I am by no means an expert on the shotgun. To date, I have sat in on part of Tom Givens’ shotgun seminar at The Rangemaster Tactical Conference and also completed a one-day shotgun class with OnSight Firearms Training. Beyond that, my experience with the shotgun has been through the occasional trip to the range and through online and traditionally published sources over a decades-long period.
I have always had an interest and respect for the shotgun as a self-defense tool. Accordingly, I thought I would share with our readers the current state of my knowledge about setting up a shotgun for self-defense/home-defense. Three-gunners, quail hunters, and those who like to use their shotguns to blow hinges and locks off of doors probably will not get as much out of this article.
When setting up a shotgun for self-defense purposes, there are three keys to success. First, the shotgun needs to “fit” the user. Here, I am mainly talking about the length of the stock. Second, it should hold as much ammunition as its barrel length will allow, and some source of ammunition mounted to the gun is also a good idea. Finally, I am of the firm belief that all long guns geared toward self-defense NEED a mounted light.
What follows will be a description of my own shotgun and how I came to choose it. I will then describe modifications made to it as well as the journey to each of those changes.
It was about a decade ago that I purchased my first shotgun. I chose a Mossberg 590A1 with 18.5 inch barrel, 5 round tubular magazine, and ghost ring sights.
At the time of its purchase, I was researching both the Remington 870 Express and Police models as well as the Mossberg 500, 590, and 590A1. Exhaustive (and exhausting!) research online suggested to me that this was like a Ford vs. Chevy debate, with pros and cons for each brand. In the end, I settled on the 590A1 primarily because I got a REALLY good deal on a brand new one. Out-of-the-box features that I appreciated were the ambidextrous metal safety, the metal trigger guard, the “two-of-everything” design (action bars, extractors, etc.), and its robust design that helped the U.S. Armed Forces choose it as their “official” shotgun. Having said all of that, for the amount and manner in which I have used my shotgun to date, any of the models mentioned above would have probably served me just fine.
In its current form, I have addressed the “three keys” outlined above. Mine has a Hogue Overmolded 12 inch length-of-pull (LOP) stock, S&J Hardware +2 magazine extension, an SOE Velcro shell holder, an Uncle Mikes buttstock shell holder, and a Surefire model 623LF forend.
Shotgun and rifle buttstocks have a funny characteristic. One that is “too short” for an individual can still be effectively utilized by that individual just by “hunching” a bit more behind the gun. On the other hand, a stock that is too long for an individual will be hopelessly awkward and all but impossible to be utilized effectively by a smaller person (see John’s article here for related topics on “youth guns” and stocks). Thus, it is better to have a buttstock that is too short than too long, especially if it is to be used by more than one person. In my case, I am really the only user of my shotgun, so it made absolutely no sense leaving the factory stock in place. I am short and of limited wingspan; the short stock is the way to go. I actually ordered the Hogue stock and had it delivered before I even picked up the shotgun itself. It brings the LOP down to 12 inches, perfect for someone of my stature. At the time I made the purchase (it cost around $44), more modern options like the Magpul stock were not available. While I am tempted to upgrade to the Magpul, which seems to represent the current state-of-the-art in shotgun stocks, the Hogue stock does everything I need of it.
At the time I purchased this shotgun, Mossberg offered the 590A1 in 3 barrel lengths: the NFA Short Barreled 14 inch version, the 18.5 inch version, and the 20 inch version. Magazine tube capacities varied from 5 for the first two and 8 for the latter. I always found it odd that Mossberg chose to end the magazine tube shorter than the barrel length. Advantages of the shorter magazine tube include the fact that it is a little bit better protected than one that ends even with the muzzle and reduced weight at the muzzle end. However, even the highest capacity shotguns do not hold a ton of ammunition (compared with double-stack pistols or ARs and similar platforms), so I, on and off for several years, explored magazine tube extension options, eventually settling (mainly because of this video) on the S&J Hardware 2 shot extension. While not cheap (around $100), it is a robust design that includes a new spring and hi-viz follower, and to date it has served me well. Of course, I no sooner added this modification than I discovered that Mossberg started selling the 590A1 with a seven-shot magazine tube that ends even with the muzzle. So it goes.
It should also be mentioned that several top-tier instructors advise the downloading of the magazine tube by one shell in order to improve feed reliability and spring longevity. Therefore, they recommend extended length magazine tubes so that the downloaded tube does not have as much effect on the capacity (percentage-wise). I believe there is something to this, as the factory spring in my shotgun definitely “set” after sitting loaded for a few months. I should also note that some favor downloading the tube by one shell to facilitate easier ammunition changeovers, such as swapping a round of buckshot in the chamber for a slug. I will leave it to the reader to determine the necessity of this.
Many top instructors advise having an additional source of ammunition integral to the shotgun. Again, the capacity of shotguns is so limited that this is regarded by many as a best practice. Typical options include extra shells on a sling, on a side-saddle mounted to the side of the receiver opposite the ejection port, or on a butt cuff. Most professionals disdain shells mounted on a sling. First of all, this makes the sling heavy, can make the sling rock like a pendulum when the shotgun is aimed, and many do not advocate use of a sling at all in home defense situations. With that option off the table, I chose first to go the side-saddle route. I initially purchased a TacStar Side Saddle (don’t kill me!) for around $25.
Many “pros” would scoff at my choice, finding it less-than-durable and prone to “lose” shells. They also argue–based on experience–that the method of attaching these side-saddles can essentially pinch the receiver and affect reliability. Others found that the bolt that attaches it can sheer off under recoil, leaving the parts it holds inside the receiver falling out the bottom, a show-stopper for sure. Thankfully, these were issues I never experienced, and mine was not getting bounced around in a police cruiser or dropped on rocks or into the mud, so it never broke by those means, either. However, one personal pet peeve of mine was that, once mounted, it was there for good. I liked the idea of having the option to go “slick” on the receiver side, so about two years ago eschewed the side-saddle in favor of a wide strip of “loop” material (the softer side of Velcro). With that added to the receiver, I am now able to mount 5-7 shells via a shell card. I happen to use an SOE 6-shell model, but several other companies make quality versions as well. One advantage of these over the permanently affixed style of side-saddle is that, if you have more than one caddy, you can remove and empty caddy and add a full one in just seconds. While this would hopefully not be necessary in a self-defense situation, it does come in handy in classes or at the range. One disadvantage of this system is the added weight to one side of the receiver, which some feel unbalances the shotgun slightly. Another issue is that, compared with a more permanently mounted solution, the Velcro shell cards do have some floppiness to them, and while I have never lost a card under recoil, I find their shaking unnerving. One newer option to consider is the Aridus Industries side-saddle, something with which I have no direct experience but about which I have heard nothing but good things.
Early-on, I also added a butt cuff, an Uncle Mikes neoprene version that holds five shells. The idea was to load buckshot on the side-saddle and then slugs on the butt cuff. Honestly, I have mostly abandoned this practice, but I left the butt cuff in place as it provides a nice cushion for my cheek, and then the loops are in place if I deem them necessary.
Let There Be Light
As noted earlier, I am a firm believer in having a mounted light on all of my long guns that could potentially be utilized for self-defense. Long guns require two hands to operate, which leaves none to manipulate a light. A light is of vital importance in target identification. Accordingly, as with the Hogue stock, I bought the Surefire 623LF LED forend before I even took possession of the shotgun itself. The light in the forend is essentially a Surefire 6P; I really need to upgrade the head with a Malkoff version to increase the light output, as it pales in comparison with the lights on my other firearms. This forend features both a pressure switch and a constant on/off button. My shotgun has never been fired without this forend fitted, and it still works like it did when first purchased. Some would argue that the battering from repeated firing can damage the light, but I have not experienced this. Besides the cost (the forend was over $200 new), its other disadvantage is the additional weight it adds (especially since it is toward the muzzle end of the shotgun). It is possible that newer options, such as the newer Magpul forend with a separate light mounted to it, would be lighter. However, keep in mind that a separate light added to a shotgun must be able to stand up to the recoil.
Some of our readers may have their own opinions about other options, especially sights and slings. My shotgun came with factory ghost ring sights, and I am happy with them. I would have also been happy with rifled sights, and would prefer either of those options to a bead. Not having grown up shooting shotguns, they feel weird to me without a rear sight of some type. Red dots are now gaining favor on shotguns, and I now kind of wish that mine had a rail on top of the receiver. Maybe someday. As for slings, I am perfectly content to have a “home-defense shotgun” sans a sling. If I have to move inside the house, I would rather not have a sling that can catch on doorknobs and such while it is swinging around in front of me.
I should also note that some well-thought-of instructors and professionals out there advocate for as few modifications and accessories as possible, preferring the relatively clean lines and balance of a “slick” shotgun. I do feel that there is a lot to be said for this (and for what it’s worth, John subscribes to this theory). A twelve-gauge shotgun is a heavy firearm, and just like with our carbines, it is easy to get carried away mounting “extras”, each of which encumbers the platform with weight and/or bulk. You will have to make your own decisions about which items are worth their “cost”.
I hope you found these thoughts on the shotgun useful. I must say that I do enjoy shooting mine, and it has been making more trips to the range with me of late. In an upcoming article, I will discuss patterning the shotgun, one of the most important things a shotgun owner can do. What are your thoughts on the shotgun and how it should be set up? We would love to hear your thoughts here or on our Facebook page. We always welcome civil discourse. Also, please note that a few hotlinks in the text above will take you to our Amazon affiliate page. If you purchase those items, we receive a very small percentage of the purchase price at no cost to you. Thanks for your support and, as always, thanks for reading.