While people still snicker at Joe Biden’s famous "self-defense" advice (“Buy a shotgun! Buy a shotgun!...If there’s ever a problem, just walk out on the balcony and fire two blasts outside the house….”), I’m still disappointed by the widespread belief that the shotgun requires less skill at arms than other guns used for defense. And by people who should know better! It’s not just what people like Joe Biden have said—though he certainly did us no favors. Misinformation about all firearms continues daily, simply through osmosis—what people see on TV and in the movies, what they hear others say. But the myth seems to be the worst for shotguns.
If only more shotgun users would seek training in their defensive use!
Firing a shotgun is not a point-and-shoot proposition. This is a widely held misconception that undoubtedly arose from the fact that shotguns are often used to fire ammo consisting of multiple (sometimes hundreds) of pellets (“shot”). These pellets spread apart as they travel from the muzzle to the target—spreading more the further they go. This creates a pattern of pellet strikes that can cover a yard or more, depending on the distance to the target. The mere idea of a “spread pattern” leads some to believe that less accuracy and precision are required of the shotgun operator. Not so—especially when lives are at stake.
The use of a shotgun, especially for home defense, may mean close-in conflict. This in turn can result in whatever ammunition you’re firing behaving more like a single projectile: The closer the target, the less opportunity multiple projectiles have to separate, and the more they behave like a single mass. Add to this fact that there are many places to hit a threat—two- or four-legged—that are completely ineffective. In terms of how you must aim, shooting a shotgun for home defense can be akin to shooting a handgun or rifle for the same purpose...that is, it’s not any easier. Ironically, if distances are such that pellets do spread, making sure that all your projectiles hit their intended target—and nothing, or no one, else—becomes an additional issue. Add to this the fact that, the further away the pellets get, the less energy they deliver to the target. Now you have even more to contemplate.
Training in the use of a defensive shotgun isn’t just about understanding ballistic characteristics. In a sense, the shotgun can provide the best of both worlds: multiple projectiles, single projectiles and a variety of each! But it’s precisely this duality that makes the shotgun more complex to manipulate appropriately and effectively. Use it without proper training, and you may impact unintended targets. Use it without proper skill, and you may not address your threat at all.
Training can develop your skills, but it provides something else too. Anything we do for defense of life and limb should be as reflexive as possible. We should minimize the amount of active thought we need to spend to respond, because if we do, then we can use that energy and focus to more efficiently solve our problem. Proper training—and the practice of that training—develops faster mental and physical responses, even in stressful, defensive conditions.
A good, basic defensive shotgun class will help you understand your shotgun’s capabilities. For example, how can you outfit your gun so it’s the best home-defense firearm for you? Or, let's say that you only have your hunting shotgun. How can it be used as a home-defense tool? And since any shotgun can shoot a variety of ammo, you'll need to learn how to change what you’re shooting in fewer than two seconds.
Your training should also provide you with information about how to operate your shotgun under stressful, life-and-death conditions: You store your shotgun with an empty chamber, and need to use it NOW. What do you do first? Or, you raise your gun, aim and fire…and get a click instead of a bang. What now? Or, let's say that it's dark—can you get your shotgun in condition and in position for use? Can you operate a light with it?
Ideally, your class will also give you the opportunity to execute these manipulations with your firearm, and with live ammunition, so that you have the hands-on experience with them. Most importantly, your class should provide you with enough fundamentals so that you can continue on to practice these techniques, and build your skills and confidence.
It may sound corny to talk about “being one” with one’s defensive tool, or “to make it an extension of you,” or any of those other words we use to try—however unsatisfactorily, however feebly, however insufficiently—to communicate the bond, but it’s a bond we need to have. Firearms training provides a unique opportunity to develop that special familiarity and kinship with your gun. Simply learning “how to” load, unload and press the trigger of a shotgun is one thing, but really having to work with it to accomplish goals and solve problems allows you and your gun to become a team. And that’s what you need in order to defend yourself with it.
By the time I took my first defensive shotgun class, I had been operating shotguns in both hunting and competitive (clays) settings for decades. And pretty effectively too. As a hunting guide, as a sometime-nationally ranked shooter, I was smug, to say the least. What I learned in that class changed my shotgunning world and greatly humbled me. By the end of the first day, I was viewing that familiar and comfortable piece with new respect. By the third day, I was doing things that I’d never thought of before. By the fifth day, I was doing things that I never thought possible. Throughout, I was training to think of and use that shotgun like a lifesaver—something that neither my hunting nor my competition training and practice ever provided.
Since then, the shotgun has become my favorite home-defense tool. Not everyone agrees with me. But if you have any interest at all in using a shotgun for defense—and absolutely if you happen to have one at home—getting trained to use it is critical. It could well save your life.
Editor's Note: Looking for training? You can search for courses offered by the NRA here. Or if you'd like to visit Gunsite, where Il Ling New teaches, click here.