Practical Guide To The Tactical Shotgun


Here are the guidelines to purchase an effective tactical shotgun for home and personal defense.

What you need to know about the tactical shotgun:

  • 18-inch barrel is advisable.
  • 12-gauge is the most universally acceptable bore.
  • 20-gauge and .410 are acceptable for certain circumstances.
  • Two rounds are the minimum capacity — 4 and 6 are typical to most pump-actions.
  • Rifle or ghost-ring sights are advisable to add accuracy.
  • Buckshot may have an over-penetration risk.
  • Field shot too can punch through drywall.
  • Shot pattern generally expands 1 inch every yard.
  • 12.5 is the standard free recoil energy for the 12-gauge.
  • “Less-lethal” rounds are inadvisable.

Even though its popularity is being supplanted by the meteoric rise of the AR-15, the tactical shotgun still has a place in self-defense. Really, the shotgun exists outside of the basic self-defense arena, which is dominated by the handgun. Because of its legendary reputation and brute power, the shotgun is more of an offensive weapon. It has been used in warfare since the invention of the powder which powers it, and the military is not usually in a defensive mission.

A tactical shotgun need not be fancy.

The shotgun is also the most versatile weapon out there. While it’s not always the best for every purpose, it can serve nearly every purpose requiring a firearm. For home and property defense, at close to moderate range, it is hard to beat the right type of shotgun. Also, a tactical shotgun may be legally obtained more easily than a handgun (as in Canada or Australia). But before we look at the guns of this type, it is time to dispel some common myths.

Myth #1: The shotgun, or “scatter gun,” is an “alley cleaner.” Fire one shot at a group of people and they all go down. Well, at least in the movies. Shot pellets in most choke configurations spread at a rate of one inch for every yard traveled. Seven yards is the standard assumed distance in interpersonal firearms combat. A seven-inch hole at that range means that you can miss your target or its vitals if you don’t aim. Remember that seven inches is an average for all shotgun barrels and ammo types. Depending on our choke and load, many combinations will shoot even tighter than that.

Myth #2: The shotgun is easy to use and fire. In an old police training film from the late 1960s, the instructor, with his best John Wayne/Clint Eastwood attitude, says, “The shotgun doesn’t need to be aimed. With the shotgun, you can whirl, fire and blow the guy away.” This statement sounds cool, but now brings a laugh from police cadets when they see the tape. The fact is, you can’t go out and buy one of these wonder weapons, load it, and leave it in a corner or close at hand ready to go without practicing with it. The tactical shotgun requires work to master, and it is not for the recoil sensitive, at least in its 12 gauge configuration. You cannot fear or dread this weapon. You have to embrace it and make it an extension of yourself — zen-like but true. If you are using a shotgun for self-defense, you must be able to hit the target you are facing without endangering others.

Myth #3: The shotgun is an infallible “stopping weapon,” guaranteed to take down the largest attacker with ease. Many people think that if you hit the bad guy with a shotgun round, it’s gonna kill him instantly and blow him six feet backwards to boot. Well, no. Remember, your shot pattern may be no more than an inch wide when it hits the intended threatening target and can easily miss the vitals, which would fail to stop a determined opponent. Shotguns can fail to stop the aggressor — it’s happened. This also means that a shotgun hit is not always fatal. Many people survive. Sure, it’s way better than a handgun in a fight, and usually a better choice, it just isn’t guaranteed. Nothing is.

Now that we have dealt with some of the myths, let’s look at some of the facts and discuss which tactial shotguns will work best.

Tactical shotguns can be customized to your needs and applications.

A tactical shotgun can take several forms (there is no hard and fast definition), and also serve as a multi-role tool, especially if one lives on a farm or ranch, where it can serve animal control duties as well. Traditionally a standard hunting shotgun is used for this purpose, such as a Remington 870 Wingmaster, loaded with hunting loads, since the concept of a tactical shotgun is relatively new. While a weapon like this can suffice, there are some better shotgun configurations to work with.


Yes, size does matter, but sometimes the biggest isn’t the best for everyone. A shotgun can be too heavy, kick too much, or penetrate too much. Some people can handle it and some can’t. Also, abilities change over time, for better or worse. That said, let’s talk size.

Like a law enforcement or military shotgun, the tactical shotgun should have a short barrel, 18 inches is the shortest civilian-legal length (outside of shotgun-style firearms, such as the Mossberg 590 Shockwave). The gauge of choice for the tactical shotgun is almost universally the 12 gauge, but other gauges can work as well. For example, in the 1980s I once handled and fired a compact law enforcement version of the old Ithaca Model 37 pump gun (once a major police favorite) in 20 gauge. 

Twenty gauge shotguns for defense (excluding single shots) are something to be considered. The 20 is not a 12, but being on the receiving end of a load of 20 gauge buckshot or slug will certainly ruin your day. There is the added side benefit of being much more user-friendly than a 12 gauge for smaller-framed members of your family. A 20 gauge tactical shotgun is a great idea from the standpoint of maneuverability since, in home defense situations, you may use your shotgun to check the interior of your home.


A short-barrel gun of whatever action type (double, pump or auto) or gauge, allows for increased “swingability” or maneuverability as you move from room to room, clearing an area of threat. It also allows you to maneuver and fire the shotgun one-handed if you need to use your support hand for other duties. The tactical shotgun doesn’t need to be expensive, or even expressly designed for or limited to short barrel home defense configuration. At the time of this writing, the Remington 870 pump can be purchased in the low-priced Express Combo package, which features a 26-inch field barrel with ventilated rib and a 20-inch fully rifled barrel with Remington’s excellent rifle sights, for around $600. Mossberg also markets their excellent 500 Series pump shotgun in the same type of configuration for $464. The barrels can be easily changed in 20 seconds or less.

Remington 870 Express Combo, with 26-inch field and 20-inch rifled barrels.

While the Remington 870 Express package currently comes with a fully rifled 20-inch barrel, I would switch that out for the available smoothbore 20-inch Express Barrel with rifled sights, which gives you the most versatility with slugs, buckshot or field loads. And yes, you can do well for home defense using a shotgun that was originally set up for killing deer or other large animals. It doesn’t have to have the words “tactical shotgun” as part of its name, or a bunch of bells and whistles, to make it valuable for that purpose.

Ammunition Capacity: How much is enough?

While a single-shot shotgun can, like its single-shot muzzleloading ancestors, be used for home defense, your home defense shotgun should be capable of firing two rounds without reloading. In a home defense situation, you will be scared and nervous, you may miss with that first shot or, in the case of a home invasion, have multiple suspects to shoot (or shoot at). Reloading in the middle of a gunfight is something no one relishes. Two rounds are the minimum. Most standard Remington 870s or Mossberg 500s have a magazine capacity of four to six rounds (three and six in box magazine fed versions), which really should be enough. If you want a larger magazine capacity, that’s fine, but realize that the extra weight forward of an extended magazine tube slows down your swing and makes the weapon decidedly muzzle-heavy, as well as just heavy in general. 

Tactical Weaponlights

Do you need a light on your tactical shotgun? Yes and no. No, you don’t really need one if you are only using your shotgun inside your home. If you are also planning on using it for defense on your property then, yes a weaponlight would be a nice addition.

There are several ways of attaching a tactical light which don’t necessarily require the use of a Picatinny rail, commonly found on the AR-15 system, which more and more tactical shotgun manufacturers are starting to add. There is the option of using a light-bearing forend such as the one offered by Surefire. These forend units, which are model-specific for pump or semi-auto, replace the original forend on the weapon and hold the tactical light and operation switches. The switches allow for thumb operation by both right- and left-handed users. There are models available in LED or incandescent bulb systems, with the LED versions far outnumbering incandescent versions. The LED is going to stand up to shotgun recoil much better than any incandescent bulb, and the lumen power is now right up there with the formerly dominant xenon incandescent systems.

Surefire's Dedicated Shotgun Forend provides 600 lumens of illumination.

In addition to dedicated forend mounts, there are universal mounting systems available that can be affixed to the magazine tube to hold your light system of choice. These, however, usually require the use of a light that has an external wire leading to a pressure switch adhered to the forend by Velcro. This wire can catch on things. This may not be the best system available, but it is less expensive than the Surefire system and, since we are talking defense here and not dynamic entry on a SWAT team, the external wire mounting might not be an issue.


For many years, the basic single front bead sight, first seen on hunting weapons, has sufficed for most purposes, both defensive and hunting. For ten years of full-time policing, my department issue shotgun was the blue steel Remington 870 with an 18-inch barrel and single front brass bead sight. Sighting was accomplished by placing that brass bead on top of the receiver and, “voila”, sight picture. Well, a sight picture of sorts. A single bead works okay for ranges of 15 to 20 yards when using buckshot on a full-size silhouette target. But for accurate fire using rifled slugs (and I mean accurate in terms of headshots in a hostage rescue-type situation not normally encountered in self-defense), you are missing out on the precision capability of the weapon when you use a bead-sighted shotgun.

Shotguns can be very accurate with slugs, and shots if you equip them properly and train with them. Remington’s rifle sights mounted on their shotgun are among the best I have used. The front sight is a brass or white bead, and the rear sight has a white triangle in the center of it, below the square notch. The rear is also fully adjustable for elevation. It is a very precise system and has been around for a long time. Call me old fashioned, but I still favor them over the modern ghost ring style.

A tritium front sight, such as this XS Dot, can enhance a tactical shotgun's low-light capabilities, but has limitations.

A rear “ghost ring” with a tritium/white front, such as those from XS sight systems, works very well. However, you don’t really need tritium on the rear sight, you can pick up on the front sight without it. The ghost ring rear sight is simply too close to the eye to have tritium be of value. Everything blurs with it anyway – hence the term “ghost” ring – because it becomes hazy while the front sight remains sharp. That is where the tritium is of value.

XS also makes express rifle-style sights (the same configuration as they use on their pistol sights) for the Remington 870 rifle sight systems. In that system, the rear sight is a shallow “V” shape with a white stripe in the center. To align the sights, you simply set the front white/tritium bead on top of the stripe making a “lollipop,” as I tell new shooters. If I still had that basic 870, those are the sights I would mount on it if I wanted tritium sights. The rear express sight can be had with or without a plain white stripe or a tritium/white stripe.

Ammunition Selection

Load selection for your tactical shotgun will depend on where you reside, or rather, what type of structure you reside in. Interior construction and location may even determine if a shotgun is a viable home and self-defense option. If you live in an apartment with paper thin walls, or even a house or trailer with this type of construction, the shotgun may be totally out of the question due to over-penetration risk.

In interior (not mixed interior/exterior) defense situations, buckshot and slugs are totally out of the question, unless perhaps you are using them in a .410 shotgun. In a shooting we had at my Sheriff’s Office several years ago, the offender, a man of average stature, was shot in the area of the navel square on with a Remington 870 12 gauge pump loaded with Remington Reduced Recoil 8-pellet (yes, eight pellets — it eliminates the one stray pellet normally encountered in 00 buckshot patterns) 00 Buckshot load at a distance of about seven yards. All eight pellets blew through the suspect’s intestines and impacted in the dirt on the other side of him. He stopped his threatening actions but did not die. This means that if you hit an offender square on (facing you) with 00 buckshot, even with a lower velocity reduced recoil load, the pellets can and do punch right out the back, endangering others.


Most criminals are too dense to realize that they face an equal amount of damage, maybe even more, due to shredding effect of all those little pellets from a close range load of AA Trap and Skeet as they do from the 00. However, don’t be misled. These loads can and will punch right through drywall at close range. Remember, they only spread one inch per yard, and at close range, it is a lot like getting hit with a single, solid projectile.

For general home and property defense, where over-penetration is not a major concern, buckshot of various types and sizes is probably the best choice, not only for two-legged predators, but for large four-legged predators at close range as well. Those trap and skeet loads run out of steam pretty fast in terms of effectiveness over distance. Rifled slugs are mostly to be avoided unless you need the longer range and penetration a rifled slug affords, or if you live soemwhere like Alaska, where your four-legged predator problem involves large animals like bear, rather than the coyote of the Midwest.


Let’s discuss shotgun gauges and what shotgun “gauge” actually means. The term gauge is an old form of measurement that is only indirectly related to barrel diameter. Shotgun gauge is actually the number of lead balls, the diameter of a particular bore, that it takes to equal a weight of one pound. Therefore a 12 gauge diameter would take 12 bore diameter lead balls to weigh a pound, a 20 gauge, 20 and so on. The 12 gauge would actually be about .72 caliber. The only exception or anomaly here is the .410 gauge, which is actually a measurement of bore diameter — nominally .410 inch. Actually more like .45, as those of you who own or shoot a Taurus judge know, .45 Colt cartridges and .410 shotshells are interchangeable in the gun without modification, and the .410 is the smallest true shotgun round in common use.

Mossberg chambers their 500 series of pump shotguns in 12, 20 and .410 gauge. For those interior home defense situation where overpenetration is a factor to consider, the .410 gauge loaded with field shot may be just the ticket.

Shell length

Next comes shell length. The most commonly-used shell lengths, regardless of gauge, are 2-1/2 (.410 gauge only) to 2-3/4 (20 and 12 gauges) inches. These shells, depending on powder charge and shot type, are adequate for most any shotgun duties that the particular bore is capable of handling, from clay targets to deer, or larger close-range game when slugs are used. Magnums can be overkill both on the giving and the receiving end in most defensive encounters.

There is a 2-3/4-inch magnum load (same velocity, slightly heavier payload) but it is not commonly encountered. Beyond that is the 3-inch magnum round. A round is generally considered a “magnum” charge for the given gauge when it provides longer range, more power, a heavier payload, and/or, you guessed it, more recoil. For example, the standard 2-1/2-inch 12 gauge shell loaded with 00 Buckshot holds nine pellets. In the 3-inch magnum load, it packs 12 pellets and begins to become unpleasant to shoot. I had to fire some 3-inch magnums for “familiarization” (torture) when I went through police shotgun instructor school many years ago, and, I can tell you, my “fun threshold” was reached and exceeded in short order. Even bigger is the newer 3-1/2 Magnum, which is about the equivalent in power and payload of the old 10 gauge round. Talk about overkill. At one time the 10 gauge enjoyed some law enforcement popularity for specialized, not general, purposes.


Speaking of recoil, here is a chart comparing recoil energy for various 20 and 12 gauge loads and how they compare. For load selection, this may help some of you who are a little overzealous with the “biggest is the best” mindset. Yep, you can handle the big loads for a few shots, but not for long-term practice, and you must practice with the rounds, or their direct equivalent, that you plan on keeping in your weapon.


This is kind of a “beating” chart — it shows what kind of beating you will take based on gun weight and load. To understand foot-pounds, the measure of free recoil energy, we will use this definition: one foot-pound is a unit of work equal to the work done by a force of one pound acting through a distance of one foot in the direction of the force. In other words, one foot-pound is the amount of energy required to move a one-pound object (not including calculations of friction) a distance of one foot. 12.5 foot pounds of energy is the amount of energy required to move a 12.5 pound object one foot and so on.

12.5 has always been given as the standard amount of free recoil energy for the 12 gauge, but, as you can see, when you change gauge, payload and shell length, you boost the amount of foot-pound recoil energy. The other factor involved in felt recoil in this list is the weight of the gun. What is not included in these calculations is action type, which is important, since a gas-operated semi-automatic shotgun (such as the Benelli M4 Tactical Shotgun) has reduced recoil over that of a pump or double in most cases.

Benelli M4 tactical shotgun outfitted with ATI furniture.

Okay then, how much of a thumping do you want to take on the butt end of your defensive weapon system? How much can you take, while still being proficient and not developing a horrible flinch? How effective will your shots be? A 3 or 3-1/2 inch magnum in a six-pound shotgun for home defense in suburbia or Midwest rural areas? No. While traversing or living in grizzly country in Alaska? Sure, no problem, but in my house or on my property — no way. I want my shot to hit the first time, every time. I don’t want stray pellets or slugs endangering others. I don’t want a flinch developing. And maybe most importantly, I want to have fun shooting my guns.

“Less-lethal” rounds?

Even if you buy some of the new rubber pellet or bean bag “less-lethal” 12 gauge rounds, similar to law enforcement less-lethal rounds that are available to civilians, you can still kill or maim someone at close range, especially if you hit them in the head or throat. We now use the term “less-lethal” to describe intermediate weapons in law enforcement rather than “non-lethal” for precisely this reason. People can die due to any type of force being applied to them, so nothing is considered non-lethal in terms of force application.

If you can’t stomach the use of deadly force to preserve your own life, then maybe you can be prepared to use it in order to save your family. But if you feel you couldn’t take a life to save even your own family then you shouldn’t be using a lethal force weapon for defense to begin with. Instead, consider using a civilian C3 Taser or pepper spray.

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Gun Digest Book of Tactical Shotguns.

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