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)

  • bill knight

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    The whole reason for bird shot or #4 buck in a house is the lack of over penetration. Like you said at short range the shot column acts like a pile driver and that works for any engagement range in my home. the 00’s and slugs in the side saddle will do if the “fun” continues outside. Highly unlikely unless it’s a terror type activity in the community. That’s when the safe get raided and the long arms come into play.

    Reply

  • OldGringo

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    Certainly agree that either bird shot or 00 buck is OK for any indoor threat. You mention 10 balls all traditional loads including military issue uses only 9 balls and load them in the 2.74 inch shell. Secondly, your energy numbers are goofy on the 45 acp. Military ball has always been a 23o grain at 870 fps for 370 foot pounds. Current plus P loads are all about 450 foot pounds with some up to 616 foot pounds of energy. Just click ballistics101.com.

    Reply

    • Norm Morris

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      Same as I noticed, thanks. Not calling you wrong for 17 ft lbs, but a 230 grain at 870 FPS is 387 ft lbs., not 370.

      Reply

  • HW Stone

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    This is a several year old discussion, and one thing stands out starkly in the discussion. You need to maintain control and be able to hear both before and after a shot is fired.

    A pair of electronic earmuffs with good batteries in them are a very, very valuable item for a possible home invasion scenario.

    First sound, first hint of a possible issue– earmuffs on, switch on, volume turned up, then grab the firearm. That is less than two seconds, and the sound of breaking glass might make you think one thing, but with the earmuffs what you hear might be a teenage daughter whispering “Don’t wake daddy,” and that puts a whole different spin on what you need to do.

    IF the breaking glass was a window shattering, ear muffs on, weapon at ready, call 911, establish that a home invasion is in progress. If you are forced to fire a shot or if the intruder touches off a round, you will still be able to hear, and you can tell where the intruder is and figure out what to do.

    If the intruder is down and the police arrive, without the earmuffs you have almost zero hearing after firing inside the first officer responding, not knowing who you are but seeing an armed individual will shout at you– but you will not hear him. That forces him to consider you a hostile individual.

    With the electronic earmuffs on you will hear him, you will respond, and when he is screaming “Drop the gun! Drop the gun!” you can do that, raise your hands, and identify yourself, let the officer enter and control the situation as other officers arrive.

    You don’t get shot by responding officers, and the 911 line should still be alive.

    Pick your defensive weapon, but make sure you can hear and respond properly when it happens.

    Reply

    • Sam

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      The electronic earmuffs are a good idea. If you have ever fired a firearm inside a room or from inside a car, or even used the hood or trunk of a car to steady your aim (the sound bounces off the hard surfaces of the metal and glass and goes straight to your ears), you know how important ear protection can be. Another consideration is having sturdy doors and locks, good locks on all windows, and an alarm system that covers all possible points on entry, and that includes a glass breakage alarm on all the windows. That way, when and if the alarm goes off, you will have plenty of time to grab your gun of choice (just in case) – plus the alarm company will have notified the police, and the sound of the alarm may send the intruder running. Problem solved without having to fire a shot. Just make sure you don’t have your firearm in your hand when the police show up (they may mistake you for the intruder).

      Question about the electronic earmuffs: Do they use lithium batteries? I periodically hear stories of lithium batteries causing a fire, which concerns me because the laser on one of my pistols also uses a lithium battery. All the preparations for a possible break-in may be meaningless if the house burns down because of a little battery. Does anyone know how safe these lithium batteries are?

      Reply

    • HW Stone

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      Most lithium batteries are really very safe, but since most electronic ear muffs use double A or triple A batteries (AA or AAA) you can put in whatever battery you prefer, and when the earmuffs are turned off they don’t consume power so it is a “check as used, replace when needed” issue.

      Reply

    • Pete

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      Primary lithium cells are not a problem. It’s the Lithium Ion / Lithium Polymer rechargeables that have a the bad reputation. Mostly though the problem with those are in multi-cell packs and are charged that way. So primary lithium cells like AA, AAA, CR2, CR123,and CR20XX cells (as examples) are very safe.

      Reply

    • usafoldsarge

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      Ear muffs in a self defense situation??????? training and fun shooting, certainly…. home invasion????

      Reply

    • HW Stone

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      Yes.

      It gives you a huge edge in staying alive and proper behaviors.

      Reply

  • Andrew

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    I prefer 20 gauge for home defense. I havent tested various rounds but settled on #4 buckshot and 3 inch shells. I do have heavier turkey shot on hand as a compromise. My wife can handle the recoil of a 20. And I prefer that recoil profile as well. Remember a 20 gauge slug round delivers greater force than a .44 Magnum.

    Reply

    • Norm Morris

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      20 gauge is a great choice IMO, especially for a woman, putting out 75% the load of a 12 gauge, but only 50% of the recoil. Quick follow up shots as well. My ideal gun for a woman would be the load you chose mixed with buckshot in a softer shooting semi-auto.

      Reply

  • Warren Cohen

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    Try 20 ga, #4 buck semi-auto w/extended mag – better than a subgun

    Reply

  • 70's Ops

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    Fury II……a semi auto virtual wall of dove and quail headed downrange. EVERYTHING gets hit. Everything bleeds. No over penetration. Mission accomplished.

    Reply

  • Will Basham

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    These comments reflect any I might have said! Hell, further investigation reveals them to be mine! Still present excellent logic! Any of projectiles listed do cover distances as I never could; depending on my prior skeet experience to fill any lead gaps! Ain’t calling 911!

    Reply

  • BIG AL

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    Make mine BB shot for the first two rounds, then SLUG IT OUT!!!

    Reply

  • Will

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    being handicapped(weak mobility) and retired older adult; with little or no visitation, by design, from kids or grans(all adults) all that to say, due to facts at hand, a 40 cal. Glock at bedside, a Rem.870 clone within 4 feet,3″ OO magnum; 18.5″ bbl; all fully loaded as are the rest of firearms here! All others in Safe, or out of reach! Verbally warn any visitors; seldom any youngsters! also by design!
    This presently satisfies my venues! Mainly three 3″ OO buck to clean up, the 40 cal to get me to the 870!

    11`

    Reply

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