The Shotgun Approach

By Jim Gilliland

Jim Gilliland aiming a shotgun

When it comes to protecting your home with a firearm, there are lots of options. While handguns are the most common and have obviously been used very successfully, the truth is they take more training to use competently and are harder to operate. That’s why, in my opinion, one of the best firearm options for home defense is the shotgun.

I look for specific things in a home defense shotgun—features I do not necessarily want in a shotgun I use for hunting. For example, the typical long barrel of a hunting shotgun can become cumbersome to use it in the confines of a home. That’s not to say a hunting shotgun cannot be used, however, there are better set ups. Here are a few other things to consider for your in-home defense shotgun.


There are three basic shotgun designs. Although all will work for defense, their unique functionality and features lend themselves to specific users and situations. Understand the differences and what they meat to choose the perfect firearm for you.

Break: The gun is opened by activating a switch and levering the barrel (or barrels) away from the action, causing it to “break” open. The shells are loaded singularly into each barrel and fired. Break-action shotguns are typically the lightest, smallest and simplest—all of which are advantageous in a defense situation. On the other hand, they lack the advantage of being able to quickly fire more than one or two rounds. These are formidable tools, but dated and limited in use.

Pump: The pump action shotgun has been used by police and military personal as well as sportsmen. They are very reliable, feed nearly any type of shotshell and are for the most part simple to use. Pumps require a little more training than a break-action but give you a huge advantage thanks to their magazine, which lets you shoot multiple rounds without reloading. They are reasonably priced and are compatible with abundant aftermarket accessories that make them ready for anything. This is probably my top pick for most home use scenarios.

Shotgun being loaded

Semi-automatic: These have been around for more than 100 years and have proven themselves as hardy tools in hunting and battle. So it’s not hard to see why they can be an effective, easy to use home defense choice. They are simple, generally reliable, and can be fitted with a plethora of aftermarket accessories. Semi-autos tend to kick a little less than comparable shotguns due to how theaction uses some of a fired shell’s energy to eject the spent shell and chamber a new one. However, because of the complicated mechanical process, they can be a little finicky with certain loads. Semi-autos load basically the same way as pumps, but they do not require you to manually cycle (pump) the action after every round is fired. This shotgun again takes a little training to be able to use confidently and will need to be tested with whatever load you decide to shoot to ensure it cycles properly.

Whatever action you choose for home defense, consider some of the shorter design that lets you better maneuver in the tighter confines of your home. Make sure you know where all the controls are (safety, action release, etc.) and ensure you can reach them properly without having to reach too far.

Make time to do research both online and in person. Make sure your information comes from reputable sources and not just someone on the internet. Find local shops or friends that have access to or rental guns that you are looking at and spend some time “getting to know it”. Always try to make decisions based off the information you collect and have actually used.


When selecting ammunition for your new home defense shotgun, begin your search with the most basic criteria: the gun’s gauge—typically 12, 20 or .410, although there are other less-common options like 16, 28 and more—and the shell length it shoots (stamped on the barrel).

From there, you need to consider the payload, which refers to the amount and type of projectiles each shell holds. And that’s where things get a bit more complicated. Aside from some specific exceptions we won’t get into here, a shotshell holds multiple pellets that range in size depending on the intended use. The smaller the pellets, the more of them fit into a shell, which means more projectiles head downrange with every pull of the trigger. On the flip side, the smaller they are, the less energy they carry, which limits range and penetration. Larger pellets carry their energy farther, but their effective range is limited because of how far they spread from each other as they travel toward the target, which leaves large gaps in the pattern.

Force X2 packaging on a table at a gun range

Most shotshells specifically designed for defense hold 9 to 18 larger projectiles known as buckshot. Federal has developed a new split-shot buckshot option called Force X2. It provides nine copper-plated 00 FX2 buckshot pellets engineered to split into two equal-size pieces on impact. This creates up to twice the wound channels and lowers the risk of collateral damage in case of a missed shot. Force X2 also has more manageable recoil than standard loads in the same class. This lets you stay on your target better between shots and practice your shooting longer without the adverse effects of recoil.

Whatever loads you choose, make sure they feed properly in your shotgun and are not too small or light of a load to be ineffective for your needs.

Focus On Fundamentals

In the end, you should fully understand how to load, unload, fire and correct malfunctions with the gun and ammunition you select. Seek training by a qualified and professional instructor for both shooting and operating your gun, as well as for understanding the unique situations that come with using your defense shotgun in the home. Nothing can take back a fired round, so being prepared for it physically and mentally are very important. Having the ability to secure your life, loved ones and property is your right. However, with those rights come personal responsibility and a duty to be proficient with the tools you choose to use.