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 ensure 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 inches 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 buyer’s thought to copy what 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 feet 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 3 a.m. who is 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 fewer round to protect his or her life 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, 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 1300s. 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 fail 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.
The Magpul forward sling mount is also a barrel coupler. This holds the barrel and extended magazine tube together while allowing a QD sling point.
A semi-auto shotgun is also an option. Until recently, most agencies didn’t go with semi-auto guns. They were finicky, ammo picky and required more maintenance than a pump. Like everything else in the firearms industry, great strides have been made since the pesky assault weapons ban. The US Marines picked up the Benelli M4 semi-auto shotgun, and from the reports I’ve heard it’s a winner. A newly made semi-auto takes short stroking out of the equation. I actually prefer semi-auto guns as I can put more rounds on target quicker. Semi-autos are also easier to run if you are injured.
If one of your arms becomes immobile you have developed a problem with a pump. A semi can be run one-handed much easier. Since I have taken to shooting multi-gun competitions, I pretty much run a semi-auto at all times. I picked up the Mossberg 930 JM PRO. It holds 8 rounds and is built like a tank. I have heard of some feeding issues, but after the first 1,200 rounds I haven’t experienced any problems. I think the people having problems just needed to load up some buckshot, and as the old timers used to say “blow the dirt out of it.” The gun did come with a heavy coating of grease, which I think most people failed to clean off. It has been my personal goal to not clean the thing till it stops running — pretty good for 1,200 rounds. The guys at Mossberg are probably cringing. I told them I break everything I touch. The simple fact is the 930 runs, and has turned out to be a fantastic shotgun. It’s durable, easy to use and didn’t cost as much as a used car. If you want to try a semi-auto, I can’t recommend it enough.
This is the correct way to hold a fighting shotgun. Both hands on firearm, gun at shoulder, looking down the barrel.
The Key To Home Defense
Training is the key to using a shotgun for home defense. I can’t stress enough the need to seek out a qualified trainer to learn how to properly run your shotgun. The Tactical Response Fighting Shotgun course I mentioned earlier was a real eye-opener. It changed a lot of thoughts I had about running a shotgun. We fired around 1,000 rounds in two days. The entire class was focused on keeping the gun running, regardless of if you were clearing a jam or putting shells in. You’re always loading, loading and loading. Take every chance you get to put more shells into the gun. You should try and load every time you stop shooting. You spend more time feeding the gun then you do shooting it. A great way to practice is buying some of the aluminum training rounds; they mimic the weight of shotgun shells, but there is no safety issue. Practice feeding the shotgun, both through the bottom and by single loading, direct into the chamber.
Another major issue I have seen is individuals holding the shotgun toward the ground, and looking down while loading. Always bring the gun up, and keep your head up while loading. If you can’t load your firearm without looking at it, then it’s a sure sign you are not practicing properly. I always point the muzzle up or on target, and load into the tube if at all possible. This keeps your head up into the fight, scanning for targets.
Single loading a shell straight into the chamber may be the quickest way to get back in the fight. Regardless of if you run a pump or semi-auto, they tend to run out of shells very, very quickly. You may only have time to load one more round. To do this right takes practice. Have a firm grasp of the shell, and use as much of your hand as possible to roll it into the open action of the shotgun. It’s also handy if you need to switch to a slug for a single shot.
The legendary short stroke. The shotgun is not in battery, most likely stress induced. The Shooter pushed the action forward, but not enough to lock the bolt into battery. Semi-autos do not have this problem — even the most experienced shooters encounter this.
There are three things every fighting shotgun needs: a sling to carry the weapon, a light to make positive target identification and a way to carry extra shells. I would say that fewer than one out of 20 firearms bought for self defense are set up this way.
First of all, every long gun needs a sling of some sort, because a sling allows you to literally sling the shotgun out of your way. This is critical if you need to give yourself or someone else medical treatment, or you have to help move someone or something. If the shotgun is attached to your body, then you will always have it with you. Do not skimp on a sling. I like a sling with some bungee cord built in. You want it to be comfortable, and have a secure connection. A cheap sling will let you down when you need it. If you do not have a way to affix a sling to your shotgun, then you need to make a change to the firearm. I prefer slings by SOE, Magpul and Armageddon Gear. Choose what works best for you and the way you operate your shotgun.
The second critical item is a white light. This is another area where a gun store commando will pipe up and let me know a white light will give my position away. So it may be. If you are worried about that, then stay in your room and lock the bedroom door. We are not in Iraq or some other equally crappy cesspool of the world. Here in the United States, if you pull the trigger, then you had better be damn sure you can make a positive target identification and identify the threat. Even in states that have castle doctrine, it is unethical to kill someone not causing or attempting to cause you harm. Yes, it may be legal to shoot someone for breaking into your house, but when you turn the light on and discover it is the neighbors’ 15-year-old honor student who had his first drink and wandered into the wrong house, you will have to deal with the consequences for the rest of your life. Buy a light and attach it to your shotgun. Make sure you train with it in the dark. I have really come to like the line of lights from Crimson Trace. They are small and lightweight, and a smoking deal.
The third must-have shotgun item is a way to carry extra ammo. A $10 nylon bandoleer does not count. I know it looks cool and you feel like you rode with Poncho Villa, but it is impractical. My search for carrying more shells led me to discover I despise plastic shell carriers. They require taking the factory screws out and replacing them with aftermarket units. The carriers can loosen up considerably, and the shells can literally just fall out on the ground; sometimes they just break off all together. I had ones that someone had tightened down to the point that it warped the receiver of the shotgun.
I have started using the shell carriers that are Velcro backed. They attach to a strip of Velcro on the gun, no screws needed. When they wear out you just chuck them in the trash and slap another one on. I have found the best way to carry shotgun shells is the Special Operations Equipment Shotgun Rig and Shell Holders. These shell holders can either be part of a stand-alone shotgun shell chest rig or attached to a larger fighting rig. They have become popular with police officers who may end up carrying either firearm during duty. I have used this rig during classes and competition, and just like every other piece of SOE kit, it has never missed a beat.
Magpul SGA stock — easy to install and provides a multitude of adjustments for both length and comb. I am replacing all of my shotgun stocks with these. I really like the sling attachment points across the entire stock.
I did not include sights because they are not a necessary item on a shotgun. They are nice to have. I destroyed the front sight on my 930 during a particularly nasty encounter with a doorframe. Since I did not have time to replace it, I went ahead and used the 930 during the entire Brownells/AR-15.com 3 Gun Pro-Am. Not having a sight did not hinder me one bit. Now, in many parts of the country, and on a lot of older police shotguns just like the one in the pictures, you will see rifle sights. Some areas use slugs for deer hunting, and many police departments used slugs in place of rifles. This has fallen by the wayside, and you see fewer and fewer barrels with rifle sights. They do help if you shoot a heavy diet of slugs, but I shoot very few slugs compared to my other rounds. If I am going to have sights on a rifle, they will be of two varieties: a dot setup from XS Sights, or a Trijicon front and rear. I replaced the old rifle sights on my black shotgun with the Trijicons since they fit right on the barrel.
I have had several shotguns, and the ones that kick the least (and therefore are faster back on-target) are of the ported variety. There are several companies who port shotguns, and many times on a new gun they are standard fare. This is also in the not-needed category. I say “not needed” because I am 6’4″, so my idea of kick is a little different. If you are once again of short/small stature you may want to consider having the barrel ported. A 20-gauge shotgun with a ported barrel and correct length stock is easy to control and would be a great defensive weapon for a person of any size or age. A 20-gauge shotgun has taken many deer and put many bad people in the ground, so never discount it as an effective tool.
Jacob shooting his Mossberg 930JM Pro in competition. He’s using the SOE shotgun rig, the same one he uses in training classes. The 930 is over a 1000 rounds strong without cleaning.
Pistol Grip Madness
Do you need a pistol grip on a pump shotgun? For me, no! They have such a small real-world use it’s almost negligible. I only mention it because people seem to be obsessed with them. So many poor saps have bought them for home defense. As I said earlier, you have to shoulder the shotgun and aim it, you can’t shoot from the hip. It does not work effectively. Since this type of gun has no shoulder stock, it can’t be properly shot. I have seen some amusing displays of firing them at the range. Some have tried to hold it in front of their face and leave the range with a bleeding face, missing teeth, a soon-to-be black eye and a crushed ego. Plus they never hit anything. A pistol-gripped shotgun without a stock is good for carrying as a breaching tool. Unless you breach doors on the regular, don’t waste your money on one.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of shotgun loads on the market. For home defense, I use 00 Buckshot. Never ever use birdshot for anything but birds and clays. I still can’t find how the rumor got started saying birdshot is acceptable for defending yourself and family.
I shoot good-quality buckshot. I use both Federal and Hornady Zombie Max for both training and my load out at home. I have shot tons of both of these through both of my shotguns. They feed extremely well, group very tightly and have no extraction problems. Some people use slugs. If you’re going to only use slugs you should purchase a defensive rifle. The short range of a slug negates anything it can add.
Keeping your head in the fight is one of the hardest-taught skills. Many times a shooter wants to look down at the gun. Bring the shotgun up and load without looking.
At the end of the day, no amount of gadgets can top training. You’ll only become proficient if you put the time in. Practice loading your shotgun from standing, sitting and kneeling. You never know how you will be firing. Practice shooting with the ammo you are going to keep loaded. Does it shoot funny? Does it feed and extract properly? Do you need a sling? A light? Is your stock too long? All of these questions need to be answered by you, the owner of the firearm. No one else is going to be able to fix these problems for you. You have to put the time and money into protecting yourself and family. There are many options out there. Buy a good-quality shotgun and make sure you feed it with good ammo. But most importantly, know how to use it.