The shotgun is a tremendous fighting tool surrounded by mythology.

The shotgun is a tremendous fighting tool surrounded by mythology.

You don’t need a doctorate in history to realize that the saga of human conflict is cyclical. Consider the history of modern warfare. One of the most noteworthy instances of the shotgun’s use in combat came from WWI and the infamous Winchester “Trench Guns”. Every true gun guy knows the story of the feared shotguns and how the Germans were reportedly ‘terrorized’ by the use of scatterguns by U.S. Marines in close combat.


World War II was a slightly different story, with semi-automatic Garand rifles and Thompson submachine guns being the battlefield norm. Everyone remembers images of Marines clearing the jungles of Japanese held islands with the Thompson guns in hand or the GI bounding a hedgerow in Normandy with his Garand.

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Although not glorified in the popular press, Vietnam combat veterans will tell you that the pump-action 12 gauge shotgun definitely left its mark during that particular conflict. I personally had one ‘Nam Vet relate to me that of all the sounds of combat when he heard the distinctive blast of a shotgun he knew someone just got messed up. Today we are yet again embroiled in a conflict between good and evil. And gain the 12 gauge shotgun is carving out a niche for itself. A good friend of mine is a Marine Corps veteran of the April 2004 Battle of Fallujah. This man was a Machinegun Section Leader and his personal weapon during that fight was a 12 gauge shotgun. (A Section Leader oversees teams of Marines armed with the M240B 7.62mm machineguns.) My friend and I discussed the use of a shotgun in an urban combat environment at length.  He enthusiastically endorsed the 12 gauge shotgun for the kind of “in your face” fighting they were conducting.

The Combat Shotgun

Before we get into gun specifics, I feel it is important to ponder just why it is that we should consider discussing the shotgun in the first place. After, there are numerous handguns and carbines available. My previously mentioned comrade and I were members of a training team and we worked with military personnel on a daily basis. Of the small arms we taught, the shotgun was one of them. Our student base could vary greatly from little to no experience to those who had a good deal of hands-on with a shotgun. Despite the experience or lack thereof, I found that we are still running into some of the same old shotgun myths that have perpetuated for generations. I cannot, in good conscience, proceed without addressing a few of the more prevalent ones head on.

Myth #1

“The shotgun is so powerful it can dislocate your shoulder, especially with ‘magnum’ loads.” or some variation thereof. Unless you were previously injured, infirm, or cursed with abnormally brittle bones, the shotgun is not going a break your collarbone, dislocate your shoulder, or break your wrist. (Yes, one young trooper had been told that very thing.) Apply some simple manufacturer’s liability logic to this myth. If XYZ Company’s shotguns were dislocating people’s shoulders, do you not think that would represent a liability problem? Yes, if you try to hold the stock just off of your shoulder like many uneducated people will do, it will kick back and sting you. As a result, you get a bruise, not a broken collarbone. And yes, fifty to one-hundred rounds of 00 buck fired in a single session can leave you sore, but so does football practice, jujitsu, or any other physical sport if you exert yourself.

Myth #2

“As long as you point the gun toward the target you can’t miss.” Or “It’s impossible to miss at close range with a shotgun.” Sure, if you are shooting #9 birdshot from a cylinder-bore barrel the spread at ten, fifteen, twenty yards is going to be very wide.  However, we aren’t using birdshot to stop evil men, we will most generally be using 00 buck in the 8 or 9 pellet variety.

I have stood back and watched shooters completely miss a cardboard silhouette target from ten yards with a pump-action 12 gauge and 00 buck. Shotgun or not, you still have to apply basic marksmanship fundamentals. That front sight blade or bead needs to be on the target and stay there until you have pressed the trigger.

Shotgun shooters need pellet spread and patterning education. Using a standard cylinder-bore pump shotgun with an 18 to 20 inch barrel I have found (as have many other instructors) that 00 buck patterns will spread an average of ½ to 1 inch for every yard traveled. Yes, some patterns are tighter, but the ½ to1 inch model is a good benchmark. Translation: At five yards your 00 buck pattern is likely to be five inches or tighter. Yes, you can indeed miss a human with a shotgun.

Myth #3

“Shotguns are used when the target is beyond handgun range.” If you are using a shotgun loaded with slugs and the sights on that gun are zeroed, then yes, you can push your range out much farther. On the other hand, all the military units I have worked with issue 00 buckshot in the 9 pellet variety exclusively.

Down range view of 12 gauge scattergun.

Downrange view of 12 gauge scattergun.

Let’s refer back to our shot spread average of 1 inch per yard. If you are shooting at a humanoid target with a cross-section of 18 inches and the distance to target is 25 yards, it doesn’t take an MIT graduate to calculate that a percentage of those pellets are going to completely miss your target. The farther away you move, the larger that shot cone becomes.

So, if a shotgun loaded with 00 buck is not a distance weapon, what is it?  It is a power weapon or as I like to call it a power tool. According to Winchester’s factory data, their Ranger 00 buck 9 pellet load is traveling an average 1145 FPS out of the muzzle. A 00 buck pellet is .33 caliber and weighs about 54 grains. That’s 486 grains of copper coated lead striking the target simultaneously at better than 1000 feet per second. That, my friends, is where the power comes from.

Closing Thoughts

We have spent some time here considering the combat shotgun. We have even busted some of the more common myths that center on the scatterguns. If you take one thing from this piece it should be that the shotgun is a powerful weapon. Especially for self-defense.

Should you choose a pump-action or semi-automatic? The choice is up to you. Each one has distinct advantages and attributes. The Mossberg 590 is tough and reliable pump-action fighting gun. Conversely, the M4 semi-automatic shotgun from Benelli is so robust that it met the U.S. Marine Corps toughness test.

The primary question you must ask yourself is this: what is your mission and what do you wish to accomplish? In the end the choice is up to you.

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Paul G. Markel has worn many hats during his lifetime. He has been a U.S. Marine, Police Officer, Professional Bodyguard, and Small Arms and Tactics Instructor. Mr. Markel has been writing professionally for law enforcement and firearms periodicals for nearly twenty years with hundreds and hundreds of articles in print. Paul is a regular guest on nationally syndicated radio talk shows and subject matter expert in firearms training and use of force. Mr. Markel has been teaching safe and effective firearms handling to students young and old for decades and has worked actively with the 4-H Shooting Sports program. Paul holds numerous instructor certifications in multiple disciplines and a Bachelor’s degree in conflict resolution; nonetheless, he is and will remain a dedicated Student of the Gun.

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