It’s the Math, Stupid

Find out why buckshot and birdshot are better than handgun, or even .223 Rem. loads for home defense.

By Kyle Wintersteen (RSS)
September 24, 2012

You’ve likely heard some blowhard rattle off the old cliché “man-stoppers start with four,” a suggestion that anything smaller than .40-caliber is insufficient for personal defense.

Funny thing is, it seems many of those fond of the phrase don’t even carry on a regular basis. If you encounter someone who’s intent on this game of “my gun’s bigger than your gun,” and you aren’t opposed to tricking the simple-minded, turn the tables by asking what his home-defense gun is chambered in. He’ll likely stick his chest out and say “.45 ACP.” That’s when you shake your head and scoff.


“What?” he asks. “What’s in your safe?”

“A shotgun loaded with double-aught buckshot,” you reply with a grin. “Man-stoppers start with 12.”

Then share with him the following information regarding the shotgun’s impressive external ballistics, and compare them with popular handgun and rifle calibers.

Shotgun vs. Handgun

Let’s start with the handgun chambering by which all others seemingly are judged—.45 ACP. Energy at the muzzle of a personal-defense .45 ACP round is usually about 400-450 ft.-lbs., depending on the weight and velocity of the bullet. At the high end, according to company literature, Hornady offers a .45 ACP +P load that sends a 200-grain bullet out of the barrel at a scorching 1,055 fps, resulting in muzzle energy of 494 ft.-lbs. In terms of raw energy, the .40 S&W actually stacks up fairly well to the .45 ACP, while the .357 Mag. exceeds it by a lot, averaging 540-600 ft.-lbs. Now, here’s where our loudmouthed adversary has a bit of a case: The average 9 mm packs 330-350 ft.-lbs., while the .38 Spl. averages just 230-250 ft.-lbs.

Does the 9 mm pack significantly less power than the .45? Perhaps, but it’s negligible when both are compared to a 12-gauge shotgun. A fairly standard personal-defense shotgun load throws nine 00-buckshot pellets at a muzzle velocity of 1,200 fps. Bigger, badder loads are out there, but this one is a good compromise between manageable recoil and maximum lethality. Each .33-caliber pellet weighs .123 ounces (53.8 grains) for a total payload of 1.107 ounces (484.3 grains). Given the pellets’ weight and velocity, we can determine their energy using the formula E = .5 x mass x velocity squared.

Starting with the overall payload of 1.107 ounces, we find an almost frighteningly high energy of 1,547 ft.-lbs. Mr. “Man-Stoppers Start with Four” can keep his 1911, because a single shotgun blast is comparable to four simultaneous rounds of .45 ACP.

The numbers are equally impressive for individual pellets. Each .33-caliber sphere possesses 172 ft.-lbs. of energy—meaning a single pellet strike hits harder than a .32 ACP handgun and not much softer than the popular .380 ACP (about 200 ft.-lbs.). That is awesome lethality, folks.

Shotgun vs. Rifle

There was a time when few considered AR-style rifles suitable for home defense. This was due more to prejudice than design flaw, but thoughts have changed, and recent loads such as Hornady TAP make the black rifle a far more viable home-defense option. In terms of raw energy, the shotgun wins, but the .223 Rem. does stack up pretty well—most loads hover around 1,300 ft.-lbs. at the muzzle. However, the shotgun separates itself from the .223 Rem. in its ability to dump that energy into a close-range target. Today’s rapid-expanding .223 Rem. rounds come close, but I have not seen a ballistic gelatin test in which it outperformed 00 buckshot. And ultimately it is the transfer of energy—whether a car striking a deer or an ounce of shot smacking a burglar’s chest—that kills.

There are plenty of rifle calibers that exceed the shotgun in terms of energy, though. A hot .270 Win. or .30-’06 Sprg. load, for instance, has nearly double the energy of our example shotgun configuration. Heavy rifles are plenty powerful, but can be impractical for close-range combat.

Thoughts on Smaller Pellets

So packed with energy is a 12-gauge buckshot load, some question whether it’s too much for their needs. There’s no such thing as stopping a threat too quickly, but keep this in mind: Buckshot really penetrates, and that is a concern if you have neighbors or children on the other side of the drywall. Folks in these scenarios frequently opt for No. 7 1⁄2  shot to reduce penetration while preserving close-range lethality. Is No. 7 1⁄2 shot sufficient? Let’s consider a 1-ounce load that achieves 1,200 fps. As it exits the muzzle, the overall payload packs a 1,398 ft.-lb. wallop. That, my friends, will stop a bad guy. However, proper patterning is all the more essential with birdshot in a self-defense scattergun, since the smaller pellets create a wider pattern than buckshot at equal distances. And you must center their breadth on the target, because while more pellets exit the gun (350 No. 7 1⁄2 pellets per ounce of shot), individual pellets carry less than 4 ft.-lbs. of energy—a glancing blow may not get the job done.

Still, at 10 yards, I’ll trust my life to birdshot over any handgun caliber—even one that starts with “four.”

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27 Responses to It’s the Math, Stupid

  1. Chris says:

    I have to disagree with this article. While a there is no doubt that a 9 pellet 00 buck load is a man stopper, birdshot has insufficient penetration to be trusted to stop a human aggressor. High energy transfer is not a predictor of how a weapon will preform in the real world. Will bird shot probably kill someone if you shoot them in the chest from 20 feet away? Yes probably will, But that is ideal circumstances and you can’t expect to have ideal circumstances in a home invasion. Your ammunition should be capable of reaching the perpetrators spinal cord from less than ideal angles or behind cover. If your worried about shooting through walls and hurting someone you didn’t mean to, tuff, anything that is going to penetrate to an intruders vital organs will easliy pass through dry wall.

  2. James Killian says:

    I love the turning the table on those who boast of the power of the ,45 ACP as the ultimate manstopper. However everything fails. Know of a undercover police officer armed with a shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot shooting a suspect twice in the chest and neither shot stopped him. The guy was on crack and the damage just did not bother him.

    • Charles Stanley says:

      I have to call B.S. on that story. Unless you provide researchable evidents of the event, then it didn’t happen. Crack cocaine makes people high, but it does not make them super human or amune to the laws of phisics. If you tell the truth without adding drama, then you will be a more credible person.

    • CaneFu says:

      Sorry pal, but I see your kind of post all the time on the internet and you have no idea what you are talking about. My experience with people on crack or any kind of other drug is that they fall down like bowling pins when meeting any kind of resistance. Their elevated blood pressure, pulse rate, and overall poor health makes their system very fragile and certainly not robust enough to withstand a shotgun blast in the chest.

      • D says:

        I’m sorry..what exactly is your experience? I am a former firearm and use of force instructor and have to disagree with your post. Persons under the influence of stimulants normally are more aggressive and will continue the fight after they are addressed with deadly force. I can refer you to several case studies on the topic if you like.

        • Jason B says:

          Anyone claiming to be a firearm and use of force instructor and then claiming that someone on some type of stimulant will keep coming after being addressed by deadly force just proves that anyone on the Internet can claim to know anything. Granted the original story could be true if a short barrel was used at any distance and that is a good possibility considering cops aren’t very intelligent. I have an old seriously choked 12 gauge Browning that will blow a 2×6 in half at 25 feet using 2 3/4 shells so take all the drugs you want, you will stop with one centered shot. As far as everyone with there 40′s, 45′s and 357′s vs 9mm, my 9mm 115 +P+ Gold Dots custom loaded to +1400 fps produce 500+ ft lbs. They will drop a deer in it’s tracks. In all this big slow bullet stopping power fad that everyone has jumped on lately there is one thing they don’t understand, the shockwave created by velocity and damage it does. Something learned in 30 years of shooting guns and training in the martial arts. An extremely fast punch to the head from a small fighter will break bones and drop someone like a rock. A slow punch from a big strong fighter will push someone’s head, bruise them and piss them off. Does a 45 have more stopping power than a 7mm mag? Lop sided yes but it’s the point. Slow makes holes, fast makes holes and displacement, really fast makes thing explode from excessive displacement. Ever seen a 50 cal sniper hit at a half mile? Part of the person is thrown through the air like a ragdoll. That would be the part that didn’t explode from the shockwave created by the velocity of the bullet.

          • ralph says:

            you need to take a Physics course, because you have watched too many movies!

            Let me guess you are about 20 yrs old!

  3. A. DaSilva says:

    Home defense- hallways with corners, doorways and children or elderly to guide, push to safe room…all with a long gun in both hands? Hold a flashlight? No, a shotgun is great if you’re holed up or backed up in a saferoom, but to defend a family you need the mobility and free hand that a good handgun gives. I won’t get into the caliber beef, training and willingness make the difference, not hollowpoints versus birdshot.

    • R. Miskanis says:

      Point goes to Mr. DiSilva.
      Even qith a pistol-gripped, 18′ barreled Mossberg it’s two hands on the weapon at all times. I have a flashlight/laser attached, but I have a light/laser on the Springfield .45 as well, and have a hand free to pound out 911.

  4. Jorge Amselle says:

    Good arguments. I have always preferred the handgun for home defense because it is compact for tight corners and rooms and leaves a free hand plus shot placement is the most important thing anyways. However, the Kel-Tec KSG completely changed my view. It is compact, has high capacity, and can be carried and fired (but not racked) one handed if needed.

  5. Jason Sparks says:

    Very good article and also great comments. Both sides are valid even them45 guys. Like they say the best defensive weapon is the one you have in your hands at the time and thats how I personally address this question. 357 snubby is a lot easier to have close by either in a haulster attacked to me or in the night stand by my pillow. The 12 gauge is a little more work to get to but in the same room when I sleep. So 357 when seconds count but Prefer BOTH when possible. This fits MY needs maybe its the wrong way but we all have different needs and situations but thank God there are a LOT of guns to choose from :)

  6. fred says:

    having had a career in police work, i can tell you what actually counts is training, training, training. practice practice practice.
    where the round/s go is the all important thing. when the stuff hits the fan, if youve had no training or do not practice under stress, you will/may not succeed in your endevor. of course you MIGHT get lucky.

  7. William Johnston says:

    Ok folks, I have to agree with the author about the shotgun being the most effective man stopper, but the revolver or pistol is the easiest to handle. Sometimes our finer sex has to handle the weapon, whereas the shotgun in this case kills on both ends. Thus the handgun would be better for all around home defense. Pray that neither has to be used, but in this day and age,who knows. But training and being effecient with whatever you are using are more important than size.

  8. D says:

    this is all dependent. I live in a townhome and have a .223 caliber rifle for home defense. the over-penetration for this round is minimal, which keeps my neighbor’s kids safer and allows an effective defense. I am sure Joe Biden did not account for ballistics in his 12-gauge shotgun statement.

  9. katrina says:

    I only have one issue after a firefight in the home ,I find myself 800 meters from my target. I will bet my life on a 5.56mm over any OO buck anything..

  10. Vincent says:

    Whoever did the comparison only emphasize on energy, while did not account distance and accuracy into the equation. I’ll take a 223 ar over any shotguns at 75 yards and beyond. While slug shots
    Shells can be effective at 100 yards, 200 yards will be the limit. I’d take a single shot pistol/riffle anyday. There is one more situation shotguns are at a disadvantage. Hostages. Can’t shoot accurate enough to fire behind a hostage

    • Fred says:

      If you have 50 to 85 yards in between you and your attacker, an alternate means of survival better be calculated and employed.

  11. Onsitewelding says:

    How many of you folks. Claiming my gun is better than your gun, cuz I’m a certified space ranger instructor’ have ACTUALLY been in a sustained firefight?! Cuz ill be straight up with y’all. Sounds like a d*ck measuring contest between y’all.
    I’ll bet you’d sh*t your pants if bullets started flyin.
    Someone breaking into your house. Can be stopped DEAD with a F’ing pellet rifle!
    Never mind a damn street sweeper.
    And for the Einstein that wants to start corkin off his 5.56. Yeah good luck with that sizzle chest! Ammunition is different than BRAINS. You only have limited amount of the latter obviously.
    Yes a shotgun is best for home defense.
    And no you don’t need two hands to operate one. Hence the invention of the semi automatic shotgun.
    We all have opinions on which size shotgun is best. But me Ill defend my home and close quarters. With a .410 shell in my Circuit Judge. Oh sure someone will say ‘ it’s only got to such and such range.’
    Yeah…. True. But awake, you won’t be gettin that close.

  12. Jason says:

    Well I had 3 tours in Afganistan, and was involved 9 enemy contacts of which seven resulted in full out fire fights For all the training in the world we go through, the first three fire fights were completly terrifying, when bullets are just feet away from you streaking by… but the training keeps you alive, in spite of the adrenaline making something as simple as reloading difficult. I don’t pretend to have more knowledge of ballistics than anyone else, nor do I out of arrogance disregard others experience. In the end sometimes the sight of a gun or the sound of one going off is enough to stop an intruder and make him feel back in touch with something called self preservation… Causing said intruder to flee, while leaving perhaps some urine or excrement in your home.

  13. David says:

    First of all the shotgun out performs any pistol for home defence. Reason, Spread! While under duress, the average shooter becomes stressed beyond normal. Physical motor mechanics become limited. Aiming takes time, but not with the shotgun. Why, Spread! Also you can adjust the loads, 71/2 bird shot, 00 buck and then a slug. Pistols/Revolvers act as back up. Drugs or no drugs they will be stopped!

  14. Kevin says:

    Funny how everybody is an expert. I just know that nobody wants to be on the receiving end of any gun barrel no matter what caliber. Shot placement is key and can be difficult under duress. That’s why we practice, practice and practice. But it seems that 00 buck is the winner for best man stopper.

  15. Derek says:

    I hear you guys in the two hands versus one hands argument but I have read that 85[%] of rounds fired by police are misses. I also read from massad ayoob that 85 percent of handgun shootings are survived.

    Shotguns are slightly less prone to some of the marksmanship errors that might occur while sleepy in the dark surprised etc. not saying they are magical but perhaps easier.

    And someone mentioned an 800 yard shot. That’s a nice house:[)]. Max distance in my house would be like 60 feet. I have hit plenty of clay pigeons at longer range.

  16. Machobunny says:

    Ya know, I prefer a short shot gun with buck. But I think most police will agree, if you have the average intruder in your house, as soon as he hears you pump that first round into the chamber, a sound we all know that echos clearly through a quiet, dark house, he’s gone almost as fast as a speeding bullet. You’ll never get a chance to shoot him or blow gaping holes in your house.
    Of course if you have a military invasion on your hands, better just run yourself.

  17. Sexual Cornbread says:

    Man, when yaw gonna learn??? Always arguing over 9mm 40 and 45. Heres the truth on those 3… Suck, suck, and suck. Its like arguing over whats faster between a cavalier, a pontiac sunfire, or a toyota camry.. And us guys with shelby 500s are like.. who cares. So, get ya a shelby or a corvette.. AKA The Mighty 10MM auto, and end the argument, oh yea.. it kicks the 357 magnums ass too, more powerful, and holds 15. Glock 20 Glock 29. See one at your local gun dealer today. Peace.

  18. JR says:

    I will chime in here as the voice of Joe average. First the fellas talking about the sound of a pump gun loading being a man stopper .. You bet your butt it is. Also the pump gun has the benefit of being an all around use weapon different load different purpose. Cost. some folks have enough cash for one weapon. 12 gauge wins again. Penetration, I will have to admit to stupid here as I have accidentally discharged a 9mm carbine with +p hollow point ammo indoors “Yeah I beat myself up hard for it” It penetrated 2 double sided walls a door and was only stopped by the brick of the outer walls. Point is be damn sure where any weapon is pointed at all times. Long range? that is not home protection unless your talking about coyote. The only downside I can think of to a 12 gauge for home protection is the recoil. While I can handle a high brass kick and send another behind it a lower gauge 410/20? may be better suited for other members of the family. Very few people can send a second round on target in the moments that count with a high caliber hand gun carbine would be a better choice for any pistol caliber I recon. But the one guy said the best one is the one in your hand. Yeah that sounds about right.

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