As we explain in our Shotgun Ammo 101 article, when it comes to the defensive use of a shotgun, ammunition is a key consideration. Since shotguns are so versatile, there is a great variety of ammunition types, each with dramatically different intended uses and effects on a given target.
For defensive purposes, most experts will advise you not to use birdshot, and instead use buckshot or slug rounds. Birdshot is designed for, well, birds, which have much less dense bone structure and less muscle mass than human threats. There are some cases in which larger birdshot might be the right choice for you, such as when living in close proximity to other homes or apartments and where penetration of any stray pellets through multiple walls is the primary concern. However, in nearly every case, informed defensive instructors will advise students to use buckshot or slugs instead.
Birdshot may cause lots of damage to external muscle tissue, but depending on the target, the distance, the choke selected, and the ammunition, the smaller birdshot pellets may not have sufficient mass to penetrate the vital organs and reliably and quickly stop a threat.
Which buckshot loads are best for defense?
Buckshot is so named because it was designed for hunting larger game, such as deer (the male of the species is called a “buck”). As for which buckshot is the best choice for home defense, this question has as many answers as there are types of shotguns and buckshot, and there is not any real definitive answer that fits every situation.
The size of the buckshot pellet you choose can have an effect on many aspects of defensive shotgun use, from the tightness of the pattern to barrier penetration to terminal ballistic effects on human-sized targets. However, it would probably be accurate to say that any commonly available size of buckshot load has the potential to be a good choice as a home defense cartridge, assuming it functions reliably and patterns well in your shotgun, and you can shoot it accurately.
Common sizes of buckshot in the US range in progressively larger sizes from #4 buckshot at .24” in diameter, through 3, 2, 1, then 0 at .32”, 00 at .33”, and finally “triple-aught” (000) at .36” for each pellet. Of course, the larger the pellet, the fewer you get in each cartridge. Most commonly available 2 3/4” 00 buckshot loads hold 8 or 9 pellets.
The military and many police agencies favor “00” or “double-aught” buckshot, as it has been proven very effective when used against man-sized threats. This, along with the fact that 00 buckshot loads are generally the most widely available for sale in America, means that it is a very common defensive load. However, as with many subjects, the most common doesn’t necessarily mean “the best.”
People who use guns for a living generally have their own individual preference based on study and experience. While some defensive shotgun experts opine that #3 or #4 buck is the best overall choice, others feel that #1 buck is superior to all other choices, even over 00 buck for tactical/defensive use, since there is more total payload, sufficient penetration in ordnance gelatin, less risk of over-penetration, and a greater total combined cross-sectional area.
Here’s one explanation from the article by AR15.com, Best Choices for Self Defense Ammo:
“Number 1 buck is the smallest diameter shot that reliably and consistently penetrates more than 12 inches of standard ordnance gelatin when fired at typical shotgun engagement distances. A standard 2 ¾-inch 12 gauge shotshell contains 15 pellets of #1 buck. The total combined cross sectional area of the 15 pellets is .964 square inches. Compared to the total combined cross sectional area of the nine pellets in a standard #00 (double-aught) buck shotshell (0.77 square inches), the # 1 buck shotshell has the capacity to produce over 20 percent more potentially effective wound trauma.
In all shotshell loads, number 1 buckshot produces more potentially effective wound trauma than either #00 or #000 buck. In addition, number 1 buck is less likely to over-penetrate and exit an attacker’s body.”
It’s very important to pattern your shotgun with your chosen ammunition
The construction of each different type of shotgun round, its components, and how it interacts with your unique shotgun means that shotgun ammunition that produces very tight, accurate patterns out of one shotgun may not produce similar patterns in another.
Many premium defensive buckshot loads contain copper-plated and/or hardened pellets, the addition of synthetic buffering material to protect the pellets, or both. As softer/unbuffered lead pellets are subjected to the violent acceleration forces of a cartridge igniting and their being forced down a barrel and possibly through a choke, they can be deformed and become no longer round. This can make them fly erratically and can result in inconsistent patterns and poor accuracy.
In addition, since (contrary to what you might have heard) you must aim a defensive shotgun, and tighter patterns are more desirable, both for effectiveness on a threat as well as preventing stray pellets from harming the innocent, some buckshot loads intended for defense include a “flight control” type wad that is designed to keep the pellets contained in a tighter pattern for a longer distance. These are generally a very good choice for a home defense round, assuming they are reliable and produce acceptable accuracy in your chosen shotgun.
Are shotgun slugs good for home defense?
In short, yes… IF significant penetration through multiple house walls is not a concern. A shotgun slug is a very effective “manstopper.” It’s important to note that, like all shotguns intended for defensive use, a shotgun loaded with slugs must be aimed, not merely “pointed.” While “flight control” buckshot rounds might keep their pellets within a pattern the size of a fist at home-defense distances, a slug is a single projectile and can go through multiple sheets of drywall and still retain lethal energy.
Also note that slugs typically hit higher than you might expect compared to how your shotgun patterns with birdshot. So (again) it’s important to pattern your shotgun with your selected loads so you know exactly where your shots will hit. If you don’t aim your shotgun, it’s easy to miss.
Whatever shotgun and load you choose for home defense, keep it safe with Liberty
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