Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Guide to Buying a Shotgun for Home Defense

Key Considerations when Buying a Home Defense Shotgun 

Few weapons are more intimidating to criminals than the shotgun. When it comes to buying a shotgun for home defense, here are a few key features to consider. 

Mossberg 500 with 18.5 inch barrel - Photo by Nemo5576 Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 3.0)

When it comes to self-defense few firearms are as intimidating to criminals as the shotgun. From stagecoach duty in the wild west to the Moro insurrection in the Philippines to trench warfare during World War I to current day conflicts, the shotgun has been effective in close quarters combat. When loaded with buckshot, the shotgun is a very lethal weapon. Consequently, many gun makers produce shotguns designed for home defense.

Barrel Length. In a defensive role, buyers often look for shorter barrels. The National Firearms Act (NFA) places defines Short Barreled Shotguns as shotguns with barrels less than 18-inches long. Thus, to avoid additional permits and taxes, the most popular shotgun barrel lengths for home defense are typically 18.5 or 20 inches long. The long 26 and 28 inch barrels used for sport shooting and waterfowl hunting are considered unweildy to maneuver within the confines of a home.

Gauge. The gauge of a shotgun refers to the number of lead spheres of a given diameter required to make 1 pound. According to Chuck Hawks, it takes 12 lead balls of a 12-guage diameter to make up a pound of lead. He writes that "the actual (nominal) bore diameters of the various guages are as follows: 10 gauge = .775 inch, 12 gauge = .729 inch, 16 gauge = .662 inch, 20 gauge = .615 inch, 28 gauge = .550 inch." The gauge of a shotgun is also an indicator of how much recoil a shotgun will have. The two most popular gauges are 12-gauge and 20-gauge. A 20-guage shotgun typically has less recoil than the more powerful 12-guage. A standard shotgun shell is 2.75-inches long, but due to restrictions on lead in shot, some shotguns are designed to handle more powerful 3 1/2-inch magnum shotgun shells.

Action. Three types of action are typically considered for home defense: semi-automatic, pump, and break-action. A semi-automatic (also called auto-loader) automatically ejects a spent shell casing and chambers a new round after the shotgun is fired. A pump action shotgun ejects the spent shell casing and chambers a new round whenever the shooter pulls a sliding forearm on the shotgun. A break action shotgun is a classic single shot or double barrel shotgun. When a lever on the top of the shotgun is pushed, the shotgun breaks open where the barrel and action meet. The shells are pushed up so that the shooter can easily extract them and manually load new shells.

Ammunition Capacity. Due to the size of shotshells and hunting regulations, shotguns typically hold less ammunition than handguns or semi-automatic rifles. Most shotguns hold four rounds in a tubular magazine positioned under the barrel. Single-shot or double barrel shotguns carry one or two chambered rounds. For home defense, some shotguns have extended magazines that can hold 8 to 10 rounds.

Ammunition Storage. For defensive use, some shotguns are accessorized to store extra ammunition in a sleeve with cloth loops on the buttstock, on the sling in ammunition loops, or in a rigid storage system mounted on the side of the action.

Choke. Shotgun barrels have a smooth bore (without rifling grooves) so that multiple shot can be propelled out of the barrel with each pull of the trigger. A choke at the end of the barrel restricts the path of the shot and effects the size of pattern they make on the target. A tight choke makes for smaller tighter pattern and an open choke yields a wider pattern of shot. When hunting flying birds, it is harder to hit with a tighter choke, but the tighter pattern of shot makes for a deadlier shot with more pellets on target. Within the confines of a home, close ranges will naturally make for tight patterns of shot on a target. In informal tests with shotguns and buckshot at self-defense ranges, a writer for the popular firearms site, The Box O' Truth, found that the choke didn't make much difference for home defense.

Sights. Shotguns typically have a rudimentary iron sights with a metal bead on top of the end of the barrel. For skeet, trap, and bird hunting, this is sufficient as technique focuses on quickly shouldering the gun, leading the moving target, and firing. For home defense, some shooters opt to add an optical site that super-imposes a red dot on a target. Other shooters mount laser sights on defensive shotguns. When preparing for a home invasion, you may feel perfectly capable of hitting a person-sized target from 15 to 25 feet away without technical assistance.

Sling Mount. Shotguns are fairly heavy and require two hands to operate. Many shooters like to have a sling on the shotgun to help them carry it for extended periods of time. It may also help a shooter retain control over the shotgun during hand-to-hand combat.

Accessory Rails. When it comes to firearms for "tactical" use, accessory rails that mount on top and on the sides of a firearm are very popular. Many shooters like to mount powerful flashlights on their firearms. While I was initially opposed to this trend, fearing that a flashlight would give away a shooter's position, it is vitally important to positively identify your target before pulling the trigger. Many accidental shootings occur when a rebellious teen sneaks back into a home after curfew and is mistaken for a burglar. Accessory rails provide a solid platform for mounting flashlights, laser sights, and some optical sights.

Pistol Grip. Some users feel that an assault-rifle-style pistol grip provides for quicker aiming and increased controllability. Some dedicated home defense shotguns offer pistol grips as standard equipment. However, shotguns with pistol grips instead of shoulder stocks are difficult to shoot well. According to B. Gil Horman writing in American Rifleman magazine, "removing the shoulder stock makes a shotgun shorter and easier to move with, but they are not practical defensive tools since they're nearly impossible to aim properly."

Price. Home defense shotguns can be expensive. But, there are reasonably priced options. Plan on spending from $200 to $600 for a solid choice. More expensive choices may give you the features preferred by your local SWAT team. Less expensive choices will tend to be single-shot or well-used shotguns.
With a wide variety of makes and models available at many different price points, a shotgun can be a valuable addition to your arsenal for home defense.


B. Gil Horman. "Choosing a Home Defense Gun." American Rifleman. May 17, 2012
Chuck Hawks. "Introduction to Shotgun Gauges and Shells." 2002, 2008.
"The Box O' Truth #45 - Shotgun Chokes ad Buckshot Part Two." The Box O'
"National Firearms Act" Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

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