On the list of firearms held as suitable for home defense, the nearly undisputed king is the 12 gauge pump action shotgun. Whether it’s the unmistakable noise of a round being chambered or the (rightly or wrongly) perceived massive stopping power, the big bore shotgun has a respected place in self defense.
In use since the very beginning of firearms, the shotgun rapidly gained a reputation for bringing down it’s target, whether two legged, four legged, or on wing. When ‘rifles’ did not exist and a single ball hitting it’s target was iffy, a handful of pellets fired from a .75” smoothbore usually got the job done. During the 18th century a coach was often guarded by a man armed with a ‘blunderbuss’, which was nothing more than a short barreled shotgun with the muzzle belled to make loading easier on a bouncing coach seat. From the classic western lawman to today’s patrol car, the shotgun has been a comforting resource to police officers for generations.
The same things that make it suitable for police use make it desirable as a home protection weapon. Heavy firepower over a short range, coupled with an intimidating visual image and ease of operation.
Shotguns can be found in many configurations, but the defensive role is dominated by pump action and semi-automatic 12 gauge guns. Mechanically identical to their hunting brethren, defensive shotguns differ in barrel length, magazine capacity, and sighting hardware.
While a typical hunting shotgun might have twenty eight or thirty inch barrels, this would be too long for easy maneuverability anyplace other than the field. The long barrel that makes easier swinging on a pheasant in flight would prevent effective gun handling in a hallway or small room. For this reason defensive shotguns usually have barrels that are eighteen to twenty inches long.
Hunting shotguns are often limited to three rounds capacity, or maybe five with the ‘plug’ out of the magazine. Defensive shotguns sometimes have a longer magazine tube bringing capacity up to eight or nine rounds. There are even special ‘shorter’ shotgun shells designed to boost the capacity of a shotgun, made just for defensive use. Many shotguns built for home defense also have spare ammunition stored right on the weapon, in special carriers.
While a bird gun might have a ventilated rib with a gold bead at the end, the shorter defensive shotgun more often has a plain barrel with a rifle sight on the end. There is a common misconception that shotguns throw so wide a pattern that aiming is not necessary. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and only a few ‘pointed’ shots at the range will prove this. It’s embarrassing to miss at short range with a shotgun when bowling pins are the target, but it can be disastrous in a home defense situation. Rifle type sights on the shotgun are a helpful aid to aiming accurately.
In this article, a typical 12 gauge pump action shotgun will get a simple conversion to a home defense weapon. In this case, a Remington 870 Express, but any decent quality hunting shotgun can be drafted to house duty with a few changes. While the 870 is worth investing some funds into for a project such as this, it’s possible a decent working 12 gauge can be bought used for well under $200. As long as the basic quality is there, outward finish means nothing. Worn bluing and a scratched stock don’t really matter much in a defensive shotgun. Dependability and usefulness do.
When I was shotgun shopping, the choice was narrowed to the two major suppliers; Remington and Mossberg. I liked the reliability and pricing on both, and a wealth of accessories are available for both. So, what clinched the deal on the Remington? I handled both at the store, and while I was looking over the Mossberg (a turkey gun) the rear sight fell off in my hands. To me, this is not a good sign. If one part I can see is made that cheaply, then what is there I can’t see?
This Remington came to the author as a used hunting shotgun. It’s been carried in the field, and also spent many an evening shooting trap under the lights. The original barrel is twenty eight inches long and is threaded for interchangeable chokes. It has a ventilated rib with a gold bead at the muzzle, and can hold four 2 ¾” shells in its magazine.
As a hunting shotgun it’s dependable and sturdy. Since it’s the cheaper Express model it came with a matte finish and plain wood. That doesn’t affect its usefulness or sturdiness, and it’s still a Remington 870, a shotgun with a long history of service.
As a home defense shotgun, it needed some changes. First and foremost, it must have a shorter barrel. The original was just too long to navigate the hallways and doorways of a house. It’s possible to cut down a shotgun barrel without too much fuss, but there are some factors that must be taken into account. The barrel length cannot legally be made shorter than eighteen inches without an expensive tax stamp issued by the BATFE. Eighteen and a half is usually the shortest a factory barrel comes, and most police shotguns are that length. Citizens have been killed for cutting off that last half inch… don’t risk it.
Once the gun is fitted with a suitably short barrel, what more is required? Many people seem to think any number of gadgets must be bolted, screwed, or Velcroed onto a shotgun before it can be a real defensive weapon. The reality is… simple is better. One need not feel under gunned because their shotgun does not have a vibrating green laser aiming device capable of highlighting the space shuttle in orbit, nor a twenty seven position tactical recoil absorbing stock with optional cup holder. The gun needs to work every time, and with a minimum of fuss. It needs to be maneuverable inside a building. Once that’s achieved, everything else is fluff and something to break or distract. It’s far better to spend the extra cash on ammunition and training time, which is a better investment in self defense.
If the shotgun is one that’s common, then a shorter barrel can usually be found that’s easy to install. Remington sells police length barrels for most of their shotguns, and Mossberg makes defensive barrels for both their guns and the Remington 870.
For this build a new Remington police barrel was purchased from Cabelas. It’s a smoothbore with no choke, 18 ½ inches long, and fitted with a bead front sight. The finish is matte to match the Express shotgun it’s going to be mounted on. At $119 out the door, the price was not exorbitant.
Installing the barrel could not be easier. Simply unscrewing the magazine cap is all that’s required, with the action open, and the barrel will pull forward off the shotgun (beware the magazine spring, as it will probably come un-caged with the cap removed). The new barrel is fitted into place and the cap reinstalled. Nothing else needs be done. The original hunting barrel can be cleaned, oiled, and put away for next year’s pheasant season.
While the barrel is being replaced, the magazine spring will likely be removed to get it out of the way. It’s an excellent time to set aside the ‘plug’ that limits the magazine capacity to meet some states hunting regulations. Also, it’s a fine time to install an extended magazine tube if one is desired. For about $45, a machined metal magazine extension can be bought that will give another two, three, or four rounds capacity.
In this build, the added expense was declined, and the original magazine cap reinstalled.
To carry reloads on the shotgun, many companies make ‘side saddle’ shell holders that bolt to the receiver, or even on the butt stock itself. These can hold an additional four to eight rounds in a convenient place for reloading on the move.
In our case, a simple shell holder sleeve was installed on the butt stock. Made by Uncle Mikes, it holds five shotgun shells securely in elastic loops. Since it’s of neoprene construction it tends to stick to the stock, and won’t slide around during movement. That’s important, and worth a few extra dollars. At $12, it’s an inexpensive answer to the issue of carrying extra ammunition.
Whether it’s a side saddle or an elastic shell holder such as this, strong consideration should be given to carrying reloads on the weapon. Even with the longest magazine tube the shotgun will hold only eight or nine rounds at the most. In the event the long gun is used in home defense the user is almost surely going to be under pressure and rushed. Grabbing extra ammo can’t be counted on. The fight will be fought with what’s on the gun. A ready reload mounted on the shotgun is the way to go.
The Remington 870 Express usually comes with swivels already installed for a sling. This is something to be considered. Combat slings in a dozen formats can be had, and our troops use them every day. That said… do we need a sling on a home defense shotgun?
A sling is for carrying a weapon. In a home situation the shotgun will be carried in the hands, not on the shoulder. Unless there is property to be patrolled, or a guard post to be maintained, a sling just isn’t needed. On the other hand, a sling can be a problem when moving through a building. It catches on things, and is a loose grab point for an opponent to use in taking the weapon for themselves.
Sling mounting points are not a bad idea; just for the thin chance a sling would be helpful. In a situation such as hurricane Katrina when long watches might be held over house and home to deter looting, the ability to sling the shotgun could save fatigue.
There are slings which double as bandoleers, holding an extra twenty or thirty shells in elastic loops. While they might appear pretty menacing, accurately firing a weapon with five pounds swinging loosely from it can be difficult. If there is a need to carry that much extra ammunition there are excellent cross shoulder bandoleers available, and they won’t get in the way of using the weapon.
A home defense shotgun does not need to be fancy, just dependable and suited to the job. Once the ‘riot gun’ is put together or bought, one more thing needs to happen and that is practice. Like any other tool, a shotgun won’t use itself. Practice is demanded, just as with any other weapon for self defense. Range time getting used to the recoil, noise, reloading, and aiming of the shotgun is central to its effective use. Even if it’s just a box of shells a month, the practice needs to happen.
Converting this shotgun from faithful hunter to reliable defender cost less than $140. Considering the return on investment, it might be the best way possible to spend money on home security. Its value won’t go down, and in the event it must be used every penny will be well spent.
In upcoming pieces we'll gut some shotgun shells and look closely at what is found, and discover how they perform on various targets. We'll also look at some simple drills for using a shotgun defensively.