New Gun Owners: How to Pattern Your Shotgun for Home Defense

This is going to be a post that is directed primarily at new gun owners that may have recently acquired a shotgun for defensive purposes. Both Robert and I have written extensively about shotguns, ammo selection, and training with them over the past few years, but I wanted to try to summarize some of the more salient points here. For those new to the blog that are interested in reading more, here is a link to everything we’ve written on the subject. The shotgun is one of the most misunderstood weapons out there, and myths and falsehoods abound. The shotgun is also one of the most versatile and capable choices one could make for home defense. To paraphrase well known trainer Darryl Bolke, at pistol distances, the shotgun is king.

First of all, if you are going to rely on a shotgun for home defense, it is imperative that you pattern your gun with your chosen or available ammunition. Furthermore, the appropriate choice of ammunition for 99% of users is going to be buckshot. Birdshot is for the birds, literally. Slugs are another viable choice, but over penetration concerns come into play, and there is a time and place for slugs, which I’ll address below.

Finally, it needs to be understood that just like any other firearm, a defensive shotgun needs to be aimed if you intend to hit your target. Despite what creepy uncle Joe may claim, you cannot simply point it up to the sky or in the general direction of your target and pull the trigger expecting to effectively hit or discourage that target. Whether your gun has a bead sight, rifle sights, ghost ring sights, or even a red dot sight, you have to use those sights to hit what you’re aiming at.

Now, let me get to the point of this post. I started with the premise that you needed to pattern your gun with your ammo to fully understand your capabilities in a defensive context. There are some easy buttons here, and I’ll address them shortly. But to reiterate, different guns, even from the same manufacturer, may pattern differently even using the same ammo. As trainer Tom Givens says, each shotgun barrel is a “unique snowflake.” If you don’t take the time to shoot your gun with your ammo, you truly will have no idea what to expect when you pull the trigger.

When I trained with shotgun gurus Rob and Matt Haught, they discussed zones of engagement using a shotgun. Briefly, zone “A” is the distance from the muzzle to whatever point that the shot column starts to spread. Within zone “A” the shot column is essentially one mass and ammunition selection doesn’t really matter. Zone “B” is the distance at which the shot column starts to spread until the point that pellets may miss your target. This is the zone that we are most interested in. (For my purposes, I define that as either the “-0” of an IDPA silhouette or similar.) Zone “C” is simply the point at which the pellet spread is larger than your target and beyond. This is where slugs are an appropriate and potentially necessary choice. To learn this information about our individual guns and ammo combos, we need to pattern our shotguns.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have laid out a patterning test that I use to evaluate different ammunition choices. This is a test that’s specifically tailored to my own unique circumstances and criteria. Instead, I’m going to suggest a different method to learn how your own shotgun will perform at various distances.

I suggest you use an IDPA cardboard target or other similar silhouette target and fire five shots, one each at 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 yards. This is essentially a walk back drill. At some point in this process, you will figure out just how far your zone “B” extends. When you start to have pellets impact outside of the vital area of the target, that is the maximum realistic distance that you can take a shot at and have an expectation of keeping all your pellets on target. If you doubt the importance of this, consider taking a shot against a busy background in your home when your target may be moving. Is your adversary turned sideways or are your kids, spouse, or pets in the background or on the other side of a wall? Do you live in an apartment or condominium separated from your neighbors by only a wall? These are all things to take into account before you pull the trigger and this is why I define my target as roughly an 8″ circle. If you don’t have access to a 25 yard range, or if you are trying out various ammunition choices, you could also simply set up at the longest shot theoretically possible in your home and see how your gun and ammo combination patterns at that distance. I simply prefer the walk back sequence to get a clearer picture of what I can do with the ammunition at various distances.

As an example of all the above, I recently went to the range with my 870P SBS and some Wolf 9-pellet buckshot and Speer Lawman 8-pellet buckshot (pre-FliteControl wad). I chose these two loads to illustrate the importance of ammunition selection. I don’t mean to pick on Wolf ammo, but the results are what they are. I also know from prior experience that the Speer Lawman buckshot is a decent performer in my gun. In the photos below, the Wolf is on the left and the Speer is on the right.

In looking at the photos above, the difference in patterns out of the same gun at the same distances is obvious, which brings us to the “easy buttons” that I mentioned above. The two that immediately come to mind are choosing a premium eight pellet buckshot from Federal or Hornady that incorporates either the FliteControl (Federal) or Versatite (Hornady) wads. These similar wads are both designed to keep the shot column together for longer before falling away, leading to tighter shot patterns. The other more expensive option is to send your barrel off to Vang Comp Systems for their barrel modification that guarantees 10-12” patterns at 25 yards. (In the photos above, note that the Speer ammunition does group within roughly 12″ at 25 yards… the -1 on an IDPA silhouette is 12″ across.) I’m personally a fan of the Vang Comp system simply because I can generally use whatever decent buckshot I can find and have a reasonable expectation of a decent pattern. (In our current social and political climate with ammo being exceedingly difficult to find, this is an important consideration.) Having said that, even with a Vang modified barrel, garbage in, garbage out applies. See the photos above for a direct example of this. Use good ammo!

This is Federal FliteControl 8-pellet buckshot out of my 870P fitted with an 18″ cylinder bore barrel. I don’t remember the distance, but it is illustrative nonetheless.

One other huge advantage of having a tighter shot pattern is that you simply have more leeway if your shot isn’t exactly centered on a target (read this blog post from Greg Ellifritz for a better explanation of this point). Furthermore, the tighter your shot pattern is, the farther you can effectively shoot without switching to a slug. But again, and more importantly in a home defense context, a tighter shot pattern gives you more leeway in terms of aiming errors. This point was really hammered home in the recent Shotgun 360 course that both Robert and I took with Tim Chandler and Ashton Ray.

For most home defense scenarios, I don’t think slugs are required or necessarily even ideal. If you think you might have to engage threats in a vehicle or behind cover, then that changes the equation. But again, this is beyond the purview of most homeowners. For our purposes, we are concerned about threats that present inside or just outside our home at essentially traditional pistol distances. In the realm of the mythical “one shot stop,” the 12 gauge shotgun stoked with premium buckshot still reigns supreme.

I purposely dropped a lot of names in this post. All of the trainers I mentioned above are legitimate subject matter experts in the defensive use of the shotgun. To the list of names above, I would add Lee Weems. If you’ve chosen a shotgun for your home defense needs, I highly recommend that you seek one of them out and take a class. I’ve personally trained with all of them and can vouch for the value of their classes.

As always, thanks for reading. We welcome questions, comments, and civil discourse. Please subscribe to the blog to follow our work or follow us on social media. If you know of a new gun owner that has recently purchased a shotgun, please share this post with them. One of our primary goals with the blog has always been education. If you have questions, reach out to us. We hope to see you on the range soon!

4 thoughts on “New Gun Owners: How to Pattern Your Shotgun for Home Defense

  1. Nice article on the difference in ammo performance.
    The article is about home defense where the longest straight shot would normally be hallway or den. Thirty feet at most. In today’s legal world a 25 yard shot may not be considered a defensive action.


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