Buckshot vs. Birdshot

Density kills, and these tests should help settle an ancient argument.

By Kyle Wintersteen (RSS)
November 15, 2012

The buckshot versus birdshot debate is practically as old as the first home-defense shotgun, and yet the argument has never really evolved. The pro-buckshot gentleman argues nothing penetrates like 00 buck, while the birdshot proponent argues birdshot minimizes collateral damage because it won’t bust through drywall (though some tests indicate that birdshot will indeed penetrate drywall at close-range). Often, the discussion never waivers from these points. However, while penetration is probably the key difference between birdshot and buckshot, there is another important consideration that too often goes unheeded.

Buckshot pellets tend to stick tightly together as they proceed downrange, dumping all of their collective energy into the target. Smaller pellets such as birdshot, on the other hand, have an inherent tendency to spread out more widely. What does this mean for home defense? Let’s look at a few photos. All loads were fired from a 12-gauge shotgun with an improved cylinder choke.


Buckshot at 10 yards

First, let’s take a look at two photos of buckshot fired from a distance 10 yards—the maximum range at which most self-defense shootings occur, according to law enforcement statistics.

Photo 1

Photo 2

Folks, this is why at inside-the-home distances I’ll trust my life to 00 buckshot over anything on the market, handguns and rifles included. Photo No. 1 shows the results of a Hornady Critical Defense load of eight 00 buckshot pellets. Photo No. 2 is Federal Premium Personal Defense, which contains nine pellets of 00 buckshot. At this distance, both loads dumped the entirety of their energy—essentially the equivalent of four simultaneous .45 ACP handgun rounds—within a 3-inch diameter. Buckshot therefore allows the armed citizen to deliver overwhelming energy to a very specific target. Note also how easy it would be to miss with buckshot. We will save this topic for a future column, but it’s worth noting. Those who choose shotguns for home defense because “you can’t miss with a scattergun” are misguided. You use a shotgun for home defense because of the energy it harnesses, not as a substitute for range time and practice.

Birdshot at 10 yards

Photo 3

Photo 4

Now let’s look at a couple of birdshot loads at 10 yards: Photo 3 is Remington Lead Game Loads, a 1-ounce load of No. 7 1/2 shot, and photo 4 is B&P MB Classic, a 1 1/8-ounce load of No. 5 shot. They would likely prove a bad guy’s demise at this close proximity (the Remington load packs about 1,400 ft.-lbs. at the muzzle). Note, however, how wide their patterns are already on a 12-inch target. Such patterns are already less likely than buckshot to deliver all of their energy to the bad guy’s vitals, and the disparity will only increase with distance. Averaging about 172 ft.-lbs. at the muzzle, an individual 00 buckshot pellet hits harder than a .32 ACP handgun round—just one or two delivered to an intruder would cause him to second-guess his vocation. An average No. 7 1/2 birdshot pellet, however, packs just 4 ft.-lbs. of energy. Therefore, to be effective for home defense, it’s imperative for birdshot to impact the target in a highly concentrated pattern. Certainly this can be improved by experimenting with chokes and other loads.

Photo 5

A third birdshot round, Federal Premium Prairie Storm, a 1¼-ounce load of No. 6 shot, displayed a very tight pattern for a game load as seen in photo 5. It uses the same “FliteControl” wad as Federal’s Personal Defense Buckshot load (the VersaTite wad by Hornady Critical Defense is similar). Unlike a conventional wad, the FliteControl design stays with the payload for a longer time and distance, thereby delivering a tighter pattern to the target. It’s a great shell for knocking down distant pheasants, and based on this pattern, it would probably stop a home invasion in a hurry. However, it also produced by far the stoutest recoil of any shell tested, buckshot included. Nonetheless, if you insist on using birdshot for home defense, this is perhaps a load worth looking into.

The 25-Yard Test

At 25 yards, birdshot has decreased in effectiveness by a wide margin. A home-defense scenario is less likely to occur at such distance, but these patterns demonstrate a key weakness of birdshot: With every yard, a pattern of birdshot widens incrementally, decreasing its ability to deliver a concentrated blow to burglar-sized vitals.

Photo 6

Additionally, all those pretty holes  in the paper in photo 6 may be a bit misleading. Birdshot has slowed quite a bit by the 25-yard mark, so it could take more than a few pellet strikes to get the job done.

Photo 7

The heavier buckshot pellets, on the other hand, still pack plenty of punch at this yardage, and both loads tested dumped 50-75 percent of their pellets into the 12-inch target as seen in photo 7.

Chokes and loads can be tweaked, but as a general rule, the pellets—and therefore the energy—of birdshot widens and disperses over a shorter distance than buckshot. So, if you prefer to use birdshot, proper patterning is absolutely essential to ensure lethality. But, as evidenced by these patterns, delivering energy to the target is generally achieved more easily and effectively with buckshot, which is one of the reasons it remains the most popular choice for defensive purposes.

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39 Responses to Buckshot vs. Birdshot

  1. Chris Farrington says:

    It would be interesting to see how #4 shot and a duplex 2×4 shot load would fare.

  2. Karl says:

    Would anyone seriously suggest hunting BUCKS with BIRDshot or vice versa? Use the right tool for the job.

    • Andy S says:

      Foster slugs do penetrate. As a young hunter, DEC brought in a large doe to demonstrate field dressing. The Ranger shot it with a foster slug. It entered through the ribs behind the lung and exited the opposite haunch after traversing about 3 feet of guts, muscle, and bone. All of the meat in the hindquarters was spoiled.

  3. Chris says:

    How about a foster slug, it patterns pretty tight. Seriously though foster slugs are hollow and made of soft lead I know for a fact they won’t over penetrate a “bad guy’ and shouldn’t be any worse the 00 buck if you hit dry wall. In fact if you did miss it would probably be better to send one projectile into the neighbor’s house rather than 9. A Brenneke slug is a different matter the penetrate everything.

  4. Bob W. says:

    Some #2′s or BB’s in a full choke would be very debilitating at 10-20 yards from my old duck gun, they would get the job done.

    • Chuck. says:

      U mentioned a full choke. Has anyone tried a full choke on a 18.5′ barrel?

      • Karl says:

        I have patterned with 20′ Mossberg ‘security’ barrel with a full choke. Birdshot is impressive if you are a bird. The buckshot however did respond with better density in the center of the pattern while overall pattern size was just a little smaller. The pattern was better to 20 yards and then began to get erratic. Past that range, cylinder bore and Flitecontrol was the best.

  5. Roy Olivieri says:

    As a retired LEO and Range Master, I can attest to the effectiveness of bird shot at close range. I agree that bird shot within a dwelling is more than sufficient to take the fight out of any intruder, while reducing the chance of over penetration and ricochet. On most ocassions, High Base 7.5 bird shot, will get the job done within 20 yards.

    • Karl says:

      How many police agencies issue 7.5 shot for their patrol shotguns? How many cops or police unions would actually stand for it?

      • Officer OReilly says:

        The police aren’t really concerned about over penetration or collateral damage since it’s the perp that would charged with someone else getting hurt, not the police doing the shooting.

        Plus cops would do fine with birdshot since they usually don’t show up until well after the crime is over.

  6. Karl says:

    If you GOTTA use bird shot to defend yourself, shoot for the face and neck.

  7. D.L. Thomas, Life Member says:

    Finally! An article worth reading! This mirrors my experience. I also have to add, as an avid hunter, that the bird shot may NOT penetrate to vital organs beyond a few feet, as squirrel and rabbit hunters will attest.

  8. Bob says:

    Comments…If someone want’s to shoot bird shot with more downrange effect, why not try some of the new ‘heavier than lead’ turkey and goose loads. [(] perhaps # 2s or T[)]?
    We here in the south have heard of ‘buck and ball’ being even more effective than buck alone. I have commercial 12 ga loads containing a 64 cal ball with six 00 buck.
    If recoil is a consideration, as it is for me, how about using a .410 shotgun loaded with a 3′, five 000 [(]36 cal[)] shot, also a commercial load, rated at about 1300 fps. Close to being hit by five .40 cal +Ps at one time, but not quite so hard on an old guy’s shoulder.

  9. blackavenger says:

    And the answer is: remove the plug, mix the loads and use them all if necessary. If ya gotta shoot the mutha, kill him beyond dead.

  10. Karl says:

    Mr. Wintersteen,

    Honest question: Why choose buckshot over slugs? To keep the question manageable, lets leave birdshot out of it and keep the range within 25 yards. What are the pros and cons? Why do police generally choose buckshot and not slugs?

  11. Andy S says:

    Slugs kick a lot more, and cause tremendous damage if it hits. Slugs can penetrate something like 5 or more layers of wallboard, beyond 25 yards.

    Buckshot kicks less and spreads about .5″ for every yard with IC choke, giving you slight margin for error. Penetration is approximately 3 layers of wallboard at common combat distance of 7 yards.

    • Karl says:

      I guess that is what I am wondering about. Putting the bird shot discussion aside, of loads that will meet ‘FBI’ penetration requirements, is buckshot the ‘safest’ for everyone else you are NOT shooting at in the event of a pass through or miss? Does a wider margin of error with some pattern spread REALLY factor into it by getting a good hit where you might not otherwise? My testing shows FCW stuff to be nearly sluglike to almost 20 yards. The decent non-FCW stuff runs 12′-14′ at 20 yards. You have to aim either but I find myself liking the larger pattern for legal self defense, especially if it increases my likelihood of stopping the threat with fewer shots. But I am just one guy and others’ shooting experience is deeper than mine.

    • Karl says:

      I suppose if buckshot is less of a threat to others at longer range and less ‘barrier’ penetrative than a slug, increasing its controlled ‘accuracy’ and effective range is probably a good thing. I guess I would like to hear the ‘cons’ of my liking the 12′ pattern at 20 yards.

  12. Bill W says:

    What about #1 buck instead of 00? I read an article a while back touting the benefits of #1 over 00. Slightly smaller diameter pellet, but more of them. I am going wilth #1 in my Benelli Tac 2.

  13. big joe says:

    hell buckshot birdshot or salt or a .50 bmg it dont matter if its your time its your time dig???

  14. Jim D. says:

    What your not factoring in is location. If you’re backed into a corner in your bedroom a 3″ mag load of 12 ga. #2′s will end any confrontation. If you live in a rural setting and may have to exit the house or just shoot further, slugs and buckshot (especially slugs) are the way to go.

    • Redleg says:

      If you are shooting at a subject outside your home at a greater distance, unless he’s shooting at you, y’all are in a heap of legal trouble. One thing the shooting sports don’t need is any more drugstore commandos. We already have plenty, thank you.

  15. Jerry Corbo says:

    Go to the gunblast.com website and search for 12 gauge for home defense. Watch the video that shows the actual damage birdshor does to a raw, thick pork shoulder protected by a very heavy barrier of raw pork ribs protecting it. People who cry, “It only penetrates fro 4 inches!” might rethink their view when they realize that 4 inch deep woumd is the diameter of a coffee mug! Need more thoughts to mull over? 7/8 oz. of birdshot is a payload of over 400 grains heading downrange at 1200 fps. Compare that to the much vaunted .45 acp payload. lol

    • Scott C. says:

      Jerry, what you fail to take into consideration is the limited (low) individual pellet energy of the much smaller birdshot pellet.
      Just because you have, say, 335 pellets with 4 foot pounds of energy doesn’t mean you have 1340 foot pounds total.
      You do have some combined effect, but when faced with someone wearing something more substantial than a T-shirt and burmuda shorts birdshot will prove sadly lacking.

      • Shawn says:

        Scott, If you actually watched the video that gunblast posted…it was a bone-in pork shoulder, covered with pork ribs, covered in denim. It shredded the ribs, and did a number on the pork shoulder. A human, within our ribcage, is not as stout as a pork shoulder.

  16. Donnie P says:

    I own a Remington 870 tactical [(]12g[)] I have a well thought out plan in case someone breaks into my house with the intention of harming me or my family. I practice often. In every scenario,’00′ buck is the ONLY AMMO I CAN TRUST IN MY HOUSE.

  17. JLA says:

    Why are we discussing 25 yard shots in home defense? Only a fool would depend on bird shot at that range, but home defense shooting don’t happen at 25 yards. Hell, for that matter they usually don’t even happen at 25 feet! 5-7 yards is about the maximum you’re going to shoot in most houses, 10 yards on the outside, and at that range bird shot is very lethal. I’ve seen the results of more than one load of #6 shot on the human body at home defense distances. It ain’t pretty!

    Like it or not even the best trained people miss sometimes, and while the bad guy doesn’t care where his bullets go if he misses we have to. 00 Buck shot can easily penetrated several walls and kill a family member, or a neighbor if you happen to live in an apartment or condo, and if that happens you’ll be paying for it in one way or another for the rest of your life.

    Personally I keep my shotgun loaded with #4 Buck. It’s every bit as effective a man stopper as 00 buck, but it penetrates far less if you miss.

    • Ron says:

      Golly! Thanks for your insight. Take the guy out of the fight. Where do they get this 10 yard stuff? Each situation is different. Few houses have 30 feet between defender and prep. With a short barreled shot gun #6 is quite devastating at any distance up to 15 or so yards. The pain factor is never addressed along with the blind factor. Anyone who has been shot with a BB gun knows the pain involved in the projectile bouncing off and not penetrating. If I had to duel it out with someone at a short range, I would want the other Bozo armed with buck and I’ll take #6, 7 or 8. Someone is gonna be a blind bloodied mofug.

  18. Matt says:

    I get great amusement from reading the comments posted by armchair experts at the end of these articles. :-)

  19. Steven Lopez says:

    And why does ‘home defense’ need to go beyond 25 yards?

    And I love how burglary is a justifiable reason to put a hole through their vitals.

  20. philip says:

    something doesnt seem right. at 13 yards in an 22in full choke my pattern is less then 4″ of #7.5 of 1oz magnum shot. in my 28″ its less then 3. at 30 yards its 30″ in my 28″ and never attempted in my 22″

    at IC my pattern opened to 8″ in 28″ barrel at 13yards. so choke matters.

  21. Drew says:

    Why settle with one? I load 2 bird, 2 00buck, and 2 hollow point slugs in that firing order. If you have to pick one I lean more toward #4 buck. Good balance.

  22. Ian says:

    Winchester PDX. Small slug and three 00 buck pellets. Best of all worlds. Shoots 12′ group at 12 yards, lite kick and tons of down range power.

  23. CRKToter says:

    Several things:
    1[)] you are three basic reasons people sees their current activities when they get shot. Psychological trauma, physiological trauma, and CNS trauma. For psychological trauma, a .22 is perfectly sufficient. They freak out because they’ve been shot, and stop their activity. For physiological trauma their body must be damaged sufficiently such that they physically cannot continue their activity, even if they want to. For CNS trauma their computer must be shut off.
    2[)] Penetration to vitals is required. It almost doesn’t matter if I turn their entire pectoral muscle or belly fat into ground chuck, if it doesn’t damage a vital organ then I am relying on the psychological factor of being shot. Not reliable.
    3[)] Spread is a double edged weapon. It is absolutely devastating on a single opponent when there are no obstacles between you and him. However, it becomes a huge liability when precision is needed. Most houses don’t present opportunities for shots longer than 15 yards. However, even at that distance with flight control wads, your spread is going to be several inches. No big deal if your entire family is behind you, very big deal if the bad guy is using one of your family members as a shield. Who would be willing to take that shot with buckshot? Who is willing to bet the life of their family that they won’t get a single pellet flying away from the group? Even worse, who would even attempt that shot with birdshot?
    4[)] Accuracy matters. In the above scenario, an entry-level carbine would take care of the situation splendidly.

  24. Clint says:

    I know an upland bird guide that has been shot atleast twice accidently with bird shot by inexperienced bird hunters. He wears heavy carhart coveralls and he will not guide a hunt without them. The fact is bird shot is a very survivable load. It isn’t even in the consideration at all as a home defense load in my opinion.

  25. Hans says:

    These 2nd and 3rd hand stories about birdshot being survivable tend to leave out the fact that the shots were from a distance.

    Home defense ranges INSIDE a house are typically 3 to 5 yards, 7 yards on the outside. At those ranges birdshot will kill you dead and the wounds will be horrific. At those ranges a load of #8 birdshot will go through 3 to 4 layers of drywall, while buckshot will go through 8 to 9 layers, and a slug will blast through 12 layers.

    If you stretch that range out to 55 yards, then the same #8 birdshot will have a hard time penetrating bare human skin, and if it does penetrate it will not do it very deep. That is why people such as hunting guides that about getting hit with birdshot and it not being a big deal. They’ve never been directly hit with a payload of it at 10 or 15 feet.

  26. Steve says:

    Police data on defensive shootings say ten yards is the typical defensive range for shotgun employment? In my home it’ll be less than that.

    I’m sticking with birdshot. Too many children in the adjacent condos.

  27. Steve says:

    i just got a Stevens 12gauge 320 for hoe defense shot number 5 at a 5gal metal can it was very impressive the 00 was bigger but at 10 yards it was one big hole if you hit with either it’s over

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