Mad Gun Science: Is Buckshot the Best Choice for Home Defense?

   04.10.15

Recently we looked at the pros and cons of using birdshot loads for home defense. Now it’s time to look at the flip side: using big and heavy buckshot for the same purpose.

The timing for this topic is perfect as I just returned from Tactical PreSchool at the Academi training facility in Moyock, North Carolina. Sponsored by my friends at Beretta, this abbreviated training program covered carbine, pistol, shotgun, and long-range precision rifle. You might know Academi better from its previous owner—Blackwater. The facility is 7,000 acres of shooting, non-stop destruction, and tactical training. Bigger tactical kids, like special forces teams from all over the world, go there to train for all sorts of scenarios. On any given day, you might see ship boarding, water insertions, dynamic entry drills, or parachute assaults. Cool stuff. I relate this as an indication of the quality of training—we’re not talking Yahoo! commando theory here. I was definitely placed correctly in the pre-school class among this crowd.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Our instructor Steve is arguably one of the most knowledgeable folks around when it comes to shotgun capabilities and tactics. Per the objective of the course, he taught from a viewpoint that a shotgun is the best tactical option for virtually any scenario at shorter ranges. Indoors? Yep. Home defense? Of course. Hostage rescue? Umm, yes, in fact. More on that later.

Before we go into this week’s testing and discussion, let’s clear one thing up. Far too many people make an invalid assumption about the potential benefit of shotguns being “you don’t have to aim.” Hogwash. Try unloading a dozen rounds at a steel plate as fast as you can pull the trigger and load from a range of 10 yards. The odds are that you’ll miss some like we all did. In fact, the whole point of this class was to demonstrate the value of aimed shotgun fire, using quality sighting options, and with carefully chosen and tested ammunition for a specific gun. We used the factory ghost ring sights on Beretta 1301 Tactical model shotguns, but I quickly added an Aimpoint Micro T-2 to my 1301 as soon as I returned home.

So what are the factors to consider when evaluating buckshot for home defense?

“Accuracy”

“Scattergun” and “accuracy” seem like odd bedfellows, so let’s pull back the sheets on this issue first. Arguably, with any gun, using the right ammunition for the desired application is critical, but even more so in the case of shotguns. During the Academi class, we used stock Beretta 1301 Tactical shotguns which are cylinder bore only—no chokes. The ammo choice, based on instructor Steve’s experience, was Federal Premium 00 buckshot with FliteControl Wads. This is an important distinction. Without going into the weeds, the FliteControl Wad is designed to slide gently off the back of the shot column while in flight, causing minimal disruption to the group of buckshot pellets. The net result is that they stay in exceptionally tight patterns.

The result of this nifty marketing concept is astounding. From an 18-inch cylinder bore barrel with no aftermarket customization, we shot accurately at ranges from three to 50 yards, with a few 75-yarders thrown in just for the heck of it.

At three to five yards, the Federal Premium FliteControl loads delivered large single holes to the same point of aim every time. At 10 to 15 yards, baseball-sized groups, again to the center of the sights. At 50 yards, we set up two IDPA targets side by side and blasted away at one of them with 10 rounds. From 50 yards, with 90 pellets launched, only one stray pellet perforated the adjacent target. Then we moved on to hostage rescue drills with two head-sized targets side by side.

The point wasn’t to practice this for real-life scenarios, but rather to demonstrate the level of control that can be attained with a shotgun. At distances up to 15 yards, using a shotgun with good sights was no more “risky” to our paper hostage than any other firearm option. To be clear, I’m not advocating that we all rush out and start attempting hostage rescue shots with buckshot loads, I’m simply illustrating a point. You can attain shockingly good precision with a buckshot charged shotgun if you know the capabilities of your specific ammo.

Even these "regular" Federal Premium buckshot loads, without FlightControl Wads, produce excellent groups at indoor distances.
Even these “regular” Federal Premium buckshot loads, without FlightControl Wads, produce excellent groups at indoor distances.

Is over-penetration relevant?

One of the most common “issues” regarding the use of buckshot indoors for home defense is that large and heavy pellets will go through interior walls like butter. In theory this introduces risk of hitting an unintended target in another room. Technically, this is true—buckshot pellets will travel through barriers.

However, I think this concern is largely driven by that assumption that buckshot patterns spread widely so that there is a likelihood of some pellets hitting your target, while others miss and continue to points unknown. I rarely hear people complain about over-penetration of handgun rounds when used for home defense, but virtually any handgun round will plow through as many, and likely more, walls than a 00 buckshot pellet. The underlying assumption is that a handgun shot is “aimed” right? We don’t stop to think about “misses” with an aimed handgun shot.

After our practice demonstration of what the right gun and ammo combination is capable of, my concerns about over-penetration diminished rapidly. Sure, if you miss your target, pellets will fly. But that’s no different than missing your target with a handgun.

Energy

This 3-D target from ID Target Systems shows the devastating impact of three different hits from 10 yards using Federal's FliteControl buckshot loads.
This 3D target from ID Target Systems shows the devastating impact of three different hits from 10 yards using Federal’s FliteControl buckshot loads.

If your interest is in stopping an attacker with as little gunfire as possible, it’s hard to argue with the effectiveness of a buckshot load. The Federal 00 nine-pellet loads tested for this article deliver a whopping 1,870 foot-pounds of energy. A 9x19mm handgun offers about 400 foot-pounds, give or take, depending on the specific load. The AR-15 chambered in 5.56mm delivers about 1,280 foot-pounds with its 55-grain projectile loading. Clearly, energy isn’t the only factor when it comes to terminal effectiveness, but as a relative indicator, the difference is dramatic.

A bunch of pistols?

As we all know, bullet energy is a theoretical thing and may or may not translate directly to the ability to stop a threat quickly. If you want a more visual comparison, think about this. A 2-3/4-inch 12 gauge buckshot load, like the Federal Premium we’re discussing here, contains nine buckshot pellets. The word “pellet” is a bit misleading as each one is .33 inches in diameter, weighs 58 grains, and delivers 226 foot-pounds of energy. While the diameter is a bit smaller, the energy of each pellet is just about the same as a .380 ACP projectile. Imagine aiming nine different .380 ACP pistols a the same two-inch circle and firing them all at once. That’s the general effect. Ouch.

Summing it up

In my view, many of the arguments against using a shotgun for home defense become moot points when you spend the time and effort to find, test, and practice with the right load for your gun. Assuming you do that, consider that a shotgun loaded with buckshot can:

  • Deliver all buckshot pellets into a repeatable two- to four-inch circle at virtually any indoor distance.
  • Deliver more energy than an AR-15.
  • Hit your target with nine (or more) unique “pistol shot” equivalent projectiles each time you pull the trigger.

What’s not to like? Oh yeah, recoil. We learned some neat ways to control that too. More on that in a future article.

Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon.

Read More