If there is one type of long gun that never goes out of style through the decades, it is the shotgun. There is no more ubiquitous gun across America, and much of the world. A shotgun can serve admirably as a multi-purpose hunting and pest control tool afield before coming back inside to defend home and hearth from other, two-legged critters with barrages of shot or enormous slugs.
If the old cliché “any gun beats no gun” is true, than it is doubly true that any shotgun beats no shotgun at all. That being said, having the right kind of shotgun, and stoking it with the right loads will make your job of repelling invaders so much easier.
In this article, we’ll be taking a look at some factors that will help you choose a good shotgun specifically intended for home defense, and make sense of the wide array of choices you have on the market today. After we do that, I’ll give you my list of recommendations for top-tier brands and models if you want to skip researching your options and just grab a good gauge.
So grab a box of shells and let’s get going.
Important Criteria for Home Defense Guns
As always, the single most important attribute for any defensive arm is reliability. If the gun will not go bang with near certainty when you pull the trigger you may be facing down an intruder with an inoperable hunk of metal in your shaking hands instead of a lead-spewing, fire-breathing dragon. Also knowing your gun is fussy will nibble away at your confidence in it, affecting your mindset.
Reliability is not purely mechanical for some guns; any manually operated shotgun like a pump or lever action is vulnerable to user induced malfunctions if the action is not cycled smartly and fully through its full range of motion. A pump gun suffering from binding is no better off than a semi that chokes on a certain brand of shotshell.
After that, a host of other factors are important; all shotguns are powerful, but for defense against humans we want to ensure we are choosing a gauge of sufficient potency to maximize effect on our badguys. 12, 16, 20 and 28 gauge are all more than potent enough, and even the wee .410 bore is nothing to sneeze at, but for our purposes a 12 or 20 gauge will maximize not only the availability of ammunition but the choice of loads to suit the task. If you should already have some other gauge, you can certainly rely on it if you have something other than birdshot to stoke it with (more on that later).
The size of a shotgun intended for in-home defense is important if there is any chance you will not be able to simply defend in place in your bedroom. Maneuvering any shotgun with barrels longer than 20” or so through confined spaces is tricky work, and even 20” is definitely pushing it.
Shorter is better for maneuverability, even if that short barrel comes at the expense of a shell or two of capacity. A hunting gun with a long 22”, 24” or 28” pipe will be almost impossible to negotiate around corners efficiently while keeping it safe from a grab attempt. Luckily, most shotguns’ barrels can be easily swapped if a shorter version is available.
Which Action is Best for My Needs?
All of the following assumes you have a choice, or can purchase the shotgun you desire. If all you have is an old, trusty side-by-side, then that’s your best choice. If you do have a selection of guns or are willing to buy what you want, I would strongly urge you to look at a semi-auto or pump action shotgun, as these guns have the most advantages for the most people.
Nonetheless, all action types have their perks and flaws, which I will broadly categorize below in my order of preference, from most desirable to least. Note that my situation and preferences are the result of my training, experience and expertise derived from teaching civilians on use and operation of shotguns for self-defense. Your specific needs, or the needs of a loved one, may be different. At any rate, keep my advice in mind as it will likely keep you from making a bad mistake on selection.
Semi-automatic, or autoloading- Minimal recoil, simple to shoot and easy to shoot well. All great attributes in a defensive shotgun. Modest capacity of 3-8 rounds. Still slow to fully load (if tube fed) or hard to manage spare ammo for (if box mag fed). Quality options will be more expensive than comparable choices in a pump action. The most ammunition sensitive by far, many examples may struggle with anything less than full-power, high brass loads.
If you can afford a reliable one, a very formidable defensive tool, and a fair choice for a novice or less experienced shooter on since it need not be manually cycled.
Pump-Action- Generally reliable, adaptable and versatile. Fine choice for defense and can be shot quickly with practice. Very insensitive to most ammo so long as it is of halfway decent quality. User can also induce malfunction from weak or short cycling of action, which can be difficult or time-consuming to clear. Capacity anywhere from 3-8 rounds, though larger capacities and detachable mag versions becoming more common. Recoil is stout compared to semi-auto.
Good news is high-quality pumps are cheap compared to other actions and if you buy used you can get a great buy on a high-end gun.
Break-Action- Possessed of 1, 2 or very rarely 3 or more barrels. Double barrel guns arranged in over-under or side-by-side configuration. Simple manual of arms, and very easy to load and fire for those with minimal training. Often has more perceived recoil than pump or semi due to typically light weight and slender stocks. Low capacity may be an issue, and many variations on ejector/extractor arrangement will require some practice to speed up reloads.
Depending on make and grade of gun, can be very cheap field guns to fantastically expensive hunting or sporting masterpieces. Not my first choice, but a break-action shotgun is still a formidable weapon.
There are a couple other actions; bolt- and lever-action. Bolt-action shotguns are very rare, and typically round with rifled barrels for slug use, intended to be employed as long-range hunting shotguns when rifles are regulated by season or forbidden. Lever-action shotguns operate much the same as lever-action rifles, and are similar to pump actions as far as perks and flaws. That being said, lever-action shotguns are antiquated and even modern production guns are all replicas of older designs. Not the best option for defense, but can work in a pinch.
What Load Should I Use for Defense?
Oh, the great debate. You’ll get as many recommendations as there are people, each with their reasons why their chosen load is “the best.” Fact is, there is no “best” load for a shotgun, even for defense. There are definitely some very poor choices, which I will detail below, but each loading has its own advantages and disadvantages in a defensive context. It helps to consider what we need our ammo to do in order to be effective against a human attacker.
Generally, we want a significant amount of penetration, no less than 10-12”. Any less than that and we have no guarantee of hitting vital anatomical targets in the body (you don’t have any guarantees anyway, but I digress). Add in to account heavy clothing and perhaps interference from a limb or a quartering shot and you need to go even deeper to overcome additional obstructions.
Additionally, the size of the permanent wound channel, or total crushed tissue, is an important element in determining effectiveness. More crushed tissue causes more blood loss, and more blood loss is good so long it is the badguy shedding it.
These two factors eliminate birdshot as a viable option for defense. While dangerous, birdshot does not penetrate deeply enough anywhere close to reliably enough to cause significant wounding, and its tiny size, even with all pellets in totality, means blood loss will be less severe than larger pellets. While it will cause serious and horrific-looking superficial wounds, it is a poor choice for home defense.
Your best choices for home defense will be buckshot of some size, which ensures greater hit probability and positively dreadful damage to the target, or some type of reduced recoil slug. Buckshot in either 0, 00, No.1 or No.4 sizes is a fine defensive load, as are reduced recoil Brenneke and Foster slugs. Take care with either, as their adequate penetration in humans also means they will certainly penetrate drywall and other material in the home and as with any gun can pose a substantial hazard to other people in the house.
Best of the Best Shotguns
The following is a shortlist of the best all around defensive shotguns money can buy. Some may not be the newest, or even the most expensive, but they are all reliable, hard-running and good shooting scatterguns.
Best All Around –Beretta 1301
Beretta has long been synonymous with elegant sporting shotguns made with old-world dedication to the fine details. Less known till lately is that they have also made a variety of extremely refined and reliable tactical shotguns.
The latest in this line of “combat” shotguns is their Model 1301, a gas operated semi-auto that is light, reliable and fast cycling. It comes out of the box with great sights and control placement, and unlike so many other semi-auto shotguns the aftermarket has responded with an array of add-ons and accessories to suit any task.
While an excellent gun made even better by a modest price for a semi from a top-tier manufacturer, the 1301 suffers from one weak point: the factory shell release is exposed and vulnerable to being inadvertently activated, releasing shells into the action when the gun is otherwise ready to fire, causing a hideous traffic-jam inside the receiver. Not something you want to deal with when dealing with a bump in the night!
Luckily inexpensive aftermarket parts can enshroud the latch with a protective fence to stop the issue from occurring. With that one small design flaw out of the way, the 1301 is a quickly becoming the favorite for hard-use semi-auto shotgun fans.
Best if Cost is No Object – Benelli M4
The commercial version of the U.S. military’s M1014 combat shotgun, the M4 is one of the most rugged and reliable semi-auto scatterguns to be had on the market today. Utilizing a simple and ingenious self-regulating gas operation the M4 will cycle most loads without any hitch or even user adjustment. Only very light loads will typically fail to cycle the bolt.
Incredibly robust and durable, the M4 is famous for its insensitivity to abuse and neglect, making it a perfect long-term primary shotgun if self-defense is your biggest concern. It is able to handle a constant diet of full-power loads with no problems or egregious wear and tear.
If the M4 has a weakness, it is the price tag: With an MSRP of about $1800 dollars and a street price between $1500-1600, the M4 is a huge chunk of change for a shotgun of any kind. Considering the limitations that shotguns bring to the table, many a prospective purchaser has wondered if they are better off spending that kind of cash on a rifle or carbine and a nice optic.
Nonetheless, if you want to pinnacle of reliable semi-auto shotguns, and can afford its hefty cost, the Benelli M4 is tough to top.
Best for No-Frills Reliability – Mossberg 590A1
Another military model available for civilian purchase, Mossberg’s 590A1 is a heavy barreled beast, but boasts supremely rugged construction in place of refinement. This does nothing to lessen its utility and suitability as a defensive arm, however, and the 590A1 comes ready to party with an easy to use ambidextrous safety and extended magazine tube that brings the capacity up to 8 rounds.
It is heavy, and the action is not the smoothest, though that will matter little when running the gun hard and fast. The 590’s pump action will cycle nearly any 12 gauge shell you can stuff into the magazine tube, from light training or less-lethal loads to stout slugs or buckshot.
If you want a modestly priced heavy-duty bruiser that will shrug off harsh handling and inclement conditions alike, the 590A1 is your best choice. Brand new this brawler will only set you back about $600.
Best for Customization – Remington 870
Is there a more ubiquitous gun than the legendary Remington 870? No, by any measure. Big Green’s classic scattergun has been produced by the millions, in dozens of variants. It is rightly loved for its reliability and smooth-action, but also adored for the sheer number of factory and aftermarket parts available for it.
No matter what kind of gadget, accessory or add-on you may be seeking, the 870 will likely accommodate you, from the sublime to the crazy. Want an enhanced forend with rails or integrated light? Can do. How about a double-decker shell caddy and sight rail unit? No problem. Want a magazine fed, standoff equipped gun with a folding stock for ballistic breaching? Got you covered friend, stand clear!
An 870, any 870, is only a starting point for its user. While a fine gun out of the box and bone-stock, the 870 really starts to shine once you add and refine it to suit your tastes and shooting style. Models can be has used for as little as $200 or brand new between $375 and $500.
Best Budget Gun – Winchester 1300
The Winchester 1200 and 1300, while pretty nice guns in their own right, were only ever 3rd place contenders against Mossberg and Remington’s pump offerings. The 1300 in particular has all the hallmarks of a good defensive shotgun, being reliable, rugged and possessed of a very slick and quick action easily identified by its large rotating bolt head. This makes 1300’s something of a sleeper choice among shotgun aficionados.
Regrettably, the 1300 is no longer in production, but can be found in surprising quantities used at both gun and pawnshops for very low prices. The Winchester of yesteryear produced pump actions of inarguably better quality than their SXP offering of today, and it is worth seeking one out, especially if you are on a budget.
While you will not find nearly as many accessories or options for the 1300 as you will other pump actions, replacement parts are still widely found from multiple vendors, easing a common concern of upkeep among users of discontinued guns.
If you are content with a no-frills design and don’t mind a little hunt to track one down, the 1300 makes a great budget choice.
The venerable shotgun is still as valid a choice today as it was a hundred years ago. Loaded with the right ammo, and carried by a practiced user, “the gauge” is a formidable weapon in the hands of any citizen, and a downright terror to any home invader. Take the lessons learned from this article and seek out a shotgun that is right for you.