Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Shotgun ammunition for home defense... a few thoughts

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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.)

9 comments:

Old NFO said...

One other point... Take different rounds from different manufacturers and pattern them until you find the one that works best in your weapon. I've tried Federal, Remington and Estate and as it turns out in my Mossberg likes Estate best, giving me an average 4-5 inch pattern at 7 yards.

Carteach0 said...

As always Sir, a thoughtful comment and a welcome one. Good point.

Old NFO said...

Also known as the voice of experience... sigh... :-)

drjim said...

Patterning is one of the things they taught us in the Tactical Shotgun courses I've taken. My 870 seems to like about everything, at least at distances under 5 yds or so, but shows a preference for either Federal or Remington at longer ranges. It also does very well with Wolf ammo, but man, does that stuff kick!

Arthur said...

00 Buck also seems to be the most readily available on store shelves. Maybe not such a big deal now that you can get anything delivered to your home in a couple of days, but not a bad thing either.

Kathy Shaidle said...

But I can't find 00 buck for a 20 guage!

Mad Saint Jack said...

I tried some .410 slugs out of my Saiga (the gun Breda likes) and I could not get any thing that resembled a group (shooting at 15 yds IIRC).

I talked to someone at the range who wanted to try slugs out of a Taurus Judge and I had to point out to him that a .410 slugs are half the weight of a .45 colt round.

I don't see much use for them.

George said...

I vote '0' or '00', with a Sidesaddle with slugs attached, for a quick feed if more distance and accuracy is required.

Ryan said...

Birdshot can give lethal results at very close range as the spread is so close it hits like a metal fist. Also at close range a framing hammer is also an absolutely lethal weapon. Now when you get past 2 or 3 yards it starts to matter.

What exact kind of shot you should use is a serious matter of debate. I would contend that if it says 'buck' you are pretty much good to go and all further debate is at best academic.