Sighting Shotguns — Beyond Point and Shoot

Bob Campbell shooting the Raptor shotgun

The shotgun is aimed primarily by a good natural point. A shotgun with the original-style stock and a bead front sight can be a deadly performer on game, predators, and our protein-fed ex-con criminal class. But many of us fit modern combat-style stocks to the shotgun and expect more performance.

Orange target with holes from buckshot
This is a hit with buckshot at 7 yards.

We also have to properly sight the shotgun. Having only a rough idea of how the shotgun is sighted isn’t best. The shotgun can be a formidable tool to 50 yards and beyond given a user who is familiar with its attributes. There are situations in which the shotgun must be carefully aimed. Remember, shotguns are for short range and long range! At short range the pattern of the shotgun has not spread very much and it must be aimed as carefully as a rifle.

The shotgun must be sighted so as to deliver its payload where it will do the most good. At long range, buckshot has spent its lethal potential, so the slug is used. In either case, the shotgun must be carefully aimed. I will admit that a very long shot may be made with a shotgun with a full choke and the proper buckshot, but this discussion covers the typical open cylinder choke personal defense shotgun.

For many of us, the bead front sight is all that is needed for home defense. Just the same, we must be certain that the payload is delivered to the point of aim. Some loads will fire a little high, others a touch low. Occasionally, the shotgun will place a load of shot to the right or left of the point of aim. Range work will confirm the zero.

Bob Campbell shooting the Raptor 12 guage shotgun
The author testing buckshot against building material. These are awesome loads!

We need to place the shotgun load where it will be effective. There is the possibility of firing at a felon behind cover. We need to know what type of pattern the shotgun holds at typical ranges and what the consistency of this pattern is. A modern combat stock is often a great aid in storage and accurate fire, but be certain the point of impact isn’t changed when you fit this stock.

In beginning to sight the shotgun, I stand at 7 yards. I only shoot standing. Recoil is amplified by firing from a benchrest and the shotgun may not strike to the same point of aim with a bench-rested firing position. I place the bead on the center of the target and fire. I check the pattern to see if it is high or low and check radial dispersion. Oddly enough, while I used man-sized silhouette targets for practice when sighting-in, the best choice is often the same target used to sight a rifle in at long range.

With a bead sighted shotgun it isn’t possible to raise or lower the sight in order to change the point of impact of the shot load. However, it is possible to change the way we hold and fire the shotgun. If the head is held high off of the shotgun, it may shoot high. We need to get the cheek on the stock and use the proper stock weld. Confirm the zero at 5, 7, and 10 yards. 15 yards is about the limit with most shotgun buckshot loads and the riot gun length barrel.

Hornady 00-Buck
Hornady’s 12 gauge loads are first class defense loads.

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.


For the majority of personal defense needs, reduced recoil buckshot works best. A shotgun slug, in my experience and according to all research, is more likely to produce immediate cessation of hostilities than a load of buckshot. The reduced recoil slug is a good alternative to full power slugs. The modest loss in velocity means little at combat ranges. However, if the likely threat is a large animal, then the full power or even a Magnum slugs should be used. This means mastering brutal recoil.

If you are using the shotgun as the only weapons system and intend to switch to slugs as needed at longer range be certain you know where the load strikes in relation to the point of aim. As an example my old iron-sighted Remington 870 is a smooth bore with 18-inch barrel. Just the same with typical reduced recoil slugs the Remington will group 3 shots into 4 inches at 50 yards. The problem with using reduced-recoil slugs for substitute rifle shooting is drop. The slower, reduced-recoil slugs drop significantly more at longer range. Take time to consider this and calculate the expected drop. After all, sighting the shotgun in with slugs is not the most pleasant of time spent on the range.

The shotgun is our most effective personal defense weapon. The shotgun is powerful, versatile, and reliable. Do your part, and be certain you know where the load is going!

How does the shotgun fit into your self-defense strategy? Which shotgun do you prefer? Share your response 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 (10)

  1. I prefer #4 buck for home defense…Can alternate slugs with the loads The Turkey shot around here is #4 SHOT. At close range the shot will not separate…or just starts to separate. #4 Buck offers round 38-40 pellets…. 00 Buck offers 9-12 pellets….I also agree for people of small stature….the 20 gauge with #3 Buck or slugs should be easier for them to handle. At indoor ranges….over penetration may be of concern if a child or other family member may be in the next room or even neighbors next door in apartments……I seriously doubt bad guy(s) being hit in the chest could tell the difference between the 12 and the 20 gauge as far as damage goes.

  2. I enjoyed your article , CORRECT and to the point. I have shot in police competition many years . The shotgun event always had a way to even pistol shooters and combat shooters. I had several guns at my disposal Winchester model 12, Remington model 870, and my personal choice Armscor model 30. ALL great guns each in its own right, my favorite is the ARMSCOR !!

  3. I have a 12 gauge semiautomatic MKA1919 that I usually shoot 1oz slugs from. I’ve been able to hit about dinner plate size groups at 250y with a red dot. The drop at that distance is substantial.

  4. I use a red dot on my old moss 500 and have the recoil reducing M4 tactical stock on it i can change barrels quickly from a HD 18 inch to a adjust a choke 21 inch barrel ,.50 cal muzzleloader barrel and a rifled slug barrel we use to be a shotgun hunting state only until recently for whitetail deer we now can use straight walled cased rifles . The red dot is very effective but if you go to the slug barrel it has a scope mount with a shotgun scope on it already set dead on at 100 yards the red dot i use for all else as far as barrels i pattern it from 10 yards to 50 yARDS with 00 buck . out to 50 yrds with the home defense barrel you will hit the man sized target with most all the pellets of coourse it opens up past 35 yards to about a 12 inch spread at 10 yards all 9 pellts are real tightly grouped and would not be good for W/E you are trying to stop game over lol..Slugs i always go 3 inch mag as well as buckshot .For home defense i like to use 3 inch mag turkey loads ,the pellets are no 5 size and will deff stop any threat at in the house ranges without overpenetration of my walls . For home defense it cannot be beaten you take a full load of no 5 3 inch mag turkey loads in chest or face you are done wanting to fight or do bodily harm to anyone doubt they survive it in the house or yard ranges or street fight ranges and will take out more than 1 target at about 30 yards to 40 yards . Past that i go to slugs ..

    1. Thanks for reading!

      I would say you know your shotguns well and have taken the time to master the shotgun. That is what counts.

      Excellent information!

  5. My dad was a big 12 gauge fan, but not me. I always favored the 20 gauge. The difference in terminal velocity between 12 and 20 is all but insignificant. The difference in felt recoil is, however significant. Too, I’ve always felt that if you fire slugs, have a ‘slug gun’, ie; rifle stocked, rifled barrel, rifle sights. True, a rifled barrel will deform shot but not enough to be a problem. Going with a ‘slug gun’, at least for me, the learning curve between shot gun and rifle was not so steep. Too, using what amounts to a .75 cal. bullet with end a deer hunt, or a dispute with a person intent on doing you harm, than will either bird or buck shot.

  6. You can use an adjustable site like an EoTech on a tactical shotgun. I sight mine in like a rifle at 25 yards with reduced recoil slugs then check it at 50 yards.

    I also use this shotgun for turkey hunting. I sight it in at 25 yards using my turkey choke, turkey load, and the EoTech sight. This is good to about 40 yards. The sight settings are different from those for the slugs.

  7. On the box they come in, Remington Slugger slug rounds (12 guage 2.75″) state they should be shot through a choke no tighter than improved cylinder. I have mistakenly done that and felt the results for a week, as well as had to wait on replacement bolt parts from Ilion, NY for the weapon. I would guesstimate that through a full choke, as Bob says, you’d be risking damage to the gun even with home-made candle wax slugs due to the increased back pressure when slug arrives at choke and gasses find their escape route blocked for a longer time span than the system was designed for.

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