Shotguns vs. rifles for home defense

In the post “Revolvers and Shotguns don’t jam” I mentioned that I would prefer to recommend a semi-automatic rifle to an inexperienced shooter for self-defense over a pump-action shotgun. There were some questions raised in the comments, so today we’re going to take a look at the various factors involved in choosing a rifle or a shotgun for home-defense.

Colt Sporting Rifle - GunUp Magazine (6)

For rifles, we’ll use the ubiquitous AR15 platform, because it’s the most popular rifle in the USA right now. Pump-action shotguns are a fairly generic concept, but for the sake of this post we’ll assume we’re talking about the either Remington 870s or the Mossberg 590 series. There are plenty of other pump guns on the market, and some of them are truly excellent such as the FNH P-12, but to include every single pump would make this a 30,000 work article.

This is the first area everyone wants to talk about, and it’s a reasonable point to start. Cost absolutely figures into this equation, and it’s not exactly as disparate as you’d think. An entry level AR will probably run you about $700-800 in the current market, and with that you’ll get the vanilla features: adjustable stock, iron sights, A2 flash hider and probably a rail to mount a light on. For $400-600 you can get a similarly entry level shotgun, which will not have good sights, and will likely not have the capability to accept a light anywhere. Climbing the shotgun price ladder to $700-800 dollars will get you a top notch pump gun with good sights, a light capable forend, and higher magazine capacity (8-9 rounds). So for the price of an entry level AR, you can get the best pump shotgun on the planet.

Winner: Shotgun

I had to think up a category that would combine both lethality and capacity, and because I like trite, cliche terms I went with firepower. Obviously, the rifle has a huge edge in capacity, since it holds 30 rounds. However, the 12 gauge pump action shotgun is the most destructive individual weapon system out there, and is the only gun that can accurately have the term “stopping power” applied to it. 00 buckshot from a 12 gauge creates massive destruction on the target and has an excellent reputation for stopping fights. .223 ammo isn’t as well regarded, however modern JHP loads like our favorite, Hornady TAP are excellent defensive rounds. However, despite the massive power of the shotgun, the edge in the firepower goes to the rifle. 30 rounds is a lot more than 9, and even more importantly it’s a lot easier to get hits with a rifle than it is a shotgun. Contrary to movies, shotguns do not spray a magical cone of death that blows badguys into a red mist.

Winner: Rifle

This goes hand in hand with the firepower category, because having all the ammo in the world doesn’t do you any good if you can’t get hits. I won’t waste too much time on this one, because the answer is simple: rifles are easier to accurately than shotguns. They usually have better sights, better triggers, and a less complex manual of arms.

Winner: Rifle

Ease of use
A key reason people recommend a pump action shotgun is because it’s “simple”, while poo-poohing the semi-auto rifle because it’s so complex. Let’s take a quick look at the loading/firing/unloading cycle for both guns:


  • Load the magazine by inserting shells into the magazine tube one at a time on the bottom of the gun.
  • Pump the action to the rear, drive it all the way forward, place the weapon on safe.
  • Take the safety off, fire the weapon by pressing the trigger, pump the action action again. Make sure you don’t short stroke the action.
  • Repeat as necessary for a maximum of 9 rounds.


  • Load the magazine by pressing the cartridges straight down into the box.
  • Insert the box in the gun.
  • Pull the charging handle, place the weapon on safe.
  • Take the weapon off safe, fire the weapon by pressing the trigger
  • Repeat as necessary up to 30 times.

The reloading process for the rifle is also much simpler as it consists of “put another magazine in the gun”, while the shotgun requires you to manually thumb more rounds into the tube. Additionally, if either guns are carried “cruiser ready” (loaded magazine, empty chamber, safety off) the AR still gets the edge because all you have to do is yank the charging handle, which is easier than pumping a shotgun.

Winner: Rifle

The Verdict: When you break down the pros and cons of a rifle versus a pump-gun for home defense, the rifle ends up making a lot more sense. There’s also the fact that if you want to hit something with a shotgun past 50 yards, you need to do a slug changeover, whereas with a rifle you just shoot at it. I love shotguns, and I do keep several shotguns in the house for defensive use. The current state of technology and the vast proliferation of rifles means that they just make more sense as a home defense weapon than a shotgun. You can get a good rifle with a decent light and optic for ~$1000 if you shop smart (shop S-Mart), and if you really want to fully outfit your shotgun, you’ll end up spending at or near that. Yes, you can get a used shotgun that will be perfectly serviceable for $250, but this post isn’t about home defense on a budget. If you really want the best for home defense, you want a rifle.


  1. Generally agree with your assessments, but I also think it’s a bit of Apples-and-Oranges, not because it’s rifle vs. shotgun, but because it’s semi-auto vs. pump. Curious how this would have turned out had it been semi-auto shotgun vs. semi-auto rifle, or even pump shotgun vs. bolt or lever action rifle? The conclusion I came to was that the final winner had more to do with simplicity of use rather than the type of projectiles leaving the barrel.

    1. IMO pump vs lever gun is a much closer comparison as well. A good lever gun will cost about the same as a good pump gun and hold similar amount of rounds; while the 12ga rounds will generally be more effective, the lever gun is usually easier to work the action.
      However, semi-auto shotgun vs semi-auto rifle is even more tilted in favor of the rifle (again IMO). You still have the same advantages to the rifle (capacity, accuracy, ease of loading) while reducing the reliability of the shotgun.

    2. I would have edged it even further in favor of the semi-auto rifle, because the semi-auto shotgun has all the drawbacks of a pump, with the added drawback of less reliability.

  2. A couple of quibbles. First, most defensive doctrine I’ve read where ARs are concerned suggests that if someone needs to be shot with a .223/5.56 they’ll need shooting 3 to 4 times to end the threat. With a 30 round mag downloaded to 28 that’s 7 to 9 applications per mag. 12 gauge 00 shot has a pretty good reputation for getting the job done with a single dose and there are 6 to 8 applications thereof in most defensive shotgun tubes. I think that moves things into a toss up category.

    I also like the ability to be able to quickly change loads if need be. Where I live there is a very real chance I’ll confront a black bear tangled up with a dog, for instance. It’s pretty easy to switch out to a slug for a close range precision shot chock full of ursine lethality. .223/5.56 would likely have the same short term effect on a bear that disturbing a hornet’s nest would. Had a bear dig up and clean out a yellow jacket nest in the woods last week; they can clearly ignore hornets if inspired by food. As such my home defense weapon is a shotty.

    1. Why would you download your mag to 28 rounds? PMags and properly made modern mags run fine with 30.

      To your second point, it is quite easy to construct scenarios where a shotgun would be preferable, but that’s not within the scope of the article. We’re talking about general use home-defense here in the broadest sense. People who live in wooded areas where they might encounter something furry with sharp teeth need to make their own tactical assessments and act accordingly.

  3. I’d rather tie the conclusions to the context. I’m surrounded by flats, above, below and around me, while range is strictly limited to in-house size (= 8 yards absolute max). I can’t even think of using fast rifle bullets in such an environment, I’d even limit the shotgun to mid-size shot (well maybe the last 3-4 rounds would be slugs, for the worst of worst cases scenario 😉 ). And yes, I’d go for the semiauto. Bet there are lots of different homes where different weapons would be better, though, rifles included. 🙂

    1. It’s worth noting that multiple tests by reputable agencies, and even our own tests have repeatedly shown that a 5.56 round has a less chance of over-penetration than buckshot or pistol bullets.

      1. And this is the point I would have liked to see in the article. But here it is now.

        When I first encountered this, it caught me by surprise. But I watched video showing both shooting through drywall, and the conclusion is borne out. I think the low-recoil rounds I have would penetrate less than those in the video, but the rifle still wins.

        Personally, though, I think I would get better hits with the shotgun than the rifle. But that might just be me and my equipment. It’s harder to see through the iron sights on my AR than down the barrel and over the gold bead on my shotgun.

        But I still give the win to the rifle, based mostly on the overpenetration issue.

  4. ‘Cause I have a lot of GI mags laying about. But hey, the math works out the same with 30 rounds. . . .

    My bear illustration is specific to my living circumstances indeed. However, it wouldn’t take much work to conjure a circumstance where the ability to swap out loads could come in handy. You can do so with a shotgun; not so much with an AR, which would make for a very one-sided criteria were it considered above.

    And yes, over-penetration is an issue in some contexts. Living on a mountaintop I’m glad my errant 00 or slug is likely to end up on the hillside downslope a bit. An AR round would be coming down amid the flatlanders somewhere in the Shenandoah Valley.

  5. Hatchetman — if you’re shooting guys at 50m with M855 ball out of a 14.5″ carbine, you will likely need to hit them at least 2-3 times to _instantly_ incapacitate them.

    You’ll also be in Fallujah, not your living room.

    1-2 hits with decent modern 5.56mm ammo (even off the shelf varmint rounds) out of a 16″-20″ barrel is more like it. Frankly, indoor range hits with good frangible (and at these ranges and impact velocities, M193 ball counts as frangible) or expanding bullets (even those made for thin skinned varmints) are practically the Goldilocks Zone for 5.56mm terminal ballistics on people. Every virtue that AR fanbois swoon over is maximized, every vice that .30 Grognards bitch about is minimized.

    Short of a top competitor, I’d like to see the guy who can get more than one round accurately fired from a shotgun (semi or pump) for every 2 rounds accurately fired from an AR at the same range. Recoil control comes into play, too. . .

    1. At 6’6″, 270 lbs. I can put them through a paperplate @ 50 yards as fast as I can work the slide on my Scattetgun Technologies 870, so no worries there. And regardless of platform I’ll be pulling the trigger until they drop, which will likely take one dose of 00 or 3 or 4 rounds of 5.56. Unless it’s a bear, in which case I hope I’m holding the 870.

  6. Hatchetman — if your “GI mags” are only reliable with 28 rounds, throw them away or label “RANGE ONLY” in high vis paint — they’re worn out and busted. Magazines are consumable items, not wedding rings. Luckily, when you go to replace them, NEW USGI spec mags that are even better than the fairly good ones I served with are available pretty cheaply. For only a couple of bucks more, current gen Magpuls are available — and frankly, how many mags do you need for home defense (as opposed to “range only” mags that are useful for malf drills — feature, not bug, I always say), anyway?

    By the way, I paid less than $14 apiece for my last two Magpuls a couple weeks ago. What’s the price of reliable (but still less reliable than AR15 Magpuls, partially because of the shape and design of shotgun shells) Saiga mags?

    The “download two rounds” thing comes from the fact that it was all too commmon to reassemble the old 20-rounders (making them only reliable when downloaded) PLUS they found a lot of guys with correctly assembled 20-rounders (probably because they hadn’t ever disassembled them) who had 21 or 22 rounds in them. Back in Vietnam. So, why are you using aluminum magazines that were designed to be disposable that are 35 years old and have seen at least one combat tour in Southeast Asia for home defence, when you can get brand new and highly improved mags for under $14?

    The 30-rounders are pretty idiot resistant, and were SPECIFIALLY designed as if they were 33 rounders for reliability. . . but the followers keep them from allowing more than 30 rounds. Yes, even Colt and the US Army’s Ordnance Branch can figure things out after a major Congressional investigation and threats to start relieving generals until someone competant floats to the top.

    1. > Hatchetman — if your “GI mags” are only reliable with 28 rounds,
      > throw them away or label “RANGE ONLY” in high vis paint — they’re
      > worn out and busted. Magazines are consumable items, not wedding
      > rings. Luckily, when you go to replace them, NEW USGI spec mags
      > that are even better than the fairly good ones I served with are available
      > pretty cheaply.

      Some of us live in states were we cannot legally purchase 30-round AR magazines.

  7. Philip —

    You can shoot an AR using the EXACT technique you use with a shotgun, and get JUST as accurate hits as you would with your shotgun. Seriously. There is no magic in a shotgun that makes it’s 15th Century sighting equipment more accurate than looking across the top of an AR’s sights.

    The “shoot across the tops of the sights” style was one of two techniques I used to use to shoot the NBC qualifications clean (the other being, hold the damned thing in front of my face like a pistol). Used to teach it to my trainees after they mastered the God-Awful “tilt the weapon over” technique (which doesn’t work AT ALL for someone who needs corrective lenses and is trying to use the itty-bitty gas mask glasses in the old M17s). Even works with Sten guns in full auto. Wonderful technique for close ranges — and that’s why the Army used to teach it in two variants as “Quickfire”.

    1. I know. I was disagreeing with the assertion that an AR is easier to shoot accurately than a shotgun at ranges likely found inside a home, but I wasn’t trying to claim better inherent accuracy of the shotgun, either.

      As I said, I still give the rifle the win, just on the overpenetration issue. I would also give the rifle the win on follow-up shots. And capacity, especially in my house (my shotgun just holds three rounds). I read recently about a home invasion that involved several invaders. I’d rather get through that ordeal without reloading.

      BTW, I shot quite well with the “tilt-over” method when I was in the Army, but that was long before I needed corrective lenses. I have had no desire whatsoever to try it since I got out. Your description of God-awful is quite accurate.

  8. One consideration is “unintended” damage. If you have a small number of people to protect and exterior walls that will prevent bullets escaping, then maybe it is not a consideration. (Windows still provide an escape for most houses). The density of houses in the neighbor is another consideration. If you live alone on a 100 ac farm, in a reinforced concrete structure, with no livestock, you can choose anything. If you and 6 children live in an apartment with only sheetrock walls between apartments, then this is a real issue. This issue also affects the ammo choice on either of these platforms.
    I would also liked to have a semi-auto handgun included in the comparison.

  9. There’s one other little complexity of pump shottys that you don’t mention, and I’m kinda surprised its not mentioned more often- the little action release button you need to push to pump the gun if the hammer is still back.

    In my experience, the most common method of operation of a shotgun is this: finish shooting the gun at the range and unload it (or check it is unloaded) by pumping it a few times. Forget to drop the hammer. Arrive at range or home and load the weapon by sticking shells in it. Try and rack the gun, be unable to, and stare at the gun like a blank idiot for half a second before you remember that stupid little lever.

    Sure, a little training and practice will teach you this niggle, but I’ve SOed enough 3 gun matches at my local club to see this particular malfunction too frequently. Shottys are a *little* more complex than Hollywood makes them look. No more difficult than an AR.

  10. Few thoughts….

    Rifles are easier to shoot accurately -at distance- than shotguns.
    Clearing a misfeed from a bad mag or reload in an AR is easy – rip the mag out, work the bolt, replace with another magazine, chamber a round.
    Clearing a misfeed from a bad mag or reload in an 870 is difficult – either get a small tool to reach between the shell lifter and the bolt to push the round back or use gorilla strength to force the bolt back over the stuck shell.
    Clearing a misfeed from a bad mag or reload in a Mossberg pump isn’t necessary – if the round pops back out, it lands on the ground. Gun may now be a single-shot, but it still works.

    If you miss with an AR, you have one small projectile to take responsibility for.
    If you miss with buckshot, you have many small projectiles to take responsibility for.
    If you miss with a shotgun slug, you have one big-ass heavy projectile to take responsibility for.

    For what it’s worth, I have an AR loaded up with Speer Gold Dots and a Mossberg 590 full of buckshot. Call me a fence-straddler.

    For what it’s worth, I like the 870 as a hunting gun, but have seen them jammed on fumbled reloads a few too many times in stress drills to trust it or myself for personal defense (comment does not apply to competition shooters using the 870, as I imagine they’re fairly well-versed in avoiding this user-generated failure).

  11. How about you pick the firearm(s) (pistol, rifle, shotgun) of your choice or use what you have if you don’t have a choice, understand it’s pro’s and con’s, commit to training, understand your legal responsibilities and consequences.

    Given those guidelines, I think this topic is a win no matter what you choose.

    I thank each one of you for supporting our rights.

  12. The AR15 is a more elegant weapon for a more civilized age. Not as clumsy or random as a shotgun.

    I see you have constructed a new AR15. Your skills are complete. Indeed you are powerful as the Emperor has foreseen.

  13. Need an additional factor for consideration: “Intimidation: The ability to shut down a fight due to the real or perceived edge caused by the weapon carried by one side.” (Winner: Shotgun.)

    I think the environment should also be given a lot of thought when choosing between these two as a primary weapon. Both have their virtues. The better weapon for an apartment is going to be very different from one for a house on ten acres of land.

    I have a friend who, growing up, lived in a house where the home defense gun was a rifle in .375 H&H Magnum. And it was the right choice: The home invaders were Grizzly and Brown Bears – he lived in Alaska.

  14. I have noticed that a mounted light was mentioned several times. Why in the world anyone would want one escapes me. If you are in a situation that requires extra lighting, you would use it. If the assailant(s) are armed, they would use it also. Assuming that they return fire, they are going to instinctively aim and fire towards the light. And, what is standing directly behind the light? You… This opinion is backed up with years of law enforcement training. A weapon mounted light may have it’s value in some situations, but a firefight is not one of them.
    As far as which is better (rifle, shotgun or pistol) That is going to depend on the situation. Any one of them can be an excellent tool. You use what you have, to your best advantage and keep your fingers crossed that you are better (or luckier) that they are.

    1. if weapon-mounted lights are such a bad idea, than why does basically every Tier 1 military unit and major SWAT Team use them?

  15. The only “fact” listed in the verdict section is about shooting a shotgun over 50 yards…. My house isnt that big. Article is very biased.

  16. Still be better off with reliable 20 round mags in an AR than most people with Any shotgun. Of course, if you live in a state where even 20 round new mags are unobtainable, all I can say is it sucks to be you. (Not callously; sympathetically. I wish you lived in a free state, but obviously you’re pinned down by problems of your own.)

    Can you do as the entire nation did during the federal AWB of 1994-2004, and buy refurbish kits? New mag bodies to replace worn out ones, then new springs and followers to replace those as they wear out?

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