By Sam Hoober
For those who keep a scattergun to defend the home, the axle they tend to get wrapped around is the shot type and size. Granted, it is important; 00 and 000 buckshot are the standards for defensive loads, and for good reason.
Only buckshot has enough mass to retain momentum and therefore penetrate deep enough in tissue to do vital damage. Slugs do too, but aren’t the best choice for personal defense in the urban or suburban environment given the potential for pass-throughs in many slug designs.
However, that isn’t new; everyone knows that by now.
What a lot of people don’t know is that one of the most important features of a shell is not just the shot itself; it’s the structure underneath it.
For those unaware, the shot in a shotshell sits on top of a device called a “wad.” The primary purpose of a wad, just like the patches and wads used in a muzzleloader, is to create a seal behind the shot.
This creates a seal, keeping the expanding gases from the propellant behind the shot and propelling it out of the barrel at the highest possible velocity. Obviously, that’s important in terms of the velocity of the shot column, but why else does it matter?
Because the wad design also effects trajectory and spread of the shot column, and there – as the saying goes – is the rub.
There are a number of different wad designs out there, and each with a certain purpose in mind. Some are designed for specific types of shot and for different purposes. However, we here are concerned with shot that’s to be used in a defensive context.
Hunting is a whole other ballgame, so we won’t touch on that for now.
Believe it or not, spread is not as desirable as you think in a defensive shotgun. Spraying and praying is fine if you’re a machine gunner in a warzone, but not for an armed civilian defending their home.
You are legally responsible for every bullet (or shot pellet) that leaves the bore. Therefore, you want them to be contained in the body of a person who posed a real and credible threat.
Shot column dispersion (combined with less than scrupulous aiming) can leave that to chance, and a .33-caliber ninth-pellet flyer through the drywall into the street, into your neighbor’s apartment/condo, or into your child’s bedroom is not really a desirable outcome.
Therefore, what’s most desirable in a defensive shotgun load is the tightest pattern possible at the longest range at which you would possibly fire the weapon. For most homes, this will be somewhere between 7 to 20 yards, with 10 to 12 yards being about the average.
Buffering contributes as well. Shot buffering is where a fine media (usually little plastic shavings or something with the consistency of sawdust) is added to the shell. The buffering media protects the shot as it travels down the barrel, preventing it from deforming before it leaves the muzzle.
That nets more consistent patterns and trajectories.
Shotgun wads are typically a cup, some with a taller cavity than others. The cheapest are typically just a plastic plug, and some are taller, almost looking like a badminton shuttlecock.
Now, some wads will have slits that will peel the wad open as it flies through the air, producing drag on the wad and letting the shot leave the cup. The sooner it opens, the larger the spread.
The cheaper the buckshot is in price, the more likely it A.) has a plain shotcup wad, and B.) has unbuffered shot.
Lucky Gunner does an excellent job of showing the difference in patterns due to the variations in shot wads across various buckshot loads.
The king of wad designs, certainly at the moment, is the Federal Flite Control wad, which has actual fins in the base of the wad. Flite Control loads are currently the darling of – just about everyone – as it tends to (though may not always!) produce the tightest patterns at the furthest distance with any shot loading.
So, that would mean that to get the tightest shot pattern to the furthest distance, a buckshot loading should have some sort of field wad to minimize shot dispersion. Does that mean cheap buckshot is for range-only use and is worthless for home defense?
Does that mean Flite Control is the only good self-defense load?
It’s not really that simple.
First, smoothbores do smoothbore things. How one particular load patterns in one gun might not pattern the exact same way in different gun; if you’re going to have a shotgun for home defense you need to pattern your gun with your ammunition.
Second, it’s more that the less-than-premium and traditional buckshot loads have a smaller window where they would meet most criteria for defensive buckshot loads in terms of pattern size at distance. In other words, they can be useful but become drastically less optimal the further away you are from the target.
With that said, let’s see some illustrations to give you a visual reference.
In this presentation, you see patterns at 5 yards, 12 yards and 20 yards for birdshot, Winchester Super X 00 buck, and Federal Flite Control 00 and #1 buck.
As you can see from the 12-yard patterns, Winchester Super X creates about a 6-inch spread, which is close to the longest linear distance you’ll find in most homes and apartments. Winchester Super X buckshot loads have a field wad with no buffering and lead shot. If your shotgun produces a pattern with that load at that distance about that size, it would be serviceable in a home defense role.
In this example, you can see that a more traditional field wad produces a much wider pattern at 10 to 15 yards compared to Flite Control, but at 10 yards a lot of conventional buckshot loads are going to produce a pattern that’s acceptable enough for defensive use.
So, what’s the takeaway here?
The cheap and/or traditional hunting buckshot loads are not the most optimal for defensive use because of the wad design and lack of buffering. However, they can be acceptable enough at a close enough distance if it patterns well through your gun.
Therefore, be discerning about what you choose to run through a home defense shotgun. Make an appropriate choice for the purpose, and pattern it to confirm that it will do what you need it to at realistic engagement distances.
But what about you though? Have you found a buckshot load that patterns way better than it should? Worse than it should? Let us know in the comments.
Sam Hoober is a hunter and shooter based in the Inland Northwest.