It seems like every year is a good year for shotguns. No doubt; since their inception, shotguns have been prized by civilians, hunters, police, guards and soldiers who have need of a ferociously effective close-quarters long gun.
The shotgun’s bone-crunching power makes it the obvious choice when fighting is going to be up close and in-your-face. Its higher hit probability makes it the best against small or fast moving game. Its flexibility allows it to switch between shot, slug and other munitions to solve almost any ballistic problem.
If there is one jack-of-all-trades long gun, the scattergun is it and legions of purchasers, civilian and otherwise, back that claim up. Shotguns continue to sell briskly no matter what the economy and gun market looks like.
Part of that is their aforementioned appeal, the other part is their lower cost compared to many rifles; a very high quality shotgun can be had all day under $700 if you know what you are looking for.
In the interest of providing prospective purchasers with a guide to what essential characteristics you should consider when selecting a shotgun and the best models for your hard-earned dollar on the shotgun market as of today, I humbly present this buyer’s guide for your edification.
Be they break-action, pump-action or semi-auto, all of these guns can serve handily as a primary contributor to your security and overall preparation.
Considering the primary purpose of this site is to help you stay prepared and safe against threats in your world, all of the shotguns on our list will be chosen first and foremost as defensive guns in their category. Some of you will balk at seeing double-barrels on this list.
I get it, and I am no fan of them either for self-defense, but there are more than a handful of people out there in the world, some of them assuredly reading this very article with you, who do prefer double-barrels.
Their reasons are their own, and I could hold my breath and stamp my feet to try and get them on board with another design, but that is not doing them any favors. Better to see that they get the best possible double gun for they can
Remember that these guns will not be weighted or given any preference for their suitability for hunting in any capacity. Please have my assurances that almost all of them will indeed be plenty suitable for hunting with the right load and choke combo (depending on what you are after), but if you are facing a toss-up over two or three as true do-it-all survival guns you’ll need to do your own research as to their suitability for the hunting you plan to engage in.
Following that ethic, you will see a definite preferential trend toward shorter barrels, greater capacity and mechanical reliability and build quality on my list, as all of those characteristics are important on a fighting gun.
Of those three I just mentioned, reliability is the most important by far: I must have complete confidence that the shotgun will go boom when I pull the trigger, rain or shine, clean or grubby.
In the following sections, I’ll be offering up a little bit of insight and advice to help you choose the right shotgun to fit your needs, and after that we’ll get to the list!
As indicated in the title, all of the shotguns on my Best Buys list are 12 gauges, not 20’s, .410’s or anything else. I have argued the merits and flaws of them and other chamberings elsewhere, but today’s list is going to be exclusively 12ga. Reasons why are the 12’s excellent performance against humans with an appropriate payload, ubiquitous popularity and universal availability.
The 12ga. does have pretty stout recoil in most shotguns firing it, and with most loads. Much of this recoil can be mitigated with proper technique, but bottom-line it is a significant factor, and some folks will have a hard time coping with it, specifically those of smaller build, who are struggling with injury or infirmity or are highly recoil-averse. One might choose to stoke their shotgun with reduced recoil loads, both slug and buckshot, to help if are one of the recoil-averse types listed above.
Recoil sensitive or not, a long day of training with a 12ga. will leave most folks woozy and sore from recoil. Something to keep in mind for practice: it is better to have multiple, shorter practice days with a 12ga. than one all-day 400 round cram session.
A big part of the appeal with shotguns today is their adaptability to different tasks, specifically their ability to change ammo types purely by loading different shells. No other firearm has this capability. You could be hurling extra-chunky, high velocity 00 buck at intruders one day, and then be taking down birds and small critters with No.6 birdshot the next.
A specialty breaching load will grant you the key to a troublesome locked door while a heavy-duty slug will let you shoot someone behind a barrier or take down very large game. Special purpose rounds even include things like less-lethal munitions, small flashbangs and more.
All of this multi-tool functionality is great, but we are not concerned with that today. Today we are concerned only with self-defense purposes, and that means our whole world when it comes to ammo is pretty much buckshot or slugs. You’ll notice I left out the darling of shotgun owners who don’t know better, birdshot.
That is on purpose. You see, birdshot is not for self-defense. Birdshot is for birds! I am not going to derail our article dissecting its advocates positions, but the essential argument for birdshot as a defense load is that it will not penetrate walls in the home, or will at least penetrate far less than any size of buckshot ot slugs will.
This is true. Some proponents also recommend it as an “opening salvo” that is less-lethal or less-than-lethal (both notions damnably wrong) the intent being it gives your bad guy a chance to come to Jesus before you start filling him in with the good stuff. Both concepts are profoundly wrong.
Simply, if birdshot will not penetrate walls, either plywood or drywall, it will not penetrate people. Any of my consistent readers and serious students of the gun in general will know that penetration is a key factor of effective wounding capability.
At anything farther than very close range, the tiny pellets and BB’s that make up a package of birdshot just lack the mass and diameter to cause anything worse than grisly-looking but ultimately superficial wounds.
We cannot count on our attacker giving up just because he has been shot! Telling yourself that birdshot will be painful or scary enough to always result in a scumbag heading for the hills is a lie. Birdshot is in no way ideal, even acceptable for self-defense. Save it for high volume training and hunting whatever flies and crawls.
So back to our two standbys for defense: buck and slug. Buckshot is large caliber shot, with common sizes being anywhere from .25 to .35 caliber and packing anywhere from 15 to 7 into a shell.
Buckshot is one of the leading defensive rounds for close-in use in a shotgun, as it causes truly horrifying tissue damage. Think about it: each little pellet in a buckshot load is about the diameter of a handgun bullet. With one trigger pull you are nominally sinking 8 or 9 .30 caliber balls deeply into our bad guy. Now imagine what a couple of shots would do.
Comparing buckshot sizes, the most common and perennial favorite is 00 (pronounced “double aught”), which consists of 8 or 9 .33 caliber pellets. 00 buck can be had in a huge variety of loads and brands. 000 buck (triple aught) is preferred by some, and consists of .36 caliber pellets, though fewer in number in an average load.
Either is totally adequate for defense and both enjoy very good track records in recorded shootings. A highly effective buck load for defense is No.1 buck, which consists of 15 .30 pellets, and compared to 00 or 000 buck actually causes greater tissue destruction thanks to a larger overall surface area (calculated by the total frontal area of each pellet striking the target).
The only issue with No.1 buckshot is that it is not nearly as common as its larger cousins, and can be even trickier to find in a defense optimized consideration.
Moving on to slugs, these huge chunks of lead can weigh as much as an ounce or a little more in 12ga., and are renowned for extreme penetration and leaving big ol’ holes in things.
Slugs usually care little for intervening barriers like sheet metal, auto glass, common building materials and more, and will plow through even multiple light obstructions. This massive penetrative capability is also a weakness for defense, as you must be doubly sure of your background and backstops when utilizing them on the defense.
Concerning both buck and slug, take care to choose your shotgun and its sighting system based on what loads you anticipate using the most. Every single load, be it shot or slug, will pattern differently in different shotguns.
This means adjusting your sights or understand your hold-offs to ensure you strike the intended POI is vital. If all your shotgun has for sights is a plain front bead, this confers no adjustment capability. While that may be fine for using only buck at very close range, it will get hairy quick if you are forced to rely on it for slug use at any kind of range.
Likewise you must take the time to pattern your shot loads before you have to call on them in the gravest extreme. You must know how tight or how wide your buck will pattern at a given distance so you can account for pellets that may not strike the target.
Remember: you are utterly responsible for every, single projectile that leaves your barrel. If 8 out of 9 strike the bad guy and 1 hits an innocent, you are still at fault.
Each action has its pros and cons. All are viable for self-defense, but, like anything, technology constantly marches on and it is not hard to see where more archaic designs start to give up a lot of ground to new or at least newer ones; from muzzle loading to breech loading, single barrel to double barrel, break action to repeating and repeating to semi-auto. Such is life.
Even so, a cloud of 00 buck hurts the same no matter what it is fired from.
Break-Action – One of the simplest actions to operate, especially for the uninitiated. Can be single or multi- (usually two) barrel. Obviously limited by very low capacity before reloading is necessary, which can be further complicated by lack of automatic ejectors.
Older guns of this breed are unlikely to handle modern higher-pressure ammo well, so do take care with vintage examples. Aside from pressure concerns mentioned, is highly ammo insensitive.
Pump-Action – The quintessential example of what a shotgun is for many. Can be expected to have greater capacity than any break-action. Many examples easy to customize for shooter requirements.
As with all manually operated guns, vulnerable to user-induced malfunctions if pump is not worked fully and/or vigorously. A great all around design, but one that requires more practice to use well than break-action or semi-auto. Typically ammo insensitive
Semi-Auto – These shotguns have less recoil pound-for-pound than other designs, and are very easy to shoot well, most benefitting from superior human engineering. Most are also unfortunately ammo sensitive, expensive (if quality) and can be complex to load. The payoffs in shooting characteristics and sheer firepower cannot be understated.
You’ll see examples of each listed above on our list.
The Best Shotguns Under $700
Below are shotguns that I recommend in their specific categories based on my experience with them. As with all of my recommendations, if a gun is not reliable, I don’t care about or consider it and you should not either.
I have also included a recommendation based on the type of purchaser who might potentially be looking for a “just right” shotgun for their purpose, and any other notes that are relevant to the gun at an end-user level.
Best for Seriously Hard Use: Mossberg 590A1
Mossberg’s 590A1 is the hardcore military upgrade of the 590A1, featuring a thick-walled barrel, metal trigger housing, metal safety and all the other features that make the Mossberg action so loved by scattergun aficionados.
More than most of the other guns on this list, the 590A1 will take, and dole out, a beating. Complete with nice, bright ghost ring sights right out of the box, the 590A1 is just as at home with shot or slugs.
It is a seriously heavy shotgun, but if you are going to Hell and back, the 590A1 will get you there.
Best for an All-Around Pump-Action: Remington 870 Police Magnum
The Big Green needs no introduction, and their 870 is the most popular shotgun in the world based on units sold. Where the top-of-the-line 870 Police varies from its lesser siblings is in the details: higher quality small parts, springs, finishing and assembly performed on a dedicated assembly line and married to that famously smooth Remington action that has so endeared itself to generations of shooters.
It is pricey compared to the cheaper and inferior Express grade, but do not waver! The 870 Police is the version to have if you want a reliable defensive gun.
Best Classic Double Barrel: Stoeger Industries Coach Gun Supreme
Hearkening back to a simpler time when shotguns were carried by the bench seat passenger of a stage coach for defense against ambushers, highwaymen and other ne’er-do-wells, the Stoeger Coach Gun Supreme is a quality, no frills side-by-side for when you want to go back to basics: twin or single trigger, a heavy rubber recoil pad, and screw-in chokes to optimize your patterns with shot.
Short enough to maneuver in cramped confines and light enough to be handled by almost anyone, the Stoeger is an Old West idea made with modern technology and working-class price.
Best Bargain Shotgun: Mossberg Maverick 88
The Maverick 88 is Mossberg’s budget entry into the pump-action foray, and has been around for quite a while with a surprisingly good track record for a gun so cheap.
Operationally, these guns share much in common with their Model 500 brothers, with the most obvious change being the location of the safety has been moved from its typical location on the tang of the receiver to the trigger housing itself.
The action is not too slick, and you will not find much in the way of accessories for them, but if you need a scattergun on a really tight budget, you can still get a reliable pump from a trusted manufacturer with the Maverick 88.
Best Low-Maintenance Shotgun: Benelli Supernova Tactical
Benelli is best known for their supremely nice (and expensive) semi-auto shotguns, but they also make an excellent if ungainly pump action shotgun. The Supernova Tactical is an evolution of the Nova, and like that earlier shotgun is capable of chambering massive and stompy 3 ½” 12ga. shells if your heart desires. Also like its older sibling, the Supernova makes excellent use of synthetic material throughout, including the entirety of the receiver.
This makes the Supernova highly resistant to weather and corrosion of all kinds, perfect for extended forays into the wilderness, or for times when you cannot risk stopping to maintain the gun. The ability to fire truly enormous shells is just a bonus.
Best High-Capacity Pump-Action: Mossberg 590M
One of the new American-made detachable magazine fed pumps, Mossberg has a winner on their hands with a revised 590 action that accepts up to a 20 round box magazine, though 10 or 15 round versions make more sense from a defense standpoint as they are far less long and bulky than the big boy.
Boasting the ability rapidly fully reload the gun to full or swap ammo types, the detachable magazine model makes a lot of sense, even on a pump, and I am hoping American sensibilities will catch up quickly.
If you love pump actions but hate their low endurance due to low capacity, this is the cure for what ails you.
Quickest Pump-Action: F.N. P-12
A high quality remix of the venerable and cult favorite Winchester 1300 action, F.N.’s new pump action line has the chops to serve as a great modern defensive gun.
The calling card of this shotgun is the distinctive rotary bolt head that is married to an action which is famously fast compared to any other pump-action. A fiber optic front sight and barrel-integral cantilever optic mount round out this duty grade gun’s options.
This is one pump-action that is so slick you can nearly keep up with the semi-auto crowd if you can supply the talent.
Best Modernized Break-Action: Mossberg Maverick HS12
Not to be confused with their pump-action Maverick 88, the Maverick HS12 is an interesting take on the modern home defense double-barrel. Featuring a rare over-under take on the coach gun concept, this light and handy double features a single trigger, fiber optic sights, a rail for optics mounting and another near the end of the barrels for mounting a light or laser, all good accoutrement for defensive use.
Combining the best of the classic action with modern options, this is the break-action to beat if you are looking to take the modern double-barrel as far as it can go.
Best Semi-Auto under $700: Mossberg 930 SPX Tactical
Mossberg has really cleaned up on our list, but with good reason: it is very tough to beat their guns in this price category and the 930 SPX Tactical is no exception.
Featuring a fast and smooth gas-operated action, high precision click adjustable ghost ring sights, an 8 shot capacity and fiber optic front sights, you’ll be putting lead on target quickly and easily with less recoil using this slick little autoloader. A receiver top rail is ready to accept optics should you desire.
As far as truly quality semi-autos go, it is very tricky to find one in this price range. The 930 action is one that has been around the block a few times now, and has proven itself as one of the few competitors in this category.
Shotguns of all stripes and kinds can be more than adequate for self-defense and survival so long as you are realistic about your needs and choose one with care and ample consideration of your mission.
From the fast semi-auto to the trusty break action and rugged pump-action, there is a shotgun for every need and budget. Take what you have learned in this article and look into the suggestions above and you’ll be stuffing shells in no time.