Many seeking a firearm for home defense have been subjected to the usual bad advice, ably assisted by Vice President Joe “Double Barreled Shotgun” Biden, whose advice to buy a double barreled shotgun—late 1800’s technology—and shoot it into the air, or blindly through doors, has, thankfully, been mostly discounted, probably because most people understand the utter lack of credibility of the source. Sadly, far too many misconceptions about shotguns and their capabilities never die.

Common “wisdom” giddily asserts that shotguns are all-powerful death devices that need not be aimed.
Merely point them in the general direction of a deadly threat, pull the trigger and everything before their muzzles will be swept away. Many confidently recommend shotguns as the perfect firearm for those that have never owned or fired a gun, particularly women. While shotguns can adequately perform in the home defense role, there are significant caveats.

This video comically illustrates just how out of touch Mr. Biden is. I suspect that those filming these ladies either didn’t know proper techniques, or withheld them to film these mishaps at the expense of their female friends. Not only is this insanely dangerous, it’s a terrible way to treat women, and can only reinforce the narrative that gun owners are dangerous fools.

Shotgun ammunition effective on human beings is relatively limited in type and quantity. Only ammunition such as 00 buckshot—which consists of nine .33 caliber round lead balls—is actually effective, but only so long as the pellets remain together in a unified shot column of about the same size as the bore of the barrel.  This is the focus of this article: shotgun patterning.

Shotguns are smoothbore weapons. 
They have no spiral grooves–rifling–cut or cast into their barrels to impart stabilizing spin to a single projectile. It is this stabilizing spin that gives bullets their inherent range and accuracy. A column of shot, however, has no such advantage. The moment it leaves the muzzle, it begins to spread and dramatically lose velocity. Round lead pellets are not nearly as aerodynamically efficient as pistol or rifle bullets. Upon being fired, any projectile begins to lose velocity and effectiveness.

When fired, shotgun pellets actually collide with and bounce off the interior walls of the barrel, and each other. This can be tempered to some degree by enclosing the shot in an encompassing, thin plastic sheath called a “wad” filled with a plastic buffer made of much smaller granules). When the shot leaves the muzzle, it begins to spread. The degree of spread depends on the length of the barrel, the ammunition, and a variety of related conditions, but generally, the farther the target, the greater the degree of spread and the greater the drop in velocity.

Shotgun

The photos that follow are the results of patterning tests I conducted on standard silhouette targets using a modified Remington 870 pump action shotgun.
This weapon was modified for me many years ago by Scattergun Technologies, a company now affiliated with Wilson Combat. It has an extended magazine, oversized safety button, ghost ring rifle sights, an 18” barrel and a variety of other enhancements. The ammunition was Winchester Super X, 00 buckshot.  The aim point for all targets was the exact center of the large vital zone.

3

This target was engaged at 3 yards. 
The black circle at the left of the impact point represents the bore size of the shotgun, which is the relative size of the shot column of nine .33 caliber round lead pellets as they left the muzzle. Notice that even at the distance of only 9 feet, the shot column has already expanded to approximately twice its size at the muzzle. This would, obviously, produce a devastating wound, but only if carefully aimed. At this range, particles of unburned powder and the white plastic buffer material are stuck in the face of the cardboard target.

7 & 15

These targets were engaged at 7 and 15 yards.
At 7 yards, the 9 pellets are still relatively closely spaced, but notice that the pattern has spread substantially. The large hole to the right of the pattern was caused by the plastic wad, which is sitting at the base of the target. They do not have sufficient mass to cause any real injury to a human being, but will penetrate cardboard and paper targets at close range. At longer ranges, they drop harmlessly to the ground long before they reach the target. At 15 yards, all 9 of the pellets are still on the target, though two have struck non-vital areas and the pattern is dramatically widening.

25 & 35

These targets were engaged at 25 and 35 yards respectively.
Notice that only 8 of 9 pellets have struck the 25 yard target, and only two have struck in the vital zone. Only 7 of 9 pellets struck the 35 yard target, and again, only two struck the vital zone. Even with a custom shotgun, the effectiveness of the most common buckshot loads becomes a matter of chance. A target engaged at 50 or more yards might be missed entirely, or produce a few non-debilitating wounds at best. And of course there is no way to know where any errant pellets might end up.

It’s important to understand that identical rounds fired from the same shotgun at the same range can produce substantially different patterns. Even at 7 yards I’ve seen patterns with several “flyers,” or pellets that entirely missed the target. There are some specialized shotgun shells that do have enhanced accuracy, but they are expensive, and when rifles can produce far more consistent and accurate results, their value is open to question.

It’s important to realize that shotguns, like all other firearms, must be carefully and accurately aimed at any range. I’ve met some people hoping to buy their first firearm say they want a weapon they won’t really have to aim or practice with very much–or at all! Such thinking is, to put it mildly, dangerous.

Anyone firing a firearm is absolutely responsible, legally and morally, for every bullet—or pellet—they fire.
That’s why more and more police agencies are replacing the shotguns in their patrol vehicles with AR-15 pattern carbines. The smarter agencies allow their officers to carry their own weapons, or issue a carbine to each officer just as they issue handguns.

Police officers commonly fire shotguns very seldom to save money on ammunition–buckshot and slugs are expensive–and because shooting short barreled shotguns can actually be painful. Recoil, report and muzzle blast are daunting for many, even men. In my police experience, female officers weren’t the only cops who hated shooting shotguns, and very few wanted to shoot any more rounds than absolutely required to qualify.

Recognizing this painful reality, some suggest that .20 gauge or .410 gauge shotguns are a better choice for beginning shooters. While they do have less recoil, report and muzzle flash, they also shoot much less powerful and effective ammunition. There is, particularly with firearms, no such thing as a free lunch.

Shotguns have limited ammunition capacity. Standard shotguns without extended magazines commonly hold only 3-4 cartridges. Extended magazines usually add only 3-4 more–the Remington 870 depicted in this article has a 6 round magazine, for a total of seven rounds–though there are now some expensive, purpose-built alternatives such as the Kel-Tec KSG.

Virtually all shotguns are also slow to load. In addition, adding extended magazines substantially increases the weight of the weapon and alters the balance. These are issues of some importance to many shooters, particularly women.

A personal defense weapon, even one intended to be kept only at home, must be a weapon that is easily and safely stored, quickly and easily employed, and with which the user is confident. 
Confidence comes only with practice, regular, correct practice.

No matter the weapon chosen, correct technique, accurate and smooth aiming and a relaxed, confident squeeze of the trigger are essential, even at the short ranges likely to be experienced in home defense.

Ultimately, citizens should recognize that there is at least one bit of wisdom available from the denizens of Washington DC, particularly where firearms and the use of force are concerned: whatever Vice President Biden recommends, do the opposite. 

Mike’s Home blog is Stately McDaniel Manor.