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Should You Pick a Shotgun for Personal Protection?

While they have great terminal performance, is the shotgun really the best choice for protecting your family?

Should You Pick a Shotgun for Personal Protection?

Many consider the shotgun the ultimate personal defense weapon, but is it? Should you perhaps consider something else instead?

While it is impossible to deny the brute power and severe terminal damage caused by Buckshot or a Foster slug; the 12 gauge shotgun isn't the "perfect weapon" for defending a home as many are lead to believe. The traditional shotgun used or kept for home defense typically fall into three categories. Those include: pump action, semi-automatic or the aging "break action" shotgun (such as a single, double or triple barrel, see triple threat Chiappa). These firearms are typically fed from a tubular magazine holding between 5-8 shotgun shells of 2.75 inches in length. While some users prefer the larger payload of a 3-inch Magnum shell, it limits the capacity of tubular fed shotguns, and greatly increases recoil. Tube magazine fed shotguns are also slower to reload than firearms accepting magazines, such as semi-automatic handguns and modern sporting rifles/carbines.

Shotgun For Personal Protection
While shotguns do have impressive terminal performance, they also tend to be long, kick hard, hold a small number of shells and are slow to reload. Photo by Sean Utley

While magazine-fed shotguns are becoming ever more popular, making reload speeds substantially faster; these firearms are plagued by their own, unique set of potential issues. These types of firearms typically are supplied with 5-10 round detachable box magazines, with 12-25 round box magazines and drums available from aftermarket companies. While reload speeds are faster, the weight and bulk is increased often making for a large and cumbersome firearm for defending the home.

Shotgun For Personal Protection
12 gauge shells are readily available in a wide range of loads including various sizes of buckshot and different types of slugs.

As the owner of a detachable box magazine-fed, Vepr style firearm with a 12-inch barrel, even short-barreled 12 gauges suffer from this. With a shotgun, while the payload and terminal performance is excellent, a shotgun is reliant on the same basic wounding method as a handgun. What this means is, a shotgun fires its projectile or projectiles at relatively slow velocities. These velocities fall in line typically with that of a duty caliber handgun (1,100 to 1,250 feet per second for birdshot through 00 Buckshot). A singular projectile from a shotgun (take buckshot for instance) performs much like a handgun, more specifically, a Civil War era cap and ball revolver, as buckshot boasts a non-aerodynamic spherical shape.

Shotgun For Personal Protection
30 feet is a long shot in your average home, and the spread of this 12 gauge 00 buck Critical Defense load from Hornady is only 3.25 inches at this distance. You might as well have a rifle.

Due to this low velocity, secondary wounding with high velocity, spitzer-style rifle projectiles does not occur. This means, penetration to vital organs is a must for consistent or immediate incapacitation of threats. This is achieved through disruption of vital organs, or in the case of buckshot or slugs, the complete obliteration. This damage quickly drops blood pressure or damages the body to the point where it will cease to function. Terminal performance can and will drastically drop off with the use of light small diameter birdshot. Typical inexpensive birdshot loads will spread substantially as distance increases. With this spread, the dense "wad" of lead is quickly dispersed and the user is reliant on singular, small and soft lead projectiles with very limited penetration.


Shotgun For Personal Protection
A look at a 10% Ordnance gel block shot with a Winchester PDX-1 Defender Buck and Slug load. This consists of a 1-ounce slug and three 00 buck pellets at 1,150 fps.

While shotguns are powerful, let’s view the anatomy of this power. The 12 gauge shotgun is likely the most popular shotgun for self-defense and hunting. The performance comes from a large payload of smaller objects or a singular large object. These smaller objects are typically split into two categories known as shot and buckshot; while the singular projectiles are known as slugs. Typically fired from 1,100 to 1,500 feet per second, this load contacts its target in singular form, massive amounts of energy are deposited, the key here is, how quickly the energy is dispersed. Small shot will disperse its payload of energy quickly, typically resulting in a much shallower wound. As stated already, the terminal effectiveness is much like a handgun or "like a musket" (quote from Firearms News Magazine Senior Field Editor David Fortier). They all rely on destruction of tissue and vital organs. Both Buckshot and slugs typically perform very well in regards to terminal performance at the distances most self-defense shootings occur.


Shotgun For Personal Protection
The results in 10% Ordnance gel from a .223 Rem 62 grain Fusion expanding bullet fired from a 16-inch AR-15. Terminal performance is impressive, without the recoil of the 12 gauge. Courtesy Black Hills Ammunition

There is much more though to selecting a firearm for personal protection than just impressive terminal performance. When it comes to most 12 gauge shotguns, their recoil mitigation, magazine capacity and speed for follow-up shots are typically poor. Couple this with the tight pattern of many flight-controlled Buckshot offerings from various companies, the amount of penetration, and possibility of over-penetration through walls and other light barriers. For these reasons, a semi-automatic carbine or rifle, utilizing an intermediate power rifle cartridge is a superior firearm for home defense.

Shotgun For Personal Protection
When it comes down to it, whether you decide on a rifle, handgun or shotgun for personal protection is up to no one but you. You decide what is best for your particular needs, and then just practice with it.

Intermediate power rifle cartridges, such as the 5.56x45mm, 5.45x39mm, 300 AAC Blackout and 7.62x39mm all have distinct advantages over the shotgun. A user can tailor their loadout in their carbine to fit roughly any and all defensive situations. And they can even do it while limiting over-penetration through simple load selection. Popular cartridges fall under Tactical Urban lines from popular premium ammunition manufacturers. This includes Hornady's TAP Urban, using a 55 to 60-grain V-Max and Federals TRU 223, which uses the Sierra GameKing 55-grain Hollow Point Boat-Tail. All these cartridges provide exceptional accuracy, low recoil, fast follow up shots, minimal over penetration and massive wound tracts.

While it may lack the mass and brute, raw terminal performance of a 12 gauge load, intermediate rifle cartridges have excellent terminal performance (as it is a rifle cartridge, but of intermediate power) while being lighter, easier to control and faster handling than detachable box magazine-fed shotguns. Modern Sporting Rifles, such as an AR-15 carbine, also provide faster follow-up shots, higher magazine capacity and lower chances of over-penetration (see FBI studies of over-penetration on intermediate power rifle cartridges), making it, in my opinion, a better choice overall.

If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com




About the Author:

Michelle Hamilton has a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice/Homeland Security, is a serious student of wound ballistics, military history, small arms design and manufacturing and is a competitive shooter.

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