Shotgun mythbusting

After posting Rifles vs. shotguns for home defense, I was amazed to see the number of people both here and on Facebook that don’t understand even a little bit about how shotguns work. Let’s go over some of the common mistakes, starting of course with shotgun patterns. Once again, my good friend and mentor Richard Mann did the legwork on this one, patterning several types of buckshot for Shooting Illustrated.

Image by Shooting Illustrated
Image by Shooting Illustrated

What does that teach us about shotgun patterns? That the average spread at 5 yards, an acceptable inside the house distance is less than five inches. That’s smaller than the distance from the tip of your middle finger to your wrist. Think about that for a minute – place your open palm over your chest and look down. That’s the average spread of buckshot at 5 yards. There is no “cone of death” coming out of a shotgun, because as the pattern expands, the projectiles become less effective. 00 buck is an effective fight stopper because you’re hitting someone with 8 or 9 pellets all at once. Hitting them with one or two pellets isn’t going to do the trick.

Up next is over-penetration. We had a lot of people talking about how a rifle will shoot clean through your house, your neighbors, and the house next door while a shotgun won’t. That’s simply not true. A 5.56 projectile will tumble after passing through a single interior wall. The tumbling 5.56 projectile then loses velocity and deviates wildly from its flight path. Shotgun slugs and buckshot on the other hand just keep on trucking in the same flight path unless they hit a stud. Shotguns and pistols have a much greater risk of over-penetration than rifles when fired indoors.

The one thing I will concede to the shotgun fans (I’m one) is that you have a much higher chance of ending the fight with a single shot from a shotgun than you do from a rifle. However, I’m not willing to bet my life on one-shot stops, and I can shoot my 3-5 aimed shots from a rifle in the same amount of time it takes to fire 2 aimed shots from a pump gun.

Rifles win, hands down.


  1. I was once involved in a decision to equip a campus police department with long guns. There was a consensus that this needed to be done but disagreement about whether it should be shotguns or rifles. So the chief and I went down to Gunsite to take a class, talk to the instructors and experiment. The answer was rifles for all the reasons you cite. Interior walls on campus were made out of some kind of concrete with pebbles imbedded. 223 hits something like that it probably tumbles and breaks up. A slug basically goes on forever bouncing from wall to wall. Buckshot is somewhere in between. Plus given the layout of the campus (and most others) with large parking lots and open space, a long range shot may be the only one available. I will note that the chief was originally in the shotgun faction but changed his mind after this.

  2. Inside my home I will take my MKA 1919 with 00 Buck down the length of my hall! Any rifle round would severely over penetrate and on one side I have a range problem.

    If outside and a possible multi-person threat, yes give me my rifle.

  3. Yep, No. 4 shot is exactly what I’d pick πŸ™‚ Lots of them landing at 1,200 fps within 5″ at 5yd. should have quite an effect πŸ™‚ while a .22 caliber flying at >2,800 fps (if I miss) and still maybe? 2,000 fps? (after a “soft hit”, say…) still gives me lower confidence in neighbor safety… and the fact that it’s “deviating wildly” off path is NO confidence builder on that! πŸ™‚

    I’ll reckon that this fear of mine may be easily overcome by using dedicated .223 ammo (I once read about 40-grain HPs used for CQB with multiple teams entering a building – they would be disintegrated by a single wall hit), but again, “CONTEXT” is a broader notion in my peculiar case: in Italy, not even the worst BG is legally shootable with any form of expanding, “inhumane” (etc. etc…) ammo. To put it in a funny way, shotgun + small shot enable you to effectively shoot the bad guy while, er, putting enough “body armor” behind your boot for the immense legal hassle that will necessarily follow.

    If I lived in my dream-house in AZ, I’d probably pick your choice πŸ™‚

    Just for the record, my current Home Guard is indeed a pistol + separate flashlight. In dark close quarters I do fear that, in a melee / struggle, the long gun may be easier for the BG to grasp and deflect, forcing me to have a physical confrontation with an unknown enemy to retain the weapon, rather than just shoot said enemy. Again, a context-based choice. End of the offtopic πŸ™‚

  4. Well, not having taken a carbine or shotgun class, I’d feel most familiar with my glock 34 loaded up with 17 rounds of federals best. A long gun would feel awkward, but that is purely a training standpoint. I have trained with my pistol, while my shotgun is purely for going to shoot skeet. And I’m a broke college student, so the AR-15 or putting up the scratch for putting an optic, shell carrier, and mag extension on my shotgun just isn’t happening. Perhaps the most important thing is to use a weapon you are familiar with and have practiced with. If I buy a LWRC, add an ACOG with a backup RMR, a crimson trace laser forward grip and a surefire kablamo! flashlight with 450 lumen output(Ditto if I buy a Benelli M4 with the ghost ring sights, face-meltingly bright flashlight, and 12 round extended mag tube and never shoot it)…none of that is worth a turd on a hot day if I’ve never actually trained with my gun.

  5. One huge factor: Nobody is going to bat an eye at you defending your home and self with a single, lethal blast from a 12 gauge pump.

    Do the same with a half dozen shots from a tricked AR15 festooned with an ACOG, forward grip, bazillion candlepower light and laser, and and overzealous prosecutor may try to paint you with a different brush.

    I hate to say it, but post-Zimmerman, one MUST take appearances into factor when considering self-defense.

    1. Sian I am afraid has hit on a good point. No matter how gunfriendly your local area all it takes is on Assistant DA determined to play politics to break your bank account!

  6. Don’t forget some serious ear protection for firing a rifle indoors, too. Shotguns are loud, but not as ear-splitting as a shorter barreled AR. I’ve fired my 20″ 12 gauge indoor (range) with only plugs in, but I only fired one shot of a .357 and 5.56 before putting the muffs back over the plugs. Woof that’s loud.

  7. Caleb,
    I’m sorry but I have to respectfully disagree, here are my reasons:
    1. Utility — look is the rifle great for what it does? sure, no argument there! but assuming that the person isn’t strictly intrested in home defense and/or competition a decent shotgun just is capable of doing so much more with a simple ammo change (look I *PERSONALLY* have used my shotgun to go after everything from rats to bears… and with the correct ammo it has NEVER failed).
    2. stopping power — If we exclude the exotics (body armor, serious small unit tactics and serious training by the bad guys) I have an extremely hard time coming up with a threat a 5 round shotgun mag can’t stop that a 30 or even 100 round rifle mag will.
    3. realism — The rifle doesn’t really traditionally come into its own until ranges far exceeding what I will ever need to defend my home… I don’t have any 50 or 100 yard hallways in my home how about you? Granted this is less an issue with semi-auto carbines than the old bolt-action deer rifles but why bother worrying about those ranges when I need to worry about the home/yard area?
    4. price — for price of the bottom of the barrel stuff in AR land you get top of the line in shotgun land!

    Based on all of the above, IF I was counseling a new shooter on what weapon makes sense I’d be remiss if I didn’t make a case for the shotgun! I’d have to say something like ‘yes the rifle has a lot of good points: lighter recoil, more rounds, range exceeding 50-100 yards, but the shotgun does too: utility, stopping power and frankly do you really want to go up against a black bear (which is a realistic threat where I live) with a 5.56?’.

  8. Isaac — Your #2 and #3 assertions are simply factually mistaken. As proven both in actual shoots by police and as tested. Yes, the “common sense” answer says that a 12 gauge shotgun should be far more devastating for home defense. . . but that “common sense” is simply ill-informed.

    Ugo Pistolesi — the 5.56mm round isn’t just “deviating wildly”, it going to be tumbling, and LESS aerodynamically efficient than a shotgun pellet, thus shedding velocity like a drunken co-ed at Mardi Gras shedding dignity. Seriously.

  9. Geodkyt — Even though I do have to concede that there is a grain of truth in ” As proven both in actual shoots by police and as tested. Yes, the β€œcommon sense” answer says that a 12 gauge shotgun should be far more devastating for home defense” this is usually due to either piss poor training (i.e. yes you still have to aim this firearm, not “point it”) or bad ammo selection (i.e. buckshot at 50 yards just doesn’t work).

    It should also be noted that: I live in a place where bears and coyotes are a real threat and should be taken into account when selecting gear (and like it or not I don’t know of anyone who would knowingly take a 5.56 up against a bear).

    So that brings us back to whether or not points #2 and #3 are accurate:

    As to point #2 how often (when legally deployed by a civilian) does someone actually either run dry and get overrun or run dry and have to reload a pump or auto shotgun? Lets try to exclude the vice president’s “just fire two blasts in the air” idiocy from this one.

    As to point #3 (yes I realize this is much less an issue with modern semi-auto carbines than the old bolt-action deer rifles) but why bother worrying about 50-100+ yards ranges when I need to worry about the home/yard area? Exactly when was the last time a civilian (not living in a known smuggling route) had to engage at 100+ yards? And yet A LOT of rounds get burned training at these ranges… when the average fight is at most going to be at most at about 5-10 yards, why?

    1. another thing just occurred to me Caleb made a *REALLY GOOD POINT* post today:
      “Again, every person’s home defense situation is going to be very situational. What works for me may not be your best solution, which is why I encourage everyone to take a realistic look at your needs.”

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