There isn’t just one shotgun with different gauges and chamber length to choose from – there are also different shotgun styles to consider.
Below, we outlined the styles (and their qualities) you should be most aware of:
- Over and Under – these shotguns have 2 barrels of equal length, one on top of the other. Some have 2 triggers (one for each barrel), while others have one trigger that needs to be pulled farther back to fire the second shell. The “over and under” shotgun is an excellent choice for skeet shooting, but not for home defense.
- Side by Side – these shotguns also have 2 barrels of equal length, but they’re placed side by side, hence the name. The trigger set up is similar to that of the “over and under” shotgun. “Side by side” shotguns are also known as a “coach gun,” due to their glory days in the Old West and Civil War.
Their popularity has waned since, especially in recent years. They aren’t an appropriate choice for a home defense shotgun, for the same reasons as the “over and under.”
- Single Shot – the single shot is a common long-barrel bird gun. In fact, all “over and under” and “side by side” shotguns are single shot and are usually break action shotguns too!
Break action refers to shotguns that have a hinge between the barrel/s and stock so you can “break” or open the barrel to load. Single barrel break action shotguns are always single shot. While they’re great for sporting, they put you at a dangerous disadvantage in home defense situations.
- Pump Action – pump actions are single barrel shotguns equipped with a tubular magazine beneath the barrel, which can hold multiple rounds. The pump mechanism is a moveable fore end that’s held for stability while handling the shotgun.
You pull it toward yourself to eject spent shells and chamber a fresh round, then push it forward again into its original position. Pump action shotguns are favored by law enforcement around the world, in part thanks to their superior mix of firepower, reliability, and a fast follow-up.
Many are also able to chamber shells like the less-than-lethal rounds autoloaders aren’t able to reliably cycle. Essentially, the better skilled you are, the faster you can cycle between rounds to deliver quicker follow-up shots.
Pump actions also feature an open feeding port at the bottom of the gun, which allows you to reload with one hand while keeping the muzzle on-target.
On top of all that, pump actions are also generally very budget-friendly, even for respectable brands, especially compared to the other styles. For all these reasons, the pump-action is a great all-round shotgun perfect for home defense.
- Autoloader – the autoloader is a gas operated semi-automatic shotgun that fires one round each time the trigger is pulled, until the magazine is empty. Most models have tubular magazines (like that of the pump action), though some use a box type magazine.
Autoloaders use the force of gases released when a shell is fired to push the bolt down, ejecting the spent shell and chambering a fresh round. These are highly reliable shotguns with sound operating systems, so if you feel the need for a semi-automatic shotgun, it’s a good investment.
However, autoloaders are markedly more expensive than pump actions, without offering much in the way of higher firepower or faster reloading speed. This makes them a less suitable choice for a first home defense shotgun, but by no means a poor one.
This doesn’t cover the full range of shotgun styles available, of course.
Instead, the above list focuses on the main ones so you can get a better idea of what they have to offer and how suitable they are (or aren’t) as a home defense weapon.
As a shotgun owner, current or prospective, it’s always good to have this kind of general knowledge.
Features and Characteristics for a Good Home Defense Shotgun
There are a couple of features that separate shotguns suitable for home defense from those good or even great for such a purpose.
We’ve already talked about some of them, but it’s worth repeating a few points briefly and going into greater detail in others.
18 ½” Barrel
In the US, the shortest length shotgun allowed by law is 26-inches in overall length, with a barrel no shorter than 18-inches.
It is technically possible to legally own a shotgun with a shorter barrel and/or overall length, but you need to have a special permit and pay extra taxes.
Generally speaking, the shorter the barrel, the more powerful they are, which is why you may want one with a shorter barrel.
To cater to this need without coming dangerously close to being illegal, manufacturers produce the 18 ½” shotgun barrel.
Don’t worry if you already have a 20-inch barrel shotgun and think you’ll need to get an 18 ½” model for home defense. Most shotguns are equipped with interchangeable barrels.
If your model can accommodate interchangeable barrels, you can still buy an 18 ½” to use with it.
The extra 1½” isn’t likely to make too much of a noticeable difference, though of course you do want to enjoy even the slightest of advantages when it comes to defending your home.
Having a shorter (18 ½”) barrel certainly is more appealing for a close-quarters weapon.
Pump Action vs. Autoloader
It’s pretty clear the top choices for a home defense shotgun are the pump action and the autoloader.
In the list above, we mentioned one of the main drawbacks to an autoloader when compared to a pump action is the price. If cost isn’t an issue for you, you might benefit from considering the human error factor.
With a pump action, the biggest way human error is likely to affect you is through short-stroking.
Short-stroking is what happens when you don’t push the pump handle all the way forward into its original position.
As a result, you won’t properly eject the spent shell and chamber a fresh round when you next engage the action, and will have to push the handle forward properly before trying again.
Autoloaders, on the other hand, have a far more complex design that makes them more prone to jamming failures than a pump action.
This kind of failure takes a lot longer to sort out, which can be fatal in a self-defense situation. The added complexity also means there’s added risk of accidentally damaging your shotgun while cleaning it.
At the end of the day, pump actions and autoloaders alike remain the most suitable options for home defense.
Ultimately, the decision is up to your preference, desire (or lack thereof) to fire semi-automatically, and how much you’re willing to spend.
If you’re still undecided, the next two chapters will provide some of the top examples of Pump Action Home Defense Shotguns and Autoloading Tactical Shotguns, respectively.
By comparing these, you’ll be in a better position to make the right choice.
As mentioned in the previous chapter, getting a shotgun with a 3” capacity chamber will allow you to keep your options open.
You’ll likely still be firing mostly 2½” rounds, but since you can generally fire a smaller round but never a larger one, having a 3” chamber allows for greater versatility.
The only other shell size available for 12 gauge shotguns is, of course, the 3½” shell. However, these produce a much stronger kick-back than what is recommended for home defense use.
No Choke Cylinder Bore
When we say a good home defense shotgun has a no choke cylinder bore, we’re referring to the design of the interior of the barrel (the bore) and whether or not it has a choke.
We haven’t spoken about chokes yet and this is a good time to do so.
When firing a shell loaded with shot, the pellets spread after leaving the muzzle. Once they hit your target, they leave a spread pattern.
The closer you are to your target, the tighter (more compact or dense) the spread pattern will be, and therefore more lethal. Barrel length also affects spread pattern.
For example, when comparing a 20” and an 18½” barrel while standing the same distance from your target, the extra 1½” the shot from the shorter barrel has to travel before reaching that target allows it to spread a little wider.
The choke creates a slight restriction in the barrel diameter – literally “choking” it. This forces the shot pattern together, creating a tighter spread when you fire your shotgun.
A choke (or choke tube) is great for hunting when you want to aim carefully and hit the target without having shot pellets scatter about uselessly.
You might think this is a good thing for home defense too – after all, the tighter your spread pattern, the more lethal it can be.
In a home defense situation, however, you’ll be in close quarters.
You also have to bear in mind in any self-defense situation, the law is always going to be against shooting to kill. Your goal must be to shoot to stop.
This also means you can’t simply shoot to injure, for example by aiming at the knee, as a jury will almost certainly consider doing so a sign you weren’t really fearful for your life.
So shoot to stop, but do so with the knowledge you are likely to kill, even if that isn’t your primary intention.
Even though most states recognize Castle Doctrine (the right to defend your property with lethal force against an intruder), it’s always your responsibility to ensure you’re up to date with your local laws regarding using a firearm for self-defense.
Coming back to the issue of whether or not to use a choke on your shotgun, it’s worth remembering the wider spread pattern is what makes a shotgun more ideal for home defense when compared to a rifle.
Just bear in mind you do still need to aim your shotgun properly!
A 12 gauge shotgun loaded with buckshot has an average spread pattern of about 8 to 10 inches only, without a choke. This is certainly narrow enough to miss a target in a time of urgency.
However, it’s better to have those 8 to 10 inches and barely hit your target than to miss completely because your choke narrows the spread too much.
So be sure to stack the odds in your favor by opting for a no choke cylinder bore barrel.
Plastic vs. Polymer Furniture
The stock and fore end (the fixture under the barrel that serves as a grip and, for pump action shotguns, the pump handle) are called the furniture of the shotgun.
In the past, this section was made of wood, but a good modern tactical shotgun usually uses black polymer for its furniture.
Cheaper models might use plastic and some hunting shotguns still use wood, but polymer is a much stronger, more durable material.
The finish is usually matte (especially for black, tactical shotguns), which has the added benefit of not reflecting light.
Parkerization refers to the finishing process on the metal parts of a shotgun, most notably the barrel but also the trigger and trigger guard, that give it a matte black finish with non-reflective properties.
It also makes these parts highly durable. Pretty much all shotguns (especially tactical ones) have this process done.
With these features and characteristics in mind, you’ll be in a better position to find yourself a suitable shotgun for home defense and be aware of what the different features are for.
Fortunately, there are several options available that will have everything you need – no modifications required – at a decent price.