About Guns

Shotgun Basics

The shotgun is unique in its ability to fire shells containing varying numbers of pellets, different sized shot and slugs. It is really quite a versatile defense tool that can be a lot of fun to train with. Let’s go over some shotgun basics:


The term “gauge” describes bore diameter. Unlike “caliber“, used for handguns and rifles, the larger the number, the smaller the bore. (The “bore” is the inside diameter of the barrel.) So a higher gauge number means the internal diameter of the barrel is smaller. A smaller gauge number means the internal diameter of the barrel is bigger. For example, a 12-gauge bore is bigger than a 20-gauge bore. Shotgun ammunition is measured in gauge rather than in caliber.

Which Gauge is best for a woman?

Generally, the 20 gauge is a better choice for a woman for home defense. A 20 gauge will be easier to handle, have less recoil and provide more than adequate stopping power. Many woman can handle and prefer the added power of a 12 gauge but your physical size and your ability and/or your sensitivity to recoil will be determining factors.


There are two types of shotguns and “action” describes how they cycle rounds.

  • Pump Action shotguns, also known as slide action shotguns – will require you to have to slide the action backward and forward manually to load each shell. They are low-maintenance and in experienced hands, deadly fast. They can hold as many shells as the tubular magazine under the gun’s barrel can hold. This  means you can shoot multiple shots in fairly rapid succession. This does however require practice.
  • Semi automatic shotguns – A semi automatic action uses the force generated by a previous shot to automatically eject the empty shell case and chamber the next round after each shot (cycle). They can be fired as fast as the shooter can pull the trigger. Semi automatics have less recoil which makes them appealing to many women.

Which is better for a woman to use for home defense?

I would suggest a gas-operated semi automatic 20-gauge for most women. The gas-operated semiautomatic has a much softer kick than any other shotgun type firing the same shell. The 20 gauge is readily available in an 18″ length and in junior sizes which tend fit a woman’s size better. The semi automatic shotgun can shoot multiple shots quickly and without any manual action. However, the semi automatic shotgun is more expensive than a pump action shotgun. It is also a more complex machine and requires proper cleaning and care.

Manual Operation

The advantages of manual operation are the lower cost and the gun’s ability to handle a variety of ammunition. A number of semi automatic shotguns will not cycle low-powered bird shot, a common and inexpensive choice of ammunition for training. Since the shooter does all the work manually, a pump action shotgun can fire a greater variety of ammunition. Pump action shotguns can also operate when dirty or not properly lubricated. On the down side, the pump action shotgun will have more felt recoil than a semi automatic shotgun of the same gauge and must be manually “pumped” for each shot.


Size matters in two important aspects: length of barrel and length of pull.

The length of the shotgun barrel typically ranges from 18″ to 28″. A long shotgun barrel is more difficult to maneuver around corners and through a house.  Perhaps the 18″ barrel is the best option for home defense.

Length of pull refers to the distance from gun butt to the trigger. If the size of the shotgun is wrong for your body, you are going to be less accurate and it will be difficult for you to work the controls on the gun. While after-market (add on) stocks allow for an adjustable length of pull, consider purchasing a youth-sized shotgun. These shotguns have a shorter stock and are typically less expensive.

How do you know if your shotgun fits you?

As a general rule, when the butt of the shotgun is held in the elbow crook of your bent arm, the first joint crease on your index finger should fully contact the trigger. The 20 gauge youth shotguns fit this dimension perfectly for many women and should be seriously considered when buying a home-defense shotgun.

If a youth model is too short, you can add a recoil pad to the backend of the stock which both dampens the felt recoil enormously and adds length to the stock.


Choke is the degree of constriction machined into the muzzle end of the barrel. It’s a way of controlling the size of the pattern or spray at a given range. The tighter the choke, the tighter the pellets are squeezed together and the tighter then pattern over a longer distance. Conversely, the less restriction you have in the shotgun choke the more loosely the pellets are held together and the faster the pattern opens up.


Shotgun ammunition is measured in gauge. Ammunition manufactured for them comes in a wide variety of types, sizes and power. The gauge number is on the shotgun ammunition box. Your shotgun ammunition must match the gauge of your shotgun.

Shell Length

The length of the shell is another very important factor. Not all lengths will feed in all shotguns. The common lengths are 2-3/4 inches, 3 inches, and 3-1/2 inches. The longer the shell, the more shot pellets and powder it can contain. Shotguns designed to load a shorter shell should never be used to fire a larger shell, even if the larger shell physically fits within the gun. This can be extremely dangerous as the gun may not be able to handle the higher pressures a more powerful ammunition produces.

Shell Type

There are three basic types of shells:

  1. High brass shells are shells that have a brass base which extends up the shell body by about 3/4 of an inch.
  2. Low brass shells have a narrow band of metal around the base of the shell. Low brass ammunition is generally less powerful than high brass.
  3. Active shells are formed entirely of plastic. There is only a miniature metal button holding the primer in the center of the case head. Active shells are useful for hunters and those whose ammunition is at risk of getting wet in the field as they are nearly impervious to rust.

Dram Equivalent (power)

Dram Equivalent describes how powerful the ammunition is. Originally, drams were a black powder weight measure but modern shotgun ammunition uses smokeless powder. Shotgun ammunition manufacturers use dram equivalents to indicate how much power the load has. The higher the dram equivalent number, the more energy the ammunition has and the faster the shot will travel.

To quickly stop an attacker, the pellets must penetrate his body deeply enough to cause internal damage and stop him immediately.

Shotgun pellets are classified into three general categories:

1. Birdshot, of which individual pellets are typically less than .20 caliber in diameter. Not recommended for a defensive round but excellent and less expensive for practice.

2. Buckshot –  varies in diameter from .24 caliber to .36 caliber. The recommended round for home defense.

3. Slug –  an individual cylindrical projectile discharged from a shotgun. As a single projectile, slugs require skilled aiming to be effective.

Which is best for home defense?

Buckshot is recommended for home defense. The larger the buckshot, the greater the stopping power and chances of over-penetration which could lead to injuring innocents in other rooms or buildings. In a densely populated home or neighborhood it minimizes the risk of over-penetration by using small game loads of #6 Birdshot or smaller. However, his sacrifices a great deal of effectiveness. Versatility in available ammunition is a great strength of shotguns. Just remember to choose your loads carefully and tailor them to your environment. The largest shot size commercially available is #2 buck.


If you’re considering a shotgun for home defense or already have one, we strongly suggest you attend a “defensive shotgun” training course from a reputable shooting school. It is one thing to be armed with a well-equipped high-tech shotgun and premium personal defense ammunition, but if you’re not comfortable or a skilled shotgun shooter, you’re the weakest link in your home defense weapon system.

Skill with the shotgun, like any other defensive firearm, requires competent instruction and dedicated practice. The shotgun is a powerful and effective weapon and a wonderfully fun sporting activity with skill and training.

Shotgun Links:

More detailed information about shotguns, shotgun ammunition, and shotgun use can also be found on Chuck Hawkes’ site at http://www.chuckhawks.com/index2c.shotguns.htm.


Continue reading the next section of Step 2: Guns and Children


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6 thoughts on “Shotgun Basics

  1. Dawn Quinn says:

    There are 3 types of shotguns
    1. Pump Action
    2. Semiauto
    3. Break Action

  2. Nan Dennis says:

    Thank you, we just purchased new shot gun.

  3. Anthony C. Parkinson says:

    Why no mention of the .410? Lighter and lower recoil. At close range for home defense seems perfect.

    1. Penny says:

      Can you expand on the .410 please.

  4. RCEME says:

    Any personal protection FA is useless if you do not have a plan or unpractised plan that everyone in the house really needs to take seriously. Ensure you know where everyone is before venturing into the crash in the dark with a loaded FA. First one in line “bird” next buck & next bigger buck. Some one getting hit with bird will usually make one think before pursuing but sometimes an escalation of force is required. Just ensure that you are not introducing a family member in search for a late night snack to heavy metal.

    1. Bobbie Novak says:

      Great article; going to look for a shotgun class in town asap

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