Sunday, December 21, 2008

Shotguns for Home Defense

If you want a defensive weapon to keep in your home, you'd be hard pressed to do better than a 12 gauge shotgun. A psychological stop is as good (maybe better) than a physiological stop, and thanks to Hollywood shotguns have a huge intimidation factor. The sight of that big bore will probably discourage most intruders, if the universally recognizable sound of a shell being chambered hasn't already. How badly does the average burglar want your TV? If you're unlucky enough to be facing an irrational and/or chemically-fueled intruder, an ounce of buckshot is devastating. And shotguns are, for now at least, legal in more places and more politically acceptable than either handguns or "assault" rifles, especially if they're stocked with walnut rather than black plastic. It's a shame, but in our time and place, it's wise to consider things from a potential jury's viewpoint.
Police trade-in shotguns tend to be a good deal. Most show wear on the outside from years of bouncing around in patrol cars, but much less on the inside. They simply aren't fired much. I've lucked into a couple Remington 870 pump-actions. Remington's police shotguns are of higher quality than their civilian counterparts, with no plastic or MIM parts, stronger springs, better finish, and more comprehensive quality control. There are other brands and action types that would be equally serviceable as long as they are totally reliable. Look for an 18- or 20-inch smoothbore barrel (shorter might be better, but thanks to Bill Clinton they aren't legal without a huge tax and an even larger hassle).
Don't get too hung up on accessories. Simple is good. The best thing you can put on any firearm is wear. I had an instructor once say "Bond with your weapon until it wags it's barrel when it sees you coming." Most shooters are over-equipped and under-trained, even though "software" is far more important than "hardware". A shell holder on the butt or the side of the receiver is handy. A simple two-point sling can't hurt. I wish I could find a durable fore-end light at a sane price, but so far no luck. I lost my faith in extended magazines when one from Choate came apart at the threads and all my ammo squirted downrange, followed by the spring. Besides, the clamp that secures them has a tendency to change the point of impact. Avoid the pistol-grip-only shotguns that are unfortunately in vogue. They're difficult to aim, difficult to control, and painful to shoot.

People will tell you that it's more awkward to move around in confined quarters with a long arm than with a pistol. That's somewhat true, although the technique is much easier to learn than is proficiency with a pistol. So either master proper house-clearing skills, or don't do it. As a general rule, it's a bad idea to go looking for in intruder in your home anyway. Need proof? Have your kid hide and go look for him. Even though you know your house intimately, who sees who first? Better to take up a position covering the door that's important, and wait. That gives you all the advantages.

People will also tell you to use birdshot to prevent overpenetration. While it's true that birdshot doesn't penetrate walls well, it unfortunately doesn't penetrate bad guys well, either. # 4 plated buckshot seems like a good compromise, with 27 pellets per 2 3/4" shell, each with the approximate authority of a .22. The pattern spreads about an inch for every yard of range. (By the way, it's essential that you pattern your particular gun with the ammo you're going to use in it). I shot a deer with that load, at about 15 yards, and I now have enormous respect for what it can do. Buckshot has a limited effective range, but it'll enable you to control your environment better than anything else at indoor or across-the-street distances, and that's all you need. Besides, you're not gonna convince the aforementioned jury that somebody a hundred yards away was a threat anyway.

Shotguns have relatively low magazine capacities. But we're not talking about human-wave banzai charges here. If you can't solve your home-defense problem with a few rounds of 12 gauge buckshot, you're probably not gonna solve it with a boatload.

As with any firearm, GET PROFESSIONAL TRAINING. Not from your "uncle who was in the Army", or your "friend who knows all about guns". Take at least a weekend course from a reputable instructor so you'll have a solid foundation upon which to build. Otherwise all your practice will be only reinforcing bad habits. You should learn to load and unload (it's not as straightforward as you probably think), to shoot under stress, from several positions, in dim light, while moving, at multiple targets, at moving targets, and how to keep someone from taking your weapon away from you. You should also learn what to do after a shooting incident. Imagine yourself standing there in shock, looking at the mess you just made, with your ears ringing and a smoking gun in your hands. If that's the moment Barney Fife shows up, things can go from bad to worse. Last but not least, because of the unfortunate nature of our legal system, the marital advice my dad gave me applies here: "Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut." No matter how justified you were, politely decline to explain yourself to the police or anyone else until you've consulted a defense attorney.

Keep it simple.
Become proficient in the
basics. No need to waste
your time with the fancy
stuff unless you have orders to Iraq.

Practice regularly. Shooting
skills are perishable.

A pump-action can be kept "cocked-and-locked", with an empty chamber and a loaded magazine. It's reasonably safe that way even if it gets into the wrong hands, but still ready for action quickly.

When you cock your shotgun, don't be tentative or gentle. Treat it like your girlfriend, not your wife.

Get in the habit of topping off the magazine before you run dry. "Shoot one, load one, shoot two, load two". And a mnemonic device for loading technique is "thumb on brass".

If you want your home defense shotgun to do double-duty during deer season, modern Foster and Brenneke slugs are pretty accurate out of even a smoothbore barrel. Don't waste your money on saboted slugs unless you have a rifled barrel.

  • All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.
  • Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. (For those who insist that this particular gun is unloaded, see Rule 1.)
  • Keep your finger off the trigger till your sights are on the target. This is the Golden Rule. Its violation is directly responsible for most inadvertent discharges. Keep your booger-hook off the bang-button.
  • Identify your target, and what is behind it. A tiny lawyer is attached to every projectile that you launch.
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