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Shotguns For Home Defense by L.P. Brezny

A short–barreled shotgun was a deadly tool in the hands of the early cowboys, and it still is today.

hen it comes to defensive weapons, the common smoothbore shotgun rates very high among military personnel, civilians and police. Shotguns for home protection offer many choices in options, action type and basic gun design.

Why is a scattergun a good choice for home defense? There are a number of factors, the least of which is the ability of this defensive tool to produce very effective results even in the hands of a modestly trained individual.

During the 1800s, the scattergun was considered almost cheating in a gun fight due to its ability to out–class rifles and handguns at close range. “Blue Whistlers” is what buckshot loads used in the standard sawed–off double–barrel were called, due to the whistling sound they made going downrange. With payloads of multiple pellets, even at 30 or better caliber, these were deadly tools used inside a room, from horseback or for cleaning out a clustered group of bad guys at close range. Lawmen often preferred the scattergun to any other weapon when taking on outlaws in most situations. I think that can also be the case today, even when modern semiautomatic weapons are at hand.

Gauge/Bore Size

If you are considering a shotgun as a home–defense tool, there are some things you need to know. First, deciding on a gauge or bore size needs to be addressed even before selecting an action type or the brand of the gun. Large, heavy–gauge guns like the 3" 12 bore chambering buckshot or slugs can be hard to handle when used by smaller individuals. During my years in police work, I worked as a training officer with all kinds of people in terms of gender and body size. Believe me, the standard squad’s 12–gauge pump gun with a stiff load of buckshot or slugs tended to hurt a lot in the hands of some of the smaller folks.

Mossberg 500 Pump

The Mossberg 500 pump, decked out for home defense, is a great choice. You don’t need all the goodies on a home–defense gun; keep it clean, keep it fast.

The Taurus Judge

The Taurus Judge is a handgun that doubles as a shotgun. With proper loads, it could be good protection in a bad situation.

One solution is to turn to a 20 gauge, but keep the loads in the 2¾" shell length or buy special low–recoil rounds. Even the 12 gauge can be tamed down a good deal with the new managed–recoil ammo offered by companies like Winchester and Remington. In a number of brands, you can find specialty loads in both full–power and reduced–recoil designs made just for self–defense.

Even a handgun–turned–shotgun like the new Taurus Judge .45 Long Colt (.410 2½") can fit a home–defense niche when loads like Federal’s Defense No. 4 lead–shot loads, 00 buckshot or Winchester’s 000 buckshot rounds are applied. This wheel gun turned scattergun mounts a 3" or 6½" barrel and will hold five .410 shotshell rounds in its standard wheel–gun configuration. During one training program, I observed about a dozen writers empty the five–round cylinder into paper targets in under three seconds. Many of us shot the rapid–fire course in less than 1.6 seconds. While that was a staged event, it did show the available firepower of a very small scattergun package.

Action Type

After a bore/gauge size has been selected, the next step is to take a hard look at action types. Some special considerations need to be addressed. While shotguns as single–shots are easy to use and very safe, they do lack significant firepower if that one round turns out to be a missed shot or just a wound, not incapacitating the attacker. Single shots in gun fights went out about the time the Indians stopped using bows and arrows in wagon–train frontal attacks. What you need is some backup if things go very wrong and, in that area, I believe the pump gun is king.

Why not an autoloader? Autos can get dirty lying around a dusty house or just develop parts failures about the time they are needed. While autos are great for a police special–entry unit with a pile of other guns controlled by special officers to back them up, defending your home at 3:00 in the morning doesn’t give you that luxury. Pump guns can hold up to five rounds in a standard magazine or seven in an extended combat–designed shotgun. The action is easy to learn and dependable. The military has depended on pump–action shotguns for every major war we have fought, and it has been the standard in almost all police departments for about as long as cop shops have been around. When I trained young officers with shotguns, I informed them, because the squad gun locked in the dashboard rack was carried with an empty chamber, it required a “racking” motion to get that gun into proper operation. The sound of the “rack” bringing a shotshell from the magazine across the follower and into the gun’s chamber could turn anyone’s blood to ice water.

I will share the story of a friend of mine in Wyoming that happened about a year ago. About 2:30 in the morning, my friend was asleep in his double–wide near a mining operation with his wife and small child in the rear bedroom. Upon hearing the sound of glass breaking, he quickly checked his wife’s side of the bed and found her fast asleep. With another quick check, he found the baby safe and in her bed. He reached for the scattergun (a pump–action) under the bed. Looking down the short hall into the living room, he observed a small pen–light flashlight moving about. He “racked” the 12–bore pump gun, sending a round of No. 4 lead shot (a heavy turkey load) into the chamber.

At the sound of that 12 bore racking up, the light went out and the door flew open. The intruder had departed. At that point, my friend realized two individuals had been in the room. Scary? You bet it was, and now he not only has the 12 bore at his side, he also has a strong LED light tacked into the muzzle of his short–barreled home–defense cannon.

My second choice would be a short–barreled double–barrel 12 or 20 gauge. “Coach guns” like those used by Cowboy Action shooters make great home–defense guns, as they are fast to load if maintained with empty chambers, simple to operate, have a fast learning curve and still afford a backup shot if everything doesn’t go as planned.

The Gun

You have several choices in shotguns. Mossberg builds the simple and very affordable Model 500, while Remington can put you into their world–famous combat shotgun, the Model 870 Wingmaster, or an Express (same gun but with different degrees of finish, etc.). Other manufacturers have pump–gun models, but regardless of the brand selected, you want a full–sized magazine (five rounds minimum) and a short (20"–21") barrel.

In a double gun, a good choice is one of the currently marketed Norinco Model 982s or the Model 97 hammer pump, a remake of the old Winchester 97. The USSG MP 220F is a 12–bore open–hammer coach gun built in Russia for Remington. It is a well–made example of a short–barreled, tough–as–nails, double–barreled defense gun.

A double is simple to operate. With open hammers, it is easy to see if the gun is combat–ready and it is a very effective defense tool. Doubles are available in 12, 20 and even .410 gauge. Don’t count the .410 out. With Federal’s new 00 buckshot 2½" load designed just for defending one’s abode, it can be effective. Fancy sights are not necessary, In most cases, the standard bead front sight or even no sight is very workable in close quarters, and that is what your home is, a close–range shooting scenario. Keeping the barrel short increases your ability to sweep a wide field of fire with very little arm motion. A long barrel is like trying to swing a section of sewer pipe across a room, and you may find someone in the dark taking the gun away from you barrel–first.

Some aftermarket companies would like you to have a $3,000 night–sighting system installed on your home–defense gun, as well as a host of other bells and whistles. All that stuff can get in the way in a real defense situation. Keeping it simple and learning to use what you have well is the best rule to follow.

I like the Remington 870 Express 3" Magnum with a 21" barrel, no choke (as in IC fixed) and a set of open sights. Because I shoot SASS events with my local club, a side–by–side 12 bore with open hammers in coach–gun configuration also gets the call (I keep it in my pickup–truck cab most of the time).

If funds are an issue, and for many that is exactly the case these days, that old bird gun in your closet will do just fine for home defense, in most cases. No, it is not a true combat–style defense gun, but these smoothbore cannons have taken on their share of bad people over the history of firearms. In addition, the homeowner may know his/her bird gun better than a new and different–style defense gun, so don’t count out that old Model 12, Ithaca 37 or stack–barrel Browning duck–shooting clay–buster.

Training & Planning Are Vital

When I trained young up–and–coming police officers with shotguns, I took them to a clay–bird course and started them out slowly on straightaway, slow–moving clays. Training with your scattergun is mandatory. Don’t even think of buying one if you don’t plan to do training. Remember this, if you remember little else: What you are trained to do is all you have in a gun fight or home–defense situation. Normal body reaction will close down many of your senses and you must react in automatic mode. If you have no training to call on, there will be little or no response to the threat and you will most likely get killed or hurt very badly.

The Author

Here I am testing defense loads. Any good shotgun will save your bacon with good loads and proper training.

I am not saying you need to turn into some kind of commando or one–person army, but you do need to control your firearm so you can use it in your sleep, if necessary, and become proficient enough to hit something (or someone) hard enough to bring it down.

With your gun selected, ammo picked out and some basic training in place, the next element is to develop a game plan in the event a defense scenario becomes a reality. Here are some places to start.

Measure and memorize the distances from Point A to Point B in your home. I have a big, old house in the mountains and from my bedroom door to the back entry counts out to 17 paces. That’s a long haul for a scattergun round, so I have adjusted my home–defense ordnance accordingly. A mixed–fruit salad of a 41–pellet load of 12–gauge 3" buckshot is my opener, followed by a Foster slug, then an alternate of buckshot and slugs to the five–round magazine limit.

In an urban area, my scattergun salad would be a mistake. Your plan must include what is appropriate for your situation. If you live in a house with a very broad secondary area outside, like on a farm or a large lot, No. 4 lead buckshot or even 00 can be the right choice if the action moves outside.

If you live in an apartment, a good deal of attention needs to be given to exactly what type of ammunition you will use. Shooting through walls with loads that retain too much power can harm or kill someone in the next apartment or the hallway. A 12 gauge chambering slugs can travel through several layers of drywall before coming to a stop. Therefore, that is not the best choice in a small apartment or a home with neighbors close by. Buckshot is a good choice, but you must keep the pellet size small. Waterfowl steel–shot loads with BBs or BBBs can do a good job inside seven or eight paces.

Special loads are now offered by the major manufacturers and some specialized outfits for home defense. For example Wad Wizard has a 2¾" 20–gauge load that is low–recoil at 1,200 f.p.s. and packs 18 pellets of No. 4 buckshot. It is like shooting 18 .22–caliber lead balls at the bad guy at one time. Effective? I guess so! Wad Wizard indicates that load packs 100% patterns to 25 yards using their special 20–gauge choke system. That is something you would have to check out for yourself with your gun.

Unless you are a waterfowl hunter, you may not have much experience with tungsten ammunition. This is a very expensive shotshell round designed for long–range work on ducks and geese. It just so happens these loads, in No. 4 through BB, can be deadly home–defense rounds. They are sold, for the most part, in 10–pack boxes, and a few of these loads can go a very long way in your self–defense scattergun. Tungsten, even loaded in a .410 shotshell with No. 4 pellets, is an energy–producing load well out to 50 feet, more than enough for inside defense work. It also carries with it a low over–penetration factor and could be a candidate for an apartment defense system.

When I was moonlighting as a public housing–authority night patrol officer many years ago, I carried a .357 S&W Model 66 Combat Magnum. We carried a Glaser round, which was a 38–caliber bullet filled with very fine bird shot. If the load hit a wall and not the bad guy, it turned into a fine spray of harmless metal that lacked penetration. When a guy decided to take on the security team from a parking lot roof one night, he elected to shoot a 12 gauge loaded with slugs. He knew what we carried and moved up the scale in firepower a good deal. We backed out of that parking lot and he faced a city police force with machine guns and shotguns. He gave up in short order.

You need to address various ammunition types for your particular home–defense needs. A load of clay–target No. 8s will do the deed, but only at very close range; in some cases, a lot closer than you want it to come down. As range increases, patterns open, pellets develop space and energy is dropped over a wide area. That’s not what you want in a defensive situation. Any normal human being would run away from the muzzle flash, but with drug use so high in some areas, an intruder with a load of crack cocaine in his system won’t react normally and probably won’t feel a thing if you pound him with a light round. That is something to keep clearly in mind here. Make sure the ammo you use protects others in your home and nearby homes or apartments, but be aware of the limitations of that ammo when it comes to bad guys, too.

Last, and not at all least in importance, the question of “shoot, don’t shoot” must be part of this discussion. With any gun comes responsibility, and that means knowing when and when not to use deadly force. The laws in many states are liberal in terms of personal or home defense, but the final decision is still yours to make, and you will live with the outcome.

As a police officer, I was prepared to use my gun, and I did on three occasions during 23 years of service. In my home, two occasions warranted deadly force. Lacking my years of police training, I would most likely have killed at least one of the men attempting to enter my home in the middle of the night, but I was able to make them both understand one more step would be the end of seeing any more of this world for them. In both cases, the individuals were drunk or stoned almost out of their heads but, lucky for them, not quite all the way into complete stupidity. Learning when and when not to shoot should be part of your training, as well as how to deal with the aftereffects of a shooting. Home defense may be necessary, but it is not something to be taken casually. With good planning and training, you can feel confident and safe and be able to handle any situation that arises.

L.P. Brezny has worked in research and development in the shooting industry for 19 years. He developed and marketed the first sub–sonic shotgun and shotshell — The Hastings Metro Gun™ System — and was the first to measure shotshell pellets in real time at target distances, building ballistic tables demonstrating shotshell load performance and chronographing systems. He also developed the Dead Ringer® high–performance waterfowl/upland choke–tube system. L.P. has been writing for various shooting publications for over 20 years.