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)

    • Dave Pierce

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      Not a bad article… but not a great one either.

      The term “Bird Shot” covers a lot of ground. It can refer to anything from 9s to BB. Also, “Choke” is not mentioned at all. Open chokes like “cylinder” deliver more open patterns while “Extra Full Turkey” delivers extremely tight patterns. Then there is “Plated” shot vs “Non Plated” shot and even “Magnum” shot vs “Non Magnum” shot. “Plated” shot penetrates more deeply as it does not deform as much in flight or on impact. It is safe to say that not all “Bird Shot” loads are created equal.

      There is a lot to be said for the use of “Extra Heavy” loads of plated 4s through an Extra Full Turkey choke in a “Turkey Gun” for short range defense. These will be cheeper than “Buckshot” and come in boxes of 25 rather than 5.

      Notice that the author related only the Buckshot load to the pistol loads. Real world testing would have also related the energy of the “Birdshot.”

      Then there is the venerable “Cut Shell.” This is a shell preparation that can deliver a load of Plated 9s, through a “Cylinder” choke, that disperse on impact rather than in flight… Imagine that!

      Reply

    • Dave Dolbee

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      Dave,

      Your ‘constructive review’ does not account for the fact that this is a blog post and not a novel. The level of testing you suggest would take far more into account than that which could ever be put into a single article. The prohibitively long length would also be more than 99+% would read, but I agree with you that if the data was available, it would make a helluva article. Note: I also prefaced the article by saying it was based on math (feel free to do any calculations on your own) and data from a previous test.

      As for cut shells, I know of them and to any who are interested, you can look it up for yourself. However, as a content provider and with the liability that would ensue from recommending someone modify with a pocket knife and then shoot a shotgun shell… well, let’s just say I would like to keep what little money I have without having to explain the irresponsibility of that type of content to a judge in a civil lawsuit.

      Great points otherwise and well thought out recommendations. I would be eager to hear any results from the tests from other readers. Perhaps, together we can amass quite a bit of data that I can combine into an article for the greater good. ~Dave Dolbee

      Reply

  • DaveW

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    There is a reason that some troops in Vietnam liked the 12 gauge pumps we had, loaded with the only ammo we had available… 00 Buck.

    Reply

  • Bobby G

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    After initially reading this article I felt quite confidant in my choice of #4 buck as my choice for a home defense shotgun load. I felt that it was the best compromise between stopping power, pattern spread, and over-penetration potential. After reading all of the comments I have began to seriously question my choice.

    Many commenters’ have advocated some form of round stacking in anticipation of their need and usefulness in a HD incident. In my opinion this is sheer folly. You cannot possibly predict how the incident will unfold and progress. You may find yourself firing a less lethal round at the very moment you do not wish to do so.

    You are also making the assumption that the intruder or intruders are rational and thinking logically. They are not necessarily going to play along with your strategy and may not be intimidated by an armed homeowner firing less than lethal ammunition at them in the hopes that they will flee in terror of more lethal ammunition being fired at them.

    It is now my opinion that stopping the intruder(s) as quickly and decisively as possible with the minimum number of shots fired is of the utmost importance in this situation. Accordingly I have since upgraded to 000 buck and would not hesitate to use 00 buck if that was the only choice I had available.

    Reply

  • Ron

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    I have a Winchester 12 gauge, but I use Mossberg 500 20 gauge short
    barrel with pistol grip loaded with buckshot for home defense. light weight ez to move around for wife and myself,

    Reply

  • DaveW

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    Kevin – good points. A couple I might disagree with depending on your floor plan. If possible, I would rather use my hallway as a funnel. It could be a bunch of people, but the hallway becomes a chokepoint that, once they are in, they have nowhere to go when you start firing.

    As for “confusing stories”, the less you say, the better. Cops (and I was one) are very good at their jobs. They will use many tactics to get the story out of you. In this case, they are NOT your buddy.

    Reply

  • mark

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    I don’t agree. I live in one half of a small duplex with three other family members. My duplex neighbor are great friends that I care about. Honestly look at your home and imagine pulling the trigger and punching through several walls downrange. If you are like me you will have very few safe lanes of fire. Even bird shot can penetrate a wall with enough force to still be lethal. There is no place inside my home that I could take a shot greater than 25 feet. In most cases it would likely range from contact distance to 15 feet. For me, bird shot is a much more responsible choice. I have a separate shotgun loaded for protection outside of the home. That gun is loaded with buck.

    Instead of penetration test on 3/4 to 11/2 plywood, I would build a test wall from 2×4’s and sheet rock and test that. I think you will see the bird shot advantages there. Put your target simulator in front of the stud and sheet rock wall and then fire into it….that way you can examine the impact on the target as well as your loads capability to carry through the typical wall and into another target blocked by the wall….advantage, birdshot.

    Reply

    • Kevin

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      Mark:
      You’re using physics again rather than tactics. It is at least as important how you use what you have as what you use. If you are worried about wall penetration, change your birdshot to #9 light target loads with an open choke. Also, practice shooting from a crouched position. You can assume a crouched position by the time you shoulder your weapon. By firing from a crouched position, any shot that isn’t stopped by the intruder will continue upward and strike high in the wall or in the celling, well above where someone would be sleeping on the same floor. Neighbors in an apartment above you would be protected by their wood floor.
      If you aren’t happy with this idea, maybe you can score some “bean bag” rounds from one of the local LEO’s. These are designed for non-lethal center mass shots and are effective when used properly.

      Reply

  • Kevin

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    The Author is wrong: the answer is not simple and is certainly not physics.

    He is however on the correct path. Start with a pump shotgun with extended mag. Load so that the first round is high velocity plated birdshot. use this round first because you get better penetration and a tighter pattern than just birdshot. The next few rounds should be larger shot, maybe 2, 4 or 00 buck and finish up with slugs if you have room in the mag. This weapon now has the capability of stopping up to and including a Buick.
    Keep in mind that the person or people likely to invade your home are not the smartest people on the planet. The are there for your TV, Jewelry, and whatever they can grab. If they had any idea that you were going to defend your home with a shotgun, they would just pick another house. With that in mind, the first shot will likely be the most important and probably be the only shot fired even if there are multiple intruders. Any additional shots would likely land on the backside of the Perp…….if he doesn’t manage to outrun it.
    Very important, know your state laws. also remember: once you pull the trigger, you can’t get it back.

    Reply

    • Kevin

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      PS: I take full responsibility for my comments if your home intruder is wearing plywood.

      Reply

    • Rob

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      Just any fyi, what you’re referring to with your staggered or mixed load was made illegal in WA state a few years ago for handguns and shotguns, they claimed the only reason you would load like that would be to kill someone. If they figure out you stacked rounds like that, they charge you with murder. I do agree that it’s the best way to load and I will state that if someone breaks into my home I do intend to kill them if need be but definitely know your states laws!

      Reply

    • DR101

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      I live in WA state and recently took a “use of force” class at the Cabela’s near my home. The instructor is a current law enforcement officer and a former homicide detective. He never mentioned anything about stacked rounds, and now I wish it had been brought up in class.

      My take away was that you can use lethal force to protect human life (yours and those near you), but you better be ready to make a convincing case that you had good reason to perceive a real threat. That could mean the assailant was much bigger/stronger, or had a weapon, or there were multiple attackers, or it really seemed like he/she had a weapon and was about to use it, etc.

      Each incident is a different case with many factors. Best not to shoot if it’s an unarmed burglar that starts running away the moment he/she sees you. Pretty hard to convince a judge or jury that shooting someone in the back was self defense. It doesn’t matter if they are running away with your personal property. It is illegal to use lethal force to protect property in WA state (only human life).

      I use 00 buckshot in my Winchester 12 gauge pump 18″ barrel with a mounted flashlight. My backup is a Glock .45 ACP with a laser and handheld flashlight. My AR’s stay in the safe and are more for fun than for self-defense in a home invasion (or for a SHTF scenario). My setup is always subject to change as I learn more (and eventually spend more).

      I use buckshot instead of birdshot, because I don’t plan on shooting unless my life (or that of a loved one) depends on it. A two-legged attacker is a lot more like a buck that a bird, thus I use the more appropriate load for the larger threat.

      Reply

    • Kevin

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      To Dr101:
      The longest open space in my home is less than 40′, that would be my longest first shot. If you doubt that birdshot will not stop an intruder at that range, pattern your gun. I think you will find that even your short barrel gun will still cluster enough shot to bring down a large animal.
      Besides, the story you tell Police is that you weren’t trying to really hurt anyone, that’s the same ammo I hunt birds with.

      Reply

    • DaveR101

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      I would not shoot unless trying to stop a threat to human life and safety. In that case, I am by definition trying to hurt the aggressor in order to eliminate the threat. That is a legal use of lethal force. I would not shoot an intruder in my home unless they presented a threat.

      This is what I was taught: have a phone, firearm, and flashlight accessible. If there’s an intruder you dial 911 and put it on speakerphone. Don’t seek a confrontation. State loudly and clearly that the police are on their way. Hunker down with your family and wait. If an intruder approaches you after all that, you audibly warn them to stay back (recording from 911 call on still on speakerphone will back up your account of events). If they continue to approach, then that is an act of aggression, which means it’s a legitimate threat to your safety. At that point the use of lethal force is legal. In that scenario, I would not lie about my intentions. I would shoot the perp center mass as many times as it takes to eliminate the threat. I would stick to the truth. You don’t want the police to catch you saying anything less than the truth.

      I agree that at such very close range, birdshot is very lethal. I still choose to use buckshot. This debate about what is best in a hypothetical self-defense scenario is really a philosophical one. I don’t believe there really is an absolute best, as there are so many variables that differ in each incident.

      Cheers

      Reply

  • bear59801

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    My primary HD weapon is a Mossberg 500 20″ barrel 12 gauge loaded with #1 buckshot in a. 2-3/4″ shell. More pellets (16) than 00 buck, with an optimum level of penetration, more mass, and more frontal area.

    Too bad it’s so hard to find #1 buck, and it’s not available in the discount brands. I back up the 8 rounds in the gun with 6 more on the sidesaddle, and 5 slugs on a buttstock carrier. I have a 200 lumen flashlight mounted on the mag tube.

    I back up the shotgun with a Glock 19 9mm, loaded with 18 rounds of 124 grain +P Federal HST hollowpoints. it also has a flashlight mounted, as well as night sights.

    Reply

  • DaveW

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    I live alone. And there are plenty of ammo types which lessen the over penetration of my firearms. Even if I didn’t live alone, after 20+ years, I know the layout of my home and can find my way around in the dark without banging into walls or furnishings.

    Reply

  • Kevin

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    The Author of this article says “the answer is simple —- physics”.
    This is not true, the answer is “tactics”.
    Buckshot or birdshot? The answer to that is “yes”, unless you are using a single shot shotgun.
    The best option for home defense, not withstanding a well trained Doberman or German shepherd, is a pump shotgun loaded with 5, 6, or 71/2 for the first shot. Anything from 2 buck, 4 buck or 00 buck for the next 2 to 4 shots and winding up with slugs if you have any room left in the mag.
    My 870 with extended mag is loaded with one 71/2 high velocity round with coated shot. The coated shot holds a pattern better and has some penetration advantage. The remaining rounds are loaded as above. Also, bird shot has a larger pattern which means that you are more likely to hit a moving target in the dark. The first shot will likely be the most important and will probably be the only shot fired even if there are multiple intruders.
    Keep in mind that the people that are most likely to break into your home are not the brightest people on the planet and are not likely to be wearing plywood. They are there for your TV, jewelry and anything they can carry and if they had any idea that your were willing to defend your property with a shotgun, they would just go to the next house rather than risk their life. So, one shot will likely rid your home of all intruders.
    If not, rack and continue to fire until the threat or threats no longer exist. Your last few shots, if well placed, can disable a vehicle if necessary.
    You should know your state laws (very important), also very important is that when the Police arrive, they hear only one story. They could become confused if there is more that one survivor. NO! I am not suggesting that you do anything that is not lawful….just saying that your story, unchallenged is less confusing and makes the job a lot easier for the Police.
    Good Hunting

    Reply

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