Best Shotgun Ammo for Self Defense & Why?

Article Posted: Septermber 12, 2012

What is the best shotgun ammunition, and why? With all the cool ways to trick out ARs and Pistols many people get carried away and totally overlook what may be the ultimate choice of all...the classic shotgun. Read this to hear what the experts have to say on ammo choice, how it effects the end result, and why.


Shotguns are high powered man stoppers when used properly. They can beat out assault rifles and sub machine guns at close range shooting. This makes the shotgun the best possible choice and most effective choice when dealing with a close range attacker. An example is an Uzi or Heckler & Koch sub-machine gun has 340 ft-lbs of impact energy on a target, while a 12 gauge shotgun has 2,500 on up to 3,100 ft-lbs of impact energy on a target.

Massad Ayoob: "It is perhaps the most efficient close-range killing machine in the world's arsenal of small arms." For a discussion of the shotgun's strengths and weaknesses we refer all interested parties to Ayoob's excellent and comprehensive book 'The Truth About Self-Protection' (may be best $20 investment you'll ever make), which discusses every element of self-defense from locks, chemical sprays and alarms to defensive driving, firearms and defending yourself against dogs. A more in-depth treatment of the issue may be found in Ayoob's book-length volume on shotgun technique, 'Stressfire II: Advanced Combat Shotgun'.

A Note On Terminology

Shotgun ammunition falls into three general categories:


- Buckshot shell loaded with large-diameter lead balls (.24" and up) used for big game hunting and self-defense. The number of pellets in 12 gauge buck-shot varies from eight .36" balls in "000 buck" to 27 .24" pellets in "#4 buck". The ratings for buckshot are outdated and hard to understand for some people along with shotgun specifications and ammunition. There isn't much information that is needed to be processed though in learning about buckshot. Simply write down the recommended loads, walk into your local gun shop and announce your desired ammunition (note that "00" is pronounced "double ought" and "000" is pronounced "triple ought." Don't say "zero zero" or "oh-oh-oh buckshot" in front of gun shop employees. Then practice with both your selected defense load and low-cost birdshot to fully familiarize yourself with the operation of your gun and its terminal performance (e.g. patterns at various distances, the startling effects of buckshot on ballistic melons).


- small-diameter pellets used for bird hunting. Its stopping power is poor, except when used at very close range - out to 20-30 feet. For that reason it is not generally recommended, except for home defense use.


AcuTip Slug - solid lead bullets for shotgun use. These are big, heavy, fat hunks of soft lead that have enormous stopping power (e.g. a typical 12 gauge slug is .73" caliber and weighs 438 grains - a 9mm bullet is .355" and 115 grains). Slugs must be carefully aimed to be effective. Shotguns need to be aimed with shot as well. Firing off rounds without aiming at a target won't be effective against someone in a self-defense situation. Proper shooting technique still needs to be applied, same as if shooting a handgun or rifle.

.410 gauge

Nothing stated above applies to this caliber due to it being the weakest of all shotgun shells. It is however still a decent man stopper when using slugs. Never use bird shot as a self-defense shell to load into a shotgun. American Derringer Corp. has designed a buckshot load for the .410 gauge that should be avoided in self-defense shotguns (with 000 pellets). It is best to buy a 20 gauge shotgun instead of using a .410, but the recommended loads for a .410 are as follows. Choose the Federal Classic (F412RS) or Winchester Super-X (X41RS5) 1/5 ounce (88 grain) hollow point slug.

.20 gauge

20 Ga

The 20 is a great self-defense caliber, and works well for people who do not like the recoil of a 12 gauge shotgun. The 20 gauge is recommended over the more popular 12 gauge for home defense use against intruders. Pick the 20 gauge 3 inch Federal shell called the "Classic" #2 buckshot (F207-2-5PK) with 18 pellets, or the Winchester "Double XX" Magnum #3 with 24 pellets (X203C3B). For shotgun owners who's firearm cannot accept a 3 inch shell the Remington #3 with 20 pellets (SP20BK5PK-3) is recommended. Each of these cartridges will provide good short range stopping power for self-defense use against people.

It is recommended that men who dislike the recoil blast of the 12 gauge along with women should use the 20 gauge. "Delivering roughly the ballistic force of two .44 Magnum rounds at once," comments the knowledgeable Ayoob, the 20 "delivers 75% of the lead for only 50-60% of the recoil". Many police departments have found their officers shoot much more accurately in realistic training exercises with the lighter-kicking but still potent 20 gauge.

The Mossberg 500 Special Purpose 18.5 inch barrel 20 gauge pump shotgun is recommended for people who are new to shot gunning and looking for a reliable self-defense shotgun at a reasonable price. This is the choice weapon for the U.S. Armed forces and costs a little over $200.00 dollars to purchase. The recoil from kick on the 20 gauge is lighter and people will be able to shoot more accurate and rapid shots.

For an in-depth look at the 20-versus-12 gauge issue we recommend all shotgun owners (and potential shotgun owners) read 'Stressfire II: Advanced Combat Shotgun' by Massad Ayoob. Once you've read them you'll understand why his books are recommended so highly (and repeatedly).


Ayoob dislikes the 20 gauge Remington 870 pump shotgun and recommends you choose the Mossberg 500 in 20 gauge for general self-defense and home-defense use.

For ultra-close range home defense use a birdshot will work against an intruder. Choose any #4, BB or larger high brass lead hunting load, and have your shotgun filled with #3 buck just in case the birdshot does not put down an intruder fast enough.

Avoid using slug cartridges in a 20 gauge for self-defense purposes. Buckshot works better than slug when using a 20 for stopping power purposes. For people who still want to use slugs, the Dynamit/Nobel or Federal "Classic" (F203-RS) rifled slugs. It requires well-placed shots and careful aim to properly use slugs and take down an intruder.

16 Gauge

16 Ga

The 16 has slipped in popularity with Americans. As a result, no shotguns made specifically for defense are available in 16. If you have a sporting 16, however, it can do double duty as a great defense gun. Choose the Federal "Classic" #1 (F164-1) or the Remington #1 (SP16BK-5PK) buckshot load.

12 Gauge

The 12 gauge 2 ¾ inch shell 00 buckshot is considered the best load for self-defense purposes. This is the most effective man stopper currently on the market that is sold to the public. The recommended shells are Federal "Classic" (F127-00), Winchester Super-X (X12RB5), or the Remington Buckshot (SP12BK-5PK00) as the best double-out buckshot self-defense rounds on the market. Each fired round is almost equal to a nine-round burst from a submachine gun, with every round from the buckshot hitting the target.

12 GA Moss 500 Shooters need to be aware they need effective shotgun technique to hit a target. Pointing a shotgun in the general direction of an attacker isn't enough. Read Ayoob's book 'Stressfire II: Advanced Combat Shotgun' for the low-down on good shotgun skills and then practice as much as possible.

Most experienced shooters prefer the #4 or the #1 buckshot to 00. Lt. Marshall is on record as saying that the 00 is superior to the #4 and #1 in penetration and man stopping power. So, any of the three types will work against an attacker, and Ayoob has been said to favor the #1. Shooters should stay away from 2 ¾ inch Magnum or 3 inch Magnum loads. The reason behind this is the recoil from the kick after each shot makes them hard to control and shooters will have trouble making an accurate follow-up shot. Control while shooting is as important as anything else, and the standard 12 gauge shells have enough kick without the added kick from the magnum rounds.

Shotgun Spread

Owners should be aware that shotguns do not shoot a spread across an entire room when firing them for self-defense. Shotguns need to be carefully aimed the same as any other type of firearm when using them for self-defense purposes. A riot gun with an 18-20 inch open-choked cylinder barrel has a spread of approximately 1 inch for every yard of firing range. The spread across an 18 foot room will be 6 inches and the spread across 50 feet will be 16 inches. Practice with shotgun at firing ranges to determine what type of spread your shotgun has when fired.

Although slugs are man stoppers, they have a heavy recoil and can over-penetrate. In some cases slugs might be a good choice to use against an attacker who hides behind bricks or a barricade, but buckshot is the preferred type of shell to use in the majority of cases. We again direct you to Ayoob's masterful tome 'Stressfire II: Advanced Combat Shotgun'. This guide is for general civilian readers; policemen, soldiers, and gun enthusiasts should rely on Ayoob's in-depth expertise.

Rubber buckshot and neoprene slugs are e not recommended. They are for police use against riots and violent mobs. These are not effective as a self-defense method in a shotgun.

Birdshot can be as lethal as buckshot as closer ranges. Having birdshot for self-defense can be effective. Loading a shotgun with two #4 birdshot rounds followed by 00 buck allows shooter to fire off two rounds for a close range intruder and use the rest in case the intruder gets further away or hides behind a wall or door. Birdshot should not be under-estimated: at ranges out to thirty feet or so, birdshot is virtually a solid column of lead. Choose any #4 or BB high brass lead hunting load. I like the Federal "Classic Lead Hi-Brass" #4 birdshot (HI26-4) and Winchester "Super-X" #4 high brass birdshot (X12-4), but there is little difference between the various choices. Buy whichever you please. If you're a bird hunter, use your favorite hunting shells as long as they are #6 or larger.

10 gauge

Any type of shell works. The 10 ga is the upper end of the shotgun spectrum. It also has the largest recoil.

Contributing Author: Jason Brumett. Based off original work from Evan Marshall, Massad Ayood, and Ed Sanow

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