The Defensive Shotgun

March 23, 2015  
Categories: Op-Eds


We start out your week with a piece by Don Copp about scatterguns–No, you can’t just rack them to scare people off, you snot eating simpleton. Get your learnin’ hats on. Mad Duo


A look at the Defensive Shotgun: its advantages, disadvantages, uses, and How We Make Them Work

by Don Copp

There are many who tout the shotgun as the do-all of the firearms world. Many will tell you the shotgun is versatile enough to be an effective CQB weapon as well as a rifle when needed. Much of the shotgun myth comes from its place as the standard firearm in many law enforcement armories, alongside the double-action revolver.

The shotgun was perhaps chosen by LEOs because everyone owned one. In a time when firearms were a normal household item, almost all homeowners had a shotgun for pest control and small game hunting. The weapon was a natural transition for those entering law enforcement; since shotguns were used by so many, training with them was seen as unnecessary.

Even today, when the average police cadet receives up to sixty hours of handgun training, shotgun instruction is a mere eight hours in many states. Those eight hours aren’t enough, and many who use the shotgun don’t fully understand its limitations or advantages. Even today, many assume the average person knows what they need to know about the shotgun. And mythology about the shotgun lives on.



The shotgun holds this mythical position because of the stories surrounding it. One was used to good effect at the OK Corral, but most people don’t know the shotgun was fired from only a few feet away into Tom McLaury’s back as he fled. He kept running until he died a couple blocks away;  even with two loads of buckshot, he didn’t instantly fall.

Shotguns also rode the stage coaches of the Old West and were used by Confederate Cavalrymen. Coachmen believed a shotgun loaded with buckshot gave them a better chance of hitting an opponent while moving (but we’ve never found concrete proof of that). In addition, shotguns have ridden in patrol cars and been at LEO’s sides since the days the lone constable walked a beat.

Because so many people have used a shotgun during its long history, many myths still surround it. These myths need to be addressed, and maybe even dispelled.


One of the first myths which we need to dispel is one that’s been repeated by old-timers to novice shooters forever: “All you need to do is rack a shotgun to clear a room because everyone knows that sound.” In truth, in these days of political correctness when many people never even touch a gun, not everyone knows that sound. And while it’s distinctive, there’s no guarantee it will clear a room or that it’s a fight stopper. The sound of a shotgun racking is not going to make your opponent suddenly fall to their knees quaking in fear, nor will it send the vagabond running for their lives. It might be an attention-getter; however, you don’t know what your adversary’s mental conditioning might be, nor what their training is. Flashing the shotgun around like a magician’s wand can change an easily-remedied situation into an out-of-control situation rather quickly. The shotgun is a tool like any other and has no magical properties.


Another myth is “you don’t have to aim.” We can’t say how many times we’ve heard this argument repeated by armchair specialists. Like all tools, a shotgun must be used correctly to obtain the maximum effect. You can’t simply point a shotgun down a narrow hallway, shoot and hope for the best. There is no such thing as a “cone of death” with a shotgun; anything in its path will not be obliterated, shredded, blown backward or otherwise disintegrate into a mound of quivering flesh. Shot fired from a shotgun has a pattern and depending on the distance and type of shot, there are gaps in that pattern. And as with all firearms, if you want to hit your target you have to actually aim at it.

I like shotguns because they do everything I want them to.” This statement is great if you are hunting upland birds or kicking the brush for rabbit. But it’s bad for a defensive shotgun. A shotgun is not a “do all” weapon. It can do many things but it either does a specific job well or it half-asses everything. This is why people are sometimes wrong to use a shotgun. Before you roll your eyes, read the reasons we say this. For now just accept that the shotgun, while versatile, is simply not a “do everything” firearm, especially as a defensive weapon.

The final myth of the shotgun we’ll address: “I can load it with slugs and use it just like my rifle.” It is not a rifle. The shotgun can be used as a solid projectile thrower, but this isn’t what it was designed for. It has limited range as a slug thrower and requires a special (rifled) barrel to make a slug (preferably a sabot) travel any respectable distance with accuracy. As a standard out-of-the-box firearm, the shotgun is a poor substitute for a rifle.


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Okay, four myths have been addressed. There are more, but we’ll limit the focus to just those. In order to proceed, we need to get really negative and talk about how a shotgun is a disadvantage to the defensive shooter.

While this next statement might fall into the myth category, we are going to address it here as a disadvantage. There are two parts to the statement and we’ll look at both. Many believe that all they need to end a fight are the few rounds held by the shotgun’s short internal magazine. After all, the shotgun is so powerful it’ll stop a fight with one round.

Not true. Stopping the attack depends on the placement of the round on the target. There is no guarantee a single load 00 buckshot will cause enough damage to stop an enemy. As noted earlier, even a double load of 00 buckshot might not be enough to immediately drop your opponent. Let’s face it; all you are really putting down range with 00 buck are eight or nine .32 caliber round balls with no expansion properties. That means the rounds enter small, travel small, and leave the body — if they manage to do that at all — small.

And let’s address the claim that preceded the power myth of the shotgun; you don’t need to reload because the shotgun is so powerful. In reality, the number one disadvantage of a shotgun is the limited ammunition capacity, which makes it not as powerful as people think. Most shotguns are limited to fewer rounds than a well-concealed revolver. Tactical shotguns with extended tubes partially rectify this, but modern revolvers are capable of holding up to eight rounds in a less punishing package (we use the revolver as a comparison not because we recommend them, but because it is a package that everyone can relate to and has myths of its own). Most shotguns straight from the factory are restricted to two rounds. Removing the plug can increase this to as many as eight, but the standard is four. Not only is the shotgun limited in ammo, but it is also slow to reload — unless one spends hours a week practicing — and even then, a speed-loaded revolver is still a faster defensive weapon.


pervasive in pop culture

What people fail to understand is that over an extended period of time, a shotgun is punishing to shoot. We have spoken with many people who like to say that they can shoot a hundred rounds in a day through their favorite birdgun. While this is fine for them and certainly increases the tolerance for the shotgun, the standard field load does not translate very well to a hundred rounds of defensive loads.

A great disadvantage of the shotgun is the recoil. The standard qualification for police is about thirty rounds of full-power ammo. From experience, we can say it is hard to get officers to qualify with shotguns because they simply do not like shooting multiple full-power loads. To remedy this problem, manufacturers have developed reduced-power defensive loads. These have improved over time and made shotguns much more effective.

Shotguns, fully loaded and tactically dressed out are heavy. A similarly set up AR15 with 30 rounds weighs less than a shotgun with seven rounds in the tube, five in a side saddle and five more in a buttstock sleeve. If you don’t think weight is a problem, carry that shotgun all day and use it in a tactical class. Weight and the distribution of that weight is paramount for an all-day hump as well as a limited engagement. If your firearm is a pain to use when you’re not stressed out, it’ll be a worse pain when you’re under stress.


Finally, many think the shotgun is great because anyone can use one. The problem is that the shotgun can not be used by everyone. Size and strength matter greatly when using a long arm like the shotgun. Shotgun stocks are fixed for one length of pull. They are not one size fits all as most believe.

When properly mounted, a defensive shotgun stock is too long for the average shooter. When using a pump-action shotgun the distance of the forearm to the action may be overly long for smaller shooters, which can result in short stroking the weapon or simply not having enough leverage to hold the shotgun up for aiming and operation. In addition to the above-mentioned failings, the manual of arms for a shotgun is intensive. To use a shotgun is not simply a matter of loading and firing. There are stages in a shotgun’s readiness and an individual who is not familiar with its operation can open themselves up to a series of catastrophic events. Swapping out rounds from buckshot to a slug if needed, and reloading the shotgun in a manner that keeps it ready for use, are skills which require knowledge and practice.


Real Use

Now that we’ve totally derided the shotgun as a useful tool, let’s take a look at some of the things a shotgun is good for. Admittedly, the list is not a long one. But then as a defensive tool, the shotgun’s advantages truly are as limited as the weapon itself.

The main advantage of a shotgun is that no matter the political climate, a shotgun remains a “socially acceptable” firearm. They are not viewed (for the most part) as an evil weapon of mass destruction. In states where one can not own a standard black rifle, a shotgun is a viable alternative. Because of years of societal familiarization with the shotgun, one can still own a shotgun and be seen as merely a sportsman, rather than a right-wing extremist bent on overthrowing the government while searching the skies for black helicopters. Having a pump-action shotgun leaning in a corner is not going to send the average citizen into an apoplectic fit. Shotguns blend well into the background and are nearly invisible to the casual observer.


They are inexpensive. Good, reliable shotguns can be bought for under three hundred dollars in configurations suitable for defensive purposes. Sporting shotguns can be found with synthetic stocks and can be customized as needed. Add-ons for the shotgun are fairly inexpensive when compared to the black rifle’s accessories. The shotgun’s internal magazine precludes the need for extra magazines, thereby reducing the cost even further. Upgrades to the shotgun can be done by any qualified gunsmith and even drop-in parts are plentiful. Recommended and easily installed is a tactical magazine spring and follower which can be had for as little as twelve dollars. Other upgrades are up to the owner, but this spring and follower are a must for a defensive shotgun.

In addition to the political and social advantages and cost, what the shotgun really has going for it is that at ranges inside 25 meters, a properly aimed and fired shotgun can deliver a devastating mass of lead which can perforate a body cavity with enough holes that the body can not keep the subject from bleeding out. Multiple holes, blood loss, and shock all play into the advantage of 00 buckshot when properly delivered with well-aimed fire. Of course to achieve this the key is to deliver multiple rounds on target quickly and effectively. This requires that the shooter train with the weapon on a regular basis.

While not a pure positive in some respects, a shotgun can be loaded out with multi-purpose rounds that extend the usefulness of the firearm as a primary weapon. We are not talking about bean bag rounds here. We recommend that you load only one type of round in your shotgun, the standard 00 buckshot load. While there are many types of defensive loads out there — and some will certainly improve not only the shot pattern and range of the weapon — loading your shotgun with a standard, easily found defensive load enables you to not only use the shotgun to its fullest potential as a defensive weapon but is also easier on the pocketbook, which is one of the shotgun’s advantages, to begin with.

And if you live in an area that discourages combat-style rifles or pistols, a solid projectile such as the slug enables the defensive shotgun to be a multi-purpose firearm. One school of thought is to have a mix of rounds in your reload, separated only by the position of each different load in the sidesaddle or buttstock holder. We recommend that slugs be carried on the buttstock of the weapon, separate from the buckshot on the sidesaddle. Under stress this allows you to know instantly which round you are reaching for.


Link to “Box O’ Truth” shotgun patterning if you click the image

Ammunition Selection

On the subject of ammo and its usefulness, 00 buckshot is what your defensive shotgun should be loaded with. There are people who will tell you birdshot is the way to go due to its lack of penetration. Those people are, quite frankly, idiots. Penetration is what reaches the vitals of the target and kills it. Birdshot is limited in size, sheds energy quickly and will fail to reach the vital areas needed to stop the attacker. 00 buckshot is better than birdshot for defensive purposes; birdshot is a load that no defensive instructor in their right mind would recommend if they value the lives of their students.

With 00 buckshot you are shooting up to nine .32 caliber round balls at a target. When all those projectiles are delivered on target, the results can be dramatic. 00 buckshot is the best round for the shotgun; you should “pattern” the shot at ten, fifteen, and twenty-five meters, so you know exactly how far it spreads.

All this being said, your defensive shotgun should:

  • be a dependable pump or semi-auto from a reputable manufacturer;
  • have a barrel length of between 18 to 22 inches (anything longer is a detriment to the usefulness of the weapon when handling in a defensive situation. Shorter barrels require federal permission and paperwork and while they do make the weapon handy in tight spaces, they severely limit the weapon’s range);
  • have a magazine tube extension and spring and follower upgrade for increasing the ammunition on hand and reliability;
  • have highly visible sights for low light shooting and be easily seen by the eye under stress (whether you choose a bead or ghost ring, quality sights are a must);
  • have a stock cut to fit the shooter (defensive tactics require a different stance than the wing shooter, and the stock must be correct for the application);
  • have on the stock a means to carry reloads (and these reloads should be slugs if the shooter wants to use the shotgun as a multi-purpose weapon. There are various types of stock carriers, and the carrier needs to be affixed to the stock to keep it from moving during shooting. There are also stocks that can carry reloads internally. These need to be inspected regularly after shooting for breakage and spring failure);
  • should have a side-saddle on the receiver filled with 00 buckshot and positioned for ease of loading;
  • should have a white light from a reputable manufacturer (this can be an attachment or a light mounted within the forearm); and
  • like a rifle, the shotgun should have a sling of some sort (a sling is a longarm holster which allows the shooter to not only move the weapon out of the way for administrative reasons but can also be used to control the weapon in close quarters).

Beyond these additions, anything else is up to the shooter.


As with everything else we advocate, whatever you buy for the shotgun, be sure that you only buy quality parts from reputable manufacturers.


To our minds, shotguns are not the optimal tool for defense. They can, however, be utilized to great advantage provided their limitations are understood. Because of its acceptance by mainstream society, a shotgun can serve as an innocuous defensive firearm; even with local restrictions, they are legal in every state. If you choose a shotgun, pick the most compact model allowable, outfit it with simple and easily obtained additions to extend the capacity, have reloads on the weapon itself, and by all means practice as often as possible. Always reload from the side saddle or buttstock to develop the skills and memory you’ll need in adverse conditions. Learn how to effectively and swiftly swap out rounds if you have to force it into a multi-purpose role and know the limitations and advantages of the rounds you’re using. Train to clear shotgun malfunctions and know its manual of arms. As with all of your defensive weapons, train with the shotgun at every opportunity so that when the time comes you are as prepared as possible to face opposition.

⚠️ Some hyperlinks in this article may contain affiliate links.
If you use them to make a purchase, we will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. 

Don Copp, About the author:don01

Also known as, “The Dude”, Don is a former law enforcement officer, SWAT/ERT shooter, and department trainer. He has an undiagnosed affinity for archaic and antiquated weapons, which probably stems from watching too much Dead Wood. The, ‘Copp’ part of MilCopp Tactical’s namesake, there he munificently promulgates superlative fighting advice. Translated, that means MilCopp teaches and advocates a constantly evolving, amalgamated method of military and law enforcement tactics. They leaven those TTPs with lessons learned from continued training and ongoing experience on the sharp end; these TTP’s are based on a combination of hard lessons learned and practical real-world results. He also likes bourbon. Allll the bourbon.


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  1. Doc

    Thanks for the comments, I like to hear what you all are thinking.

  2. James Renteria

    I know there is no such thing as a perfect firearm, and that all information should be considered in the context it was given, but I do not agree with everything that was said here.

    As a offensive firearm the shotgun has great versatility. the number of rounds and uses from breaching to clearing rooms, to disabling vehicles says a lot. Of course the situation will dictate a lot of what goes down. Also the rounds available. The shotgun saw a lot of usage overseas and we carried one in our load-out. It has had some traditional draw back. Range/capacity/reloading. Technology is over coming some of these ( Fostech / MKA 1919 / FRAG-12 system). As a defensive gun, with the right setup and loads it performs well. But it does with all firearms require training. We have a diluted idea of what really makes a good defensive round and what actually stops an intruder. Instead look at E.R. reports on gun shot wounds. Shotguns are listed as one of the most lethal and serious wounding firearms. Also the difference between a determined attacker and some punk breaking in makes a difference on the outcome of any engagement.

    • Doc

      When are you, as a homeowner, going to be breaching anything?

  3. Tom in Wisconsin

    To echo the above a little bit, 200 yards and in is the useful range of a shotgun. Granted, a shotgun really shines at close range, but the versatility is there. My experience is with a smooth bore, 20″ barrel. Using standard Forster slugs (7/8 and 1 oz.) in standard, high velocity and reduced recoil loads consistent hits at 200 yards and in are easily doable. The need may not be there for a 200 yard defensive shot, but the ability is there. Much like the pattern size for yardage ratios, know your weapon and what can be done with it.

    • Doc

      Easily doable under stress and without a bench?

      I can prone out and get hits with a 14 inch entry shotgun too, under optimal conditions. But most people who think the shotguns is awesome, really don’t train with it, and that’s the point of this article; and I say it more than once, train train train with the shotgun. It’s not magic. But people like to think it is.

      • Tom in Wisconsin

        Yes, under stress and without a bench.

  4. egs

    I just attended a defensive shotgun class yesterday. I think the author nailed it.

  5. Chefjon

    The only part of this that I’ll take issue with is the “Limited ammo capacity” argument. Yes, my 590 holds 8 rounds…but that, in fact, is *72 projectiles*. In the 1st 2 shots, I can hit with 2 more projectiles than my entire G19 magazine+1.

    The flip side of this is you have to hit with them. Patterning and training are VITAL to using a shotty. That’s where most people veer off the path with most weapons, though.

    Is a shotgun the “perfect” home defense gun? No, but I think it would work very well for defense of a fixed position/fatal funnel (safe room, hallway, stairs), moving targets within 30 yds around a house, and a slug can be minute-of-asshole at 100 yds. All these things are “home defense” ranges.

    • Doc

      But those are none expanding, limited penetration round balls. Your G19 has a much better hit ratio with each round than a shotgun does with a cluster, and you have the advantage of the expansion and penetration of the G19 that one of those pellets does not enjoy.

      And as you pointed out, you have to hit.

      • E Plebnista

        “all you are really putting down range with 00 buck are eight or nine .32 caliber round balls with no expansion properties … those are none expanding, limited penetration round balls”


        I hope this reads as friendly from this little box. You need to check out autopsy photos of CQ 12ga encounters. They tend to be DRT results with Cartoonily-Large cavities through which one could put a fist, or a softball, without scraping the edges, 3/5ths-missing heads, etc. The argument that “you have to hit the target” is rather juvenile (as it would apply to -any- conventional weapon), as is the idea that sidearms are in any way of a superior accuracy to a longarm for a civilian user.

        As to what Chefjon broached about relative firepower, if the shotgun is fitted with any manner of drum or RCI’s XRAIL etc it enters its own class for throwing lead [or copper, or steel] .. capable of launching more projectiles in a few seconds than a SAW could with its entire drum, and by that point maybe two barrels.

        -SAW typically doing a sustained rate of 100 rounds per minute or rapid rate of 200 rounds per minute. A drum shotty by comparison can move 180 projectiles downrange (if need-be) in about six seconds. And then reload and do it again.

        Furthermore on that point, a single contact by any sidearm caliber is unlikely to cause an authoritative stop, often even into vital structures – requiring either additional successful hits, or the luxury of a perilous wait time, in order to render the opponent incapacitated. A single successful contact with a shotgun tends to be 7 times the energy – and 9 simultaneous hits – of a close-pattern. And that’s just from one hit. CQ shotgun wounds aren’t discussed as damage but rather as potential for survivability. From a UK forensics hub: “The ability of a victim to survive a shotgun wound depends upon the range of fire. Contact or close range injuries usually result in massive destruction, and clearly wounds involving the head or thorax result in instantaneous or rapid death.”

        The argument that the projectiles “don’t expand” is weak. Any fist or softball can demonstrate the point. A G19 is -not- in its league.

        Additionally for indoor lay encounters, (presuming misses as per your examples) there remains a definite psychological difference between the ‘pop pop pop’ of a sidearm versus the ‘Ka-Thoom Ka-Thoom Ka-Thoom’ of a .73 caliber shotgun – which can trigger in the mind of the perp “Hmm, I’m pretty sure nothing here is worth getting shot by that.”

        Yes, ‘four shots which don’t connect’ aren’t that impressive. (As this can be said of anything.) But one or two, or 10, or 12, or 15, or 20, which do are another matter entirely. If your argument has to be based upon the presumption of worst-possible configuration / worst-possible user performance of a platform, (rather than an average, or even actual Expanded Homicide Data) how useful is it?

        If someone is not up to its recoil, they’ll be happier with a carbine, or a still .615 cal 20ga, but if (as anyone should with any weapon of choice) they become practised of it – it can reward them, and as you said be innocuously-appearing doing so.

  6. JNZ

    Well, for the most part I agree… But defensive shotgun class, tube full of 00, swapping in slugs, I was able to make 10″ plate hits from 50-100y.

    You do not need a rifled barrel for slugs to be accurate to 100y. Past that, yes of course. It’s hard to justify defensive uses beyond 100y though.

    The real utility in a shotgun is the versatility… Not really mentioned in the article!

    With one gun you can hunt birds and small game, but instantly be able to swap buckshot or slug in for larger or defensive uses. If you have a tube full of buck and you come across something that doesn’t “need” to be killed, you can swap in beanbag or less lethal, OC rounds, etc. I’d like to see anyone breech a gate, door, lock with a rifle, again, swap in a round suitable for that. Etc. If you could truly only have one gun or have one gun on you, a shotgun isn’t the worst choice.

    The single biggest feature of the gun… Most people have no idea how to use.

    • Doc

      That might read wrong. For accuracy’s sake, a rifled barrel is preferred, if you want to use it as a rifle.

      Bean bag rounds are stupid for the homeowner; you don’t have five guys standing around eager to beat the shit out of someone once you use it.

  7. Searcher12

    After training with 12 gauge slug I found my shoulder could no longer take the punishing recoil of the gun. I now shoot with the 20 gauge which is for me, more manageable. The down side is fewer variety of rounds and a smaller delivery package on target. (made you snicker over “package”)I agree with the article. Nice Job

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