Ask twenty different home owners what sort of firearm they prefer for home protection, and you are likely to get 20 different answers. Some will say revolvers in calibers of .38 Special or above; some others will opine that nothing less than a full-auto AR-15 in 5.56 mm will do (and there is definitely a growing trend in this direction).
In the days before AR-15’s were in vogue and these guns became readily available, however, home defense was mainly conducted with revolvers, semiautomatic pistols, and long arms used for hunting—in fact, whatever householders had handy at the time the home invasion occurred.
The truth of the matter is that almost any firearm will do, when it comes to defending your home. Successful home defense has been conducted with firearms as basic as .22 LR rifles and pistols, which used to be common fixtures in every household.
Law enforcement professionals will tell you that in many instances, the mere presence of a firearm can turn the tables on home invaders; it is only when push comes to shove (and you actually have to shoot back) that the matter of firearm caliber realistically figures in the equation.
When you actually have to fire your weapon to stop an imminent threat, employing a caliber rated for personal defense is definitely in order. Like the gun gurus always say, think in terms of handguns chambered in .38 Special or greater, semi automatic pistols in 9mm and up, shotguns in 12- or 20-gauge, and rifles chambered in 5.56 mm or larger.
The Issue of Collateral Damage
A problem unique to home protection is the risk of collateral damage. Considering the way that homes are constructed today, it is quite easy for bullets to penetrate walls, ceilings, and even floors. It helps to remember that whenever you discharge a firearm, you are legally responsible for any damage that the bullet causes, from the time that it leaves the muzzle until it finally comes to rest.
The main trouble with using regular calibers — even handgun rounds like .38 Special and 9mm — is their ability to penetrate several layers of home partition material before the energy of their projectiles is fully expended and their projectiles finally come to a halt. The more powerful the caliber used, the more building material a bullet can plow through before its energy is completely spent.
Thus, a 5.56 mm round fired from an AR-15 at an intruder inside your home can quite easily pass through your house’s outer wall, and conceivably find its way into the house next door. If you’re lucky, it may not hurt anyone there; if you’re not, you are liable for any damage and injury that it causes, regardless of whether the injury was intentional, or not. The problem becomes even more pronounced with calibers such as .30-’06, which commonly pack enough energy to shoot through several houses.
Issues such as these, of course, can be mitigated through the use of hollow-point projectiles, which expand upon impact, and significantly decrease the incidence of over-penetration in both pistol and rifle calibers.
Enter the Shotgun
The safety consideration outlined above is undoubtedly why many security experts still recommend using a shotgun for home protection.
Unlike most firearms, a shotgun does not fire single solid projectiles (although it can be loaded to do so). The discharge from a shotgun is usually made up of numerous smalł pellets or balls, made out of lead, steel, tungsten, or other suitable metal. Unlike regular firearms whose projectiles travel along a single path, a shotgun’s projectiles are also designed to disperse in an ever-widening pattern.
By specifying the size of the pellets used in a shotgun cartridge (also called a ‘shell’) you can therefore control the amount of penetration that a shotgun discharge can deliver.
Today, commercial shotgun shells are usually loaded with pellets ranging from Number 9 (the smallest size) to Triple 0 (the largest). A single number 9 pellet measures just over 2 mm in diameter. A single Triple 0 pellet, on the other hand, measures 9.14 mm.
The bigger the pellet is, of course, the more energy it will carry, and the deeper it can penetrate. This means that you probably won’t want to use Triple 0 loads when firing from inside your home. This would be tantamount to discharging six 36-caliber projectiles simultaneously, each one with enough power to penetrate plywood or gypsum-board walls, and which could wind up in places you never intended them to go.
The common recommendation when using a shotgun for home defense specifies using shotgun shells loaded with number 7- to number 4-sized pellets. This allows for adequate penetration of “soft” (animal or human) targets, while mitigating over-penetration through commonly-used household building materials.
Aiming and Firing
In spite of the fact that shotgun projectiles disperse in an ever-widening pattern, however, it is still necessary to aim the gun to actually hit what you’re shooting at. The degree of precise aiming required to connect with a shotgun is somewhat less than that required for a rifle, but rudimentary aiming is still mandatory. Since rear sights are almost always absent on shotguns (most will only have a bead up front), you simply look down the barrel and use the bead up front to designate your target.
The main drawback to firing a shotgun would appear to be recoil. Because the combined weight of the projectiles that it discharges is greater than that of any single projectile fired by pistols or rifles, a shotgun generates a higher proportion of recoil energy, or “kick” when it fires. Users are therefore advised to grip the weapon as tightly as possible, and to lock the shotgun’s butt solidly against the shoulder to control the weapon’s recoil impulse. This will forestall losing your grip on the weapon and making it available to your adversary.
On the upside, the shotgun is perhaps the most intimidating firearm of all from a psychological standpoint. People have an irrational tendency to equate the size of the hole at a gun’s muzzle with its power, and a shotgun’s muzzle presents the biggest hole of them all, next to artillery pieces.
In addition, the shotgun generates an enormous amount of noise when it fires, louder and therefore more authoritative than most pistols and many rifles.
Finally, because a shotgun’s projectiles disperse in an ever-widening pattern, a shotgun blast also appears to generate more destruction in its path, than either a handgun or a rifle.
The effectiveness of shotguns for stopping lethal threats at close range approaches the stature of legendary. Combat troops of various nationalities still employ shotguns as a tool for house clearing in hostile environments, and law enforcement officers regularly carry one when effecting high-risk arrests.
While taking a full load of shotgun pellets has sometimes been known to be survivable, being at the receiving end of a shotgun blast has a distinct tendency to take people out of a fight. The amount of energy that a full load of shotgun pellets transfers to a human target is usually more than any pistol and many rifle calibers can deliver, since pellets from shotgun cartridges rarely pass through the target, and dump their entire kinetic load when they hit their target.
Soft tissue damage from shotgun blasts is also more difficult to cope with, since there are always multiple entry wounds and penetration channels that cause severe trauma to muscle tissue, bone, and internal organs. Even when death does not immediately occur, the victim of a shotgun blast usually bleeds out very quickly because of multiple wounds.
Choosing the Right Shotgun for Home Defense
Even though they will serve the purpose in a pinch, your father’s long-barreled trap and skeet guns and your grandfather’s old turkey gun are probably not the best shotguns to use for home defense, security experts say.
The business of defending your home commonly entails having to work in confined spaces.
Under these circumstances, using a weapon with a barrel over 30 inches long creates a real tactical disadvantage. Keeping the shotgun barrel’s length to 24 inches at the most is expedient, and working with a gun that has a 20-inch barrel is even better.
Simply put, the shorter barrels will allow you to maneuver around corners more briskly, without the gun snagging or scraping any walls. The shorter guns make it easier to maneuver through doorways, and will allow you to point the gun and get on target faster. Shorter barrels also give your adversaries less to latch on to, in the event of any gun-grabbing attempt.
The simplest, most basic shotgun is a single-barreled firearm which breaks open at the breech for loading and unloading. It holds one shot and commonly ejects the spent cartridge as soon as the breech is opened, clearing the chamber to accept the next round. It can have a barrel length of anywhere between 18 and 30 inches, depending on the type of game animal it was intended for.
The double-barreled shotgun featured as the main illustration for this article quite possibly represents the optimum length for a shotgun to be used in the home defense role. This was a gun purposely designed for defense against two-legged predators. It has two 20-inch barrels, plus individual hammers and triggers corresponding to each barrel.
This design is what is commonly referred to as a “coach gun”, because this type of shotgun was originally carried by the man sitting beside the driver of a stagecoach in the Old West. His job was to ward off possible attacks from highwaymen and other undesirables. (This is where the expression “riding shotgun” actually comes from.)
The mechanism of a coach gun is relatively simple. You have one hammer to fire each barrel, and one trigger to drop each hammer. Like most single-barreled weapons, it ejects spent rounds as sook as you break open the barrels, leaving the weapon’s chambers empty and ready to accept fresh shells. This arrangement has an added advantage, in that it allows the weapon to be kept perpetually loaded, in relatively safe condition, while keeping the gun’s hammers uncocked. Leaving the hammers down until you are ready to fire completely negates the issue of spring fatigue, which can cause misfires over the lifetime of the gun. To make the weapon ready, you simply raise the hammers to their cocked positions, and slip your index finger over the corresponding trigger to fire—one trigger for each gun barrel.
The downside, of course, is that this example only provides 2 shots. The coach gun, however, can be reloaded very quickly. As with single-barreled examples, breaking the action open automatically ejects both fired shells, and inserting two rounds fresh ammunition into the chambers (either from a stock-mounted sleeve carrier or a bandolier) can be done in a matter of seconds.
If you would rather not concern yourself with having to reload in a potentially high-stress situation, of course, there are other variations of the shotgun which provide more than 2 shots. Most pump-action models and auto loading (semi automatic) shotguns will have built-in magazines capable of holding 5 to 14 shotgun shells. Most experts agree that if you cannot thwart a home invasion with the amount of firepower that such weapons provide, what you need is more practice, not more ammunition.
The best examples of pump-action shotguns are those actively employed by the military and law enforcement agencies.
Mossberg’s Model 500 & 590 (8 shots, 20-inch barrel) in its various iterations is a perennial favorite, as are Winchester’s Model 1200 & 1300 (4 to 7 shots, 28 or 30-inch barrel) and also Remington’s Model 870 (4 to 10 shots, 18 or 20-inch barrel). All three pump-action brands have seen combat and extensive law enforcement use, and are known to provide reliable service and good performance.
Recent Pump-Action Developments
The most recent development in pump-action shotguns is Kel-Tec’s KSG series of high-capacity shotguns. These unique creations use two tubular magazines instead of a single one, and each tubular magazine can be loaded with a different type of shotgun cartridge. The user can also manually switch between two different loads (for example, between pellet loads and solid projectiles) loaded in each tube for added versatility.
Most significantly, the KSG shotguns are bull pup designs, significantly reducing their overall length. They now come in two configurations—one that holds 12 to 14 cartridges and another that holds 20 3-inch shotgun shells.
Auto Loading Shotguns
Semi automatic shotguns are generally not employed by combat troops and law enforcement officers, since these weapons require ammunition of a specific power to reliably function. Unless the shotgun shells used in them generate enough recoil energy to actuate their mechanisms, they will fail to operate properly.
The most widely used semi-automatic shotguns are manufactured by Browning and by Saiga of Russia. The Browning models usually come with 5-round tubular magazines; the Saigas are fed by 2, 5, 8, and 10-round box magazines. For military and law enforcement applications, Saigas can also be outfitted with 10, 12, or 30-round drum magazines.
A Note on Hybrids
There are also hybrid shotguns that work both as semi-automatics and pump-action repeaters. A notable example of these was the SPAS-12 manufactured by Franchi of Italy from 1979 to 2000. The different models held from 5 to 8 shots, and featured barrel lengths ranging from 18 to 24 inches.
The variety of ammunition that can be fired from modern shotguns gives these weapons a versatility no rifle or handgun can match. Today’s shotguns can fire:
These are standard shotgun fodder—everything loaded from number 9 shot pellets to Triple 0 Buckshot. The shot size you select depends only on what you intend to hunt for or to shoot at.
This is solid ammunition for shotguns, a bit like regular bullets for rifles and pistols, only bigger. A shotgun slug will usually weigh one full ounce, and will pack a massive amount of energy. Such projectiles penetrate deeply, are used for defense against dangerous game like bear and wild boar.
In prisons and correctional facilities, guards sometimes use shotgun shells loaded with rubber bullets, as a non-lethal anti-personnel cartridge for use when prison riots break out. These rubber bullets are also used as a non-lethal alternative for crowd control, when social unrest spills out into the street.
Mainly used in military shotguns, fragmentation rounds act like mini grenades, which explode after being fired through wooden doors and walls. Their application is essentially anti-personnel, and such rounds are commonly employed during house clearing operations.
A fairly new development, taser-projectile shotgun shells fire miniaturized and self-contained taser units designed to instantly incapacitate human targets on the run, from longer distances than are possible with regular tasers. The taser projectiles pack their own batteries and require no wires linking them to the weapon that discharges them.
Dragon’s breath shells are loaded with incendiary material, and are designed to produce a long trail of fire from a shotgun’s muzzle when the weapon is discharged. Because of this, “dragon’s breath” probably isn’t the sort of thing you’d like to use when confronting an intruder inside your home. It poses definite risks of starting a fire in your home, regardless of how dramatic its effect might be on an intruder.
Another fairly recent development for shotguns are mini-shells loaded with either pellets or solid projectiles. The main advantage of these cartridges is that they are significantly shorter than the regular 2 3/4- and 3-inch shells that shotguns use. Although their successful function requires fitting your shotgun with specific adaptors, they have the advantage of effectively increasing a pump-action shotgun’s magazine capacity by as much as two-fold. They also produce lower recoil and fire with reduced noise, making them better suited for shooting in confined spaces.
Go Get One!
So there you have it! In spite of being one of the oldest types of firearm known to man, the shotgun remains one of the most versatile and feared weapons in modern arsenals. Generally robust, undeniably powerful, and extremely versatile, a good shotgun will put food on the table in rural environments, and will protect you as a homeowner in the city.
Unlike regular handguns and rifles, a shotgun can reduce the likelihood of over-penetration, and mitigate your liability in the event of any shooting conducted in defense of your home. That’s why in spite of the proliferation of high-capacity semi-automatic firearms recommended for home protection, savvy security experts still point to the old-fashioned shotgun as their weapon of choice.
To be safe and fully prepared, be sure to thoroughly familiarize yourself with any shotgun that you acquire, take proper care to select the correct ammunition for it, and practice with your gun until you are confident that you can hit what you’re aiming at under stress.