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)

  • Zippy48


    I mounted a tiny lazermax with a green laser and lime light to the side of my Mossberg 590 Shockwave loaded with nine rounds of minis…. buck slug buck slug etc. If they are wearing body armor, failure drill training will put the second round, a slug, where it counts. At 1200fps, the mini’s won’t tear up the house


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