I consider myself a total shotgun nerd. I’ve become a bit obsessive about finding the right combinations of shotguns, ammo, chokes, optics, etc. I’ve dedicated a lot of time to studying, shooting, and documenting my results. Enough that I can wholeheartedly dig into the world of the best defensive buckshot loads on the market.
I’m not just going to hit you with a list of the best ammo types, but I plan to teach you a thing or two about using the shotgun for home defense. You’ll learn all about shotgun ammo today, and by the end, you’ll be able to confidently pick out your ammo and evaluate that ammo for your personal needs.
If you want to jump straight to my list of Best Shotgun Ammo, you’ll find my list here;
- Federal FliteControl 8 Pellet Reduced Recoil – Editor’s Choice
- Hornady American Gunner 00 Buckshot
- Hornady Black/Critical Defense
- Fiocchi Defense Dynamics 00 Buckshot
- Winchester Super-X No.1 Buckshot
- Winchester PDX1 Defender
- Remington Ultimate Defense No. 3 Buckshot
- Hornady Critical Defense .410
The Many Types of Shot
First, shotgun ammo is as simple as other types of ammo. You can’t just say get a JHP and move on. This is primarily because shotguns come in three different shot types. We get buckshot, slugs, and birdshot. Inside those three categories, we have even more subcategories of ammunition.
The most effective round for home defense in a shotgun is buckshot. Buckshot penetrates deep, hits hard, and hits with a multitude of projectiles per trigger pull. Buckshot varies wildly in size between the smallest, No.4, and the largest 000 shot. These numbers coordinate with the size of each projectile.
The smallest, No. 4, contains .24 caliber pellets, and 000 uses .36 caliber pellets. In between, we get several shot sizes with various-sized pellets. Within the realm of buckshot, we have two that stand out.
The first is 00 buckshot, which fires .33 caliber pellets. This shot size stands out as being the most popular load, including multiple, purpose-built tactical loads. 00 buckshot penetrates deeply and transfers a hefty load of lead into the target. A 00 tactical load of buckshot is the best option for defensive shooting.
Number 1 buckshot fires .30 caliber pellets, and the slightly smaller size allows you to pack more pellets per shell. Number 1 buckshot penetrates deeply and reliably, and when you weigh a load of No. 1 compared to a load of 00, the No. 1 ultimately provides more lead. No.1 is the most efficient buckshot load but tends to be harder to find with seemingly no purpose-built tactical loads.
Slugs are a solid piece of lead that easily weighs an ounce. This massive, single projectile smashes into and through targets. In most shotgun calibers, they will certainly reach deep enough to hit the vitals. Slugs extend the effective range of shotguns, but that’s not needed in a home defense scenario.
Using slugs for home defense is an effective option, but it cannot create multiple wound cavities at close range like buckshot. They are an option but not the best option. A lot of slugs will over-penetrate, especially if they hit a thinner area of the body. If you choose to use slugs, go with a segmented or expanding slug designed for tactical applications.
What about birdshot? Well, the name should be an indicator it’s a no-go. Birdshot is designed to kill small animals and cannot effectively penetrate the human body deep enough to stop a threat reliably. Unless your threat is birds and you’re in the Crows Have Eyes 2.
I’m not saying birdshot is harmless or can’t stop a threat. I’m saying choosing birdshot for home defense is choosing a maybe instead of a definite. Birdshot is made for birds, and even heavy birdshot designed for big birds isn’t great for defensive use.
The most common excuse to use birdshot is safer because it won’t penetrate walls. If your concern is missing with birdshot isn’t the answer, more training is the answer.
What about No. 4?
The no. 4 buckshot is a round that is constantly suggested as a great home defense choice. The logic being the smaller projectiles are less likely to penetrate walls should you miss. They’ll penetrate fewer walls, but those pellets still often chew through 8 pieces of drywall. Yep, that’s less than 00 or No. 1, but it’s not this miracle round people make it out to be.
No. 4 Buckshot rides the line on penetrating deep enough to stop a threat. The general standard is 12 inches of properly tuned ballistic gel. No. 4 can penetrate to the proper depth but doesn’t always penetrate to that depth.
No. 4 buckshot is often used for varmint hunting and is great for taking coyotes and similar animals on the run. There aren’t any dedicated tactical loads with No. 4 buckshot, and the loads are typically designed to spread quickly to make hitting moving targets easier.
In a home defense scenario, you don’t want a widespread because it increases the chance of an errant pellet flying through your home.
Defensive Shotgun Calibers
In the United States, there are three major shotgun calibers that dominate the market. We have 12, 20, and 410. Calibers like 16 and 10 gauge are certainly viable but are a bit uncommon and not worth diving too deep into.
12 gauge – 12 gauge is the best and most popular defensive shotgun option. It provides the right balance of power and recoil and shotgun size. 12 gauge is the choice of military and police forces. Most defensive shotgun loads are designed around the 12 gauge loading.
20 Gauge – 20 gauge can work well for home defense and provides a lightweight alternative with lighter recoil than the 12 gauge. While it works, finding defensive 20 gauge loads, fighting shotguns, and accessories can be tricky.
What About .410? – .410 is the only shotgun load I know not measured in gauge. It’s the smallest shotgun caliber and is equivalent to 67 gauge. It’s super small, and a shotgun chambering it is quite lightweight. They also barely recoil, but they also tend to be pitiful ballistically, and the small size reduces the number of pellets in a .410 load.
.410 can stop a threat, but it’s far from optimum. If .410 is the only round a shooter can chamber, then the shooter will be better served with a semi-auto rifle or PCC.
The Best Shotgun Ammo for Home Defense
Below I have 8 picks for the best shotgun ammo for self-defense. I go over my favorite choice, best budget loads, most efficient, best slug for home defense, and more. Check out my list below and some options of where you can pick these loads up.
Editors Choice – Federal FliteControl 8 Pellet Reduced Recoil
The king of kings for defensive buckshot is the Federal FliteControl 8 pellet reduced recoil buckshot load. Federal uses a specially designed wad that is known as the FliteControl wad. This shot cup embraces the pellets until they leave the barrel of the gun.
This ensures you get a superbly tight pattern. At ten yards, it’s one large hole in the target. At 15 yards, it’s still tight enough to cover with your palm. The eight pellet load eliminates something known as the 9th pellet flyer. Nine pellet shotgun loads will have the occasional errant pellet that strikes far outside the pattern.
This load extends your effective range and gives you a very capable option for home defense. Recoil is hardly an issue, and this load ensures you maintain control over your firearm in a fight. FliteControl gives you the hands-down best defensive shotgun load on the market. It’s my load of choice.
Hornady American Gunner 00 Buckshot
Coming in at a close second is the Hornady American Gunner load. Hornady does some weird things with their loads and the names of their loads. This used to be their reduced recoil critical defense load, but now it’s called American Gunner. Hornady uses a wad similar to Flitecontrol known as the Versatite wad.
This wad acts a lot like the FliteControl wad. However, in my experience, it doesn’t pattern as tight, but pretty close. This load gives you a high-performance buckshot option that will make accurate and threat-ending shots possible. It’s highly unlikely you’ll have an errant pellet.
The load uses an eight pellet loadout and has a 1,350 FPS velocity. It’s got slightly more recoil than most reduced recoil loads but isn’t hard to control. When FliteControl isn’t available, American Gunner is my go-to. Hornady has a history of high-quality ammunition that cycles, ejects, and fires reliably, and American Gunner is no different.
Best For Finnicky Semi-Autos – Hornady Black/Critical Defense
Semi-auto shotguns are a great option for home defense, and my preferred choice of home defense shotgun is semi-auto. Some semi-auto shotguns can be finicky and require a certain velocity and dram to function. If that’s the case, you should take a peek at the Hornady Black/Critical Defense loads. Remember how I said Hornady could be annoying?
Well, Black and Critical Defense are the same loads sold under different names. This load does use the Versatite wad but flies out at 1,600 feet per second. It’s fast and full-powered and will make sure your semi-auto shotgun cycles reliably. The Black load patterns are tight and are certainly solid at home defense range.
The Hornady Black and Critical Defense load holds eight 00 pellets, so no 9th pellet flyer problems. The patterns are entirely consistent and hit hard. You’ll be able to easily zero an optic to the pattern and have issues stopping your threat.
Best Budget Load – Fiocchi Defense Dynamics 00 Buckshot
When you see the price of some of these loads, it gets expensive, very expensive. Hornady and Federal’s premium loads cost $1.50 apiece on a good day, and it’s not uncommon to see them cost $2.00 a round. Buying a single box is fine, but buying enough to train with, load your gun, and pattern gets pricey.
The Fiocchi Defense Dynamics load costs less than a buck a round and packs a lethal but reliable load. This nine pellet 00 buckshot load falls into the reduced recoil category. The pattern isn’t going to be as tight as a premium load, but it’s pretty dang good for a budget load. The recoil isn’t stiff, and the load provides a controllable shot.
The projectiles are hardened lead that resists deformation and ensures accuracy and consistent penetration. While Fiocchi isn’t an American company, these loads are manufactured in the United States.
Most Efficient – Winchester Super-X No.1 Buckshot
No. 1 buckshot deserves a purpose-built tactical load. Federal used to make one, but it’s sadly been discontinued. Winchester’s Super-X load provides a reasonably good home defense load. It’s more or less aimed at hunting, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work for home defense, especially when paired with an improved cylinder choke.
The Super-X No. 1 buckshot load features a high brass load that ensures consistent ejection and unmatched reliability. Winchester uses a hinged wad that provides a consistent and capable, reasonably tight pattern. With a velocity of 1,250 FPS, it’s a low recoil round.
The benefit of using a No.1 load is easy to see. Each pellet of No.1 buckshot weighs 40 grains, and you get 16 pellets in a Super-X load. A normal 00 pellet weighs 53.8 grains, and you get nine of them in a 2.75-inch shell. 16 x 40 = 640 grains of lead and 9 x 53.8 = 484.2. No.1 loads are simply more efficient.
Best Slug For Home Defense – Winchester PDX1 Defender
While I advise the use of buckshot for home defense, I wanted to leave what I think is a solid slug load. The Winchester PDX1 Defender slugs are well suited for home defense if you want to use slugs. These are segmented slugs designed to break apart when they strike a soft target.
This prevents over-penetration and creates one ounce of lead that rips and tears throughout the body. To be clear, I’m not talking about the PDX1 slug loads that pack three pellets of buckshot. Those suck, but the standard PDX1 loads are excellent. These are full-powered slugs and don’t slack in the recoil department, so be prepared for a little sting.
With that said, they are quite capable and very accurate. Within home defense ranges, these slugs will strike with easy precision. I suggest pairing them with ghost ring sights or an optic to maximize accuracy.
Best 20 Gauge Defensive Load – Remington Ultimate Defense No. 3 Buckshot
There are very few tactical loads if you are looking to use a 20 gauge shotgun for home defense. One of the most evident and affordable is the Remington Ultimate Defense load. This load gives you 17 pellets of No.3 buckshot. No.3 buckshot is a load almost entirely exclusive to 20 gauge, and it can consistently penetrate deep enough to stop a threat.
When you pack 17 pellets of No.3 into a shell, it hits hard and offers a lot of lead on target. It’s a weighty load that puts a lot of lead on target and hits hard. This load uses Remington’s managed recoil system and has a velocity of 1145 feet per second. It keeps your 20 gauge shotgun recoiling fairly light and makes it easy to stay on target for repeated rounds.
The 20 gauge isn’t the best option, but it’s still plenty lethal when properly loaded. Per shot, this load delivers over 1,000 foot-pounds of energy on target. That’s not bad for the meager 20 gauge load.
Best .410 Defensive Load – Hornady Critical Defense
.410 kind of sucks for home defense. It’s a shotgun load so thin it’s best described as cute. However, if you are insistent on using .410 I feel obliged to provide you with a decent load that works effectively in a defensive scenario. The best load I’ve seen is Hornady’s purpose-built Critical Defense load.
This load mixes two 35-caliber buckshot pellets with a 41-caliber FTX slug. The flex tip technology gives you an expanding projectile that hits hard and penetrates deep. Behind it are the two big, heavy 35-caliber pellets that penetrate well and can reach the vitals of an attacker with ease.
It’s one of the few .410 loads I’d trust my life to. I’d still suggest a more powerful shotgun, but this load will at least penetrate, expand, and stop the threat with good shot placement.
Pattern, Pattern, Pattern
When you’ve located a round of buckshot you prefer for defensive use, you have to get out there and test it. This test is called patterning. Patterning is the act of shooting a round of buckshot at a target at a predetermined range. You then observe the shot patterns.
Different loads pattern differently from different shotguns. It’s not always predictable, and therefore an individual shotgun needs to be patterned to an individual load. You should pattern your defensive shotgun with your defensive load of choice at various ranges.
I’d start at five yards and then seven, and maybe ten. You want to pattern your shotgun for the longest possible shot inside your house. If the shot load patterns excessively and strays off target for a center mass shot, then you might want to try a different load. A tighter pattern is preferable for defensive use.
What About Chokes?
A choke is a device inside the barrel that works to restrict your shot pattern. Chokes come in various constriction levels and can affect your shot patterns. They often make the shot load pattern tighter. The most common chokes are cylinder, improved cylinder, modified, and full.
Most defensive shotguns come with a cylinder bore, meaning there is no extra restriction on the shot pattern. Shotguns with interchangeable chokes have become more and more popular, even in the tactical world.
For defensive use, an improved cylinder is about as tight as you want to get. Anything tighter causes the pellets to bounce off each other and deform. Deformed pellets tend to penetrate less and can fly unpredictably.
What’s the best shell length for defensive use? There used to be a time when shell lengths were pretty standard. These days they tend to run a wide gamut. You can purchase shells as short as 1.75 inches all the way up to 3.5 inches. So what’s best for defensive use?
If you are using a 20 or 12 gauge, then you should go with the 2.75-inch shell length. The 2.75-inch shells offer the most bang for your buck and balance recoil with a hefty load of lead. They also cycle reliably in repeating shotguns.
With .410 3-inch offers the most buckshot for your bang, but 2.5-inch shells allow you to fit an extra shell in your gun. With .410, you can choose either 2.5 or 3-inch shells.
Three and three and a half-inch shells are designed for hunting, and while they pack more lead, they often pack substantially more recoil as well. They aren’t great for defensive use.
Mini shells don’t pack the same punch as the 2.75-inch shells and don’t cycle reliably in repeating shotguns.
Reduced Recoil Rules
For defensive use, I want you to learn a term called ‘Reduced Recoil,’ and I want you to love it. Reduced recoil or managed recoil loads do a few things. Obviously, the first is they lower recoil and make the gun more controllable. That’s pretty important because shotguns are known to be shoulder thumbers.
Reduced recoil loads involve lower velocities, and buckshot at lower velocities tends to pattern tighter. I’ve tested two identical loads. One is a 1,250 FPS load, and one is a 1,600 FPS load. The 1,250 FPS load patterned tighter.
Exotic Loads Are a No Go
The unique nature of shotguns and their big, smoothbores means you can essentially shoot anything you shove down them. This attracts a number of silly, albeit fun loads. You can get Dragon’s Breath, which turns your shotgun into a flame thrower, flechette loads that fire a group of darts, or any odd combinations.
These are fun, but don’t replace a good buckshot load with silly exotic loads. Stick with proven defensive loads.
The Scatter Gun
The shotgun is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. It’s always been a powerful tool that’s often nicknamed the repeating claymore for a reason. These heavy-hitters can be an awesome choice for home defense. However, they are only as good as the ammo in them. Choose the right ammo, and you’ll be well prepared to defend what’s yours.
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