Choosing and Setting Up a Shotgun for Home Defense

Man in black tactical gear shooting a KelTec KSG shotgun topped with a red dot sight

A lot of what I have to say about a home defense shotgun may conflict with what you have read. Just the same, it must be kept in mind that a shotgun isn’t a rifle. Different criteria exists for using a shotgun than a handgun.

As an example, I use the sights with a handgun and teach my students they must use a good sight picture. I don’t use instinctive shooting. It isn’t a contradiction to state that a shotgun is fired largely by feel. That being said, let’s look at the shotgun.

Toros Coppola 12 gauge pump-action shotgun
The Toros Coppola is a highly advanced firearm well worth its price.

Many are familiar with a shotgun. Some have used the shotgun in the hunting fields. Others grew up in a home with a good pump-action shotgun. For many households, it was the only gun in the house. The shotgun used for hunting might be pressed into home defense if need be. In fact, every defensive incident in which a shotgun defended a home and its occupants — that I recorded — involved what is normally called a sporting shotgun.

Powerful, effective, and fast handling, the shotgun offers real efficiency. Oftentimes, the same shotgun may be used for quail, dove, duck, and deer, with a simple choke or barrel change. You may add a shorter barrel for defense use.

Choosing a Shotgun

Choosing a shotgun for home defense is an endeavor that should be given some thought. How often will you practice? Will you engage in safe, dry fire operation of the shotgun? If you are competing in 3-Gun competition, you’ll need a very good shotgun. If your needs are simple, a basic shotgun is all you need.

Today, more specialized shotguns are available for home defense. That 28-inch barreled sporting gun isn’t the best choice for stopping a takeover robbery or repelling boarders in cramped quarters. A shorter barrel is faster handling in tight places.

Specialized home defense shotguns are available for very little expense. While I would caution against a cheap pistol or rifle, the inexpensive Turkish shotguns, as an example, are reliable. However, they are not the smoothest or best equipped pump guns.

Mossberg 590 shotgun with tan furniture
This Mossberg isn’t a high-end custom, but a factory available SPX shotgun.

The Turkish self-loaders enjoy a decent reputation as well. I prefer a super-smooth Remington 870 or the proven Mossberg 590. When we are on a budget, however, we do with what we know.

Shotguns: Proper Handling

A shotgun isn’t a substitute for aim and proper gun handling. The shotgun mut be handled well and aimed as carefully as a rifle. The fast handling of the shotgun, and its payload, make it very effective in a home defense situation.

The primary requirement for managing the shotgun is to learn good technique for controlling recoil. Learn to control recoil and quickly bringing the shotgun into action first. Secondary tactics, such as quickly reloading the magazine and stroking the shotgun upward to crunch into an opponent who is attempting a gun grab, should be practiced later.

Loading a shotgun with a 20 gauge shotshell
Skills, such as quickly topping off the magazine, should be practiced often.

Shotguns: The Basics

The basics come first. Don’t count on a shotgun’s appearance or the sound of a shotgun’s bolt racking to deter a home breaker. Only competence and determination in your manner will deter a dangerous adversary. Confidence comes from ability and smooth manipulation.

A shotgun you keep on hand for emergencies, that you have not practiced with, is foolish. The same is true with any firearm. It is analogous to keeping a Harley Davidson in the garage that you have not ridden — in case you need to get out of town in a hurry. Such things don’t end well.

Don’t feel silly conducting drills in the home. You really should be doing so. Jump out of bed, grab an unloaded shotgun, and get into a defensive position. Practice movement with a triple-checked, unloaded shotgun.

shell carrier and XS front bead on a shotgun being used in a home defense situation
A shell carrier and XS front bead are all that is needed for most of us.

Practice moving around corners. Don’t lead with the barrel. Someone may take the gun from you. Be certain you can reliably rack the bolt and that the shotgun feeds properly. If you use a self-loading shotgun, be certain to grip the shotgun securely, so it will feed reliably. An automatic shotgun needs a solid platform to recoil against the bolt.

So, do you need a tactical shotgun with pistol grip and extended magazine for home defense? They may be nice to have, and the pistol grip shotgun is an aid when you are carrying a child to safety. However, a straight stock makes for faster shotgun handling.

An extended magazine is good, but you are unlikely to need more than a few shells in a home defense situation. As a counterpoint, you are unlikely to have more than the gun load in the shotgun when you need it, and an extended magazine may hold eight shells or more —a good reserve of ammunition.

The Gauge

The gauge should be considered. I prefer a 12-gauge shotgun, but a 20-gauge model is a formidable option as well. Even the .410 may work well with proper loads. Penetration is good with buckshot in all gauges. The larger gauges have more choice in loads and deliver a greater payload.

Pump-Action Shotguns

The pump-action shotgun is the default choice. This is based on reliability and ease of operation. Some semi-automatics, such as the Benelli, are famously reliable and well worthy of betting your life on. In the end, however, a dirty pump is more reliable than a dirty automatic…

Comparison of a straight stock and pistol grip shotgun stock
A straight stock or pistol grip is something that requires a bit of thought.

If you prefer the automatic shotgun, ensure it is thoroughly tested with the load of choice. Reduced recoil buckshot is a good choice for personal defense, but the lowered impulse may not operate some automatic shotgun actions reliably.

The Double-Barrel Shotgun

The double-barrel shotgun still has many adherents. It may be kept broken open at home in a safe condition, quickly loaded and made ready. Nothing handles quite as quickly as a well-balanced double, particularly in .410 and 20 gauge.

Double-barrel shotgun with the action open
For some, a simple double barrel is an ideal home defender. With the shotgun instantly made ready for action simply by closing the breech, yet just as easily made safe, the double has much appeal.

For the recoil shy and safety conscious, the double barrel is a good choice. Easily made safe, and offering a high hit probability, the double is a viable option — especially for those who use a double barrel in the field. While the ‘coach gun’ is a viable defensive shotgun, it is not as formidable overall as the Benelli M4. Again, consider the likely threat.

Semi-Automatic Shotguns

The semi-auto is a fast shooter, giving some shooters an advantage in rapid-fire hit probability. The type is easy to use well — rack the bolt and fire. In some situations, especially when firing from cover, the self-loader has it all over the pump-action shotgun.

Accessorizing Your Shotgun

If you wish to modify the shotgun to suit your whims and preferences, a Mossberg 500 or Remington 870 pump action is the first choice. There are tons of aftermarket options to command your attention while choosing the proper stock forend and sights. There is no end to the aftermarket gear easily swapped out for the pump-action shotgun.

A straight stock and pistol grip stock shotgun on the wood shooting bench at an outdoor range
The author finds the straight stock to be more effective on moving targets, while the pistol grip is more secure during tactical movement. Both options work well for practice.

A Magpul stock for the Remington 870 or Mossberg 500 is about the only after-market part I consider a must have. You may get by without the Magpul, but it helps handling. Of course, some like the AR-15-type stock modification.

A custom forend may reduce the likelihood of short stroking the action. Short stroking is the bane of the pump action. It is no fault of the shotgun and should be addressed by training. Some forends seem to reduce short-stroke malfunctions.

Ithaca 37 20 gauge shotgun, drilled and tapped for a TruGlo red dot, and a special TruGlo Varmint Light added
An Ithaca 37 20 gauge, drilled and tapped for a TruGlo red dot, and a special TruGlo Varmint Light added. I would not call this done on the cheap because there is no better shotgun anywhere than the Ithaca. It was paid for and available!

One of the superior additions to a defensive shotgun is to add XS sights. Sight sets and single beads are available to fit practically any shotgun. I am not certain a red dot sight is the best bet in dim light. On the range however, a red dot certainly adds to speed. This is a personal decision influenced by the availability of other firearms, such as the rifle and pistol, that may have red dot sights as well.

Home Defense Loads

Load selection is critical for home defense. Don’t fall for the fallacy of birdshot or other small shot for defense use. I would posit the wide spread of birdshot may result in shot blasting out a window, if the range is sufficient.

Birdshot is designed to humanely kill a small animal that you could hold in the palm of your hand. You are not catching the target in a cloud of shot. Rather, you are choosing a load that centers the load cohesively in a tight pattern on the target. This is needed to stop the threat. Dangerous humans are not quail dove or hares.

Winchester, Remington, Federal, and Hornady 12 gauge shotshell boxes
A wide mix of buckshot is available. Any of these are effective for home defense. The difference in performance is most noticeable after 10 yards.

The load I most often recommend is 12 gauge #00 buckshot reduced recoil. Loads such as #1 buck or #4 are probably just as effective inside a home. The primary advantage in Federal Flite Wad and Hornady Critical Defense is a tight pattern at longer range, giving the shotgun an effective pattern to 20 yards or so. This isn’t needed in home defense. Even inexpensive Sellier & Bellot shells work well. Inexpensive buckshot doesn’t have wadding or filler, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t effective a few yards range.

The shotgun is our most effective home defense firearm. However, the shotgun isn’t for everyone. On the other hand, of the three home defense firearms — rifle pistol and shotgun — you may purchase a reliable and useful home defense shotgun for the least amount of cash. Yet, it is potentially the most effective. Choose well.

Do you prefer the shotgun for home defense? Which is your first choice — semi-automatic, pump action, or double barrel? 12 or 20 gauge, or do you prefer a .410 bore? Share your answers, or home defense shotgun tips, in the Comments section.

  • Railroad detective from the 1920s with a large flashlight mounted to a shotgun
  • cutaway illustration of a 20 gauge shotshell loaded with buckshot
  • Wilson Combat shotgun with a Surefire combat light forend
  • Double-barrel shotgun with the action open
  • Field stripped 12 gauge pump-action shotgun with a pistol grip stock
  • Ithaca 37 20 gauge shotgun, drilled and tapped for a TruGlo red dot, and a special TruGlo Varmint Light added
  • Loading a shotgun with a 20 gauge shotshell
  • shell carrier and XS front bead on a shotgun being used in a home defense situation
  • Toros Coppola 12 gauge pump-action shotgun
  • A straight stock and pistol grip stock shotgun on the wood shooting bench at an outdoor range
  • Shotgun with the barrel removed
  • Winchester, Remington, Federal, and Hornady 12 gauge shotshell boxes
  • Mossberg 590 shotgun with tan furniture
  • Comparison of a straight stock and pistol grip shotgun stock
  • Man in black tactical gear shooting a KelTec KSG shotgun topped with a red dot sight
  • SWAT member in tactical gear shooting a shotgun with a XS front bead sight
  • White XS BIg Boy front bead sight on a shotgun barrel

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 (24)

  1. BOB CAMPBELL– I’d also suggest an article on plastic pellets and plastic slugs. At short range they are highly effective, at the same they have a shorter danger zone for everyone around you.

    The bullpup design seems to have a great psychological effect in either rifles or shotguns, but ammunition plays into the game, too.


  2. I own three (3) shotguns for home defense. First a 20 inch Stoeger dbl. barrel. an 18 1/2 inch Remington 870 12ga. and a Benelli M3 Convertible Semi-Auto/ pump 12ga. with a 19.75 in. barrel. I shot Cowboy S.A.S.S. competition with the Stoeger for 10 years and am familiar with it’s pattern. I depended on my Remington 870 for 20 years as my home defense gun until I bought the Benelli M3. I’ve patterned the Benelli out to 25 yards, even though you wouldn’t need it for in-home defense. It displays a pattern 30 to 32 inches across at 25 yards. It’s devastating at 5-to10 yards. I load the extended tube with 2 3/4 in. shells (which have less recoil than 3 in. magnums and don’t blow out your eardrums) in the following manner: 3 rounds of #4 Buck, 2 rounds of #1 Buck and 2 rounds of 00 Buck. If the distance closes, I’m looking to narrow the odds. Hopefully, I won’t have to worry about beating an intruder over the head with an empty shotgun !

  3. Bob, this is good stuff but I think you should include how to store things and also have quick access. By storage I mean child proof. In a response situation this same gun needs to be extremely available after waking from a sound sleep. No fiddling with combinations or keys.

  4. H&R Pardner Pump (Rem 870 clone). When I was an LEO I was our field unit’s 2nd amorer, a range master and instructor, our issued shotgun was the Rem 870 so I’m thoroughly familiar with it. The H&R Pardner Pump at the time was $175 new and being a clone of the 870 it was an obvious choice. It’s a solid performer but it feels HEAVY. It’s not any really but it just feels like it. I swapped on a 6 position AR style grip/stock, Eagle fore end. Heat shield with ghost ring combat sights. 5 shell carrier on the stock. Clamp on three section Picatinny attatchment on the barrell with under barrel light. 10 shells of 00 buck in 12ga.

  5. rem 870 12ga, slug barrel w/7 shot extension mag. rife sights, keep 2 oob in mag.. so requires 1 pump to chamber a load. uncle mikes ‘sidesaddle’ on receiver w/additional 6 rds oob. sleeps beside bed. kept mostly for defense. altho, i have taken deer w/slug loads. it`s 1 physically, tough shotgun. it`s name is ‘Baby’.

  6. I have used many shotguns. I purchased a pump action for home defense. I keep it in “Cruiser Mode”, as a LE buddy of mine calls it. You dry fire it and then load the unit. This allows you to pump the first round into the chamber and the safety is off. I personally use this 12 gauge with #4 2 3/4”, followed by a #6, then back and forth. Inside a home or any other close proximity, this is sufficient to take care of whatever is the threat. I keep it magazine loaded and “Cruiser Ready”, as it is mounted in a Hornady wall clamshell safe. If it’s needed, a key, code, or swipe enables me to access it immediately, yet it is safe for my grandchildren, or others who should not have access.

  7. I once took a 20-gauge pump shotgun to the range and placed a target at around 7 to 10 yards (don’t really recollect) and shot #4 bird shot out of it and it made a perfect 4″ hole in the paper target. I would assume most home invasion episodes take place at relatively short distances. So, I couldn’t really imagine how much damage #4 shot (not buck) would do to someone who got hit with it at short range despite the small size of the shot in a 4-inch diameter circle. Seems to me that would discourage them from whatever they had in mind.

  8. I bought a Remington 870 Express as my first firearm once I purchased a house. My girl said “Why?”. I said “Home defense”. It is still ready after many years. 16″ slug barrel, two shell extension, 00 Fiocchi, one in the chamber. Push the safety off, ready to rock. No warning click/clack. Just BOOM…

  9. I Use A Benelli M2 Semi Auto With Factory Full Length Pistol Grip Stock. I Removed The Factory Recoil Pad. I Replaced It With A “Limb Saver” Recoil Pad. The M2 Has Ghost Ring Night Sights. I Also Have An “Insight Technologies” Light And Red Laser Mounted On The Factory Extended Magazine Tube. It Also Has A Tactical Sling And Mount For A Tactical Red Dot Sight, If Needed. It Also Has A GG&G Enlarged Bolt Release Button And An Improved Magazine Loading Port Door With Stainless Steel Shell Follower. Finally, I Like No.4 3″ Magnum Buckshot For In The House. I Also Keep With My M2 A 25 Rd. Belt Loaded With 3″ Magnum 00 Buckshot.

  10. I have to say the pump is the most reliable action, other than a break open. But you must reload a break open after one or two shots and if the ejector fails it could cost you dearly. The 12 gauge in 3″ chamber gives you more shell selection, although the 2 3/4″ shell is more than capable of stopping the threat. The 3″ shell offers bigger payloads, but you will pay for it in hard recoil. But you can shoot smaller shot size like #4 shot, paired with a open choke tube or barrel and you have a good spread plus knock down power.also keep barrel lengths short but legal.

  11. Remington 870 synthetic tactical with ammo rail and sure fire flashlight mounted under tube with hornady critical defense rounds. This is the weapon I keep in front of my safe as go too weapon for a quick acquisition. Just the chambering of a round will get there attention.

  12. I hunted pheasants for years with a 20 ga. Ithaca pump. These were 3 hour hunts. I hunted with people who used all kinds of shotguns but most used 12 ga. I can say categorically that I got as many birds as the 12s but because of the speed I got some birds that the 12s didn’t because I could move faster..especially near the end of the hunts because the 12s got to heavy to shoot fast.
    I would say without hesitation in a home environment at 7 to 10 feet I would take my 20 over a 12 any day. Also if I was unable to shoot my wife who is barely 5 ft tall could handle the 20 more effectively than the 12.
    Lastly in room space I wouldn’t be afraid to use a no. 6 or even no. 7 shot and with a full choke it is even more powerful. A shot in the upper body especially the face would stop 99 % of offenders.

  13. My daughter lives where she has had coyotes, bobcats, bears and mountain lions in her backyard. She has dogs, and was worried about their safety.
    She is a bow hunter, and didn’t own any firearms.
    I bought her a 20ga coach gun. Set it up with light and laser sight, stock sleeve with slugs, 00 Buck.
    Should handle any 2 or 4 legged predators.

  14. Pundits always recommend a pump action ahotgun for self defense. I acquired my first shotgun at age 6 and my first semi auto at age 7 to hunt with my dad. I have never owned a pump shotgun. After shotgun ammo was produced with plastic hulls, failure to function was minimized. If you practice with your shotgun and the ammo you chose confirming it’s reliability, the chance of a malfunction is almost zero and the first round is already chambered. If you believe semi auto’s are unreliable, then hide your Glock,your S&W M&P, you P365, Hellcat etc etc etc. Self defense shotguns stored in a home are not subject to harsh conditions. Clean your firearm when you use it. I have a 1956 20 ga Franchi auto that has run through 25 boxes of shells without a malfunction. Unreliable ? Operators used to semi auto’s will not cycle a pump correctly under stress. The manual of arms is different. Semi auto shooters who hunt constantly practice loading and shooting their weapon.. The manual of arms is ingrained. I have no complaints about pump shotguns. They work well for those who chose them. Semi autos are the better choice for those using that platform for hunting. They are fast and reliable. When the owner picks it up, it becomes an extension of their hand, not an add on.

  15. I am a shotgun lover, mostly Remingtons. The 870, and the 1100, in 3.5″ magnum, but it all changed when I saw the SRM 1216. THAT is one hell of a gun! 16, 00 buckshot is pure bliss. My new favorite shotgun.

  16. the Judge and a shockwave make a nice combo…something you can store easily without it being obvious yet quickly employable…in the case of the latter the mini-shells become an option greatly increasing magazine capacity and with some add-ons such as a side-mounted shell carrier…as many as 20 rds can be carried in or on the gun…speed loading for the Judge should be limited tho the .45LC rather than the .410…

  17. A smooth bore long gun has been a preferred defense weapon since the 1600’s. When my father studied for his Police Sargent’s exam, there was a law still on the Massachusetts books (late 60’s) from the 1600’s that all able body males were to bring their guns to church on Sundays to “provide protection from Indians”. Now, as an “older shooter”, a pump or double barrel shotgun has a certain appeal. With the modern 410 “handgun” loads available, the reduced recoil/noise of a 410 makes sense. At typical home defense ranges, these 410 “handgun” loads are effective for us older shooters. If I was 30 – 40 years younger, I would want to use my 12 gauge, with buckshot. BUT – Getting old sucks, and a 12 gauge is now too loud and has too much recoil for me to handle. Also, seems the issue is no longer Indians, but the gang baggers, who are much worse. Don’t forget to carry reloads!

  18. The Taurus Judge on my night stand with 5 rounds of 3″ PDX loads is all you should need in a defensive situation in your home. Easy to grab and maneuver around the house, with deadly response if needed.

  19. My home defense shotgun is a 12 gauge Mossberg Shockwave with railed aftemarket stock, a ported barrel, attached light, and a red dot sight.

  20. Was there are reason you did not include the KelTec KSG or other bullpup designs? Many. many moons ago I bought a just introduced High Standard Model 10B and as much as I liked it, parted ways with it a couple of years later because it required full charge loads and I liked the idea of operation with any load in that gauge. Plastic 12ga slugs are extremely useful in some environments, but in other cases much, much stouter loads might be well called for.


  21. First I want to take up an issue that doesn’t involve everyone ie: instinctive shooting which I have done for roughly 60 years and am very good at it, but Thats just me, yes I believe that a good shot gun is excellent for home defense, I have a mossberg 500 with pistol grip and a tactical mossberg 590 I prefer the 500 in a home defense scenario because it is easier to handle in confined spaces, I use a 12 gauge with double aught buckshot which would definitely get the job done.

  22. I went with the Mossberg SA-20… I felt with the light weight and reduced recoil,it would be easier for my wife to handle… 00 buckshot is the defense load, but I have found that the Federal Tru-ball slug ammo is accurate and decisive as well

  23. After polishing the chamber and an extended break in, I love my KSG. It is modified with an ejection deflector,flashlight, and a red dot sight. 00 in one mag and slugs in the other. Short enough to be maneuverable in the house.

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