By By Jacob Herman, GUNS Magazine
If you stand around a gun counter long enough, someone will walk in and ask the so-called “expert” behind the counter, “What is the best thing for home defense?” Without missing a beat the answer usually is, “buy yourself X brand of shotgun, you can’t miss.” At this point, I usually leave said store because I can’t stand hearing sewage like this spewed at uneducated buyers. I am in no way saying the shotgun is not a great home-defense weapon; it has been proven time and time again to be a great choice for home defense. What I am saying is the myth surrounding the shotgun, and the amount of cool-guy stuff you can hang off of one, has placed the venerable shotgun on a big white pedestal. A shotgun is one of the most versatile but hard-to-master firearms available. They are usually (with exception of NFA items) bulky, heavy, slow to reload and hold a laughable amount of ammo. In multi-gun competitions, which are held around the country, any experienced shooter will tell you this. Loading the shotgun is what makes or breaks you. The shotgun is not a magic talisman that will scare away an intruder, nor will the spread of the projectiles insure you can’t miss.
For the purpose of this article I’m only going to cover “combat” shotguns, ones commonly used for home defense, patrol work or in the military. This style usually has barrels of 20″ or shorter, holds five or more rounds and is not well-suited to hunting or target shooting. If you have ever watched a show about police on TV and they pull out a shotgun, then you know what I am talking about.
This is also the type of shotgun most commonly sold to people as a home-defense weapon. Sometimes it’s the store clerk, or the buyers thoughts which he gathered from TV, movies, Internet forums or great grandpa’s stories about shooting a robber in the middle of the night. People still believe what they see in movies. At some point you have to separate fact and fiction. I like shotguns — they’re fun. I go hunting with them, shoot sporting clays with them, and because they are so prolific, I train with them as a fighting tool. I personally have several defensive shotguns. I use them in classes, teaching and competition. I am not going to tell you the shotgun is the single greatest thing to ever happen to the gun industry. In all honesty, my main go-to firearm is a rifle. I think my simple and realistic approach makes what I am going to tell you a little more realistic for the average buyer.
Training partners using the same style gun. Both are styles issued by departments all over the country. The left shooter is using an unmodified 870 from the 1960s and shooter right is running a completely modded Magnum.
Let’s debunk some of the myths you hear about shotguns. First is the “you don’t have to aim it, just point the thing down the hallway,” myth. This statement comes from someone who has absolutely no idea what they are talking about. The person has obviously never shot the buckshot available on the market for a modern combat shotgun. This was driven home during a Tactical Response Fighting Shotgun class I took. We backed off the targets 21′ and fired a single round of buckshot at a piece of paper. Everyone unloaded and walked downrange. Beside me was a police officer using Federal Control Flight buckshot. At the distance of a hallway, he had a shot spread that you could cover with your fist. If you are unfamiliar, shot spread is a term used to describe how much distance the pellets in the shotgun shell spread out when fired from a given distance (the further away from the target, the wider the spread). To put this in real-world terms, walk into the hallway of your home, take a tennis ball and throw it. This is basically what your shot spread is like. There is a lot of room to miss! To accurately put down a threat you need to hold the shotgun at your shoulder and point down the barrel at the target. You actually have to aim your shotgun. Aiming in shotgun terms means pointing the barrel at the exact thing you want to shoot. You can’t just hold it at your waist and pull the trigger. If for some reason you are paying someone to teach you and they say this, politely excuse yourself and leave.
Second common myth: “All you have to do is rack the pump and the intruder will run away.” I actually have started laughing when I hear this. Yes, every American who has ever watched an action movie knows the sound of a shotgun slide being racked. Are you going to bet your life the meth addict who has come into your home with a pistol at 3am, planning on murdering your wife and kids, is going to hear the scary sound through all the chemicals spinning around in his brain?
The other problem is you have to be close enough to your threat for them to hear you. You are basically walking into a danger zone with an unloaded weapon. The usual response to this is “I’m real quick with racking the slide. It won’t matter.” This sounds like someone trying to build themselves up because they lack realistic training. In all honesty, you will not rack the slide quick enough. You will only rise to the level of training you have mastered. I have never been in a training where we practiced sneaking up on a criminal with an unloaded gun. Then the same person tells me they will have the shotgun loaded, but will rack it again when they get close. I can’t even begin to know why any person in their right mind would take a live shell out of the chamber of a weapon, giving them one less round to protect their lives in order to make a scary noise. Scary noises are not a good tactic for saving your life, just like a rape whistle will never replace a gun. Arrive to the fight ready to fight, not with a $500 scary-noise-making device.
While a shorter double-barrel shotgun has been used for defending homes and freight since before the turn of the century, I am not going to include this type of shotgun in this article. Showing up to a gunfight with two rounds of ammo is never a good idea. Don’t say you are not planning on being in a gunfight. If you pick up a firearm to defend your life or the life of someone else, you my friend, are going to a gunfight. I’m also not going to include magazine-fed, drum-fed, short-barreled shotguns and the like in this article. An AA-12 or sledgehammer is not readily available to the normal American homeowner.
You have two basic choices: A pump action, which requires manually working a slide back and forth to cycle a round into the chamber between each shot, or a semi-automatic, which loads new shells into the shotgun for you. Each has positives and negatives. As a buyer, you must decide for yourself.
The shotgun with the wood stocks is a true police trade-in: it still has the property room tags. The gun dates from 1967 and still works just like it was new. The gun to the right is a Police Magnum of late manufacture. While the wood gun will fill the need, a few mods make it perfect.
For years and years the only real option for a combat shotgun was a pump action, and the choices were limited. A look into every police car and department armory contained one of three pump-action shotguns: the Ithaca Model 37, a pump action by Winchester, and the most prevalent — the Remington 870. Ithaca fell out of trend years ago, and since then the market has been dominated by Remington 870s and Winchester 1300. Since Winchester left the market, Remington has been king, with Mossberg beginning to make its presence known in the military; now some law enforcement agencies are issuing the Model 500.
The 870 has been around for over 50 years and shows no sign of letting up. If I shoot a pump-style shotgun I always shoot the 870. I have one that was made in the mid 1960s for a police department, and it’s as duty-ready as the day it came off the line. There are a few problems with a pump shotgun however.
One of the main problems is called short stroking. This is when the shooter fails to complete the action of loading the shotgun. The pump is not fully engaged to the end of the slide, and the shotgun fails to go into battery. In simple terms, you’ve got a problem: your gun will not fire when you pull the trigger. We can all see how this would be a problem. I have seen this caused mostly by two issues. The shooter is trying to operate the shotgun beyond their abilities, in turn causing them to become agitated and with a shot of adrenaline they failed to complete what should be a gross motor function.
The other issue is with small stature shooters. American sporting arms companies are notorious for putting stocks that are too long on firearms. The stock that works well for bird hunting doesn’t work well for a fighting tool. Take a person of small stature, add a bulletproof vest, a full-length stock and presto you have a deadly combination for short stroking. Until recently, the remedy was to take a wood stock and saw part of it off. I am 6’4″ and have long arms. I shoot what most people would call a youth-style stock. Magpul has recently fixed this problem with their SGA stock. It is fully adjustable for length and rise. It gives you a great priced product to fix a massive problem. The whole lineup from Magpul for the 870 is a hit. You can shorten the length of pull and add a sling mount in minutes. Now I can stop sawing off a couple of inches off people’s new wood-stocked guns.
Next, semi-auto’s and key to home defense