Saturday, February 28, 2009

Home defense shotgun ammunition, the basics

Now that a home defense shotgun has been put together, the question remains: What should we feed it?

First, let’s ask ourselves why a shotgun is being used for home defense. Understanding that will help us make the ammunition choice. A shotgun has some advantages that make it desirable as a home defense weapon.

While any firearm powerful enough to use for defense will penetrate most walls, shotguns are slightly less likely to over penetrate.

A shotgun has the ability to fire a shell with multiple projectiles, increasing the likelihood of a solid hit and thus of stopping the threat. Some say the ominously large bore and unique sound of the action tend to make bad guys choose another activity… one far away from you and your family.

Sticking with the technical, and leaving the psychology aside for now, it’s the ability to fling a small cloud of shot which won’t pass through five houses and a school bus that helps make the shotgun a solid defensive choice. That being the case, lets look at ammunition options for this 'lil beastie.

There are ‘slug’ shells available in every gauge. From cute little 95 grain .410 slugs that almost rival a .380 pocket pistol, on up to 1oz 12 gauge bruisers meant to take down heavy game. Yes, they are available, but are they a good choice for home defense?

Using a slug gives up the advantages a shotgun brings to the table. There is only a single projectile, lowering hit probability. It also penetrates impressively. Used on big game, a slug normally goes clean through. Anything short of a brick wall is unlikely to stop one completely.

On the other hand, slugs give the shotgun a longer reach, allowing buckshot for close in shooting and then being able to reach out to longer ranges with nothing more than a different shell being loaded. There are many schools of thought on this, but I’d like to make two points here. In the heat of the moment, when an attacker has escalated the situation so boldly that deadly force is required, how many people will be able to keep track of which shell they are loading, and for what reason? Also… if the range has gotten long enough to demand a slug (over 50 yards) then maybe the range is long enough that shooting is no longer required defensively. Yes, there might be an occasion when long range capability is required, but at that point the shotgun is simply not the best weapon. A pocket full of slug shells might serve in a pinch, but those ranges speak to the need for a rifle, not a shotgun.

When we speak of defensive shooting with a shotgun, we are really talking about ammunition which shoots shot… and we are left with looking at what size shot and how much. Buck shot or bird shot… and here there really is no choice. Bird shot is just that; small shot made for taking small game birds on the wing. Bird shot will not penetrate well enough to reliably stop an attacking opponent. Sure, it can leave a nasty surface wound and may eventually drop the bad guy from blood loss, but that’s not the goal. Shots fired are meant to stop the bad guy from attacking, and that means stop, not hurt.

For that, penetration is required, and damage to structure and major blood vessels.

Now the choice is narrowed to buck shot. 2 ¾” shells or 3” shells? #4 buck shot or O/O buckshot? Magnum or standard? The choice is actually not all that hard once the performance of the ammunition is looked at.

Normally, a ‘Magnum’ shotgun shell gets that name by carrying more payload, and not by achieving a higher velocity. The extra weight of more pellets means higher recoil; not something to be lightly passed over in a weapon that already has quite a kick. The same can be said for 3” shells over 2 ¾”. Again, they carry more pellets and tend to have significantly higher recoil. There is always a trade off for the higher shot count. 2 ¾ standard shells have a history of doing the job, and there’s no reason to assume bad guys have gotten tougher in the last few generations.

As to shot size, here we have a choice. Typically under consideration for defensive use, ammunition makers load #4, #1, ‘O’, double O, and triple O buck shot. The difference is in the size of the pellets and thus, how many will fit in the shell. #4 is the smallest, and typically has about 27 pellets. O/O is the most common large size with nine pellets being about standard in the shorter shells.

Shown here are four different buck shot shells dissected. Remington 'O' and #1 buck, Federal #4 buck, and Sellier and Bellot O/O buck. The white powder amongst the shot in the Federal and Remington payloads is buffer. It's packed with the pellets to help control deformation on firing. Round pellets fly faster, farther, and maintain better groups.

The smaller the shot, the less mass it has, and the less it’s going to penetrate. #4 buck shot is fairly small… about the diameter of a .22 rimfire bullet but with less than half the weight since it’s round instead of conical. A Double-O pellet is about .33 caliber and considerably heavier. As a result, it penetrates much better.

#4 is considered just a little too light for serious defensive shooting, although it has a place in varmint hunting and pest control. It’s quite effective on fox sized game.

#1 buck seems to be just at the bottom edge of desired penetration, and jumps the typical number of pellets to sixteen. It has a history of reasonable penetration as well, and the increased projectile count raises the odds of hitting a major blood vessel or nerve center.

O/O buck (double O) is traditional in defensive use and has a long track record. It balances penetration vs. projectile count decently, and functions well in the 12 gauge platform.

There is also the question of choke... constrictions in the barrel designed to control how tight the shot pattern is. A shotgun meant for longer ranges will have a tighter choke, for a more dense pattern. Shotguns for defensive use typically have no choke at all, letting the pellets spread as quickly as possible. Does that mean a hunting shotgun with a full choke is useless for defensive use? By no means, as the following photo shows.

Both targets were shot at 35 feet. The target on the left from a 12 gauge with a short barrel and no choke, the target on the right from the same shotgun with a full choked hunting barrel mounted. Clearly both would be effective shooting and likely to stop an attacker.

My conclusion?... My home defense shotgun will be loaded with Remington 'O' or 'O/O' buckshot. Patterning well, with decent penetration and pellets large enough to reliably have an effect, it's my choice for the house scatterblaster.

(note: A little research can be a good use of time. I'd like to point out that Xavier has had some excellent posts in the past on home defense shotguns. Guns and Ammo
magazine has also covered the topic.)


Firehand said...

I settled on the Winchester or Hornady reduced-recoil 00 buckshot; plenty powerful enough for home defense, definitely less recoil to deal with.

Arthur said...

00 buck also seems to be easier to find and thus cheaper.

I'm using Federal 3" 00-buck simply because I had bought a ton of it and never bothered to switch to 2 3/4" even though it'd give me one more round in the tube. On the sidesaddle it doesn't matter.

GreyBeard said...

Great article. I've often heard #4 buck recommended for -inside- the home. I've also noted that a lot of short barreled guns don't pattern "00" real well. I'd think the "0" would be a good compromise?

GreyBeard said...

Sorry, make that compromise round the #1 Buck.

Lawyer said...

Thanks for this article. I am considering a shotgun for the home and your posts have been very informative.

Carteach0 said...

Greybeard, I agree. #1 does seem a good compromise, with the best of both worlds. Penetration without overdoing it, and a fair number of pellets too.

Lawyer, In this blog it seems I am chronicling my own learning process. That's where most of the posts come from... I just write up what I am doing, what I am learning myself. If others can make use... good!

Conservative Scalawag said...

Good post of very useful information.

Michael W. said...

Well thought out and written article. I need to pattern my shot gun to see which size shot will do best in my scatter gun. I have a "oldie but goody" police trade in that I keep to repel boarders in the house. She is stoked with 00 buck now, but I might change that out.

TWhiddon said...

I found your blog a few weeks ago and have really enjoyed it. Good stuff here.

DMP said...

Double ought is over rated in the USA. #4 is very effective at residential ranges. Some of the PH's in Africa use #4 to followup wounded leopards. I've been shooting raccoons around the chicken coop for four years with #4 with good results. Nineteen or 27 quarter inch balls at 1200 fps is pretty stout medicine. Good writing. DMP

navdan said...

I'd recommend something more along the lines of #4.
Remember, 35 feet is really a fairly long range for self-defense use (with the majority of self-defense uses being within TEN feet), so that spread isn't going to be nearly as big as what's shown here.
Using 0 or 00 at that range, you're essentially using a very large single projectile, which is certainly powerful, but partially defeats the purpose of a self-defense shotgun.

Just something to keep in mind when considering your final selection...

Don Meaker said...

#1 will normally give the perp a through and through wound. The major blood vessels and spine are normally at the back. Thus with #1 you get that many chances for a through and through wound through the spine. Particularly in a northern clime, heavy clothing is often worn.

Anonymous said...

Thirty years ago this question was discussed in a shooting magazine. that I can not remember other than the conclusion. 00 buck would penetrate two standard construction walls i.e. 4 sheets of widely spaced dry wall and still remain lethal thus putting other members of your family at risk. # 6 shot would only penetrate 2 sheets of drywall (one wall) and it's lethality was in doubt as it usually bounced off the next sheet without penetrating. Since most defensive situations involve same room distances the maximum range is typically 20 ft and usually less. At the lesser ranges any solid hit from a 12 ga using #6 or 00 will be debilitating. Put it anywhere except the extremities and it is fatal. At the max range #6 will be less effective than 00 but if the target is shifted to the upper body or head there is a high probability of blinding both eyes with #6 and virtually no chance of hitting both eyes with 00. Now a head shot with 00 buck is probably fatal in it's own right but stranger things have happened and a complete miss is possible although unlikely. At any rate, this article thought the limited penetration of #6 and even #7 1/2 shot made them safer to use for self defense in the home thatn 00 buck if other family members are likely to be in the adjacent rooms.

Your comments? Did you consider collateral losses in your recommendation of the heavier buck shot? Do you agree that any load bigger than sand shot will be effective under 7 ft? What about the 20 ft shot? Go for the eyes or stick with center of mass?

Carteach0 said...


My experience is limited. I've been lucky enough to never have shot anyone, with any firearm. I hope to keep it that way.

I have read a lot, and hunted a lot. To site one example, I have seen a 14 pound woodchuck solidly hit with a #6 pheasant load from 20 feet away. He was not 'rehabilitated', but managed to make it to one of his holes and biting a dog on the way past. The wound was heavy, but shallow.

I know Buck can penetrate. ANYTHING can penetrate the interior walls of a house. As I wrote... "While any firearm powerful enough to use for defense will penetrate most walls, shotguns are slightly less likely to over penetrate."

There is always a trade off, a compromise. I think I'd rather use a round more likely to solidly anchor an attacker with one shot, than a round which might require three or more.

As to 'head shots'... I don't believe in them. When shooting under stress, center of mass is the best most people can hope for. If one is being attacked, the opportunity for well considered plans and rational thought is considerably reduced.

Peter said...

When discussing penetration or characteristics, I always refer to The Box of Truth:
In this case, the tests of 00 spread
( and
and 00 penetration
( and
seem applicable.

Carteach0 said...

The 'Box 'O Truth' is linked on the sidebar here, and has been since the beginning. Sounds like gentlemen I could get along with quite well. I was saddened to hear of the death there.

As much as I like their site, and read their posts often, I also like to try things out myself. Been that way all my life.. :-)

Anonymous said...

I just patterned the Federal 00 Buck Tactical load (model no. with 132, I think) at 10 yards with my 870 Exp 7shot (impr. cyl. bore) and it left one large hole about 3.5 inches in diameter. I will be buying alot more.

Anonymous said...

While I like to keep 00 in my tube, my wife has a more 'liberal' approach and likes to keep less-than-lethal loads on hand. I'm curious to get your input on some of the newer less-than-lethal options for 12 ga out today. I personally like the single rubber ball, but know of sandbags, multi-shot loads and even a new Taser round! Love reading your articles and value your input.

Themancomesaround said...

You must inform your wife that less than lethal rounds are just that- LESS THAN LETHAL! In a confrontation with a determined attacker, a less than lethal round would be like slugging him in the gut with an oven mit on. I have worked in corrections before and have taken CERT (Corrections emergency response team) training. In that training, we are always subject to having our own tools employed on us to witness their effectiveness, or lack thereof. ALL of the less than lethal rounds are capable of being defeated by a determined attacker,(including the type that "dust" the target with a liberal amount of "CS" powder) let alone an apprehensive trainee. If your wife ever needs to use her less than lethal rounds on a drug addled attacker that has just breached your home, she WILL die (And I place great emphasis on DIE). Never be fickle and try and tickle and attacker. I feel that it is paramount for you to inform your wife that when it comes to defense, the price the attacker is subject to paying is that of his/her own life. And it is up to your wife to assist the attacker in paying that price, lest it be her own life that the attacker just stole. I am 6'4, 220 lbs. and, not to brag, 4.3% body fat. If i had the proclivity and mental instability (like all hard criminals) your wife wouldn't have a chance against me, even with her "pop gun". I am not that large but have witnessed 5'4 168 lb. men, and even smaller women, defeat these types of rounds.
Carteach0, keep up the fantastic work! I find your blog entertaining and informative and refreshing to read. I am more inclined to read yours, Xavier's, the box'o'truth etc.. You are REAL people without a payroll to coax you into advertising for the "Big Guys". Real experiences from real people. Love it! Bang up job on the photos too! let it be known that "Observant Training" is training none the less, and with your clear explanations, photos and videos it is easy for one to pick up some helpful hints without having to pay dearly and take time off of work to attend a large shooting instruction school. They are worth the cost but the cost is sometimes insurmountable for some.

Themancomesaround said...

One last thing, Annon...
The taser ammo isn't completed with evaluations yet and, when it is, will only be available to military and law enforcement anyway. Besides, do you want to spend $50.00 or more per shot? Always maintain that no ones life is more important than the others. However, if one feels otherwise than they have just forfeit their life for the better of others. Keep the less than lethal stuff for those who are paid to NOT KILL persons who are responsible for killing innocents, i.e.. the police and military (I know, I know. Its sad but true. Our brave officers and soldiers aren't allowed to save lives through the deaths of terrorists.)

Anonymous said...

Themancomesaround, I agree with everything you said about the use of less than lethal ammo in home defense. Another factor to consider is that in a court of law, your use of "less than lethal" rounds may not be seen as an Act of Kindness by the prosecution, but as evidence that you weren't "reasonably scared for your life"... if you were, wouldn't you have used something that could stop the attacker dead and thus save your life?
However, I think you're misguided about our country's operations abroad. If we simply gun down all the terrorists, or send a GPS guided rocket every time we discover a "stronghold," how are we supposed to get new info on their upcoming plans and areas of operation? Keeping terrorists alive for questioning, especially the more influential ones (or "high-ranking" ones, although the lack of organization doesn't beg use of the word "rank"), is essential in our "winning" the War on Terror. If more Marines and Northern Alliance troops turned over "insurgents" for questioning rather than simply killing them because it's easier, we'd have found a lot more strongholds and dealt a lot more crippling blows to the side of radical Islam that approves of terrorism. I'm not saying our troops should put themselves into unnecessary danger (their lives/safety should be a top priority), but the fact that some just automatically shoot at insurgents when they may have been able to take them in for info gathering has probably cost some American lives. Information is the name of the game in this situation, and we haven't been too successful in gathering it or (especially) acting on it. Remember Tora Bora? Osama slipped right through our fingers.
Anyways, that's my "schpeel"... great website by the way very informative!

Dorothy said...

We always have a shotgun at home when I was little, my dad used to say it's for protection and now that I'm all grown-up and with a family, I also made sure that we have a shotgun at home, for protection too. And add to that, I even took self defense classes and my kids too so they better get away from us.

Rootie said...

I read this thread with great interest after switching my primary HD to a shotgun. In the past it was a .45 and more recently a .40 Glock. But with my kid's bedrooms adjoining mine on two sides and to avoid having any handguns within reach of them I went with a tactical 12 gauge. My choice to avoid overpenetration and still have plenty of punch is 3" Nitro Turkey rounds from Remington, size BB. There's a whole lot of them coming out of the business end but I think they would disperse pretty quickly after hitting plaster walls and 2x4's. I agree that if I had to pick ONE shell for all defense purposes it would probably be OO buck. I just think in my small house it's too much. Your two cents are appreciated. --Rootie

Carteach0 said...

Rootie, I would expect that turkey load to easily penetrate an interior wall with enough energy left over to do deadly damage.