The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

Shotguns for self-defense during a crisis (like maybe COVID-19)

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If there is one firearm which is an enigma, it's the shotgun. There is a lot of misinformation touting its superiority and an equal amount extolling its weaknesses. However, in a situation like the current pandemic, the right shotgun may be good enough for most shooters if the situation grows into civil unrest and maybe even subsistence hunting.

Pros and cons of the shotgun

On the plus side of the shotgun, they're one of the easiest firearms to come by. As a long gun, the minimum age to purchase is 18 in most states. Of all the ammunition types, it is the easiest to find and shotguns available in 12-gauge or 20-gauge meet our criteria for an effective defensive firearm. Lastly, they are probably the most affordable class of defensive firearm out there. You can buy three Mossberg 500 pump shotguns for the price of one mid-tier AR15, for example.

The scattergun does have its disadvantages. Recoil can be downright brutal in 12-gauge for new shooters. For a long gun, you are very limited on effective range and in some cases can do better with an accurate pistol.

It may be a versatile shooting platform and in an off the grid survival scenario a hunter with a pump-action 12-gauge and 2 barrels with the right chokes has the ability to take any animal in North America from hummingbirds to grizzly bears. However, this mission is different. For home defense you want an 18- to 21-inch barrel, a good set of sights or an optic and a stock that is comfortable for you as a shooter. A full-length magazine tube is ideal and if it was originally a hunting gun, you will want to remove the plug that stops the magazine at two rounds.

RECOIL's Tom Marshall and a 20-gauge shotgun


Coming from the perspective of a rifle or pistol background you probably know the differences between calibers. Obviously 7.62 is a bigger caliber than 5.56 and if you can do the metric conversion, 45 ACP is bigger than 9mm. With shotguns it's the opposite.

The gauge measurement came out at a time when black powder ruled the day. Most shotguns were initially developed in England and they used a similar measurement to how they built cannons.

Mini combat cannon

For example, a 16-pound cannon fired a ball that weighed 16 pounds. A cannonball of that size was the same bore diameter of the cannon. When it came to shotguns, the bore diameter was determined by how many spherical balls of lead would fit the diameter of the barrel. So a 16-gauge shotgun’s bore diameter fit 16 completely round balls that weighed 1-ounce each. A 12-gauge fit 12 lead balls that weighed 1 1/3 ounces each. So the smaller number in the gauge meant a bigger payload of lead. The one oddball in the mix is the .410 bore and if converted to the gauge system it would be approximately 67-gauge.

The next thing you may notice on a shotgun is the length of the shell. 12-gauge ammunition is offered in 2 ¾-inch, 3-inch and 3½-inch. This measurement represents the length of a fired shell which will be longer than the shell before it is fired. This is about ½-inch in difference as most unfired 2 ¾-inch 12-gauge rounds measure 2 ½-inch or 2 5/8-inch when they are unfired.

Check the barrel or the manual that came with the shotgun for the proper shell length. You can safely fire shorter length shells such as 2 ¾-inch out of a barrel rated for 3-inch. In an extreme situation you can fire a 3-inch shell through a 2 ¾-inch rated shotgun. On most newer shotguns manufactured in the past 30 years it will not cause a catastrophic failure but will cause excessive wear on the gun. Do not attempt this with an older shotgun, though as the metallurgy of the barrel or receiver will probably not be up to the task.

Shot size

This can get a little confusing for someone new to shotguns or firearms in general. However, if you understand how we explained the gauges, it will make a bit more sense.

When it comes to pellets in the shotgun shell, the bigger the number reflects a smaller projectile size. So #9 shot means that the pellets are 0.08-inch or 2.03 mm in diameter. A #8 shot size reflects a 0.09-inch pellet diameter or a 2.29 mm diameter pellet and as the shot size gets smaller, the diameter of the pellets increases by 0.01-inch until you get to #1 shot which is 0.16-inch in diameter or 4.06 mm. The next jump is the BB load which contains pellets that are 0.18-inch in diameter or about the size of what you load in your BB gun at .177.A BBB load has pellets at 0.19-inch.

These rounds are all suitable for birds and small game and there are some specialized duplex loads using combinations of these pellets. Most of these rounds are identified by the particular animal they are intended for and may be marked on the box by name (Turkey, pheasant, quail) or depict an animal such as a rabbit or fox.

The author has a general rule for firearms, if it can humanely take a deer or other large animal, it can be used to stop a person intending to do you harm. So do not consider the aforementioned loads in your personal protection plan. Leave that for target, skeet, trap or bird and small game hunting needs.

Our next look is at Buckshot. Number 4 Buckshot is the bare minimum for personal defense and the pellets in this payload measure 0.24-inch in diameter, or 6.1 mm. Number 3 Buckshot measures 0.25-inch or 6.35 mm; number 2 pellets are 0.27-inch or 6.86 mm and number 1 comes in at 0.3-inch or 7.62 mm. Our experienced rifle shooters may recognize that the individual projectiles are corresponding to big game rifle calibers by this point.

The Benelli M4 is one of the few shotguns whose receiver is long enough to accommodate a massive eight-shell shotshell carrier.

As we go lower than # 1 we are in the oughts.  0 Buckshot uses 0.32-inch diameter pellets, 00 Buckshot is composed of 0.33-inch diameter pellets and the 000 Buckshot shell holds pellets 0.36-inch or 9.14 mm in diameter.

The exact number of pellets in each shell is based on the load. Shorter shells may contain less pellets than the longer ones, some longer shells may contain the same number of pellets as a shorter shell because the round was designed for longer range or greater velocity against high flying birds. If the round is for waterfowl, it may be loaded with steel shot instead of lead and have more pellets because of the difference in weight and density. This is a bit beyond our scope for personal defense, but we felt it worth mentioning to a new shotgun shooter based on the current ammunition supply during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A typical 12-gauge, 2 ¾-inch 00 Buckshot round contains 8 pellets that are 0.33-inch in diameter. A 3-inch  shell holds 12, but be forewarned that the 3-inch shell is not a pleasant load to shoot. It may take a deer or make short work of a bad guy at close range, but the follow-up shot will be slower as you recover. Those pellets are hurtling downrange at 1300 feet per second.

Apart from shot, there is an option for a solid projectile in the shotgun referred to as a slug. It is like firing a large rifle caliber from the shotgun. Most slugs are sold as rifled slugs and the exterior of the projectile often has crude rifling to aid in stabilization. They typically shoot 3-inch groups at 50 yards, giving you an MOA of 6. There are slugs referred to as sabot slugs that are intended for use on fully rifled barrels. These slugs are encapsulated by a plastic sabot which engages the lands and grooves of the rifled shotgun barrel for a more accurate shot, the slug leaves the sabot at the muzzle of the barrel and is typically a smaller diameter than the rifled slug. These are intended for use in locales where big game hunting is limited to shotguns and they do not perform well for defensive situations, especially in a smooth bore barrel.

What the shotgun is not

Myths abound about the shotgun. We've all heard a certain politician advocating that people arm themselves with one and just shoot rounds up in the air to scare off a prowler. Or maybe the racking of a pump-action will make a home invader quiver with fear. These are irresponsible and will give many people a false sense of security. Maybe the noise of the action opening and closing will cause a teenager who wandered into your home to turn tail and run, but shooting rounds in the air may kill or injure someone else far away. Do not rely on techniques such as these, no matter how many times you have heard them or seen them in movies or on television.

By the same token, we have all seen movies where a dude shoots someone with a shotgun and the poor victim goes flying through the air. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of physics knows that for every action, there is an equal and opposite… yeah it's BS.

Another fine myth is that “You don’t need to aim a shotgun, just point and shoot.” This may be based on the small size of the factory bead sight found on most shotguns and the tendency for bird hunters and clay shooters to whip the barrel as they shoot to allow the shot to collide with the bird. The bead sight is there for a reason and can be used efficiently with some training or replaced by rifle sights, or even a low power scope or red dot sight if you prefer. The bottom line is that you are putting an ounce or more of lead downrange. You want to make sure it hits whatever you are shooting at.


A shotgun choke is designed to shape your shot patterns. This improves range and accuracy. Most shotguns sold for personal defense are unrestricted and are referred to as cylinder bore. This limits your effective pattern and accuracy to about 30 yards. Meaning that at 40 yards, you might have 40% of your payload inside a 30-inch target.

Many shotguns have barrels that will accept interchangeable chokes to allow the shooter a variety of options.

The first step up in the choke is improved cylinder which may get 50% of your pellets into that target. Tighter than that is a modified choke which will get 60% of the pellets in that pattern. A full choke is perhaps the tightest and at 40 yards will get as much as 75% of the pellets on that same target at that range and the shot will hold together tighter at longer ranges.

Another choke to consider is the rifled choke which adds some rifling to the end of your barrel in order to stabilize a slug, instead of shot.

So what's the best gauge to choose in a pandemic?

Whether you are buying a new one or dusting off an old one, this will vary from shooter to shooter. If we were talking about hunting shotguns there is the famous quote from outdoor writer from Robert Ruark from his essay about quail hunting:

“The gauge of the gun is an index to the ability of the [shooter]. If it is a 12-gauge, he is so-so. If it is 16, he is pretty good. If it is a 20-gauge he is excellent, and if it is .410 he is bragging.”

There is a lot of good advice in there but it is strictly about bird hunting or clay shooting. For defensive purposes we want to look at the 12-gauge, primarily and maybe 20-gauge for the recoil sensitive.

The 12-gauge by far gives the most options. A basic 18-inch barreled cylinder bore pump shotgun has the range of versatility to take anything from quail to a bear as well as defend the home from any two-legged predators. A second longer barrel with a choke system in place expands this potential greatly for a variety of sporting and hunting situations.

Shotguns in 10-gauge are excellent for long range hunting of birds like swan, geese and turkey, but ammunition options are expensive and extremely limited. The 16-gauge might seem like an ideal compromise between 12-gauge and 20-gauge, but ammunition selection is pretty much limited to waterfowl and upland game.

For the recoil sensitive, 20-gauge may make a good compromise since there are plenty of options that suit the requirements of a defensive and hunting arm.

Ideally we recommend the pump shotgun, particularly the Remington 870 or Mossberg 590/500 series. Benelli also offers a very affordable pump gun in the Nova family that come with some great options from the factory.

With regard to semiauto shotguns, we recommend the Benelli and Berettas as well as the Remington offerings. Some of these shotguns can be sensitive to certain ammunition types, but for the most part the modern semiautomatic shotgun is as reliable as a manually operated pump. Be wary of those that feed from a detachable magazine. It is often the weakest link in this system. At the same time, shells with a low brass hull or lower powered, reduced recoil loads may cause functioning issues in semiautos.

If you are really late to the dance or limited financially, single-shot guns can get you by. Double barrels tend to be pricier unless you are looking at an older one or a cheaper import from Turkey or Eastern Europe.

Rigby Shotgun

A relatively recent class of firearm that can handle shotgun shells are the Shockwave or Tac-14 firearms from Mossberg and Remington, respectively. They are based on the old witness protection style of firearms used by the US Marshall Service before short barreled ARs came into their own. They are difficult to shoot well at first, but are better than so-called riot guns that come with a vertical pistol grip and no stock. These firearms capable of firing shotgun shells ship with a 14-inch barrel and cannot be equipped with a butt stock without filing an ATF Form 1 and paying the associated $200 tax.

About the .410

The .410 shotgun is popular, but remember the limitation on shot size. It is ideal for teaching young people how to shoot and as a sporting or bird gun. Buckshot (3 pellets) and slug rounds (about .40 caliber) are available but far from ideal for defensive use. We are not saying it is ineffective and certainly do not want to be on the receiving end of one, but there are far better options.

If it is your only option, it can be made to work and for self defense. There are a number of revolvers chambered in the .410 round, but they are not the best option beyond shooting snakes or rats. The rifled barrel does not allow the shot to spread properly and the cylinder jump of the 45 Colt round does not offer acceptable accuracy.

However, the good thing about these revolvers is they created a demand for self-defense ammunition which may be marginal when fired from a short barreled revolver but perform better in a longer smoothbore shotgun barrel.

The shotgun is one of the most familiar firearms types in existence. At one time every home in America had one handy. It put food on the table, protected hearth and home from the invader and was as useful as any other household tool for solving problems.

Just because they are limited on range and ammunition capacity does not make them obsolete to the modern shooter, especially in a time of crisis.

Continued Education

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