Written by Phil Erickson
If you’re considering getting a shotgun for self-defense, it will help you narrow your search if you think about where you plan to need or deploy it. Essentially, you’ll be looking for what police and the military have used for generations. But, police need a shotgun that is effective out to 25 or more yards, because of the wide variety of situations they need to be prepared for. Civilians may not need that, partly because we civilians are not required to go out and confront a threat. Unlike the police, we can (and should whenever possible) retreat and run away from a threat. You may at times (like on a highway trip) want a shotgun and/or rifle in the trunk of the car, as backup to your pistol. But mostly, your need for a self-defense shotgun (commonly referred to as a tactical or riot shotgun) would be in your home and/or place of business. Here, distances will be short, probably 30 feet or less. So your choice might be a short, handy, lightweight gun. But what options does that leave you to consider? The most important consideration is 100% reliability, which means a good-quality, name-brand gun. Other considerations will be gauge, ammunition, barrel length, action type, stock, and add-ons.
Let’s examine these one by one. This is from a civilian perspective, with input from police. As you examine these different elements of what you need, you might find you want to speak with experts on the subject, by going to your local police department, and asking to talk with their firearms instructor(s) and/or SWAT team members. Just like with picking the best self-defense ammo, these are the people in your community who use and test these tools, and so are most knowledgeable on the subject.
Reliability: The most reliable shotgun is the pump. This is because a defective shell can quickly be physically slammed out of the chamber, not relying on a metered gas system to eject it, and not relying on your remembering how to reach over and operate the bolt handle if a semi-auto hiccups. Generations of experience by police and the military have resulted in the Remington 870 and the Mossberg 500 models being most popular. Some police are moving to semi-auto tactical shotguns. Modern semi-autos by Benelli, Remington, Mossberg and Winchester are nearly 100% reliable, with the only hiccups being caused by damaged shells, such as shells that have been dented or have a factory deformity. All modern shotgun ammo has plastic hulls, eliminating the old problem of paper shells swelling if they got wet and so jamming up a gun. So if you examine every shell before use, a modern semi-auto can be considered as reliable as a pump.
Gauge:The gauge of a shotgun, the inside diameter of the barrel, is more important in a hunting or clay-bird gun than in a civilian tactical shotgun. For bird or small-game hunting the main need is lots of moderate-sized pellets (also called shot, or BB’s) at high velocity. For shooting clay birds the main need is a large number of pellets in the shell, with low recoil. For a civilian tactical shotgun, the main need is your being able to quickly and effectively discharge a disabling or killing shot to a human or animal. Here, a load of buckshot or a slug from either a 12-GA or a 20-GA shotgun will totally disable an adversary at the distances we are discussing. It’s a common misconception that a shotgun’s pellets disperse quickly, and so cover a very wide pattern. Not true. Within the length of your home, buckshot pellets will disperse just a matter of inches. This means that accurate aiming when shooting buckshot, unless you are mere feet away from the threat, is as important as when shooting a shotgun slug, or when shooting a rifle or pistol. It’s not a “scattergun” inside the home.
So if the 12-GA and 20-GA are relatively comparable in a home-defense shotgun, which to choose? The main advantage of a 12-GA is more power, and much greater available ammo selection. The issue of relative power is not particularly important, since a load of buckshot or a slug from either gauge has sufficient close-range power to kill animals larger than humans. The main advantage of a 20-GA gun is its smaller, handier sized and lighter weight.
Ammunition: As mentioned above, your local police firearms instructors would know what tactical ammo is best. Most police will load their riot guns with buckshot for close-range encounters, and will have slugs available if needed for longer-range shots. A friend may suggest you use birdshot for a self-defense shotgun. Bad advice. While the total weight of the ejecta in most shotgun shells is around one ounce, individual birdshot pellets have only a tiny, tiny amount of energy, and the per-pellet energy difference versus buckshot is huge. Stick with either slugs or buckshot. There are many different sizes of buckshot, though, so which is best? The answer for you may depend on availability. Since the standard police riot gun is in 12-GA, simple supply & demand has resulted in a huge array of 12-GA buckshot loads on the market, and relatively few 20-GA buckshot loads. Buckshot comes in about 8 sizes, with corresponding diameters of individual pellets varying from .24” (about 1/4” diameter # 4 buck, smallest of the buckshot) to .36” (about 1/3” diameter 000 buck, called triple-aught, the largest.) Common designation of buckshot is 000 (biggest,) 00, 0, SSG, 1 buck, 2 buck, 3 buck, 4 buck (smallest.) The most common is “double-aught,” designated 00 and measuring .33” in diameter, and all ammo makers who make buckshot provide this size in 12-GA. This size pellet has sufficient per-pellet diameter and energy that any individual pellet can potentially disable an attacker. It is universally used by police, but 00 is not readily available in 20-GA, because its diameter makes it impractical in the smaller-diameter shell. The largest size buckshot available in 20-GA is # 3 buck (although slightly-larger #2 buck is available in a longer 3” 20-GA shell, made by Federal.) Keep in mind that we are talking about buckshot here, not birdshot. If you go to buy buckshot shells, be sure the box says “buckshot.” For instance, #3 birdshot is .140” in diameter, but #3 buckshot is .25” diameter, with much, much more per-pellet energy. So if you find a 20-GA self-defense gun that you want, is #3 buckshot powerful enough? Absolutely. Any 12-GA or 20-GA shell with buckshot of #3 buck or larger size (3, 2, 1, 0, 00) is perfectly suitable for self-defense.
How about slugs? A shotgun slug is very powerful due to its weight and momentum. Slugs have been preferred for longer ranges because they are accurate enough to be shot like a rifle up to 50 or more yards, where buckshot’s pattern spread is great enough that common loadings lose their effectiveness at these distances. At close distances buckshot can be preferable, however, since pellet dispersion in the target, though not large, can be relied upon to possibly give the defender a better chance of a lethal hit by one of the pellets. Reduced-recoil buckshot, often designated “low recoil,” is preferred, because it is more pleasant to practice with but gives up practically nothing in effectiveness.
Barrel length: The most common barrel length in a tactical self-defense shotgun is 18-20” with 18” being the favored length. This shorter length makes it easier to maneuver in tight spaces (not “easy,” but “easier.”) Some “youth” model 20-GA shotguns have a 21” barrel, to make them multi-purpose, and this length works fine for a self-defense shotgun. In fact, a “youth” 20-GA shotgun with a 21” barrel could be considered ideal for inside-the-home defense.
Stock: The most common stock on self-defense shotguns is the common “field” stock, with a comb that slopes down from the front to the rear (see the discussion on shotgun combs in the “getting started” section.) A sloping comb makes the gun “universal,” in that supposedly anyone can bring her/his face down onto the comb, then by sliding the face back or forward, can move the eye (the eye is the rear sight on a shotgun) up or down & so obtain a proper sighting picture, looking straight down the rib on top of the barrel to see the bead at the end. Since it is a compromise in order to be “universal,” it is perfect for no one. But it is highly practical, and generally works fine. The main problem with a sloping comb on a tactical shotgun is if the recoil pad is improperly angled to fit your shoulder. Recoil pads on shotguns are almost always angled in at the bottom, so the rear surface is not at a perfect 90-degree angle to the top of the barrel’s rib or top surface, but rather the bottom is further forward than the top. The bottom of the recoil pad is called its “toe,” so this condition is called “toe-in.” This under-90-degree rear-surface angle of the pad versus the barrel’s top, called the “pitch,” is intended to make the stock fit more people. Again as with the comb, universal means it fits no one perfectly. Perfect pitch for you will mean that when wearing a light T-shirt, when you hold the shotgun out at arm’s length, then pull it straight in to your shoulder, the entire surface of your shoulder will feel it’s being touched by the pad at the same time. If you don’t have a perfect fit here, when you shoot the gun you might find the barrel’s muzzle recoiling up instead of back, the result of which is the comb smacking your cheek in what is commonly called cheek-slap. Aptly named, because it feels like someone vigorously slapped your face. This slap is accentuated by a rear-sloping comb. If this slap happens to you, don’t despair or sell the gun. Do two things: first, check that the length of the stock is correct for you (see the “getting started section for proper buttstock length;) second, when length is correct, loosen the screws holding the recoil pad in place and slip pieces of cardboard under either the top or bottom edges, then keep experimenting until the fit is correct for you. Some people find the cheek slap only goes away when the rear surface of the pad is at a 90-degree angle to the top of the barrel. Your own individual shoulder-muscles and anatomy (your “shoulder pocket,”) will determine correct stock pitch for you. Finally, when all is well, look at the “toe” of your recoil pad. This is the bottom tip or edge of the pad. A broad and rounded toe will be more comfortable than a narrow or pointed toe. If yours is narrow or pointed, have a friend with a grinding wheel grind off the pointed end, giving it a broad, gently-rounded profile.
Add-ons: The tactical shotgun should be as simple as possible, while still providing you with the stand-alone ability to protect your life in all conditions. It must have a light of some kind mounted if you expect to ever need it in a darkened environment (virtually a necessity.) A pistol can be fired one-handed with a flashlight in the other hand, but this is impossible with a shotgun or rifle. A shotgun should carry as much and as varied types of ammunition as you anticipate needing. Many tactical shotguns have an extended magazine tube mounted under the barrel, to add 2-4 extra rounds. This is very practical, but it does make the gun more muzzle-heavy, and slightly more cumbersome. Also very common is a “side saddle,” which mounts additional shells on the side of the receiver. Many police officers use this as a way to have slug ammo readily available. Another very common way of carrying extra ammo is in an inexpensive 5-round slip-on elasticized nylon buttstock carrier, which simply slips on over the buttstock. Finally Speedfeed, a division of Safariland, makes stocks with spring-loaded internal slots on both sides for holding spare ammo at the ready. These come with either an AR-15 rifle-type pistol-grip buttstock, or a standard shotgun buttstock. The pistol-grip type Speedfeed has been offered on some Remington tactical shotguns. It greatly helps the operator pull the gun tightly into the shoulder, reducing felt recoil and fatigue.
Also available are skeleton-type folding and non-folding steel-rod constructed buttstocks. There is one other type of shotgun buttstock which is a pistol-grip only, eliminating the stock. It cannot be pulled against the shoulder, of course, and is impractical for anyone for whom absolute minimum length is not critical. It is uncomfortable to fire, but could be useful for hiding a shotgun under an overcoat.
Should the tactical shotgun have a laser attached? No. A laser is useful for accurately hitting something but if relied on in the dark without a light, could result in killing an innocent family member or neighbor. If you have a light, you have no use for a laser, and if you have no light, you cannot in conscience use a laser to shoot someone you can’t see & so haven’t identified. Note that a weapon light such as the Streamlight TLR-2 or Surefire X400 with an integral laser will serve you well, if you wish to have a laser on the gun.
Summary: A self-defense shotgun could be any shotgun you have. It can be a duck gun or a skeet gun. A “tactical” shotgun is one that has been specifically designed & configured to best help you handle an unknown defensive tactical need. It is an awesome defensive tool. Properly loaded, it has few equals and is capable of killing a very big bear. But if someone tells you a pump shotgun is especially valuable because the clunking sound of cocking it will scare away an intruder, ignore that person. If you are faced with having to defend your life, you will not be playing any intimidation games, you will (or should be) quietly concentrating on when to shoot, where to shoot, always being aware of your target and what is beyond. Prepare yourself so you can do what must be done.