Despite the popularity of modern self-loading rifles and handguns for defense use, the shotgun reigns as the traditional home defense firearm. I find that the shotgun offers the best handling, reliability, and hit probability for my use. The shotgun simply fits the bill more closely for home defense than any other type of firearm.
The shotgun’s primary advantage is wound potential. Couple this with fast handling and a natural point, and you’ll have a great all-around personal-defense tool. Shotguns also have a wide range of available munitions to choose from or match to your intended purpose.
Reduced recoil buckshot, magnum buckshot loads, reduced recoil target loads, slugs, and even buck-and-ball loads can be combined in one loadout to offer great versatility. I would never discount a humble single-shot shotgun as it may hit as hard as a $2,000 self-loader. A double-barrel may be a brilliant, fast-handling piece. However, most home-defense shotguns are pump-action or self-loading shotguns.
The pump-action is a manually operated shotgun. They are sometimes referred to as slide-action shotguns. The user operates the shotgun by moving the forearm to the rear to eject the spent shell and then moving the forearm forward to load a fresh shell into the chamber. Most of these shotguns use a tubular magazine that is mounted under the barrel. Although, there are pump-action shotguns that use a detachable magazine.
Controls include a bolt release and safety. The pump-action doesn’t rely on recoil, gas, or springs for reliable operation. The action is simple, and the moving parts are few and robust. While the more expensive shotguns are often smoother in operation, even inexpensive pump-action shotguns are reliable.
Most pump-action riot-length shotguns, those with an 18 to 20-inch barrel, weigh 6–7 pounds. I have seen some very good deals under $300 recently. The Turkish-made shotguns are not the smoothest on the low end, but some offerings are very smooth. They are affordable and reliable — a good combination of traits. While I prefer the 12-gauge for home defense, the 20-gauge offers less recoil and may be a reasonable choice.
There can be tradeoffs in any design. As a rule, pump-action shotguns, of the same weight as self-loaders, exhibit greater felt recoil. A recoil pad and the proper stance go a long way toward mastering recoil.
Self-loading shotguns have a long recoil stroke spreading out some of the recoil force and using some of the recoil’s force to operate the action. Modern shooters accustomed to self-loading pistols and rifles may have more difficulty mastering a manually-operated shotgun.
In an emergency, you could hold a self-loading shotgun in one arm and fire it. Not well or accurately, but you could fire it. (A brave FBI agent, wounded in one arm, once shucked a pump-action shotgun with one arm and ended a gun battle.)
Self-loading (semi-automatic) shotguns are made ready by racking the cocking handle on the bolt. This loads a shell from the magazine, in a similar manner to the pump action. Once the action of the semi-automatic is loaded, the shotgun is fired with a press of the trigger. The shotgun fires, the bolt recoils to the rear as the spent shell is ejected, and the action begins over again.
There are three types of self-loading shotguns. Some use inertia to operate the action, others use recoil, and some use gas operation. Gas offers the least felt recoil. Recoil operation, such as was used in the old Browning Auto 5, is the most brutal. Inertia types such as the Benelli and some Turkish guns are very reliable.
Gas operation taps a bit of the gas generated in firing into a gas tube. The gas goes through the tube and operating rods ram the bolt to the rear. As the bolt meets the end of its travel and the spent shell is ejected, recoil springs sent the bolt forward. Self-loading shotguns are often very reliable with standard pressure shells. However, gas-operated shotguns are not as reliable with the lightest loads. While some offer a degree of adjustment for light and heavy loads, the shotguns usually function best with standard full power buckshot loads in the personal defense context.
Which shotgun is best for personal defense? The choice is often individual. If you grew up hunting with a pump-action shotgun, a home defense shotgun with a riot-length barrel is a natural. Even if you are familiar with the self-loading shotgun, there are several types of action.
As an example, the Remington 1100 operates in a different manner than the Benelli M4. The action can be confusing if a considerable amount of practice hasn’t been undertaken. Learning how to load the shotgun, decock the action, and make the shotgun ready are important. If not in the proper state of readiness, you may rack the Benelli action, and it will not load.
We should address modern variations on each type. The standard traditional pump-action shogun offers good hit probability, based on feel and balance. I feel the variants with detachable box magazines are not as well balanced. While they offer 5 or 10-round capacity, they also require a spare magazine to stay in the action.
With the tubular magazine under the barrel, either type may be quickly topped off with shells to replenish the ammunition supply. With 4–8 shells in the magazine — depending on the exact model — it isn’t likely you will need additional shells during a gunfight. Just the same, a shell carrier on the butt stock holding a few extra shells solves the problem.
I also feel that the AR and AK-type shotguns are counterintuitive for most defense uses. These firearms are heavier than conventional shotguns and must be aimed more carefully than the fast-handling traditional shotguns. Another advantage of the tubular magazine, when needed, a slug may be quickly loaded to address hard targets or targets behind cover.
There are similarities of the two types beyond the tubular magazine. Each type should be kept with an empty chamber in the home. Even quality shotguns are more likely to fire when dropped than handguns and most rifles. It takes but a moment to rack the action and make it ready.
In the case of the pump-action shotgun, be certain to practice quickly hitting the bolt release. With the bolt racked on an unloaded shotgun, the action is cocked. When you fire the shotgun, the action is released. So, you will need to learn to quickly actuate the bolt release — safety demands you do not simply pull the trigger to release the bolt!
The bolt release is usually near the trigger guard. In the case of the Benelli/Beretta-type of self-loading shotgun, when the bolt has been racked, the shotgun must be fired or decocked to activate the shell elevator. Be certain to practice with dummy shells.
Based on a less-complicated action and operation, the pump-action shotgun is better suited for most of us to deploy for home defense. While the self-loading shotgun offers an instant back-up shot, the pump-action shotgun is only slightly slower.
A good hand with the pump-action shotgun will use recoil to his or her benefit. As the muzzle rises in recoil, the forend is brought to the rear. As the action is controlled in recoil, the forend is slammed forward, and the muzzle is brought back on target.
In the end, for personal defense and home defense, I prefer the pump action. The bottom line, for most of us who carry a handgun every day and concentrate on training with the handgun, the home defense shotgun should be as simple and easy to use as possible.
If your primary interest is the home defense shotgun or a firearm used for area defense, and you are willing to train, then a self-loading shotgun will give you an advantage. As for myself, I am going to deploy the proven pump action for the foreseeable future.