The Shotgun for Home Defense

Shotgun with several shotshells

Not long ago, the conversation turned to shotguns at the gun shop. While even the folks that are not the ones we call “gunny” know the merits of a shotgun for home defense, there are many opinions on the proper load and the best shotgun. The shotgun is primarily a projectile launcher and it is best to use what you are comfortable and familiar with.

I have checked my notes before writing this article and I have a good recollection of incidents that have occurred in the past 40 years.

Shotgun as it is being fired
A shotgun disposes of considerable energy. Make the most of this wound potential.

In these incidents—and there were many—when civilians defended their home with a shotgun, in no case was the shotgun a riot gun or special personal defense-type shotgun. The shotguns were single shots, pump-action shotguns, Browning Automatic shotguns, and double barrel shotguns.

While we may think these are not the ideal shotguns for home defense, they certainly served these individuals well. These shotguns have been lifesavers and the only time they have not performed well was when they were loaded with shells not suited for personal defense. In some cases, the shotguns were used to kill deadly attacking animals. The simple smoothbore is a credible defense option. However, some forethought and training is needed to have real security with the shotgun.

My grandfather kept a Winchester Model 12 at home ready for many years, in case he had a chance to go hunting or confront a robber—whichever was the rule of the day. Later, he replaced it with a Remington 11-87. I have kept a Remington 870 at home ready for most of my life, but I also own a special Browning Automatic Shotgun with Weaver Choke, and a modern Mossberg 590. All are credible options, but the plan isn’t just to get a shotgun and keep it ready.

a shotgun being loaded
Practice quickly loading the shotgun.

The plan must have more depth than that. The sound of a shotgun being made ready will deter only the least motivated attacker and firing a warning shot is a very bad idea. Those motivated by profit may not wish to face a shotgun. The ones motivated by a perverse need to hurt, kill, rape, and cause human suffering are another matter. The tool itself doesn’t win the fight. There are several steps that must be taken to prepare for the worst-case scenario we all fear.

If there is any general shortcoming among students, it is a lack of familiarity with the shotgun. The shooter should know how to load, unload, fire, make safe, and aim the shotgun properly. If you practice often, you are ahead of the game even if you use a double barrel or older pump-action shotgun.

If you are on a budget, purchase an affordable shotgun and practice often. This is better than putting the majority of the budget into the shotgun without leaving a practice budget. There are affordable shotguns that are reliable and effective. Along with practicing combat shooting and the proper technique the shotgun must be patterned on paper to learn how the shotgun throws the shot.

Cutaway of a 00 buckshot shotshell
When all is said and done 00 buckshot is the baseline for home defense.

Shotgun pellets or buckshot are not traveling in a big circle but a string with some leading and some trailing. Shotguns are individuals. They may pattern generally well with some loads, better with others, and pattern differently with different brands of shells.

Some loads, such as the Hornady Critical Defense, give good results in most shotguns. The shooter must take aim and see how the shotgun pattern lands on target at 7 yards. The load may hit to the right or left or high or low. Most commonly the shot load is centered and slightly high.

I have little patience with those giving off-the-cuff advice to shooters who may make dumb moves due to bankrupt advice. If you are shooting bad men, use the appropriate load. Birdshot is intended to kill a small animal weighing but a few ounces.

SHooting a shotgun from behind a barricade
Practice firing from cover whenever possible.

That cloud of hundreds of small pellets flying around the house isn’t going to be very effective if the invader is heavily clad. Birdshot penetrates but a few inches in ballistic gelatin. The shotgun should be loaded with 00 buckshot. This is the preferred anti-personnel round.

Slugs are effective, but better suited to area defense or use against dangerous animals than home defense. Your situation should be resolved with a few shells during a home invasion. You will not have time or the ability to think of the type of loads in the shotgun much less choose a different shell to quickly load. It is reasonable to keep a couple of slugs in a shell carrier on the shotgun or speed feed stock, but the shotgun should be loaded with 00 buckshot.

As for the shotgun chosen, there are important considerations. Most of us are well served with a simple bead front sight for home defense. The pump-action shotgun is the best choice for most shooters. A security-type shotgun with a barrel length of 18 to 21 inches is ideal. While most riot guns feature an 18.5-inch barrel, the Mossberg 590 with 20-inch barrel and the Browning Automatic shotgun with 21-inch barrel are each excellent all around defense shotguns.

Bob Campbell shooting a pump action shotgun
Only constant practice will make the individual formidable.

For sights, the XS Big Dot tritium front is recommended. Ghost Ring rear sights and a fiber optic front sight is a great combination that offers high hit probability. But don’t pass up a good buy on a simple bead front shotgun.

Length of pull is the distance between the end of the stock and the trigger face. Some have shorter arms than others. A youth model stock or AR-15-type stock is a good choice for some shooters while others will find a traditional stock works fine. While the 12 gauge shotgun has the better wound ballistics, for some shooters a 20 gauge shotgun is a good solution. The 20 gauge makes a bloody rat hole to 25 feet or so and should not be underrated.

When training with the shotgun, the proper technique is important. The shotgun kicks—no doubt about it—so you should use light birdshot shells for primary training. An aggressive stance leaning forward into recoil is essential. The shotgun is tucked hard into the shoulder and the support hand keeps a firm grip on the forend. (A good rubber recoil pad is a wise addition.)

Shotgun with several shotshells
Buckshot is versatile and offers superior performance to a decade ago.

The shooter should practice moving, manipulating the slide action, keeping the shotgun at ready, and quickly raising the shotgun to eye level to fire. I also recommend learning to quickly take cover and always fire from cover. Standing in a doorway or the center of a hallway creates a funnel for the adversary to fire into.

The home defender should keep his position of security. It is also a good choice to fire from kneeling when possible. At close range, a shotgun fired from the kneeling position and aimed slightly upward will direct buckshot into the threat and upward, relieving concerns for overpenetration.

Fast repeat shots should be practiced—even buckshot isn’t infallible. Remember, the spread of the pattern is such that at short range, the shotgun must be aimed as closely as a rifle. The advantage is often that a shotgun has a superior natural point of aim that makes getting hits easier. Practice to take advantage of these advantages.

Do you rely on a shotgun for home defense? Which ammunition do you use? 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 (15)

  1. Thank you for writing such a fine article. For those of us who live outside the usa….in a socialist land called california….practice time is extremely limited. From los angeles, the closest ranges are at least 3 hours roundtrip.

    I have a maverick 88 with a birdshead handle/grip. 00 buck is difficult to handle whef firing multiple rounds. What about using buckshot #4,3,or 2. Or lead shot #2?6
    Also, any tips on how to best fire from a kneeling position? And yes, I know putting the stock back on would resolve the issue, but i have really narrow hallways…..thank you in advance.

  2. So what about that new load I hear about. I think it’s called something like the .357 defender? Any thoughts, or have you tested it?

  3. For home defense, check out the new line of 1 3/4 mini shells. With them 00 buck aint a worry for over penetration. Also, some of the reduced recoil 2 3/4 00 buck are less worry some inside a home filled with loved ones and pets

  4. I think that home defense is the place, and maybe the only place, where the Mossberg 590 Shockwave earns its keep. Now that the 20 gauge model is out, recoil becomes less of a problem with the birds-head grip.

    It is short, inexpensive, maneuverable, and has a six shot capacity.

    1. The Mossberg 590 is, after all, a more cheap to produce copy of the old Remington 31. Back in the 1930s, Remington offered a police version of the Remington 31 with a fifteen inch barrel and revolver-type pistol grip at an overall length of exactly one inch shorter than the Mossberg 590 shockwave 20-ga. So with the Mossberg 590 shockwave one has a 1930s-era “whipit” gun with a fourteen inch barrel, but otherwise an inch longer for NFA regs… Provided one practices a lot and really gains a lot of proficiency with it, I would agree that the Mossberg 590 shockwave with No.3 buckshot shells loaded could provide a concerned homeowner with a potent defensive weapon. Absent the practice and competence, however, it would not work out that well. Good observation.

  5. I live on a sailboat, and use the 12-gauge Mossberg 590 marine 18″, smooth-bore barrel with an 8+1-shell capacity and a tactical light. Due to maneuverability constraints onboard, I opted for a folding stock with a pistol grip. I keep a slug for the first round followed by a mix of 00 and 000 buckshot shells. You are pretty much on your own when you are on the water.

  6. Good article. Having worked in military, local, federal, state and federal law enforcement, I have carried many riot type shotguns and attest to their value in home defense. I have also killed birds at 80 yards, coyotes at maybe 70 yards and deer with both buckshot and slugs. I was assigned to a protective service program where I carried an 870 with a 10 inch barrel and a pistol grip. You can hit a target from the hip or low shoulder hold at 25 yards with a little training. in home defense, aiming is not really possible but Bobs recommendation of a tritium sight up front is a great idea, as is a light and laser. I do not agree that 00 buck is the only load. I am award of a state trooper killed with a single blast from a 410 in my area, with birdshot. I have seen jack rabbits and one fox literally shredded with 7.5 shot. The same would be the hand of the bad guy holding a 9mm. I personally like #4 buck a lot and it works great on coyotes under 50 yards. In 20 gauge the little #3 buck is likewise great. And even the 410 with 4, 00 Buck is worthwhile. 4 70 grain pellets at 1,200 fps, with about 678 foot pounds of energy, twice what a 9mm will give. Even from the little Taurus Judge or SW Governor, the little Federal 410 gives over 300 foot pounds about the same as a 9mm. While the little 00 pellets are only 53.8 grains each for a total of 213 grains, tests have shown they will penetrate a 12 inch gel block (fired from a judge), meeting the FBI standard. While I am a big fan of 00 buck, any birdshot load to the face will stop any intruder. Any shot to the hand will cause the bad guy to drop that gun. Now can you mentally stand there with a 410 and shoot for the hand? Can you even use your 9mm to shoot an intruder? Just saying, any shotgun will work in my view. Now, I have an old pump 12 I carried in a police car behind my bed. I actually have 3 inch mag with BBs in it. FWIW

  7. IÔÇÖd love to keep all 6 shells in my Mossberg Maverick as double-ought, but the almighty PC mindset of many of our politicians and law enforcement dictate the ÔÇ£opticsÔÇØ. The first three rounds are skeet-shot, which satisfies the ÔÇ£why didnÔÇÖt you give the poor dear a chanceÔÇØ stupid question. The next three are double-ought, which satisfies MY requirement to stay alive once the doorÔÇÖs kicked in!

  8. I have taken three defensive shotgun classes, each with a plain 12-ga. Rem. 870 fitted with a youth-sized/reduced length of pull pistol-grip stock and a weapon light. There is no sling. Bead front sight. I do have a four-shell side-saddle too.

    Load? No.4 buck. Why? I live in the city.
    00 buck earned its “fight stopper” reputation in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In police/ law enforcement circles it was satisfactory, but often criticized for over penetration too. No. 4 buck was used by “stakeout” or apartment entry officers to reduce penetration in buildings, but it was often considered insufficient. Some law enforcement units, particularly those in the Carolinas or who study wound ballisticians’s studies favor No.1 buck as a compromise.

    Mr. Campbell, you write: “If there is any general shortcoming among students, it is a lack of familiarity with the shotgun. The shooter should know how to load, unload, fire, make safe, and aim the shotgun properly. If you practice often, you are ahead of the game even if you use a double barrel or older pump-action shotgun.”

    Most firearm ranges simply do not have facilities to pattern shotguns or run tactical drills, which is why many people lack familiarity with them. This is the principal reason to go get some training. Even if the training is not up to a particular standard, at least it offers ample time to learn how to really use their guns, load at speed, tactical reloads, use of cover, trouble-shooting, working on clearing jams or mis-feeds, etc. etc.

    Of all the issues with an “over the counter” shotgun purchase for defensive purposes, in my admittedly subjective view, the biggest problem that needs to be addressed is fitting the stock to the intended user. In my case, a youth-sized stock was an important addition. I prefer the traditional stock layout, but for retention issues and for controlling the shotgun one handed should the need arise, I favor the pistol-grip type.

  9. I keep an 870 at the ready. With 00 buck in it I’d hate to see the mess it would leave. Hopefully the sound of the action being racked would change the mindset of any intruder.

  10. I keep a shotgun[or rifle] with tubular]magazine loaded,action locked shut,safety off.To engage, one only has to cycle the action or pull the trigger.I find tang mounted safeties inherently safer and faster than cross bolt safeties[e.g.Mossberg vs Remington,etc].Yes I realize that 00 buckshot has a reputation,but magnum/”turkey” loads[>=1-1/2 oz] of lead #4,2,BB]ought to do the job even against heavily clothed perps.Note I’m referring to within 7 yards.
    Question:has anyone considered a M-7 or M-9 bayonet on the shotgun?

    1. I have, but dismissed the idea as impractical for my immediate perceived needs. The M-7 is the better bayonet. The M-9 is the better field knife.

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