John and I have spent a lot of time this year studying the shotgun. We have both written articles on patterning different loads out of our shotguns (see John’s articles here, here, here, and here), taken shotgun coursework (see here and here), read books and articles by well-regarded authors about the shotgun and, in general, have spent a lot of time just thinking about best practices with the shotgun. Keep in mind that, when it comes to this blog, unless specified otherwise, we are concerned with defense against two-legged predators in the capacity of a private citizen. Using the shotgun as a tool for hunting, breaching locked doors, or to quell prison riots are uses outside the scope of what we cover.
The shotgun is one of the most widely owned yet misunderstood systems available. Though I have owned a shotgun for close to ten years, it has only been in the last two years that I have come to appreciate its strengths in the self-defense role. Once understood and practice time devoted, the shotgun can be the ultimate home/small business defensive arm available to average citizens.
Unfortunately, not many seem to seek the knowledge and training necessary to take advantage of these strengths. Online and in gun shops around the country, we have all heard the common misconceptions: that all you have to do is point the shotgun, that the shotgun unleashes a wall of lead through which no one can survive, that the impact of its projectiles can launch bad guys through walls, that birdshot is a fine defensive load, that buckshot doesn’t spread at close ranges so you may as well use a slug, etc.
Loading the Shotgun
Among the worst advice I have been seeing for years is staggering loads inside the tubular magazine of the shotgun. I have consistently seen/heard two different versions of this practice. One version, sometimes referred to as “candy-caning”, consists of loading the shotgun in an “every other” pattern such as buckshot, slug, buckshot, slug, etc. The other is to load the first round with birdshot or even some sort of rubber shot, followed by perhaps lighter buckshot (#4 or similar), then 00 buck, and perhaps a slug or two last.
The most obvious issue with these techniques is that the user has to know where each round hits in relation to the sights. As John and I have illustrated in several articles this year, patterning the shotgun is vital in order to wield the shotgun with maximum effectiveness. Different loads are likely to hit, even at likely home-defense ranges, at different spots relative to the sights.
The corollary to the above issue is that, even if you know where each load in your shotgun hits in relation to the sights, in order to take advantage of that knowledge, you also have to keep track of which load is next to be fired IN THE MIDDLE OF A FIGHT! Good luck with that.
Third, and this applies more to those who load in the second manner outlined above (progressively more “lethal” loads), the idea that you can crystal ball how YOUR fight is going to play out is preposterous. The logic I have seen for such loadouts is to use progressively more “lethal” or “effective” rounds because the first round might stop the fight without the risk of overpenetration, but if the bad guy then hides behind something then you have heavier loads to punch through his perceived “cover” and reach him. But what if your powers of prescience are not what you thought they were and the fight does not progress as you have foreseen? As we know, Mr. Murphy tends to appear uninvited at such times, and you will almost invariably end up with the wrong load in the chamber at the wrong time (what if the bad guy starts out behind some cover? Or with a hostage in hand?).
A related issue with this style of loading is the type of loads chosen. Some use some sort of rubber buckshot as a less-lethal load to get the bad guy to cease and desist without killing him, but are disregarding the fact that such loads were designed to be bounced off of streets and concrete prison yards to quell riots and are not meant to be fired directly at people. Those who use birdshot as the first load often say they do so to avoid over-penetration issues, endangering friendlies on the other side of walls. People who do so have a lot more faith than me at light birdshot stopping a determined foe. Considering birdshot often does not even kill birds (the ground usually does when they fall from the sky), in a fight for my life I would prefer a load that is more likely to end the fight in one round. Starting off with rounds that are not necessarily fight-stoppers can mean needing to fire more rounds than were needed (in order to get to the rounds that will stop the threat), which could endanger the user (as the fight continues on), his or her loved ones, or even expose the user to issues in court after the fight.
The final issue I have with both of these loading techniques is that it eliminates one of the greatest advantages of a shotgun equipped with a tubular magazine. Unlike a carbine or even a pistol, the shotgun magazine can constantly be “topped off” without unloading it. Tom Givens (and other shotgun instructors) teaches his students to “shoot one, load one”, “shoot two, load two”, etc. If done properly, the shotgun magazine can constantly be maintained at or near capacity. Now imagine that you have staggered your loads in some way and want to utilize this technique. You would now have to keep multiple types of spare ammunition on hand, know exactly what you have fired, and then “do the math” to figure out which loads to load into the tube in which order. If you think that might be tough, imagine doing so in darkness, a very real possibility.
A Better Plan
Keep things simple. I load my shotgun with Federal Flite Control Low-Recoil 00 buckshot. I have patterned it, and know how it spreads and at what distances it spreads so that I feel comfortable taking any shot likely to present itself inside my home. I know how it hits in relation to my sights. I feel confident that I could make a face shot on a bad guy at 5 yards without hitting anything I did not intend to. In a fight, the less thinking I need to do about which round is next means I can spend more time outthinking and outmaneuvering my opponent. I would rather spend my no-doubt limited time thinking about the fight instead of thinking about my firearm.
Could 00 buckshot penetrate walls? Sure. The answer to that, of course, is to park those pellets in the bad guy. Birdshot, due to its slightly more rapid spread, is more likely to create a hazard downrange than accurately fired 00 buckshot.
Try out some different types of buckshot (00 or perhaps #1, which is gaining popularity in this role), pattern them to figure out what works for you, load up your shotgun and forget about it. If you must have options, some slugs in a sidesaddle or butt cuff should cover 99.99999% of scenarios you are likely to face.
As always, thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments, please post them below or on our Facebook page, as we always welcome civil discourse. I can be reached privately for questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.