Choosing The Right Shotshells for Home Defense
Scatterguns have long been an effective and reliable choice for defense, but with all the ammo options, what do you feed it?
This is perhaps a bit unorthodox, but to begin this discussion on shotshells and home defense, let me first talk briefly about what I keep propped up in the corner, at the ready, and what that shotgun is filled with before working backwards to the beginning.
I have two primary—an oxymoron, yes, but bear with me—home defense shotguns. The first is a Mossberg Model 500 pump action with an 18.5-inch cylinder bore barrel and pistol grip, which stands next to the bed within arms reach.
The overall length of the Model 500 is a quite maneuverable 28 inches. The second is a Remington Versa Max Tactical semi-automatic, with an oversized operating handle and bolt release, and a capacity of 8 +1 in an extended magazine tube. It also packs a cylinder bore choke tube.
This particular firearm is secured in the westernmost room of the house, roughly 50 feet from the Mossberg. Overall length of the Versa Max is an upper limit 43.5 inches. Both are 12-gauge, and both are filled with Hevi-Shot’s 3-inch Dead Coyote shotshells.
Dead Coyote, for those not familiar with the interestingly-named rounds, contains .20 caliber, aka “T” size tungsten pellets, and are available in a 3-inch and a 3.5-inch format. The 3-inch shotshells I currently employ carry 1.5 ounces of the .20 caliber pellets, which equates to approximately 54 individual pellets.
With my choices in mind, let’s talk a bit about what’s available in terms of shotshells for home defense, the pros and cons of each, and why I choose what I do to fill my homebound weapons. And because you’re probably wondering why I’ve picked the Mossberg and the Remington, as well as the reasoning behind what I’ll call the “one in one corner/one in another” placement, we’ll discuss that, too.
In a home defense scenario, nothing beats a shotgun. There, I said it.
Handguns are nice—handguns in skilled hands are even nicer—and magazine capacity is often high and the available accessories, like laser sights and weapon lights, are practically without number. Additionally, handguns, by virtue of their physical nature, are compact. The ultimate in maneuverability. Mobile. Fast to shoot. Quick to reload—but again, that’s when they’re used by skilled hands.
But, there is a greater emphasis on accuracy when using a handgun with a relatively small margin for error. One projectile for each pull of the trigger doesn’t leave much room for on-target mistakes.
Of course, practice does wonders and professional training does even greater wonders; however, slip the elements of stress, nerves, adrenaline, and fear into the mix of a real-life defense situation, and it’s understandable that anyone, regardless of the amount of paper target training they’ve had, can experience accuracy trauma. And that when it matters most of all; when protecting life, home, and family.
But hold on. Relax. I’m not suggesting, should you choose to protect your castle and your person with a shotgun, that practice isn’t necessary or that pre-planning isn’t necessary, or that training isn’t necessary. All of those are vital components to success, where here success is defined as the act of keeping oneself safe and secure. The proper ammunition selection is also necessary.
What I am saying is that with the proper training, a shotgun, with its multiple projectiles per trigger pull, and the 7- to 15-foot distances normally encountered in in-home defense scenarios, it’s damn tough to beat the advantages of a shotgun.
My Dead Coyote loads put 54 .20-caliber projectiles downrange or across the room with each trigger pull. With 00 Buck (.33) in a 2.75-inch format, it’s nine pellets. Jump up to a 3-inch shotshell containing 00 Buck, and it’s 15 pellets: that’s 15 .33-caliber projectiles with each pull of the trigger.
When I refer to a margin of error, that’s what I mean.
Drawbacks of Full-Sized Shotguns for Home Defense
Are there downsides to using Ole’ Betsy in the corner as your primary home defense firearm? Absolutely.
Recoil, especially in the case of shorter-barreled shotguns, can be unmanageable for some. Then there’s muzzle flash, assuming a dark or low-light situation, and noise, both of which could prove problematic. Low overall capacity—say, nine rounds for the Versa Max versus 17 for any number of 9mm semi-automatic pistols—might be also be a concern.
Penetration is often discussed as a negative; that is, (1) the inability of shotshell pellets to penetration protective barriers, i.e. body armor or, in the case of a home, construction materials such as 2-by-4 studs, and (2) shotshell pellets leaving the area of operation and creating a collateral damage situation adjoining rooms or even outside the home.
And finally, length. Even at 28 inches, my Mossberg Model 500 is more than three times as long as my Thompson Custom 1911 pistol (8.5 inches); the Versa Max, almost five times.
Some contend shotguns, even short guns, are bulky, awkward, and cumbersome. That they can be easily grabbed and wrestled away by an intruder lurking behind a door, partition, or what-have-you. All valid points, but trust me; they all can be overcome with a bit of thought and planning.
Ammunition: Traditional, and What’s Available
I believe I’m safe in saying that in a home defense situation, given the aforementioned commonly investigated distances of seven to 15 feet, anything—and I mean anything—you find that will reliably fire and/or cycle through your 12-bore of choice will, with few exceptions, eliminate the immediate threat to yourself, your family, and your dominion.
Two-and-three-quarter-inch #7.5 shot? You hit him; he’s out. Four shot? Same deal. BBs? Uh-huh. Buckshot? Duh. You see the common denominator here.
However, we’re not talking in a pinch here—we’re talking about a prepared plan including evaluation and practice. That said, when it comes to shotshells for home defense, there are good choices, and there are better choices.
First, let’s look at what I’ll call sub-buckshot loads. The problem with sub-buckshot shot, here defined as anything smaller than #4 Buck (.24) isn’t pellet count, but rather energy, penetration, and, to a lesser extent, pellet dispersal.
Even with a cylinder bore, smaller shot like #4 or #5 is going to stay pretty tight and not provide much, if any, of a pattern (pellet dispersal) at seven to 15 feet; perhaps two to three inches in width, plus the wad impact.
Those are devastating on-target results, but there’s still little room for error, not like the movies would have you believe.
Additionally, energy corresponds to penetration, and vice versa. Pellets of #4 lead simply don’t possess and retain the kinetic energy, i.e. penetrating ability, that, say, #4 Buck and larger pellets do. It’s a matter of physics, or mass specifically.
This isn’t to imply #4 or even smaller shot won’t effectively and immediately eliminate a threat under the right circumstances; however, there ae better choices out there.
This leaves us with buckshot, including individuals pellets ranging from #4 Buck upwards to #000 Buck, a chart for which would appear as such:
|Designation||Diameter (inches)||Pellets per 12-gauge 2.75-inch|
NOTE: #3 Buck is available in a 2.75-inch 20-gauge platform (20 pellets). Also in a 20-gauge format are 18 pellets of #2 Buck in a 3-inch hull.
Traditionally, #00 Buck has gotten the nod in terms of home defense usage, and perhaps for good reason. First, it’s widely available. Most of the major ammunition manufacturers, as well as many of the smaller companies, offer some type of 12-gauge #00 Buck round in a 2.75-inch format. And many of those in a variety of configurations, including low-recoil and/or personal defense specific loadings which help mitigate one of the drawbacks of using a shotgun for defense: the kick.
At .33 inches in diameter, #00 Buck pellets are plenty big and pack sufficient punch; approximately 172 ft/lbs of energy per pellet when launched at 1,200 feet/second.
Compare this to the .32 ACP (90-160 ft/lbs, depending on ammunition type) or the increasingly popular .380 ACP with 180 to 220 ft/lbs. Again, depending on the ammunition, it’s easy to see that the #00 Buck is right in the proverbial ballpark.
Additionally, recoil with these 12-gauge shotshells is manageable for most and any recoil-related issues regarding a 12-gauge might be easily remedied with a switch to a 20 and/or low-recoil shotshells, or the addition of something like a Limbsaver recoil pad to your shotgun. It won’t feel like a 9mm, but it should make the kick from a 2.75″ shotshell a non-issue.
Downsides to #00 Buck
Is there a ballistic downside to #00 Buck? If there is, it’s over-penetration, with room-to-room or even room-to-exterior pass-through being a legitimate concern.
Is there, then, a solution? Low-recoil ammunition might be one. How low? Federal Premium offers a low-recoil #00 Buck round in 12-gauge with a muzzle velocity of 1,140 feet/second (FPS).
This is compared to a more traditional speed of 1,325 FPS. The former delivers approximately 22.7 ft/lbs of felt recoil; the latter in excess of 40 ft/lbs. I use felt recoil here in conjunction with muzzle velocity to demonstrate the connection between such low-recoil shotshells and a corresponding probable decrease in negative, i.e. room-to-room penetration, an assumption based on physics and the resulting kinetic energy.
So why, then, do I choose to fill my home defense shotguns with .20 Dead Coyote T shot?
Hevi-Shot, being tungsten, is heavier than lead; 12 grams per cubic centimeter for tungsten versus 11.2 g/cc for lead. Thus, when moved at identical speeds, the tungsten will, with its greater mass, possess more kinetic energy than a similarly sized lead pellet, which would fall somewhere between a lead BB (.180 inches) and #4 Buck at .24 inches.
In addition, each pull of my trigger unleashes 54 .20 pellets; the same trigger pull on the primer of a hull containing #00 Buck sends nine pellets downrange; a six-to-one ratio in favor of the Dead Coyote. However, and to be painfully truthful, the pellet dispersal, meaning the pattern, of both at 15 yards is going to be almost identical, or approximately six to nine inches depending on the ammunition and, more importantly, the wad design incorporated into that particular shotshell.
So, is there a definitive answer? No. However, I will say this: I keep a Ruger Security Six .357 Magnum in the drawer. Another drawer holds a Kahr Thompson Custom 1911 .45ACP. Both undeniably effective weapons in a home defense situation when held in capable hands.
Still, it’s either the Mossberg or the Versa Max and the .20 Dead Coyote that will get the call should an inside door rattle at 2 a.m. Why? I’m confident in the ability of both to perform without question—it’s confidence bred by firsthand knowledge and hands-on experience behind the trigger. That, along with a shotgun, lets many a homeowner sleep soundly each evening.
When it comes down to it, if you choose a shotgun for home defense, you have to do some experimenting and testing to figure out what’s right for you and your home. Pick up a variety of different shells and take them to the range. Set up some silhouette targets at seven and 15 yards and see how each load patterns in your gun while also paying attention to how intense the recoil is and how quick and accurate your first and follow-up shots are. If the gun kicks to hard for you, invest in a recoil pad or try some low-recoil ammo and see if it becomes manageable.
Once you get that dialed it, do a few pushups or run a lap and try again to see if the results are the same when you’re heart rate is elevated.
Once you find a load that’s comfortable and does what you need it to do, focus on your gun. Make it safe and practice maneuvering it around your home. When you feel confident there, do the same thing with the lights off to simulate a nighttime intruder encounter.
The more you prepare, the less will go wrong when and if it comes time to defend yourself, your home, and your family.
On Less-Than-Lethal Shotshells
There is also the option of what are commonly referred to as Less-Than-Lethal (LTL) shotgun shells, which are primarily used by law enforcement in crowd-control type situations, which may seem attractive. After all, the goal isn’t to kill, but to eliminate a threat—however, there are some serious things to consider when dealing with LTL ammo.
Elementally, LTL shotshell ammunition is designed to incapacitate rather than eliminate a perceived threat, hence the crowd-control application.
Typically they contain projectiles made not of lead or other material meant to penetrate and disrupt vital bodily functions, but non-penetrating projectiles such as solid rubber “bullets” or bean bags. Projectiles also include rubber buckshot, rubber balls, multi-fingered soft rubber stars, and rubber slugs similar to typical rifled slugs.
Non-impact rounds are also available, and are often referred to as muzzle blast or distraction rounds. Such distraction rounds rely on the extremely loud blast and a visual element – the flash – to temporarily incapacitate a target—like a flashbang coming out of a shotgun muzzle—not great for the shooter who isn’t wearing ear or eye protection.
It’s important to note here that, while technically referred to as LTL, such shotshells might better be described instead as Less Lethal, as hard rubber balls travelling at 900 FPS can cause serious injury or even death should they impact the head, face, neck, or chest of an intended target at close range.
Is there an upside to using LTL shotshell ammunition in a home defense role?
For some, that might be psychological; rather, “I want to stop the threat and let law enforcement do its job rather than kill another human being.” For others, LTL ammunition might eliminate the concern of over-penetration and/or collateral damage to non-targets either inside or outside the home. Still others might wish simply that the threat retreat, and believe LTL ammunition will assist in this hoped-for persuasive tactic.
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The biggest drawback of LTL ammo in a home defense role lies in its core concept—Less-Than-Lethal. Yes, it may slow or even stop a threat, allowing a homeowner time to restrain the intruder and law enforcement time to arrive on-scene—but it might not. And by virtue of its design, it’s not meant to eliminate the threat, but rather subdue the target.
True, an intruder hit with a .45ACP might not cease and desist either; however, it’s difficult to argue the effectiveness of a 185-grain projectile moving at 1,150 FPS and delivering over 500 ft/lbs of energy at the muzzle. Difficult, indeed.
Other negatives include LTL’s reliability in semi-automatic operating systems; cost per round; reluctance to train due to cost; availability to the civilian population; and, in the case of distraction shotshells, impairment or incapacitation to both target and shooter.
The final word on LTL: it’s probably best to leave these very task-specific rounds where they belong, in crowd control applications.
In a home defense scenario, nothing beats a legal firearm, intensive training, reliable armament, quality traditional ammunition, knowledge of the law and your rights as a homeowner, and the ability to make a decision under stress. Nothing.