Patterning a Shotgun: Defense Edition

Patterning a Shotgun - Defense Edition

The shotgun is often touted as the “end-all, beat-all” for home defense. I am not going to tell you that shotguns are not potentially great for home defense. What they lack in precision, the can certainly make up for in volume of fire.

But, if we take a second to think about it, do we really want a volume of fire within the house? Realize that a nine-pellet OO Buckshot load is nine projectiles with the same weight as a 5.56 bullet flying downrange.

Admittedly, they are traveling at less than half the speed, but in houses distances are short and sheetrock is a very bad bullet trap.

This line of thinking leads me to a very old idea: shotgun patterning. I have seen people check their groups with their deer hunting rifle. Most people also pattern their shotgun before turkey season.

I almost never hear of anyone checking the pattern for their home defense shotgun. That does not seem like a very smart choice. Living in America, we are not going hungry if we miss our intended deer or turkey.

We might well have an injured relative based on our lack of understanding of the performance combination of our chosen shotgun and defensive load.

shotgun patterning boxes
Different loads tested in today’s shotgun patterning article, all available from Cheaper Than Dirt!

Patterning for Home Defense?

My preferred load for indoor social work used to be Hornady 2¾” #4 Buckshot Varmint Express, due to the Versatite wad. This worked well in my Mossberg 500.

I like the fact that I have the potential of 24 wound paths and the much smaller diameter of the #4 pellets means much less retained inertia to continue through house components, compared to OO buck.

patterning hornady varmint express
Hornady 2¾” #4 Buckshot Varmint Express is the author’s preferred load for indoor defense.

I have retired the Mossberg 500 from bedside service. This was done when I purchased a Kel-Tec KSG-25 pump-action shotgun.

One reason for the transition: the KSG has the option of having two shell options readily available. My choice has been to run one tube with buckshot and the other with slugs.

You could chose OO in one and #4 in the other. With a simple flick of the tube selector switch and a pump stroke, one can adapt to the needs of the situation. The second reason is that the KSG was specifically designed to run Aguila mini shells.

These rounds are much lower recoil, a fair amount quieter and provide almost double the round count (at 12) in each tube.  The downside to the buckshot version of the Aguila minis is they have no wadding cup to assist with flight cohesion.

This makes the groups of roughly nine inches at 10 yards. Not exactly a precision shot. This is an advantage, in the aspect that compared to a 9mm (.355” diameter) bullet, the hit probability zone is roughly 25 times larger.

The disadvantage is that you are likely to have lots of misses continuing on towards things (or people) you may love.

Patterning a Shotgun - Aguila Minishell
The KSG was specifically designed to run Aguila mini shells.

Setting Up the Process

This is where patterning comes in. By developing a uniform test for the chosen shotgun and several shell options, a determination of suitability can be determined. My test protocol is to set up a 36 x 18″ cardboard target.

I shoot shells starting at three yards, then five yards, then move back five yards for each subsequent shot. With a five-round box of shells, this will give values at three, five, 10, 15 and 20 yards.

It is rare to be able to articulate the use of deadly force past 20 yards, so I normally stop there. The great thing is for another few more dollars, you can continue out to 45 yards.

My procedure is to only use five shells per cardboard target. The target becomes too busy with between 40 and 150+ pellet holes to do more than five rounds. To keep track of groups by distance, a different color sharpie marker is used to “x” each pellet’s impact.

That makes for very simple target comparisons and eliminates the need to indicate distance with each pellet impact. For example, all green “X’s” are three yards, all black marks are ten yards, red is fifteen and so forth.

hornaday shotgun patterning
Important for patterning: with a five-round box of shells, you want values at three, five, 10, 15 and 20 yards. Note the different “X” marks as well.

By using this procedure with the contenders, you develop a very solid indication of their group performance at specific distances.

Sample Patterning Test

Now, let’s get to testing. For my patterning tests, I used a Mossberg 500 18” barrel shotgun, as more people own this than the KSG. Here were the results, in alphabetical order:

Load 3 yards 5 yards 10 yards 15 yards 20 yards
Aguila Mini #4 &#1 Buck
7 #4 buck, 4 #1 buck @ 1200 fps
2″ 4.5″* 9″* 13.5″ 26″
Federal 2 ¾” PD156 4B 
34 #4 buck copper plated@ 1100 fps
2.5″ 3.75″* 10.25″* 14.25″ 20.5″
Federal 2 ¾  PD132 OO Flight Control Wad
9 OO buck copper plated @ 1145 fps
1.25″ 1.75″ 2.25″ 3.25″ 4.0″
Hornady 2 ¾ 86249 OO Black
8 OO buck pellets @ 1600 fps
1.25″ 1.75″ 3.5″ 4.75″* 9.75″*
Hornady 2 ¾ 86274 Reduced Recoil OO
8 OO buck pellets @ 1350 fps
1.0″ 1.5″ 2.25″ 5.75″* 9.75″*
Hornady 2 ¾ 86243 Versatite Wad
24 #4 Buckshot @ 1360 fps
1.25″ 1.5″ 4.5″ 6.75″* 13.25″*
Remington Ultimate Defense  12B009HD
9 OO buck copper plated @ 1325 fps
2.5″ 3.75″ 5.5″ 8.75″* 17″*
Rio RB129
9 OO buck pellets @ 1345 fps
1.75″ 2.75″ 8.5″ 13.5″ 24.25″

*Where the shot cup fell away

As you can see, there are clear choices for retaining a tight group at distance and clear choices if maximum spread is your desire. This test does not cover penetration or damage dealt, but someone else has already done that work. See Brassfetcher’s excellent work here.

Patterning a Shotgun - Rio Buckshot
Rio Buckshot’s effective lack of a shot cup is obvious in the results. It has an early and huge spread.

Analyzing the Results

As expected, the Aguila Mini did not feed well in the Mossberg. The results of my five-shot test were one proper feed, three stovepipes and one failure to feed. This is NOT a failure of the ammo, as this gun is not designed to run it.

The minis run flawlessly in my KSG.  They were by far the lowest recoil as felt by my finely calibrated shoulder.

Here are some of my other general conclusions:

  • The Hornady Reduced Recoil was a bit softer shooting, with the reduction of load weight from nine to eight pellets
  • Even with the reduction to eight pellets, the Hornady Black had stout recoiling – by far the strongest
  • Flight control wads contain the column integrity
  • It is fairly easy to see where the wad cup opens up with each shell
  • Rio and Aguila’s effective lack of a shot cup is obvious in the early and huge spread
  • All other things equal, #4 Buck spreads faster than OO Buck
  • With my shotgun, almost all rounds impacted high compared to point of aim
Patterning a Shotgun - Hornady Black
Hornady Black had the strongest recoil by far.


Patterning a Shotgun - Remington Ultimate Defense
Remington Ultimate Defense had an 8.75″ spread at 15 yards.


Patterning a Shotgun - American Gunner
Hornady’s American Gunner Reduced Recoil had a 9. 75″ spread at 20 yards.


For the KSG, I currently run Hornady Versatite #4 Buck in the ready tube (7+1 rounds) and the Federal Flight Control OO Buck in the second tube (7 rounds). With the Versatite, all indoor shots will have less than a 4.5” of spread.

Shots past 10 yards will open up more, which might be a good thing outdoors. For longer outdoor shots, the Federal Flight Control allows precise shots out to 50+ yards, or performance similar to a frangible slug at closer ranges.

shotgun patterning - federal premium
The flight control wads in Federal’s Personal Defense loads contain the column integrity.


You now have the information needed to replicate my test if your shell choices are not in my chart. If they are, you can make informed predictions on what shotshells are appropriate regarding dispersion and distances you plan to engage at.

You also can determine penetration depth for the type of shot chosen. You should still pattern any choices in your own shotgun.

As always your results may vary from mine, so test it yourself.

Patterning a Shotgun - John BIbby
The author and his Mossberg 500 shotgun he used in this article’s patterning test.

Have you patterned a shotgun before? Let us know your thoughts about patterning in the comments below.

About the Author:

John Bibby

John Bibby is an American gun writer who had the misfortune of being born in the occupied territory of New Jersey. His parents moved to the much freer state of Florida when he was 3. This allowed his father start teaching him about shooting prior to age 6. By age 8, he was regularly shooting with his father and parents of his friends. At age 12, despite the strong suggestions that he shouldn’t, he shot a neighbor’s “elephant rifle."

The rifle was a .375 H&H Magnum and, as such, precautions were taken. He had to shoot from prone. The recoil-induced, grass-stained shirt was a badge of honor. Shooting has been a constant in his life, as has cooking.

He is an (early) retired Executive Chef. Food is his other great passion. Currently, he is a semi-frequent 3-Gun competitor, with a solid weak spot on shotgun stages. When his business and travel schedule allow, you will often find him, ringing steel out well past 600 yards. In order to be consistent while going long, reloading is fairly mandatory. The 3-Gun matches work his progressive presses with volume work. Precision loading for long-range shooting and whitetail hunting keeps the single-stage presses from getting dusty.
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 (31)

  1. A balance of terminal ballistics, felt recoil, shot and group pattern is needed for rapid single trigger pull threat stops on moving targets.
    Disruptive power must be delivered into the 8 inch diameter and twelve inch deep vital space containing the heart, lung and spinal cord for rapid threat stops.
    A 2 to 13 inch pattern of buckshot pellets can be delivered into that 8 inch vital area by the shotgun at distances up to 25 yards for both indoor and outdoor home defense. What ever load you use for buckshot, the end result is to reliably place the pattern on a moving eight inch vital area while minimizing collateral damage. This might be easiest to achieve with predictable and controllable buckshot patterns of 4, 8 and 13 inches at seven, fifteen and twenty five yards respectively.
    Even with heavy loads, bird shot may be ineffective beyond seven yards for home defense.
    The speed of shotgun’s single trigger pull threat stop advantage is best demonstrated by Sporting Clays and Tactical/Practical Shotgun competition.

  2. To answer some questions:

    no to the minishell adaptor in the Mossberg. I should have mentioned that, but I don’t believe most people own one so I didn’t utilize it

    Yes, cylinder bore. Also because that is how most people run a HD shotgun.

    Pattern sizes include ALL pellets. For me the goal was to see total dispersion.

    you can load any combination of shells, in any order and have them feed properly in the KSG. Not sure why you would, but they would run…or at least have in my testing. The double extractor, feed ramp and elevator are all proper for all sizes up to 3″.

  3. First line of defense is my dog warning me.
    I use the Federal PD 00 buck in a Remington Tac 14 which sits in a shotgun scabbard next to my bed.
    The reduced loads are controllable and tolerable and the short barreled, short stocked weapon is easily maneuverable in the confines of a house.

  4. Considering home defense, patterning beyond 10 yards seems excessive. Unless you have a mansion, I doubt that even your longest hall exceeds 30 feet. That being said, your spread will be smaller and the energy in the shot group higher at 10 yards than if you had to account for longer ranges. This reduces some of the considerations in shot size selection and the size of the pattern.

    I have a UTAS UTS-15 available for home defense with one barrel loaded with slugs and the other with 00 buck. At the likely ranges of engagement inside my home, I expect that the 00 buckshot will be contained within the body mass of the target.

    BTW, I have found my tactical shotgun to be an ideal turkey gun. I pattern it before each hunt with a #5 turkey load, an appropriate choke, and an EoTech sight, which I think would also be effective for home defense. I have taken down a feral pig with that load at 30 yards, when one wandered by my turkey stand.

  5. On the KSG, can you reliably run minishells in one tube and full size in the other?
    And for no real reason can you mix and match full size and minis in the same tube?

  6. I personaly only have 5 specific purpose shotguns, 4 are collectors from finer days called field, clays braces, and pigeon grades, and one for close up deadly pest, all the others are, well, shotguns with repacebal choke tubes.
    My two combat shotguns are both Winchester Model 97 pumps, one original WWI, and the other a civilian version I used for duck and close up stalk and kill bear and deer, and duck hunting, that has been just tuned for those afore mentioned deadly pest and went from full choke to cylinder, shorter stock and modified sling points and forward wood.
    Oops forgot one, a newer el cheapo 12 guage single barrel Turkey.
    All except the original WW1, I have only fired it maybe 20 times in 40 years, have been shot patterned.
    All weapons, rifle pistol, shotgun, bow and cross bow, black powder and air rifles should be “Patterned”; even a knife may need gone tuning in order to know it’s and your capability.

  7. Mr. Gone, the Judge is a wonderful choice for home defense with 410 shot. However, I’m concerned that the long 45 cal will penetrate walls and endanger your family or neighbors.

  8. I have a Taurus “Judge” alternating Hornady .410 gauge Critical Defense shotshells and Hornady Colt 45 hollowpoints. Although the bad guy may be frightened off by the sound of chambering a round in a shotgun, not having to deal with a long gun makes perfect sense for the layout of my home. I am silent, much more mobile, and for the distances involved, I am going to completely stop he/she or at least knock them down. Of course I also have a 150 lb. Great Dane who is not happy with strangers. Her bark shakes the entire house.

  9. Inside of a house I would recommend a skeet or trap load of low base #8 shot. The distances are relatively close, 5 yards would be the maximum distance in most homes. In the confines of a house this load can remove a leg. I don’t have the capability of doing scientific testing, but I figure that if I can cut down a 3 inch sapling at 20 feet I can take off a leg or worse. Number 8 shot doesn’t penetrate like buckshot.

  10. The longest possible shot in my house is 14 yards, and it would require a very cooperative intruder to set that up. 5 yards is probably at the far end of probable, if the intruder and I are both dumb enough to stand still and shoot at each other. You make it sound like you need shotgun damage and rifle accuracy to stop an angry bear that has wandered into your enormous mansion.

  11. In a house, if you miss a threat with a shotgun and high brass double 00 buck, as we’re speaking about distances of usually a maximum of 20 feet or less, then you should hide in the closet and hope the police show up before you’re dead. I was a policeman for 20+ years and shotguns and ammunition are very familiar to me. As long as it’s double 00, and you’ve at least fired the weapon a time or two, missing at ten feet is inexcusable. A good high brass double 00 load will get the job done just fine. There’s no point in going out and sending the amounts of money that these “hybrid” shells cost.

  12. was Mr. Bibby using the OPSol adaptor in his 500?
    I have one in mine and it seems to work well. Just
    curious. Thanks.

  13. My 12ga is in a bedroom closet, if there is an intruder in my home there will be the verbal warning then the sound of the round being chambered(if there is time if not delete step 1). I carry 2 rounds BEEHIVE Less Lethal rounds then 2 rounds 00 Buck. I will not define my 12ga as home defense, and will not respond in questioning describing it as anything but a shotgun.

  14. My “house gun” is a 12 ga Benelli Nova, with ghost ring sights, and a light. It is chambered for 3 1/2” shells, and I initially opted for 3 1/2 Magnum #4buckshot. After patterning it at 5 & 10 yards, it was clear to me that, due to the punishing recoil, if a second round was required, my wife would be reluctant to touch it off! I recently acquired a couple of boxes of Estate 2 3/4” #4 buck…I don’t know if they have a special wad in them (haven’t dissected one yet) but something curious has emerged…at 10 yards, the horizontal shot dispersion is about 10”…but the vertical shot dispersion is about 3”!! Multiple rounds fired provided almost identical results.

  15. This is a good article with good information and a well taken point. Unfortunately I don’t have the option to use a long gun or shotgun for home defense.

  16. I have a “small” collection of firearms. My “go to” for home defense is a Serbu Super Shorty…12ga…manufactured on a Remington 870 frame (or a Mossberg) by Mr. Mark Serbu of Tampa, FL. It IS a Class III firearm (AOW = “any other weapon) by the National Firearms Act and requires special licensing as such by BATFE. Check it out! My Super Shorty loaded with #4 shot. I doubt there would be a more formidable weapon for home security.

  17. Interesting. Is it correct to assume that the Mossberg 500 18″ barrel was a cylinder bore and there was no choking?

  18. I use three rounds of BB shot in my 870, which has a 16″ pattern at ten yards and penetrates 1/2″ of hardwood.That is followed up with 00 buck and slugs.

  19. There is a simple insert that fits the Mossberg to use the mini shells. I have used it and it works very well. I stagger my mag with bird, 4, and slug. 11 rounds total.

  20. The Federal Premium PD 132’s mentioned above are reduced recoil loads, where PD = Personal Defense. My shotguns love that FliteControl wad! Federal also sells an LE (Law Enforcement) reduced recoil version of the exact same thing, the Federal Premium LE-132, which can be found for much lower prices if you shop around. (The full power versions are PD-127 or LE-127) I can see no differences between the two other than labeling and price. Buy a few 5 round boxes of each to compare and verify this with your own shogun(s) for yourself, of course.

    For the savings I bought up a bunch of the reduced recoil LE-132’s as the bursitis in my right shoulder doesn’t need anymore aggravation, so to speak, and as the author correctly points out in the article above, trying to articulate why you needed to shoot somebody way out past 20 – 25 yards or so could be difficult. (Unless maybe you live in a massive mansion estate with indoor basketball / tennis courts / Olympic swimming pools and other such seriously large open inside spaces. 🙂

    My own observations, and going by memory from an old article I saw somewhere online with one of the original FliteControl designers that I cannot presently find: That FliteControl wad was designed for giving tight patterns out of typical shorter 18″-20″ cylinder bore (no choke) barrels such as used by urban area police. It is designed to give tighter patterns at the same typical closer ranges most police shootings (and self-defense shootings) usually occur, not to reach way out to ridiculous for shotgun distances. That FliteControl wad does not particularly like chokes, and generally speaking with the limited experimentation I have seen, the tighter chokes will actually open up / enlarge the patterns over what you’d get with a cylinder bore / no choke barrel. That is another potential detail that I can only suggest you try and see for yourself with your own particular shotgun(s). All I know is that from what I have seen and read, full chokes will work but will perhaps counter intuitively give you larger patterns in the reverse of what you’d get with standard shotgun wads…. Of course as is pointed out often , every barrel has it’s own personality so it is best to pattern your own and get to know it well.

    I really like the Federal FliteControl wads. If I could buy just those wads I would be loading up my own shells as well, as then I could fine tune everything to my heart’s content. 🙂

  21. I find Fiocchi reduced recoil 00-buck (1150 fps) shoots very accurately in my Remington 870 Marine Defender and has relatively comfortable recoil into the shoulder. I would love to get some feedback on this ammo.

  22. Given the general praise of the KSG and the mini-shells by Aguila, I wish the column had included patterning results for them.

    Believe there is an adapter for the loading port of the Mossburg which will allow its to successfully load and feed the Aguila mini-shells.


  23. I thoroughly enjoyed all the information that was made available and this article. This to me is the best article that I have read on the subject‼️ I still hunt and shoot and have worked in gun stores by far this is the best information I’ve ever had the pleasure to read thank you so much.

  24. 2 comments
    You are missing an important piece of data: the number of pellets within the pattern. Or are we to assume that all the pellets hit within a specific radius?
    You make the statement that the #4 shot spreads more rapidly than the #00. Consider: which would you rather be using? A load of 8 or 9 #00 that spreads to 5 1/2″ or 8″ (Remington & Rio) at 10 yards, or a #4 load with 3 times as many pellets, that spreads to 4 1/2″ (Hornady).

  25. I did some of this with my Mossberg Shockwave, but I started with numerous types of ammunition at eight to ten yards. What I found was that all of them were giving me a three to four inch group at that distance. The only exception was the Federal with FlyteControl, and that one was only about an inch and a half to two inches at eight to ten yards.

    I’m not a great shotgunner, but I think I’d generally hit inside an attacker by at least two inches at anything under ten yards. In that case, none of the pellets are going to be hitting anything else directly unless they’ve gone through at least part of the attacker. With that in mind, I don’t really care about the spread at three or five yards. The less than four-inch spread at these distances means that I’m rarely going to have stray pellets missing the attacker, so the difference between a three and a half inch spread and a one and a half inch spread is irrelevant. The only case where there will be stray pellets is when my shot is so bad that I am mostly missing the attacker. In that case, the spread is still irrelevant because I’ve put a shot in the wrong place. That the attacker might catch one or two pellets doesn’t help me much.

    I can see where a 15 yard test would still be relevant for home defense. If my results at ten yards had shown more spread, I might have done some testing at fifteen yards. Because everything seemed fairly similar at 10 yards, I didn’t feel a need to test at 15 yards.

    I see the real value of this exercise in clarifying some things about the tactics of using a shotgun.

    If an innocent person is downrange of an attacker, that’s a bad situation no matter what weapon I’m using. I don’t want to rely on the difference in spread pattern to be the difference in all of my pellets going into the attacker and a few of my pellets going towards an innocent person. If I think there’s a real chance that I can’t control the home defense scenario to keep any innocents from being directly downrange of the attacker, I’d rather use a handgun and fire a cartridge with a bullet that expands dramatically and doesn’t penetrate. I’d rather use a cartridge that doesn’t meet FBI penetration standards for self-defense ammunition and plan on holding fire until I’m sure of a hit on the attacker and the lack of penetration to keep the bullet inside the attacker.

    If an innocent person is likely to be in a different room but downrange of the attacker, I might still prefer the handgun round that doesn’t meet FBI penetration standards. Again, the tactic would be to shoot later with the attacker close to ensure a hit and use the poor penetration to keep the bullets inside the attacker. If I were going to use a shotgun where I might have an innocent in another room, I’d want to use #4 buckshot or even a birdshot of some kind. I’d be interested in the pattern, but I’d be basing much of my strategy on the smaller pellets not penetrating. I’d also have an arrangement with the innocent in that room that I expect him or her to be on the floor and behind something solid if there is ever an attacker in the house.

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