Defensive Shotgun Ammunition

Classic pump action shotgun and cartridges for it. A 12-gauge smoothbore gun on a wooden table, illuminated with yellow light.

There is no firearm more recommended for the new or novice shooter for home defense than the shotgun. Many gun-savvy and experienced shooters also choose this inexpensive and versatile weapon for the bedside or behind the door.

The Myths and Lies

There are many myths, lies and bad advice given to new and experienced shooters regarding the shotgun as a defensive tool.

  • Birdshot is often recommended because of some misguided idea that it will not go through the walls of your home. However, this same lack of penetration in walls results in lack of penetration in an attacker, leading to a non-incapacitating wound. Don’t use it.
  • Another oft-touted myth is that the sound of a pump-action shotgun being pumped scares away intruders or attackers. One would reasonably argue that if that sound scares them off, then the sound of you simply shouting “I have a gun and I will shoot you,” would probably also be effective to frighten them away. Don’t buy into such nonsense.
  • The third and most universally misunderstood myth is the idea that you don’t need to aim a shotgun, inferring that the shotgun is an “area weapon” of some sort. This could not be further from the truth. With the shortest 18-inch cylinder bore barrel, from across the typical-sized room, the shotgun can group its shot within a 2-inch circle with reduced recoil loads, even the loosest shot pattern is only about six inches at this distance. These guns require aiming just as any other. Do not believe otherwise.

Choosing Ammunition

When choosing defensive ammunition, the number one factor to consider is reliability.

If the ammunition does not function in your gun it is of no use. This point is most applicable to semiautomatic shotguns, as some don’t function reliably with certain loads.

Many pump and semiautomatic shotguns run smoothly only on brass-cased shells. Semiautomatic shotguns tend to be the most temperamental when it comes to ammunition, so always test your load.

No matter what ammunition you choose it is of the utmost importance that you “pattern” your load in your gun, especially at the distance you may use it. You must know the capabilities of your defensive system.

Defensive use of the shotgun in the home requires that any load chosen limits penetration while still providing incapacitating performance. Defensive performance standards and the selection defensive ammunition are based on the criteria of:

  • Adequate penetration of at least 12 inches
  • Pellet distribution in gelatin testing

The 12 gauge is the most popular shotgun caliber, which makes it very easy to find many acceptable defensive loadings. The best ammunition, using our standards, for home defense is the standard velocity Remington 00 Buck, with the Winchester Supreme 00 Buck just barely behind.

The next best 12-gauge ammunition would be the harder recoiling buck and ball. This is a very tight patterning load made up of a small slug surrounded by buckshot. It’s very effective, although it runs the risk of over penetration due to the inclusion of the slug.

Other choices for defensive use would be standard 2 3/4-inch #1 buck loadings from Remington, Winchester or Sellier & Bellot. Any magnum load or any load containing hardened buckshot may over-penetrate, so keep this in mind if it is of any concern.

The final choice is any 2 3/4-inch magnum load using hardened, plated and buffered #4 Buckshot, such as the Federal.

As for 20 gauge shotguns, defensive loads are much harder to find, and you may not be able to be as choosey on your ammunition selection.

The best available is the relatively hard-recoiling Federal 3-inch Magnum #2 Buck. For those who are recoil sensitive, Remington offers a #3 Buck load in a 2 3/4-inch shell that patterns the tightest in most shotguns.

For .410 loads, your choices become even fewer. Any Buckshot or non-expanding slug design should be adequate for home defense.

Do you keep a shotgun for home defense? Which do you prefer, and what is your favorite loading? Share with our readers in the comment section.

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 (25)

  1. I must disagree with your choice of 3 inch shells for self defense. 2 3/4 shells are just as effective in short engagements and they also do not take as long to recover from (blast and recoil).

  2. Very good article and information about shotgun myths. I keep shotgun for home defense, I prefer buckshot. But birdshot is also effective on short distance.

  3. My choice is the 12 gauge pump loaded with #4 Buckshot. At close range (less than thirty yards) the small spread and many pellets get the job done just fine. I also keep a broken 12 gauge double-barreled for instant use. Broken, it’s safer for kids who may wander into the bedroom against all guidance. The pump is in another nearby room.

  4. Federal’s 12 ga. 3.5″ magnum Vital Shok shotgun shell loaded with 00 Buck has 18 buffered, copper plated pellets that are advertised to have a muzzle velocity of 1100fps. I’d say this load would be more than just adequate for self defense when needed. As far as a preferred choke tube installed in a barrel, I had opted for the improved cylinder tube due to information provided to me by a local police officer who had told me that the improved cylinder choke tube is that which he and his fellow officers have installed in their pump action shotguns.

  5. Years ago I was shooting out in the desert. Someone left a solid core door. So I tested 2 3/4″ dove load at 10 ft improved cylinder bore. It made a 3 inch hole completely through the door.
    Remington 3″ 000 buck 70 grains each 1100 fps 940 ft/lb total energy.

  6. Hopefully, I will never be subjected to a situation whereas a defensive firearm is needed, however; should a defensive firearm be needed, I have opted for my Remington model #870 to be my “go to” firearm for defending my loving wife, our puppy dog, and myself. This particular Remington model #870 is a 12ga that has a black synthetic stock, and it has a matte black 18″ barrel chambered to accept 2-3/4″, 3″ and 3-1/2″ shells.

    Albeit this firearm offers the shooter a myriad of ammunition choices, I feel that Federal’s 3-1/2″ Premium Magnums loaded with 00 Buckshot will more than adequately get the job done.

    Although a 3-1/2″ load has slightly less muzzle velocity than does the 3″ load, my opinion suggests that the extra shot contained within the 3-1/2″ shell has the upper hand or an advantage when used in confined areas, especially; tight areas most often presented within the confines of ones home.

  7. And so the home defense load debate continues. Having seen and also conducted tests with ballistics gel and denim, my conclusion is that 2-3/4″ 00 unplated buckshot at above 1200fps through an 18–20″ barrel at typical home defense distance ranges (under 15 yards) yields the best penetration without overpenetrating and is manageable to shoot quickly. Consequently, I use and train with standard, inexpensive, available-anywhere, plain-Jane 00 9-pellet buck at 1325 fps. I do confess, however, to having on my side-saddle 00 plated buckshot (1600fps) and a couple of slugs (1825 fps) in the event of a protracted encounter where intruders are able to take cover behind furniture, walls, etc. since, generally speaking, plated ordinance always penetrates deeper than unplated and will retain its effectiveness better than unplated after first punching through a hard barrier. Of course, the possibility of overpenetration might be unacceptable to some under any circumstances, but it is a risk I am willing to take in order to prevail in a secondary standoff scenario.

  8. The birdshot “myth” is not a myth, but a debate. You might want to actually try some. Set up some sheet rock walls, put simulated targets in front of the first one (in the same room with you) and some simulated family members in the next room(s), and shoot at them with birdshot, buckshot, slugs, .223 rounds and 9mm rounds. Then report back.

    I know of no ready source for your required brass-cased shells for pumps and autos.

  9. One must remember that non-lethal rounds can still kill at close range. The use of a firearm is always considered lethal force. As for me, I will always use 12 gauge #00 buck for self-defense.

  10. I have an HR partner pump protector right next to the side of my bed. I use Winchester 00 buck for home defense. Anything that intrudes, will be stopped where they stand….

  11. If you have a rifled shotgun barrel,Brenneke makes a sabot slug that cant be equalled.Myself,I have Mossberg 500 persuader.You cant get any better than that.The only one to pass the brual military tests.I use a number of rounds through it.First,Remington and Centurian both make slugs that will sufficiently drilled holes through any thing in there path,very nice!!Second I have as the article mentioned,Centurion mullti defense rounds,which employ a 5/8 round ball and 6 #1 buckshot,again this round will defenitely put em down for good.Third,good ole’#00 buckshot,the “go to”round,Again this round will really let the air out of em’ in a hurry,Last but not least my favorite,#4 buckshot.this I found to be the best pattern.this round I would suggest to anyone to be the ideal home defense round,just my two cents!

  12. Who knew that there were so many myths surrounding shotgun use on a defensive basis? Thanks for answering some of the most common. I’ve known a number of people who were under the distinct impression that a shotgun was something like a spray paint can, if you point it in the general direction of whoever you want to hit, then they will be hit. As you pointed out, this isn’t true with any shotgun capable of doing actual damage. Sure, someone could conceivably (and illegally) saw off their shotgun to where it throws a wider shot pattern, but at that point what kind of stopping power do you really have?

    Donald from Quick Weight Loss

  13. forget the shot gun and go with the Judge. its a .410 hand cannon. with the loads available for it u point and shoot. i get a 5ft pattern at around 10ft. my wife has made this her weapon of choice for home and carry.

  14. I use one Sellier & Bellot single rubber ball as the first round that gets racked in. After that, it’s 2.75″ military grade 00 buck. Maverick 88’s are glorious defense weapons.

  15. I would not recommend salt or bean bags for defensive rounds. If someone is in your home they obviously have nefarious intentions. Use good 00 Buck and stop the threat.

    1. Although your argument is valid, In my opinion, there are instances where a “less lethal” round offers an advantage. I load my Remington 870 with a paint ball, or rubber buck shot as the first round. Everything after that gets more and more lethal. As a physician living in a home / office arrangement, I feel very comfortable with a 12ga. pump always at the ready ( secured but ready ). I feel even more comfortable because my wife and I practice and have a plan in effect, should we need to act .
      case # 1, with a break in, or home invasion , the adrenalin runs very high, I am sure. One may be more inclined to shoot a ” friendly ” target at that point. Less lethal ammo may provide said target, a chance to live another day.
      Case #2, If the shot gun is taken away from you by the bad guys ( heaven forbid), one may have the ability to charge them ( Knowing that the round may not be deadly) or retreat with some added time gained to get to safety, and/or another gun.
      Case #3, The danger is real and imminent. Cycle the first round ( split second option ) and commence fire with #4 buck.
      With that said, if there is ever a need to use our weapons in our home or office, my wife suggests that we ” shoot first, check for the would be criminals Obama Care coverage after”.

    2. I’ll have to strongly disagree with you. “Less than lethal” rounds do not offer an advantage in a deadly encounter.
      Your first premise is invalid as it assumes the time necessary to fire or unload “less than lethal” rounds before using proper defensive ammunition. Seconds do indeed count and these incidents often are over in a matter of seconds. Strike one
      In case#1, you offer an indefensible excuse for shooting at a target that you have not clearly identified. The rules of gun handling safety do no go out the window merely because you are put in the position of having to actually use your gun in a defensive situation. No offense intended, but this argument is absurd and disconcerting as well.
      Case #2 is also unrealistic. “At the ranges we are discussing here, “Less than lethal” can, in fact, be very lethal. In addition, if you don’t have the wherewithal to control your fear and dominate the situation in your “Case #1” (above) what makes you think you’d be able to do so in a hand-to-hand struggle for your weapon? As far as retreating or getting another gun, I submit that these might be options made possible by giving your attacker a weapon with one or two “less than lethal” rounds, but again, at close range you will likely suffer serious injury. You may also be killed.
      Case #3 assumes that you have enough distance between yourself and your attacker and that you have the speed and skill necessary to pull this off. Judging by your comments, I doubt the latter to be true. Unless you live in a home where the rooms are 50′ x 50′, I’d forget about having enough time to do anything but get off that first round.
      You’re to be commended for your dedication to protecting your family, but I beg you to consider taking some time off and getting trained in the real world application of firearms.

    1. @ Portable Shooting Bench,
      There’s a good legal reason for not using less than lethal ammunition. Any attorney worth his or her salt is going to question why you shot someone if you didn’t think they should be killed. Using less than lethal ammo is still going to be looked upon in most U.S. jurisdictions as a lethal use of force since you discharged a firearm at someone. It’s the equivalent of trying to shoot someone in the leg or arm in order to wound them. If what a person is doing to you doesn’t justify you taking them out, then you shouldn’t be using a firearm, period. Yes, we all hear the mantra about shooting someone to stop the attack, but the reality is that no matter your intentions, a discharge of a firearm towards a subject is going to be seen as as use of lethal force. Period.

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