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Defensive Shotgun: Myth vs Reality

Hey there, kids! I know it’s been a while since Uncle Doc wrote a blog entry. Sorry, it’s not been for lack of inspiration, as I’ve had lots of ideas… but time has been at a premium due to Life its ownself getting in the way. 

But here’s the deal today: I have a few minutes to write something down, and I want to do it because I’m hoping it will prod me to do something I’ve been threatening to do for a number of years. That is, to make a couple-three-four internet videos about the realities of gunshot wounds, terminal ballistics, and terminal effects. A picture is worth a thousand words, and video is worth 1K pixel-pictures, etc. You get the idea. 

But anyway. I happened across a Facebook post today, linked to an article written by fellow Texican Sheriff Jim Wilson. Now, I have never met Mr. Wilson, but we’ve used the same gunsmith from time to time in Ozona, TX. That’s about as close as we’ve got.

Well, Sheriff Jim wrote an article about shotguns for home defense, and linked it to his Facebook page. And it’s a pretty good article. I haven’t got much in the way of a bone to pick with the article. But the Facebook comments!! Oi.

It prompts me to address some of the shotgun myths that seem to be running rampant. And after I do that here in the Blog, I’m going to set about making some videographic evidence to back up what I have to say. Which may take some time, but if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

Those of you who have followed my blog by now must realize a couple of things. First, I have more than a little knowledge of the actual terminal effects of firearms on human flesh from more than a quarter century of trauma medicine training and practice. Second, I have more than a little knowledge of the ballistics field, from more than 45 years of actual firearms use in hunting, target shooting & competition, tactial training, and ballistics testing. As a result of this background, I tend to have a short fuse when it comes to going ballistic over internet/gunshop mythology. 

When it comes to firearms, believing in myths demonstrably gets people hurt and/or killed. 

So, in no particular order, here’s the myths that drive me crazy, and the refutations. 



Okay, I’ll cut to the chase on this one, and then go into the explanation. The plain fact is that if I fire my shotgun in my home, the last thing I’m concerned about is “safety”… I’m thinking more in terms of “deadly”, as in putting a deadly projectile into the vulnerable target anatomy of the armed and dangerous Bad Guy who has criminally intruded into my home! 

But people seem to want the assurance that if they somehow miss the Bad Guy with their load of deadly flechettes, there will be no collateral damage. For some reason they don’t think they need to worry about this with a pistol or a rifle, but with a Deadly Shotgun, this is a Serious Concern! So following this particular twist of nonlinear thought from a false premise, it seems to these folks that you have to use ammunition that is lethal, but just not quite as lethal as all the other shotgun ammunition out there… yeah, right. 

Ok. I will try not to say “give me a fucking break here people”. Oops. This ain’t Harry Potter at Hogwarts, magic does not exist. Physics does. 

I have been a shotgunning fool since I was 12 years old. I have personally fired, by my biased estimate, well over 100,000 rounds of shotgun ammunition in my lifetime. Most of those have been target rounds, but a great number of them have been fired to kill things. Birds, mostly, but also rabbits, deer, skunks, badgers, raccoons, and other living things that needed killing at the time. Most of the time, the things I’ve shot at have died. So I’m firm in my conviction that a shotgun is not a magic device that is both lethal and non-lethal at the same time. It’s a deadly weapon, people. And the closer the target is to the muzzle, the more deadly the shotgun’s missile(s) is. 

Most people have never tested the pattern of their shotgun, so they think the shot starts spreading right at the muzzle. And it does, but just not as much as you think. Inside of 4 yards (10 feet), a standard shotshell pellet charge is barely starting to open up. I will show you a picture here in a few minutes, but I have to find it: it shows a hole in a piece of drywall, made by a 1-1/4 ounce 12 gauge shotgun shell, at a distance of 3 yards. It is a single perfectly round hole. That’s at 3 yards. Which means all 1-1/.4 ounces of lead pellets strike the target at the same time, with exactly the same amount of energy of a solid 1-1/4 ounce lead slug. You have to get out to 6-7 yards from the muzzle before the shot charge disperse enough to see individual pellet strikes. 

So what this means is that inside of about 5 yards (15 feet), there is no physical difference between a load of “light” (small size) birdshot and a shotgun slug. Now, go to the biggest bedroom in your house, and measure off 15 feet. Can’t do it, can you? Fact is, most bedrooms are less than 12′ across, and most interior rooms in city homes and apartments are less than 15 feet (5 yards) across. A long interior hallway will be 16 to 18 feet. 

So home defense distances are short, and almost always well within the minimum distance at which a birdshot load begins to spread. 

Now, some folks will argue that it’s not the same, and that the birdshot disperses when it hits flesh, causing less damage than a solid slug would do. 

Nice try, but it ain’t true. I’ve seen people shot at close range (inside 5 yards) with birdshot and buckshot loads, and while dispersal does occur more rapidly in the denser medium of flesh, the damage is still catastrophic. And some shotshells have a wad designed to keep the shot charge together (the Federal Flite-Control wad/ammo, as an example) and in these cases the charge may pass through the entire torso of the target, exiting in a nice round hole almost identical to the exit hole. I’ve seen it. Can’t show you the pictures, medical confidentiality and all that, but it’s true. Scouts honor. 

Another example of this:  at a cowboy action match a number of years ago, we had a “side match” where a team of 4 guys had to try to shoot a 4X4 wood post in half with their shotguns at a range of 5 yards. Whichever team did it the fastest won the prize. Well, guess what? A good team of shotgunners, using only “light” birdshot, could easily snap the post off inside of 4 seconds. Your home defense shotgun can and will do the same thing no matter what size shot you’re using, because the load doesn’t disperse at typical home defense distances. 

Many years ago I tested my bird-hunting loads on things like refrigerators and TV’s, at the dump. Guess what? They blow home appliances to smithereens. I tested birdshot on the walls of abandoned farm buildings and homes. Guess what? They blow walls to smithereens. 

Shotguns are deadly weapons. Shotshells are designed to kill things. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the ultra-expensive “home defense” load you bought because of its “safer” MHT design (Magic Hogwarts Technology) is not going to kill your kid when you miss the Bad Guy you tried to shoot. 

The bottom line with defensive shootings using ANY firearm–rifle, pistol, or shotgun–is you MUST HIT your attacker! Misses don’t count! Bad things happen when you miss!



Where this whopper came from I have NO clue. Internet mythology at its finest, I guess. 

I tested this a number of years ago, using mocked-up drywall partitions and wet newsprint. I fired size 7-1/2 birdshot, #1 buckshot, and slug loads at the test medium from a typical home defense distance (4 yards, or 12 feet). The wetpack was 18 inches behind the mocked up drywall partition. 

(This is where I have my major quibble with Sheriff Wilson’s Gunsite test… they shot through a bunch of walls, but they didn’t test the effectiveness of the projectiles on a tissue simulant after passing through the partitions! This makes NO sense… you can’t just ASSUME that the damage will be mild, moderate, or severe, based on how the projectiles damaged the next barrier, or the one after that. You’ll note that Dr. Martin Fackler did not develop the modern ammunition effectiveness testing method we now call the FBI protocol by shooting through a bunch of barriers and then ASSUMING how much damage his bullets would do to flesh… he shot FLESH (pig’s thighs, actually), until he decided a cheaper tissue simulant was needed, at which point he started shooting gelatin blocks. I have shot a lot of gelatin blocks myself, but it’s a messy business that I’m not set up for at home, so many of my ballistics tests use a cheaper/simpler medium, i.e., water-soaked newspapers. Wetpack, as it’s often called, is NOT equivalent to ballistic gelatin, and I make no claims as such. But in a controlled test such as the ones I’m referring to here, comparing various projectiles’ performance head-to-head in wetpack has some scientific methodological consistency, reproducibility, and therefore predictive value.)

What did I learn? I’m glad you asked! I learned that not only would birdshot loads blow through my walls like tissue paper, but they would do the same amount of damage to the tissue simulant on the other side as if there was no partition at all. As I recall, the craters left in the wetpack either way were about 8 inches deep. Hell, even the plastic wads penetrated 4 inches into the wetpack next to the pellets! There was no difference in penetration between birdshot and buckshot at that distance. I had to move back to 10 yards (30 feet) from the partition mockup before I got a measurable difference between birdshot and buckshot. 

That’s right, I just said it: birdshot and buckshot will do exactly the same amount of damage to a human body after passing through a standard construction modern interior home wall. There is NO material difference. So, no, birdshot is NOT safer for use in your home than buckshot or slug. If you miss the Bad Guy and your kid is on the other side of that wall, you will kill or seriously injure your kid. Period. Don’t lie to yourself and pretend otherwise. 

Don’t believe me? Well, then take my word for it. Test it yourself. Set up a gallon jug of milk about 18 inches behind a couple sheets of drywall. Stand back 4 yards, and shoot a standard load of birdshot at the jug of milk. Judge the damage and ask yourself if you would be happy with the results if it had been your kid’s head instead of the milk jug. 

If you want to avoid killing your kid, or your dog, or whomever, your options are severely limited! You can do one of two things ONLY: 1) hit the Bad Guy, which you can be sure of if you have trained adequately with your defensive shotgun, or 2) armor the walls in your home with bulletproof building material, such as woven fiberglass panelling. Changing out your shotgun load is not going to make your “stray” shots any “safer” for your family, your dog, or your neighbor. Shotgun loads are deadly because they are designed to be deadly. Don’t try to mythologize them into something less. 

There is one exception to my recommendations regarding shotguns in home defense, and that has nothing to do with the loads you shoot out of your shotgun.  But if you live in a house with plaster-and-lath walls, you can enjoy a limited protective buffer that more modern sheetrock walls do not provide. These walls are MUCH more resilient than sheetrock walls, and will typically block any birdshot charge I’ve tested. Buckshot, not so much… I’ve blasted through SOME plaster-and-lath walls with ONE shot of 00 buck. Slugs, forget it; they will blast through any interior partition and wreak havoc on the other side. But birdshot, yeah, plaster walls will stop most of it. But since construction standards have changed so much, I can’t guarantee that YOUR plaster-and-lath walls are as tough as the ones I tested. So if you want to be sure about this, you’ll have to blow some shotgun loads off in your house to test it yourself. Don’t take my word for it.  

Let’s get real, folks. Shotgun pellets of any size from 00 buck to #8 birdshot en masse will blow through your house’s interior partitions AND your kid’s head. Magic Hogwarts Technology won’t save you, or your kid. 


Loook for more Shotgun Mythbusting in the next installment of the TAS Blog, kids. Coming soon!  And videos on Youtube to follow!



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