18 Millimeters of Awesome: Shotguns for Home Defense and Everything Else

by Mark Miller

I have been to some bad places around the world and have seen bad things happen. When I lived on the Gulf Coast, I went through the aftermath of several major hurricanes. I now live in a rural area near a volcano and maintain a wide selection of weapons. When I hear a noise in the night, I grab the shotgun

Legal in 50 states and commonly praised by anti-gunners as a logical alternative to “assault rifles,” shotguns are among the most powerful weapons allowed by law. The only reason they are not regulated by the National Firearms Act is a special exemption in the law for sporting purposes.

One of the reasons shotgun seem mysterious is the arcane method used to describe their bore size, gauge.  A shotgun’s gauge is determined by the number of lead balls of a given diameter required to make one pound of that size ball. Thus 12 balls of 12 gauge diameter are required to make one pound of such balls. The actual (nominal) bore diameter of the 12 gauge is .729 caliber or 18mm.

I have a long and deep love for the shotgun. I find that people who don’t love the shotgun fall into two basic categories: the ignorant and the unintelligent. If you are of average intelligence or above, please continue reading. Among the most misunderstood firearms while clearly among the most effective, the shotgun makes bad people stop doing bad things, immediately.

You know who else loves shotguns? Former Vice President Joe Biden has said, “I have two shotguns at home. No one is going to come and take my guns.” Biden also said “You don’t need an AR, you don’t need thirty rounds to protect yourself.  Buy a shotgun.  Buy a shotgun.  If you want to protect yourself, get a double-barreled shotgun.”

Former Vice President Biden famously told his wife to fire a shotgun off the balcony to stop prowlers. I would give, almost, the same advice, “Jill, if there’s ever a man who is trying to enter our home to rape and kill you and the kids, just walk out on the balcony here…and fire two blasts into his chest.  Then reload and call the neighbors for help.”

There is some common gun store wisdom that makes me cringe every time I hear it, “the sound of a shotgun racking is the most terrifying sound in the world.” I disagree; I think the scariest sound is the blast of 12 gauge buckshot followed by the wet meat slap of the pellets hitting flesh at close range. If a violent stranger is inside my house at 3 am with a weapon, I don’t want a shotgun in my hand with no round in the chamber waiting to frighten him when I load it.

Many shooters are frightened by shotgun recoil. Newton’s third law of motion is generally stated as: “To every action, there is always opposed an equal and opposite reaction.” Grandma Miller used to say, “You gotta bring some to get some.”  Until directed energy weapons become more practical, if you want to influence a target at a distance, you have to accept recoil. Some people find shotgun recoil unbearable. Modern low recoil slug and buckshot rounds combined with proper shooting techniques provide a great balance of effective ballistics and manageable recoil for shooters of all sizes.

Writer Greg Ellifritz has collected data of effectiveness of various caliber weapons in shootings. (https://www.buckeyefirearms.org/alternate-look-handgun-stopping-power )

These are his conclusions about shotguns:

Shotgun (All, but 90% of results were 12 gauge)

Number of people shot – 146

Number of hits – 178

Percentage of hits that were fatal – 65%

Average number of rounds until incapacitation – 1.22

Percentage of people who were not incapacitated – 12%

One-shot-stop Percentage – 58%

Accuracy (head and torso hits) – 84%

Percentage actually incapacitated by one shot (torso or head hit) – 86%

There is mythology that you don’t need to aim a shotgun. The effect of a miss may be psychologically devastating, but the wound ballistics of a hit are much more predictable. Appropriate marksmanship must be applied, just as when shooting a handgun or rifle.

There are two types of practical shotguns. The classic pump action has a short barrel and a bead sight with a tube magazine under the barrel. A bead sight is best suited for close short duration situations delivering mass trauma with a single hit. It is powerful and very fast up close but struggles for accuracy past 30 yards.  Equipped with modern ghost rings like XS Sights and shooting slugs, it becomes more precise and elegant weapon, effective out to 100 yards.

I like pump shotguns because they are simple, flexible and reliable. Compared to handguns and rifles, they hold relatively few rounds and are slow to reload once empty. My Remington 870 holds nine rounds.  If the average number of rounds until incapacitation is 1.22, I get 7.3 incapacitated assailants before reloading. If there are more than 7.3 people I need to put down all at once, I will call friends with shotguns and/or transition to a handgun and move to a better neighborhood.

Semi-automatic shotguns are powered by the gas or recoil of fired shells producing reduced recoil. Semi-autos usually have rifle sights and are fed by tube or box magazines. Magazine capacity ranges from four rounds to as many as 10 with extended magazines. Tristar, Remington, Mossberg and Siaga make magazine fed shotguns with five and ten round capacities.  They have all the same ballistic characteristics of the pump but shoot faster.

Shotgun ammunition comes in three basic forms:

Birdshot consists of small-diameter pellets, smaller than match heads, used for shooting sports as well as bird and small game hunting. At distance, it has low energy.  At extreme close range, the shot remains in the shot cup and hits all at once. That is going to leave a mark, but it is not your best bet for home defense use.

Slugs are heavy, fat hunks of soft lead that have enormous stopping power. A typical 12 gauge slug is .73″ caliber/18 mm and weighs 438 grains – a 9mm bullet is .355″ and 115 grains. Slugs must be carefully aimed to be effective. When they hit, they are very effective.

Buckshot is what makes shotguns special. A typical 12 gauge  OO (usually pronounced Double Ought) buckshot round has nine 30-caliber pellets and will keep a man-sized pattern out to 25 yards. The creation of multiple wound channels is devastating. Even birdshot hits like a slug at room distances. A 1-ounce slug will reach out accurately at 100 yards if you know what you are doing. Think about how far you can see from your yard.  Science demands the insertion of a ballistic gelatin video here.

Not surprisingly, Buckshot was so named for killing deer.  My favorite is the Remington Reduced Recoil 8-pellet.  They eliminated one of the pellets and did some kind of voodoo which seemingly defies Newtonian Physics by maintaining good penetration and patterns while producing much less recoil.

A shotgun with an 18-inch  Cylinder Bore or Improved Cylinder barrel will fire buckshot in a cone-shaped pattern which spreads from the barrel of the gun at a rate of about one inch for each yard traveled.  Knowing your pattern and using loads with tight shot patterns keep all the rounds in the target and out of your neighbors and family.

Shotgun buckshot and slugs will go through eight or ten layers of sheetrock in walls, so you can’t just spray it around.  Buckshot, if shot up in the air it will fall out of the sky in a few hundred yards, slugs go much farther.

History Break: The Imperial German Army in WW1 knew a few things about effective weapons.  They had deployed flamethrowers, poison gas, machine guns, and high explosives.  In 1918, the German’s ran into Americans carrying the Model 97 Trench Guns (a 12 gauge pump shotgun) shooting 00 buckshot.  They filed a diplomatic complaint that the shotgun was cruel and illegal because the 1907 Hague Convention said: “it is especially forbidden to employ arms, projections, or materials calculated to cause unnecessary suffering”.  When the Americans laughed at this, the German Army threatened to execute soldiers caught with shotguns.  Challenge accepted!  American General Pershing replied that Germans caught with flamethrowers or saw-bladed bayonets would be shot.

Shotguns are flexible, affordable and reliable. Ammunition is widely available in a dazzling array of capabilities. Shotguns are non-threatening politically with devastating terminal ballistics. In a situation where you need a gun for hunting large or small game and protecting your family, there is just nothing better than the trusty 18-millimeter shotgun.

What do our readers think? Is the shotgun the ultimate defensive weapon?

***Shop GunsAmerica for your next Shotgun***

About the Author – Mark Miller is a former Customs Agent and a Green Beret who served in Afghanistan and a number of other live fire locations. A student of firearms and shooting, he is an FFL and an SOT. The guiding philosophy of his life is that terrain and situation dictate tactics and the enemy always gets a vote on any plan.

{ 48 comments… add one }
  • Greg January 6, 2019, 7:53 am

    I don’t believe you should be calling people(ignorant or unintelligent)Just because they may(like)but don’t(love)the shotgun-it shows your ignorance and stupidity.I love the shotgun,for close range home defense(imo)it can’t be beat.So please show some respect for some people who don’t necessarily feel the way you do.

  • Bob H July 8, 2018, 8:49 am

    Well said about the capacity of a shotgun. I always figured that the seven rounds that I have in my shotgun would get me through any home invasion. The low round count of a shotgun compared to an AR just isn’t valid in the real world. The odds of needing more than 7 in a home invasion are astronomical.

  • ejharb June 15, 2018, 11:20 pm

    Which is more intelligent?
    The one with a rifle holding 30 rounds.or the one with a 18mm smooth boor that’s hollering “hey stupid!” at the rifleman until he drops him from twice his effective range? This question of course is rhetorical.

    On a serious note,what round for pyroclastic flow???

    • Mark Miller June 19, 2018, 12:15 am

      I can double the range of an AR with 6.5 Creedmoor. Wouldn’t use it to protect the house.

  • Red Rider May 30, 2018, 10:03 pm

    I live in a good neighborhood and I only need to use my shotguns for shooting clay birds.

    A little silly that with 10 rounds you take out 7 or 8 people and that if there are more then you call friends. By the time your friends get there it will be too late.

    Ad really, How many people are living in neighborhoods where you need a gun to protect your self?

    • Kcshooter June 2, 2018, 11:47 am

      How ignorant.

      • Bob March 28, 2020, 2:28 am

        A lot of people live in areas where they need a gun. There’s not much other reasons for having an eighteen inch barrel 12 gauge shotgun. Also as to the wall issue. You need smaller shot that won’t kill the next door neighbors if your in a ghetto apartment , and many people are.

    • Mark Miller June 19, 2018, 12:12 am

      My neighborhood is safe because I live in it.

  • D.J. May 29, 2018, 9:39 am

    I agree completely with the author . I prefer No.# 4 in a 12 ga., recommended by my late
    Father , a retired police officer . The advice given in this article is sound , well thought out ,
    and practical . I would have little more to add than that .

  • jim May 29, 2018, 9:21 am

    I keep an Ithaca model 37 20′, ( 8 shot mag) for home defense. Bottom eject, ray-bar sight.

    Author says shotguns are hard to load but remember it can be re-loaded at any time without opening a cylinder or messing with magazines.

  • Cyrus May 29, 2018, 8:08 am

    12ga Mossberg Persuader with 00 is my primary home defense followed by my HK45ct. If they get past that they deal with my wife’s Beretta PX4 in 9mm.

  • mike May 28, 2018, 11:42 pm

    When you start quoting joe biden, I quit reading.

    • Mark Miller June 19, 2018, 12:18 am

      I find it interesting that he supported armed defense at all. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

  • Kb31416 May 28, 2018, 9:28 pm

    I live in a rural area, so my go to gun is always an AR15. I do, however, agree that a 12 gauge pump shotgun is potent self defense medicine. Especially in an apartment or condo for the previously stated reasons. About the only thing better is a 10 gauge with 3-1/2” #2s, with 2 oz of shot.
    An interesting comparison is a 12 gauge with bird shot vs a 44 magnum. The 12 gauge has 3x the energy of the 44, and it will probably transfer nearly all of it to the target if the whole shot payload is absorbed. The 44 will almost certainly pass through the target, limiting energy transfer. 12 gauge wins hands down, and a 10 gauge is more than twice as good as the 12. Yes, 10 gauge ammo is not easy to get, but just buy a bunch when available.

  • Archangel May 28, 2018, 7:08 pm

    I like bird shot for in home shooting, it cheap, plentiful, holds a slug sized pattern while moving inside the house distances and by the time it goes through a bad guy, or a wall or 2, then crossing the distance to reach my neighbors house, will most likely not be lethal much less make it through the exterior siding or interior drywall.
    The AK/AR is used for shooting from the second floor down to ground level!

    • Kcshooter June 2, 2018, 11:49 am

      Birdshot has been proven ineffective for defensive use over and over again.

  • Ken May 28, 2018, 5:34 pm

    Well, a very good article, although you did not mention in the mystery of gauges that the .410 is an actual measure of diameter, I have had that argument with several people who maintain that it is a gauge measure also. I can’t understand why people don’t bother looking it up. As for agreeing with Biden, my Wife made the comment on his “two shots in the air…” and she asked that is good, now I use the other 18 rounds of 00 Buck on the criminal. LOL.See he did have a good idea, sort of…. 😛

    • Bob March 28, 2020, 2:39 am

      Speaking of .410. The Taurus Judge pistol can shot a 44 mag round or a .410 shotgun shell through it. I think it holds four or five rounds. It’s a revolver so the kick would have to be amazingly harsh.

  • luis perez May 28, 2018, 3:29 pm

    To make it clear, we don’t live in a bad city or neighborhood. By no means. What I meant was, that I live in an apt. complex that is two story, bedrooms upstairs. And for the bad guys to get to us they would have to come up a flight of narrow stairs and a shower of hot lead! Don’t want anything that over penetrates also, we have the corner apt., so, don’t have to worry to much about

    • luis perez May 28, 2018, 3:33 pm

      the one side that has brick. But the other is drywall and there are children next door.

      • Kcshooter June 2, 2018, 11:51 am

        It has been proven that shotguns overpenetrate far more than light bullets in .223 carbines.

  • luis perez May 28, 2018, 3:13 pm

    I am one that loves shot guns and during income tax time I buy one every year. Granted I started late but better late than never. I own two Mossbergs, one 930 with a 18 and a half inch barrel on it, and a shock wave. They are both on each side of the bed, where I grab the 930 and my Glock 34 with a 20 rd extended mag in it, and if anything gets by me then it will have to deal with my wife and a Shock wave, an AR, and a 1911! And probably in that order too! So for us our shotguns are our go to weapons of choice because of where we live and where we would be at if there were to be a home invasion at night.

  • Dave May 28, 2018, 2:00 pm

    I suppose it ,s a matter of personal choice.I was a police officer for thirty yrs, and an avid deer hunter for longer.I prefer the shotgun ,hands down,for home defense.As to the load,I ,m a big fan of #4 buck shot.When you consider the number of .25 cal pellets in a 3 inch #4 buck round,it becomes apparent why I like it better than the double ought. Just some food for thought.

    • Kcshooter June 2, 2018, 11:54 am

      #4 buck also has a greatly reduced chance of overpenetrating when compared to 00 buck.

  • Ray May 28, 2018, 1:19 pm

    Like others have said I have no real argument against the 12ga shotgun for home defense, but I sold my 870 tactical for several reasons. Number 1 because the home defense gun we have isn’t for me, it’s for my wife, who is a stay at home mom. I believe the chances of her needing to use it are far above me needing it. She is competent at the range shooting with rifles and pistols but after a move to a rural area, and now a move to a densely populated metropolitan area. Neither a 18″ 12ga pump, a lightweight carbine AR, or various sizes and calibers of pistols had her super confident in the house. Enter the CZ scorpion sbr. She feels much more confident as it is light, short, is not intimidating, low recoil, and most importantly she can get 2 hands on it and shoulder it. I am confident with modern 9mm ballistics out of the 8.8″ barrel, and stupid simple reliability. Compared against an AR sbr it is easier to manipulate in every regard and cheaper. Other options would have been a Roni or Micro Roni if I had a Glock, or a double 20ga coach gun.

    • Bob March 28, 2020, 2:46 am

      I have a CZ 52 that shoots a jacketed .25 caliber. When I shoot it at the pistol range sparks shoot out when it hits the backdrop.

  • Patrick May 28, 2018, 11:56 am

    Great article but no need to mention that moron Joe Biden, especially considering his instructions to go out on the porch and fire in the air. Or worse yet, fire thru the door.

  • U.S. Otriad, Llc May 28, 2018, 11:15 am

    I’ve recently returned to 12 gauge goodness over my other weapons. Why? I’m glad you asked. I’ll tell you:
    I travel domestically a lot, by vehicles, to include through Canada to Alaska, etc. For years I either lied, or danced through the paperwork to have a handgun with me, and always sweated a traffic stop in firearm unfriendly locales. So one day, I did a little research that turned into a few weeks of phone calls, printing of several pages of various states laws and then realizing that the ubiquitous pump shotgun was/is the most travel friendly firearm one could be armed with. So, I dusted off my 590A1, added a 23″ muli-choke barrel from my turkey gun to it because of its fiber optic sights and ability to chamber 2.5/2.75/3/3.5 shells, swapped the Magpul furniture off of it and put on traditional wood and wah-la, a 50 state legal firearm that I can travel with, declare if need be, and not fear being caught with, all while not feeling outgunned at all, in any scenario. I keep it disassembled in a 24″ Craftsman toolbox with a cable lock through the receiver, a trigger lock, and a wedge lock in the barrel. I have a bandolero of ammo, a cleaning kit, and spare parts in a locked ammo can separate from the shotgun, painted bright yellow and marked ‘Tire Repair’. I have declared this at the Canadian border, to California HWP, to Mass Staties and New Jersey Troopers, as well as others, to include Chicago and Detroit PD officers and an NYPD traffic cop at the base of the GW bridge. I only declare it when asked if I have a weapon, and to date, not one hiccup has been encountered. It’s 10rds, tube fed, pump action and isn’t scary looking.
    No, it doesn’t provide me immediate protection, but I’m prepared legally in other ways for upclose ‘meet and greet’ scenarios. This shotgun is designed to enhance my chances should I be far from home in the event of something spectacular and earth changing.
    As always, YMMV!
    Great article!

  • James W. Worth May 28, 2018, 9:47 am

    This was a good article and I don’t have an argument with the author about his facts or the points he made. Indeed, I have a shotgun close to my bed. But, I also have a full-sized Kimber .45 ACP (with a light on the rail) in a holster attached to the side of my bed, which I can draw and fire much faster than I could ever bring the shotgun into play. There is no one weapon that is better than all the others all the time. Is a shotgun preferable to a knife in a self defense scenario? Most of the time the answer is yes. On the other hand, what if the fighting is taking place in deep water? Probably a knife would trump a shotgun unless the gun could be used effectively as a club. The point is that sometimes a rifle or a pistol may be preferable, depending on the situation, and it is nice to also have these weapons in your defense battery so that you have options.

  • Ro Gal May 28, 2018, 8:53 am


    Enjoyed the article and agree with the rationale for shotgun use, just replace 18mm with 17mm (20 ga.). More carry capacity weight wise. less recoil, similar lethality. What’s not to like?

  • Capt.Skip May 28, 2018, 8:12 am

    Good article. It appears that to me that with all the different types of firearms being made & marketing of the same the shotgun has been forgotten as the best for all around home defense. Get the wife a 20 gauge & yourself a 12ga & all will sleep well.

  • mauser6863 May 28, 2018, 8:04 am

    If you can only have one firearm, it should be a rifle. Specifically an AR-15 type weapon. If you have a CCW or can legally carry, then a pistol should be your first choice.

    Shotguns, as you have said, are devastating at close range. Inside a home, were the average shot is probably under 30 feet, the pattern of shot is basically going to be one big hole. The real issue is out past 50 to 100 yards, where the usefulness tends to degrade.

    In a house defense situation, a rifle will do what a shotgun can, however it will give you less recoil, more rounds in the magazine and controllable semi-automatic fire. Rifles can also be lighter. Any firearm intended for home defense needs to have a weapon mounted light.

    I have heard the argument that a shotgun is “safer” in case you miss the intended target and the round hits the neighbors house/childrens bedroom, etc. In practical terms, I see little real danger from this and if it has ever really occurred, the body count is low, save for criminal assaults/drivebys, etc. where they are purposely shooting into an occupied home from the street.

    I rely on a Glock 19X and a FN15 to protect my family and have zero need for a shotgun.

    • Patriot May 28, 2018, 9:48 am

      this guy is wrong on so many levels,LOL.seriously,you think your little 9mm handgun or your grain of rice sized 5.56 AR is goign to be better indoors than a 12 gauge shotgun loaded with 00 buck,LOL..good luck with that.the shotgun has the equivalent of at least 72 .30 cal balls flying at an entruder,how may does your litttle 9mm have,12 to 17 or so,and you better be damn good with your little pistol,at night,in the dark,shotgun owners would dispatch you like a cheap doll.

    • U.S. Otriad, Llc May 28, 2018, 10:55 am

      Man o’ man…. put down the YouTube Kool-Aid and wise up before you get yourself and everyone around you killed.
      I ask you this:
      – Outside of fun gunning at a range, or perhaps hunting, when is the last time you EVER took a shot, at ANYTHING, beyond 100 meters?
      – Ever serve in a uniformed branch of the service, or maybe LE? 9/10 what’s the first weapon through a door? A shotgun. From LEOs serving warrants, to Marines kicking doors, to Sailors locking down ships; the shotgun is the weapon of choice.
      Good luck with that Glock 19X and FN15; you do know no firearm defends you against naivety and narrow mindedness, right?

    • Patrick May 28, 2018, 11:47 am

      Your comment about lack of shotgun effectiveness at 50-100 yards makes no sense in this context, that of home defense.

  • Dwight May 28, 2018, 7:59 am

    I shot a full grown white tail buck with a load of 12 ga. no. 4 lead at 30 yards, the deer ran toward me and laid down dead 3 feet from me. the load was centered on his chest and virtually broke or penetrated every rib. I have also shot a deer about the same size at 30 yards with a 357 mag out of a Ruger Blackhawk, the deer flinched and turned around and and looked at me and just stood there, the shot was about 2 inches above the heart, after about 3 minutes he fell over dead. I have worn out the receivers in a 1100 Remington and an A5 Browning mostly hunting geese. In a home defense situation where ranges are measure in feet and not yards I would not hesitate to use 8 shot and be confident in a one shot one kill, The 357 mag I would not be surprised to see the invader standing even with a good chest shot.

  • Greg G May 28, 2018, 7:48 am

    More than that doesn’t make sense in this article!! And btw where is the ballistic gelatin video so demanded?

    • Zupglick May 28, 2018, 10:44 am

      Probably in his editor’s delete folder.

  • Russ Watson May 28, 2018, 6:57 am

    870P – 5+1, 5-6 more in side saddle – some buck, some slug. Trijicon rifle sights and good training. Keep it simple and agile – learn to use it – call it good

  • G-rat May 28, 2018, 6:50 am

    I have been touting the the goodness of 12ga pump guns for years. I own several 870s, and my son is named Remington. The pump gun is utterly reliable, has almost unlimited ammo options, and with my 20″ rifle sighted, cylinder bore, targets beyond 100 yards can be hit with 7/8 oz. rifled slugs. Weather protecting your family from dangerous and delicious game, or keeping the king of England outta your face, shotgun will always be my go to for that feared bump in the night, societal colapse, zombie hoarde, or 6 point buck…

  • Frank S. May 28, 2018, 6:46 am

    Even a youth single shot shotgun in .410 or 20 gauge is effective for home defense… at least for one assailant. Stoeger makes a 20 gauge side by side coach gun that’s only 36″ long. I’ve recommended that to a lady in her late 60s who wanted a gun after her husband passed away but didn’t like a hand gun. Easy enough to hip shoot. Told her to try that, and if recoil was a bit too much ask the shop to order some .410 adapters for it. The Mossberg 505 .410 youth pump shotgun would be ideal for an elderly or small person for home defense – only 37.5″ long (or their 500 cruiser if they can handle a pistol grip only). .410 might not pack much punch, but something you can shoot is better than something you’re afraid of. I wouldn’t want to get hit with even a load of bird shot from a .410 at 10-15 feet — about the width of an average room.

  • Charles Tryer May 28, 2018, 6:01 am

    Whew! I get the heebie jeebies agreeing with old Joe Biden–on anything!

  • Charles Tryer May 28, 2018, 5:56 am

    Well, yes. But old Joe Biden is gun control’s prince, who fought for the Clinton Gun ban for years–and still advocates it. How many other points do you agree with him on?????

  • BladerunnerBob May 28, 2018, 3:48 am

    \”shotgun the ultimate defensive weapon\”? Yup but with a high capacity handgun as backup.I will always have my Mossberg 500 extended mag with knox recoil reducing stock and super powerful grip button activated green laser sight. Run out of ammo? No problem, my green laser will boil the goo in your eyeballs at 50 yards, run, fool, run!The thing is simply blade runner bad ass and freaks people out, the bad, it is heavy as hell due to all the buckshot in the mag tube and the wife just can\’t quite deal with it, Guess I might have to buy her the 20 gauge or even 410 version.~

  • Eddy Jolley May 25, 2018, 9:30 pm

    Great article sir but please consider editing this comment: “percentage of people shot – 146“. Looks like it should have said “number of people shot”.

  • Eddy Jolley May 25, 2018, 9:29 pm

    Check your math sir – “percentage of people shot – 146“ does not make sense. Great article though!!

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