A 12-gauge shotgun is one of the most effective weapons you can buy for home defense. Its primary advantage compared with handguns and rifles is that it can deliver devastating stopping power at close range. However, a shotgun is only as effective as the type of shotgun ammo with which you load it.
Primary Types of Shotgun Ammo
If you own a shotgun, you have a wide variety of ammo options available. Shotgun ammunition generally falls into three categories: Birdshot, buckshot, and slugs.
Birdshot ammunition consists of a large number of small pellets. To be considered birdshot, each projectile must have a diameter of less than 0.24”.
For example, one of the smallest birdshot sizes, #12 shot, uses pellets with a diameter of 0.05”. One of the largest sizes, #1 shot, uses 0.16” pellets. Pellets larger than #1 but smaller than 0.24” in diameter use letter designations instead of numbers. Examples include BB shot (0.18”) and T shot (0.20”).
Regardless of the size, birdshot is meant for shooting waterfowl, upland birds, and small game animals, including rabbits and squirrels. Small birdshot sizes (#6 to #9) are also suitable for target and sport shooting, such as trap or skeet.
The main advantage of birdshot is that each shell carries a high number of projectiles, increasing hit probability on fast-moving targets. However, as self-defense shotgun ammo, birdshot also inflicts less traumatic wounds than buckshot or slugs. Birdshot pellets are also less penetrative in soft tissue.
Buckshot is functionally the same as birdshot, but with a small number of large, heavy pellets instead of a large number of small, light projectiles. The main advantage of buckshot is the balance between spread and stopping power. Although buckshot still spreads, each pellet is larger and heavier, penetrating more deeply and causing more potential damage to the target’s vital organs.
The smallest buckshot size is #4 — .24-caliber pellets weighing 20 grains each. In a standard-length 12-gauge 2¾” shotgun shell, #4 buckshot typically yields a 27-pellet payload. It should not be confused with #4 birdshot, which uses 0.13” diameter pellets.
As with birdshot size notations, the smaller the number, the larger the pellets, from #4 buck pellets down to 0.32” #0 buckshot (pronounced “single aught”). After #0, buckshot size notation simply adds additional zeroes to denote larger pellet sizes, such as #00 buckshot (“double aught” — 0.33”) and #000 buckshot (“triple aught” — 0.36”).
The most common buckshot size for home defense is #00. In a standard 12-gauge shell, there are usually 8–9 pellets, each weighing approximately 53.8 (or 54) grains. This shot size is the most common among law-enforcement agencies.
A shotgun slug is a single, solid projectile available in two basic types: Rifled and sabot.
Rifled slugs are full-caliber projectiles, usually with a flat or concave nose and a hollow base. You fire rifled slugs through smoothbore shotgun barrels. The diameter of the rifled slug depends on the gauge or bore diameter of the shotgun. Even a .410-bore rifled slug is larger than most buckshot pellets.
Sabot slugs are sub-caliber projectiles — i.e., smaller than the diameter of the bore — encased in a sabot, which is a type of plastic sleeve. You fire sabot slugs through rifled barrels. This type usually provides a more effective range than rifled slugs due to the more aerodynamic design.
As there is a single projectile, there is no spread. To achieve the best results, you will need to aim your shotgun like a rifle at the intended target. The presence of rifle-type front and rear sights, instead of a simple front bead, can help deliver slugs with superior accuracy. If your shotgun barrel has a choke tube tighter than improved cylinder, you should avoid firing slugs through it.
A shotgun slug offers the greatest penetrating power and the longest effective range: up to 100 yards for standard rifled slugs, compared with 40-50 yards for buckshot (depending on choke).
In addition to home defense, slugs are suitable for hunting medium and big game, such as deer, elk, or bear. They are also occasionally used by law enforcement, extending the range of their tactical shotguns.
Shotgun Chamber, Magazine Capacity, and Recoil
Always load your home defense shotgun with the correct ammunition. For example, if you already own a 12-gauge shotgun with a 2¾” chamber, you should only attempt to load it with shotgun shells of that gauge and length (or less).
The length of the shotgun shell that you use can also affect the magazine capacity, assuming your weapon is fed from a tubular magazine. Mini shells hold fewer pellets and less powder but take up less space.
Shotgun loads can produce more recoil than many centerfire defensive rifles, requiring either low-recoil shells or a recoil pad on the gunstock. You should also ensure that the stock fits you correctly when shouldered.
A stock that allows you to adjust the length of pull — the distance between the butt pad and the face of the trigger — can help. If, despite these efforts, you still find the recoil to be excessive, you can consider installing a muzzle brake. Some shotgun chokes also extend past the muzzle and have exhaust ports to serve the same purpose.
Defense Shotgun Ammo Top Picks
The best type of ammunition for your shotgun depends, in part, on where you live and the layout of your house.
Thin walls/densely populated
If you live in a densely populated environment, an apartment building, or a house with lightly constructed walls, you must account for excessive penetration. Almost any projectile capable of inflicting an effective wound poses a risk to bystanders.
In 12-gauge, one of the best choices is a buckshot load containing either #1 or #00 — the most effective shot sizes available. A 2¾” shell typically contains eight or nine pellets of #00 buckshot (nine 53.8-grain pellets equals a payload of 484.2 grains — more than one ounce of lead). If you opt instead for #1 buckshot, you can expect a 12- to 16-pellet charge for as much as 640 grains.
For self-defense or hunting, Federal Power-Shok buckshot loads are an excellent choice. Federal uses its Triple Plus wad system for superior shot alignment. In addition, the granulated plastic buffer protects the pellets against deformation, allowing you to achieve tighter patterns downrange.
Federal also offers Flight Control defensive loads, popular among law enforcement, which increase the effective range of your tactical shotgun.
Heavy walls or lightly populated/rural
If you live in a rural or sparsely populated environment and require additional penetrating power, consider loading your shotgun with rifled or sabot slugs (depending on the barrel you’re using).
This type of ammunition can be beneficial if you potentially need to penetrate light cover or defend yourself against dangerous animals, such as black, brown, and grizzly bears.
What to Avoid
If you’re worried about excessive interior-wall penetration, you should avoid slug cartridges. There are several other ammunition types to avoid.
Birdshot pellets do not consistently meet minimum penetration standards to be reliable against human targets. The ammunition you select should penetrate deeply enough to always reach and damage vital organs and major blood vessels.
Exotic shotshells, such as flechette, bolo, and less-than-lethal, are less reliable than buckshot or slug rounds for home defense and are generally more expensive. In addition, they can be a legal liability; some exotic shells can pose a fire hazard or be illegal to possess, depending on the jurisdiction. A notable example is the incendiary Dragon’s Breath round.
Buy the Best Personal Defense Ammo
When you purchase a firearm for self-defense, you must select the most effective ammunition available. At IFA Tactical, our mission is to help American citizens exercise their right to self-defense by providing them with the best guns, ammunition, and accessories available on the market.