Rangemaster’s Defensive Shotgun – AAR

I spent yesterday as a student in Rangemaster’s Defensive Shotgun course, hosting at KR Training. This is my After Action Report (AAR).


I’m mixed on the use of a shotgun for self/home/office defensive purposes. While there’s no questioning the brutality and lethality of a shotgun, there are numerous limitations of the platform. I still tend to lean towards an AR for home defense, but I’ve softened my stance towards the shotgun. Consequently, I’ve wanted to learn more about the “fighting shotgun”. I picked up Magpul’s Art of the Dynamic Shotgun. Last time Tom Givens was in town I picked up a copy of his new Defensive Shotgun DVD. Naturally, when I heard Tom was coming back to town to teach a shotgun course, I had to take the class. Not just because of the subject material, but I hate missing opportunities to train with Tom.

The Class

This is a “level 1” course. Everyone in the class was familiar with shooting to various levels, so there wasn’t a need to get rudimentary about all things shooting, but the class was focused on shotgun background and shotgun skillset foundations. Note: the skills presented were in the context of fighting shotgun use. This was not about sport, no clays, no skeet, no duck nor dove hunting. It’s important to understand that context.

The background part was quite useful. Tom covered history of the shotgun, different types of shotguns, different types of ammo, nomenclature, modifications and accessories. Tom’s been around and involved in so much for so long, and while he may not always focus on history, if you pay attention to the things he says and the experiences he tells about, you wind up with a greater understanding of how the gun world came to be what it is today. This is part of the reason why taking classes with Tom Givens is so worth the time and money. Sure this isn’t “tactical”, but it’s good and important to know.

The other main portion of the class was focused on basic skills of manipulation. We all know how to shoot a shotgun and make a hit, that’s not a problem. Where is the problem? Manipulating the shotgun. That was the focus of the skills portion of the class.

We worked dry for a while, on basics of stance, ready positions, moving from ready to a solid firing position. One of the biggest things we had to learn was how to deal with a pump-action shotgun. See, we’re all mostly handgunners, and whether you shoot a semi-automatic or a revolver, we press the trigger and the gun goes bang… then we don’t have to do anything to chamber the next round in order for us to make the gun go bang again. With a pump shotgun, we have work to do! So when we shoot, pressing the trigger is NOT the end of our work cycle, we must also pump the gun and THEN we’re done. The mantra for the day was “click-chunk-chunk” (or “boom-chunk-chunk”) — I named it the Tom Givens Waltz. That’s what has to happen every time you fire that pump-action shotgun: click-chunk-chunk, click-chunk-chunk, click-chunk-chunk. That must become habit. Chances are you won’t have to fire again, but then there’s a chance you might — you need to keep the gun running and ready for action.

Keeping the gun running is really what it’s all about. So we have to learn how to keep the gun well-fed since the magazine doesn’t hold much ammo. Shoot one? load one. Shoot two? load two. Techniques for keeping the gun loaded and ready to go were taught, and you do come to appreciate shell carriers on the shotgun (e.g. butt cuff, side saddle).

Tom had us run a great drill called “Rolling Thunder”. Groups of 4 or 5 people stepped up to the line, each loading 1 round in the chamber. On the go signal, the leftmost person started and shot one. As soon as that person shot, the person to their right shot, and so on down the line until reaching the last person. When the last person shot, we went back to the start of the line and now this person fired 2 shots, and so on down the line 2 shots each. Then 3 shots. Then 4 shots. Note, this meant as soon as you shot, you had to get your gun reloaded with the correct number of shells for the next go-round. The goal was to have a constant string of “boom” going off, so you had to not only pay attention to what was going on so you didn’t miss your cue, but then you had to hustle and get your gun reloaded in time to not break the string. That pressure really tells a great deal about how you need to work and function, what equipment can work under pressure, what what won’t. And if you’re going to fuck up, you’ll do it here. 🙂  A great drill for not only working all the basic skills, but pushing you and putting you, your equipment, and your techniques on trial.

Another important skill we learned was dealing with “cruiser ready” as the proper mode for keeping a shotgun. It’s simple: shotguns are not drop-safe. Mossberg told me their shotguns are drop-safe, but I’m wary. Even if theirs are, others are not. Thus, storing a shotgun with one in the pipe is dangerous and should be avoided, so cruiser-ready is the way to go. We worked on how to set this up, how to get into action, and how to properly unload and restore cruiser-ready condition. Proper unloading technique isn’t as easy as you think.

We ran mostly birdshot because — birdshot is for birds. But it’s also good for practicing basic skills because it’s inexpensive. We did run some buckshot and even did Rolling Thunder once with buckshot so people could see how bad their stance was as the recoil pushed them backwards. 🙂  Oddly, we didn’t run slugs, tho we were supposed to bring some. Not sure why we didn’t.

One great thing about being in class with a lot of other people and guns was being able to see what worked and what didn’t and how other choices worked out. This was most evident when we spent time patterning buckshot, which I’ll talk more about later.

The skills presented were the fundamentals. No, we didn’t shoot tactical courses, we didn’t get all high-speed-low-drag. In fact, most of our shooting was done standing at the 5 yard line. What we did do was learn the foundational skills necessary to run the shotgun in a defensive context and run it well, to enable us to fight and to keep fighting. Upon these skills everything will be laid.

My Takeaway

I’m happy I took the course because it addressed the key thing that I needed: manipulation skills. Whenever I tried working with a shotgun, I struggled with one key thing: reloading technique. I mentioned in my review of the Magpul shotgun DVD that the best thing I liked about that DVD was learning good reloading techniques. I took some things from the Magpul approach (e.g. first 2 shells in my side-saddle were brass up, last 4 shells were brass down), then went with Tom’s approach. In the end, I’ll probably have a hybrid of the two. But again, this key bit of manipulation is so fundamental to fighting with the shotgun and keeping it (and you) in the fight.

Another thing that that I improved upon was my grip and stance. I’ve been putting my head on the comb of the stock. No, I should be bringing the comb to my cheek. Keeps my head up, straight, and I’m not banging my thumb knuckle into my face any more. I still need to work on keeping my thumb from wrapping around the grip (that’ll be a hard habit to break), but I may not break that habit since if we’re talking “commonality of technique” across firearms well.. I keep my thumb wrapped with my handgun, why break that habit? Keeping my head up and back, bringing the gun to my cheek instead of my head to the gun, seems to have made a big difference and enough to keep me from getting whacked in the face along with the other advantages of that technique.

My shotgun is mostly factory stock. It’s a Mossberg 500, thus 12 gauge, pump action. It’s a field model (i.e. wood furniture), so it came with a long barrel, but I replaced it with Mossberg’s factory 18.5″ “security” barrel, which has a fixed cylinder choke and a simple bead sight. I learned a bit more about how to use that bead sight correctly and my confidence in using it improved. Frankly, I think the bead is pretty darn fast, due to its simplicity. Now that I know better technique, I’d like to now check out how accurate I can be with slugs; I wouldn’t be surprised if this is why Jay and I had some accuracy problems with slugs during our shotgun ammo trials.

It did make me think a bit about gun modifications. The only “true mod” to my shotgun is putting a side-saddle AND a buttcuff on it (why both? because the only ammo you’re going to have is the ammo on the gun, and is there any such thing as too much ammo?). Tom talked about decreasing the length-of-pull, and we all got to try his shotgun with a 13″ LOP. Big improvement, especially in terms of mounting the shotgun from the high-ready position. I’m going to look into doing that. Do I want different sights on the gun? Not sure, and probably not. The bead is quite sufficient, so it seems. I still tinker with the idea of putting an Aimpoint T-1 on it, mostly so I can shoot with both eyes open. But I’m really not sure. Part of the appeal of a shotgun is that it’s an inexpensive solution. Almost everyone in class had “black tactical shotguns”, save for (fellow KRT asst. instructor) Tom Hogel and myself, who both had wood furniture (Brian Brown, another KRT asst. instructor, ribs us for our use of “grandpa guns”… tho since Tom’s has an EOTech on it, it’s a tactical grandpa gun 🙂 ). When you start down that road, it’s just more and more money. Is it worth it? Perhaps. But I can tell you based upon what I saw that my almost-factory wooden Mossy did quite well, and it’s more about the person running the gun than the gun itself.

That said, I still think about getting a more “tactical” gun mostly for the extra magazine capacity and more steel parts (and less plastic). But really… there’s lots of frills and trinkets out there, whose purpose is mostly to separate you from your money.

But in the end, I’m happy with the class. I’m happy with my gun. I’m happy with how I did, and what I got from the class. Lots of practice ahead, and thankfully just about all these skills can be practice dry at home with a good set of A-Zoom snap caps.


  • 18 people in the class. All male. Ages ranged from 20-ish to 60-ish.
  • About half the people in class I recognized.
  • 15 pumps, 3 semi-autos. I think most were Remington 870’s, then Mossberg’s of various pump flavors, at least one Benelli, a Winchester. I didn’t get to directly survey every gun out there.
  • Semi-autos are going to have problems, be ammo finicky. Manual of arms may be simpler, but everything else is much more complex than a pump. Pump may require more manipulation skills, but it’s a simpler machine and should run almost anything.
  • When choosing a pump, make sure when the forend is pulled all the way back it doesn’t cover the loading port. If it does, replace it.
  • It’s important to label shotguns in class, esp. when you have a whole bunch of black Remington 870’s on the line… whose is whose? But when you have a wood stock, you don’t need a label. 🙂
  • Side-saddles and butt-cuffs are important.
  • Sling? In this context, more of a liablity than a help.
  • Rifled shotgun barrels have one specific application context, and this isn’t it.
  • If it screws onto the gun, it will screw off the gun. There’s a lot of recoil going on.
  • When it comes to buckshot, Federal’s 00 buck with FLITECONTROL, low recoil (if it’ll cycle in your gun… again, pump no problem) is going to run amazingly well. While shotgun ammo patterns can vary from gun to gun, this stuff was amazingly consistent out of any gun it shot from. Really, when it comes to choosing buckshot for your shotgun, this is the place to start… and try both the 8 and 9 pellet versions to see which works better in your gun (Tom made a good case for 8 pellet and I’ll probably pick up some eventually and see how it does in my gun vs. the 9 pellet in my gun).
    • Read my post on Shotgun ammo and patterns, with a lot of buckshot pattern pictures. If this doesn’t convince you to use Federal with FLITECONTROL….
    • Also read the Addenda because it has some good links to things like ATK’s brochure on their shotgun ammo.
  • If you pick up Rangemaster’s Defensive Shotgun DVD, it will cover a lot of what we did in class, without the shooting or helpful instructors. It’s certainly a good place to start, but I’ll tell you… I watched that DVD before I took the class. It was good, but taking the class made it come alive — you just can’t beat actually training with Tom. The DVD will be quite useful now as a reference resource, and I know watching it now that I’ll “get it” a lot more. Point? Train with Tom if you get the chance.
  • Speaking of DVD’s, the class gave me a different perspective on the Magpul shotgun DVD. I think Tom’s a little more focused, a little more no-nonsense. I’m not going to say what’s in the Magpul stuff is bad (a lot was consistent with what Tom said), but it’s a matter of the presentation. Tom’s is very honed and focused on one topic. The Magpul attempts to be honed and focused, but it doesn’t quite succeed as it’s attempting to mostly be able fighting but there’s some gaming and other presentational aspects to it. I think both are good, and them along with live-instructor training would be useful for anyone interested in using a shotgun in a fighting context.
  • And I’ve said it a hundred times and I’ll say it a hundred more… people, sunscreen is your friend. Use it.

A big thank you to Tom Givens and his crew for coming down here to teach us. Always a pleasure and always a highly educational experience. Plus hey… it’s a lot of fun. 🙂

13 thoughts on “Rangemaster’s Defensive Shotgun – AAR

  1. Tactical Grandpa Gun my arse! . Well, in my defense, I had wanted to shoot the class both with the EOTECH and with Ghost rings but I loaned my “Black Tactical” model to another student who did not believe in ‘screw it, not glue it” when it comes to accessorizing the shotgun (Blue Loctite is your friend). There were quite a few accessories “hanging around” from various guns after a few Rolling Thunder drills with full power buck.

    Even though the 870 with the EOTECH has been my dedicated slug thrower, I found it to be very fast for this kind of shooting with both eyes open. I did not have a single out of A-Zone hit all day except the very last round of the last drill, where I pulled one a tad low – “dude” still would have had a very bad day.

    I have been a zealot when it comes to using Federal’s 00 buck FLITECONTROL low recoil rounds for quite a while, but it was still an eye opener to see just how poorly “other” brands of buck patterned/performed. Tom’s antidotal about the hostage situation where 1 stray LE fired 00 pellet severed the aorta of the bank manager hostage and killed him, got a lot of attention from the “all ammo is created equal” bunch.

    My takeaway was just how much LOP (Length of Pull) impacts the ability to snap the gun up and get to work, without getting it hung up – all fighting shotgun stocks out of the box are just too long – to short is better than to long. At 6ft 3in I would have never considered a 12.5 inch LOP if I had not gotten to try one of Given’s guns. I am going to cut one of my 870’s down to 13 and try it for a while. I went and measured my high $$ Browning Clay’s gun last night and it’s LOP is 14. Interesting.

    You left out the fun part – If you blew the Rolling Thunder drill, the 17 other students were encouraged to yell at you at the top of their lungs – “WHAT A DICK” while you were fumbling to get that last round in the tube. Nothing like a little added peer pressure to keep it real.

    • It was good that you and Tom had the extra guns because yes… lots of guns were falling apart. Blue Loctite is essential. Heck, when I got home last night I gave the gun a quick swab and tightened a few things… things that aren’t supposed to have loctite, but you really wish they could. It also reinforced why I always carry my Leatherman Wave on my belt… loaned it out a few times during class. It did make me think I need to get a set of hex wrenches for the range bag.

      That’s good to hear the EO worked well for what we did. I’m still not sure I WANT to put a red dot on my shotgun, but I think that’s more a cost factor because both-eyes-open is such a boon.

      Seeing the poor patterning didn’t surprise me — this time — because of the time that Jay and I spent some time ago doing a bunch of buck patterning. Back then what did surprise me was just how amazing the FLITECONTROL stuff was! You can read and see pictures in my write-up of that range outing that the FLITECONTROl was grouping tigher at 15 yards than other buck did at 3 yards!! I will say tho, what Tom had to say about the 8 pellet vs. the 9 pellet (and in light of that hostage anecdote) does make me want to reconsider the 8 pellet and see if it performs better from my gun. Also, I wish they had something like that for 20 gauge… or, I just might try to see how well the wife/kiddos could handle the reduced recoil buck and just eliminate 20 gauge from the equation.

      The LOP thing was an eye opener for me too. I’ve got a Mossberg 500 Bantam youth 20 gauge.. .I forget what I set stock at (it’s adjustable via spacers), but I made it pretty short so the smaller folk in the family could use it. When I use it, I just bang my face with my thumb… but now I see why (bringing head down to comb, instead of bringing comb up to cheek). It feels small and awkward to me to have that short LOP, but there’s no question it works a LOT better. I am rolling around perhaps getting one of those Choate stocks with the spacers so I could try between 13″ and 14″ to see what works for me… I don’t think at my height/size that less than 13″ is workable. Givens said his (the one we all tried) was set at 13″. I need to get out the ruler and measure things.

      And as for the drill yeah… it sure was a lot of fun, eh, dick? 😉

  2. ” and is there any such thing as too much ammo?”

    Yes, when your on fire or swimming. 😉

  3. I was surprised there more pumps than semi-autos. I put a good spread of ammo through my 930 and never had any issues with it cycling properly.

    • I expected there to be more semi-autos too; still figured pumps would have the majority due to the “870 vs. 500 mantra” tho.

      I think the thing with the semi-autos was 1. cheap ammo, 2. never ran the gun hard enough until this class.

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