Buckshot, Explained

Hornady #00 Buckshot - Buckshot, Explained

When it comes to our most effective shoulder-fired firearm, it is a fact that the shotgun is underutilized.

Many shooters have only a handgun for home defense, and some keep rifles or carbines ready. In my opinion, this goes against the grain of historical experience.

The shotgun is a proven house-clearer, trench fighter and (if need be) will drop larger animals.  The deterrent value is unquestioned.

A single guard with a shotgun has often handled many prisoners. The problem of recoil control (and perhaps even a fear of recoil) keeps many of us from mastering the shotgun.

This is a shame because, with proper technique, the shotgun may be mastered. There are shotguns that are reliable, effective, and which offer a devastating effect on the target.

There are very few firearms I feel that way about. The shotgun simply is a proven fighter. Master the shotgun with proper technique and consider the load for the job.

The load for personal defense is buckshot. There really isn’t any argument to the contrary that makes it up the rungs of the logic ladder.

Advantages of Shotguns

As I have stated, the shotgun is underutilized because many shooters do not take the time to master the piece.

Do not be in the situation of being armed with a deadly weapon you are not able to use well. The shotgun’s greatest advantage is wound potential.

The shotgun has a greater measure of finality against felons and dangerous animals at close range and is a formidable and versatile firearm.

Unlike the rifle and handgun, there are few drawbacks to purchasing an inexpensive shotgun. A Stevens, Iver Johnson or Maverick pump will serve well for home defense.

Those on a limited budget may even find a single shot shotgun a last-ditch home defender. Some recommend saving for the best gun you can afford.

I believe if you need a gun right now then you must obtain what you can.

The shotgun is a projectile launcher with predicted more likelihood of stopping the fight with a single load of buckshot than any handgun or rifle with a single shot.

Remington V3 Tactical - Buckshot, Explained
A good-quality shotgun such as the Remington V3 Tactical offers excellent protection.

Shotgun Load Behavior

Shotgun shells offer many different shot sizes. Some are designed to throw a cloud of shot in order for a few of these balls to strike a small animal (such as a bird or rabbit) and quickly dispatch it.

Larger shot is used for ducks and varmints and must be centered on the target. Buckshot is necessary for any animal over 50 pounds and for personal defense.

For practice, any load is fine. Light recoiling birdshot loads are good for initial familiarization and some types of training.

It is wrong, short-sighted in fact, to recommend small shot (such as birdshot) for personal defense. There isn’t enough mass for adequate penetration.

I have tested the theory with gelatin and water testing. Birdshot seldom penetrates even six inches of gelatin, often as little as three inches.

This shot is designed to humanely kill a bird weighing but a few ounces. Keep it confined to that purchase. Buckshot, heavy shot, is used for hunting deer and for personal defense.

Shotguns launch shot in a string. The load may have tighter cohesion at closer range and the load spreads as range increases, resulting in an ever-increasing pattern.

The shotgun must be aimed as carefully as a rifle at close range. The advantage is that most shotguns handle in a naturally smooth manner with a natural point that rifles do not possess.

#4 buckshot - Buckshot, Explained
This is a load of #4 buckshot. In some cases, this load offers advantages.

Buckshot Basics

The load of choice for personal defense is buckshot. As may be expected, buckshot earns its name from the original intent, to bring down deer-sized game.

A pattern of heavy shot penetrates well and causes rapid blood loss. On the other hand, unlike rifles, buckshot offers little danger to citizens that are just a few hundred yards away.

Most buckshot gives up its energy well within 100 yards or less. The round ball isn’t very aerodynamic. The standard sizes of buckshot are #0, #00, #000, #1 and #4 buckshot.

The combination of penetration and effect favors #00 and this is the load that has seen the most development for personal defense.

Some of the other sizes —#1, #4—may have an advantage against running game or coyote, but this is primarily if the shotgun is used for predator control.

As an example, the Hornady Varmint Express is a great all-around performer for its intended purpose.

Hornady #4 buckshot - Buckshot, Explained
Hornady #4 buckshot is the top choice for coyote and varmints, per the author’s testing.

Know Your Range

Some loads, such as the Hornady Critical Defense 12-gauge buckshot, offer a remarkably cohesive pattern out to 20 yards.

The reality is that, at typical home engagement ranges, the load choice matters less. Low recoil loads typically use eight rather than nine pellets.

These were intended to give peace officers a load that is effective at longer shotgun ranges, but which also offers low recoil.

The new Hornady Black is a powerful loading with much to recommend. Whichever load you choose, it is imperative that you pattern the load.

You should be certain that you understand the pattern size from seven to 15 yards and if the load patterns left or right or low or high.

Usually, the difference between the point of aim and the point of impact is just a few inches,; often the load is perfectly centered or just above the bead.

All that is really needed is a simple front bead. My personal shotguns wear XS sights tritium front beads and the Benelli features a ghost ring rear sight.

These are excellent sights with many advantages. While not strictly necessary, they are very nice to have and a great aid in hit probability.

The Benelli is effective to 100 yards with the Hornady American Gunner slug—but that is another story.

Spread - Buckshot, Explained
Buckshot spreads a bit as the range increases. Be certain to understand how the pattern spreads.

Know Your Limitations, Too

When you practice, keep in mind that the shotgun must be aimed at all ranges, and aimed more precisely at seven yards or so.

As the range increases, the pattern increases and hit probability, especially on running targets, increases. Running targets are often mentioned when the shotgun is praised.

Many overlook the fact that a load of buckshot is also an advantage if the adversary is partially obscured by cover. The shotgun offers much greater hit probability than a rifle in these circumstances.

When you understand the problems that may be encountered, the number of buckshot balls in a load of choice may have a bearing on your tactics:

  • #00 buckshot throws eight or nine balls. (Some Magnum loads contain 12-15 balls—with harrowing recoil.)
  • #1 buckshot holds 16
  • #4 buckshot 24 to 27

The smaller buckshot penetrates less and is more likely to be stopped in a wall. But the best means of achieving safety and preventing over-penetration is to center the shot in the body of the adversary.

There are differences in gelatin penetration. #4 penetrates the least at 12-14 inches in gelatin and #00 penetrates 18 to 20 inches.

There are makers I trust and they have earned military contracts and enjoyed brisk police sales. Federal agencies in particular have conducted extensive testing.

If you choose a load, then be certain that it is feed-reliable and the crimp holds up when the shell is jostled by repeat firing as it rides in the magazine.

Testing - Buckshot, Explained
Be certain to lean into the shotgun and keep a firm grip when testing buckshot.

Final Words of Advice

As for what is a desirable pattern, the Hornady Critical Defense #00 buckshot load is among the best performers.

In my Remington 870 with cylinder bore, the Critical Defense patterns a tight two inches at seven yards, increasing to six inches at 15 yards.

In the Benelli M4, the pattern holds four inches at 15 yards. Shotguns are individuals and may pattern differently even in identical models, but loads that perform well in one shotgun will do well in others.

Some #4 and #1 buckshot loads pattern twice as wide as #00, but then they have many more pellets. The actual center of the pattern may be cohesive.

Buckshot is very interesting and can take up a lot of time in testing, but the bottom line is to choose a proven load and proof it in your shotgun. I have used #00 buckshot for more than 40 years.

The effect on game and pests and varmints is good, without any complaint. Neither is it a death ray and occasionally a backup shot is needed.

If the offender is very large or heavily clothed—and this isn’t predictable—#00 offers the best margin of success.

Against feral dogs and the big cats, #00 is the best choice, perhaps even one of the Magnum loads if you are able to master the recoil.

A heavier shotgun or a self-loader helps reduce the effect of recoil. Don’t base your choice of personal defense load on the opinion of those that are not qualified to comment.

Don’t use a load intended to drop a bird weighing a few ounces! Meet the author halfway with self-testing and range work.

I think you will find that #00 buckshot, either eight or nine pellet reduced recoil loads, will be ideal for home defense.

It is up to you to practice with the chosen load to make it truly effective.

#00 Buckshot - Buckshot, Explained
This is a target hit by several loads of #00 buckshot.

Shotgun Shot Sizes

A standard loading is an ounce of shot in a 12-gauge shell. To end things, let’s take a look at different sizes:

Shot Size Diameter Number of pellets per ounce
#7 1/2 .094 350
#4 buckshot .24 21
#1 buckshot .30 11
#00 buckshot .33 8

Birdshot weights perhaps 1.45 grains per pellet, #00 54 grains per ball. Take this up the logic ladder!

Do you have any insights on buckshot you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below.

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (35)

  1. If anyone wants a shotgun shell that is extremely potent, take a look at Herter’s Double Round Ball. Each shell consists of two round slugs that look like two lead marbles. However, it might be too powerful for home defense.

  2. Read all of the comments, and still have the same conclusion: Use what you have! In the 12 gauge, most LEOs will agree that the 12 gauge #4 Buck is best for “up close and personal”. For everyone else, what shotgun can you fire 3 rounds in 5 seconds or less? If it takes several seconds to recover after firing a load of 12 gauge #OOO buck, then that is too much gun for you. Biggest question is still – Can you shoot???

  3. Great article with a lot of needed information. I have always used and recommended the shotgun for home defense. I know how effective it is at close ranges. My rifles are for hunting and targets.

  4. Is there any reason I shouldn’t use 6mm aluminum shot in a 12 gauge ? I’m thinking if a person wanted a home defense load that was “ less likely “ to be leathal. Also probably used at no more
    than 20 ft.

  5. I was on a midwestern police department (city population 300,000) from 1976 to 2004. All of our shotguns were loaded with #4 buck. I don’t recall a single incident of that load failing to stop a threat, whether human or animal. Nor do I remember any discussions, studies, rumors, etc to change it out. #4 buck worked perfectly fine during my time there and for years before I came on.

  6. Fleet Farm Firearms Specialist, here.
    Buckshot is not just mechanically poured in by weight; it is large enough it has to be patterned. Therefore, there is NOT any load variation. There are also requirements to the size of the shot – you can’t put 00 buck into a 20 gauge, for example, because it doesn’t fit snugly in the shell.
    So, the standard load for a 12 gauge is 00 in layers of three – three layers for a 2 1/2″ shell and five layers for a 3″ magnum shell. So, 9 pellets or 15, always, no more and no less. There is no “eight pellets.” I HAVE seen #4 buck loads for a 12 gauge, though, with I think an insane 42 pellets!
    For a .410, what “fits” is the biggest shot available, 000 buck – and for a 2 1/2″ shell, 4 pellets and for a 3″, 5.
    20 gauge is a lot tougher. They will use #2 buck in layers of three, and #3 & #4 buck in layers of four. Then you have different shell lengths, so that adds to the complexity. Hardest-hitter for a 20 is likely a magnum shell carrying 18 pellets of #2 buck. The 20 gauge is hardest to find defensive loads for, but also an excellent alternative for those a bit skittish of the hard-recoiling 12.
    Hope that helps.

  7. 1, 1200 fps would be from the 18 1/2″ barrel of a .410 shotgun. I think that the .410 pistols are best used for non two legged vermin at distances under 10 feet. Heard the name “Judge” came from actual Judges using them on two legged vermin, at near contact range, with great success.
    2. I have 12 gauge, 20 gauge, and .410 shotguns. As a 70 yr. old, found that the modern 12 gauge “defense” loads are too loud and have more recoil than I would like to handle. My pump 20 gauge is an old Winchester, and from 1919. Other one is a single shot. That is why I now use the pump .410.
    3. Agree that a 20 gauge would be the best choice for the majority of folks, as even Walmart carries a wide assortment of ammo. 3/4 of an ounce of shot versus about a 1/4 ounce of a 9mm bullet is a big difference.
    4. The overriding issue is – If you had to, would you shot???

  8. I am a country boy, born and raised in Mississippi (aka. Another great state of shooting stuff.) When I was 6 years old I was humping around my dad’s old double barrel Fox 12ga. That was dad’s youth shotgun. For my 10th birthday dad bought me my first Mossberg 500 12ga. pump. He did purchase the 18½” smooth bore slug barrel for deer hunting with rifled slugs. That slug barrel is the best home defense using 00 buckshot. The pattern up to 25 yards is excellent. I never had to use it but if it is it’s not going be pretty for someone on the business end. Being a combat vet let me give you a little advice. If you have to use any firearm to protect yourself/ family always keep shooting until the threat quits moving.
    Author is spot on with this article. He did forget to mention though. The sound of a 12ga pump chambering a round is a universal warning to unwanted guest. The only other sound more terrifying is a M2 machine gun chambering a round. Saying all that to say the enemy will usually lose their nerve when those distinct sounds are made.
    Stay safe and GOD bless. “Give me liberty or give me death.”

  9. Murph ( & the Magictones ?)
    The author is dead on. Use what you have proven through your range experiences.
    I’ll stick with #00 buckshot & “special loads”. I keep a variety on a side saddled 870 wing master.
    On my “FrankenGun”, (Yes Dr., a High Standard with other makers components, I ONLY have #00 buck.
    For giggles, I’ll get #4 & try it on the range

  10. Low-recoil Fiocchi 00-buck is a very nice choice for home defense. Believe it or not, mini-buck shells (2.25 in shells containing 6 pellets) might also work well, and gives you a lot more ammunition in the mag and much nicer recoil. Less recoil gives you better control. A typical shotgun could probably hold at least 10 mini-buck shells.

  11. Grumpy,
    I too like the 000 410 rounds, however you don’t get 1200 fps from them out of a pistol. The Federal ones made for the Judge are your best choice. They have a muzzle velocity of about 850 to 900 fps. Each pellet weighs about 65 grains. So not quite a 380, but it doesn’t matter as they typically fully penetrate and you have 4 projectiles hitting at once.

    Gelatin test have been performed. The typical 000 3 pellet loadings expand in the barrel since they are being shot from a 45 cal barrel and the pellets are soft lead. The rear one is the biggest and the front one the smallest. These don’t penetrate as much — typically 8 to 12 inches. The Federal ones are harder and there are 4 balls instead of 3. These penetrate about 12 to 16 inches.

  12. What are your thoughts on mini shells used with an 18.5 inch barrel in regards to home defense? There should be no complaints about recoil but how is pattern and penetration? Thanks.

  13. For home defense I got my wife a little Remington 870 20 gauge youth, (compact) model, and put a Choate mag extension on it. It’s small, light,(comparatively speaking) and handy. I load it with #3 buckshot, (20 .25 caliber balls @ 1,200 FPS), IC choke. It’s deadly. . . So far I’ve dumped three deer in the garden, 35-40 yards, and they just dropped, hardly twitched. This little gun is more than enough for home defense. The wife gets a kick shooting sporting clays with it. . . No, she doesn’t use #3 buck on the range 😉

  14. I will second Murph’s comment, as does the FBI. Their tests ended up recommending #1 buckshot as the preferred defensive shotgun round. The 00-Buck has a lot of street appeal and is generally cheaper because of volume sales. But, in the heat of the moment, nothing trumps having access to a weapon that you can place on target and successfully cycle.

  15. My Maverick 88 is currently loaded with standard 9 pellet 00. I recently tried out some #7.5 minishell loads back to back with 2.75″ #7.5 loads. The recoil is drastically different. Once I find and pattern check the mini buck loads I’m changing to them. I can load 8 of the minis in the tube of the 88.

  16. Due to Degenerative Joint Disease in both shoulders (bone on bone, as well as other joints), I’ve given up high recoil rifles and shotguns. Some of my pistols I have to limit how much I practice with, as their recoil becomes painful within a short time (.357 and up). PAST pads only help a little.
    Should I look at 20 gauge or look at using shorter shells in 12 gauge for home defense? My past shotguns were bird hunting guns, really too long for HD, and they were semi autos. I know a pump is preferred for defense.
    Appreciate any advice.

  17. i have a remington 870,what would anyone suggest for home defense as far as shotgun shell goes that would do the job of stopping an intruder literally “dead in his tracks”and not be a killer of a recoil..thanks to all who can help.i have a shoulder problem so i have to shoot from the hip. which im pretty decent at .


  19. There does not seem to be much discussion of the choke. For duck hunting I use 4 or 6 high base, 12 gauge, in a full choke semi-auto. Upland game ranges are shorter so a lighter load, smaller shot, and modified or open choke work better depending on what you are after.

  20. I disagree with the use of heavier deeper penetrating loads for home defense. My argument is out of fear of over penetration. I’m going to say that most of us live in a house with drywall as our walls. If 00 buck can penetrate 18” in ballistic gel I’d venture to say the load will have the potential of passing through a human body and could pass through the drywall that’s could be behind the target. If we’re defending our homes keep in mind what is in our homes, family. If you have children in your home could they be on the other side of the wall the bad guy is on. I’m sure most of you will say know what’s beyond your target but keep it in mind that deadly force encounters are extremely stressful and because of that stress you most likely won’t be using your best judgment. The stress also causes fine motor skills to deteriorate and therefore the 8 or 9 pellets also narrows the chance of hitting as opposed to the higher number of pellets in the smaller shot sizes.

    I’m not gonna make a recommendation all I’m going to say is train with your home defense weapon and use the load that best suits your skills and needs

  21. No mention of 20 gauge as an alternative, particularly when recoil is an issue. Several studies in the past have found the 20 gauge with buckshot to be a more than adequate home defense weapon with lots to commend it and little to dislike. Let’s have a 12 v 20 gauge comparative test?

  22. I am of the opinion that you really can’t go wrong with either #1or 0. The number of pellets is sufficient and so is the caliber size.

  23. My home defense shotgun is a Remington M-1100 with a 20” barrel, a 7 shot magazine, ghost ring sights, a Speedfeed pistolgrip butt stock and a pressure switch driven bore aligned light. Based on a lot I observed and experienced over 37 years in law enforcement I load my magazine with the first 3 rounds out being #4 buck the next 2 are 00 buck and the last 2 are slugs. The rounds in the slots in the buttstock are 00 and slugs. I chose #4 for the first loads is based on seeing 00 penetrating through and through at in-house distances. The move up to 00 is because I expect the threat level to have elevated or the distance to have increased the slugs are because I expect the suspect to have gotten to cover.

  24. Penetration tests and shot patterns are pretty much useless unless accompanied with the distance at which fired.

  25. In my opinion you can not beat #1 buckshot. I have shot a lot of deer and found out #1 out of a modified choke will hold a pattern out to 60 yards. At 60 yards there is still enough energy to pass through BOTH lungs. 00 buck will not hold a pattern! So if your a good shot and can hit point of aim use #1 buck. 00 has ONLY 9 pellets and #1 16 pellets so do the math.

    1. As a kid, a family friend was rabbit hunting in Southern Maine. He stumbled into a bear den, and woke a very anger bear, As this was the 1960’s, he was using low base 7 1/2 shot in paper shells with wads. At a distance of only a few feet, he killed the bear with one shot.

      Game Wardens examined the bear, and told him there was a hole almost all the way through the bear. He was lucky that the shot was center mass. and that the bear was standing on it’s hind legs.

      At distances measured in feet, not yards, any 12 gauge load is lethal. Modern plastic shells also have shot cups, which will also increase their lethality. Home defense loads can be almost anything.

      P.S. Game Wardens wouldn’t let our friend keep the bear. All he got was a copy of the newspaper article from when it happened.

  26. With the new .410 “pistol” rounds, older folks can use a .410 shotgun for home defense. Recoil is minimal, but at distances measured in feet, not yards, still very effective. Three .36 caliber balls from a .410 “pistol” round at ~1200 fps would appear to be the same as three .380ACP rounds.

    Would like to see testing of the .410 “pistol” rounds in GEL, at typical home distances of ~12 feet. Think that such testing would surprise many folks that think a shotgun has too much recoil for older folksto handle.

  27. My personal home-defense weapon of choice is a Benelli Nova Tactical, with magazine tube extension, and light. It stands ready at my bedside, loaded with 2 rounds of 2 3/4” low recoil #4 buckshot, followed by 5 rounds of 2 3/4” #00 buckshot, in case there’s more than one “uninvited” guest, or I need following shots at longer ranges. It is chambered for 3 1/2” magnums, but after patterning it with them, I wasn’t sure which end of the gun I’d rather be on! Recoil was brutal! My wife absolutely refused to fire a second round, and I wasn’t far behind her.

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