There’s an old adage that says “there’s nothing a shotgun can do that a rifle can’t do at least as well and usually better“. Which is true.
But I like shotguns, just as I like revolvers. They are both fun to shoot, enjoy tons of tradition, have enviable track records, and (to get a little anthropomorphic) have a greater human connection than either rifles of pistols. (But other than a snubby I mostly carry a pistol rather than my fine Karl Sokol-tuned Model 66.)
Shotguns are the go-to long gun for many people and there’s certainly an awful lot of them in circulation. So, here in precise stream-of-consciousness order, 20 things to know about the shotgun for self-defense:
- First, I assume that you know that the “normal” legal limit of 18 inches is what you want. Any shotgun in a longer distance can work but the shorter the better for ease of maneuver. If you want to bother with the paperwork, fine: go shorter.
- Many people advocate the 20 gauge over the 12 for reduced recoil and for smaller people. The physics of the matter certainly validate the reduced recoil argument, and the 20 gauge, with about the same energy delivery in buckshot as two 44 magnums, is certainly “enough gun”. If you can feel and appreciate the difference, great; go for the 20 if you want. But recoil is a very subjective thing, and although I’m hardly a big guy I can’t feel much difference. Nonetheless, advantage: 20.
- 12 gauge guns are widely available in a bewildering array of options. 20s are not. Advantage: 12
- Modern “reduced recoil” 12 gauge buckshot is very manageable and very effective. Advantage: 12
- Recommending birdshot because it won’t over-penetrate walls is to recommend a round that won’t penetrate heavy leather jackets. Remember when Vice-President Cheney shot a hunting buddy in the face with the stuff at close range and the victim wasn’t seriously injured?
- A case is sometimes made for #4 or #1 buckshot, mostly along the the “more energy” lines, but really, the far more commonly available 00 buck has, I think, enough oomph. Besides, using something that isn’t used in police service it’s just one more thing to explain and one more line of attack by a politically-motivated, unscrupulous DA.
- Today, I think that virtually every expert on the subject either recommends or is just fine with 00 buck, and most of them are fine with the reduced recoil stuff. FWIW, I concur.
- The old adage (with 00 buck) of 1-inch of spread for every yard of travel is more like 1/2-inch per yard these days, at least in my experience with late model guns and modern ammo. So assuming you want to keep all the shot in an 8-inch pattern (liability, ya know), the modern shotgun is not much more than a 16-yard weapon under that constraint. Longer of you can accept a larger pattern. And truth be told, that’s a) about as far as you’ll ever need to take a self defense shot (speaking not absolutely but statistically), and b) that’s a far as most people can manage to be competent with the gun — maybe to 25 yards, but that’s it. However, the Federal FliteControl stuff punches a 00 one-inch hole at 7 -10 yards, making the modern 12-gauge, 18-inch, cylinder bore shotgun nearly a rifle to any reasonable self-defense distance…with 00 buckshot!
- No matter what load you carry, a shotgun is an aimed weapon, and it’s almost as easy to miss with it as it is with a rifle (that’s a little poetic license, but it’s mostly true). Red dot optics are great if you are used to them, but it’s also hard to beat an XS 2/7 Big Dot front sight mated to an XS 24/7 rear mounted on the rear of the barrel (not the rear of the receiver).
- Full barrel length (usually meaning extended) mag tubes are nice and don’t cost too much in terms of weight and maneuverability (they cost some), but probably, again statistically, you are unlikely to need more than the 3 or 4 shells in a standard mag tube.
- Ditto shell carriers. Depending on where they are placed and what-all else you’ve loaded the gun up with, they might start to make the gun give up significant maneuverability, but that is an individual thing.
- Shotguns do not have brutal, uncontrollable recoil. Using the push-pull (sometimes called the bow-and-arrow) technique and proper body mechanics anyone can control one well. This removes some of the argument for the 20 gauge.
- Shotguns are an expert’s weapon, just like a snubby is. They take more skill to accurately shoot and control than, say, an AR-15 (or my favorite home defense rifle, a Winchester 1894 in .357). Like all firearms the safety should come off only when you are in the act of firing the weapon and go back on immediately after, and without changing your firing grip. That’s impossible with the common 870. Yes, you can get oversized safety buttons for its crossbolt safety, and they are good, but they only make it easier and faster to remove the safety; they don’t address the equally important issue of getting the safety back on quickly. The Mossberg tang safety is better in this regard, but it doesn’t work with pistol grips, which are a real advantage (see next). Getting the safety back on is important. If you believe (as you should) that it’s not OK to leave the safety off a 1911 while you move, run, change position, challenge a suspect, or whatever, think of the greater danger presented by not engaging the safety on a 12 gauge shotgun with which you are likely to be far less practiced.
- Pistol grips make the shotgun easier to shoot from tactical positions (elbows retracted, etc.), more instinctive to shoot, and they provide commonality with AR platforms and handguns. But they are at odds with Mossberg’s far better safety position. However, the main advantage of pistol grips is that they get your shooting thumb off the stock’s comb where, with a short tactical stock (see next) it tends to get driven into your nose under recoil. This is a common problem, if not a universal one. Clay shooters and hunters have no idea what I’m talking about here because they use traditional longer stocks.
- Almost all factory shotgun stocks are too long for tactical work – even most youth stocks. You want to assume the same position with the shotgun as you do with an AR, and you know how short a properly set up AR stock is. For a pump gun you can get after market stocks of the proper length, but autos, because of the spring tube, have severe limits on how short a stock can go and most autos simply don’t allow a short enough stock. Close sometimes, but not really what you want.
- Pump guns will fire any shell that fits in the chamber while autos are often ammo sensitive. Some deny that this is still a problem, but I’ve seen some otherwise great, lubricated modern autos from major manufacturers fail to work with Federal FliteControl buck (which is what you want to feed your shotgun). If your auto of choice feeds your ammo of choice reliably (which is every time), then autos have it all over pumps in terms of being operator fuck-up proof. If not you’ll have to learn to run a pump, which is not hard. Nor slow. Karl Sokol has been observed firing an 870 (and hitting his targets) so fast that people in the adjoining range thought he was firing an auto as fast as he could pull the trigger. (I can’t do that but many people can.)
- I can make a case for practicing slug swap outs for police and military. I can’t for civilians. Sure I can imagine a scenario in which you’d have to use this technique, but I can’t imagine one that’s remotely likely. Stick with 00 buck, the load that the shotgun was designed for and that gives it its unique capabilities. If your load of choice is a slug I have to ask why you don’t simply use a rifle to begin with. (It’s the ability to fire multiple types of rounds reliably, including specialty rounds, that still gives the shotgun a place in law enforcement service, IMO.) Slug swaps are cool to practice though, and they they are a staple of instructors trying to stretch their material so as to charge students for more days. Foundation shotgun skills are pretty basic and pretty easily learned.
- The drop on most factory stocks, and all length-adjustable stocks, is way too little. “Drop” refers to how much the heel of the stock is lower than the bore axis. Most factory stocks have little drop since so many shotguns are sold into the bird hunting and clay shooting market. There, as you raise the gun above your head level, the sights on the receiver and barrel naturally come into line with your eyes. But if you are using the gun to shoot straight ahead like you do in tactical applications, then your head has to come down to the sights and a high comb will simply not allow it for many people. An above-the-bore sight, like an optic, will solve the problem, but if you have irons on your shotgun you will appreciate some drop in the stock. Again, you’ll probably need an after-market stock. (Of course the greater the drop the more the recoil does not travel straight back to your shoulder and from there to the ground, so everything’s a compromise — no surprise here.)
- Slings on a shotgun are essential for police because after they have shot a BG they have to then control, cuff and search him, as well as comms with dispatch, and they can’t simply lay the shotgun down (or shouldn’t) nor hand it off to a bystander and ask him to watch it for them. They need to maintain control of their weapon. Civilians on the other hand don’t have these responsibilities and are far less likely to need a sling. If you want one on your shotgun, a simple two-point job is the best bet since shotguns are too heavy for one-point or three-point slings to be comfortable. Remember though, that dangling slings are just another way to get hung up and make a tactic or technique more difficult or slower. Trade-offs again.
- All tactical long guns need an attached white light. All of them. Even my lever-action .357 has an attached white light. The light should have a momentary-on only switch. I trust this is self-explanatory.