Throwback Thursday: Shotgun Training 101

shotgun training - manipulation

A myth concerning the shotgun is that you cannot miss. Nothing could be further from the truth. The shotgun isn’t all-encompassing and the limited number of pellets contained in a charge demand that they be delivered with precision.

The shotgun may be aimed largely by feel, but at ranges longer than 7 yards, greater concentration on the threat is needed. Before training, the shooter must be completely familiar with the firearm. A lack of familiarity with the shotgun is the primary shortcoming of any student. Simply reading the owner’s manual will solve a lot of problems and answer questions that should not be fielded by the instructor. You should come to training with basic knowledge.

shotgun training - tactical load
A fast tactical load is a desirable skill.

Be certain you know how to safely load and unload the shotgun and the location of the safety before you begin. Begin with dry fire. Triple check the chamber and magazine to be certain the shotgun isn’t loaded. The muzzle must be pointed in a safe direction at all times. Keep the finger off of the trigger until you fire. Not until you think you will fire — when you are ready to fire. Be certain of your backstop and never point the muzzle at anything you are not willing to destroy.

Master the Basics First

Once you have chosen the shotgun — single-shot, double-barrel, pump-action, or self-loading — and you are familiar with the operation (and dry fire is squared away), you are ready for range work. Initial practice may be undertaken with light loads such as #7½ birdshot. (Heavier loads may be needed for practice with self-loading shotguns.)

Practice operating the pump-action properly. If you do not properly and positively work the action, there is a good chance you will experience a short cycle with a shell trapped in the shell holder. This is bad news if you are in a gunfight and sometimes difficult to clear. The shotgun fires and you snap the operating rods to the rear by moving the forend quickly and with positive action. As the spent shell is ejected and the new shell is moved to the shell carrier, forcefully move the forend forward to load and lock the shotgun. You may use recoil to help operate the pump action.

As you practice firing slowly, at first, also practice loading the shotgun. With the shotgun in the normal firing position, the support hand goes to the belt or shotgun-mounted shell carrier, retrieves a shell, and quickly inserts the shell into the magazine topping off the magazine. Self-loading shotguns lock open on the last shot. A shell may be taken off of the belt and quickly dropped into the chamber by the support hand. This is faster to get the shotgun back into action than loading the magazine and racking the bolt. You then have a shell in the chamber and you are back in action.

shotgun training - chamber
Practice should include dropping a shell in the chamber after the magazine is exhausted

Now, Stance and Aim

A shotgunner has more recoil to contend with than the rifle shooter and, as a rule, the feet are spaced further apart in a wider stance to help offset this. The head is held erect, the strong-side arm perpendicular to the ground, the weak arm parallel to the ground and the weakside foot forward (and holding the greatest portion of the body’s weight). The knee should be bent, but slightly.

The grip on the forend and pistol grip is vital. The grip must be firm. I have seen forends actually leap out of shooter’s hands when firing 12-gauge buckshot. The best way to gauge the firing grip is to grasp the shotgun until the hands tremble, then back off a little and you have your firing grip. The stock should be pressed into the shoulder firmly. As you lean slightly into the shotgun, you will control recoil more efficiently. If there is a slight offset of the stock from the shoulder, recoil will hammer your shoulder.

When quickly shouldering the shotgun, the strong side hand grasps the pistol grip (either a true pistol grip or semi-pistol grip) and the support hand then moves into position to the forend. Be certain the support hand grasps the forend properly in the middle of the forend to operate the pump-action shotgun. During this movement, the shotgun is brought up and to the head and the cheek, do not lower the head and meet the shotgun.

shotgun training - cover training
When possible, firing from behind cover offers an advantage.

At close range, aiming is just as important as with a rifle. The pattern hasn’t spread yet and the payload must be centered for immediate effect. When hunting a bird or small game animal, only a few pellets need hit the animal. In personal defense, the pattern must be centered on the target. While the shotgun is often handled quickly due to an efficient natural point of aim, the sights should be used as soon as the target is centered on the front sight.

Trigger control is always important. When you are swinging and firing, jerking the trigger will result in a wide miss. Shotgun triggers are often heavier than rifle triggers. The shotgun trigger cannot be particularly light or recoil would jar it off the sear during recoil. Practice smoothly pressing the trigger straight to the rear. The trigger must be controlled consistently.

shotgun training - recoil control
Rapid manipulation and recoil control comes with practice.

Next, Range and Grip

The shotgun is intended for engagements of short duration at close range. While the range of the shotgun may be stretched using slugs, the best range for shotgun use is seven to 30 yards. The quality of the shotgun’s sights will mean a great deal past conversational range and the skill of the user is most important. Trainers refer to the three ranges of the shotgun as A, B, and C range:

  • A range: the pattern is tight and cohesive. The gun must be aimed carefully.
  • B range: the range at which the pattern has spread to be most effective, usually about 15-20 yards.
  • C range: slug range, which usually regarded as past 25 yards. Although, slugs may be used at a closer range if needed.

When practicing with the shotgun, you need to measure the pattern on the target and note how the pattern becomes larger with distance. The pattern gives up at a certain range and is no longer dense enough to produce a telling wound.

Buckshot performs differently in individual shotguns and each shotgun is a story until itself. With the reduced recoil 12-gauge buckshot load, the pattern is good to outstanding compared to full-power buckshot when used in personal defense shotguns. Penetration and energy are not a problem at the typical shotgun range.

shotgun training - close range results
There isn’t anything quite as effective as a shotgun at close range.

When firing the shotgun quickly, shotguns with a traditional stock work best for me. When altering the handling qualities of a shotgun, understand the consequences. A pistol grip and AR-type stock provide commonality of fit with the AR-15 rifle, but also affects the ability to swing quickly and make smooth hits on running targets. If you have a need to accurately launch flashbangs or slugs — and that is more important than fluid combat use — then consider modifying the shotgun. Otherwise, leave it alone. A great deal of practice must go into mastering the modified shotgun with an AR-15-style stock.

When using the pump-action shotgun, it is important to always use a positive operation when cycling the pump action. Run the operating rods to the rear with the forend and then run the forend back to a full forward lock. Do not allow the shotgun to short cycle. Short cycles are the most common malfunction of the shotgun and they are shooter errors.

Training with Confidence

Students fear failure and they fear engaging in combat. This is reasonable. No one in their right mind wishes to endure the pain and agony of interpersonal conflict. But we fear the adversary and his actions and wish to put up a defense against him. There are a lot of scared people in the world. Public speakers, musicians, race car drivers, and astronauts have anxiety that is sometimes expressed as fear. I have experienced the tyranny of the moment more than once. A healthy supply of fear may be channeled into energy that drives performance. When it comes to shooting, confidence is everything.

shotgun training - leaning
Leaning into the shotgun and keeping a firm hold makes for good control.

When you are practicing with the shotgun, you are building something from nothing. Good skill comes from no experience at all, but is gained with constant practice. You must maintain a hard focus. Fighting the fear of failure is a good foundation for battling the fear of combat. The shotgun is the most formidable shoulder-fired weapon for personal combat.

The shotgun has limitations related to range and penetration, but when properly utilized at short range, U.S. military studies have shown that the shotgun has the greatest hit probability of any firearm. The shotgun must be mastered and properly wielded to be effective. The shotgun is the superior home defense firearm, a superior area defense weapon, and a proven effective urban combat weapon. But the shotgun must be properly understood.

Far too many shooters spend time mastering the handgun and rifle and do not properly master the shotgun, relying upon its reputation to sustain them in peril. The shotgun is effective only in trained hands. It is imperative that fundamentals be practiced for consistency. Don’t overthink the process. As you practice, recognize mistakes. Anticipate problems before they become unsolvable. By the same token, recognize your stewardship and accomplishments.

shotgun training - eye level
At very close range, firing below eye level should be addressed.

Hitting Moving Targets

When firing, concentrate on the swing and lead the target by the leading edge of the target, never stopping the swing as the shotgun is fired, and you will get a hit. Retain a hard visual focus. There are reflex shooting skills that compliment the shotgun. You will shoot where you look. You pick the point you will insert the muzzle on the target. Swing through from behind and maintain the lead. Swing on the target’s leading edge.

Be certain you master what is called “pullaway” and maintain a full firing grip at all times. This is called follow-through. Do not relax the grip after firing, but maintain your hold. Practice recovery from recoil and firing again with good accuracy. My files contain instances in which felons took more than one load of 00-buckshot at ranges of five to 10 yards and were not immediately stopped. While this is the exception, it happens.

It is an excellent idea to take cover and fire from a protected position whenever possible. This adds to your safety, gives you protection from gunfire, and helps to stabilize the shot. The shotgun is powerful, however, many street drugs began life as pharmaceutical pain killers. Felons are able to take a lot of punishment. Be prepared to lay in multiple shots, if needed.

The same is true of dealing with dangerous animals. A moving coyote represents a difficult target. The big cats and feral dogs may be difficult to put down. If you deploy a shotgun with heavy slugs for bear defense, then you especially need to practice accurate fire, recoil recovery, and firing accurately until the threat drops. I concentrate on getting the first-shot hit, but I also fire double taps on the target.

shotgun training - recoil
Note the shotgun has fired but it is on target—that’s recoil control.

When holding for a center shot, check to see if the pattern is high, low, left, or right. Confirm the zero at 5, 7, and, 10 yards. At 15 yards, you’re about at the limit for most shotgun buckshot loads and the riot gun-length barrel. When firing, be aware of the twists of buckshot. The shot doesn’t travel with equilateral radial dispersion as some think. The shot travels in strings. In other words, if you are firing at a running target, the first buckshot may miss and the string behind the running target catch the target. That is part of the awesome effectiveness of buckshot. The shotgun is our most effective personal defense weapon.

Shotgun Drills

These drills are designed to build confidence, control, and combat ability with the shotgun:

  • Fire five shells at 7 yards as quickly as possible.
  • Fire five shells, 10 yards, at center mass.
  • Five two shells at 15 yards and transition to slugs. Fire two shells.

Here are some other drill tips for different scenarios:

Self-Loading Shotguns

The self-loader has many advantages balanced against a need for greater maintenance and more careful load selection. While a good hand with the pump-action can be very fast, the self-loader is faster between accurate shots. Intervals of 0.5 to 0. 7 seconds between shots are common with a trained shooter with the self-loader. A well-trained shooter with the pump shotgun may demonstrate a 0.7 to 0.9 split between shots.

Practice with the shotgun getting it into action. The pump-action shotgun is made ready as it is brought to the shoulder, reaching over the receiver to rack the bolt is executed with the self-loading shotgun.

Trigger Control

Pressing the finger into register with the trigger begins before the shot is taken and continues after the shot is taken. The trigger is pressed straight to the rear. There is no jerking or milking the trigger to one side or the other. Press straight to the rear. When you have only pressed the finger into contact with the trigger at the last possible moment there is a rush to break the shot and the inevitable miss. Do not rush, press the trigger smoothly and control the trigger. The finger is in contact with the trigger, the trigger is being pressed, and then the trigger breaks.

shotgun training - hornady critical defense
Practice with anything inexpensive, but choose shells for critical use more carefully.

The finger should be along the side of the receiver or crooked just outside the trigger guard when not actually staging the trigger. Be aware of the take-up or pre-travel of the trigger you are using. Some like a good tight target grade trigger with little take-up. This doesn’t happen with the shotgun and I like some take-up. When you are firing, there are definite stages, no matter how quickly you fire:

  • The first is touching the trigger.
  • The second is taking up the motion or slack in the trigger. You can go back from the first two stages, but not the third.
  • The third stage is firing. Touch, stage, break.

Having the shotgun go off after you fire is unnerving and not something in the human experience that doesn’t provoke a natural reaction. So, concentrate on the sights.

Practice Loads

Practice with whatever is least expensive. Birdshot is useful for practice in pump shotguns. The self-loader demands full power loads. There are inexpensive buckshot loads that allow practice on the cheap. For personal defense, a more serious selection is needed. Among the better choices is Hornady Critical Defense.

The shotgun is powerful, versatile and reliable. Do your part and be certain you know where the load is going!

Do you have any shotgun training tips you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in March of 2020. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.

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 (4)

  1. Loren

    I suppose she is shooting like real life, she is an accomplished first responder and good in an emergency.

    In the south also watch out for ants! Point well taken.


  2. Young lady posing with shotgun and target would not be allowed on my range. No open toed shoes. Brass is hot and will burn.

  3. Really good article. Actually made me think and realize it’s been a long time since I’ve practiced with my Shotgun. Will be starting asap.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your discussions, feedback and comments are welcome here as long as they are relevant and insightful. Please be respectful of others. We reserve the right to edit as appropriate, delete profane, harassing, abusive and spam comments or posts, and block repeat offenders. All comments are held for moderation and will appear after approval.