My readers know that I am a proponent of shotguns, so long as one understands their limitations and trains to mitigate them. One of the biggest general limitations compared to other types of firearm used for self defense is the simple fact that your average shotgun demands more thought and engagement from the shooter.
Simply put, you have a lot more to consider, practice and do to run an average shotgun well! Do you use shot, slugs or both? Can you transition speedily from one shell type to another if the situation calls on for it, or do you stoke the gun with only one type exclusively and leave it alone? If using shot, how does a particular brand pattern in your gun? Does it shoot to the sights? Have you zeroed your sights for slugs if you are using them? Have you practiced topping off the gun quickly when completely empty, and with a few shells left?
Lots to do and practice if you want to begin your journey along the path to mastery with a scattergun. Sure, you can emphasize lowest common denominator techniques and still emerge victorious in a confrontation, but that rarely an acceptable moral choice when proficiency is what you should strive to attain.
In today’s article, we’ll give you a few pointers and drills to help you do exactly that. With a lot of sweat and a little blood, you’ll be running your shotgun better than you ever have.
You are not here because you are a lowest common denominator shooter: you are here because you have made the choice to take ultimate responsibility for yourself and for others under your charge, and want to constantly grow and improve your skills. If you have chosen a shotgun as your defensive or SHTF readiness gun, you will need to flex your muscles and learn to run it to the best of your ability.
Concerning the manual of arms, you give up a fair bit of simplicity to take advantage of a shotgun’s principal strengths, namely extraordinary effectiveness against flesh and blood targets and a high degree of versatility when using different shells.
This guide will cover primarily tube fed shotguns, both semi-auto and pump action guns. If you use a detachable magazine fed gun, or break action gun, you’ll need to adapt your loading and unloading procedures a little bit to make some drills and techniques work. Any shooting drills will obviously be the same.
Also keep in mind that some more advanced procedures may vary in their exact steps due to differences in action among shotguns. For instance, Some Ithaca shotguns eject through the bottom of the receiver through the same opening you feed the magazine tube. Thusly you will not be loading the chamber directly through there with the bolt to the rear! You’d need to simply load the magazine tube as normal, quickly chamber a round, then resume loading the tube to fill the gun up.
I will address the differences for the most common actions where applicable, but I am not trying to cover all makes and models of shotgun. Luckily many of them are quite similar.
In the next section, I will cover a few tips, tricks and expert bits of wisdom you should make use of to step up your scattergun skills. After that we’ll dive right into the drills.
Tips, Tricks and Advice
- Most shotguns are not drop safe. I do not advise you keep a defensive shotgun in place with the chamber loaded unless the gun is kept flat on the floor; the risk of an accidental discharge should the gun be knocked over is too great. Instead, keep the chamber empty and magazine tube filled; you can chamber a round as soon as you lay hands on the gun with little to no loss in speed. (See the section on “cruiser ready” and “cruiser safe” below.)
- Take pains to keep on hand for defense only ammunition you have patterned/zeroed in your Even shotguns among the same batch of the same make and model are individuals, and will almost always show preference or differing results with one brand and type of load over another. This is vitally important with shotguns featuring only bead sights, as you must adjust your holds.
- One of the biggest weaknesses of any shotgun is capacity, with only very long or box fed models holding more than 7 or 8 at most, fully loaded. Make sure you have extra ammo close at hand by utilizing an onboard shotshell carrier. This could be a receiver or stock mounted unit, and some can carry a single or pair of additional rounds on the forend of a semi-auto. This means you can grab the gun even in your underwear and have at least a couple of reloads at your disposal.
- Note: While most any gunfight or shooting you’ll get into as a civilian will be over and decided in 2 to 3 rounds, statistically, you should not count on that for your fight. If you wanted to, you statistically do not need the gun at all.
- Pump shotguns are vulnerable to user-induced malfunctions, meaning the shooter fails to run the pump briskly all the way to the rear then all the way forward with some force behind it. This will result in one of several kinds of malfunction. Make sure you always run a pump briskly!
- Semi-auto shotguns will be more or less ammo finicky depending on the manufacturer and type. Some will only run with full-power loads, or high-brass hulls. Others can run most loads but require gas-system adjustment. Consult your manual for more details before buying a bunch of ammo to try.
Cruiser Ready and Cruiser Safe
As mentioned above, just about the only time you will want your shotgun to have a round in the chamber is when it is in your hands and ready for work. The reason is that shotguns as a rule are not drop safe. Turns out there is plenty of wisdom in the old hunter’s adage that you unload the chamber before setting the gun down to climb a fence, tree or whatever.
If you have your shotgun lying flat on the floor, or ensconced in a rack or something similar where you know it will not be knocked over, that might be an exception. Otherwise, keep that chamber empty! The best way to maintain this status while also keeping the shottie ready to use almost instantly is by keeping the magazine tube full (or nearly full) and the action closed. Your choice comes in whether or not you want the action locked if you are using a pump action, or the bolt ready to receive a shell on a semi.
If you keep the action unlocked, meaning you would simply grip the forend and run it to chamber a round, this is known as “cruiser ready”: loaded magazine, empty chamber, action unlocked. If you keep the action locked, meaning you need to press the forend release/action release (on a pump or semi respectively) and simultaneously run the pump/charging handle to chamber a round, this is known as “cruiser safe”.
Which is best, and what’s with the names? Simply the terms were coined from police work, and the once iconic police shotgun. Being typically mounted in vertical racks or left bouncing around in trunks, it was a bad, bad idea to keep a round chambered in a patrol shotgun for all the reasons mentioned. So instead savvy patrolmen (or hand-wringing liability committee-types) decreed that the guns should remain loaded for ready use, but without rounds in the chamber.
Cruiser ready became the default mode of carry, while cruiser safe was reserved for guns that would be jolting around in the trunks of the patrol car with all the other cop gear. A pump gun in cruiser ready status was vulnerable to having the forend partially cycled to the rear, leading to a shotshell being released on to the elevator and just sort of hanging out in the receiver; not the best status for a sure and reliable load, and so cruiser safe, action locked, was the norm for shotguns kept in cases, trunks and other situations where the gun may be manipulated incidentally by outside forces.
Drills and Skills
This next section will give you plenty to do the next time you are heading to the range, and some of these drills can be performed when doing dry-fire practice, where indicated.
Pattern Shot / Zero Slugs
Not so much a drill as a pre-requisite for skillful and sure employment of your shotgun. The process is simple:
Patterning Shot: Starting at very close range, about 5 yards or so, you’ll set up an approximately man-size silhouette target with a clearly defined aiming point on the center-of-mass. Bench the gun to assure a consistent hold and fire one round. Then retrieve your target, outlining the outermost holes from the pellets with marker. Make a small note by this ring of the range it was fired at.
Now move back another 3 to 5 yards and repeat the process, outlining the perimeter of the new pattern until you notice pellets starting to strike off the silhouette. This will indicate the outer edge of your “safe” engagement range with your chosen load, meaning what distance you can expect pellets to start missing a target in the open even with a perfect shot. Keep pushing the distance back to 25 yards (the “traditional” max effective range of standard buckshot) or even beyond to 35 yards or so (well within the capabilities of flight-control buckshot, tight chokes or improved barrels).
Zeroing Slugs: If you are reasonably sure of your sights, start with the target at 25 yards. Closer if you are unsure. Bench the gun (use a rolled towel or similar between you and the butt; this is going to give you a pounding) and fire at least 2 well-aimed shots. Examine your target and adjust your sights (if possible) accordingly to reconcile your POA/POI. Then fire again and re-check.
Once you look good at 25 yards, move the target back to 35 yards or jump straight back to 50 yards if you are feeling confident and repeat the process until you are zeroed. Now you have a choice: some folks with good sights or optics prefer to zero for slugs at 100 yards, while others prefer a 50 yard zero. The choice is yours, but may boil down to the adjustability of your sighting solution and anticipated use of the gun. Dedicated sluggers will probably prefer a 100 yard zero.
At any rate, once zeroed, start shooting for groups with the same POA at various ranges, near to far, at least out to 100 yards. Note the drop of your chosen slugs, and pay close attention to its accuracy potential. This is important information if you must call on your scattergun to make a low-percentage shot.
Huzzah! Now you are zeroed and have confirmed your patterns!
Shoot and Load Drill
Very simply, the adage among scattergun virtuosos is “if you ain’t shooting it, you’d better be loading it.” This advice stems from one of the shotgun’s universal weaknesses: low capacity. Low capacity plus slow, cumbersome loading of single rounds equals a primary weapon with low endurance in a firefight. To mitigate this, pro shotgunners of all disciplines make it a habit to top off their shotguns immediately after firing as soon as there is an opportunity to do so.
This drill can be performed dry so long as you use dummy rounds, preferably weighted metal snap-caps or exact weight and feel “action proving” dummies. DO NOT PRACTICE LOAD LIVE SHOTSHELLS ANYWHERE BUT AN APPROVED FIRING RANGE.
The drill is performed as follows: As soon as you fire on a target, follow-through and decide your engagement was successful, start reloading the magazine tube, drawing shells from whatever source of ammo you have set up, e.g. belt, side-saddle, stock caddy, vest pouches or loops, etc. Stay in “fight mode” for the duration, load with speed and deliberation. Don’t treat this as down time. The sooner the gun is refilled the sooner you are able to dole out heavy medicine.
A good variation on the drill looks like this:
- Either decide or have a training partner/coach call out a number. This is the number of shells you will fire on a target, and the fire command in this simple drill.
- Fire when the command is heard.
- As soon as you have engaged and assessed your effect on target reload the gun as per above.
- The objective is to keep the gun topped off.
Increase the difficulty by the following means:
- Have your coach decrease the time interval between fire commands.
- Have your coach call out a varying number of shots with each fire command. Try to keep the gun from going empty.
- Attempt the drill on multiple targets, with your coach calling out a target after the number of shots, i.e. “2, Blue” or “3, Yellow.”
Now, that statement above “as soon as there is an opportunity to do so” is an opportunity itself to “what if” scenarios to Hell and back. So we won’t. Be smart: if you don’t shoot the gun dry, don’t immediately come off a baddie you just filled up with shot and start stuffing shells into the tube- he may need seconds. If the gun goes dry, i.e. a “click” instead of a “boom” then either transition to your pistol or immediately conduct an emergency reload. Which brings us to…
Emergency Reload Drill
Shotguns, especially shotguns with very limited capacity of 4 or 5 rounds will be shot dry pretty regularly. Even guns with long tubes will run out when least desirable. To counteract their constant hunger for fresh shells, we practice emergency reloads.
An emergency reload, sometimes called a speed reload, is performed when the gun goes empty, usually indicated by an attempt to fire on an empty chamber. This is often accompanied by a “click” of a hammer falling on an empty chamber in manually operated shotguns and a “dead” or mushy trigger on a semi-auto when the bolt locks to the rear on an empty gun.
Either way, the solution is the same: immediately stoke the chamber with a new shell and then re-engage or continue loading the magazine as appropriate.
This drill at its simplest can be performed with an empty gun, but you’ll get the most value doing it when actually firing live rounds then executing an emergency reload. By default, I like to start with one round in the chamber, then perform the emergency reload. Steps and variation below:
- Upon decision to fire or hearing fire command from coach, engage target.
- Important: Cycle gun if necessary, then attempt to fire again. (We are ingraining this as a reaction, not cutting the corner on the “empty” trigger pull because we know the gun is empty.
- Upon perceiving gun is empty, drop shell into action through ejection port:
- Pump action – Cycle forend all the way to rear, retrieve shell with support hand, drop shell into action, cycle forend forward.
- Semi-auto – Drop shell into action, actuate bolt release.
- Once chamber is reloaded, either:
- Re-engage target with immediate follow-on shot, or…
- Immediately transition to loading magazine tube to fully reload gun.
Some ways to make this drill more challenging:
- Have your coach load your shotgun with an unknown number of rounds. Emergency reload when the gun runs dry.
- Have your coach call out an immediate “threat” command for re-engagement when topping off the gun. This will necessitate you hurry up and load then fire, or drop what you are doing if loading the tube to engage a new target. This will put you under pressure, test your reflexes, gunhandling and ammo management in addition.
Your positioning of the shotgun matters when loading through the ejection port. Some guys like to roll the gun slightly so the ejection port faces up, and then they drop the shell in from above before righting the gun and running the action to chamber the shell. Others like the “under and in” method by which the shotgun is kept in the shoulder and the support hand brings the shell under the receiver, curling up to drop it in through the ejection port. The later technique is sometimes preferred by AK users due to its similarity with one technique for charging that rifle.
Ultimately, the choice is yours. Practice your preferred method until you can do it in the dark. Some advocates of the under-and-in method prefer it because it allows you to keep the gun pointed more or less at a target (at least downrange) while loading the chamber. It is definitely not as sure or fast as the other method, and I will say this: there is no merit in pointing an empty gun at a threat. If you do take the time to keep pointing your empty shotgun at a threat while you reload you may watch the threat shoot you in the meantime.
I strenuously recommend reloading the gun as quickly as possible by any means when it is empty. All other considerations are secondary until the shotgun is ready to fire again.
Select Slug Drill
This is the part where wheels start to pop off. Your shotgun is a multipurpose tool, but is only loaded with a shell for one very specific purpose at a time. Should you be in a situation where the problem calls for the other solution, what shall you do? If you have 00 loaded, but need a slug, is your solution to say “shucks” and take cover? Wait for a guy with a rifle? What? It does not need to be if you have slugs handy.
Obviously, if you have slugs handy, you are ready to ruin someone’s day with a giant lead pumpkin hurtling downrange, but that is not what this drill is for. Before we get into the specific steps, we must first have a word on the philosophy of ammo management for shotguns, which is a treatise and perennial topic of argumentation among shotgunners.
The objective is to get at least one slug, preferably two in case a follow up shot is needed, into the gun. The way you’ll achieve this depends on how you have the gun loaded, and your attitude toward the ammunition already in the gun. A big part of the challenge is keeping slugs handy on your gun, gear or body and segregating them so they do not get mixed in with buck or vice-versa when you need them. Having your slugs’ hulls be a distinct color from your buckshot helps greatly in this matter.
In the case of a fully loaded gun, some shooters may opt to cycle the gun (ejecting the chambered buck and rechambering a second load of buck), load a slug in the tube, chamber it, then load a second slug in the tube ready to fire. In the process, two live buckshot shells are discarded onto the ground to make room for the slugs.
Some shooters opt to keep the magazine tube downloaded by one round in order to have the necessary room for the incoming slug available immediately. Thus you would load the slug into the tube, chamber it, then load one more into the tube. Done, and you only discard one round of buckshot, but your gun is starting one round down.
Other shooters would instead choose to keep the gun fully loaded and employ a compromise between the two techniques to chamber a single round without stripping a shell from the magazine: you begin by cycling the action slightly, just enough to unlock it. Then you reach up through the loading port with the shooting hand to thumb the next shell in the tube forward off the shell stops as you finish cycling the action to the rear. This will eject the chambered round while preserving the rounds in the tube, and is easier or harder than this text suggests depending on your specific action. With the action open to the rear, you drop a slug into the ejection port as with an emergency reload, then close the bolt and fire as normal. Note you will not be able to load an additional slug into the mag tube unless you were already down one shell or more.
Whew. With practice and intricate familiarity with your gun, this takes far less time than you might be anticipating, but it takes a lot of practice to do this fumble free on the clock. For less dedicated or coordinated users, either of the first two methods may be best.
Considering that most of our problems will be handily solved with the ammo on the gun, I place more value on maintain a little flexibility than going whole hog on capacity, so In choose to download my shotguns holding six or more rounds to allow room for the slugs should I need them. So if my shotgun holds seven, I only load six. If it holds eight, I only load seven, etc.
The steps for completing this drill using the “Short-1” method are as follows:
- When deciding or receiving the command to fire on distant target, shooter loads slug into mag tube.
- Unlock action and chamber slug.
- Shooter loads second slug into mag tube.
- Engage distant target with one or two rounds of slug.
As you can see, the process for selecting a slug if your tube is downloaded by one is really simple. I will not worry about the discarded shell of buck at first: if I need a slug, I need a slug! I must solve my problems as they are dealt to me. If I solve my slug-centric problem, I can recollect my dropped round of buck, and I have additional stores of it on the gun anyway.
You can make this drill more challenging a couple of ways:
- Have a strict par time from the signal to “select slug” to the actual command to fire. Ideally you want to engage the target with a pair of slugs, and so this drill will reward you if you react and load smoothly and quickly enough to get two into the shotgun before the command to fire is given. A great drill for building speed and confidence.
- Incorporate this drill into other close range drills with single target at range. Upon receiving the command to select slug, exchange loads and engage the distant target as quickly as you can.
- Make the distant target small to force yourself to confirm all elements of a good shot are in place before firing the slugs; the idea is not to get them in and out as fast as possible- the idea is to get them into the gun then deliver good hits as quickly as possible.
Precision Shot Drill
Remember how I earlier emphasized you needed to know precisely how big your patterns were when using shot? Or knowing exactly where your slugs would shoot to your sights? Believe it or not, you won’t always have a wide open shot on a target in the open. You might have to shoot past an intervening person or obstacle. You might even need to make a very close shot past another human being. This is no time for guess work.
To practice this skill, you can use slugs or buck depending on your objective and setup targets that are small or partially exposed behind a hostage. Then simply engage the targets from a given distance applying hold-off as needed to make the shot or make it without dinging the no-shoot target (note that shotshell wads often leave gaping holes in paper targets, but are not to be treated as hits for purposes of the drill as they inflict minor injury at best by themselves). Shotguns are not thought of as precision instruments, but with the right loads most are more than capable of adequate precision at closer ranges. The weak link in the system is usually the shooter.
This drill is at its most valuable when either executed with a strict par time or when shot on demand in the middle of another course of fire or drill. The need to suddenly zero in, slow down and focus with a shotgun, which is sometimes a more forgiving weapon as far as accuracy is concerned, is tough but very valuable in a real world context where you are utterly liable for every single pellet or slug that leaves the muzzle.
You can put yourself to a real test by making this drill more challenging in one of the following ways.
- Have a coach call out one of several “precision shot targets” each with a different firing solution.
- Decrease the par time for the drill.
With practice, you will develop an innate sense of what shots you can make with confidence, which ones you can “get away with,” and which ones you must not attempt.
Shotguns objectively take require more investment of energy and sweat than other firearms to make the most of their considerable potential. Without practicing the right skills, a shotgun will only ever be a special purpose weapon or a B-list primary arm. But should you choose to put in the work, you will find that, warts and all, a shotgun is a highly capable and formidable primary weapon for home defense or surviving a major societal shakeup event.
Use the tips, advice and drills in this article to reinvigorate your own shotgun practice. Challenge yourself, don’t be afraid to fail or fumble in pursuit of the skills you need to pay the butcher’s bill.
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