Which Type of Shotgun Load is Best for Home Defense?

posted on December 14, 2020

Adding two layers of sheetrock, as would be found in most residential construction, paints a more complete picture of what makes for penetration—and overpenetration.

While most defensive shotgun gurus load 00 buck in their gun and call it good, others believe specialized circumstances warrant specialized loads. That’s the beauty of the shotgun: Some loads are brewed to penetrate less, for example, while others are made to spread more. But, before deciding what load is best for you, you should at least have accurate data available, not just marketing hype.

In this column we’ll cover four popular projectile sizes by shooting them through two pieces of sheetrock (simulating a wall) into ballistic gelatin to get an idea what each load actually does after it leaves the muzzle. Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive test—nor even apples to apples—but rather an overview of what you can expect from similar loads. 

The following loads were fired from an 8-pound Mossberg 590M with an 18.5-inch barrel at a distance of 7 yards. 

00 Buckshot
12 gauge Winchester Super X 2 3/4-inch, 1,325 fps, 9-pellet 00 buck 
Average pattern spread 3 inches
Average penetration 13 inches
Muzzle energy 1,887 ft.-lbs.
Recoil 25 ft.-lbs.

This tried-and-true, pure-lead buckshot load performed as predicted. Compared to gelatin-only tests, the .33-inch-diameter projectiles flattened slightly more and penetrated a few inches less after busting through two sheets of half-inch sheetrock. All nine pellets were found in the gelatin, with 8 to 15 inches of penetration. What is notable is the small, 3-inch pattern this 00-buck load averaged.

Common lore suggests that a shotgun’s pattern spreads 1 inch per yard of distance traveled from a cylinder bore, but, true to form, I’ve seen plenty of 00-buck loads hold tighter. Recoil is there—around 25 ft.-lbs.—but not terrible. This is a versatile, fail-safe load with a proven track record at all reasonable distances for which one would choose a shotgun.

No. 4 Buck
12 gauge Remington Express Magnum 3-inch, 1,225 fps, 41-pellet No. 4 buck
Average pattern spread 9 inches
Average penetration 8 inches
Muzzle energy 2,827 ft.-lbs.
Recoil 57 ft.-lbs.

I’ve heard people espouse the benefits of using smaller-than-00 buck, but nowhere have I better seen its benefits than during this test. The .24-inch-diameter pellets—all 41 of them—averaged 9 inches of penetration in gelatin after tearing through the wall. A few of the pellets traveled as far as 13 inches. But, the most impressive aspect of any load fired was the uniformity and the size of the pattern at 7 yards.

Same-size chokes are supposed to exhibit the same-size spread diameters regardless of pellet size (or gauge, for that matter), but the difference between the 00 buck and my No. 4 buck load, both fired through the same gun and choke, was immense. The No. 4 buck load averaged a spread of 8 inches where it entered the wall. This is tremendous and would indeed actually help a home defender from missing altogether if their aim was slightly off.

Furthermore, 41 independent wound channels wreak tremendous havoc on tissue. As for negatives, 41 pellets weighing 20.7 grains each, all going 1,225 fps result in downright scary (like elephant gun) recoil. Certainly, a more nominal 27-pellet load (28 ft.-lbs. of recoil) would have been a better comparison, but I wanted to see what 41 pellets would do. 

No. 7 1/2 Birdshot 
12 gauge Winchester AA 2 3/4 inch, 1 1/8-ounce, 1,250 fps
Average pattern spread 8.5 inches
Average penetration 0.5 inch
Muzzle energy 1,706 ft.-lbs.
Recoil 24 ft.-lbs.

If you don’t think birdshot will go through walls, think again, although it’s questionable if there would be any power to stop anything after going through a wall. A few of the pellets penetrated as far as 3 inches, so you’ve still got to worry a little if the next room is occupied. The 1 1/8-ounce “heavy” load of No. 7 1/2 shot produced an 8.5-inch pattern from the cylinder choke. Recoil was average, but I’d still worry about it cycling semi-automatic shotguns reliably.

If I were to choose this load for home defense, I’d test it copiously in my gun, first. However, birdshot comes in many sizes—the most common are No. 7 1/2, 8 and 9—so if I wanted a round that would not penetrate walls, I’d lean toward No. 8s (of the same or slower velocity) with their lower individual pellet energy. (4.5 ft.-lbs. at 1,250 fps compared to 3.8 ft.-lbs. of the No. 8.) 

1-Ounce Slug 
12 gauge Winchester Super X 2 3/4-inch, 1,600 fps, 1-ounce Foster-style rifled slug
Average penetration 22 inches
Muzzle energy 2,486 ft.-lbs.
Recoil 30 ft.-lbs.

If you need an uber-penetrating or longer-range shotgun round, the 1-ounce slug going a silly 1,600 fps is your jam. It penetrated through the wall, blowing the opposite side of it out like it had been smashed with a sledgehammer, before traversing 22 inches of gelatin blocks. The energy—some 2,500 ft.-lbs. at the muzzle—is downright violent, as is this round’s recoil. And the wound channel was massive, dragging several ounces of sheetrock into the gelatin with it.

There’s a reason 00 buck is “old reliable” when it comes to defensive situations where you might be called to shoot through a couch or a wall or stop a charging bear out to about 40 yards. If you don’t know what threat will present itself—as we rarely do—it’s often best to go big with 00 buck. 

The most impressive performer in the test was the No. 4 buck. It delivered an 8-inch spread with 9 inches of penetration via 41 wound channels. Pending more tests in other shotguns, this is indeed a strong case for this load. However, the recoil was so punishing that I’d opt for a more average load like the 27-pellet No. 4 buck, assuming its pattern remains nice and wide.

While some folks like tight patterns, I believe that uber-tight patterns are for hunting where the average shot distance is 25 yards or farther. In a home where the average range is usually around 7 yards, I want a pattern that opens some, or else I’d rather shoot a rifle.   

To that end, choosing a slug negates a good part of the shotgun’s advantage—that is a nice, uniform pattern of pellets that can mitigate slight errors in aiming yet still have enough power to stop an attacker—although it never hurts to keep a few slugs handy just in case a scenario requires one. Because the slug’s recoil that is exponentially greater than, say, a .308 Win. that has similar energy, better accuracy and ballistics, I opine that you’d be better off with a rifle than a shotgun loaded only with slugs. 

While birdshot penetrated the least of all rounds tested, that same lack of penetration makes it undesirable as a defensive round, especially in the face of better options.

In the coming months, I’ll test uncommon loads, like No. 9s, No. 3s, No. 1 buck and hunting-style sabot slugs and report the results here.


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