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 (110)

  • Evan

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    I keep a Rem 870 loaded, first with a couple rounds of birdshot, then a few rounds of buck, then with slugs. Eight round extended mag.

    Reply

  • equestriancolt

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    I have my 12 gauge loaded with 3″ alternating rounds between 00 buck and slugs. Power power power you have no idea what they will be wearing, with body Armour getting cheaper they may have that on, I want to know that that 1st shot is going to kill, Mame, or severely put them in pain to where they aren’t going to as quickly keep coming at me.

    Reply

    • Sam

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      I completely agree. I’ve used 00 buck and slugs “in the heat of battle” to devastating effect. I’ve experimented with bird shot, and yes, it will blow a fist-sized hole in a heavy piece of plywood – at very close range – but didn’t think I will ever get attacked by a sheet of plywood. So, I reserve the use of bird shot for use in my Remington 1100 – for birds. Meanwhile, my Mossberg 500 and Remington 870 are ready with 3″ magnums of 00 buck and rifled slugs. And then there is my 20 gauge double-barrel side-by-side “coach gun” – just for fun.

      Reply

  • MarkRB

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    Why choose? I use a buckshot/birdshot combo. I have 11 rounds in an MKA1919XN and don’t have to worry about racking. I live in a very rural area, and no kids to worry about. If the first 11 don’t get them, I can send another 10 in a couple seconds more.

    Reply

  • Arnold Imsland

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    I’d rather cut loose with a load of buckshot,and make some sheetrock fly,to scare off an intruder.The noise and mayhem should be enough.Hopefully.
    Remington 870
    2 3/4 ” 0Buck
    18 1/2″ open cylinder

    Reply

  • Szczinator

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    I have to agree with the author on one point. Buck shot is good stuff, in CQB. It creates multiple wounds resulting in more hemorrhaging that deprives the brain of O2 and then incapacitation. BUT, that can take time.
    The 45 ACP and even the 45 Colt have more energy than indicated in the article, and the .40 cal also (didn’t want to leave you out Mike). An entire buckshot load is devastating to the body. BUT, individual pellets do not have the bone shattering effect of .4 cal bullets at max velocity.
    Shoot what you have, the best gun and the best caliber is the one you have at that moment when you need it, even if it’s a .22 cal LR.
    Happy Trails…. May the good Lord take a liking to you. Szczinator

    Reply

  • Cam

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    Mossberg 500 with breaches barrel, alternating #9 and buckshot.

    Reply

  • Jackson

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    12 ga, # 4 Magnum 2 3/4″ Turkey Loads (2) followed by # 1 Buckshot! My 1300 pump holds a few extra rounds! Love that gun!!!

    Reply

  • gerald

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    Bedside – 230 gr .45 critical defense HP Glock 21 w/ lazer – 25 rd mag. Mossberg 590 9 rd 00bk in the corner. Sig p320 RX for C-carry – 22rd mags.
    For the Mossburg I use No, 4 Buck (Deer load) staggered with 00 buck for home defense Use 2 3/4 shells for ammo in my 3 inch chamber for more load capacity. One in chamber – 8 in mag. All cocked and locked at all times. I have dropped deer with the no, 4 buck many times but not with my home defense weps. For my home dimensions – works good for me.

    Reply

  • Mike

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    Forgot to add .40 s&w muzzle energy, still more than .380, 9mm, and .45 auto…

    Reply

  • Norm Morris

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    Great article, thank you. My only comment is that I think you should double check your energy figures. I always calculate M x V squared, then divided by the 450,400 constant.

    I’m having a hard time seeing how you get only 250 ft lbs for .45 ACP. The only way I can get close (256 ft lbs) is assuming a 180 grain bullet at a modest 800 FPS, which is both light and slow.

    A standard 230 grain hardball round at a typical 850-900 FPS gives 369 – 414 ft lbs, so I think there is some error in that particular calculation anyway.

    Reply

    • Jim

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      You put it quite politely. It’s inexcusable to let an error like this slip through in an article focusing on muzzle energy, with even the most cursory level of proofreading!

      Reply

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