Renewed interest in firearms, and seemingly never ending federal government scandals, have sparked an unprecedented increase in gun ownership. A recent poll revealed that about 1/3 of the public believes that armed revolt against the federal government may be necessary, and the continuing purchase, by the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies of billions of rounds of ammunition, automatic weapons and armored vehicles remains essentially unexplained and unexplainable.
Those seeking a firearm for home defense have been subjected to the usual bad advice, ably assisted by Vice President Joe “Double Barreled Shotgun” Biden, whose advice to buy a double barreled shotgun—late 1800’s technology—and shoot it into the air, or blindly through doors, has, thankfully, been mostly discounted, probably because most people understand the utter lack of credibility of the source. But sadly, far too many misconceptions about shotguns and their capabilities seem never to die.
Common “wisdom” giddily asserts that shotguns are all-powerful death devices that need not be aimed. Merely point them in the general direction of a deadly threat, pull the trigger and everything before their muzzles will be swept away. Those that know a bit more sagely add that shotguns are highly flexible because they fire a variety of kinds of ammunition. Many are blithely recommending shotguns as the perfect firearm for those that have never owned or fired a gun, particularly women. While there is a little truth behind the various misconceptions this terrible advice embodies, reality, which could determine the difference between life and death, is quite different.
This video comically illustrates just how out of touch Mr. Biden is. Keep in mind that even these women can be taught to shoot shotguns without the consequences depicted here. In fact, I suspect that those filming these ladies either didn’t know proper techniques, or withheld them to film these mishaps at the expense of their female friends. It’s not possible to adequately explain what dangerous idiocy this represents. In addition, it’s not the way to treat women.
Professionals, such as SWAT teams and military special forces teams relegate shotguns to very specific duties such as destroying door hinges or locks with highly specialized, frangible ammunition. What do they use for close quarters battle—indoor close combat situations? Submachine guns and AR-15 type carbines with barrels of 16” or less. For many situations, handguns are also commonly employed. This is so because the closer the quarters, the more difficult it is to maneuver and employ long barreled firearms.
Shotguns are somewhat flexible in terms of ammunition, but less so than one might imagine. It’s true that there are a variety of types of ammunition suitable for hunting. The different cartridges hold varying amounts and sizes of lead or steel pellets. Shotguns work well for bird hunting because they can propel a great many pellets that have limited range and penetration. They provide a greater chance of downing a swiftly flying target while simultaneously limiting the damage to the meat. Obviously, the larger the number of pellets, the smaller they must be to fit into cartridge casings of the same size. Many very small pellets are used for hunting small birds, and fewer, but larger and heavier pellets are used for larger birds, or where greater range is required.
Effectiveness on human targets is another matter. Only ammunition such as 00 buckshot—which consists of nine .33 caliber round lead balls—is actually effective, but only so long as the pellets remain together in a unified shot column of about the same size as the bore of the barrel. This is not easy to do.
Keep in mind that shotguns are smoothbore weapons. They have no spiral grooves–rifling–cut or cast into their barrels to impart stabilizing spin to a single projectile. It is this stabilizing spin that gives rifle cartridges their inherent range and accuracy. A column of shot, however, has no such advantage. The moment it leaves the muzzle, it begins to spread and dramatically lose velocity. Round lead pellets are not nearly as aerodynamically efficient as rifle bullets. Upon being fired, any projectile begins to lose velocity, which equates to less effectiveness on the target. The greater the velocity loss, the less effective the projectiles will be.
When fired, shotgun pellets actually collide with and bounce off the interior walls of the barrel, and also off each other. This can be tempered to some degree by enclosing the shot in a plastic buffer made of much smaller pellets (it is combined with the shot, but is not illustrated below). When the shot leaves the barrel, imperfections in each pellet catch the atmosphere, imparting varying motions to each pellet, causing the shot column to spread apart. The degree of this spread depends on the length of the barrel, the ammunition, and a variety of related conditions, but generally, the farther the target, the greater the degree of spread and the greater the drop in velocity.
The photos that follow are the results of patterning tests I conducted on standard sized silhouette targets using a modified Remington 870 pump action shotgun. I had this particular weapon modified for me many years ago by Scattergun Technologies, a company now affiliated with Wilson Combat. It has an extended magazine, oversized safety button, ghost ring rifle sights, and 18” barrel and a variety of other enhancements. The ammunition used was Winchester Super X 00 buckshot. The aim point for all targets was the exact center of the large vital zone.
This target was engaged from 3 yards. The black circle at the left of the impact point represents the bore size of the shotgun. This is the size of the shot column of nine .33 caliber round lead pellets as they left the muzzle. Notice that even at the distance of only 9 feet, the shot column has already expanded to approximately twice its size at the muzzle. This would, obviously, produce a devastating wound, but only if carefully aimed. At this range, particles of unburned powder and the white plastic buffer material included to minimize damage to the projectiles are stuck in the face of the cardboard target, though they may not be clearly visible in this photo.
These targets were engaged at 7 and 15 yards respectively. At 7 yards, the 9 pellets are still relatively closely spaced, but notice that the pattern has spread substantially. The large hole to the right of the pattern was caused by the plastic wad, which is sitting at the base of the target. These plastic devices encapsule the shot, helping to protect it and maintain maximum accuracy. They do not have the mass to cause any real injury to a human being, but will penetrate cardboard and paper targets at close range. At longer ranges, they drop harmlessly to the ground long before they reach the target. At 15 yards, all 9 of the pellets are still on the target, though two have struck non-vital areas and the pattern is dramatically widening.
These targets were engaged at 25 and 35 yards respectively. Notice that only 8 of 9 pellets have struck the 25 yard target, and only two have struck in the vital zone. Only 7 of 9 pellets struck the 35 yard target, and again, only two struck the vital zone. At these distances, any rifle, even a .22LR, would easily produce highly accurate results. Even with a custom shotgun, the effectiveness of the most common buckshot loads becomes a matter of chance. A target engaged at 50 or more yards might be missed entirely, or produce a few non-debilitating wounds at best. And of course there is no way to know where any errant pellets might end up.
It’s important to understand that identical rounds fired from the same shotgun at the same range can produce substantially different patterns. Even at 7 yards I’ve seen patterns with several “flyers,” or pellets that nearly missed, or entirely missed the target. There are some specialized shotgun shells that do have enhanced accuracy, but they are expensive, and even they cannot overcome the laws of physics and the physical characteristics of shotgun design.
I have actually seen some instructors advocate using shotguns with enhanced ammunition to take close range shots at the heads of hostage takers using hostages as human shields. For all of the reasons I’ve listed here, that’s an extraordinarily bad idea. Even the most advanced buckshot rounds can easily experience flyers–errant pellets.
It’s important to realize that shotguns, like all other firearms, must be carefully and accurately aimed at any range. I’ve actually seen some people hoping to buy their first firearm say that they want a weapon they won’t really have to aim very much or practice with very much–or at all! Some, trying to be helpful, often suggest that shotguns will fit that particular bill. Such thinking is, to put it mildly, dangerous.
Anyone firing a firearm is absolutely responsible, legally and morally, for every bullet—or pellet—they fire. That’s why more and more police agencies are replacing their shotguns in their patrol vehicles with AR-15 pattern carbines. The smarter agencies allow their officers to carry their own weapons, or issue a carbine to each officer just as they issue handguns.
It should frighten citizens to learn that any officer pulling a shotgun from their cruiser has probably never fired that weapon before and has no idea exactly how it patterns with the ammunition in it, which might have been loaded by some other officer years ago! When they fire that weapon, they have only a general idea where those nine .33 caliber pellets are going. How far will the shot column travel as a unit? At which range will every pellet be likely to entirely miss a man-sized target? At which range will those pellets be unlikely to penetrate heavy winter clothing? They don’t have a clue.
This is so because while most police agencies require their officers to qualify with shotguns, they simply supply a few shotguns of the same model from the armory and require the firing of only a handful of cartridges, usually no more than 10 shot and two or three slugs. Therefore, individual officers have commonly never fired the shotgun in their usual patrol vehicle. Greater awareness of this issue, and the much greater ease with which AR-15 pattern carbines can be accurately fired at any range, as well as the fact that there is only one, highly accurate bullet at a time to worry about, is behind this relatively recent trend.
Police officers commonly fire shotguns so seldom to save money on ammunition–buckshot and slugs are expensive (they normally come packaged in groups of five rounds)–and because shooting short barreled shotguns can actually be painful. Recoil, report and muzzle blast are daunting for many, even men. In my police experience, female officers weren’t the only cops who hated shooting shotguns, and very few wanted to shoot any more rounds than were absolutely required to qualify.
Recognizing this painful reality, some suggest that .20 gauge or .410 gauge shotguns are a better choice for beginning shooters. While they do have less recoil, report and muzzle flash, they also shoot much less powerful and effective ammunition. There is, particularly with firearms, no such thing as a free lunch.
The practical effective range of a shotgun for self-defense is roughly 25 yards, which is, coincidentally, about the maximum effective handgun range for most people. Indeed, some handgun shooters are accurate to greater ranges, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. Various types of shotgun slugs can extend effective shotgun range, particularly with rifle or optical sights, but few people have the time, inclination or money to practice sufficiently with them to be truly proficient. And again, rifles are far more accurate at greater ranges with far less effort.
Shotguns also have limited ammunition capacity. Standard shotguns without extended magazines commonly hold only 3-4 cartridges. Extended magazines usually add only 3-4 more–the Remington 870 depicted in this article has a 6 round magazine, for a total of seven rounds–though there are now some expensive, purpose-built alternatives such as the Kel-Tec KSG.
Virtually all shotguns are also slow to load. In addition, adding extended magazines substantially increases the weight of the weapon and alters the balance. These are issues of some importance to many shooters, particularly women.
Longer barrels do tend to keep the shot column together for slightly greater distances, but for police, military and self-defense purposes, anything longer than about 18” is very unwieldy. Shotguns remain, for most, short-range weapons that must be carefully aimed and used only within the effective parameters of the individual weapon and ammunition.
I do not contend that shotguns are useless. A very wide variety of firearm types, with many sub-groups within those categories, are necessary because firearms fulfill a wide variety of needs. Shotguns have their uses, primarily for hunting, but also tactically. However, they are generally a poor choice for personal defense, particularly for the inexperienced shooter.
Shotguns lacking a shoulder stock are a particularly bad idea. Leave that sort of silliness to Hollywood. Suffice it to say that such weapons are ludicrously difficult to aim–shooting anything from the hip, including machine guns, is the mark of the neophyte–and exacerbates every inherent shotgun problem.
A personal defense weapon, even one intended to be kept only at home, must be a weapon that is easily and safely stored, quickly and easily employed, and with which the user is confident. Confidence comes only with practice, repeated, correct practice. For most people, this means a quality handgun.
Ultimately, citizens should recognize that there is at least one bit of wisdom available from the denizens of Washington DC: whatever Vice President Biden recommends, do the opposite. This is particularly true where firearm choice and the use of force are concerned.