Buckshot for self-defense

Yesterday I posted how birdshot is for birds. The general maxim is, if you’re using a shotgun for self/home-defense, buckshot (generally 00) is the way to go.

I have heard some people recommend #1 buckshot as being better. For instance, arfcom, Chuck Hawks, the firearmstactical.com brief. There’s also some talk that #4 is better, like here and even Massad Ayoob.

Well, as luck would have it, just today on the InSights mailing list someone posed such a question about shotgun self-defense ammo and one of the instructors, Keven Kerkam, responded with the following:

The “standard” loadout for a self-defense shotgun is 00-buck in the tube and slugs on the side-saddle.

Use 00 or 000 buck. We have observed a direct correlation between shot size (or number of pellets) and pattern size. Unlike what many people (uneducated people) say, you want *tight* pattern. You own each pellet that goes down range, so you want everything to hit the bad guy. We have found that the new(ish) Federal LE 132 00 load produces exceptionally tight patterns in nearly all guns. There is an older LE 132 load — this ok but not great — so look for LE 132 00 with the “flight-control wad” mentioned. Ammoman.com has it, btw.

I notice that there is now a LE 133 00 load that is an 8-pellet load as opposed to the 9-pellet 132 load. That *might* (no idea till we play with it) be even tighter than the already amazingly good LE 132 00 load. For now I am only recommending the LE 132 00 though.

For slugs, I recommend a reduced-recoil variety. The Foster-style works as good as any (most common type of slug on the market). The other common type is the Brenneke, but that one is usually marked “Brenneke” and mostly comes in “max” (i.e. high-power) loads. If it just says “slug” you’re getting the Foster type. Brand doesn’t matter, just make sure it is marked reduced/low-recoil or, sometimes, they’re called “tactical” which makes it even cooler because you’re not shooting a wimpy load that way. 🙂

Between my yesterday blog posting and the #1 buck being on my mind, I thought I’d ask for their input on the matter. John Holschen wrote:

For defensive shotgun use we need:

a.      No stray pellets (each one is a liability, without any positive effect.)

b.      Sufficient depth of penetration of each pellet to reach vital organs.

Detailed Criteria

a.      I would ideally like all pellets in the “A” zone at 25 yds. More realistic is all pellets on target at 25 yds. More pellets does not enhance performance in this criteria.

b.      OO buck is the lightest pellet that will reliably reach vital human organs through clothing at a distance.

Keven’s previous recommendations take into account both of these criteria.

Besides, it’s tough finding “smaller buckshot” at retail stores and even online retailers. Most of the time you’ll only find 00 buckshot, maybe 000 if you’re lucky.

Some important things that come from this as well:

  • Use tight(er) chokes.
  • Test your patterns
    • Before you go test, figure out the ranges at which you’ll be shooting. For instance, if it’s a home-defense shotgun, figure out the maximum distance you can shoot within your house.
  • Practice, and know the capabilities of your tool and yourself.

Updated: The original instructor, Keven Kerkam, added some additional information:

Yeah. A good number of years ago I did some pattern testing with all the different buckshot loads & sizes I could find (4, 1, 0, 00, 000) from Remington, Federal, and Winchester and found that the smaller the shot, the larger the pattern. Now with some of the more expensive rounds, you would get tighter patterns with 00 than 000, but if you kept things to the same type of construction/quality, 000 would shoot tighter than 00.

Granted, this was only with one gun, but I’d be willing to bet that 90% of the guns out there would show the same overall behavior, just different scale.

Other than a tight pattern for liability reasons, you want a tight pattern for wounding. When a pattern goes beyond a certain critical size, its effectiveness will drop off dramatically. Since #1 will spread faster than 00 which spreads faster than a good “tactical” 00 like the Federal LE 132 00, your effective range with #1 is significantly less than with a load like LE 132 00.

The typical argument for the #1 loads revolves around its reduced penetration through interior structures. This has some merit and is something that each individual has to work out for themselves and their unique circumstances: whether they want something with more wounding potential or less penetration through interior structures.

Some will argue that you have 16 pellets vs. 9, but if you hit a guy in the chest with a pattern that is, say 8″ (i.e. about 7-8 yards away — shot tends to spread around 1″ per yard give or take – more for lighter/more pellets less for larger/fewer), the majority of the pellets are going into the lungs and periphery (read: not immediately fight-stopping) and you get a few into the heart. But with pellets that are only .30/40.3gr, you may not do significant (read: fight-stopping) damage to the heart. And depending on the angle, positioning of other body parts, etc. you might not even get enough penetration to reach the heart at all. I mean, you’re still going to upset him but, you might be a bit disappointed in the immediate results.

But, if say, you hit him with a tight-shooting load like the LE 132 00, where we’ve seen patterns at 4″ or even <2″ (!!!) inches at 7-ish yards, virtually all of the load will hit the heart (assuming a well-placed shot of course) and the BG will have to be a lot more motivated to continue and physics will dictate that he’s only going for a max of 10-15 seconds more because his pump is no longer running.

Also, lighter shot will not penetrate heavy clothing as effectively. A good number of years ago, a Bellevue police officer used a 12ga shotgun to defend himself against bad guy who was seated in a car and drawing a handgun. The BG was wearing a leather jacket. I don’t remember if he was using #4, #1 or #0, but it was not 00. Where the leather jacket covered the BGs hand/arm that was hit, there was little damage. Only the uncovered portions were severely damaged. The loose leather jacket sucked most of the energy out of the shot.

IMHO, pretty compelling argument to stick with 00 buckshot. And if you can, to get some of the LEO-specific 00 buckshot.

15 thoughts on “Buckshot for self-defense

  1. Wow, now that’s some food for thought, Hsoi.

    Shame no reference to 20-gauge for effective shot. Suffice to say, the idea then is to run the tightest pattern, heaviest, largest, shot that you can.

    I’m thinking it might be time to bump the choke tube in my 870 a little tighter. I feel pretty confident with #3’s penetrating power inside of 25 yards, but a tighter choke couldn’t hurt.

    Any thoughts on how tight we can go? I’m running a Mod now and I show no problems with Foster type slugs, I wonder if I can go tighter to an I-Mod? that .1″ could make all the difference when it comes to slugs though.


    • Yes I agree about not chiming in on 20 gauge. Maybe I’ll ask. But that all said, my initial guess would be: 1. 20 gauge isn’t as good as 12 gauge, but better than nothing, 2. #3 buck is still smaller than 00 buck. So, my GUESS is that 20 gauge #3 buck isn’t ideal, but it’s the biggest and best you’ll get in 20 gauge and better than nothing.

      I’ve been unable to procure reduced recoil 12 gauge, but it’s my understanding there isn’t much felt difference between reduced recoil 12 and full power 20. So that said, perhaps the better course of action would be reduced recoil 12 and just forego 20 gauge altogether. But again, I’m just extrapolating here.

      One thing that I’ve learned is tight choke is good. Just be sure it’s not too tight, deforms the pellets and perhaps totally screws with the patterning in the wrong way. And of course, it can affect slug performance. Bottom line: just gotta go through the tedium of figuring out what’s best for your situation. You’ll have to buy a bunch of ammo, bring all your chokes to the range, and just try it all: both just running the ammo and patterning at different distances, and seeing how it works… the load, your gun, each choke, etc..

  2. Someone once pointed out to me that the world of physics is pretty complicated, but also pretty sure of those whole Newton Law things, especially that third one. Every force has an equal and opposite reaction force…What I’m driving at is, the concept of “low recoil” buckshot. If it’s low recoil, it has to be low(er) velocity, by default.

    I really have questions about the effectiveness of supposed “low recoil” 12 gauge buckshot, in that the question is essentially, why? You took an effective load, at an effective velocity and dropped velocity, thereby making it less effective. Law Enforcement and Military grade full power buckshot has the advantage, because of the nice flight control wads, shot cups, etc, that help it pattern well and stay together. Personally, I wouldn’t reduce those advantages by also cutting the velocity.

    I see your point and the 20 gauge was originally procured, because of the shorter nature of the gun (it is an 870 Youth with 21″ barrel and 13″ LOP stock). That makes it effective to wield inside the home and it was much cheaper than one of the 18″ “Home Defense”/Tactical guns (meaning it was about $225 vs. $350). Not because of a recoil sensitivity, just price. In the future I will probably procure another 870 of the 12 gauge variety and it is in fact near the top of my list for gun related purchases, just hasn’t happened yet, in fact it’s right behind quality carbine.


    • The advantage of low recoil is just that: less recoil. This means you can get off a second shot faster because you don’t have as much recoil to manage… you don’t get blown off target as much, you can get back on target faster. Now for bigger guys like us, this may be a non-issue. But I look at my petite wife and yeah, low recoil would be alright. Plus we have to consider that at most home-defense ranges, it’s just not that much of a velocity loss to make a difference. Hunting? sure you could be taking longer shots and it could matter. But at 10-15 yards?

      I went 20 gauge myself because of the wife and kids.. Mossberg 500 Bantam. I went with Mossberg because of the safety location, since I’ve got a mix of righties and lefties in the household and it just makes it easier to set up guns for anyone to use (else I would have gone with the Rem 870). And the smaller gun, works for everyone.

    • The other way to reduce recoil is to reduce the mass of the bullet, or shot in this case.

      I think for a lot of the reduced recoil 00 buckshot, they use 1 less pellet than normal. (They may use less powder or different powder too, I don’t know.)

    • Another way to reduce recoil is to reduce the intial impulse, or extend it. Blackpowder rifles can sling out massive slugs of lead at appreciable velocities, but they are more of a push than a slap. On the other hand, bolt-action firearms have a decided intial impulse, but no overall shove. I wonder if reduced-recoil loads use a slower-burning powder than standard loads, thus decreasing the perceived recoil, but no appreciably impacting the end result velocity.

      For example, I use Fiocchi Exacta Low-Recoil Buck Shot for my HD shotgun. Why? Well, I would prefer my wife be able to use it without flinching, and provide follow-up shots if necessary. However, it advertises being able to throw out 9 00 pellets at 1150 fps, and the identical normal-recoil shells throw 9 00 pellets at 1325 fps. Honestly, I am unconvinced that the 175fps difference is sufficient to be a problem.

  3. Just a note: When I recommended #1 buckshot on that other thread, my intention was for inside the home defensive use. Same for #4, and at these ranges,say twenty feet max? The pattern will be tight,and more lead into the target mass means more damage. Anecdotaly, over the years that I worked as a Paramedic, on two separate occasions I saw very light bird shot used for defensive purposes. These were the cheap #8 shot loads that you can get anywhere as dove / quail loads, and on both occasions I called the bad guys DRT,as in Dead Right There. Just like I did when bad guys got hit with Double Ought from police shotguns. Note though, that the ranges in these homes was less than eight feet in both cases.

  4. More lead doesn’t necessarily mean more damage. I mean, I could take a block of lead and rub someone’s skin with it. It’s a lot more lead, but didn’t penetrate very far. More lead didn’t equate to more damage. Now, if I could get that same block of lead to penetrate deep enough to hit the heart, that would certainly do more damage than say just a pea-sized pellet that managed to get deep enough to hit the heart. So, mass may matter, but penetration I’d argue may be more important.

    In the end tho, there’s no simple equation. There’s enough stories of guys getting non-fatal hits with a .22 LR and dropping dead, and guys getting so full of lead you could make a foundry in there but they keep on ticking. We just have to pick what gives us the best chances… buckshot tends to do that. That isn’t to say a quail load couldn’t work… it seems it did in some cases you saw. Let’s just say the data on using birdshot for home-defense isn’t convincing enough to me to select it as my go-to round.

  5. Please understand, I was in no way recommending bird shot for home defense. However,at the ranges I talked about the loads blew through the torso.

    As for energy etc.of # 1 and # 4 buck? Those are basically what are used going after wounded cats in the thick stuff in Africa. You can, because of the diameters involved, put more lead into a shell with those loads than with the bigger stuff. So, more mass going directly into the target zone, again, within certain rages.

    My own general choice is a L.E. load that Federal put out several years ago. I bought a case (on sale) of the stuff, and still have plenty around. At twenty feet, from an 870 with a full choke, the pattern is just a tad larger than a fifty cent piece. Yes, it is #00 buck.

    • There’s still a lot of impact behind birdshot. Despite what a lot of people think, it will go through wallboard. It’s just going to peed out well before it hits the vitals of a determined attacker.

      That L.E. load… 20 feet and that tight a pattern? Very nice. I must admit my purchasing of shotgun ammo has been a low priority since I have more than enough and I know how the Remington and Winchester loads I have pattern out. But eventually I’ll need to restock and I have been thinking about that very Federal load.. has that flight control wad, right?

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