Shotguns are by far the most versatile firearms and can be extremely effective at hunting and home defense, in addition to their widespread use in shooting sports. Shotguns generally have non-rifled "smoothbore" barrels and are intended to fire multi-projectile shotshells rather than single, spin-stabilized bullet-like rifles and handguns. A shotgun gets its name because it usually fires "shot," a weight-measured load of small, usually lead pellets of varying size (depending on the desired effect on the target). The primary types of shotgun cartridges are birdshot, buckshot, and slugs.
Table of Contents
- What is birdshot?
- What is buckshot?
- What is a shotgun slug?
- Is birdshot good for home defense?
- Does buckshot penetrate standard home interior walls?
- What’s the best size of buckshot for home defense?
- Consider the benefits of low-recoil buckshot for defense.
- Do you want a larger or smaller spread or pattern of buckshot for defense?
- When are shotgun slugs appropriate for home defense?
- You must pattern any defensive shotgun and load you wish to use.
- Keep your shotguns safe and secure with Liberty.
All three types of shotgun ammunition have unique characteristics and are intended for specific roles. However, depending on your unique situation and preferences, you might use one type of shotgun ammunition in multiple roles. One of the most hotly debated topics in the firearms world is whether you can use standard birdshot shotshells for home defense or whether buckshot (intended for hunting game) is more effective. We’ll discuss this issue below.
In this article, we will cover all three types of shotgun ammunition and give you some information that can help you decide what’s appropriate for you, whether for home defense, hunting, or sport shooting.
What is birdshot?
Birdshot is the term for shotgun pellets of the sizes intended for hunting birds, whether in the air (like ducks, pheasants, geese, quail, doves, etc.) or on the ground (like turkey). Birdshot is also used for shooting airborne clay targets (skeet, trap, and sporting clays), and is often used for small game hunting (squirrels, rabbits, hares, etc.) and pest control.
Traditionally, birdshot is made of lead, but today “non-toxic” shot made from tungsten, bismuth, or steel is widely used, particularly for waterfowl hunting or in other locations where the lead shot has been banned.
Common birdshot pellet sizes in the US range from the tiny #9 shot, where each pellet measures a mere .08" in diameter, increasing roughly a hundredth of an inch for each numbered shot size, from the #8 shot at .09" up to #1 birdshot at .16". Then we move into the "letter" shot sizes, with BB at .18", BBB at .19", T at .20", and the more rarely seen F at .22".
The number of pellets in each shotshell varies greatly depending on the size of the shot as well as the length of the shell and the individual load. A typical 1⅛ ounce load of #8 lead shot has around 460 pellets, while a similar-weight charge of larger #4 birdshot only has 153.
Generally speaking, the larger the shot, the larger the game you intend to hunt. The tiny #9 shot might work great on flying clay targets but is inadequate for longer shots on late-season pheasants with thick feathers. Similarly, a heavy load of steel BBB shot may be appropriate for ducks and geese but would disintegrate a dove or quail.
What is buckshot?
Buckshot is, quite simply, a larger shot originally intended for hunting deer-sized game (male deer are called "bucks"), and indeed some people still do hunt deer with buckshot where permitted. However, buckshot has also become the standard for tactical, defensive, and police shotgun use, particularly 00 (called "double-aught") buckshot in the US.
Other sizes of buckshot range in progressively larger sizes from the small, #4 buckshot at .24" in diameter, up through #3, 2, 1, then 0 (called "single-aught") at .32", 00 at .33", and finally "triple-aught" (000) at .36" for each pellet. By far, the most common size for buckshot is 00.
Buckshot is considered (and has shown in police and defensive shootings) extremely effective in stopping human-sized, non-armored threats. Smaller buckshot sizes like #4 (.24" diameter) can be appropriate for hunting large birds with steel shot in some cases, but generally, F (.22"), T (.20"), or BBB (.19") steel birdshot can handle the largest birds.
What does "double-aught" 00 buckshot mean?
In American English, "aught" is a noun referring to "anything at all" but has also commonly become used to replace the digit zero, as in referring to the years 2000-2009 as "the aughts." This term was more common near the beginning of the 20th century, which is why the common rifle cartridge .30-06 (developed in 1906) is pronounced: "thirty-aught-six." The most common size for buckshot pellets worldwide is #00, or "double-aught," as its .33"-diameter pellets are very effective on deer and human-sized targets at ranges up to 50 yards.
How many pellets are there in a typical buckshot load?
As with birdshot, the larger the buckshot pellet size, the fewer pellets fit into a particular shotgun shell. A standard 2 ¾" 12-gauge shotgun shell typically holds 8-9 pellets of #00 buckshot, 12-16 pellets of #1 buckshot, or 21-28 pellets of #4 buckshot.
What is a shotgun slug?
A shotgun slug is a term for a single projectile fired from a shotgun. The most common type of shotgun slug is the Foster-type "rifled slug," known in some locations as a "deer slug" due to its regional use in deer hunting where traditional rifles are not allowed. Foster slugs are made of soft lead, with angled riflings molded into the sides to allow them to swage down through a shotgun choke safely.
Despite the slightly confusing name, "rifled slugs" are intended to be fired from smoothbore barrels, and the "riflings" cast into the slug’s exterior do not impart any significant stabilizing spin to the projectile. Foster slugs are aerodynamically stabilized, similar to a badminton shuttlecock, and can be surprisingly accurate out to over 100 yards.
Sabot (SAY-bow or SAH-but, depending on where you grew up) slugs are specialized shotgun slug cartridges containing a smaller-diameter projectile, often with a hollow point, contained within a plastic housing or "sabot" that breaks away from the slug after leaving the barrel. Sabot slugs are designed and intended to be fired through rifled shotgun barrels and are almost always used for deer hunting where permitted. Whereas a smoothbore shotgun firing Foster slugs might be acceptably accurate out to around 100 yards, a rifled hunting shotgun firing sabot slugs might extend that range to 200 or even 250 yards, depending on the quality of the shotgun, the ammunition and the skill of the shooter.
For home defense or tactical use, Foster-type lead slugs are often considered a viable option, particularly where barrier penetration is a priority, overpenetration is not a significant concern, and engagement distances can be greater than typical in-home distances.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of each type of shotgun ammunition and their typical uses let’s discuss some of the common questions people ask when considering birdshot vs. buckshot vs. slugs.
Is birdshot good for home defense?
Most experts will say no; birdshot is not a good choice for home defense or protection from large animals. "Birdshot is for birds" is the usual axiom. The primary issue is that, while birdshot does a lot of surface-tissue damage when fired up close, its smaller pellets often don’t penetrate reliably to the depth the FBI has recommended as the minimum for effectively stopping a threat (12"-18" in calibrated ballistic gel).
However, anecdotal evidence, as well as informal testing by several noteworthy "gun-tubers" like Paul Harrell, has suggested that the right load of birdshot might be pretty effective in stopping a bad guy. And, depending on your unique circumstances, birdshot may have advantages over buckshot or slugs in certain defensive scenarios.
Common reasons people might use birdshot in their home defense shotguns
- Reduced risk of overpenetration: The primary reason someone might choose to use birdshot in their home-defense shotgun is that birdshot provides a reduced risk of overpenetration. Overpenetration is when a projectile either goes completely through a bad guy and still has lethal velocity on the other side, or in case of a miss when that projectile can potentially penetrate multiple interior and even exterior home walls, which presents a serious threat to any innocent bystanders or even neighbors.
- Availability: Another reason someone might load their home-defense shotgun with birdshot is simply that that’s what they have on hand. Whether due to supply chain issues, a lack of knowledge of where to buy suitable defensive buckshot or other reasons, sometimes birdshot is all a person might have.
- Cost: Generally speaking, birdshot is the least expensive shotgun ammunition available, and for some people, this can be a primary factor in their decision to use it.
- The belief that birdshot does a lot of damage: People who have shot various sorts of targets up close with birdshot may have come away with the impression that birdshot is extremely powerful and devastating. Whether this is true is another matter, but some people may get this impression from watching birdshot blow up 2-liters, cabbages, etc.
- Increased chance of hitting a target: While birdshot does offer the increased chance of hitting an airborne, small, and/or moving target (after all, that’s what it was designed for), some people may apply that same logic to a home-defense scenario. Today, this line of thinking is considered archaic and irresponsible. But it could be a factor in some people’s decision to use birdshot rather than buckshot or slugs.
Does standard birdshot penetrate fewer walls than buckshot or slugs?
Short answer: Yes. In informal ballistic testing through standard interior home walls consisting of 2 panels of sheetrock on a 2x4 frame, #8 birdshot goes through one wall. Still, not two, and #4 and #5 birdshot go through two walls but not three (at least while retaining lethal velocity on the other side).
On the other hand, multiple tests have shown that both 00 buckshot and standard 1-ounce Foster-type slugs easily penetrate four entire sheetrock walls and retain lethal energy on the other side.
If you live in an apartment building, your home is close to neighbors, or you are concerned about your loved ones or pets being harmed by missed shots or over-penetrating projectiles. A shotgun loaded with larger-sized birdshot can be an appropriate choice for your home defense shotgun.
Does standard birdshot penetrate deeply enough in human targets to reliably stop a threat?
In gel testing, standard loads of birdshot typically don't penetrate deeply enough to pass the FBI’s protocol, which is the primary reason why most experts and shotgun instructors would never advocate its use for self-defense. However, heavier loads of larger birdshot sizes appear fairly effective in informal testing, such as Paul Harrell’s meat target.
Shooting things like pork roasts, whole chickens/turkeys, and similar items with birdshot at close range is impressive enough to many people that they have no problem selecting birdshot for home defense, but it’s important to understand that doing lots of surface damage to skin, fat, and muscle tissue may look gnarly and may eventually lead to death, but without adequate penetration and damage to the vital organs and/or central nervous system, this kind of tissue damage may not quickly or sufficiently stop a determined threat. There are plenty of examples of domestic shootings where an attacker was shot with birdshot and kept on coming. But there are also examples of people who were shot with rifles or handguns and didn’t stop, either. There are a lot of variables at play.
This is a decision that you will need to research and decide for yourself. Still, one point that can’t be reasonably argued is that birdshot is comparatively less effective against human-sized threats when compared to good buckshot or slug rounds. However, the advantages of birdshot, particularly its drastically reduced risk of over-penetration compared to standard buckshot or slugs, may make it worth it for you in your particular situation. If you decide to use birdshot, most informed people would recommend the larger sizes, like #4, #2, or even BB, to increase the chances of the pellets reaching the vitals of a large attacker while still presenting less of a risk of overpenetration of interior walls in case you miss.
Does buckshot penetrate standard home interior walls?
Yes, but with some caveats. As noted above, 00 buckshot (the most common size and the most widely used defensive shotgun load) easily penetrates not just one or two but four interior walls. However, Paul Harrell’s testing of #4 buckshot showed that after penetrating two interior walls, a load of #4 buckshot didn’t have sufficient force on the other side to be considered reliably lethal. Certainly, it caused some damage to the "meat target," but much less than that produced by the 00 buckshot after it went through the same two walls.
So, for home defense, smaller buckshot such as #3 or #4 buck might be a superior choice to 00 in situations where over-penetration is a concern, but reliably stopping a threat is a higher priority.
What’s the best size of buckshot for home defense?
As we discussed above, #4 buckshot can be an appropriate choice for defense loads for people in apartment buildings or closer neighbor homes, or who have others living in the home with them. Number 4 buckshot typically doesn’t penetrate a bad guy as effectively as 00 or #1 buckshot, and typically #4 loads are loaded to higher velocities (between 1,300 and 1,400 fps or faster) due to this factor (in an attempt to get the smaller pellets moving quicker for increased penetration). These loads will certainly go through a couple of interior walls, but they have less of a chance of going through ALL of the walls in your home or apartment in case you miss your target or don’t shoot well enough to get all your pellets into the threat.
If overpenetration isn’t a concern and you want the most penetration, a fast-moving 00 buckshot load is a proven man-stopper.
Consider the benefits of low-recoil buckshot for defense
Another factor in 00 buckshot overpenetration concerns is the velocity of the pellets. Buckshot loads are commonly available in velocities from the low-1,100 feet-per-second range up to 1,600 fps, and that’s a large range of speeds. Lead spheres moving more quickly have the potential to penetrate more walls (and tissue) than the same lead spheres moving more slowly. Performance in actual shootings against human threats suggests that the lower-velocity buckshot loads still do very well as far as "stopping power" is concerned. At closer ranges, any theoretical performance advantages that higher-velocity loads may have at longer ranges are moot anyway.
Furthermore, the hot, 1,600 fps buckshot loads come with the downside of significantly more recoil (and noise). Shotguns firing defensive loads can be pretty tough to deal with recoil-wise, and for smaller-statured or relatively inexperienced shooters, this problem is exacerbated further. Unless penetration through cars or other hard barriers is a priority (as with police use), the super-hot buckshot loads are probably overkill and are needlessly painful to the shooter.
So, a Federal buckshot load at around 1,145 fps may penetrate less than Hornady Critical Defense buckshot at 1,600 fps. Still, testing shows that the slower buckshot load has more than enough power to remain devastating to bad guys without the increased recoil and risk of overpenetration that a 1,600 fps load can have.
Do you want a larger or smaller spread or pattern of buckshot for defense?
Shouldn’t you favor a larger spread of pellets? Doesn’t that make it "easier to hit" an attacker? Isn’t that the whole point of a shotgun? This line of thinking may make sense in the jungles of Vietnam or Rhodesia, but “spray and pray” isn’t a good idea in today’s hyper-litigious society. You are responsible for every bullet, pellet, slug, or projectile you fire, and if you ever have to use your firearm to defend your life or your family’s, you want every single round to hit your assailant.
Understanding Shotgun Patterns With 12ga Buckshot
Luckily, even a cylinder-bore shotgun firing standard, non-buffered lead buckshot typically doesn’t spread more than the size of a paper plate at home-defense distances, so you need to aim your shotgun. And today’s shotgun shell technology makes it even easier to keep all your pellets on target instead of into the walls (and possibly into your loved ones).
Federal offers several buckshot loads utilizing their FliteControl wad, which keeps the pellets contained up to 10 yards away before they start to spread. Hornady uses an almost identical wad system called "Versatite" in their American Gunner and Critical Defense buckshot loads.
With ammunition like these, you can potentially keep all of your shots within 8" even out to 25 yards, in the rare case that you need to take a defensive shot that far away. Up close, both loads can be relied upon to put all your buckshot pellets into the same hole at the most reasonable home-defense distances.
When are shotgun slugs appropriate for home defense?
We’ve discussed situations where birdshot can be appropriate for home defense and why buckshot is generally considered the way to go in most situations. However, shotgun slugs can be an appropriate choice for some people. In cases where overpenetration is not an issue, say, for rural homeowners or those who need to patrol a large property with no close neighbors, slugs may be a good choice, assuming the shooter's proficiency. Also, for police use, slugs generally penetrate through vehicles more reliably than buckshot (though buckshot usually does a pretty good job).
You must pattern any defensive shotgun and load you wish to use
With all shotguns, it’s very important that you "pattern" each gun with each load you wish to use. Every shotgun barrel is different, and there’s no way to know how any particular shotgun load will perform in your shotgun until you shoot it yourself and see what happens. Some shotguns shoot very tight patterns with basic ammo. Some shotguns using the same ammo will shoot much larger, unpredictable patterns that can lead to overpenetration or unintended harm to innocent bystanders. So, again, practice regularly and shoot your shotgun and your chosen ammunition from all potential home-defense distances in your domicile, so you know exactly how it will perform.
Keep your shotguns safe and secure with Liberty
Whether you hunt birds or shoot clay targets—whether you defend your home with birdshot, buckshot, or slugs, be sure to keep your firearms secure from theft, fire, and unauthorized access with a quality US-made safe from Liberty. Check out our full online catalog or visit a dealer near you.