Choosing and Setting Up a Shotgun for Home Defense

A lot of what I have to say about a home defense shotgun may conflict with what you have read. Just the same, it must be kept in mind that a shotgun isn’t a rifle. Different criteria exists for using a shotgun than a handgun.

As an example, I use the sights with a handgun and teach my students they must use a good sight picture. I don’t use instinctive shooting. It isn’t a contradiction to state that a shotgun is fired largely by feel. That being said, let’s look at the shotgun.

Toros Coppola 12 gauge pump-action shotgun
The Toros Coppola is a highly advanced firearm well worth its price.

Many are familiar with a shotgun. Some have used the shotgun in the hunting fields. Others grew up in a home with a good pump-action shotgun. For many households, it was the only gun in the house. The shotgun used for hunting might be pressed into home defense if need be. In fact, every defensive incident in which a shotgun defended a home and its occupants — that I recorded — involved what is normally called a sporting shotgun.

Powerful, effective, and fast handling, the shotgun offers real efficiency. Oftentimes, the same shotgun may be used for quail, dove, duck, and deer, with a simple choke or barrel change. You may add a shorter barrel for defense use.

Choosing a Shotgun

Choosing a shotgun for home defense is an endeavor that should be given some thought. How often will you practice? Will you engage in safe, dry fire operation of the shotgun? If you are competing in 3-Gun competition, you’ll need a very good shotgun. If your needs are simple, a basic shotgun is all you need.

Today, more specialized shotguns are available for home defense. That 28-inch barreled sporting gun isn’t the best choice for stopping a takeover robbery or repelling boarders in cramped quarters. A shorter barrel is faster handling in tight places.

Specialized home defense shotguns are available for very little expense. While I would caution against a cheap pistol or rifle, the inexpensive Turkish shotguns, as an example, are reliable. However, they are not the smoothest or best equipped pump guns.

Mossberg 590 shotgun with tan furniture
This Mossberg isn’t a high-end custom, but a factory available SPX shotgun.

The Turkish self-loaders enjoy a decent reputation as well. I prefer a super-smooth Remington 870 or the proven Mossberg 590. When we are on a budget, however, we do with what we know.

Shotguns: Proper Handling

A shotgun isn’t a substitute for aim and proper gun handling. The shotgun mut be handled well and aimed as carefully as a rifle. The fast handling of the shotgun, and its payload, make it very effective in a home defense situation.

The primary requirement for managing the shotgun is to learn good technique for controlling recoil. Learn to control recoil and quickly bringing the shotgun into action first. Secondary tactics, such as quickly reloading the magazine and stroking the shotgun upward to crunch into an opponent who is attempting a gun grab, should be practiced later.

Loading a shotgun with a 20 gauge shotshell
Skills, such as quickly topping off the magazine, should be practiced often.

Shotguns: The Basics

The basics come first. Don’t count on a shotgun’s appearance or the sound of a shotgun’s bolt racking to deter a home breaker. Only competence and determination in your manner will deter a dangerous adversary. Confidence comes from ability and smooth manipulation.

A shotgun you keep on hand for emergencies, that you have not practiced with, is foolish. The same is true with any firearm. It is analogous to keeping a Harley Davidson in the garage that you have not ridden — in case you need to get out of town in a hurry. Such things don’t end well.

Don’t feel silly conducting drills in the home. You really should be doing so. Jump out of bed, grab an unloaded shotgun, and get into a defensive position. Practice movement with a triple-checked, unloaded shotgun.

shell carrier and XS front bead on a shotgun being used in a home defense situation
A shell carrier and XS front bead are all that is needed for most of us.

Practice moving around corners. Don’t lead with the barrel. Someone may take the gun from you. Be certain you can reliably rack the bolt and that the shotgun feeds properly. If you use a self-loading shotgun, be certain to grip the shotgun securely, so it will feed reliably. An automatic shotgun needs a solid platform to recoil against the bolt.

So, do you need a tactical shotgun with pistol grip and extended magazine for home defense? They may be nice to have, and the pistol grip shotgun is an aid when you are carrying a child to safety. However, a straight stock makes for faster shotgun handling.

An extended magazine is good, but you are unlikely to need more than a few shells in a home defense situation. As a counterpoint, you are unlikely to have more than the gun load in the shotgun when you need it, and an extended magazine may hold eight shells or more —a good reserve of ammunition.

The Gauge

The gauge should be considered. I prefer a 12-gauge shotgun, but a 20-gauge model is a formidable option as well. Even the .410 may work well with proper loads. Penetration is good with buckshot in all gauges. The larger gauges have more choice in loads and deliver a greater payload.

Pump-Action Shotguns

The pump-action shotgun is the default choice. This is based on reliability and ease of operation. Some semi-automatics, such as the Benelli, are famously reliable and well worthy of betting your life on. In the end, however, a dirty pump is more reliable than a dirty automatic…

Comparison of a straight stock and pistol grip shotgun stock
A straight stock or pistol grip is something that requires a bit of thought.

If you prefer the automatic shotgun, ensure it is thoroughly tested with the load of choice. Reduced recoil buckshot is a good choice for personal defense, but the lowered impulse may not operate some automatic shotgun actions reliably.

The Double-Barrel Shotgun

The double-barrel shotgun still has many adherents. It may be kept broken open at home in a safe condition, quickly loaded and made ready. Nothing handles quite as quickly as a well-balanced double, particularly in .410 and 20 gauge.

Double-barrel shotgun with the action open
For some, a simple double barrel is an ideal home defender. With the shotgun instantly made ready for action simply by closing the breech, yet just as easily made safe, the double has much appeal.

For the recoil shy and safety conscious, the double barrel is a good choice. Easily made safe, and offering a high hit probability, the double is a viable option — especially for those who use a double barrel in the field. While the ‘coach gun’ is a viable defensive shotgun, it is not as formidable overall as the Benelli M4. Again, consider the likely threat.

Semi-Automatic Shotguns

The semi-auto is a fast shooter, giving some shooters an advantage in rapid-fire hit probability. The type is easy to use well — rack the bolt and fire. In some situations, especially when firing from cover, the self-loader has it all over the pump-action shotgun.

Accessorizing Your Shotgun

If you wish to modify the shotgun to suit your whims and preferences, a Mossberg 500 or Remington 870 pump action is the first choice. There are tons of aftermarket options to command your attention while choosing the proper stock forend and sights. There is no end to the aftermarket gear easily swapped out for the pump-action shotgun.

A straight stock and pistol grip stock shotgun on the wood shooting bench at an outdoor range
The author finds the straight stock to be more effective on moving targets, while the pistol grip is more secure during tactical movement. Both options work well for practice.

A Magpul stock for the Remington 870 or Mossberg 500 is about the only after-market part I consider a must have. You may get by without the Magpul, but it helps handling. Of course, some like the AR-15-type stock modification.

A custom forend may reduce the likelihood of short stroking the action. Short stroking is the bane of the pump action. It is no fault of the shotgun and should be addressed by training. Some forends seem to reduce short-stroke malfunctions.

Ithaca 37 20 gauge shotgun, drilled and tapped for a TruGlo red dot, and a special TruGlo Varmint Light added
An Ithaca 37 20 gauge, drilled and tapped for a TruGlo red dot, and a special TruGlo Varmint Light added. I would not call this done on the cheap because there is no better shotgun anywhere than the Ithaca. It was paid for and available!

One of the superior additions to a defensive shotgun is to add XS sights. Sight sets and single beads are available to fit practically any shotgun. I am not certain a red dot sight is the best bet in dim light. On the range however, a red dot certainly adds to speed. This is a personal decision influenced by the availability of other firearms, such as the rifle and pistol, that may have red dot sights as well.

Home Defense Loads

Load selection is critical for home defense. Don’t fall for the fallacy of birdshot or other small shot for defense use. I would posit the wide spread of birdshot may result in shot blasting out a window, if the range is sufficient.

Birdshot is designed to humanely kill a small animal that you could hold in the palm of your hand. You are not catching the target in a cloud of shot. Rather, you are choosing a load that centers the load cohesively in a tight pattern on the target. This is needed to stop the threat. Dangerous humans are not quail dove or hares.

Winchester, Remington, Federal, and Hornady 12 gauge shotshell boxes
A wide mix of buckshot is available. Any of these are effective for home defense. The difference in performance is most noticeable after 10 yards.

The load I most often recommend is 12 gauge #00 buckshot reduced recoil. Loads such as #1 buck or #4 are probably just as effective inside a home. The primary advantage in Federal Flite Wad and Hornady Critical Defense is a tight pattern at longer range, giving the shotgun an effective pattern to 20 yards or so. This isn’t needed in home defense. Even inexpensive Sellier & Bellot shells work well. Inexpensive buckshot doesn’t have wadding or filler, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t effective a few yards range.

The shotgun is our most effective home defense firearm. However, the shotgun isn’t for everyone. On the other hand, of the three home defense firearms — rifle pistol and shotgun — you may purchase a reliable and useful home defense shotgun for the least amount of cash. Yet, it is potentially the most effective. Choose well.

Do you prefer the shotgun for home defense? Which is your first choice — semi-automatic, pump action, or double barrel? 12 or 20 gauge, or do you prefer a .410 bore? Share your answers, or home defense shotgun tips, in the Comments section.

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