Today, in the personal protection and self-defense environment, our thoughts automatically turn to the handgun to meet our requirements. Unfortunately, the attention given to the handgun is mostly due to the all the hype given to concealed carry. It’s true, the handgun is small, light, easy to transport, and easy to conceal. But, from a pure tactical standpoint, the handgun is a poor choice for a firearm in a self-defense situation. A very poor choice indeed when there are other more serious firearms available. The 12 gauge shotgun, used within the ranges it was intended to be employed, is a much better choice than the handgun. Most of the handguns bought for personal protection will generate around 400 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle. A 12 gauge shotgun will generate about 2,000 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle. It doesn’t take a mathematician with a calculator to figure out the shotgun generates five times more muzzle energy than a self-defense handgun. The 12 gauge shotgun has proven itself over the years. It has been used extensively by police, the military and sportsman alike. Of the firearms available, the shotgun is truly the most versatile. There are more different rounds available for this firearm than any other. From the smallest size shot to the single projectile slugs, the shotgun can be used for a variety of tasks, including personal and home protection. Buckshot And Its Impact Shot is a sphere. Depending on its size and weight, we can either get a lot of shot into a shotshell or only a few. We will concern ourselves with the larger sizes of shot, known as buckshot. The largest, heaviest and hardest-hitting buckshot is 000, while the smallest, lightest and least powerful is #4 buckshot. As long as anyone can remember, 00 buckshot has been the mainstay of the police and the military when the shotgun was to be deployed against human targets. Why 00 was chosen is not exactly clear to us. However, several police departments have replaced the 00 with #4 buckshot. Evidently, they prescribe to the “more is better” concept. There isn’t one particular buckshot load that is right for everything. We can defend or attack any given load and have convincing reasons for our position. The Myth We often hear someone say, “I use a 12 gauge shotgun for home defense because this scattergun will fill the whole room full of lead. All I have to do is point it in the general direction and fire.” The Truth The effectiveness of the shotgun is not determined by how quickly the shot pattern spreads. It is determined by how long the shot pattern stays together. If only one, or a few, of those 50-grain 00 pellets hit the target, the total effectiveness of the shotgun is not realized. In fact, one 50-grain lead pellet hitting the target is pretty sorry in terms of energy delivered. Additionally, the pellet(s) that didn’t hit the target will hit something else. Not a good thing in terms of liability or safety. The general rule is: shot will spread about 1 inch per yard of travel after it exits a shotgun’s muzzle. Using this rule, if the target is 7 yards (21 feet) away from us, we can expect a 7-inch shot pattern. This is not exactly what we would call filling the room with lead. Keeping this rule of thumb in mind, consider this: most silhouette targets represent a torso that is 18 inches wide by 30 inches high (some are even larger). We think those dimensions are very generous. Get a 12-inch ruler and hold it across the widest part of your chest. As a practical matter, the vital areas are more like 8 to 10 inches wide. That is only if you are presented with a full frontal target. If the side of the target is facing you, there is even less area. Get a standard 8 1/2-inch by 11-inch piece of typing paper and hold it up to your chest. Or, the alternative, over your face. Now, you are starting to get a true picture of the size of the area that needs to be hit. Not hit with some of the buckshot, but hit with all of the buckshot. So, for the shotgun to be the most effective, the shot pattern should spread no more than is necessary to cover a piece of typing paper at any distance we intend to engage a target. Now, having said that, we can control (to some extent) the pattern of the shot by the use of a choke. A choke is simply a constriction at the end of a shotgun’s barrel that the shot must pass through before it leaves the barrel. The Test For this test, we were interested in finding out how different chokes would affect the spread of buckshot. We bought a selection of 000, 00, 0, #1 buck, and #4 buck for this evaluation. Federal, Winchester and Remington ammunition was used because you can walk into almost any gun shop and buy it off the shelf. And, we wanted to see if there were any differences from brand to brand. Two Remington Model 1100 semiautomatic shotguns were used. One had a 20-inch barrel and a cylinder bore. The cylinder bore is free of constriction, providing the largest spread, and is most commonly found in defensive shotguns. The other had a 21-inch barrel and a fixed, modified choke. Although not the most constrictive choke, the modified choke is about halfway between a cylinder bore and a full choke. We fired each of the shotguns with each of the loads tested at 3, 7, 15 and 25 yards. We examined each target and measured the outside-to-outside spread of the shot pattern at each distance. We disassembled each load and then counted, weighed and measured the pellets and noted whether a plastic shot cup or a wad was used. A Midway dial caliper was used to measure the diameter of pellets. A Dillon D-Terminator was used to weigh the pellets. Some pellets in the same shotshell were considerably smaller, while others were considerably larger. So, the average sizes and weighs of the pellets in each load are listed in Table I (see below). Then, using the published velocities from each of the manufacturers, we calculated the muzzle energy of each load based on the actual, total weight of the shot. We also calculated the muzzle energy of one pellet. Our Findings Referring to Table I, we found that the average diameters of the pellets in all of the loads were very close to the published calibers of the manufacturers. The pellet count was exactly as represented by all the manufacturers. What was impressive to us was weighing the entire load of shot and then mathematically figuring the muzzle energy. The muzzle energy created by one pellet was a real eye-opener. If only one or two pellets hit the target, the energy levels were pretty anemic. But, the muzzle energies were very impressive with all of the pellets in each of the loads. The Federal Tactical 00 is a reduced velocity load, hence the reason for the reduced energy. Referring to Table II, we found that all of the loads made a single hole in the 2-inch to 3-inch range at 3 yards. There had been almost no spread of the buckshot with either of the chokes. At 7 yards, the shot was starting to open, but just a little. Only one load, the Federal OOO from the modified choke, spread to 7 inches. So much for the general rule of thumb we mentioned earlier. Most of the loads printed in the 4-inch range. At 15 yards, we saw the shot starting to spread and noted a difference between the cylinder bore and the modified choke, but just slightly. We also noticed that the modified choke did not always hold a tighter pattern — go figure. At this distance, only 42 percent of the ammunition we tested, from either gun, delivered a pattern of 10 inches or less. At 25 yards, the only load and choke that held our 10-inch criteria was the Federal Tactical OO, at 9 inches from the modified choke gun. But, several of the loads and chokes printed some very respectable patterns. Remember, this is 25 yards, which is an unusually long distance for defensive work. Conclusions This was not a penetration test. It was a test to determine what loads would deliver a 10-inch pattern at a given distance from a specific choke. We found that from contact distances to 3 yards there is no difference between the loads or the chokes. At 7 yards (21 feet), the smallest pattern was a ragged 2.5 inches and the largest pattern was 7 inches. This tells us that inside the house you are still going to have to have a well-placed, well-sighted shot, or missing the target altogether is a genuine possibility. So much for pointing a shotgun in the general direction and filling the room with buckshot. Out to 7 yards, it really doesn’t make much difference what load is used. The shot hasn’t spread enough to matter. But, if you need maximum penetration at greater distance, the heavier buckshot (OOO, OO, O) is the order of the day. Remember, at nominal distances against soft targets, it is more important to deliver all of the pellets to the target rather than only a few. That is the only way to maximize the effectiveness and limit the liability of the shotgun. Anyone using a shotgun for personal protection needs to do with his gun exactly what we did with ours. Get several different brands and loads of buckshot and head for the range. Determine for yourself exactly what your shotgun (with a specific choke) will do at 3, 7, 15 and 25 yards. Then, using your results, select the load that is best suited to your individual needs.