Self-defense shotgun shell selection guide & FAQ
Last Updated :: 8/21/2011 3:49:19 PM EST
Defensive Shotgun Ammo - Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

The purpose of this FAQ is to discuss the questions that frequently come up in regards to the defensive use of the shotgun. We will not discuss the best loads for hunting, clays, or other sporting uses, but instead will specifically talk about defensive loads, and even more specifically, loads for home defense.

What is the best defensive ammo?

When considering the defensive use of the shotgun, we want ammunition that will reach the FBI minimum of 12 inches of penetration. This minimum is explained in this section (http://ammo.ar15.com/project/Self_Defense_Ammo_FAQ/index.htm).

The only shotgun ammunition that will consistently reach the FBI minimum of 12 inches penetration is buckshot or slugs.

What is the difference between birdshot and buckshot?

The only difference is in the size and weight of the pellets.

Shot sizes are listed here:

Numbers 9, 8, 7 ½, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, B, and BB are the most common sizes of birdshot, with the larger numbers representing the smallest sized birdshot.

Buckshot comes in sizes #4, 3, 2, 1, 0, 00, and 000 buckshot. Number 4 buck is the smallest, and each size is larger as we go up the list.

0 buck is called "Ought buck", 00 is called "Double ought buck, and 000 is called "Triple ought buck".

Simply put, #4 buckshot and larger is called buckshot. Any pellet size smaller than #4 buckshot is called birdshot.

There is sometimes some confusion, as there are both #4, 3, 2, and 1 birdshot, and #4, 3, 2, and 1 buckshot. But they are not the same, as the buckshot are much larger.

Doesn't buckshot over-penetrate, and doesn't it penetrate too many walls?

Any ammunition that will reach the FBI minimum of 12 inches penetration in ballistic gelatin (and in bad guys), will also penetrate several interior walls in a home. See here: (http://www.theboxotruth.com/docs/bot14.htm)

Until someone invents a phaser, like on Star Trek, any ammunition that will effectively Stop a bad guy, will also penetrate several walls.

Shouldn't we use birdshot, so that it doesn't penetrate several walls?

No, because no birdshot load will reach the required penetration to reach vital organs or the central nervous system. Birdshot makes shallow and gruesome wounds, but it has been shown to be a very poor Stopper.

"Might" birdshot work as a defensive load?

Sure, it "might" and sometimes has worked just fine. But why take the chance with "might work", when "will work" is available? Buckshot is readily available, so why not use the "best" available load?

Would larger birdshot penetrate better than smaller birdshot?

Yes, it will. Penetration is a factor of the mass of each individual pellet, and the larger the individual pellet, the greater the penetration, if the velocity is the same. So, #6 birdshot will penetrate more than #9 birdshot, and so on. But no birdshot will reach the 12 inches of penetration required to be effective.

Wouldn't a load of birdshot "act like" a slug at close range?

No, it will not. For instance, each pellet of #6 shot weighs approximately 1.8 grains. If there are 333 #6 pellets in a shotgun shell, the total weight of the birdshot is 600 grains.

Some folks have mistakenly said, "A load of #6 is like getting shot with a solid piece of lead weighing 600 grains".

But this is not the case. This is because that 600 grain load is composed of 333 individual #6 sized shot, each weighing 1.8 grains. And the penetration of the shot is dependant on the weight of "each pellet", not the total weight. And a 1.8 grain pellet will not penetrate very far into ballistic gelatin or a bad guy.

What about "exotic" shotgun loads?

Loads such as fletchette rounds, wired-buckshot, and other exotic rounds have been tested and they failed to reach the required penetration, or were not an improvement on lead buckshot. They also tend to be very expensive, and do not improve on lead buckshot.

What is the best buckshot for defense?

The best buckshot is #1 buck. This is based upon the number of shot in a shell and the total frontal area impacted by that load. See the http://ammo.ar15.com/project/Self_Defense_Ammo_FAQ/index.htm, and look all the way to the bottom, where this is explained in detail.

What if I can't find #1 buckshot, what is the next best load?

#1 buckshot is sometimes difficult to find, but 00 buckshot is almost as good and is readily available and produced by many manufacturers. Therefore, 00 buckshot is usually the recommended load for defense.

However, as noted by DocGKR, "Pretty much any buckshot from 1 to 000 works just fine––figure out what works best in your weapon, purchase enough for practice and field/duty use, get extensive shotgun training from a good instructor, then stop worrying about specific loads, as it just doesn't matter that much."

UPDATE 8/20/2011: Federal has just released a #1 buck load that has been specifically designed for self-defense scenarios. According to DocGKR, this new Federal LE132-1B #1 buckshot load offers IDEAL terminal performance for LE and self-defense use and is the best option for those who need to use shot shells for such purposes.

Why not use slugs for home defense?

Slugs are very effective rounds in a shotgun, but for home defense, they have the problem of being great over-penetrators. They will go completely through a bad guy and still have enough energy to do damage on the other side of him. They penetrate more than is needed to be effective Stoppers. Buckshot is a better load for home defense.

What is the effective range of buckshot?

Buckshot is effective from the muzzle to around 40 yards. It can be effective further, but most loads will have problems with the pattern opening up too much past that range, and many of the buckshot will miss the target. Since we are responsible for every projectile that goes down range, we do not want any of the buckshot to miss the target. Tighter patterns are desirable.

What is the effective range of slugs?

Slugs can increase the effective range of a shotgun to around 80 to 100 yards. If a scope is used, they can be effectively accurate at even longer ranges.

Sabot slugs (pronounced say-bow) are slugs designed to be used with rifled shotgun barrels and can extend the range even farther.

Do I want large or tight patterns with buckshot?

Tight patterns are desired because we want all of the buckshot to impact the target. And projectiles that miss the target will continue down range, and will cause us to violate Firearms Safety Rule #4 - Be sure of your target and what lies beyond it.

Isn't a wide pattern an "advantage" of using a shotgun?

No, it is not. It is a definite advantage when hunting and wing-shooting birds with birdshot. But when used for home defense, we do not want any projectiles to miss the target, and this requires tight patterns. Buckshot does not "act like one slug". Therefore, even if the pattern is tight, the individual buckshot will each create its own wound channel when it impacts the target.