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.

Images by Tom McHale

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21 thoughts on “Mad Gun Science: Is Buckshot the Best Choice for Home Defense?

    1. Sez you. If you compare 00B to #1B, the #1 is the winner. 2-3/4″ load = 16 pellets vs. 9 for 00; 3″ = 24 pellets vs. 15 for 00. The diameter of the pellets is moot; 0.30 for #1 and 0.33″ for 00.
      Many people recommend the #4. Good, with a higher pellet count, but not the equal of #1, as the pellets drop to 0.25″.

  1. 00 buck is the “best”…. Outside the home. For inside the home, I prefer #4 buck with a 2 3/4” shell. It’s 27 pellets of 24-caliber “get some!” It Doesn’t penetrate through “several” walls, unlike 0 or 00 buck does.

  2. Security shotguns are short barreled open choke, #4 or 5’s can become terrifically effective and if you have a semi auto then your hit risk improves a bunch..even if the perp gets in the open trying to run, his being hit range is still darn good at 40 yards…I like bucks shot and slugs, the damage factor is horrific but the lower ought loads can be just as devastating at close range….

  3. For indoor use, the shotgun is hard to beat. I use a single #4 buckshot followed by #1 buckshot since there are some windows in the line of fire (which lead to wood fences). Three #00 backup rounds on the stock.

    I was a little disappointed that there was no discussion of using #1 or #4 for home defense. I suppose #00 is more commonly available to most, however.

    I’d also like someone to cover use of the 20-gauge for home defense as well. Loaded with #2 or #3 shot it’s nearly as formidable and can be used by smaller stature folks easier than the 12 bore.

      1. The #4 choice was a compromise in that I cannot predict whether I’ll have enough warning to select the point of contact. If forced to use it near its resting spot it’s possible that some shot will exit a window and I have nothing against my neighbors.

      2. I read where professional hunters in Africa prefer #4B loads for hunting leopards. This is where an ineffective load could get you shredded in like 5 seconds.

  4. Depending upon the shotgun and the load recoil could be next to nothing. Or could wind up knocking you over if you chose the wrong load for the shotgun. I have heard that magnum rounds shouldn’t be used in pistol grip shotguns due to not only the potential for the breaking of hand bones but the kick is much more then if the magnum was shot on a longer barreled non pistol grip shotgun.

    Plus the pattern of buck when hitting flesh can destroy or mangle a targets arm, hands or legs. A headshot can destroy a good chunk of someone’s head. Shotguns tend to be feared more by robbers, home invaders then handguns. Even missing one shot at them will cause them to flee whereas versus a handgun they may fire back. So you have a psychological effect of using a shotgun on robbers.

    1. I’ve seen people shoot magnum buckshot and slugs from a serbu super shorty. It’s got about a 8 inch barrel and pistol grip only.

      No bones were broken, but the recoil is very hard to control (muzzle rise) and it’s not exactly comfortable to shoot.

    2. I use a Mosburg pump with a 18″ no chock 12 ga. with pistol grip and forward grip on the pump. I use all 3 inch magnum. The first in line is #4 then #1 then 00. The magnum 00 has 15 pelets. The recoil at the range is hard but NO broken bones with any round. I am a 70 year old woman. When the adrenalin runs there is very little recoil noticed or pain.

      1. As an 8-year veteran of the firearms trade, I can tell you that there are more “expert” opinions out there than lottery tickets, and not too many “winners” among them.

  5. In 12 gauge
    #00 buck is .330″ and you get 8-9 pellets
    #1 buck is .300 and you get 15-16 pellets

    Which one do you think causes more damage? #1 buck hits with a maximum surface area of 4.48 inches. #00 buck has 3.06 inches of impact area maximum (assuming two balls don’t follow each other)

    #1 still penetrates over 12-13 inches in gel, unlike #4 buck which has marginal penetration of about 6 inches, and unlike 00 buck that penetrates 20+ inches.

    #1 buck is the clear winner in my book, the only downside is that it’s much easier to get 00 buck. But really how many boxes of defense shells do you need?

    Stop worrying about what goes through walls, any bullet that can reliably stop someone is going to go through walls, there’s no way around that one, unless you want to install kevlar in your walls.

    1. The Winchester 3″ #1B load at 15yds out of a cylinder bore throws a devastating pattern. More recoil and lower velocity, however.
      I’m with you on all this blab about wall penetration. If you have to use your gun for SD in your home, it will likely be late at night while everyone is sleeping. An upper torso or head shot, even if it over-penetrates into the next room, won’t hit someone lying in bed.

      1. However you should be concerned about what you firing going into someone elses home or apt. Hence why buckshot tends to be held up for use in home defense in addition to not having the debiliting effect of a handgun going off in an enclosed space, plus being more accurate, stop power etc. Ballistics gel is supposed to replicate flesh not drywall and other stuff that would be in a wall.

      2. If I’m awakened at 3am to find a home invader standing in my bedroom doorway with a weapon in his hand, I’m not thinking about wall penetration or what I’m gonna have for breakfast. Also, most apartment buildings(at least here) are built using CBC, so over-penetration into your neighbor’s apt. is non-existent.

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