Pick ’em

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on the whys and hows of patterning a defensive shotgun and in the comments on that post I got a request for an opinion piece. So in the interest of giving the reader what they want, here goes.

Among the followers of this blog are the good folks over at Nevada Carry, which is the preeminent source for what can and cannot be done with firearms here in the Silver State. The team running that group is top notch, they know what they are talking about and I highly recommend their page and content, particularly so in the days ahead when the next session of the Legislature begins in February 2021.

The request I received from Nevada Carry was straight forward and to the point…

I’d be more interested on your thoughts of shotgun vs. AR-15.

One of the arguments that never seems to end where ever people get together to discuss the use of firearms for defensive purposes is exactly that question above. Perhaps as much as “which pistol caliber is best”, it has been beaten into the ground with regularity in every forum and social media page on topic. The good news is that, through the work of very dedicated researchers like Evan Marshall, Ed Sanow, Massad Ayoob and, more recently, Greg Ellifritz of Active Response Training, we have largely settled the argument over pistol calibers. No matter the ammunition used, they largely suck as fight stoppers unless the person firing puts their shots to the proper location on target.

Shot placement more important than caliber? Who’d have thought.

The work of Ellifritz, and conventional wisdom going back a century and a half in military and law enforcement circles, have shown conclusively that the best tool to stop a gun fight is a long gun; a rifle or a shotgun. In our modern age the two preeminent types are the AR-15 and the 12 gauge pump or, to a lesser degree, semi-auto shotgun. Which one you choose depends first, and a lot, on where you call home.

The AR-15 and it’s derivatives are arguably the best rifle platform currently available anywhere in the world for defensive purposes. I own several, and have had several others in my time. I can keep my #1 carbine, shown and described below, on a man sized target pretty reliably out to 300 yards But none of them are what I would pick first for a long gun to use within the ten yards, or more likely significantly less, inside my home. That envelope is where the shotgun is king, and it’s why I reach for one.

I live in the burbs, for lack of a better description. A fairly modest 2500 square foot, two story home with a largely open floor plan downstairs, on a 9000 square foot lot at the fringe of a town of 60,000 is my castle and domain. It is what I will defend in the unlikely event that I have to. If I lived on a larger parcel of land, say a few acres, or more, and in a rural setting then I would have a different set of circumstances to consider. But I don’t.

Having done a good deal of planning I can tell you that I have measured distances within my home and I find that the longest shot I would possibly have to make indoors is about 40 feet, just over 13 yards. Given the significant mechanical offset of a red dot over the bore of an AR-15, and having to turn the optic on, flip the caps open and all the other things I would have to do after having been awakened out of sound sleep with my heart pounding and adrenaline pumping, I find a good deal of comfort in the simplicity of the shotgun. But let’s get down to cases.

The first, and biggest knock on the shotgun is that it is too long and unwieldy to use indoors. Taking a look at this photo we can see that things are not always as they seem. The AR at top is my #1, a 14.5 inch barrel with a birdcage flash hider…. pretty handy at 33.25 inches over all with a Magpul fixed carbine stock and a 30 round magazine. The carbine below it has a 16 inch barrel, a much more common configuration in the average household and also with a Magpul fixed stock. Both of those carbines have lights mounted, and red dot optics.

The shotgun at the bottom is the Remington 870 Police model I keep for ready service at home. It currently sports an 18.5 inch barrel, Magpul SGA stock, Sure Fire 618 fore end with LED module installed. As shown it measures just under 38 inches over all, four inches and change longer than the AR at the op of the photo. I am awaiting a tax stamp on the gun and will be shortening the barrel to 14.5 inches, essentially even with the end of the 1 shot magazine extension that is mounted. Once that is done, the gun will be virtually the same length as that handy little AR. At nine rounds on the gun, five in the magazine and four spare on a receiver mounted side saddle, if I do have to defend myself in the middle of the night knowing I will be limited to the ammo I have on the gun, I am at a disadvantage, right?

Well, not so fast. Looking at the Ellifritz data shows I may not be as behind the 8 ball as some might think. The average number of rounds to incapacitation is lower for the shotgun than the rifle in his data, with greater accuracy and a 6% bulge on true one shot incapacitation over the rifle.

This is real world data, and it seems to give a slight edge to the shotgun.

The next knock on the shotgun is based on myth; that firing a blast down a hallway will clear a broad path of destruction and that there is a greater risk of pellets not hitting the target because of the size of the pattern. This, in my opinion and that of well regarded instructors on topic, is complete rubbish.

The ammunition I use is shown here and is just about the best there is anywhere for the purpose. Manufactured by Federal, with copper plated shot to minimize deformation and with their Flite Control wad, this ammunition consistently delivers fist sized, or slightly smaller groups from the 870P I keep ready… at 15 yards. In short, it is not going to clear a huge swath of death and carnage. It is not a super hot three inch magnum shell, and truthfully you likely don’t need that much pop in a defensive shotgun, the opinions of internet wags aside. Higher velocity actually makes shot patterns bigger, and we want the pattern relatively tight out of an open choked defensive gun. That load is capable of delivering pin point accuracy at any distance within the walls of my home from my gun, proving out something the great Clint Smith says… “a shotgun is a rifle inside your house”.

Even with more conventional buckshot loads at inside the house distances the pattern of shot is almost certainly going to be very small. If you are hunkered down in your bedroom, using the bed for concealment as you talk to 911 while covering the bedroom door, it is important to realize that from your bed to the door, the pattern is likely not going to be any larger than the plate over the light switch next to that door. This, also, utterly disproves the novice opinion that if you just fire a blast you’re bound to hit something. You have to aim, and you have to be able to see your target hence why a light is so important on any defensive long gun and why ghost ring sights or oversized fluorescent beads are so often used on the defensive shotgun.

So then we get back to the oft repeated notion that a single rifle round is a more effective than any load of buckshot. The Ellifritz data arguably says otherwise, and I have long maintained that a properly loaded shotgun is the most powerful tool that the average, non-military, person can bring to bear in a lethal force encounter. That opinion is often scoffed at, on the web and in social media groups on topic, by people with little to no experience on the shotgun. To that, I give you this video. Fair warning…. if seeing people get shot in the real world makes you uncomfortable, don’t watch it.

A 20 inch barreled pump shotgun at a distance of 50 feet, maybe a bit more. A man, armed with a gun, who forced the officer to take action. One shot of reduced recoil, pattern controlled, buckshot placed center mass and down he went. The man did not survive. No shoot through and all pellets on target. In the unlikely event you have to fire on a bad guy ten or twelve feet away who is coming through your bedroom door do you think there is a good chance of a similar outcome with the same shot placement?

Now that we have established how powerful and precise a shotgun can be, let’s look at some other common misconceptions. Chief among these is that shotguns have too much recoil. Another is that the shotgun has a complicated manual of arms and is a pain in the butt to reload. I would submit that both of those can be solved with training and some regular practice.

As I noted in my AAR on Sym-Tac Consulting’s two day course that I took last year, the recoil impulse can be largely mitigated using Rob Haught’s push pull technique. This involves simultaneously applying positive rearward force with the firing hand and similar forward force with the support hand. That is Rob in the photo above demonstrating not only push pull, but also the short stocking technique he teaches. That is an 18 inch barreled gun and he has made it functionally a few inches shorter by laying the stock across his bicep. It can be fired with decent accuracy from that position with some practice and using the push pull technique. While reduced recoil ammunition can also mitigate a lot of the impulse, I have comfortably fired very stout magnum loads with the gun properly shouldered using the push pull method with no pain and with very fast follow up shots. You can too.

As to reloading, sure it is a lot easier to stick a fresh magazine in a carbine. But again, let’s think in terms of the fight generally isn’t going to last long enough for you to need to reload at all, but it is a very good thing to know how when the situation calls for it. Reloading two or four shells at a time, as is often seen in competition, is a great skill to have and I recently read one very opinionated post that held if you can’t execute such a reload in a fight, then you have no business using a shotgun. This, again, is rubbish in my opinion.

First off, when your heart is pounding and your adrenaline is dumping good luck with the high level motor skills involved in multi loading a tube fed shotgun. Add to that the idea that bad guys in the real world will very often try to find the fastest way out of Dodge if you open fire on them, which is not a bad thing. A recent case caught on a Ring doorbell camera here in my town showed three bad hombres, armed with pistols, who broke through the front door of a home in broad daylight. The homeowner was on his game and immediately took the first guy through the door under fire. The video showed that all three morphed immediately into world class sprinters and they couldn’t wait to get out of the victim’s house.

The best practice with a shotgun is that if you fire, because of the limited amount of ammunition on board, you should top off the gun when ever the opportunity presents itself. This is why one of the drills that should be practiced faithfully is “shoot one, load one, shoot one”, which is exactly as the name implies. Once you get in the mindset of keeping the gun topped off you find that a lot of the concerns about not having 30 rounds in a handy magazine melt away. Once trained, firing a couple of basic drills once a month with bulk pack target bird shot loads will keep the shooter proficient. If you shoot more, you’ll become even more proficient.

So between the properly loaded defensive shotgun and the AR-15, which is truly best? The short answer is they both are. Both can be devastatingly effective. At close distances of twelve yards or less, such as within the confines of a home, it is my opinion that is the domain of the shotgun. If you are guarding a homestead on some acreage a rifle makes more sense, although with modern pattern controlled buckshot the gun’s performance envelope can open up to 45 or even 50 yards. With slugs and a good set of sights the lowly shotgun can reach out reliably to a 100 yards or more.

Choosing defensive tools is a personal decision. Each individual has to make that decision based an an assessment of their needs, their situation and surroundings, and their ability. It’s up to you to make that analysis and decide what to pick… be it pistol or revolver, rifle or shotgun. Which ever you pick, put in the effort to make yourself the best you can be on that type. There are a number of first class teachers around the country who can help you build the necessary skill set.

And if you find yourself in or around Northern Nevada, look me up and I’d be happy to introduce you to the Gospel of the Gauge.

10 thoughts on “Pick ’em

  1. Another great article, thanks again.
    As to the purported “low ammo” deficiency of the shotgun, I’ve taken to counting projectiles and not rounds when comparing to other platforms. Thus, an 8 pellet, 4 round shotgun can loose 32 “projectiles” within your fill in the blank sized home. Now how’s that 30 round rifle compare, assuming you’re not in a state that limits mag capacity like California? The greater projectile capacity of the shotgun over the rifle just gets better from there if you can carry more rounds or have 1 more 00 buckshot in each round.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A very cogent point Tim. In those states that limit magazine capacity to 15 or less, or which have ridiculous restrictions on semi auto carbines that make them difficult, at best, to reload in a fight the tube fed ‘tactical claymore’ makes even more sense. Sending better than an ounce of lead as eight or nine, typically, .33 caliber projectiles that make nasty, deep penetrating, rat hole wounds in all possible directions once inside the body has a great deal of efficacy in that arena.


  2. Thanks for the thoughts!

    Very nice on finding the comparison between rifles and shotguns. I think that the transition away from shotguns for home defense has been that semi-auto rifle technology reached the point where using one for home defense became more viable; not that the shotgun became obsolescent. Even outside the house, a shotgun is going to do the job within 50 yards (and one is not likely engaging in self-defense shoot beyond that).

    I appreciate the perspective of buckshot. I was brought up in the school of “buckshot bad” because of modern So-Cal considerations with missed shots; not a consideration for me at home. With the right sights (and aim), a shotgun will be effective at neighborhood distance. One deputy I worked with setup his home shotgun with “buckshot for indoors and slugs in case they get outside,” though your mileage may vary.


  3. Well thought out article. The shotgun has significant advantages indoors and at close ranges. Even heavy birdshot (#2 or larger) at indoor ranges is likely to settle someone’s hash quickly. My go-to shotgun is a Remington 870 20-gauge and I recently added a 20 GA sidesaddle shell holder to it. Indoors with #2 or #3 buckshot I’m sure the recipient won’t be able to tell it wasn’t a 12-bore.

    For home defense with the 5.56mm, I prefer to use M193 55 grain or 55 grain JHP or OTM simply because they seem to have better terminal effects than the 62 grain M855 ammo. But the shotgun is still a favorite, as I have nothing against my neighbors. In the 12-bore it’s two rounds of #1 Buck followed by #00 if it becomes necessary.


  4. Pingback: About that buck shot… | The View From Out West

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