In this installment of our continuing tests of personal-defense loadings, we had to don our thinking caps. Shotgun shells are far different in performance than a handgun cartridge or rifle round. The standards are different as there is no X ring or group to measure. The density of the pattern is the primary consideration. Measuring the effectiveness of buckshot is simple as regards measuring a pattern, but a buck-and-ball load would be another matter. Slugs are another area of concern.Recoil is an important consideration as well. In the past, the primary problem with shotguns for personal defense was recoil. Even big burly police officers reached their limit quickly with full-power buckshot loads. The solution for many was to engage in tactical training with birdshot loads and deploy buckshot for duty after a modest familiarization. This was not the ideal program. Then came the reduced-recoil buckshot loads. By reducing the payload from nine to eight buckshot balls (in some cases) and reducing velocity by several hundred feet per second, a buckshot load that was both effective and controllable was invented. These loads are controllable, and as a bonus, usually produce a dense and effective pattern at close range. They are intended for use at ranges inside 15 yards. The full-power or even stronger Magnum shotgun shell loads are intended for tackling deer-size game out to 50 yards or so - a very different scenario than home defense. The homeowner in search of an effective shotgun load for his personal-defense shotgun does not need this type of power. They need a load that is about as powerful at 7 yards as the Magnum loads are at 50 yards. Citizens are better served with a dense pattern and moderate velocity at close range. Public safety is served with less penetration.A relatively dense pattern is desirable for effect on the target. However, there are trainers who tell us that the greatest advantage of the shotgun is seen at about 15 yards. At this range the pattern has spread to the point that you are more likely to get a hit without a perfect sight picture. If five or six of the pellets strike the target, you will probably have a stopping shot. Experienced trainers commonly refer to the different viable shotgun ranges as A, B, and C range. A range is the distance at which the shotgun must be aimed as carefully as a rifle. B range is the range at which the shotguns spread is most profitable. C range is the range at which the pattern is so broad it is no longer useful. C range is usually 20 yards with an open choke shotgun. C range is slug range.There was some discussion concerning the selection of the loads to be tested. We left much of the testing to the primary rater by dint of his extensive law enforcement experience. We noted that while these loads are reduced-recoil and lower velocity than full-power buckshot loads, they are no lightweights. These loads produce respectable power. We tested one full-power buckshot load, as an example, and the total package gave an energy count lower than some of the personal defense loads tested. Even the least powerful 12-gauge load tested exhibited about 1200 pounds of energy. This is about three times the energy of the standard handgun loads we have tested. No wonder the shotgun has such a reputation for effect! The raters agree that the 12 gauge is by far the superior option. No other gauge offers the versatility and effect of the 12 gauge.The test team leader remarked that buckshot is misunderstood. The pattern has advantages in more than one dimension. Few shooters realize that buckshot travels in a string. We see only one dimension in the target. As an example, if the target is moving, part of the string may miss, but the target may run right into the latter part of the string. It takes a lot of shooting to get a good handle on buckshot performance. Once you do, you will have a great respect for the performance of buckshot. You will also understand the limitations of range.We included one "Law Enforcement Only" load for comparison and really had only a few shells on hand. As far as the LE-only loads, most are available through one distributor or the other or at gun shows. When comparing LEO loads to standard fare, our conclusion was that there is no need to haunt the gun shows and pay through the nose for LEO shotgun shells. The readily available personal defense loads do at least as good a job, as you will see in the comparison tables. Some may even be the same load under a different label. The test shotguns were three Remington 870 shotguns and one H & R Pardner-type defensive shotgun, basically a copy of the 870 with a humpback. The barrels were 18 inches long with rifle sights and open choke. While shotguns are often individualistic with patterning, there wasnt a nickels worth of difference between these, as our raters noted. We fired the shells and rated the apparent recoil of each. We noted whether they struck to the point of aim and noted if the pattern was centered on the front post or front bead.Recoil was treated subjectively. Since these loads are designed to be used by anyone interested in personal defense, we enlisted two interested shooters. These fine young women were invaluable raters. One is a Criminal Justice Major and the other is a young soldier. Their perspective on the differences in recoil was keener than those of battered old cops that have fired a few thousand 12 gauge shells in their day. We fired the shotguns at 7 yards, the generally-agreed upon range that personal-defense engagement most often occurs. The old rule that a pattern spreads 1 inch per yard is probably applicable to these loads. Just the same, a 21-foot gun battle inside the home would be rare. Most battles would be closer. The 7-yard distance was chosen to give a good impression of the pattern to be expected.Heres how our load selections performed.