Shotguns – the Firearm Do-Alls

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Last Updated on September 24, 2020

Editor’s Note: This post is another entry in the Prepper Writing Contest from frequent contributor R. Ann Parris.  If you have information for Preppers that you would like to share and possibly win a $300 Amazon Gift Card to purchase your own prepping supplies, enter today!

We hear about how shotguns are the do-all when it comes to hunting and self-defense. What we don’t always hear is how to best choose one or that to make them a do-all, we need to know what to feed them. Some of what comes into play is because our game in the U.S. is highly regulated and with the exceptions of some private reserves and clubs and private lands, we end up competing for game. That competition isn’t likely to go down in the future. Some comes into play because we have drywall and kids and neighbors, and what we choose to protect them may not be best for hunting purposes.

Chokes and barrels

Two aspects of shotguns that matter most are our barrel lengths and the chokes in the barrels.

Shotgunning Chokes and range

Shotgunning Chokes and range – Image Source

Barrel rule-of-thumb considerations

The longer the barrel, the longer shot is going to stay tight and the easier it is to “aim”. On the other hand, a 26-32” barrel is quite the cannon to be swinging around the doors and corners in our houses.

Big barrels also build up more momentum. That’s awesome for wingshooting and shotgun sports, most usually (skeet excepted), because we need to keep swinging for the shot and follow-through – just like in baseball. In a creak-in-the-night or repel-the-boarders situation, however, we typically want something we can readily change direction with. That means a shorter, lighter barrel.

The downside to a short, light barrel is that it is lighter. A lot of light shotguns are shoulder bangers. That can make them more difficult for some people to keep or get back on target for follow-up shots. Comfort is also important because practice takes more time than doing. We need to build the muscle memory, and that takes repetition. Age of the firearm, ammo loads, stock pads and style, shoulder pads, and the trick of weighting a stock with fishing shot can affect the felt recoil.

Weight in the field

Barrels make up a big percentage of the weight and length of a shotgun, but action type and purpose affect weight, too.

Semi-autos are heavier. The weight alone helps reduce felt recoil, but the action also helps absorb some of it. A sporting gun may very well have a weight in front of the magazine tube that increases momentum of the swing – that’s great for sports, potentially useful hunting geese and ducks, but it adds up to quite the package to haul around, especially when you carry a bag and water everywhere. In a defensive situation, we want to avoid things that lock us in to a particular direction. We take short steps and stay poised so that we can quickly change direction. Less weight becomes an asset, just like that shorter barrel on its own.


Break-action shotguns tend to be shorter and significantly lighter than pump or semi of the same barrel length.

Break-action shotguns tend to be 3-5” shorter and significantly lighter than a pump or semi of the same barrel length, because their actions are so simplistic. They lack the chamber and feeding mechanisms of the others. This contributes to their being about the lightest shotguns to carry, and it’s why some call over-under guns “whippy”. That’s great in some field situations, although I tend to want to max out my 3-5 legal rounds, not be reduced to two, and at home I for-sure don’t want to limit shells.

Clearing up chokes

As much or even more than barrel length, chokes influence how tight our pattern of shot stays. The goal I’ve typically seen is for your shot to be spread to about 20-40” at your target distance, but there’s play there.

I’ve been a shotgunner for more than a decade and a half. I still don’t know all the very many chokes manufacturers have come out with. But I do have a quickie tip for shotgunners that can help keep track of the words rattling off enthusiasts’ tongues.

First make an okay sign with your fingers. Then close your hand into a fist.

  • Okay = O = Open – Open cylinder/Open bore, CYLINDER bore, the widest choke
  • Fist = F = Fully closed = Full – FULL chokes, the tightest choke
  • Modified and all the variants are in the middle. (Conveniently, M.)

Different Shotgun Choke Types

Why does the shotgun choke matter?

If I have a tight choke and am shooting high speed, small pellets, there may be so much shot that a game animal ends up turned into burger. Likewise, if I have a loose choke and take a 40-60 yard shot, especially with BB or low-number shotshells I may have 15” and 30” gaps in my shot pattern. That open pattern may let something fly or zing right through unscathed, but even worse, I may injure an animal lightly enough for it to get away now, but it will later die. That’s not responsible hunting.

On the home-defense side of shotguns, a tight choke keeps more lead hitting a bad guy instead of my walls, pets, and loved ones. But the reverse of that is that a full or modified choke can create a longer “string” of pellets and if I miss, the leading pellets can chew through drywall and open a keyhole for trailing pellets to pass through, endangering my neighbors and loved ones again. Pellet type and size and slug type and size can mitigate some of the risks, but there’s a point where if a shotgun is our go-to, we just accept whichever risk we’re more comfortable with.

Newbies now go “oh my [favorite deity or Mother Nature], now we’ve got barrel lengths and chokes and she mentioned numbers with the shotshells”.


Shot leaves a barrel and flies in a teardrop or cigar pattern, not a flat circle or short cone.

Yes, it’s that bad, but, no, it doesn’t have to be that bad. There are guides that tell you what to use at what range, and we’ll get much deeper into shot in the future. The important thing to remember is not to put buckshot or slugs through a barrel with a choke screwed into it, or you’re going to have an Elmer Fudd moment. I hunted on an open choke 12-gauge and a full choke 20ga. for a very long time before I knew I was supposed to care – you just have to know the shotgun and patterns, and I have some tips for that later.

Pick a shotgun that’s versatile and upgradable

There are shotguns like the venerable Mossberg 500 and Remington 870 and 1100 that have been around forever. Because of that, they tend to be inexpensive and they have tons and tons of off-the-shelf, plug-and-play customizations available, so the gun can grow with us and our budgets if we’re inclined.

That means we can very easily lay on a shotgun with spare parts readily affordable and available, and one where we can get a short 18.5-22” creak in the night barrel and a 26-30” field and marsh barrel.

Feeding a shotgun – The shot size and shell weight relationship

Shot leaves the barrel and flies as a cigar or teardrop; it doesn’t leave the barrel all at once in a flat pattern. Picture the shot pattern forming a connect-the-dots spider web just this once anyway.

The more shot, the tighter the net of that web. The more strands the insects hit in a web, the better chance the bug gets tangled, and the better the chance the spider eats today. Little spiders hunt gnats and big spiders want grasshoppers and moths. A really little spider might lose a big fly because its web isn’t strong enough or it needs to get there fast (AKA: be closer to its target).

Different Shot Patterns

Different Shot Patterns

When we connect the dots in our shot pattern to make a web, we get the same relationships. Then we add in velocity (strength of our web strands) and – if inclined – further tailor our web size and gaps with our chokes.

Like I said, chokes matter, but I hunted and still hunt on a 1980s 870 with a cylinder bore. I am not Carly Hathcock, long lost genetic throwback to Carlos. It can be done. It was done all the time by our ancestors and grandparents. I do have to know that I’m limited in range with my shotgun, even with high-velocity rounds, which is where practice comes in. I need to know what size web I’m throwing to effectively and responsibly take my dinner.

Practice like you play

AKA, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.” In this case, the more we truly know about our shotguns and shells, the more we make our targets bleed.

A cardboard box makes a handy target, especially if you can lay on an open area and a bunch of boxes and cans about the same sizes as your targets. There are a wealth of life-sized paper targets that can be purchased, or we can get away with stick figures and ovals and triangles to draw our own with dollar-store markers and the freebie newspapers in front of grocery stores. Do a bunch so you can set up bunches at once and don’t have to run patch (dollar store tape) after every shot. Especially at the greater distances, that’s no fun.

Take a notebook! And a pencil!

Where to aim your shotgun

Where to aim your shotgun

Aim in front of the nose for flying birds, leading or upper chest for small mammals (generally), and run varying sizes of shot through your shotgun. Back off once you have a decent baseline. Measure as you go (pace it and compare that to a yard later).

Take at least five or six shots from that distance, minimum – ten or twelve is better. If you have any one shot that entirely misses the target or only lands 1-2 pellets somewhere in a wing or non-vital area, you need to scoot in again.

When you get to the point when you’re only putting 3-5 pellets in your non-moving targets, that’s your absolute max range with that choke and that ammo.

Write it down.

Write down the shotgun, choke, distance, and the ammo (manufacturer and ammo name, like “Super X”, the dram or dram equivalent in inches, the powder load or velocity, and the shot size and weight of shot – 1 oz. of #5 or 1-1/8 of #7, whatever it is).

Take the notebook when you graduate to clay pigeons for moving practice, too, because “sport” loads tend to be a lower-velocity round than game loads, and that can affect where in space the bulk of the shot is “landing”. I have some super speedy ammo that lets me use it at ranges my slower ammo won’t.

The important information on the box

I’m not talking about the dram/dram equivalence or the gauge. Match that to what your barrel says and let that go, especially for new shooters.

Velocity matters. It’s marked in fps (feet per second) but usually a box will also tell you it’s for sports or have a little flying disk on the flap, or it will have some kind of critter shown on that flap and say “game”. Some say “waterfowl” specifically. Until you’re super happy and digging in even deeper, that’s sufficient and you don’t really need the math or background there.

What is important – for hunting, especially – is the shot size (#8 or BBB or 00) and the amount of shot inside the shell (that’s in ounces, usually 7/8, 1, or 1-1/8).

Thumbnail on shot sizes

Thumbnail on shot sizes

Big shot/smaller numbered shot weighs more. Fewer balls will be in a shell. Because it’s big and heavy, it hits harder. You use it on larger game and at greater distances to avoid wrecking meat and wasting animals.

Each ball in the higher-numbered small shot weighs less. I get more balls in each shell, but their lower individual mass means lessened ranges and decreased penetration. That makes them perfect for small game and small birds, but insufficient for things like jackrabbit and goose. It also shortens the distance they can be used for responsible kills.

When it comes to home-defense rounds, the distances matter, but so does the family and internal construction. Most steel or alloy, Hevi-Shot or slug will go through 1-2 layers of drywall like butter, as will buckshot, and some will go through 4 layers with 12’ between them. Some of those handy rounds with peel-away lead will go through cinder blocks. Great for a thug in a heavy coat. Not great for whoever is on the other side of the bad guy, or a wall or window.

Picking the right shot size

Shot size tells you how big the little balls inside are. Just like I wouldn’t shoot a bunny in my front yard with a .308 or 5.56, I don’t need to hit a dove with a B or #2.

Bad guys deserve a faceful of whatever they get. If I pick birdshot to limit how much goes through drywall, I might want to aim for that face and throat instead of center mass, whereas inside-house ranges mean I can usually hit anywhere with a slug, and even in body armor he’ll jerk a little. It’s hard for him to aim at me if he’s getting punched in the chest.

shotgunning - pelletinfo coverall - www_ultimateupland_com

There are shells made for home-defense that take drywall into account, and there are loads that just make bad guys puddles. You have to research each while weighing your priorities.

There are some super helpful guides that can provide you with general rules for game type. These are just a few:

Shot weight and shotgun gauge

The number of little balls inside the shell can be figured out from the weight listed on the box, and here:  I think shot size is far more important, but the weight of pellets (in ounces) can affect the velocity as well as the spider web our shot forms.

I personally don’t find any success differences between 1 and 1-1/8. What I do see a difference in, is between the 7/8 of bird shot in a 20-gauge and the 1-1/8 ounces of shot I can get in a 12-gauge. I have half again the weight, which means I have a pretty significant increase in the number of balls for shot between #9 and #5.


Shotshells with comparable velocity and purpose, but the 12-ga. with 1-1/8oz. of pellets gives me better results – especially at longer distances – than the 20-ga. with 7/8oz. of lead.



That increase gives me a better chance of a couple of those balls hitting and one of them hitting the right spot to drop something right there where I hit it, off a branch or folding up its wings and falling from the sky.

Shotgunning suggestions

Because they can be so versatile by getting a workhorse shotgun platform, two barrels with screw-in chokes, and selecting shells to fit our uses, shotguns really can handle a lot of jobs for us. We do need to do more than take it out of the box and hang a bunch of stuff from it (without hanging a sling a frightening amount of time).

For an adult shooter, a 12-gauge will be more versatile going into the future and there are a lot more specialty shells available for 12’s than for 20’s in home defense and hunting. Yes, I hunt on a 20, but a 20 limits my range and game due to the amount of shot the shells hold, especially wingshooting and hunting on running rabbits. There’s some difference in recoil, but not a ton. Get a 12-ga. instead.

The most important thing to remember when shotgunning is that 20-gauge shotshells are yellow.

They are all now yellow and have been for years. There are now no yellow 12-ga. rounds. That’s because a 20-ga. shell will cycle in a 12-ga. shotgun, will get pushed forward and lodge in the bore, and will leave just enough room for a 12-ga. round to cycle in behind it when we rack the slide or bolt because nothing went bang. Then the 12-ga. round will go off – with nowhere to go. It will blow out the action of our shotguns, routinely hurt somebody, and regularly will get lucky and hit the primer of the 20-ga. in front of it. So now we have a shotgun spitting hate and discontent from both ends of the barrel.

That is a bad day.

Keep an eye out for yellow shells and just don’t have them anywhere near a 12-ga. shotgun. For sure do not keep both 20- and 12-ga. shells in your midnight-noise bag/slide or hunting vest, because dark, panicky and exciting moments are a bad time to trust we’ll recognize a 20- and a 12-gauge round from each other.

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Pretty damn decent article! Thank you

R. Ann

Thank you!


An excellent primer on shotguns. Some I knew, some I assumed, and some, well, I didn’t know. Without any form of concrete fact, I always thought that any “home defense” shotgun should be purchased with an extra hunting barrel. Single platform fills two roles. Your primer validates this logical but purely speculative assumption on my part. It also lends to the idea of having less experienced help defend a homefront. Grandma shooting out the living room winder with a 18″ shotgun is purely covering fire. Heads stay down because shot could be anywhere. Using a long barrelled shotgun in the… Read more »

R. Ann

Thanks Bob! You hand my grandma an 18″ gun loaded with anything but low noise low recoil #9 and a pillow, and you’re going to pick her up off the floor every time, got that right! I already read that you’re a Moss 500 fan (I’m a Rem girl). That’s the big thing about those name-brand “starters”. I’ve seen some other combos out there that look easy enough to change, but one of the main positives I see is how cheap a 2nd (and 3rd) bbl is, and how easy they are to change on the 870 and 500 (1100… Read more »


Great job and very helpful. I was just reviewing a 12 gauge as a possible purchase.


As R. Ann mentioned, look at the Mossberg 500-series shotguns. I was just at the local Bass Pro, and listened while Skippy the sales guy pushed some young guy toward much more expensive models. While he did something else, I asked the young guy what he’s going to do with it. “shoot cans and maybe a watermelon.” Well, ask if they have a Mossberg 500. The sales guy wasn’t happy with me upon return when the guy asked to move down close to $500 to a basic gun, but the young guy was. Explore what you want to do with… Read more »


Hello Bob: thank you: What I was reviewing was—WEATHERBY PA459 20GA 18.5INCH PUMP Action: Pump • Finish: Matte Black • Barrel Length: 18.5″ with 3″ Chamber – Extended Ported Cylinder Choke • Sights: Fiber Optic Front, Ghost Ring Rear • Stock: Synthetic • Weight: 6 lbs. 8 oz. • Overall Length: 38.25″ • for under $300.00
I agree- I was looking for something for home defense-something that the wife could also be comfortable handling and using-and the price range fits the budget….I AGREE – these purchases are for pratical reasons- I’m not into showing all my cards on the table.

R. Ann

I know you asked BobW, but 3 things: 1- Take her with you. I can shoot a kiddie gun. I can’t do anything about a trigger pull that’s too long. It’s unlikely to happen with a lot of HD/tactical guns, and teh Weatherby only has a 13-14″ LOP, but better safe than sorry. 2 – Try to get her to a range. If she can handle a 12, it’s a better choice in the long run. Especially in a short, light tactical gun, the felt recoil between 20 and 12 is negligible. 3 – If the budget will stand it,… Read more »


Thank You R. Ann… This is extremely helpful…The last thing I want is to get something that she will be scared of or is too hard for her to use. I understand her fear and she is just starting to build up her experience with firearms… so the fact that she is trying to over come that fear and starting to enjoy target shooting a.22…I’m hoping that in the near term- she will decide to give it a try and we can move forward from there. Being comfortable while alert- is the best way to practice safety and pick up… Read more »

R. Ann

Calijack, ‘Tis the season for some of the hunter ed courses andthe women on target types. WON and some of the others tend to offer a variety of firearms when they host, and just a handling class can help build confidence. Maybe see if you can find her a class – a lot of women are more comfortable learning from other chicks. Some ranges will also offer summer clinics for trap and skeet, especially ahead of early dove and small game seasons. If you’re comfortable giving me a state and-or county, I can see if any of us know any… Read more »


great idea…I agree she might be more comfortable that way. Thank You


Has she indicated she’s affraid of a 12-gauge? If she hasn’t, you might be projecting a fear onto her that may not exist. I kinda figured my wife would be somewhat firearms illiterate or affraid, but when it came down to it, she had practical experience with shotguns, rifles, and handguns from working summers on grandpas cattle ranch. It was all ‘no big’ to her. Full 00-buck 12-gauge defense rounds for my former country girl. Ask her about where she’s at, and what she’s interested in. You might just find she’s already got an opinion that works well, just not… Read more »


Bob: Thanks… She has voiced a general fear of weapons and regretfully, we received that “3 a.m. Phone call” Our son attended a birthday party and ended up in the line of fire. He was the only one hit. Thank God he survived and the jerk went to jail. So there are a lot of emotions going on-so I’m trying to project a positive message and R. Ann’s suggestion about getting her with other women-may be the best approach-except- for the trauma from five years ago… that is why I need to be careful on many levels…but your points are… Read more »


Thanks for the assist, R. Ann. I don’t question that she’s more game in the firearms arena than I am. Taking the wifey along for the ‘guns and lunch’ trip is critical. If its for her, she needs to be happy with how it handles in her hands. Let her handle ALL OF THEM, and study her non-verbals as well as her verbal input. I personally don’t know anything about Weatherby shotguns. I know their rifles used to be valued items. At least one manufacturer makes ‘reduced load’ shotgun rounds. Supposed to reduce recoil, making it easier for smaller framed… Read more »

R. Ann

I see shotguns the same way, Bob. If you’re going to spaz about using the butt to open a window or door, or test out how sturdy those tulles really are, you should have gotten a Rem.


With a synthetic stock. While you are at it, you probably better pick up an extra synthetic stock.


The new Mossberg 500’s and Remington 870’s feel pretty cheaply made these days. For home defense get a Mossberg 590. For youe hunting shotgun I would go with something that has a 26 or 28 inch barrel that is chambered for the 3 1/2 super mags. That way you have one shotgun that can do it all.


I tend to look at a Shotgun for a lot of reasons. I like the Rossi ranch hand for just being close by when out on the farm, but if someone is IN MY HO– USE…. it’s either the shot gun or the hand gun. But everyone on the planet knows what a shotgun sound of loading or reloading is. Sometimes a sound of a shotgun being racked is enough for people to think twice and leave…

In the famous words of Maya Angelou…


Just to mess with you guys a little, the game changes significantly on any barrel when you add in choke tubes. An 18″ barrel then becomes much more effective at further ranges. I’ve been a shotgunner for over 50 years (17 as a dealer) and I’m still learning. Just remember, not every “expert” in the field or at the range knows what he’s talking about. Do your own research and ask a lot of questions.
This is a good article with good comments.

R. Ann

“Just remember, not every “expert” in the field or at the range knows
what he’s talking about. Do your own research and ask a lot of
x2 that!

-R. Ann


That doesn’t mess with any of us.

An expert on room clearing is going to give a different point of view as the expert on clays, bird hunting etc. Take it all in, think critically about what you really expect to do with the weapon, how often you’ll shoot it, etc, then make a decision.

Experts can’t put you in the perfect gun for you. Only you know what feels right in your hands, and your wallet.


If you can,12 gauge ” Buck & ball. ” Single “slug” with six ‘buck-shot’ in one. Most effective at range and close.


Sounds interesting. It also sounds expensive.


No, no more than regular.


To hopefully turn this conversation down a useful line, I would ask everyone this:

What ammunition do you prefer/carry in your shotgun for home defense? Why?


Many variables to answer that. Who lives in home…how well one is skilled in deploying the weapon…structure itself…and if one wishes “terminal” shot results. (yes that to must be considered.


I agree completely. I thought that very thought when I wrote this. #7-1/2 shot puts a lot of lead down range, but in my opinion will put someone out of commission but not ‘down.’ 00-buck will put a person down, but with 8-9 balls per shot, should in theory have a higher percentage of misses. I suppose in condition: ROL, 00-buck is probably the correct play. I can’t swing by later and put a person down when remaining targets have been neutralized. That’s murder. Hitting him with a chest full of 00-buck on the first try is self-defense, or defense… Read more »


You would be quite surprised. If I have a PC and ballistic goggles others do to. If they are not dead they can still return fire.

The Spider

Damned interesting!

legal eagle

If you take that no.9 shot shell and convert it to a wax shell (see You Tube) you end up with a .50cal “Glazer Safety Slug” that out distances everything but the 1oz slugs themselves with essentially more impact strength due to fragmentation. Kinds useless on guinea hen though …


What can you tell us about cut shells?


They are best reserved for single/double barrels. Due to the weaking of the shell casing, the action of a pump or semi has too high a likelihood of ripping them apart.

Moisture from the air might get in through the cuts.

Barry McPickle

Great Job on the article, very thorough.

John Hattabaugh

1st time commenting here for me. a great article on shotguns by the way. very informative, and appreciated. I see great deals on maverick 88’s in my area, and listened to the siren song on getting one, but found an older mossberg 500-c in .20 gauge for a song and a dance…I got the Mossberg for home defense, and other uses. my reasoning was two-fold: one, I suffer with shoulder and nerve injuries, which limit my mobility in both shoulder joints. two, if I want rabbits for chow, i’ll use my Winchester 250 in .22lr. so bottom line for me… Read more »

R. Ann

Thank you! “bottom line for me is, do the best you can with what you have” Best point ever. I like to promote the shotguns that have fast-changing and easy-changing barrels and lots of stock options (especially used) so a budget gun can grow with somebody and their changing finances and physical abilities/needs. Without those changes, even knowing and having replaceable chokes, there’s not one shotgun that does it all. There’s for sure no one best gun for everyone. It’s why they became specialized in the first place. Bunny doesn’t care if it was a shotgun, .22, .22-250, low-load needle-point… Read more »

Roddy Pfeiffer

I don’t know if records have been kept on shotguns used for self-defense, but Evan Marshall wrote the definitive book on handguns used for that purpose. The average range is less than 7 yards. I would imagine that inside your house or in your yard the distance to the assailant would be very small. How big are the rooms in your house? The size of the shot string at those distances will be smaller than the palm of your hand.
Try convincing a jury that somebody 75 yards away was a threat to your life. You will never win.

R. Ann

Hi, Roddy! Sorry for the delay. Depending on the barrel length and choke (and shell selection), at 5-10 yards a shot string can be as tight as your palm (5″ anyway) or as loose as 20″ already. I have 3 places in my home and my parents’ home with 10-14 steps, with a room or closet behind them to be partly covered behind, and some longer. It’s one of the things that needs to be tested for each combination, since the 20″ option at 10yds has the possibility of chewing up drywall and windows and innocents even if it hits… Read more »

Remington 870 Shooter

Very good article, here is another one which has a lot if information about shotgun chokes:

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