Four Hornady Shotgun Loads, No Bad Choices

Hornady American Gunner shotgun load through a cardboard target

There are many firearm choices for home defense. The choice hinges on recoil tolerance, weight, bulk, expense, locale, and the shooters ability. You may choose a rifle, shotgun, or handgun, but the shotgun offers the greatest wound potential and the greatest versatility. Let’s get over some myths concerning the shotgun. You do have to aim! While the shotgun has a good natural point, and aims naturally, you must aim the piece to center the payload. With a spread of perhaps two inches at seven yards to four inches at 10 yards, you can miss easily if you do not center the load.

Bob Campbell shooting a shotgun with a red dot scope
With the TruGlo Red Dot and Remington 870 squared away Hornady buckshot gave excellent results.

Another false assumption is the recommendation for the use of birdshot in the shotgun for home defense. While the area covered would sting, if the assailant is heavily clad there is a good chance the shot load would not penetrate his clothing. If it does, gelatin tests have shown that birdshot penetrates perhaps 3 inches or less in a human body. A pellet intended to humanely kill a bird weighing perhaps a few ounces isn’t suitable for use against our protein fed ex-con criminal class or a dangerous animal.

The Hornady buckshot line is designed with optimum wadding to make a cohesive pattern at combat ranges. At seven yards, most often there is simply a ragged hole in the target. As we move out to 10 and 15 yards, a pattern the size of a fist is evident. I don’t know about you, but my experience indicates I want to land as much of the combat load as possible on the threat.

A spread is nice for hitting something, somewhere, at longer range but at shotgun combat range—3 to 20 yards—I want a tight pattern. I want the maximum shot density and damage to the threat. I want to know my point of aim and impact and where the load strikes in relation to the bead, sight, or red dot I am using.

Hornady American Gunner shotgun load through a cardboard target
At about 12 feet, the American Gunner reduced recoil load exhibited an excellent pattern. This is life saving performance.

Many are concerned with the penetration of buckshot in a home defense situation. This is true to an extent, but no more so than those of us using handguns for home defense. Buckshot will, however, flatten on brick and cinder blocks. It will even bounce back, so be careful when testing penetration of buckshot on various constructs.

A wild shot is bad news for the neighbors, but what the hell are you doing firing a wild shot? An aimed shot will be centered in the threat’s body and most likely stop what he is doing. The same is true of a handgun round as far as penetration goes. As for as wound potential and ‘knock down,’ the shotgun is far superior. Knock down isn’t physically possible but a severe wound will cause blood loss and incapacitation. The goal isn’t to release a payload that would serve well in an Israeli police action but to stop the threat with a minimum of well controlled shots.

Either of the Hornady buckshot loads carry over 1,500 pounds of energy, and up to about 1,800 ft.-lbs. That is more than three times the energy of a typical .357 Magnum bullet. We call buckshot pellets but the proper term would be buckshot balls as they are each .33 caliber and weigh over 50 grains. That is impressive. It is similar to getting hit with a barrage of pistol gunfire, with each striking the body simultaneously. (OK, I know buckshot doesn’t travel in a circle but a string, sure, but you get the point.)

Three boxes of Hornady shotgun ammunition
All three loads provided excellent results. Choose the one that is best for your needs.

After testing the Hornady buckshot loads, I found that all three are useful for placing the full load of shot into less than four inches at home defense distance. For area defense and close range defense against wild animals, they are impressive.

Buckshot has proven effective against most four legged threats, and sharks, but that is another story. You are not helpless to 50 yards or so with buckshot—if you know your shotgun and your load.

I tested four Hornady loads. They are supplied in 10-round boxes. A note on velocity, my Remington 870 Tactical features an 18-inch barrel. These loads will obtain the full, published velocity or more in a typical 28-inch barrel. The Varmint Express in particular is a hunting and predator load. The Hornady loads were as fast or faster than competing loads and the patterns excellent, but you need to understand the limitations of your firearm too.

Green silhouette target with buckshot holes in it
At typical home engagement range, Hornady buckshot offers excellent results.

#4 buckshot load #86246

Labeled Varmint Express, this load is ideal for snagging running coyote and the like. For personal defense, the pattern is wide at 21 feet and offers high hit probability. Recoil was the least of any of the loads tested. At 1,200 fps, this is a load with greater penetration than most game shot but with reasonable recoil.

Hornady Black 00 Buck #86249

This is the full-power buckshot load intended for self-loading shotguns and sporting shotguns designed to take down deer-sized game. A full choke and a longer barrel are demanded for best performance. Just the same, a load developed 1,377 fps in the Remington’s 18-inch barrel isn’t to be sneezed at!

Silhouette target with two loads of Hornady Varmint Express through it
This is two loads of #4 Varmint Express buckshot, fired quickly at a target at 21 feet.

Hornady American Gunner Reduced Recoil 00 Buck #86274

At 1,260 fps, this load has plenty of power but offers less recoil than full power buckshot. I was surprised by the tight pattern in my open cylinder choked Remington. At 12 feet, the pattern was 1.75×2 inches. This is a tight concentration of shot and one that would even offer the chances of a head shot if that was all that was exposed, without other balls flying wild.

However, during testing, occasionally the tightest groups at 21 feet are opened by a flyer an inch or more away. That is the nature of buckshot. This is the first choice for me for home defense, and if still in uniform, this would be the load I would prefer to deploy.

For the most power in a short-range situation, say, against the big cats or if I were using a self-loading shotgun that demanded more power to cycle, the Hornady Black would be the first choice. For varmints and predators, the Varmint Express load. For personal defense, I would choose the American Gunner. You simply cannot go wrong with these choices.

Have you tried Hornady’s shotgun loads? What was your impression? Share your answers in the comment section.

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 (3)

  1. 8 rounds of #1 buck (16 pellet), or 8 rounds of #4 buck, 3″ (30 pellet) out of an 1100 semi-auto tactical will effectively repel all boarders. Do the math: 8×16=128 rds, 8×30=240rds in less than 1.5 seconds. But, believe the media that assault rifles are BAD. Even if you stick with standard buckshot 12 pellet, 2 3/4, = 96 rounds, or if you go big with federal premium 3″ 18 pellet 00 buck x 8= 144 rounds. Devastating!

    So, what is your choice when three thugs stack your door? Or, four bubbas come rolling out of a hoopty headed for your front door?

    Me, im grabbing the 1100, dumping the full load, then going to my next weapon.

    A semiauto shotgun with 7-8 rounds amounts to a great first, full-on initial self-defense assault in say a home invasion scenario, giving you time to, regroup, adjust, rearm and reengage giving you tactical and fire superiority.

  2. I really should probably pay more attention to what shells in buying. I buy specific rounds for 5.56, 6.5 grendel, 9mm, and even .25. But I just buy whatever 00 buck is the cheapest. I honestly couldn’t tell you what’s in my Fury 2 right now without popping one out of a mag. Suffice it to say, the Fury eats everything, and spraying a hallway with 10 or 15 shots at very high speed, to me, negates the need for me to buy specific shells. With the Kushnapup conversion, recoil has never been an issue. Nor has spread or penetration. It is a virtual WALL of 00 buck, screaming toward whatever is your chosen target. It quite literally, shreds everything I’ve ever shot at.
    After reading this article though, perhaps some controlled experimentation would be fun. Which shells shred best. And keep a couple mags specifically for home defense.
    Thanks for the article and peaking my interest again.

    As always
    Carry on

  3. I own and have shot a lot of shotguns, mostly 12 gauge and some 20 gauge, and have shot them using a variety of shot – ranging from birdshot to 00 buck and slugs – against a variety of target mediums to determine effectiveness, and used them in hunting and in law enforcement defensive situations. I have found the most effective for hunting and for defensive situations to be 12 gauge 00 buckshot and 12 gauge slugs, and tend to prefer either my Remington 870 pump or my Mossberg 500 pump, both with extended magazines and 18″ barrels. I save my Remington 1100 semi-auto for birds (loaded with birdshot). And occasionally shoot my side-by-side double barrel 20 gauge just for fun. I know firsthand, that there is no better fight stopper than 12 gauge 00 buck (or slugs), up close and personal.

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