it merely points to the fact that you should not dismiss the value of a social shotgun based upon maximum effective distance if your particular environment will not require you to reach out and smack a goblin at extended range.
Shotguns may be easier to obtain in some jurisdictions, as opposed to your standard "battle rifle" or handgun. If you live in California, the passage of SB23 in 1999 has severely restricted your right to possess a centerfire semi-automatic rifle. If you live in a place like Chicago, IL, handguns are difficult (if not illegal altogether) to obtain. So for some, it may be the only realistic weapon that can be obtained without extreme hassle from those who know what's best for us (i.e., the government).
Scatterguns are also more economical than your typical battle rifle. We can thank our government again for raising the prices of social rifles. A post-ban AR-15 type rifle will generally run around $700-800 out of the box, while a typical defensive shotgun can be had for $250-300 on the low end. For those on especially tight budgets, used shotguns are a good choice -- if you ask me, a used repeater is preferable to a single-shot or double-barrel shotgun for defensive use. More on this topic later.
So if it's a shotgun you want, let's move on to how you should select your defensive scattergun.
I. Fit the gun to the shooter.
If you've read any of my other articles, you know that I'm big on fitting the firearm to the user. There is no difference with shotguns. As you would not buy ill-fitting clothes, you should not purchase an ill-fitting firearm either. A proper stock will make shooting an easy and enjoyable experience, while a stock that doesn't fit the shooter can make shooting a real nightmare.
Generally, the variables that can affect a stock's fit are the pull (the length of the stock) and drop (height of the stock). Taller individuals or individuals with longer arms generally prefer stocks with longer pulls. Shorter persons or persons with shorter arms generally prefer stocks with shorter pulls.
Obtaining the right fit can be done by going down to the local gunstore and seeing which stocks fit your personal size. Ask to handle a few shotguns and see which one you like the best. If you have the money, you can have a stock custom-fitted to your particular needs.
But lets say that the shotguns you try at the store don't fit. You might have to purchase a shotgun and then get an aftermarket stock that is more to your liking. The custom stock manufacturers certainly can fill your needs in this department. Alternatively, the kind people who make Speedfeed IV stocks (more on these later) offer reduced pull (13") pistol-gripped stocks for people who want a shorter pull on their defense guns.
II. Pick a gauge, any gauge.
This is not going to be a discussion on stopping power. As in my other articles, I am a strong advocate of fitting the caliber/gauge to the individual shooter.
Shotgun bores generally are not classified by caliber (except for the .410 bore, which we will discuss later). Instead, "gauges" are used. The gauge of a shotgun bore indicates the number of lead balls of that particular diameter that it takes to weigh one pound. So twelve lead balls, each of the diameter of a twelve gauge shotgun's bore, will weigh one pound.
As I understand it, anything larger than a ten gauge is classified as a destructive device under the National Firearms Act of 1934, as amended (the "NFA"). It used to be that eight and four gauge shotguns would be used to take down elephants in Africa. The point is that unless you are willing to go through the paperwork, you're limited to a ten gauge or smaller, for all practical intents and purposes.
The most popular gauge in America is far and away the twelve gauge. The reason is the twelve bore's versatility. With the new 3.5" shells, it can match the far-reaching power of the ten gauge, or loaded with 2.0" European shells, it can really be a softie.
The next most popular bore is the twenty gauge, which can also be loaded up to take 3.0" magnum shells or loaded down with gentle field loads. Less popular is the ten gauge, which is normally used for high-flying birds -- generally not for defense purposes. Rounding out the list are the sixteen and twenty eight gauges and the .410 caliber shotguns. The .410 caliber is the only currently produced American shotgun gauge that is measured in conventional "caliber" terminology.
Popularity should not affect your selection of a shotgun gauge, beyond the question of availability of ammunition and spare parts. You should find a friend who owns a gun in the particular gauge which you have selected and try it out before you go running to plunk your money down at the gunstore.
If you buy a gun in a gauge that you cannot handle, you will not enjoy shooting it. And if you don't enjoy shooting it, you won't practice with it. And if you don't practice with it, you will not be in a very good position when the balloon goes up and you need to use that firearm to protect your family's life.
III. Features of a defense gun
Now that we've got a gun that fits the shooter, we need to pick the proper gun for the job. A defense gun normally has several other distinctive features that separate it from your typical fowling piece.
Barrel. A defense gun should normally have a short barrel, typically 18" or 20" in length. Shorter barrels allow for greater manueverability in narrow hallways and the like. Under the NFA, a shotgun with a barrel length of less than 18" (or an overall length less than 26") is a "short barreled shotgun" and therefore is a restricted item. So unless you want to go through the trouble of getting an NFA tax stamp, I'd stick with an 18" or 20" barrel for your defense gun. Anything longer is fine, but realize that a shorter barrel will allow you to move better in the tighter confines of your home or apartment.
Your defense gun's barrel should be a smoothbore. Rifled shotgun barrels are nice, but they really only have one useful purpose -- shooting slugs. We'll get to ammunition selection later, but in general buckshot and birdshot will perform better in a smoothbore barrel. And rifled slugs are available for smoothbore barrels. So with a smoothbore barrel, you can use slugs, buckshot and birdshot without any real loss of performance. Therefore, from a versatility standpoint, your defense gun should be a smoothbore.
Should your defense gun have interchangeable chokes? I don't think such a feature is necessary. For defense purposes, if your gun does not have interchangeable chokes, you should choose a gun with an improved cylinder ("IC") or conventional "cylinder" bore (meaning no choke whatsoever). This allows the use of slugs, buckshot or birdshot. Interchangeable chokes are nice on a defense gun but since you won't be using anything but IC, it's not necessary to spend the cash. For more exotic choke options, check out the offerings from Vang Comp Systems or Patternmaster.
Sights. Most plain Jane shotguns will come equipped with a front bead as the front sight. The front bead works well but there are better options for a defense gun. Rifle sights are common on slug guns, and are better than the front bead system. The Beretta 1201FP is an example of a shotgun that is available with rifle sights. Even better is the ghost ring or "peep" sight, as used on the M16/AR15 rifles. These sights incorporate a rear ring and a front post sight. The idea is that your mind will unconsciously center the post inside the ring. The Benelli M1 Super 90 Tactical is an example of a shotgun which is available with ghost ring sights.
Tritium night sights are available for shotguns. I am unaware of tritium rifle sights for shotguns, but the Miniature Machine Corporation makes tritium ghost ring sights for shotguns. Tritium vials implanted in the front post and rear ring, allow effective use of sights to give better visibility in low-light situations. I prefer to augment the low-light capability of my defense shotgun with a Surefire Responder but we'll talk more about that later.
John Farnam eschews rifle and ghost ring sights on shotguns, in favor of the express sights, most commonly available from Ashley Express. John S. Farnam, The Farnam Method of Defensive Shotgun and Rifle Shooting 31-32 (1997). Gabriel Suarez likes the ghost rings, especially with tritium inserts. Gabriel Suarez, The Tactical Shotgun, 42 (1996).
Magazine. Extended magazine capacity is another desirable feature of a defense gun. While certain hunting regulations limit the number of shells available to one's shotgun when out in the field, there is no such limitation when it comes to defense -- but check with your local laws anyway. The larger the magazine capacity, the better. I like to add a magazine extension so that the end of the magazine tube is almost flush with the muzzle. Anything less in terms of capacity is wasted space, if you ask me. Several companies make magazine extensions for the more popular defense guns, including TacStar and Scattergun Technologies.
Please be aware that if your defense gun is a semi-automatic and has a pistol grip (and/or some other evil features) you cannot install a magazine extension which would put your gun's capacity over five rounds (under federal law currently in existence) unless that shotgun is a "pre-ban" firearm (meaning that it was in a certain evil configuration before September 13, 1994). Your state and local laws may impose further restrictions upon such issues so I would check with the appropriate authorities before modifying your shotgun with an extended magazine tube.
Note to potential purchasers of Remington 870 shotguns. Late production (>1990, I think) shotguns have several nice modifications that will prevent the installation of certain defense accessories on the Remington 870. First, two dimples have been machined into the 870's magazine tube, preventing the installation of a magazine extension. You can use a drill or Dremel-type tool to remove these dimples. Furthermore, as we'll discuss in the accessories section, should you decide to add a TacStar Sidesaddle to a Remington 870 Express or Wingmaster, you will have to chop off 1.75" from your slide, use a Surefire Responder (as detailed below) or order a special shortened slide from Remington. Remington supposedly only sells the shortened slide to owners of the Remington 870 Police model.
None of the above caveats regarding the Remington 870 apply to the 870 Police or Marine Magnum models. I don't really like Remington shotguns for those reasons.
Certain Mossberg 500 models also have problems with magazine extensions as the barrel band covers the end of the magazine tube so keep this in mind when purchasing a Mossberg 500. There are no problems with adding Sidesaddles to Mossbergs.
There are three types of shotgun ammunition: buckshot, birdshot and slugs. I will not talk about speciality rounds like Dragon's Breath, beanbag rounds or breaching shells.
Buckshot is the all-around defense load. Large lead pellets are the hallmark of a buckshot load. The most popular buckshot sizes seem to be (in descending order of diameter of each pellet): 000, 00, 0, #1 and #4. The larger the pellet, the fewer pellets per cartridge, but the more effective range of the shell.
In general, remember that the larget the shot size, the greater the effective range and penetration. Farnam and Suarez both concur that the maximum effective range of buckshot, for defensive purposes, is around 25 yards. See Farnam, supra at 38; Suarez, supra at 16. The "best" buckshot that one can use for defense purposes is unknown. It's like the constant 9mmP versus .45 ACP debate. Just use the one that you can shoot well and that gives you adequate penetration at the desired range, without overpenetration -- you'll be fine.
The popular loads in buckshot for defense are the "reduced recoil" loads, from Federal and Remington. These loads are not full-power loads, but are designed for fast follow-up shots. They are apparently very popular with the law enforcement community -- while that's not always an indication that a product is a good idea, the reduced recoil loads may enable more recoil-sensitive individuals to handle the relatively stout recoil of a big bore shotgun. In some instances, reduced recoil rounds have the added benefit of tighter pellet patterns -- but you should always confirm this by patterning a variety of loads on paper with your particular shotgun. And as always, make sure the load fits the shooter.
Farnam recommends against magnum loads in the defensive shotgun. Farnam, supra at 36.
Slugs are single projectiles, much like rifle bullets. They come in several varieties, the most popular being the Foster, Brenneke and sabot type slugs. Slugs are good for precise shots, at longer distances. Buckshot and birdshot will lose velocity quickly, due to their relatively non-aerodynamic shape. Realize that larger pellets will be traveling at higher speeds at a given range from the muzzle, compared to smaller pellets. However, effective range of the load may not necessarily increase, because the pellets will spread as the shot string moves downrange. Thus, the overall measure of a load's effectiveness must take into consideration more than just the kinetic energy of the round. Slugs have the advantage of condensing all the mass into one large projectile (more momentum) and better aerodynamic design. Federal offers reduced recoil slugs for defense purposes.
Birdshot is your typical field load. The load packages a multitude of very small pellets into one shell. At close contact distances (<20 feet) birdshot will behave exactly like buckshot or slugs, as the birdshot will still be locked into the shot cup -- try patterning birdshot at twenty feet and you'll get one large ragged hole. For this reason, some apartment dwellers like to use birdshot as their defense load -- at close distances (such as those found within apartments) it still packs the punch of buckshot or slugs, but it doesn't have as much overpenetration power once the shot string moves a decent distance from the muzzle.
John Farnam recommends against the use of birdshot altogether, stating the penetration is adequate only at contact distances (within a few centimeters). Farnam, supra, at 35. Gabe Suarez advises using birdshot only in strict home defense applications, when distances are short and overpenetration is a big concern. Suarez, supra, at 14.
In my opinion, buckshot and slugs can be horribly overpenetrative, depending on the distance from the muzzle. Obviously, slugs are the worst and birdshot is the best when it comes to losing energy over distance. Remember that buck and birdshot will lose energy faster over distance due to their poor aerodynamics, when compared to slugs. Choose your defense load based on your surroundings and the structure of your home. If you live out in the boondocks where it's ten miles between you and your nearest neighbor, slugs and buckshot will do just fine. If you live in a crowded apartment building, birdshot may be more to your liking. But remember, be aware of what's beyond your target, even if it is ten miles to your neighbor's house -- it might be your spouse or child beyond the next wall.
With buckshot, birdshot or slugs, each gun will behave differently. So make sure you take your proposed defense load and pattern the buck or bird at typical contact distance (21 yards or less). Shoot slugs through your gun and see what kind of groupings are possible. You may find that one particular load patterns extremely well. Stick with that load and you'll be fine. If you want to tighten up your patterns, see what the people at Vang Comp or Patternmaster can do for your particular gun.
There are all kinds of nice accessories which you can purchase for your defense gun. None of these are "essentials", but some of them are nice to have.
Sling. One can opt for the Giles tactical style sling or the conventional sling. I have a Wilderness Giles sling for my defense gun and I find that it works well. The Giles sling allows you to carry your gun in patrol fashion, with your muzzle pointed at the ground. You can easily and quickly mount your gun from the slung position. If you need to transition quickly to your handgun, simply release the shotgun and go for your handgun -- the Giles slung shotgun will end up pointed at the ground, resting against your chest.
Now I have found that being a towering 5'7" does not help when I am in the kneeling position and transition to the handgun with the Giles sling. Due to my short stature, the muzzle of the gun ends up hitting the ground. In a real life defense situation I don't care about the finish on my muzzle. If you are on soft ground when your muzzle takes a dive, make sure your barrel is clear of obstructions before you take the next shot -- the results could be catastrophic if you fire your weapon with a plugged barrel! The transition to the handgun with a conventional sling is a bit slower and more complicated. Take the conventionally slung gun, put your head in between the sling and the gun (with the gun in front of you, muzzle down) and go for your handgun.
Furthermore, the Giles sling seems to work best with a side-mounted front sling attachment. The Benelli shotguns typically come with a front sling attachment that can be rotated to 90/180/270 degrees so they are well-suited for Giles sling use. I haven't tried a Giles sling on a gun with the conventional front sling attachment.
There is one big downside to using a Giles-type sling. In a weapon retention situation, if a goblin grabs your shotgun -- he's got you too! Keep this in mind if you use a Giles-type sling. There are some models of "tactical" slings which incorporate fast-release buckles to try and solve this problem but in my opinion they don't do the job. If you're being slung around by a goblin in a fight, you're not going to be able to get to those release buckles. If you're a member of a tactical team and have buddies to back you up in a weapon retention situation, this might not be such a problem. But for the lone home defender, you might want to consider a simple carrying-strap type sling instead.
Weapon Mounted Light. Rule #4 of gun safety, as you well know, is that you should be aware of your target and what is beyond it. Since many defense situations can arise at night, there is a strong possibility of having to use your gun in a low-light situation. You hear about the situations (inflated by the anti-gunners, no doubt) where people violate Rule #4 by shooting at a moving person in their darkened house, only later to discover that it was a family member or something heart wrenching like that. A good way to prevent such misfortunate incidents is to light up your target before you pull the trigger. There are techniques to accomplish this with hand-held flashlights but I have found that the weapon mounted light makes things a lot easier -- after all, you've got both hands tied up with your shotgun to begin with.
My favorite weapon mounted light is the Surefire Responder. This unit replaces your slide or fore-end with a compact unit sporting an integral light module. The Surefire unit is adequately protected against the heavy recoil of shotgun cartridges -- the light bezel, battery pack and light body all incorporate recoil-absorbing features to make sure that your light doesn't die. It's not just good enough to hose-clamp a Surefire 3P or 6P onto your shotgun; you have to make sure that the recoil of the gun will not damage the batteries or lamp unit.
Note that a bottom-mounted sling can interfere with the Responder unit, as the lamp assembly may get in the way of the sling. However, you might be able to drill and tap a hole in your shotgun to allow the sling to be side-mounted.
The Surefire Responder comes standard with a momentary on/off pressure switch. A nice feature about the Surefire and other weapon-mounted lights is that there are no wires hanging around your weapon to get snagged on branches, doorknobs or whatever. Everything is integral to the fore-end or slide. For an additional fee, Surefire also provdes a parallel constant on/off rocker switch, which allows you to turn the light on and leave it on without applying constant pressure to the momentary switch. Why would you want such a feature? Well, imagine that you've apprehended a goblin in your home. It's dark, so you have your weapon-mounted light trained on him. You reach for the phone to call the police. Which hand do you use? If you use your non-dominant hand, your light goes out because there is no pressure on the momentary switch. If you use your dominant hand, the goblin knows you can't fire so he rushes you. This problem is solved by the parallel constant on/off switch. Spend the extra money, you'll be glad that you did.
Both Farnam and Suarez enthusiastically recommend a weapon-mounted light on the defensive shotgun. Farnam, supra at 32; Suarez, supra at 147. This is not an article about low-light shotgun technique, but I will just mention that the popular technique for low-light shooting situations is to "flash and move". Leave your light on and the goblin will take a shot at the light. So flash and move. If you have to light up an entire room to examine the contents, Gabriel Suarez recommends aiming the flashlight at the ceiling. That way the room is lit up with one flash from your light, and saves you from having to light up each segment of the room. Also, try to light up your target without pointing the muzzle directly at it (a la Rule #2) by using indirect lighting.
TacStar Sidesaddle. TacStar makes a nice accessory which allows you to carry six shells right on your receiver. This is popular with defense guns, since the Sidesaddle allows easy transition from buckshot to slugs -- just fill your gun with buckshot and your Sidesaddle with slugs. When you need a slug, you pop one out of the Sidesaddle and into the chamber. For about twenty dollars, it's not a bad deal. However, avoid over-tightening the mounting screws, otherwise you may bind the action of your gun. Check the screws regularly, as they tend to loosen with usage.
Shotshell pouch. Another nice way to carry spare ammunition is a shotshell pouch. These nondescript pouches are standard nylon pouches with elastic loops to keep the shells oriented within the pouch -- so when you go to reload, you know exactly which way the shells will be pointing. You can buy the relatively generic military shotshell pouch for around $5-10 at gunshows -- these feature two snap closures and loops for a dozen shells. Attachment is via belt loops or ALICE clips. Or you can get a bit more fancy and buy a shotshell pouch from Blackhawk Industries.
Speedfeed stock. The Speedfeed is a special stock that features two short magazine tubes molded into each side of the stock. These tubes allow the user to carry two shells on each side of the stock. I have not used a Speedfeed stock and wonder how quickly one could pop a shell out of the tubes and into the action. My initial impression is that if you want more shells on your gun, buy an extended magazine and/or a TacStar sidesaddle. The Speedfeed stocks are available generally for around $50-60 each.
Tactical bolt handles. These are replacement bolt handles for semi-auto shotguns. I've never used one, so I don't have an opinion on these items. GG&G offers a set of units for the Benelli and Remington semi-auto shotguns.
VI. Semi-auto or pump?
The vast majority of defense shotguns are either semi-automatics or pump-action. Single-shot and double-barrel shotguns will do in a pinch for defense, but it's always nice to have additional capacity in one's defense gun. Which one should you choose?
Pump shotguns are generally more economical and reliable. Reliability, however, is determined mainly by the user. Under stress, people have been known to "short-shuck" pump-action guns, meaning they fail to retract the slide fully to the rear and therefore do not fully cycle the action. This results in a "click" where a "bang" is needed. This can be solved by realistic training -- train under stress (have people shouting at you, etc.) and you'll be fine. Lastly, pump action guns can be more difficult to operate while in the prone position -- although this can also be solved by training.
Semi-automatics are easier to work from the prone position, but are more expensive and if not kept clean, can be less reliable. However, semi-autos that are properly maintained can be very reliable -- again, it's a matter of dedication in terms of keeping your gun clean and in good working order.
If your semi-auto is an inertia-operated gun (i.e., a Benelli or Beretta), you must take special care not to "dress up" your gun such that the additional weight of the accessories changes the inertia of your gun so much that it cannot function with your desired defense load. Adding accessories increases the mass of the gun, and therefore increases the overall inertia of the gun. Supposedly, if one installs a Surefire Responder and TacStar sidesaddle on a Benelli M1 Super 90 Tactical, it will not function reliably with light target loads or the reduced recoil buckshot or slug loads. My Benelli M1 wears only a Surefire Responder and simple sling, and so far I have had no reliability problems with that configuration, but I am unwilling to tempt fate by adding a TacStar sidesaddle.
I hope this has been helpful. After you buy your gun, I suggest spending a bit of money for some quality training so you can use your shotgun to its fullest potential. Let me know if you have any comments.
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