Editor’s Note: We may have taken a break from our series on defensive shotguns, but it’s far from being over. Today, I’m proud to be able to share the following contribution from Darryl Bolke; a true expert in the field of fighting shotguns. Darryl is a fantastic shooting instructor with a wealth of knowledge and experience that is matched by very few in our industry today. Whatever your background with shotguns has been, you can probably learn a thing or two from Darryl’s take on a few popular shotgun myths.

One of the defensive firearms that has been a source of a massive amount of myth and misconception is the 12 gauge shotgun. Having used the 12 gauge as my primary long gun for high-risk work as a police officer for almost two decades, I would like to try to shed some light on reality versus myth.

First, I am not just “a cop who used a shotgun”. Those folks are often some of the worse perpetrators of fiction. I used a shotgun many, many times. I used them when most of my co-workers would not. If I had an inkling of high risk, a Remington 870 went with me. This was usually tight interior building work, searches for felons with K9’s, and high-risk vehicle stops. I have used a shotgun with exceptional results in a couple of actual shootings along with the deployments. I also wrote the policy and the program to put true fighting shotguns in every police unit. I hold instructor and user certifications from many different training organizations and trained with some of the most prolific shotgun instructors in the country. They really are “my thing”, and I would put my experience level up against anyone on actual usage. With that out of the way, let’s delve into the first of several articles that are part of our series on the fighting shotgun.

Myth 1: “You don’t have to aim a shotgun”

The author’s personal Remington 870 has iron sights and an Aimpoint red dot sight… because aiming is important.

This is a big one, maybe the biggest. Just pull the trigger and a cone of death appears, right? TV and movies have only perpetuated this myth. Here is the truth. Most guns with good buckshot will have a shot pattern of about 1 inch per yard. Some specialty loads or barrel treatments will hold it tighter. That leaves a lot of room to miss in close quarters and a lot of room to lose most of the effectiveness at distance. Keep in mind that buckshot is pretty much a .33 caliber sphere that makes a single round hole. When those pellets are tightly compressed in indoor room distances, they create devastating wounds that will overwhelm the system by causing numerous wound channels very close together simultaneously. If they make a single “rat hole” in very close quarters, they are hard to recover from by letting a lot of air in and fluid out rapidly. Once we get past about 15 yards with normal loads and 25 yards in the specialty loads, we get single pellets making a single hole in a few places that are not very efficient at stopping people. We also start getting to the point where we are losing many of the pellets off the target, and they will all hit something. So the truth is, you need to aim the gun, and it is most effective at about 15 yards or closer with buckshot loads.

With slugs, we get a single projectile that is highly penetrative (they work well against vehicles and felons behind cover). The slug gives us distance extension, but because of their penetrative nature we very much have to be aware of backstop and ensure we hit our targets. Again, aiming is critical, and in the next article, I will address sighting systems for the shotgun that can help with aim. It is absolutely critical that anyone using a shotgun for defensive needs take the gun to the range with actual defense loads you will be using and pattern the shotgun. Know for sure what your shot spread is and how accurate you are capable of with both slugs and buckshot. Training with birdshot is fine, but you have to also do the work with buckshot and slugs if that is what will be in the gun you are depending on in a crisis.

Myth 2: Anyone can use a shotgun

Another huge myth is that shotguns are great for non-dedicated shooters — a horrific assertion that often goes with the “don’t need to aim” myth. The 12 gauge shotgun has heavy recoil, ammunition that’s difficult to manage, limited capacity, and is long and difficult to maneuver in close quarters without very specific handling skills that take training and dedication. Management of the shotgun requires very aggressive handling of the gun when using it to both operate the action and to handle the recoil. Pistol grip only shotguns are by far the worst of the bunch, and the only real practical use for them is breaching, and some specialized units have used them for covert carry. If those tasks are not part of your mission, don’t buy them. These are not the guns to give to the elderly, frail, inexperienced, or novice shooters. Yet, the 12 gauge shotgun and the equally difficult to master airweight snub revolver seem to be favorites to sell or give to the exact people who should not be using them.

In my first shooting, the two carjackers I was up against both told investigators individually in interviews that they heard me rack my Remington 870 as I exited my car. The effect it had was exactly nothing.

One of my personal favorites is “you just need to rack the shotgun and criminals will run”. This is utter nonsense. In my first shooting, the two carjackers I was up against both told investigators individually in interviews that they heard me rack my Remington 870 as I exited my car. The effect it had was exactly nothing. They did not surrender or change their actions at all, other than to prepare for a fight.

Truly dangerous predatory criminals are not like you and me. Having guns pointed at them is not new or unique and they do not scare easily. Are there crooks that will run if they hear a shotgun being racked? Sure, but those are the same folks that will run if a light goes on or they are spoken to harshly. So, the racking of a shotgun will simply let a criminal know you are arming yourself for a fight–period. You are now at the mercy of their fight or flight decision. If they flee, great. If they choose to fight, the question now shifts to how well you have prepared for that fight. If your preparation is depending on them running because of a noise, you are in deep trouble. If you have invested in proper selection of your defensive tools and solid professional training, you will be in much better shape.

Myth 3: “Just fire a round in the air” 

This is simple. Do not listen to Joe Biden. He is an idiot with zero understanding of criminal and civil law. You are responsible for everything that leaves the gun. Subjecting the community to falling projectiles fired from a gun without justification is a felony in many places and the “Biden Defense” will likely not work.

Myth 4: “Shotguns are too big to use inside

The myth that the shotgun is too big to work indoors is one that does have a bit of truth. Unfortunately, the typical solution is wrong. This myth is what is often used to sell people on pistol-gripped shotguns with no shoulder stocks. Again, these make matters worse, not better. The truth is that shotguns are difficult to run in close quarters. It is why I was a rarity in my agency for using them a lot indoors. They can be run very efficiently indoors, but you have to train, practice, and have a deep understanding of how to move and function with a long gun in tight confines.

This comes down to dedication of learning. If you decide to try to clear your home (or someone else’s, for the LE/Military folks), you need to devote time and training to figure this out. For most home owners using a shotgun for home defense with minimal training, the best role is to use them in a bunker defense role of holing up in a bedroom or secure area while waiting for authorities.

The author during a class demonstrating a “short sticking” technique for running the shotgun in close quarters.

Myth 5: “Shotguns are the ultimate in reliability!

The last thing I want to address is reliability. Many think these guns are utterly reliable. They are not. Pump guns can be easily short-stroked under stress. The semi-autos often depend on ammunition and proper maintenance to function well. Most of the shotguns we have for defensive use are sporting guns altered into a role to use for fighting. Sporting guns are not like military guns. They are not easy to clear if malfunctions occur, and when they have parts failure they usually require a trip to a gunsmith to fix. Make sure you invest in good equipment and do not cut corners.

“These guns are often the primary defense of your castle that protects your most precious things. Your family, pets, and your assets are at stake. Do not put these at risk by skimping on getting proper instruction.”

Do not hang tons of accessories off of these guns. They need a light, sling, and sights as a priority, and on-board ammunition capacity as a bonus and that is about it. Use a quality gun and proven accessories, and you will be good on the hardware side. On the software side, training is critical. Seek solid advice and at least one good professional training course at a minimum. These guns are often the primary defense of your castle that protects your most precious things. Your family, pets, and your assets are at stake. Do not put these at risk by skimping on getting proper instruction. Watching movies with lots of shotgun use is not instruction (although I highly recommend Way of the Gun if you want to get some ideas). Invest in training and practice ammunition instead of gadgets and myths. Do some homework and do not depend on the advice of people who often have no idea of what they are talking about.  They are usually the ones who elevate myths and TV fantasy to perceived reality status.

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45 thoughts on “Dispelling Myths of the 12 Gauge Shotgun

  1. I was fortunate enough to take a shotgun class with Louis Awerbuck in 2013. Great 3 days of learning and shooting. Louis was a Master and is sorely missed.

  2. Darryl, could you explain this further: “Pistol grip only shotguns are by far the worst of the bunch, and the only real practical use for them is breaching, and some specialized units have used them for covert carry.”

    1. The answer is in the preceding sentence: “Management of the shotgun requires very aggressive handling of the gun
      when using it to both operate the action and to handle the recoil.” Long guns rely on three points of body contact—your two hands and the buttstock against the shoulder (plus cheekweld for a fourth point if possible)—for stability. With a PGO, that is reduced to two points, and only your firing hand is in position to resist the recoil—which is substantial with a 12 gauge. Not a desirable situation, and potentially painful for the user.

  3. Hey, stupid question but could you do something (even quick) about rifled barrel shotgun? Here in France it’s quite hard to have a pump action shotgun that isn’t rifled (well, you can, but it’s with a special autorisation that is the same as the one for semi-auto handguns and rifle and you are limited in number of authorisation, so most of the time, people don’t get a non-rifled barrel shotgun)

    1. We’ve had a few requests to talk about rifled shotgun barrels and it’s something we’d like to try to cover soon. Short answer is that they aren’t good with buckshot because they create a donut shaped pattern. If that’s your only choice, use slugs. They are really designed for hunting with sabot type slugs so you can extend the effective range of the gun.

      1. Thanks. That’s not my only option since I’m lucky enough to have some of the needed authorisation for semi-auto, but I only have handgun, for long gun I only have bolt action or pump action rifled barrel.

        1. As a fellow Frenchman, I can attest that buckshot and birdshot have crazy dispersion from rifle barrels, with shot density getting lower in the middle (“donut effect” as said Chris).

          At 8 meters, shot pattern is already over 1m in diameter with 7-1/2 shot. Type of wadding supposedly could mitigate this but I haven’t made any test on my own.

          Rifle barrels work great with slugs (Brenneke-type, GECO competition Slugs, Foster slugs …).

          IMHO this makes those rifled barrel pump guns a novelty more than a practical gun.

          If your gun range allows 12Ga, an unrestricted (cat B) semi-auto shotgun is nice! And much more efficient for 3Gun than a pump gun will ever be, if you’re into competitive shooting.

  4. ***
    Is there any danger using a rifled slug in a long barrel full choke shotgun? Are the rifled slugs only for use in a cylinder bore type of barrel? What kind of effective range does a rifled slug have–say against an 8 inch diameter paper plate?
    John Bibb

    1. Is there any danger using a rifled slug in a long barrel full choke shotgun?

      No. It would actually be dangerous to use a non-rifled slug in a full choke barrel. (Contrary to popular belief, the rifling isn’t there to impart spin, but rather to help the slug squeeze through tight chokes)

      What kind of effective range does a rifled slug have

      Depends. About a hundred yards for an average shooter, but if you’re very good, maybe a bit further.

  5. Great advice, and it’s exactly what all my instructors stressed in all of the “Combat Shotgun” classes I’ve taken.

  6. I like the Remington 870 short barrel for indoors protection. It can cover a door or window without much effort. A good wheel gun in .357 is also handy for that “half asleep” response to an intruder. Molon Labe!

  7. The man seems to know what he is talking about. For home protection practice makes better, not perfect. If you use a handgun, instruction and practice. The firearm I like for protection inside and out, at close range, is my Kel-Tec KSG, 15 rounds of 2 3/4 00 buck. Walking or hiking in the woods, S/W .357 686 snubby. Practice, practice, practice.

    1. It is always interesting when people “recommend” a wheel gun for self defense. My experience is that semi-automatic guns are much easier for new shooters, have the advantage of more rounds and more carry options. There is a lot of good evidence to show that the 357MAG is a good round, but a 10mm, 357SIG, 9mm +P, or .45ACP have just as good a record. This is especially true when the wheel gun is a “snubby” that does not allow for the full performance of 357 MAG ammo.

      1. .357 is carried in woods or hiking basically for protection from animals (rabies etc), outside the woods Glock .40. As you know recoil is different between a semi and a revolver. I learned on a revolver. I have qualified expert with both. Semi is easier to shoot. Whether you find ballistics to show you’re opinion or not, real life is different. Feds carried 9mm, many were injured after they used the firearm, not the same problem with .357 2 1/2″. We can go back and forth. Pick what you comfortable with and practice.

  8. #4 buckshot for self defense?
    I notice you never mentioned #4 buckshot that has a diameter of 0.25″. When reloading, I used a load of 33 #4 pellets compared to 9 #00 for the standard 2 3/4″ 12 ga shell. These 1,280 fps loads patterned very well at 10 yards from an IC choked barrel compared to the unpredictable patterning of 00 buckshot. Plus, you get lots more holes!

    1. Great point. #1 buckshot is also another superb choice for a defensive load. 00 buck will probably remain the standard as long as law enforcement and the military continue to use it. But for home defense, I think #1 and #4 buckshot are overall better choices.

  9. In the confines of a house, I don’t see how you could avoid ear damage firing a .357. While a shotgun is cetainly loud it doesn’t seem quite so sharp. Any thoughts on that?

    1. Shotgun and 357 magnum both produce about 165dB sound pressure. Both are likely to permanently damage your hearing without ear protection, especially indoors. Other self-defense capable cartridges may be a *little* less loud, but pretty much ALL of them are loud enough to cause permanent hearing injury. That’s one of the prices you pay for using lethal force in self defense.

      For what its worth, the longer the barrel on the shotgun, the quieter the blast. SBS’s are the loudest. If you’re worried about this issue, get a pair of electronic earmuffs (so you can hear background sound) and keep them near your self-defense gun.

      1. While I normally caution folks about using NFA firearms for these roles, that is likely because a majority of my life has been spent in a very non-gun, non-NFA friendly state. So, with that aside, if you live in a place where NFA items are a norm and not something that would bring any issues, then the 14″ SBS is my hands down favorite tool for indoor work dealing with typical criminal problems. When I was responsible for purchasing writing specifications for shotgun purchases for my agency, in each case of both patrol and SWAT, 14″ guns got the nod. It is an easy court justification as well if the gun is used for self defense as the short barrel is across the board recommended by most true subject matter experts on the shotgun for indoor use. The key is going to be to make sure you are totally legal with both the Feds and your state and local laws.-Darryl Bolke

  10. I have a Remington 870, but I wouldn’t use it for protection indoors… The Taurus .45/.410 seems to fit the bill in my home

      1. Well, apart from terrible patterning, and multiple design flaws intrinsic to the Taurus revolvers, these guns also have the “issue” where .410 cartridges lack the intrinsic power to reliably kill a pigeon at distances exceeding 15 feet.

        It says a lot about the power of marketing and mythology that somehow this anemic round, quite literally insufficient in power to use for hunting RABBITS, has somehow been elevated to the level of a reliable defensive weapons (eg against intoxicated 220lb adult humans). 45LC is a good round, but 410. . .no. Pretty much ANY conventional defensive round (.38 special and up) is better.

        1. My Taurus Public Defender doesn’t seem to have any design flaws such that it does not fire when the trigger is pulled. Seems to work every time. With the right ammo – Winchester PDX1 or Hornady Critical Defense .410 shells – it’s a fearsome weapon out to about 15 yards. A hit on a rabbit with either of those means one really, really dead rabbit. Look into the projectile load and ballistics of either of those two excellent pistol shells.

          If you know what you’re doing, you’ll hit center mass every time at 20-25 yards with .45 LC. Three Critical Defense or PDX1 and two .45 Long Colt rounds are about the right load for home defense. It’s also a great anti-carjack weapon. No carjacker in his or her right mind wants a faceload of #4 – or even #8 – shot.

          Having said all that, I also have a bullpup Mossberg 12ga. The PD will give me the firepower and, God willing, enough time to get to the bullpup. You can really clear a house with the bullpup, again, if you know what you’re doing. I prefer to hole up and call 911, as I am no tactical operator…

          1. Your concept of ‘fearsome’ and mine, are, apparently, a bit different, but I’m glad to hear your specialty defense rounds have enough power to kill a rabbit.

    1. The Taurus Judge and/or the S&W Governor are good options, especially where over penetration is an issue.

  11. I never understood how racking a shotgun was supposed to scare them when the first round you fired didn’t scare them.

    1. The idea is that you are carrying without a round chambered (for safety) and rack the shotgun when you decide to fire. Can this work to get a crook to freeze / flee? Yes. Seen it work in person. Should you plan on it working? Oh, hella NO.

      1. I think that’s apt. If all it took were the racking noise to scare away intruders, why even bother with a shotgun at all? Why not just play a pre-recorded shotgun racking sound on your smart-phone? As a secondary consideration, it may not be tactically wise to give away your position with the shotgun racking sound if you can avoid doing so.

        There are a few problems I have with the “rack right before firing” technique. First one, is that under stress you may forget to rack the gun altogether. Second, is that racking takes up a second and can throw you off your aim while doing so. That’s a second you might not have to spare. Lastly, if you’re carrying with an empty chamber, you’re wasting one round potential capacity. Maybe if you’ve got an extended tube 9+1 shotgun, that won’t matter so much, but if you’ve got a standard 4+1, missing the “+1” is a potentially significant decrease.

        1. You could just play a recording of firing a gun, would the bad guys know the difference? Maybe, we could as VP Biden for a comment.

    1. Sling is the “holster” for your long gun. If, for whatever reason, you need to use your both your hands for something OTHER than shooting, you’ll be glad you have the sling. The alternative is what. . .leaving your shotgun lying on the ground? Leaning it up against a wall?

      I think if you’re careful about your sling choice and setup (not too long; not too floppy) and gun management, you can mitigate snagging risk.

  12. I love my shotguns, but I hate that their safeties only block trigger movement. I painted a white stripe down the length of the barrel of my Stevens to enhance point-ability in low light while shooting from the hip.

  13. I want to reiterate what the article indicated, that “the best role is to use them (shotguns) in a bunker defense role of holing up in a bedroom or secure area while waiting for authorities. If at all possible, the “bunker defense” strategy is the best one for persons who experience a home invasion. It is inadvisable for a trained/experienced person to try and clear a home by themselves much less your average homeowner. This is because home invasions often have more than one perpetrator and they might be armed as well.

    I don’t want to risk my life defending my VCR against multiple, potentially armed intruders. But that’s just me.

    1. Also, by hunkering down in a secure location, you place yourself not only in a superior place strategically but legally as well. Many jurisdictions require a person to retreat. By employing the “bunker defense strategy” (copyright pending) you have already retreated and are more likely to be “justified” in using deadly force, because you are clearly defending your life and safety at this point.

  14. What a great article! Spot on!! I have a Remington 870 Tactical. I shoot quite a bit with it and practice handling the shotgun as much as possible. IMO I feel I have become a pretty good shot with it as well as very proficient with it. I reduced the buttstock length with Magpul Furniture to make it more comfortable for me. The Foregrip has Magpul too. Probably more important is that I dry fire practice with it on a more regular basis than going to the range. I use dummy rounds and I practice loading and shooting with it. I want to avoid short stroking and if I do short stroke I know how to handle it. I strip it down and put it back on many occasions too. I do not have a pistol grip and I have nothing on the shotgun as for me; this is the best way I like it. But excellent article!

  15. The shotgun is the most devestating weapon up close and personal for a civilian to use. It is deadly and is a proven fight stopper. If you want to stop the threat, a shotgun is your best bet. Take instruction, get to the range and practice so you don’t short stroke. Know your shotgun well to where muscle memory takes over and you don’t even have to think about it’s function. I have a lot of weapons. A shotgun is my first choice in a home invasion. Now if I was forced to move/clear I would take my Glock 22 trijicon night sights. If you have nobody else in the house to retrieve, your best bet, besides calling the police and having them on their way, is like the author said to hunker down and stay out of the fatal funnel. Let the intruder walk into the fatal funnel and stop the threat. I am an officer and have to clear areas that is our job. As a homeowner there is no need to further risk your life by walking into an ambush. The only exception is if you had to get to a loved one. There are great classes out there. Get training in how to move and clear as safe as possible. Great article!

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