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Choosing the Right Shotgun Shells for Self Defense
It has been said that there is nothing quite like the sound of a pump shotgun being racked to convince a home intruder that they are in the wrong place! Perhaps because of Hollywood movies, the distinct sound of a shotgun being pumped has become a universally recognized sound. It clearly communicates "back off" in no uncertain terms, and with good reason too. There are very few other firearms that can unleash such a fury of immense firepower at short range. The energy contained in a typical 12 gauge home defense shell is many times more powerful than the typical defense handgun load. This is not to say that the handgun does not hold a very important place in the self defense arsenal. Obviously, the sheer size of a shotgun does not make it well suited to most self defense situations outside the home. In other words, a shotgun is not going to work very well as a concealed carry weapon. On the other hand, a handgun offers portable protection in a compact package. With the proper legal concealed carry permit, a handgun can be taken places that a long gun like a shotgun or rifle would never work. But, in terms of home defense, it is hard to beat a shotgun with it's devastating power and effectiveness at quickly stopping a dangerous threat.
With that in mind, there are a couple other things to consider. Which gauge shotgun is best? Which home defense shells should I use? For many people, the answer to that first question is undoubtedly a 12 gauge shotgun. The reason for this is that it's the most popular shotgun gauge, and so there are a multitude of different ammunition choices available. Besides that, it is the most powerful shotgun (besides the less common 10 gauge shotgun) that is widely available today. Sure, there were some bigger shotguns in years gone by, but they are nothing more than a novelty of the past and surely not relevant to consider for home defense use. If you are unable to handle the recoil of a 12ga, then probably the next best choice to consider is the 20ga. It is probably the next most popular shotgun size, and therefore there is also a pretty good selection of different types of ammunition available for it. Go with a 12 gauge shotgun if at all possible for home defense duty. In terms of which shells to chose, it is my opinion that 1 BUCK shotshells are probably the most effective home defense shells available for a shotgun. One good brand is the Winchester 1 buck shotgun loads. What makes these unique compared to most other common buckshot load is the fact that they are filled with 1 buck size pellets; while the most common home defense shotgun shells are filled with 00 buckshot. This is what is used by many law enforcements officers and soldiers in the military. There is nothing wrong with 00 buckshot, other than it is my opinion that it is not quite as good as 1 BUCK at the short ranges typically found in a home defense situation. Why do I think that? It's a matter of the number of pellets contained in each type of load. Most 2-3/4" home defense 00 buckshot shells contain either 8 or 9 pellets each with a diameter of 0.33 inches. On the other hand, a typical 2-3/4" shell with 1 buckshot contains 15 or 16 pellets with a diameter of 0.30 inches. Think about it. You get almost twice as many projectiles in every shot and the size difference of the pellets is not that significant. What is significant is that you have almost twice as many projectiles with a much greater area of impact. In other words, if you measure the contact area of those 16 pellets of 1 buck as they are hitting their intended target, you will find that they have a much greater contact area versus the 9 pellets of 00 buck. The 00 pellets are bigger in diameter and heavier, but the fact that they are only .03" bigger is insignificant compared to the large increase in the number of pellets in the 1 buck shell.
If you really want to increase the impact of your shot, then Winchester offers a 3" magnum 1 buck shell (XB1231) that hurtles 24 pellets downrange! In terms of the number of holes it makes, it's like shooting a .30 caliber rifle 24 times... all with just one pull of the trigger! Just beware of one important detail with the Winchester XB1231 3" magnum load, and that is that it has a very stout recoil. For some people, it would probably be too much recoil for use as a home defense shell. The 16 pellets in the regular 2-3/4" Winchester XB121 shells are more than adequate for use in home defense, and that shell already has plenty of recoil as it is. Obviously, increasing the number of 1 buck pellets to 24 in the 3" magnum loads is significant and it offers a powerful advantage over the 2-3/4" shells. You might want to try shooting both before you decide which one to use.
Winchester 1 BUCK buckshot at 10 yards in a Mossberg 535 with 28" barrel & modified choke
UPDATE: The above photos were taken of patterns obtained with a 28" barrel with modified choke. The Mossberg 535 test gun was then fitted with a 18.5" barrel with no choke (cylinder bore) and tested again with the Winchester XB121 2-3/4" shells. With the shorter barrel with cylinder bore, the pattern opened up to 10" at 10 yards. This small 1" increase in the pattern size at 10 yards is a fair trade off for a much shorter, and more manageable 18.5" barrel. A 28" barrel could be hard to maneuver in tight spaces like a hallway in a home defense situation. By the way, in order to fit a 18.5" barrel to a Mossberg 535 shotgun, it is necessary to get a Mossberg 500 magazine tube (~$30) and a Mossberg 500 18.5" barrel (~$80). You must replace the magazine tube in order to fit the 500 barrel to the 535 shotgun. The original mag spring and follower can be used from the 535. The 500 magazine tube is a little longer and is necessary to fit the 500 series barrels to a 535 shotgun. Another benefit of making this conversion is that you gain capacity for 1 more round (for a total of 5 shells) in the longer 500 mag tube.
Winchester is not the only company that offers a 1 buck 12ga shell. The Remington 12B1 also offers a load with 16 pellets of 1 buck. Sellier and Bellot also has a 1 buck shotshell. Federal has released their LE1321B with 15 pellets of 1 buck packed in their popular Flitecontrol wad. The LE1321B is a reduced recoil load that is supposed to help with follow up shots. In case you are unfamiliar with the Federal Flitecontrol wad, it is not like a conventional shotgun wad. A conventional wad is a cup that contains the shot and has slits starting from the leading edge of the wad. As the conventional wad exits the barrel, the petals formed by the slits in the wad abruptly open up like a flower and the wad quickly slows down while the shot pellets travel downrange. The Federal Flitecontrol wad does not have slits at the leading edge like a conventional wad. The shot pellets stay in the cup much longer before the small flaps at the back of the flight control wad gradually slow it down allowing the pellets to separate from the wad in a more controlled fashion. The result of the shot being in the cup longer is a much tighter pattern with the Flitecontrol wad. This can be very advantageous for long range shots, but this may not be best for very short range shots. One of the benefits of shooting a shotgun can be the spread of pellets that make it more likely for at least some of the projectiles to hit your target. If the pellets are too close together, then they will act more like a single projectile and it can be harder to hit your intended target. Of course, we don't want too widespread of a shot pattern either, or else there is a risk that too many pellets might entirely miss their intended target as well. My advice would be to consider the Federal LE1321B shells if you will be shooting at distances greater than 10 yards. Under that range, you might want to consider one of the other brands (like the Winchester shells) that come loaded with a conventional wad.
Conventional wad (top) and Federal Flitecontrol wad (bottom)
While we are on the topic of buckshot, it should be mentioned that there are home defense shells loaded with 4 buckshot. These smaller pellets are 0.24" in diameter, and my personal opinion is that they might be a little too small to be most effective at all ranges. At very close range, they will probably be very effective. At farther ranges, the smaller, lighter pellets might lose too much momentum and energy. In terms of pellet size, it has been said that just about any shotgun load can be an effective home defense load at short range - even bird shot. This may be true, since at very short distances, the shot pattern is so dense that the pellets (regardless of the number of them) will form a dense cloud of shot that will hit their target as if they were one big projectile. While this might be true for very close range shots with a shotgun, it is still advisable to select one of the better home defense shells currently available on the market. That way, your shotgun has the ability to be more effective at a variety of different ranges. My personal conclusion is that 4 is a little too small to be ideal. On the other end of the spectrum, I think that the very big pellets are also less than ideal for home defense use. However, if you really want something bigger, then by all means go for the 00 (0.33") buckshot or even the larger 000 (0.36") buckshot if that is what you prefer. With that being said, probably the best all around home defense shells are those loaded with the .30 caliber 1 buck pellets. The 1 buckshot load can offer more effective performance under a wider variety of shooting conditions.
ANOTHER UPDATE: I was really curious how the newer Federal LE1321B 1 BUCK shot shells would perform at closer range. My theory was that the pattern might be too tight for close encounters found in a typical home defense situation. I bought some of the LE1321B shells and tried them out. I set up my cardboard at 10 yards, as I had in my other buckshot testing, and I took a shot. WOW! Out of a short 18.5" barrel with no choke (just wide open cylinder), there wasn't really any "pattern" at all. It was just one single hole!
The hole was right about 1" in size. That's a really tight pattern! Just as I suspected, the Flitecontrol wad does an excellent job of holding the shot for an extended time to keep the patterns tighter, but at short ranges it might not be the best choice as home defense shells. As you can see from the picture, at a range of 30 feet you might as well be shooting a slug, because the shot pattern is so tight that it appears the shot never even left the wad. Now, I can see the benefit of the Flitecontrol wad at longer ranges. For military and law enforcement use in wide open spaces, the tight pattern would be a tactical advantage at greater distances. In addition, the tighter pattern would probably also be safer because there would be less chance for stray pellets to hit unintended targets. All this might be true at long distances, but for self defense purposes at close range these might not be ideal. That's just my opinion. No doubt these shells would be very destructive, but if you want a little more pellet spread then you might want to stick with buckshot loaded with conventional wads. Don't get me wrong. I am really impressed with the Federal Flitecontrol wad. It does exactly what it's supposed to do, and no doubt it is superior at longer ranges, but it's not exactly what I was looking for in a home defense shell.