Author’s favorite shotgun is an old, well-worn Remington 870 set up with good sights and a 12″ length-of-pull Hogue stock that fits her perfectly.
Pump or Autoloader?
In the sporting world, double-barreled shotguns are often favored, but their ammunition capacity is too limited for defensive use. The choice between a pump and semi-automatic shotgun is similar to choosing between a semi-automatic pistol and a single-action revolver. The semi-auto shotgun employs some of the gas created by firing the shell to automatically eject the empty case and chamber fresh ammunition after each shot; the pump requires the shooter to pull the forend back to eject the empty shell, then pump it forward to recharge the chamber.
Racking the pump gun’s action to eject the empty shell and chamber another round, the shooter manually controls the supply of ammunition. On a smoothly finished pump shotgun this operation can become as automatic as shifting a manual transmission: you learn to do it almost without thinking.
Ghost ring shotgun sights
The great advantage of manual operation is the gun’s ability to cycle the variety of powder charges as found in different brands and kinds of ammunition. A number of semi-automatic shotguns will not cycle low-powered bird shot, an inexpensive choice students favor for training.
The pump shotguns just don’t care, since they need not harness the gases or the recoil-impulse generated when the shell is fired to operate the gun. A pump-action shotgun can be forced to cycle a greater variety of ammunition and can operate when dirty or unlubricated, since the shooter does all the work.
On the down side, the pump-action shotgun may produce more felt recoil than a semi-automatic shotgun of the same gauge. Most semi-automatic shotguns use the gases produced during the firing cycle, channeling gas through small holes in the barrel assembly to cycle the action. As a generalization, an autoloader recoils slightly less than a pump shotgun.
There are, however, two types of semi-auto shotguns, and one does not bleed off any of these gases. Typified by Benelli and Beretta brands, some semi-auto shotguns cycle the action using the recoil impulse or the energy from the rearward thrust of the burning gases. A recoil- or impulse-operated shotgun will hit just as hard as a pump shotgun.
Spending More Money
Nomenclature for common defense shotguns.
There are several modifications made by custom gunsmiths that can tame the shotgun’s recoil. A barrel modification called backboring reduces felt recoil by redistributing the gases created by the burning powder, and as a side benefit it rearranges the pellets into a tighter shot group that does not spread as widely in flight to the target.
Best in the business for this after-market modification is Hans Vang, who developed the Vang Comp System and has worked his magic on both my “working” and competition shotguns.
Major modifications aside, a competent gunsmith can do much to simply “slick up” the operation of your shotgun. On the pump gun, this means smoothing away any rough places on the action bars and related working parts. Some of the same effect can be accomplished by pumping the action thousands of times, which could be accomplished practicing dry fire.
Extensive dry fire isn’t recommended for shotguns, however, as it is feared that the long firing pin may crack from vibrations that run through the metal during dry fire. If your manual shotgun cycles roughly, however, you can do everything but pull the trigger, racking the action repeatedly until the parts wear themselves into a smoother fit. The action release lever will have to be used if the trigger is not pulled; otherwise the action will remain locked closed.
Another common after-market modification is shotgun sights. Many shotguns come from the factory with no rear sight whatsoever, just one or two beads on a ventilated rib running along the top of many sporting shotguns.
Slug guns, set up for deer hunting, are the common exception, wearing better buckhorn or pistol style sights but their rifled barrels don’t work for bird shot or buck shot, since the rifling slings the shot toward the edges of a large circle with no shot in the center.
I believe a self-defense shotgun absolutely requires a good set of sights. Variations include a rear notch and front blade that are very like pistol sights; or a ghost ring rear sight that is much like an aperture sight, commonly used with a blade front sight. In my opinion, the Express Sight designed by Ashley Emerson and marketed by XS Sights can’t be beat on the shotgun.
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The latter three are excellent choices for the combat shotgun, although the beads will suffice for those who will simply pursue basic competence with their home-defense shotgun at relatively short distances.
Your skill with your defensive shotgun will be only as good as the practice and training time you put in with your equipment. Good technique is the first step in rendering the shotgun enjoyable for training and informal practice. The second step is setting up the shotgun so it is comfortable. Let’s outline some of the accessories that make a difference.
Before you set out to replace the recoil pad on your shotgun, look at your undies. Metal parts on brassiere straps are downright dangerous beneath the butt of a recoiling shotgun! My favorite cure is the PAST Hidden Comfort Recoil Shield for women, which is secured beneath the bra strap with several Velcro strips. Another cure is to wear a sports bra without any metal, but that won’t offer any recoil protection.
If the recoil really bothers you, consider having a gunsmith fit a Pachmayr Decelerator butt pad on the end of your shotgun. This incredible accessory absorbs and distributes the recoil like nobody’s business–it is well worth the price!