Load Options for Your H.D. Shotgun

By Miguel C. Gil

The 12 gauge shotgun loaded with 00 Buckshot has accrued almost legendary stature as a close range man-stopper over the past century. It remains the fodder of choice for just about any police or military organization in the world fielding a fighting shotgun. The classic load, which consists of nine spherical projectiles (each approximately .33 caliber in diameter) contained in a 2 ¾ inch shell, can supposedly stop any aggressor within its effective range.

But what is ideal for the shotgun-toting man in uniform may not necessarily be ideal for YOU, the home defender!

Stopping power: The 12 gauge shotgun is a formidable home defense tool even  with smaller pellets and reduced recoil loads. (Photo by IGG)
Stopping power defined: The 12 gauge shotgun is a formidable home defense tool even with smaller pellets and reduced recoil loads. (Photo by IGG)

Assess your surroundings

The sheer mass of the 00 Buck is what could make it less-than-ideal in most residential defense encounters.

Under the same conditions, the relatively heavy .33 caliber projectile will penetrate much deeper than smaller buck and bird shots. It will almost certainly have enough retained energy to remain lethal after having punched through plywood doors, plaster walls and other light space dividers.

And because it is heavier, it will also retain its kinetic energy over a longer distance. The supposed 25-meter “effective range” of 00 Buck is based on the patterning capabilities of most unmodified shotguns and not the true deadly range of the projectiles they launch. They will remain lethal way beyond 25 meters!

So, unless you are guarding a sprawling estate, it may be prudent to select a shotgun load that sheds momentum faster. That way, you will not have to worry too much about stray projectiles harming your neighbors.

Shot size options

Large Birdshot. It will surprise you to learn how many people have sustained multiple hits from birdshot and lived to tell about it. Many documented cases suggest that a charge of birdshot is not likely to kill a healthy adult unless the victim is shot at very close range and/or does not get medical help right away.

However, just because it is not always deadly, does not mean it is not immediately debilitating at close quarters! Peppering a violent intruder with hundreds of tiny pellets may not necessarily kill him, but he will almost certainly be unable to realize his violent intent.

If you choose to load your home defense shotgun with birdshot, you should opt for pellets no smaller than the #4 birdshot but preferably bigger. This is because you want to use projectiles that are just large enough to ensure that the violent intruder goes down and stays down!

No. 4 Buckshot. This is not to be confused with #4 birdshot! It is roughly equivalent in diameter to a .24-caliber. Around 27 of these spherical projectiles are housed in a 2 ¾ inch 12 gauge shell.

Some law enforcement agencies in the United States reportedly issue #4 Buck as an alternative to the mainstay 00 Buck presumably as a means of mitigating the downrange power of their shotguns.

The #4 Buck seems to be a good compromise between using the 00 Buck and birdshot. There should be little if any practical difference between the practical stopping power of 00 Buck and #4 Buck within the confines of all but the most palatial of homes. But the smaller pellet is more likely to lose its lethality at distance as well as after penetrating through wood and plaster.

The No. 4 Buckshot definitely dwarfs the the No. 4 Birdshot in a side-by-side comparison. But both will get the job done at close quarters. (Photo by IGG)
The No. 4 Buckshot definitely dwarfs the the No. 4 Birdshot in a side-by-side comparison. But either will get the job done at close quarters. (Photo by IGG)

Less-than-lethal. Ammunition that is meant to induce compliance rather than to create potentially deadly injury may also have its uses in home defense. Although such less-than-lethal shells are probably best kept in some sort of sidesaddle attached to but not necessarily loaded into your weapon. In other words, your shotgun should still be stoked with “real ammo” but with a less-than-lethal option within reach should you decide it is appropriate for a given encounter.

After testing various less-than-lethal loads, we have come to the conclusion that most generate enough punch to subdue the biggest aggressor at close quarters. We were also pleased to learn that such loads had neither the recoil nor the blast associated with the shotgun.

We must emphasize however, that less-than-lethal shotgun loads will NOT cycle in semi-automatic shotguns.

Reduced recoil loads

If all home defenders were big burly He-Men then reduced recoil shotgun loads will probably be unnecessary. But the physically-frail and the small-statured have just as much right to defend their families and property!

Defensive shotgun loads with reduced recoil are currently available from several manufacturers. They were reportedly designed at the behest of policewomen and slightly-built officers in the United States, who sought something more manageable than the classic full-powered 12 gauge tactical fodder.

There was a time when reduced recoil tactical loads were only available in 00 Buck. Today, we understand that light-kicking #4 Buck can also be purchased by those who prefer the smaller projectiles.

On the other hand, home defenders who opt to use birdshot can choose from the many shotgun loads that are labeled for Training. Such loads were also designed to deliver less kick than traditional hunting loads.

One way or the other, the raw power of a given shotgun load is probably less of an issue in across-the-room confrontations. But the added control and enhanced confidence that reduced recoil loads offer to the home defender can prove invaluable.

Patterning Issues

Patterning seems to be a big deal in tactical shotgun circles nowadays. Many “experts” will insist on a shotgun that will shoot pellets so close together that they might as well be a single ragged hole. Custom built combat shotguns (usually based on the Remington 870) that print very tight patterns are available to those willing to pay the steep tariff.

But does the home defender really need a shotgun that shoots like a hard-kicking rifle? Of course we do not want one that throws pellets all over the place! Still, that fairly spread out pattern is precisely the reason why many select a shotgun in the first place!

What this tells us is that the typical inexpensive over-the-counter shotgun made by any respectable manufacturer has all the patterning potential needed in a home defense shotgun.

The beauty of pump-action shotguns is their ability to take a wide range of ammo. represented here birdshot, buckshot, slug and Less-than-lethal loads. (Photo by IGG)
The versatile pump-action shotgun will function reliably with a wider range of ammo. Represented here are birdshot, buckshot, slug and less-than-lethal loads. (Photo by IGG)

In conclusion

Smaller pellets and moderate recoil are the hallmarks of the ideal shotgun load for home defense. Prudent home defenders ought to take extra pains in choosing the right ammunition so as to strike a balance between the stopping power realistically needed and the potential for over-penetration. Luckily, loads that fall into this category are now widely available from major manufacturers.

One thought on “Load Options for Your H.D. Shotgun

  1. What a great and reasoned article!
    I have long questioned the use of large buckshot for home defense, and the danger that could possibly impose. I am an advocate of the advantages of smaller shot, as long as penetration is adequate, because of increased pattern density and multiple projectile channels.
    Thanks for your article.

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