Using the Shotgun and Shotgun Loads

By Bob Campbell published on in Ammunition, Safety and Training

There are myths, misconceptions, and worse, misinformation about the shotgun. As the name implies, the shotgun was designed to launch a charge of shot rather than a single projectile. Small shot that is useful for downing birds and squirrels.

Tan box of Hornaday Buckshot with red lettering on a white background

Buckshot rules in personal defense with the shotgun. Make no compromises for smaller shot.

Common sense tells us small-shot loads are not suitable for personal defense. The shot produces several hits with a load designed to bring down flying or running game; however, when the game is deer-sized, you need a concentration of shot since you want the entire charge to strike the target. So, buckshot is ideal for deer-sized game and is also preferable for personal defense.

For personal defense, the range is often short, and the load should be centered for greatest effect. While shotgun loads can be effective, nothing handheld is 100 percent effective. As the great Colonel Thompson , father of the sub-machine gun in America, a primary force in the development of the .45 ACP cartridge, and a man of vast firearms and combat experience, noted, “The only way to achieve sure stopping of the enemy is to give the soldier a 3-inch cannon.”

One of the myths of the shotgun is that it scatters shot around for 10 or 12 feet. There is not enough shot in the shell to do that. The shotgun is at its best defending a home, ranch or campsite. It is a true defensive weapon when stopping an attack at short-range.

A short and handy shotgun, with a barrel no longer than 20 inches, is best for fast handling inside a home. There are numerous accessories and custom stocks unnecessary for home defense. If you want to have the same handling with a shotgun as an AR-15 rifle, there is some merit in that. However, the fast-handling natural point of the shotgun may be compromised. The defensive shotgun must be reliable; the occasional tie-up is not acceptable.

Practice Equals Effectiveness

For using a shotgun in home defense, you must practice combat drills. A shotgun is the most underused firearm and also the one with which most people do not practice. That does not make sense because a shotgun demands practice. At close range, it must be aimed just as surely as a rifle, or you’ll miss the target. So, get to the range and get to work. The shotgun should be a 12-gauge, although a 20-gauge offers acceptable wound ballistics.

Blue box of Federal Load for Target Practice Only on a white background

Use target loads for practice only. The Federal load, designed for clean burn and clay-breaking accuracy, is a good choice.

For practice on the range firing long strings, the light field grades of birdshot are acceptable.

  • You must be familiar with the recoil and points of aim and impact with the buckshot defense loading.
  • You should keep the shotgun at home, ready, with the chamber empty and magazine loaded.
  • You should practice racking the shotgun to load it.
  • You must be familiar with the location of the bolt release and safety.
  • Cheek weld is important; you must control the shotgun at all times.

When you are firing:

  1. Bring the bead of the shotgun or the front sight on target.
  2. Press the trigger.
  3. Rack the action, or allow reset with the self-loader.
  4. Fire again.

Moving target drills are good. Swing on the target; do not lead at combat ranges, place the bead on the leading edge of the target and press the trigger. The shotgun has plenty of power, and it is not infallible. Members of our protein-fed, ex-con criminal class have taken multiple hits with the shotgun before succumbing and  ending  the attack. Practice a follow-up shot. Another good drill is to fire two rounds, combat load, and fire two more.

Here is a good quick-and-dirty drill:

  • Two shots at 7 yards center mass
  • Two shots at 15 yards center mass
  • Two shots at 25 yards, center mass, with slugs

There are three ranges with the shotgun: A, B and C.

  • A is short range. At that range, which is up to about 7 yards, the shotgun must be aimed carefully for the loads to take effect.
  • At B range, the pattern has spread a bit and allows more chances of a hit with a less-than-perfect trigger break and sight picture. That is about 10-15 yards, depending on the choke and load used. That is ideal shotgun range.
  • C is the range at which the pattern has increased to the point that it is not useful for personal defense. That is usually about 20 to 25 yards with a short-barrel shotgun and buckshot. C is slug range. I have seen comments by those who should know better that if you want to use slugs, get a rifle. That type of comment shows a lack of experience. The slug is more powerful and has more wound potential than any common rifle at close range. The slug gives the user a greater degree of versatility.

Load Selection

Birdshot is designed to humanely kill a fowl weighing a few ounces and is ineffective for home defense. The penetration of the tiny pellets is unsuitable for home defense use. A leather coat or down jacket may stop the entire load. I have investigated contact wounds with birdshot that were not instantly effective. You should avoid birdshot and all game loads. They are useful for practice only. Since a shotgun’s loads are constructed more like an artillery shell than a cartridge, they are called shells.

Gray haired man in dark sweater and gray pants holding a shotgun in the hallway of his home.

In a home, skill and determination carries the day although be sure you use the proper load.

For personal defense inside a home and for area defense, particularly against coyotes and feral dogs, buckshot is the best choice. While there are arguments for single-ought, standard double-ought has the best reputation. You should not consider the smaller sizes.

While Magnum buckshot has plenty of power, those loads are at their best in heavy, long-barrel shotguns with tight choke intended for deer hunting. Reduced-recoil 12-gauge loads may exhibit a tighter pattern at combat ranges. Federal Power Shok buckshot is available at Cheaper Than Dirt! at a great price. That means it is very inexpensive for the level of protection it offers. A current good deal is the Sellier & Bellot buckshot at 25 shells a box starting at 5.30. Fixing a bug-out bag with a supply of 12-gauge shells is not expensive.

Shotguns sometimes rule unto themselves in the location and size of the pattern on the target. The chosen load should be patterned for the group at about 7 yards. For example, some shotguns exhibit an 8×11-inch group at 7 yards with one load and 7×9 with another, and so forth. Always adopt the tightest group.

Some specialty shotgun loads are designed expressly for critical defense.

Carefully consider your scenario and test the pattern of each load on paper.

Speaking of Slugs

As for slugs, a 1-ounce slug has plenty of wound potential. In my experience and per my research, a slug is a more reliable stopper than buckshot. Reduced-recoil slug loads offer adequate velocity and good effect.

However, if you foresee using the slug at ranges past 25 yards, use a full-power slug—the drop is less, and the effect on target greater. Among the single most accurate of all slug loads is the Fiocchi Aero. I have fired that slug at a long 50 yards in my rifle-sighted, smooth-bore Police Magnum. The Remington proved more accurate than it had any right to be. For defense against bears in the high country, that would be a good combination.

As you can see, the shotgun is not only powerful but versatile. In short, in a home defense situation, reduced-recoil buckshot loads are always the best choice.

The shotgun is a capable problem solver, when used by those who have trained well. Practice and pay careful attention to load selection.

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Do you have a shotgun in your arsenal? What is your best tip for the right load? Have a favorite? Share it with your fellow readers in the comment section.

Product pricing and availability are as of time of publication and subject to change without notice at any time.


Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

View all articles by Bob Campbell

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Comments (41)

  • Wraith


    Excellent points, except for 1, which I have serious concerns about. No one should ever train or get in the habit of pulling a trigger to load a shotgun quicker. That is a huge safety hazard. The risks are far too great to ignore, The shotgun could have been loaded at some point, and an innocent person could be killed or wounded if the weapon is fired negligently. Always treat all guns like they are loaded, even if you do not store them loaded. The risk of an ND is greater in a stressful situation. It is best to practice using the slide release button, it takes no longer to get to ready than by firing the trigger to unlock. It also on many shotguns, like my Winchester SXP Defender, located near the safety for convenience. I store mine empty chamber, slide locked, safety on.


  • Goody


    Hornady 00 all the way! Critical, Superperformence, Z-Max, etc…Never had a shell that didn’t fire. Patterns are’nt as tight as some loads, but a threat-stopper? Hornady rules! Slugs? American Whitetail #1. I have hit targets at 75 yards with ease! Also a very dependable load! Winchester PDX rounds are no joke either! Almost OVERKILL? Winchester Super, Remington, and Breneke are also great home defense rounds. I’ve tested all these loads tirelessly. Fiocchi is also a honorable mention. I have several guns, but I’m a 870 man all the way. It’s my favorite gun to shoot. I’ve tested all these loads with the Winchester SXP for comparison purposes and #4 Buck runs great out of that shotgun for some reason (Winchester Super X)? Shotguns and loads are like shoes? Everybody has their preferences???


  • Rem870


    Very interesting article. Agree that birdshot is very questionable when it comes to home defense. My preferred home defense ammunition is buckshot.


  • Gregg


    I used slugs number 4s and double alt buck. Shotgun is back up to by glock 36 or sw 357 one or the other is out with shotgun 590 mossberg


  • Greg


    The author seems very knowledgeable and well versed with the use of buckshot. Bigger, for the most part, is better. The officer appears to write from an experienced cop’s point of view, not that of an experienced hunter. I do tend to disagree with his assumptions on the use of “birdshot” as a defense round. Sure, small “fowl weighing a few ounces” are taken with shot sizes ranging from #6’s to #9’s. #4’s through BBB (also considered birdshot) are used for larger fowl (ducks, geese and turkey) out to 70 yards or so. I have personally used, with great success, 11/2 oz. of BB’s for coyotes for a number of years now. Clean kills are easily made out to 60 yards. At typical hallway distances, I doubt you will find a lot of difference between wounds created by #4’s or 00 buck. The patterns will still be very compact at 7 yards with either load. Smaller shot size will limit penetration as the distance increases. This may be a consideration in homes with multiple bedrooms, occupants and neighbors to contend with. I don’t want to sound like this is condemnation of 00 buck. It is not. I just want to consider the “myths, misconceptions, and worse, misinformation about the shotgun” or it’s ammunition.


  • martin pierce


    Good advice. If no Friendlies in the mix–Otherwise, Keep Calm and SPLATTER IT!.


  • Luke


    I can’t believe nobody else has taken issue that this article recommends leaving the chamber empty on a home defense weapon! Sure there are tons of claims that intruders run at the sound of a shotgun being shucked, but think how much time that costs you when your life may be on the line. Are you willing to risk your life for the 2 seconds it costs to make an intimidating noise with your gun? You’d be better served to start yelling obscenities at them. The only warning an intruder deserves to get is the muzzle blast, and I’m not talking about warning shots either. Don’t waste time shucking your gun for the sound, it may only alert the intruder where to start aiming their gun.


    • Dreadnought61


      After taking a defensive shotgun class with well known instructor Tom Givens I learned several reasons to leave the chamber empty. Foremost is safety, especially with any children in the house. A shotgun safety button is only a trigger block, it DOES NOT prevent the gun from firing. You can load the chamber, flick on the safety, and if you smack the gun on the floor, or drop it, there is a real danger that it may fire. A child that reaches for the loaded shotgun and drops it, or knocks it over, could be in mortal danger. With an empty chamber that can’t happen. It would take considerable effort, and some know-how, for a child to unlock the bolt and rack in a live round. An empty chamber also gives you a “buffer” in home defense situations where you are not pointing a live weapon at a target that may be yet unidentified, in your home. What if it was your son or daughter sneaking in or out in the middle of the night? Or any of their friends? It’s very plausible. You wouldn’t want to be pointing that shotgun, with your finger on the trigger, at anything other than a real threat. That’s also the reason Tom also dislikes flashlights on his weapons. In order to light up your potential threat you must aim a loaded weapon at it. Using just very basic training skills, a shotgun with rounds in the tube can be loaded VERY quickly without removing your hands from the weapon or losing your sight picture. There are two ways. Pull the trigger on the empty chamber and immediately rack in a shell. Or, depress the bolt release and immediately rack in a shell. Practice and train both ways to be most effective. There is no one BEST way to have your weapon ready when you need it. Every situation is very personal. But whatever you choose, PRACTICE and TRAIN it.


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