or: why birdshot shouldn't be used for defensive purposes
A shotgun is an amazing firearm, but it may also be the firearm that has the most myth and misinformation associated with it. This article seeks to address only one of them, and that is the thought that target loads, i.e. birdshot, are good for defensive purposes.
An opening quote from noted ballistics expert Dr Gary Roberts:
“Law enforcement 12 ga. shotguns using buckshot of #1 or larger size offer greater close range physiological incapacitation potential than virtually any other commonly used shoulder fired weapon”
Firstly, let's discuss the FBI ballistics gel standard for duty/defensive loads. Their requirement is that any load that is "acceptable" must penetrate at least 12" of ballistic gel, but no more than 18". They also structure their testing such that not only must it do this with bare gel, but several of the tests require penetrating an intermediate barrier first, such as heavy clothing.
Now ballistic gelatin isn't human flesh. A human body has all sorts of things in it like bones, as well as areas of greater or lesser density depending on organs, muscle, fat, etc. A human is not a homogeneous block of gelatin. So, then, why use gelatin as a standard? Simply that, it is STANDARD. That means that you can test all sorts of ammunition types, get repeatable results, and compare them against each other directly, rather than trying to infer anything from completely different testing protocols, or trying to use anecdotal data.
Understand the 12-18" standard of gelatin penetration doesn't guarantee that same level of penetration vs a human form, but from what I have seen, ammunition that meets the FBI standards also seems to perform pretty well against the real thing. I've been privy to the details of several gunfights that have happened in our local area, and that includes what sort of ammunition was in play. I'm comfortable with using ammunition that meets the FBI guidelines. There is a reason that my 9mm pistol has 147gr Federal HSTs in it. But this article isn't about handgun ammunition, and I digress...
All of the ballistics tests I've seen for shotgun target loads indicate that you'll get 4-8" of penetration in gel, and that penetration falls off rapidly with only a modest increase in distance. Additionally, to get the higher end of that spectrum you'll probably have to use a 26" barreled gun with a fairly restrictive choke, not typically what most people envision when they're thinking of a shotgun set up for home defense! That level of penetration in gelatin typically results in even less penetration in humans. Usually birdshot will result in a very messy surface wound that has little likelihood of stopping a serious attacker.
One of the big reasons that I see people advocate target loads is the worry of penetrating walls and then hurting innocents on the other side of those walls. At any sort of close range, target loads will still blow right through sheet rock or plywood. The amount of energy that is retained after going through such a barrier will certainly be less, but it is still there, and that shot could still be injurious, if not fatal. A better plan would be to know the zones of fire in your house, and that means knowing where your children, roommates, neighbors, etc., are in relation to you, even through walls. The bottom line is that any ammunition that will penetrate an attacker sufficiently to do the job will also penetrate a fair amount of wallboard and other materials used for modern construction. The best back stop for your ammo is your attacker.
Another misguided idea that I've heard is loading the first round or two with target loads, then the next one with something that hits harder, and so on, until the last round in the tube is something akin to a small thermonuclear device. (I'm being hyperbolic on that last one.) Perhaps the thinking is that the first one or two are to be "nicer," and then we get much less nice as the evolution continues? The problem with this thinking is the notion that you get to dictate the terms of your fight. Fights dictate the terms to you, your only real choices center on the preparations you've made and your mental capacity to stay in the fight and win. Maybe you only get one round to stop the fight, there is no telling.
I have also heard people say that their house is so small that the range would never increase to the point of the target load becoming ineffective. If you have a shot inside your house that is greater than 5 yards, I wouldn't go betting on that. Target loads lose energy and cohesiveness very rapidly. It is true that exceptionally close range shots with a shotgun are likely to be quite injurious no matter what the ammunition in use, but you're back to trying to play the odds on a fight that you didn't pick.
Additionally, let me add the words of a friend with significant law enforcement experience, regarding the following quote about using target loads:
"It’s not the ideal ammo for defense but it’s better than nothing, and if you get them close and especially in the face they will go down."
"Maybe it's me, but if you're going to get defense ammo, maybe get some designed to do what you want it to do? I mean if you are hunting quail or something and someone attacks you in the field, or the world has ended, and that's the only ammo you have available, sure. But that better than nothing idea gets the gun owner hurt, and/or sued because they scoured the face off someone and disfigured them for life."
Right now you can buy a 50 round sleeve of 12 gauge Federal Low Recoil 8 Pellet 00 Buck from SG Ammo for approximately $35 plus shipping*. That's enough to test it out in your gun, see how it patterns, and still have plenty left over to keep in your shotgun for when things go bump in the night. I have found this stuff to pattern exceptionally well out of every gun that I've tried it in. Additionally the recoil is akin to powder puff levels from my perspective. It also meets the FBI standard in terms of penetration, which means that I can count on it to work properly should I ever need to use it for defensive purposes. Every other local area agency firearms instructor I've handed it off to resulted in them coming back to me with amazed looks on their faces, both in terms of patterning and recoil. I'm on a mission to get the cops around here who use shotguns to use that load, but I'm also on a bit of a mission to try and get YOU to use that load as well. I understand that Hornady has something similar and using similar technology, but I haven't tried that one out. The one that I know works is the one that I'm advocating you use as well.
I also understand that quality 00 buck is more expensive than target loads. I suspect that anybody reading this can probably afford $35 for some good ammo. Save the target loads for birds, clays, and practice. They work well in those regards and that is what I use them for! But when I have my shotgun sitting beside my bed for any unanticipated guests, it's loaded with the same stuff I'm advocating.
I should mention that I am not a fan of slugs for work inside the house, because I do believe that an over-penetration possibility is greater with those. That said, I do like having them available, and they were my preferred ammunition type for high risk traffic stops. Shotgun slugs are amazing vs aggressors using vehicle parts as cover. My preferred slug type in that case was the Federal Hydra Shok. Tim prefers the TruBall Slugs because they shoot to the same point of impact as 00 buck does in his shotguns. Either of those work really well and don't have too much recoil, so if you want or need slugs for any reason, those are the ones that would be on my short list. Obviously if you are in a situation where you may need to use a shotgun for longer range shots, i.e. outside of that 25-35 yard envelope, slugs would also be a much more ideal ammunition type to use.
Some selected links to help you in case you still aren't convinced:
*JDC has no financial interest in promoting either Federal Ammunition or SG Ammo. Any ammunition that I've used has either been paid for out of my pocket or my workplace's budget, and any ammunition ordered from SG has been done by paying full price with no consideration of any mention in any class, article, or video.