Tactical Shotgun Loads

Bob Campbell shooting a semi automatic shotgun with two shells in the air

The shotgun is a great problem solver and best regarded as a tactical system. This is in respect to the great versatility of the shotgun and its payload. The shotgun may be used in fast-moving, short-range tactical scenarios. It may be fired in the home with devastating effect upon an invader with little chance of injury to a neighbor.

Hornady buckshot 12 gauge shells with camouflaged shotgun
Hornady’s buckshot loads are excellent choices for personal defense.

The shotgun may also be loaded with slugs that may be effective well past 100 yards. It all hinges upon choosing the proper load and being skilled with the use of the shotgun. For qualified users, the shotgun may be used with distraction devices, door-breaching loads, or paint marker loads.

Shotguns are used with special munitions to scare birds from the runway of major airports and are kept handy on fishing boats in order to put down thrashing, dangerous sharks brought up with the catch. The shotgun is the most formidable shoulder-fired weapon ever manufactured. The shotgun offers a good chance of striking an adversary due to the shotgun’s ability to launch multiple shot with a single pull of the trigger. It offers excellent hit probability due to a natural point and feel.

The shotgun must be carefully aimed at close range, however, the design and handling make getting on target quickly and getting a hit easier than any other long gun and particularly easier than a handgun. The loads discussed in the following pages are well suited to tactical shotgun use. I tested each in pump-action and self-loading shotguns. Only complete reliability is acceptable. Let’s look at the various types of loads available.

Bob Campbell shooting a semi automatic shotgun with two shells in the air
Hornady’s loads are controllable. Proof each load!

While many of us practice with light loads, be certain to get your time in with buckshot too. 00 (Double Ought) Buckshot will deliver eight or nine pellets in a pattern that increases with range. A rule of thumb that isn’t always set in stone is that the pattern increases an inch per yard past seven yards.

At 7 yards, my old open choke Remington 870 will deliver eight 00 pellets, from Hornady’s Critical Defense load, into a pattern approximately 5.5 x 6 inches. This is ideal for personal defense. As the range increases to 20 yards, the pattern has reached the point that it is no longer likely to place the majority of the pellets on a man-sized target.

15 yards is the optimal range for effectiveness with a buckshot pattern. Occasionally, one shotgun may produce a slightly tighter pattern than others. Shotguns fitted with choke tubes may use a full choke tube to increase the tightness of the pattern. Be certain to proof the shotgun with each load. As an example, my Mossberg self-loading Model 930 is reliable with Hornady Critical Defense, and I have proofed the shotgun with this loading.

Hornady Critical Defense shotgun shells and boxes
The Critical Defense load offers excellent potential for personal defense.

12 gauge buckshot comes in several sizes and power levels. 12 gauge shells come in 2 ¾-inch, 3-inch, and 3 ½-inch sizes. Although my Benelli Nova Tactical shotgun is chambered for 3 ½-inch shells, I have never fired either of the longer shells in this shotgun. The 2 ¾-inch shells are plenty strong for personal defense and generate all of the recoil you are likely to wish to endure. The most common buckshot sizes are .36 caliber 000 buckshot, .32 caliber 00 buck, and .24 caliber #4 buck.

While each has merit in certain situations, the preponderance of evidence points to the effectiveness of the 00 buckshot loading. However, testing of the new Hornady #4 Varmint Express load is promising. This load uses 24 #4 buckshot pellets. The pattern is tight—very tight—and well suited for personal defense. Originally intended for use against predators at the limits of shotgun range, this loading has a place in home defense. For area defense and tactical use, 00 buckshot remains the best choice for shotgun use.

Hornady has developed a Critical Defense 12 gauge load. This load breaks 1600 fps and uses eight pellets. The lower pellet count reduces recoil and makes for a tighter pattern. This load is useful in automatic shotguns and is among the tightest patterning 00 buckshot loads. In the Mossberg 930 and TriStar Tec 12 shotguns I have recently tested, recoil is controllable and even comfortable.

Slug Loads

Slug loads are indicated when there is a need for either greater penetration or greater precision. Some load the shotgun with alternating buck and ball—usually with two buckshot followed by two slugs. The Hornady SST is among the most accurate available. This slug gives the shotgunner plenty of long-range smash. This slug is recommended for rifled barrels. At personal defense ranges, the SST often proves accurate in all shotguns, but the shooter himself must gauge that accuracy.

We all love our shotguns, so the only question to ask is which load do you prefer for tactical use or home defense and from which shotgun? Share your answers in the comment section. [bob]

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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 (34)

  1. Looking for people’s thoughts & experiences with 12 gauge Winchester PDX. I tried it out recently and it shoots well without too much recoil and I got good, accurate shots out of my Mossberg. But the TN Outdoors9 guy on YouTube wasn’t too excited about it. Despite the fact that his ballistics gel got knocked way off the platform & took a dirt nap, he still had doubts about its stopping power with its modest 1150 fps barrel velocity. PDX uses one 1oz slug and 3 00 buck pellets. My use would be home defense within 10-15 yds max. What are your thoughts? That or some 9 pellet 00 buck? Maybe one PDX round followed by standard 9 pellet 00 Buck? What say you?

  2. In my state you can’t shoot a fleeing felon out side your home. Unless you can well articulate the he was a clear threat of serious injury or death to you or another person. If your bad guy has any holes in their back side, there is a good chance you are going to prison otherwise. Now Texas on the other hand has some liberal self defense laws and laws for defending property at night.

  3. Good points. 00 buck is still the standard. #4 is quite useful also, as LAPD and LASO will attest, and I have never heard of them complaining about lack of stopping power. If your shotgun has choke tubes, try an IC choke. The little bit of constriction works well with both 00 and slugs. I get usable buck patterns out to 25 yards. Try the Federal “Tactical” with the Flitecontrol wad– it works. At my last agency, I tested these at my own expense and we ended up switching to it. The 00 patterns from an open choke 18″ 870 were very tight at 10 yards and very useable to 25 yards, so that was a 10 yard gain in range right there. After years of my urging, we finally got rifle sighted barrels and had them shortened to 18″ by our gunsmith. We had long been using slugs, and I advocated slug first, followed by 3 buck rounds, with more of each in a sidesaddle. After loading mine that way for many years, it became dept standard. Not bragging; it just made sense. After the first shot, they are running, and the multiple projectiles give you a much better hit probability on a moving target. STAY SAFE!

  4. Nothing beats a Winchester 1300 Defender w/18″ barrel and an 8 round tube filled with, 12 gauge 00, in close quarters. There’s a reason the Winchester Model 12 Trench gun, the 1200/1300 Defenders, and the new SXP have been used by police and military for 100 years of service from WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, and even in Iraq and Afghanistan. I use 00 and sabot rounds in three different 1300’s, an 18″, a Camp Defender with full choke extention, and a 1300 Black Shadow Deer Slug gun with mag tube extention and rifled 22″ barrel.

  5. I have another take on using a shotgun. Aim for the assailants face. Best round for that is steel shot size 2, 3, or 4, at high velocity – say 1500 fps or better. This will give you 100 or more pellets in the load.

    The primary reason for using a shotgun instead of a pistol is that you don’t have to aim too closely. Getting hit in the face with steel shot will probably knock the assailants eyes out of it’s sockets, blinding him or at least causing unimaginable pain. In either case he is no longer a threat. And with a five shot autoloader you can give him another and a few for his accomplices, if any.

  6. All of this information is good IF you own a 12 gauge. However, there are a lot of us out here that have opted for something a lot lighter and easier to swing in tight places, The Judge. The most popular Critical Defense rounds in this gauge are the Hornady CD (41 Cal FTX slug followed by 2 – 35 Cal round balls), and the Winchester CD (3 – 410 gauge discs followed by 12 BBs). Both rounds shoot in the 750 fps range. Would these be any better or worse than a standard #5 shot moving 1200 fps? Any information available for the 410 gauge as a home protection weapon?

    1. Get rid of that Judge and your .410. Whoever thought that one up had suckers in mind. Nothing beats a Winchester 1300 Defender w/18″ barrel and an 8 round tube filled with, 12 gauge 00, in close quarters. There’s a reason the Winchester Model 12 Trench gun, the 1200/1300 Defenders, and the new SXP have been used by police and military for 100 years of service from WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, and even in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    2. Mike

      I am not a Judge fan.
      I agree there are many problems with the Judge. I have tested both velocity and penetration and the Judge with any load has serious problems. I much prefer a standard .45 caliber handgun or a 12 gauge shotgun.
      I find the Judge worthless save perhaps in the niche once filled by the old Snake Charmer shotgun

    3. Joe, I too tried the Hornady .410 & the Winchester PDX rounds. I did a unscientific test using them in my American Derringer that shoots both the .45 long Colt & the .410 shells. Shooting at 3/4″ plywood at 15 ft… I didn’t get complete penetration from all the projectiles. Given that the local hood rats in my area usually wear heavy cotton Hoodies and use backpacks / book packs almost like body armour to protect their backs from guns shots and to haul off loot while shoplifting or home burglaries.. I personally wanted something with a bit more umph!

      After trying a number of rounds, I settled on 2 1/2″ .410 Federal ‘000’ / triple aught buck. They have 4 copper plated ‘000’ pellets per round. Basically 4- .32 caliber rounds. At 20 feet from a 3″ Derringer …. all the pellets penetrated 2- 3/4″ sheets of plywood spaced a few inches apart. More than enough to penetrate a heavily padded hoddie wearing home intruder. In a longer barreled Judge you would have even better results. You can get the Federal 4 pellet 000 buck shot rounds at Walmart for about $5 for a box of 5 rounds.

      You can also alternately load .410 slugs, but ‘000’ buck isn’t far from being a slug…. and 4 of them at over 1,000 fps will be pretty effective on just about any kind of home intruder you migh have show up.

  7. I have 2 Mossberg 500s w/ 18″ barrels in the house. One with a regular shoulder stock, the other with a horizontal foregrip grip and pistol grip. I’ve chosen to go with Winchester 3″ steel BB Xpert Hi-Velocity loads for home defense. That is approx 80 steel BB’s / 1 1/8 ounces of steel coming out of the pipe at 1,550 fps. At 20 feet, these will easily blow a 5-6″ hole though 2- 3/4″ sheets of all weather plywood back to back. At in home shooting ranges of approx 30 feet or less, these rounds will be devastating on any hoodie wearing hood rat. Your intruder would have a 5″ diameter hole filled with black jelly and 80 individual projectiles. Not the 8 or 9 of 00 buckshot rounds.

  8. a littile more research is called for here the view of 000 and 00 buck is just rehash more modern combat studies have shown that while harder to find #1 buck is THE best anti personnel load made

  9. Quick question: While I have fairly extensive knowledge about pistols and rifles, with respect to shotguns – not so much.

    The writer mentioned alternating buckshot with slugs. He also mentioned using a full choke for a tighter shot spread. My question has to do with using slugs in conjunction with a choke. For some reason I always thought that in order to shoot slugs that you had to use a “cylinder” choke so that there wouldn’t be any restriction on the slug passing through the barrel. For the experts on this forum, is there any issue with using a choke with slugs and if not, which types of chokes van be used? Thanks.

    1. I have a smoothbore mossberg 930 spx it shoots rifled slugs or buckshot very well. I purchased it for the fact that it was a smoothbore that I could shoot most any round out of it. My personal experience is that rifed barrels do not shoot buckshot very well. I can ring 10″ steel plates with slugs at 100 yds easily with the AR style sights that it came with.

    2. I would not shoot slugs in anything tighter than improved cylinder. Going to a full choke when shooting slugs is just asking for trouble.

  10. #0 or #1 buck loads are demonstrably superior to #00 buck in terms of frontal area/crushed cavity volume in ballistic gelatin. #00 buck prevails in retained velocity downrange, and therefore has “won” in the military context, but in the personal defense domain that Joe Citizen can reasonably foresee, he’s better off going the extra mile to find the alternative loads in #0 or #1. You don’t need to reach out past 35 yards in that domain, but the reduction in overpenetration in a miss or more rapid incapacitation for a hit on an assailant when it comes down to that awful day, may prove life-altering.

  11. Don’t have any problem with what anyone uses. My compliant is that those shotgunners wanting to practice are the laziest shooters of all. At my Northeast Ohio gun club the empty hulls litter the 50-yarx pistol ranges time and again. Three days ago my wife and I policed one of the two short ranges and gathered up three boxes worth of hulls – three boxes! More than any other group of shooters those using shotguns are the worst offending users of the ranges. Lazy and inconsiderate. They act like the club had hired their mothers to pick up after them.

  12. Bob,

    Any thoughts our experience with any of the .50 caliber sabot slugs in shotguns or the newer copper solid slugs verses the standard lead shotgun slugs?

  13. I have a old Mossberg 500 with an 18″ smoothbore barrel and I use #5 Winchester turkey load for home defense. Even if you are a waken in the middle of the night you don’t have to worry is your eye sight perfect to stop the intruder.

  14. Thanks for the comment!
    My question was in half-jest, really.
    I understand that many shooters have personal preferences for their ammo. For myself, I use Royal Buck for most of my shooting, but Remington gets my nod for my home defense 12 gauge.
    I’m one of those guys who definitely doesn’t sweat what I see as small differences that make no real difference. Hornady or Remington or Royal Buck at twenty feet are all the same: deadly. Once the perp is dead, I really don’t care about how wide the pattern is, or how many inches each pellet goes in; the end result is the same.
    As long as it’s reliable, I really don’t care much which brand is used.
    But that’s just me.

    1. Interesting thing, at in the house distances most loads will be as a solid column, blowing a 1″ to 1 1/2″ diameter hole in tissue.

    2. You must live in a very small house. (I understand the really small house thing is a growing thing.)
      My experience at 5 yards (well within my house’s dimensions) I get 4-5″, sometimes more, depending on the brand (and shot wadding) used.
      18.5″ or 20″ bbl, pretty much the same.

    3. We need to be all we can be.
      That means the possibility the truck gun may take on a coyote at some distance. Or if a felons or invader is behind cover, such as a door frame or a heavy couch, firing at me, I like to know exactly what type of pattern I have and where it hits. Some shotguns hit high low or have a lateral deviation, that is simply a fact. I like a tighter pattern and plan for the worst case not the average.
      Thanks for reading!

  15. I stoke my 18″ 870 w/ #4 buck as my in-house load. There are 00 and slugs (3ea.) on my side saddle for other needs

  16. The #4 Varmint Express sounds impressive, for the SLUGS I’ll stick with my Brenneke, Black Magic and/or the Classic Magnum. Both are heavy duty protection against Brown Bear and Rogue Moose, as such they are the best SLUG ammo I can buy and use.
    They DO recoil hard but I can handle it.

  17. Nice to see shotgun and shotgun ammo articles. I have a Mossberg 835. Chambered in 3 1/2, I shoot #4 turkey shot in it. Would have to purchase another barrel just to shoot slugs. Haven’t seen a 3 1/2 inch slug but would give it a try!
    My go to shotgun is my Ithica 12 gauge. 2 3/4 chamber. Have deerslayer barrel which means use of rifled slugs are required, and a mounted scope, to put that slug on target out to about 100 yards. Great for deer. Great for self defense.
    Keep the great articles coming Bob.very informative and now with all the snowflakes arming up, they need to be taught proper gun safety and handling!!!

    1. Not a chance, but he is certainly a believer when it comes to its products. ~Dave Dolbee

    2. Bill
      Thanks for reading.
      If you look over my work you will see loads from many makers from the Big Three to specialty makers. In this instance Hornady shells are the stand out. When you consider that not long ago Hornady did not even make shotgun shells these are pretty amazing!


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