Welcome to “Caliber Wars”, a series devoted to talking about the myths, legends and just plain disinformation propagated in the gun community. No, no, no… We are not starting flame wars here! We are trying to (but surely will fail) put those theological discussions to bed (forever). The 12 gauge shotgun is the best weapon for home defense, right? Wrong! Let’s explore the legend, myth and lore of this Caliber War.
Oh the lowly shotgun… At the same time is considered the universal weapon of choice for everything, yet is the weapon that gets none of the glamorous scenes in movies. No readers, we are not hiding movies in this article, sorry, but maybe next time I may do song references (or dogs or arcane exotic dancer names – ooops did I say that?).
Yes, the shotgun – this is a very versatile weapon. It is one that can be loaded for everything from squirrel to bear (literally). It may truly be the “universal” weapon to end all weapons. With it being part scatter gun and part musket, the shotgun is a unique weapon.
As such, it is the absolute best choice for home defense, right?
But, Gun and Gear Guy…. but, but, but…. That is what everyone says and every “gun guy” I know swear this to be the case.
Well reader, let me revise your perspective a bit.
As a backdrop to this, I need to provide you with some of the background as to why I am qualified to elucidate fully this “Caliber War”. Fighting this “Caliber War” takes more than just gun knowledge. Ballistically, given the diversity of scenarios a shotgun supports (on paper), the shotgun “looks” like an awesome home defense weapon.
But, “paper” is often misleading.
Most issues with the shotgun as a home defense weapon involve the usage scenarios and logistics. Although there are ballistic challenges with the shotgun, the issues are not so much about the ballistics.
So, why/how am I qualified to talk about these issues?
Almost all of my life, I have trained in various fighting methods ranging from Judo/Jiu-Jitsu to Combatives. I have spent a lot of time on both sides of CQB (Close Quarter Combat, also referred to as “room clearing”). In these scenarios, we sometimes deployed shotguns and I have had solid experiences with shotguns in urban CQB settings.
Blast From The Past
Let’s first ponder how the 12 gauge shotgun become the centerpiece of home defense. Given that most Americans have access to pistols, rifles and even MSR/ARs (these are commonplace these days), why consider the 12 gauge shotgun? I think the sole reason the 12 gauge shotgun developed as the “home defense” gun of choice stems from two primary sources: 1) TV’s glamorization of it in “Law and Order” type of shows and 2) the fact it has been the most commonplace gun in the home up until the last 30 years.
Let’s explore this a bit…
If you watch any “police” show (movie, tv, etc.), you will typically find a scene where a shotgun is “racked” (slide used to put a shell in the chamber). Even as a law enforcement officer, I was taught that the “mere sound” of a shotgun being racked was often a useful defensive tool. Personally, having had a lot of shotguns racked at me in various scenarios, I never bought into that theory. As a trained person, that sound meant (for me) “you are getting ready to lose that gun”. That said, Hollywood has ingrained the image and sound into most people’s psyches such that it is felt to be profound.
If you think about the gun that is probably found in most homes, then it is the shotgun. Recent changes in pistol purchases may have eclipsed that in the last 15 or so years. But for decades, the shotgun was the cheap, multi-purpose tool that was kept in most homes. Need to shoot some birds, pesky snakes, rodents or possums? Then grab your shotgun. Need some food? Then grab your shotgun and go rabbit, bird, squirrel or whatever hunting. Need to kill a deer, a bear or run off some wolves? Then grab your shotgun. Except for the Western states where you had to take much longer shots, a shotgun did it all.
Voila… Here is the math for math geeks:
Image (Hollywood) + Availability x Diversity = Shotgun Becomes Home Defense Myth
Point That Thunder Stick
Ok ok ok… So why isn’t the 12 gauge (or any gauge) shotgun good for home defense? There are a LOT of reasons. Let’s outline them quickly, then jump into describing them in more detail…
- shot pretty useless/buckshot or slug pretty dangerous
- recoil limits usage
- big and bulky
- noisy and blinding
Granny’s Rock Salt
Remember Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies? Remember how she loaded her double barrel (looked like a 16 gauge) with rock salt? Well, let me dispel a myth here today. That rock salt could kill you just like any other shot – it does not just sting. Granted, it may have less of a chance to kill, but it could still kill you.
That myth dispelled… What do you load a shotgun with as a home defense weapon? The options are shot, slugs or buckshot.
Shot has many limitations. Generally, I would say that, unless you are within a “very close” range, most shot is going to have limited kill probabilities. Does it hurt like hell? Yes! Does it knock them down and make them wish they were dead? Absolutely! Given that shot spreads quickly and starts acting like independent projectiles, the penetration and terminal ballistics start diminishing off.
Shot also spreads and opens up the possibility of wider collateral damage. If a child or other non-combatant is near your target, they are probably going to take a load of shot as well!
What about a slug? Great! They have great terminal ballistics. A large lead slug has the ability to hit a target out to 100 yards (or more). Awesome! They have limited collateral spread and definite killing abilities across its range.
However, shoot one in a house and it may go through the target, the wall behind it and into the room (and any occupant). It is a lot like shooting a 50 caliber in a closed space. Ooops!
If you live alone, no big deal (except for your fish in the fish tank in the next room). But, most of us do not and a slug starts becoming a risk to all occupants.
Buckshot, basically, suffers from the worst of both shot and slugs.
Finally, on the subject of the “bullets”: What do you keep loaded in your shotgun – shot, buckshot or slug? This is always a conundrum.
If we get beyond the “what do I use” ammunition issue, there is another doozy… The recoil. A typical 12 gauge shotgun (which
most people think is the de facto weapon of choice) has a very solid (euphemism) kick. Ok ok ok, it is gonna stomp a lot of untrained and smaller people like a mule. Me, I have no issues with it – well, except for the high velocity turkey rounds I shot. But, most people do have issues with the “kick back”.
Generally speaking, a lot of smaller, weaker, older or otherwise “not used to it” people are going to shoot once, to stand there and be dazed by the recoil. So, recoil is a key issue for a lot of people.
I dare say, any expert would recommend a single shot “self-defense” weapon. To a lot of people, a shotgun’s recoil may (temporarily) make it one (as they recover from the recoil).
What’s Around the Corner
When I think about a shotgun (even the pistol grip versions), I think about a weapon that better be used at a decent range or one better plan on losing it. Yep, that’s right, I said losing it. Why?
A shotgun is a long (even short ones), big barreled gun that is easy to grab (if in range). It provides a great lever arm to wrestle it away. Given the “spread” of the rounds out of the barrel, you have to give yourself and others a lot of leeway to avoid shooting something that you do not plan on shooting. This means that moving a shotgun requires very coarse movements that constantly exposes the gun.
Honestly, when I see someone grab a shotgun in a self-defense scenario, and I am the “bad guy”, I chuckle. There is a very high probability I am going to take it away from them.
Next time the house is clear of occupants, clear your shotgun properly (to make it safe) and go try to move around your house with it. You will find that it is not so easy.
Where’d He Go?
Ever fire a firearm inside of a confined space? Ever fire a shotgun inside of a confined space? Unless you have worked in some type of tactical scenario, if you answered “yes” to either, then I am assuming you had an unintentional discharge…
Go review your gun safety!
Most of you probably have not. If your only reference is the nice dove hunting you did or the 1 shot slug deer hunt, then let me give you a reference. A shotgun blast in a confined space is thunderous…. deafening thunderous. More so, the muzzle “blast” in darkness can be nearly blinding.
Essentially, a shotgun blast in a confined dark space can be equivalent to a “stun” grenade.
One second you see your attacker, and then the next you do not. Not to mention, you will not be hearing “Get down on the floor, we are the police” as you blast at a no-knock warrant team. Essentially, you will be blind and deaf for a period of time. Welcome to the world of tactical “Alice in Wonderland”.
But I Shot Him…
So, if you are “one of those” who totally ignores common sense and facts presented to you and still decide that the shotgun is the de facto home defense gun…consider this. Someone breaks into your home. You stumble, pumping your shotgun into the room, both of you look at each other and the criminal turns and starts running. Flinging the gun up, you blast off two sense-deadening rounds. The first is shot, the second is buckshot and the third in the tube is a slug. You are sure, in spite of your completely worthless sight and hearing, you saw the criminal jump as the blast went off, and you heard them squeal.
You run and stumble through the front door and raise your gun to fire off that slug to “finish him off” – for God’s sake he was breaking into your home! Boom! The slug launches at the fleeing criminal and he continues to run.
The police arrive and, after some investigation, they tell you that you must have missed. While there are clear shot patterns on your walls along with other signs of devastation, there was not a single drop of blood found.
The range of a shotgun, particularly in variable object environments, is very restricted. When you fired that shot at the criminal at 20 feet across the room, the various features of your home (and furniture) absorbed and deflected enough that the terminal shot on the target was minimal and was absorbed by the criminal’s clothing. That second shot taken in complete blackout (your vision is nullified by the first blast) was high and the criminal was running out of the door. This provided the solid wood door frame and door the chance to largely shield the criminal. Maybe a single shot did hit him, but given the “ball” ballistics, it did not create much of a wound channel.
Finally, that slug you shot off into the darkness just plain missed. Your adrenaline, the dulled senses from two previous shots and the criminal’s frantic running away created a very hard scenario in order to make a good shot.
We present this scenario to give you a solid feel for the limits a shotgun really has: limits of range (not just distance) and variable environmental effects. While you think that a shotgun is a “do everything” gun, it is really a do everything very poorly gun with just small environmental variables.
Poo Poo Ca Choo – Home Defense?
So Gun and Gear Guy, it is clear that you think that the shotgun is worthless for home defense…
This “Caliber War” was about killing the myth that it was “THE CHOICE” for home defense.
Do I rank it high on the “home defense weapon” scale? Sometimes. Remember, as we try to show with all “Caliber Wars”, it is about knowing your scenario. There are scenarios I would pick or even recommend using the 12 gauge (or any gauge) shotgun for home defense. Some examples:
- Largely, you live alone… You do not have the worries of shooting someone in the next room.
- You live in a very gun restricted state or country… There are some jurisdictions that only leave you this choice for home defense.
- You live rurally where your “defense” may be as much a bear (or mountain lion or wolf) as a criminal… This is a great scenario for a shotgun used for home defense when you need the diversity of ammo.
That said, is the shotgun the “perfect” home defense weapon? Not so much. It has some limitations and issues.
Order of Battle – Home Defense
What is the best home defense weapon? It is really simple…
YOU are your best home defense weapon. What other additional weapons are good choices? Well, that is complete scenario dependent. Consider these thoughts:
- In an apartment, condo, etc., load any firearm based weapon with minimal penetration ammunition. The last thing that you want to happen is to have a round go through a wall into your neighbor’s home killing someone.
- In a rural area, consider non-human defense (animals or maybe even aliens 🙂 ). What you choose will vary on what non-human animals are around.
- Fighting inside a house (or any confined environment) with a long weapon is hazardous and prone to issues. A smaller weapon is better if you are moving in confined spaces.
Finally, remember this about any home defense weapon… If there is a weapon in the fight, there is a weapon in the fight. Do not assume because you start with it that you will finish with it.
Yes, I meant to spell that Shot Gun. That was not a misspelling. Am I shooting down the shotgun? Not at all! I love shotguns and own several. I even have one as part of my home defense arsenal. It has its place. From a diversity perspective, nothing beats it. But, it does come with logistic and tactical limitations and considerations.
Here is some of our other Caliber Wars series:
Also check out our Jim’s Gems series where we talk about defensive gun choices: