Advantages of break-action shotguns:
- They are by far the easiest to load and fully unload. “Fully unload” means that the chamber AND any magazines/tubes are empty of cartridges. With pump and semi-auto guns, safely unloading the rounds from a tubular magazine without cycling them through the chamber can be pretty difficult. You may have to lift the follower and reach inside the (potentially sharp-edged) receiver and move the shell stops out of the way, releasing one cartridge at a time, then repeat. With a break-action, you just push the action lever or button to open the action, and drop cartridges directly into the exposed chamber/s or manually remove the cartridge/s from the chamber/s if desired. That’s all there is to it.
- They are inexpensive. Since the mechanism is simple, a basic break-action single-shot shotgun can usually be purchased for well under $200.
- They are reliable. There’s not much to go wrong, and the parts and springs are all quite robust.
- They can fire all types of ammunition. Similar to a pump action, the break-action’s function isn’t limited by the power of the cartridge. However, unlike a pump action, the break-action can accept super-short “mini-shells” and still function perfectly. Most pump shotguns need to be modified to cycle them reliably, and very few semi-autos will run them.
Disadvantages of break-action shotguns:
- Low ammunition capacity. You’ll have a maximum of 3 shots (if you have a rare 3-barreled model, which will also be quite expensive), before reloading, but usually, one or two shots is what you’ll have to work with until you effectively disassemble the gun by breaking it open to eject any fired hulls and reload.
- Reloading a break-action takes a lot more time than racking the slide of a pump-action, or the split-second it takes a semi-auto to eject an empty hull and chamber the next round.
- High recoil. Similar to pump-actions, the full force of the shot is transferred directly to the shooter’s shoulder, as there’s no mechanism to absorb any recoil. Plus, break-action shotguns are frequently quite light (since their mechanisms are simple and basic), so recoil can be even worse than with a pump. This can discourage newer shooters from practicing enough to develop proficiency.
- There’s the potential to create a dangerous double-load. If an inexperienced or inattentive user drops a 20-gauge shell into a 12-gauge break-action chamber, it will usually go far enough into the barrel to allow a 12-gauge shell to be loaded behind it. If this happens and you fire the gun, it will likely blow up the gun and you are probably going to be injured, potentially fatally. This situation is much less likely in a pump or semi-auto, unless the 20-gauge shell is manually fed directly into the chamber because most 20-gauge cartridges won’t reliably feed into or from a 12-gauge magazine.
Different makes and models of home defense shotgun: which is best?
Now that you know a little more about the pros and cons of each popular defensive shotgun type, you can look at some of the top sellers and see what fits your needs, your tastes, and your budget. Here are our picks for the home-defense shotgun brands and models to consider.
The Remington 870 is undoubtedly the most popular and most recognizable pump-action shotgun in history, with more than 11 million sold since its debut in 1950. Over the years the 870 has earned a well-deserved reputation for durability and reliability, and a well-used 870 has as smooth an action as you’ll find in a pump shotgun.
Remington has struggled over the past decades and the original company filed for bankruptcy in 2018, but RemArms bought the rights and tooling for many of the classic Remington firearms and is earning a reputation for quality and customer service that the old company had struggled to maintain before its unfortunate demise. Bottom line: The new RemArms-built Model 870 looks to be just as good as the “good old 870s” Remington used to make, so you can feel confident in buying a new one. Prices start around $429 for basic models.
The Mossberg 500 is a durable, reliable, inexpensive, long-time competitor to the Remington 870, with some design attributes that make the Mossberg a superior choice for some shooters:
- The 870 has a steel receiver (which some prefer) while the Mossberg’s is a lighter-weight aluminum alloy.
- The 870 has staked-in shell catches, while the Mossberg’s are easily removed for cleaning and replaced without special tools by the home hobbyist.
- The 870’s “action bar lock” (slide release) is located far forward from the shooter’s grip, in front of the trigger guard, and the shooter must break his or her firing grip to reach it. The Mossberg’s “action lock lever” is located behind the trigger guard and is easily reached by either right- or left-handed shooters without breaking a firing grip.
- The 870 uses a cross-bolt style safety behind the trigger guard and is set up for right-handed shooters. The 500’s safety is ambidextrous, located on the top/rear of the receiver, and is vastly preferable for left-handed use.
- The 870 uses a traditional sheet-metal shell carrier which must be moved up out of the way each time when loading rounds into the magazine. The 500’s elevator assembly moves up into the receiver, out of the way, when the bolt is closed, so shells are easily loaded into the magazine without having to press against spring tension on the carrier.
- The 500 features an “anti-jam” elevator, while the 870’s carrier can potentially cause a nasty double-feed jam and had to be modified with a U-shaped cut to allow these jams to be cleared.
The Mossberg 590 is essentially the same as the 500 internally, but with an updated magazine tube/barrel interface that allows easier cleaning and greater magazine capacity for the same length barrel/tube. The 590A1 is a military-grade heavy-duty model with a thicker barrel, all-metal trigger group and safety, and other upgrades. Basic Mossberg 500 home defense shotguns start at about $340 at many retailers.
Benelli offers several excellent “tactical” or defense-oriented semi-automatic shotguns, and all are excellent choices for the well-heeled buyer. The M2 Tactical is the simplest and least expensive (at $1,249 MSRP) of the Benelli semi-auto defense shotguns, and has a well-deserved reputation for reliability, as long as you keep the gun free of a lot of heavy accessories (see below). The M3, with an MSRP of $1,599, is a super-cool and relatively rare variant that allows you to select either pump or semi-auto function, which is unique in the shotgun world since the Franchi SPAS-12 went extinct in 2000.
However, the cream of the crop has to be the Benelli M4, which the US Marine Corps adopted in around 1999 as the M1014 for their semi-auto shotgun platform, and which has served them well in multiple conflicts. The M4 has also been adopted by 20+ other countries and is currently the US’s Joint Services combat shotgun.
The M4 features Benelli’s ARGO system, or Auto-Regulating Gas-Operated piston system, which was developed specifically for the Marine Corps trials.
The advantage of the M4’s gas-operated system is that it is immune to the problems that can face inertia-operated shotguns (like Benelli’s own M2). Inertia guns can start experiencing malfunctions when users start adding weight in the form of optics, lights, lasers, and other accessories since this changes the physics and weight of the gun. Gas-operated guns like the M4 are immune to these issues (as long as proper defensive loads are used) since the gas system doesn’t depend on the weight or inertia of the shotgun to function properly.
The M4/M1014 has been featured in dozens of popular video games and movies, which adds to its cachet for some people. If you want one, though, bring money, because the M4 is not an inexpensive gun. MSRP for the most basic variant is a staggering $2,099, and they go up from there.
If you favor a cheaper and less-complicated pump-action design, Benelli offers the Nova tactical shotgun family as well.
Beretta has been making firearms for almost 500 years (the firm was founded in 1526), and actually owns Benelli. Beretta is known for high quality, stylish, reliable firearms, and their excellent 1301 Tactical shotgun is no exception. This good-looking boomstick is a lightweight, compact powerhouse, with a 7+1 capacity (using 2 ¾” shells) and remarkably mild recoil due to Beretta’s integrated BLINK gas operating system that, according to Beretta, allows for 36% faster cycling than its competition.
At an MSRP of $1,509 for the standard model and $1,529 with a pistol grip, the 1301 is not for the bargain-hunters among us, but by all accounts, it’s worth the money. For a reliable, soft-shooting, semi-automatic defensive shotgun, in our view, the 1301 is the top of the heap.
Here’s a good video demonstrating the features and benefits of the 1301 Tactical.