*The Versatile Shotgun*
By: Pace
21 July 2004

Making your preparations for survival can be a costly proposition, even if you are creative and frugal. Firearms in particular can be expensive, with the purchase price of new handguns and centerfire rifles running from about $250 - $600 or more.

Many survival-minded individuals are also firearms enthusiasts, so they always seem to find room in the budget (and safe) for more than enough guns. But not everyone is as focused on firearms, and might be looking for creative ways to stretch their budget in this area. Others may have philosophical difficulties with firearms, or need to take the sensibilities of others - like a spouse - into consideration when equipping themselves for survival and defense. For people facing these hurdles, the lowly shotgun could be a perfect solution.

For almost 300 years, shotguns have served a variety of roles, both military and civilian. Today's shotguns can not only be used for the traditional purpose of bird hunting, but with the right ammo selection, "scatterguns" can be used to take a variety of North American game, and can also be used for both close-quarters and longer-range defensive purposes.


Shotgun myths and misconceptions

Myth #1: shotguns are an area weapon. Many people seem to have the idea that shotguns fire a cloud of pellets, making precise aiming of a shotgun unnecessary. These people also tend to believe that a shotgun can be fired effectively from the hip, as seen in movies. In reality, while one of the benefits of a shotgun is the ability to fire multiple projectiles in a spread pattern, shotgun shells produce fairly tight groups. Load selection, choke type (discussed below) and barrel length are all variables in this equation. But for illustration, real-world tests of popular buckshot loads consistently produce patterns averaging 10" in diameter at 15 yards. These patterns are even smaller in diameter at the closer ranges found in most defensive scenarios.

Myth #2: shotguns aren't lethal weapons. We've all heard stories about shotguns loaded with rock salt, used to drive off kids and hobos jumping boxcars. It's also been widely reported that police agencies have used shotguns loaded with "rubber bullets", "bean bag" or other so-called "non-lethal" rounds in crowd-control or riot-suppression situations. In fact, this is a serious misconception. There is no commercially offered "non-lethal" shotgun load. These loads are properly called "less than lethal". When used correctly, they have less potential to kill or produce serious injury than other types of shotgun ammunition. But many people have been killed by this type of ammunition. Any object fired out of a shotgun, from the smallest birdshot to the highest-tech "soft" crowd-control projectile, has the potential to cause serious injury or death. Shotguns should always be treated with extreme respect, regardless of load.

Myth #3: shotguns are only for backwoodsmen, hillbillies and hunters. Of course, this isn't true. Anyone who has seen the near works-of-art collected and used by sporting clay enthusiasts, or the highly specialized weapons of war carried into battle by elite military units, knows that the shotgun is an incredibly versatile, relevant and useful firearm.


Selecting a shotgun

While there are good arguments for, and proponents of every available shotgun gauge, the most popular and versatile choice is 12 gauge, which has a .729" bore. The range of ammunition selection in 12 gauge is greater than for any other gauge, and 12-gauge shotshells can be purchased almost anywhere. Besides gun shops, many hardware stores, sporting goods stores and discount stores such as WalMart carry 12-gauge shells, even in areas that aren't very gun-friendly.

Action type
Of the two action types, semi-automatic and manual, the simplest, most reliable choice is a manual pump-operated shotgun. While the semi-automatic action does have some advantages, notably speed of repetitive fire and operation while injured (or operation by anyone who might have difficulty racking the pump), the greater cost, complexity and maintenance requirements make a semi-auto shotgun a better choice for a second or third weapon.

Choke and barrel selection
There is a lot of confusion on the topic of choke selection. The more constrictive the choke setup on the gun, the tighter the resulting shot pattern projected, and the greater the effective range of the gun/load combination. But part of the benefit of a shotgun is that it throws a circular pattern of shot, and most shotguns will be employed at relatively short ranges. Selecting a choke pattern that is too constrictive (or tight), will negate some of these advantages at shorter ranges.

If you are looking for an "all-in-one" solution - a shotgun that can do it all - I recommend a non-rifled barrel with an open (also called "cylinder bore") or improved choke. Better yet, an interchangeable choke tube system like Remington's RemChoke will give you the ability to install whatever choke is best for a given application - even a rifled choke for use with certain types of slugs. If you are considering using your shotgun for hunting deer or wild boar, a rifled choke or interchangeable rifled barrel is recommended, to allow use of the most accurate slug rounds. For greatest versatility, avoid a fixed full-choke gun, as commonly offered for turkey hunting. As for barrel length, 18-22" barrels are ideal. Shorter barrels are easier to handle, especially in close-quarters or indoor situations. Longer barrels provide a longer sight radius and greater accuracy at a distance. Unrifled shotgun barrels are easy to shorten, and any competent professional or amateur gunsmith can perform this service.

Makes and models
While Winchester, Mossberg and other manufacturers offer quality weapons, the most popular 12-gauge pump shotgun currently in the marketplace is the Remington 870. The 870 is durable and field-proven, and there are literally millions in circulation, with minimal changes over the years. This results in easy availability of spare parts and gunsmith services, and a broad selection of aftermarket parts and accessories.

The good news is that shotguns that fit the above description are usually the lowest-priced models in any lineup, and the Remington 870 line is no exception. Here is a look at several current Remington models that fit the bill - the same or similar shotguns are readily available on the used market in very good condition, in the $200 - $275 range.

Remington Model 870 Express Synthetic
Gauge Chamber Mag. Capacity Barrel Length Choke Overall Length Avg. Wt.(lbs.) Order No. MSRP
12 3" 4 26" RemChoke 46 1/2" 7 1/4 5589 $329

Remington Model 870 Express Synthetic 18" barrel
Gauge Chamber Mag.
Barrel Length Choke Overall Length Avg. Wt. (lbs.) Order No. MSRP
12 3" 6 18" Cylinder 38 1/2" 7 1/4 25077 $345

Remington Model 870 Express Deer Gun
Gauge Chamber Mag.
Barrel Length Choke Overall Length Avg. Wt. (lbs.) Order No. MSRP*
12 3" 4 20" Improved 40 1/2" 7 1/4 25565 $332


Selecting ammunition

As previously noted, the selection of shotgun ammo, particularly in 12 gauge, is incredibly broad. In an effort to simplify this issue for the shotgun neophyte, here are my recommendations for each role the survival shotgun is likely to play. This isn't to suggest that you won't want or need other types of ammunition, or that other selections aren't valid. But it's very hard to go wrong with these selections.

Defense and security
The value of the shotgun in defense and security applications has been recognized in various forms, from the "coach guns" of the old west, to elite special forces operators of today. Security and defense applications can be divided into two broad categories - indoors/close-quarters (0-25 yds.) and long-range/perimeter (25-100 yds.). These recommendations contemplate bipedal threats, as well as potentially dangerous North American animals - bears, mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, etc.

Indoors or close-quarters applications require an ammunition selection that combines fast stopping power and low risk of overpenetration. While you want to be able to quickly neutralize one or more assailants, you also want to limit penetration of wallboard and other building materials, so as not to injure other occupants of the structure.

Rather than the #00 buckshot load commonly employed by police agencies, #1 buck offers the best combination of stopping power, controlled penetration, and manageable recoil. The key to shotgun load performance in a defense application is combined cross-sectional area, or the total area displaced by all of the pellets contained in the load. Because the slightly smaller #1 pellets more completely fill the available space in the shotshell, #1 is a more efficient load that produces a larger CCA than #00 buck. Consider the following comparison of typical 2-3/4" shells:

Shot size# of pelletsPellet diameterPellet weightCCA
009.3353.8 gr.77 sq inches
116.3040 gr1.13 sq inches

My favorite choice in #1 buckshot is the Federal Power Shok F127 load, which also used to be called the Federal Classic F127. This load is specifically recommended by the International Wound Ballistics Association. Remington and Winchester also offer quality #1 buckshot loads as well.

For engaging targets in the 25-100 yard range, slugs are the ammo of choice. Instead of projecting a pattern of shot pellets, a slug load will give you capabilities approaching that of a rifle; hurtling a 400-grain, .70 caliber hollow-point projectile downrange at a muzzle velocity of more than 1500 FPS. My personal choice is the Federal F127 RS, with a 438 gr. hollow point slug, moving at 1610 FPS. When selecting a slug load for your shotgun, make sure to select the slug type that is appropriate for your barrel. Smooth-bore barrels require a rifled slug. For rifled barrels (aka deer barrels) or rifled chokes, a sabot-type slug is used, and they are generally considered to be more accurate than rifled slugs. Refer to the labeling on the packaging to confirm the slug load is for your type of gun, or ask a knowledgeable person for assistance. When using slug rounds, it is important to familiarize yourself with the ballistic characteristics of the specific load you choose. For example, according to Federal's data, the F127 RS round drops about 4" at 100 yds, assuming a 50-yard zero. Just like taking a long-range rifle shot, using slugs at or near their effective maximum range requires the shooter to "hold over" the target to compensate for projectile drop.

Every hunter can make a passionate, convincing argument for his or her loads of choice. Each of the major ammo manufacturers makes dozens of shotgun loads for hunting various game in different circumstances, and they all now have web sites with interactive guides to their ammunition products. However, here are some general rules of thumb for selecting a versatile supply of 2-3/4" or 3" shotgun ammo that can be used for collecting food, for either survival or recreation. Note: for recreational hunting purposes, be sure to check prevailing state laws which may limit or specify the type of ammunition and/or weapons that may be used to take various game.

Deer and wild boar (pigs): rifled and sabot slug loads are suitable for taking deer and boar. At shorter ranges, #1, #00 or #000 buckshot are appropriate for deer, and #00 and #00 are marginally acceptable for boar.

Turkey: choose any one of the many turkey-specific loads offered by the major manufacturers. These loads usually combine a mix of #2 - #7 birdshot.

Ducks and geese: most loads sold for this purpose use steel or other non-lead shot, for environmental reasons. These loads usually feature various mixes of #4 - #8 birdshot.

Small birds and animals (squirrel, rabbit, etc.): select loads with #7-1/2 or #8 shot; these loads are commonly labeled for quail and dove or target (trap & skeet) shooting.

Specialty loads

If you've ever picked up a copy of Shotgun News or Gun List, you've probably seen the ads for all the specialty shotgun loads - lock breakers, signal flares, rubber buckshot, "bolo" rounds, flechettes, flame throwing rounds, etc. Most of these are just gimmicks, and are best avoided. Whether you are using your shotgun for direct defensive purposes, or for hunting food, you are staking your survival on this weapon, and these types of unproven loads probably don't have a place in your battery.

Sources: International Wound Ballistics Association (IWBA), Remington Arms Company, Inc., Federal Cartridge

All materials at this site not otherwise credited are Copyright © 1996 - 2004 Trip Williams. All rights reserved. May be reproduced for personal use only. Use of any material contained herein is subject to stated terms or written permission.