Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Thoughts on Selecting a Home Defense Shotgun

For my first substantive post after resuming this blog, I am going to discuss selecting a shotgun for home defense.  This post is based on a reply I made to an email list which was prompted by a member's question about getting a female friend equipped to defend herself, so read it in that light.  The friend is a newcomer to shooting, lives in a rural area, and aside from defense against bipedal predators, also has some black bear on her land.

Of note, this is not idle exercise for her, either.  She's already had a couple of incidents which could've gone sour.  When seconds count, the police are only minutes -- or in her case longer -- away.

In large measure what's below is based on this thread in the Shotgun forum at THR.

Some key points gleaned from that thread and elsewhere, including my own experience:

1. 20 gauge guns are often recommended for women because everything else being equal, they recoil less than 12 gauge.

2. Everything is not always equal.  20 gauge guns often weigh much less than 12 gauge shotguns.  Thus, they recoil just as badly as a 12.

3. If she is strong enough to handle the weight of a 7 lb. 12 gauge I'd go with that, set it up with the correct length of pull stock with a GOOD recoil pad (Pachymar Decellerator or Limbsaver, or a Hogue stock with their recoil pad.  Hogue sells a youth-length stock which a lot of men use on fighting shotguns b/c a short length of pull is advantageous in that application.  I have one on my HD Mossberg 500.).  Proper gun fit is very important.  If necessary have a gunsmith shorten the stock and install a recoil pad.

4. Use light loads for initial familiarization.  E.g., low brass target loads with #8 or #7.5 shot.  Birdshot is usually a poor choice for self defense because it doesn't penetrate well.  (See the pictures of testing against ballistic gelatin, here.)  If you must use birdshot, use high brass loads with larger shot sizes.  Remember that the higher the number the smaller the shot.  E.g., #8 shot is smaller than #4 shot.  Also, #4 birdshot is not the same as #4 buckshot.  Buckshot is larger.

5. For defense get some reduced recoil 00 buckshot from Federal, Remington, Hornady or Winchester.  This stuff is more expensive than the bulk packs you can find at Wal-Mart but kicks much less and often patterns better.  Lighter recoil allows faster shot-to-shot recovery.  This may need to be ordered online if you cannot find it locally.  For what it's worth, I use the Federal reduced recoil 00 "Tactical" buckshot with "Flite Control" wads in my HD shotguns.

6. 12 gauge ammo is the most common and is frequently less expensive than 20 gauge, especially when it comes to buckshot and slugs.

I saw that Wes suggested a single barrel 20 gauge.  The problem with these is that they are light and thus kick hard.  (I have an H&R Topper 20 gauge and it's not real fun to shoot.  A 12 gauge single barrel is worse.)

Some specific gun recommendations:

1. If your budget permits, pick up a used slide action 12 gauge such as a law enforcement trade-in, either a Remington 870 or a Mossberg 500.  They are generally pretty easy to find, cheap, and spare parts are readily available.  I picked up my 1951-vintage Remington 870 Wingmaster for $170 out the door in the Summer of 2008.  Prices have gone up a bit since the November 2008 election, but LE trade-ins are still a good choice.  Many of these shotguns have seen a fair amount of time in racks, have been loaded and cleared many times, but shot very little.  As a result, they may be somewhat rough on the outside but very smooth operating.  My Wingmaster fell into this category.

If your are not willing to practice enough to get familiar with the manual of arms for a pump gun then move on to #2 or #3 below.

2. Used side-by-side double barreled 12 gauge shotgun, e.g., a Savage/Stevens 311 or Stoeger Uplander.

3. Used side-by-side double barreled 20 gauge shotgun.

Note: Unfortunately, these days a used double gun will probably cost more than a used slide action shotgun.

4. Single barrel shotgun.  Despite the fact that they hold only one shot, they can fired quite quickly with some practice.  A downside, as noted above, is that because of their light weight, they tend to kick hard.  Get a good slip-on recoil pad and this can be mitigated somewhate.  One very nice thing about them is that used singles can be acquired very cheaply, often for $100 or less.

You'll note that I did not mention semiautos.  I am not a fan of semiautos for new shooters.  A manually operated shotgun will typically be more reliable and easier to fix if something goes wrong.  A manually operated gun is also easier to learn fire discipline with.  YMMV.

Whatever you buy, if you're buying a gun for someone else, make sure she is the one who ultimately chooses the gun, so that she's more likely to have a gun that fits and that she's comfortable with.

Finally, just having a gun does not mean that you're armed.  You need training on how to safely load, unload, and shoot the gun.  Just as importantly, you need to know the laws governing the use of deadly force in your jurisdiction.  GET TRAINING.


EgregiousCharles said...

I disagree on manually operated vs. semi-auto. Perhaps you've had a different experience using reduced-recoil ammo, but I've never seen a semi-auto tube-magazine shotgun fail to cycle high-brass. I have often seen people short-stroke a pump without even facing a threat to their life.

In a life-threatening situation, KISS applies more to the user than it does to the mechanism. Adrenalin doesn't screw up a gas mechanism.

I HAVE seen consistent failures in my 12-gauge Saiga with AGP 10-round magazines kept loaded in the gun. The extra pressure of the extended magazine spring makes the plastic hulls deform, basically squashing them into oval instead of round shape, which feeds very poorly.

Dave Markowitz said...

Those are valid concerns. Whether one chooses a pump or a semi, training is key.

Anonymous said...

Many semi's are set up to shoot specific loadings. For example the excellent Remington 1100 is often set up to shoot target loads. High brass loads may cause problems.

Some semi autos have 2 3/4" chambers. Check the barrel carefully, not the receiver or the manual. Someone could have changed out the barrel.

Know your loads and the shell length (Fired). My first 870 (Bought at age 17!) had 2 3/4 inch chambers.

3" shells will make any gun kick hard. Worse if you have 2 3/4" or shorter chambers.

Unless you are pass shooting Canada's, stay away from 3 1/2" chambers. The Rem 870 in particular is more complex than similar guns with 3"or 2 3/4 " chambers.

If you have an 870, grind or drill out the dimples in the mag tube if present, you will thank me someday for that advice.

Harmony Hermit