Throwback Thursday: Buckshot or Birdshot for Home Defense? Let’s Ask Science.

By Dave Dolbee published on in Ammunition

There is one distinctive sound no gun enthusiast would ever mistake—the sound of a pump-action shotgun be racked. Fortunately, a lot of other people who are not shooting sporting purists understand the implications of a pump shotgun being racked as well. While the sound is a great deterrent, you may not always be in a position to let an intruder or adversary know that you are armed or wish to give an auditory indication of your location and in the process give a foe a tactical advantage.

While you may not be willing to give up a tactical advantage, shotguns are the top choice for home defense. Picking a gauge and the shotgun for home defense is easy enough, but the choice of round to load is quite another debate. Several years ago, I was privy to shotgun ammunition testing where several loads were compared against one another. Three-quarter-inch thick pieces of plywood were used as the target. At short range, (under five yards) birdshot had no problem poking holes big enough so your fist would just about pass through a sheet of plywood. This was also true when you doubled the plywood for a total thickness of 1.5 inches.

However, when the range was increased, the birdshot pattern starts to open. As the small shot pattern opened, it lost the potential to poke holes through the plywood. Modern loads, shot cups, forcing cones etc. and other technologies all effect the distance at which birdshot has the ability to poke a hole through the plywood and potentially serve as a potentially lethal home defense round. If this is your choice, do your own testing, and understand the capability of the round you select, but not before reading the rest of this article!

The conclusion of the testing I observed was simple. Birdshot will do the job at shorter ranges, but the shooter must understand the limitations and accept the reduced effectiveness as range increases—even anticipated ranges within the house. The single upside of the limited penetration was a reduced chance of over penetration through a wall.

Shotgun laying across a target with Winchester PDX shells in posed position

Winchester’s PDX shotgun shells have proven reliable in any number of shotguns, and the ballistic effective is impressive.

The solution is, as it has always been, buckshot. A payload of seven to 10 .33-caliber pellets blows holes in plywood at short ranges and still has the penetration and energy potential at longer ranges to end the opponent’s ability to continue the fight. As with any firearm, know your target and what is behind it. Practice, practice, practice… both at the range and dry fire scenarios in the home. Understand where to find your hard cover and the “no-fire angles” where you could harm an innocent in an over-penetration scenario.

 

Why a shotgun over a pistol round?

The answer is simple—physics. Harken back to days of math class and you’ll recognize the kinetic energy equation KE=1/2mv2 (m=mass, v=velocity). When applied to common pistol calibers we come up with the following at the muzzle:

.380 ACP – 203 ft./lbs.
9mm Luger – 340 ft./lbs.
.45 ACP – 250 ft./lbs.
.223 Rem. – 1310 ft./lbs.
12 gauge, 00 buckshot (1.107 oz. load) – 1547 ft./lbs.

Black Mossberg 500 Shotgun, pointed to the right on a white background

The Mossberg 500 with an 18.5-inch cylinder bore barrel is one of the most popular shotguns for home defense.

The powder type, amount and grain weight of the bullet all could be factored in to influence the numbers in the chart, but you get the idea. Use the numbers as a guide, not hard fact. Using these numbers,  a full payload of 00-buck delivers about six times energy potential of the .45 ACP. Let’s say in the heat of the moment—heart racing and shorts soiled—you only clipped the bad guy with one pellet. You would still be delivering 175 foot-ponds of energy or a little less than 90 percent of the power of a .380 ACP. Two pellets and you have eclipsed the 9mm or .45 ACP.

The AR-15 is certainly a viable choice for home defense. You can hang any furniture you feel necessary; it is small, light, maneuverable and features a high capacity. The .223/5.56 round is available in several viable practice and self-defense offerings, and most of all it has been proven. A potential downside would be its ability to over penetrate several layers of drywall and heaven forbid a stray round makes it out a window and travels a mile or so.

As for group size, in truth and at standard defensive distances inside the home, a shotgun pattern will not open significantly, but it will open. The larger pattern size increases the odds of winging an intruder as well as clipping a vital organ versus a significant wound. In a home defense situation, it is all about ending the fight as quickly as possible and removing the adversary’s ability to continue the fight. Advantage buckshot.

What type of firearm do you keep for home defense? Why did you choose it? What round do you load?

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Comments (112)

  • Don Haines

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    I currently don’t own a shotgun or any long guns. Used to but not just now. We carried them in the cruiser but seldom had to break it out.
    It occurred to me that in the old days (or maybe even today), many farmers would use a shotgun to chase off thieves who were raiding their crops. They weren’t interested in killing anyone as often these miscreants were usually just kids looking to steal some ears of corn watermelons.They loaded their shot shells with rock salt.
    I’ve even spoken to someone who was the recipient of such a blast. Not lethal but very painful.
    If you consider all the factors involved in a home invasion/burglary there is a lot of adrenalin flowing on both sides of the equation. Factor in that pump shotgun being racked; the blast and flash of the gun going off; and then being hit with “something” in the dark, and you may have all the deterrent you need to defend your home without having to actually take a life.
    And of course, if that doesn’t work, you can assume that the perp is more serious and might want to have a 00 Buck load for your second shot.
    Just a thought.

    Reply

  • Jim in Houston

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    00 buckshot with 8 or 9 pellets per shell. At the distances you will be shooting inside a dwelling, the pattern should be contained within the center body mass.

    I have a UTS15 12 ga pump loaded with 7 00 buck shells in the selected magazine and 7 slug rounds in the other.

    Reply

    • David2015

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    • RussZ

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      20 ga #3buck is recommended as ia 3″#4 bird — do not forget to put on electronic muffs.

      Reply

  • Bobby G

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    I use #4 buck as my home defense load.

    Reply

  • Smitty 550

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    Sadly, the lawyers for the families of the perps might argue in a civil suit that you intentionally wanted to harm the perp (well….yeah!) if slugs or #1, 2 or 00 shot were used, and that you should have known that the perp might have been merely wounded, paralyzed, etc., by a poorly-placed shot. Same thing if a prosecutor decided to fry the shotgun owner. It sounds stupid, but juries are not known to always come with a smart verdict.

    I am looking at it from the perspective of what would happen to a California homeowner who merely wanted to defend him/herself from an attack by home invaders. If the perp was wounded, defending oneself might involve thousands of dollars to hire a defense lawyer, even though the home owner was justified in using a shotgun for defense. Lawyers know how to twist the minds of juries, and just because the homeowner saved his own life and the lives of loved ones, and was justified in using a firearm, a good lawyer for the state (in a criminal proceeding) or for the plaintiff (in a civil suit) might just know how to make self-defense look like murder, and the home owner look like Charlie Manson.

    Of course I live in California, and the scenario might be not as much of a concern in some other states. But…..it’s something to consider. Maybe one of you attorneys or firearms instructors can elucidate.

    Reply

    • Jim in Houston

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      I suggest a program like Texas Law Shield, which provides legal defense in the event you use a firearm to defend yourself. These programs are not just limited to Texas. For example, https://www.uslawshield.com/.

      Reply

    • Smitty 550

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      @Jim in Houston: Thanks, Jim. I’ll check it out.

      Reply

  • Damian

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    Personally i use frangible buckshot in the home if a shotgun were the route i went Devastating on flesh – does not penetrate walls in any way ,However a crotch shot or face shot full of no 5 shot from a 3 inch mag turkey load would stop any HUMAN threats in the ranges firing inside my house would ever be at . Full power buckshot loads will go through dry wall and wood ,birdshot will never .JMHO rubber buckshot will do just as well without killing the bad guy but he will think he is done by the time i have put a load of rubber buckshot into him at 10 ft or less in my home.and have round number 2 in the tube if he does not comply.FULL power buckshot is not good for in your home for self defense at all in my opinion.

    Reply

  • Mike K

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    I have never had a failure of any kind with 00 or 000 buck. Never. It works. It doesn’t require a surgically precise aim and it impresses the hell out of any additional bad guys in the area. As long as the backstop is safe, there’s no downside. Period. (And I love a 1911 .45 ACP, but it just can’t compare.)

    Reply

  • Dave

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    I live in a Townhouse/Condo so penetration is a big issue. I keep two Mossberg 500’s ready with #5 shot. If that doesn’t work the side bar is ready with OO.

    Reply

    • David2015

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  • zmortis

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    Well since birdshot was intended to take down flying birds with minimal excessive damage to their flesh combined with maximum shot dispersion to his a small agile target, I would presume automatically it isn’t ideal against a human target unless the idea is to scare them.

    Reply

  • brian

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    i enjoy shooting my mossberg 500 i maintained about 20 of them and ahout 14 remington 870 while serving in the navy both very reliable shotguns

    Reply

  • Michael

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    What about a Single 383-grain 12-gauge Slug.

    Reply

    • PeteDub

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      @Michael

      The 12 ga. slug is devastating if you get a COM or head hit first time every time.

      But #1 Buck will actually deliver more mass (~640 grains vs 383 for the slug), more kinetic energy, more cross sectional area of entry wound (1.13 sqin vs 0.4 for the slug) and a greater probability of hitting a vital organ.

      The typical #1 Buck load in a 2.75″ shell is 16 .30 cal pellets, each with 12″ or more of penetration, each carrying kinetic energy somewhere between a hot .32 ACP and a standard .380 Auto — all hitting at the same time..

      Reply

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