The shotgun has been a ubiquitous home-defense tool for decades. There’s just something about that train-tunnel bore and the unmistakable sound of a pump shotgun being racked that inspires a sense of security. However, more and more, it seems as though the defensive shotgun is losing favor. Between the vast array of quality handguns that allow for protection both inside and outside the home and the AR-platform rifles that are cheaper than ever, endlessly customizeable, and available in nearly every modern caliber under the sun, it becomes harder and harder to justify the harsh recoil and comparatively clunky operation of a shotgun. So, is there really still a place for the defensive shotgun in today’s age of high capacity wonder-pistols and space-age carbines? I think so, and here’s why.
Shotguns are unquestionably effective weapons at close range. In fact, they were so devastating in WWI that German officials protested their use in combat. Mind you, these were the very same Germans who saw nothing wrong with flamethrowers and chemical weapons, so that’s definitely saying something. The standard 00 buckshot shell sends nine .33 caliber projectiles downrange at velocities well above those of most handguns. It may not send an intruder flying through a plate glass window as Hollywood might like us to believe, but with some of the hotter buckshot loads, each pellet has nearly the same energy of a .32ACP round, which is nothing to sneeze at in and of itself. The ability to create multiple wound channels with one shot also greatly increases the chance of hitting vital organs and stopping a threat immediately. It may not really launch people across rooms, but there’s certainly a reason why the shotgun gained the reputation for power that it currently has.
Of course all this firepower is not without its drawbacks, and one of the major ones is low ammunition capacity. While there are various ways of increasing a shotgun’s standard capacity from extended tubes to drum magazines, they are often bulky and cumbersome if not downright gimmicky. Those who choose a shotgun for defense often have to make due with a capacity just half that of most full-size handguns, which certainly might be cause for concern. However, when you consider the per-shot effectiveness of the shotgun, it becomes harder to dismiss it on the basis of shot capacity alone. Six rounds in a shotgun may seem like very few, but each of those six rounds is several times as effective as any handgun round. Firing in pairs or triples as many of us train to do, we may only get five or six “servings” of lead from a 9mm handgun before needing to reload. With a shotgun, we can be reasonably confident that a single shot may cause enough damage to stop an imminent threat. So while the overall shot capacity is small, we still retain the same number of opportunities for a successful engagement. We also have to take into account the fact that long guns are much easier to shoot accurately than handguns, so the “servings” that we do have are more likely to find their mark with a shotgun than with a pistol.
One advantage rarely discussed is the shotgun’s ability to be topped off at any time by simply slipping more shells into the magazine tube. While it’s not as fast as swapping magazines in and out of a handgun or rifle, it does offer some flexibility that those other platforms typically don’t. An interrupted reload doesn’t necessarily leave you empty, and with tube-fed shotguns, you also don’t run the risk of inadvertently dropping your ammo supply with the accidental push of a button. In states where magazine capacity is restricted, there may not even be a substantial capacity disparity between the shotgun and other defense platforms to begin with, which makes the shotgun an even more attractive option for those of us faced with excess legislation.
Recoil is also a major cause for concern when choosing a shotgun as a home defense weapon. Excessive recoil is going to negatively impact performance during training as well as during defensive situations, and as many of us have found out one way or another, shotguns can generate a ton of recoil. Fortunately, shotshell loadings are extremely diverse, and reduced-recoil options are widely available along with a wide range of shot sizes and velocities to fit nearly any shooter and defensive situation. In fact, many reduced recoil loads have found considerable favor among law enforcement agencies. The shotgun doesn’t have to be the shoulder-breaker that it is often stereotyped as.
There’s a good lesson to be learned from the thousands of enthusiasts who compete in the various clay target shotgun sports, and that lesson is gun-fitting. A single competitor at a shotgun tournament can easily fire more than five-hundred rounds in a weekend. While target loads aren’t nearly as punishing as buckshot or slugs, they do still produce substantial recoil which can be extremely distracting, if not physically harmful. To limit the effects of recoil, many shooters have their guns custom fitted or choose a gun that fits well in the first place. Proper shooting form and gun fit can go a very long way towards taming even the harshest 12 gauge loads.
The shotgun’s versatility doesn’t end simply with defensive load options either. It is truly the most versatile firearm on Earth. With the ability to fire shot and slugs, a shotgun can put quail on the table one day, deer in the freezer the next, and stand watch during the night in-between. If you only own one gun, it really ought to be a shotgun. The vast array of aftermarket stocks, sights, and other accessories also allows for a considerable amount of customization.
The shotgun is also a very economical option when compared to carbines and handguns. A quality pump-action shotgun can often be had for half the cost of a reputable full-size handgun and well below the retail cost for even an entry-level AR carbine. This makes the defensive shotgun not only more attainable, but the money saved on buying one allows for investments in accessories, ammunition, and training which is often woefully underutilized.
Is the shotgun a one size fits all tool for self-defense? Probably not. However, it is an effective and versatile tool and is worth considering when choosing a home defense weapon. In the coming weeks, the Lucky Gunner team and I will be exploring the defensive shotgun concept to see if we can determine what makes the ultimate defensive shotgun and determine just when and where the shotgun makes sense as a defensive weapon compared to other platforms available.