This article, "There Can Be Only One?," appeared originally as a Shotguns column in the December 2017 issue of Shooting Illustrated. To subscribe to the magazine, visit the NRA membership page here and select Shooting Illustrated as your member magazine.
Recently, when a friend asked me what gun I’d choose if could only have one, I got all paranoid and began nervously asking questions, like “Why only one?” and “For what purpose?” and “Are you a government spy?” But, after the din of my gnashing teeth calmed to a chatter, I realized he was merely asking a fun, theoretical question. So, in that case…
While I suspect most would choose a rifle for its range and firepower, others would pick a handgun for its concealability, or specifically a Glock for its magical super-handgun powers. But I like a shotgun. Here’s why.
The main argument for a shotgun, of course, is its versatility. In survival situations, it’s a supreme hunter. Have you ever tried to shoot a scared squirrel with a rifle? It’s very difficult, indeed. A shotgun? Blam. Dinner time! There are millions of winged creatures on this earth, but you can’t easily access their tender breasts without the bird-harvesting tool known as a shotgun.
In fact, shotguns were originally made for wingshooting. They were designed by tweed-wearing snobs to be instinctively pointed, not aimed, so that its pattern of hundreds of pellets acts as a cast net to provide the shooter with a relatively wide margin-of-error when a creature takes to the blue yonder like a feathery rocket ship. In practiced hands, a shotgun can accomplish feats in tenths of seconds that would melt the mind of a mathematician. Most dedicated riflemen still don’t get it. And if you can’t shoot a shotgun well—thereby negating its main advantage—why wouldn’t you choose a rifle?
For home defense I believe there’s no better arm than a 12 gauge with buckshot. It’s fast, accurate and deadly. Consider that a nominal load of 00 buckshot produces 1,550 ft.-lbs. of energy. That’s three times the bad-guy deterrent of a 9 mm or .45 ACP. Compared to an average 5.56 NATO round, it has about 200 more ft.-lbs. at the muzzle.
While it doesn’t come close to a .308 Win.’s 2,600 ft.-lbs. energy, you can always load a slug. High-velocity slug loads can squeeze 2,500 ft.-lbs. or so from the shotgun’s muzzle. Of course, they’re not nearly as accurate as centerfire rifles and they kick like Jackie Chan, but hunters in many Midwestern states are hell on deer with rifled barrels to ranges slightly past 200 yards.
Power aside, the shotty also has a few other advantages going for it. For one, less-lethal options can be loaded in it, such as beanbags. And while I’d never advocate it, if a person were being honest he or she might mention that a shotgun loaded with No. 9 shot can be an effective non-lethal load for large-ish critters that you wish to dissuade, but don’t desire to kill.
At 50 yards, it will not break the skin—I know because I’ve felt the sting of it several times while bird hunting—but it will often positively influence the attitude of the unruly. It’s rumored that Russians sometimes use birdshot in lieu of pepper spray for swatting grizzly bears in the fanny rather than waiting around to see if the bear decides to kill them and their sheep. Could birdshot put out an eye? Yes, but so can a Taser.
For country living, a shotgun is tops. I’m sure Rob Leatham can tag a snake with a handgun from 20 paces, but from my experience doing so often results in a distinctive ringing sound in my ears and an angry snake slithering back underneath my porch. You may still have the ringing ears with a shotgun, but you’ll almost certainly no longer have the snake problem. Same goes for rabid skunks, scurrying mice and pigeons that threaten to turn a red barn white.
While I don’t recommend it unless the situation is truly dire and you find yourself trapped in a locked room with Freddy Krueger, a shotgun can be used as a master key. Its 1-inch-wide swath of lead destroys wooden doors and hinges. Chalk another pro in the shotgun column.
Another benefit is the shotgun’s intimidation factor. I’m not talking about racking the slide and merely hoping a meth head hears its sound and flees—this is foolishness—but rather, I believe the sight of a shotgun instills fear in reasonable people. I know a shotgun’s capability because I’ve seen what it can do to 200-pound wild hogs that are tougher than the average thug. It’s devastating. I also know that it’s unlikely that a person who’s pointing a shoulder-fired shotgun at another person from 10 yards away will miss—certainly they’re less likely to miss than they are with a rifle or particularly a handgun. And there’s something chilling about realizing that.
Whether the perception of a shotgun’s power is real or perceived thanks to its Hollywood image, the fact remains that a 12 gauge is intimidating. I wouldn’t count on it to end a fight, but it could very well help to avoid confrontation in the first place. Don’t discount this potential benefit.
Finally, I prefer a round of sporting clays to seeing just how close I can cluster three bullets together on a piece of paper. Call me wacko, but to me it’s more fun. So for all these reasons, I’d choose a shotgun. Which one? I knew you’d ask that.
I’d choose a lightweight semi-auto with an increased-capacity magazine and one with a full-size buttstock that points naturally and mitigates the shotgun’s notable recoil. I’d make it 12 gauge because it’s one of the most popular firearm cartridges in the world. Shells are cheap and plentiful.
For models, I like either Benelli’s Super Black Eagle 3 with an aftermarket extended magazine, or Remington’s Versa Max Tactical that holds nine rounds and points like a bird gun, but has express-style sights for when you need a slug. FN’s SLP (minus the ghost ring) and Mossberg’s 930 JM Pro Series aren’t shabby, either. The shotty would wear a sling and a flashlight; I’d add a rifled-choke tube to my bag and buy an assortment of shells, from No. 6 birdshot, No. 4 buck, 00 buck and sabot slugs.
Of course, I am Shooting Illustrated's Shotguns editor, so you knew I wouldn’t choose a wimpy AR. Now it’s your turn.