Friday, September 4, 2009

Patterning and Zones of Effectiveness

Okay, in this segment, we are going to talk about two related concepts. Patterning your tactical shotgun and the selection of ammunition for use in the self-defense shotgun. Patterning your shotgun provides you with valuable information on the performance of your gun and ammunition combination. This information will allow you to make informed choices on your load selection to match your particular shooting situation.

First it helps to consider the difference between fact and fiction. Thanks again to our friends in Hollywood, the average uninformed citizen sees a shotgun as a weapon that blasts an impenetrable wall of destruction from the muzzle to infinity, mowing down everything in its path. This is a dangerous misconception.

The shot load exits from the barrel of the shotgun at the same diameter as the bore it just left. It cannot do anything else. A shot load is then going to disperse from a cylinder bore barrel roughly at a rate of approximately 1” for every yard it travels. So, it will give you a pattern approximately 11’ in diameter at a range of 10 yards. I say approximately because, of course, this is going to vary, depending up on the type of barrel you are using and the type of shot charge that is being fired.

This is important when you consider the fact that a shotgun is a pattern weapon. In other words, it delivers its projectile (a shot charge) to the intended target in a pattern. Understanding the effect of distance on that pattern is very important.

The effective range of a shotgun can be thought of in terms of zones. In the first zone (call it “A”) which is from the muzzle to a distance of approximately 6 yards, you must consider the charge as a single projectile. In other words, despite what you see in the movies, you must aim your shot, or you can miss, just as with the case of the handgun or the rifle. Simply throwing the gun up and blasting away, confident that you will destroy anything in its path like you would with a Klingon death ray will not be effective and can get you killed.

In the second zone (“B” – what else?), the shotgun reigns supreme. From approximately 7 yards to 20 yards, it excels as a stopper. The shot charge begins to transition into a dispersed pattern and can deliver an extremely hard-hitting impact to the target.

Past 20 yards, we move into Zone “C”. The pattern continues to transition, but it is spreading wider and as it does, it raises the question of whether you are going to be able to put enough pellets on target to deliver a telling blow. This means you are back to aiming, and at some point, you will be considering moving from the shot charge to a single projectile slug charge, which can be effective out past 100 yards, based upon your ability to fire the weapon accurately at that range.

Since FBI statistics demonstrate that most law enforcement shootouts involving use of the rifle are at ranges that don’t exceed 75 yards, this shows that the shotgun can be an effective tool at that range if you are selecting the right load and are skilled at placing accurate fire under those circumstances.

So, how do you pattern your shotgun? Patterning for the tactical shotgun is done at 10 yards, or within the “B” zone. You should use a variety of shot loads and brands of ammunition at that range to see what the combination of your barrel and those loads will produce. In addition to everybody’s perceived favorite of 00 buckshot (“double-ought”), you should also consider using No. 4 buckshot as well as No.2 shot.

Many self-defense experts recommend sticking with No. 4 buck as a self-defense load (more shot that is still a large projectile and knowledgeable trainers will counsel you to stay away from the magnum 3” shells. Standard 2 ¾ inch shells pack a very hard wallop, more than sufficient for self-defense, without the heavy recoil that can interfere with your ability to put multiple shots, rapid fire accurately on a target or group of targets.

Take a look at your pattern. Is it concentrating shot in the center of your target, or are you experiencing a “donut effect” where there is a noticeable absence of shot in the center and more peripheral hits?

If so, you may want to try a different brand of ammunition, this often will correct the problem, and no, I do not know exactly why, other than to say the combination of barrel and ammo has a decided effect on where it throws the shot charge.

Knowing where your shotgun is sending its shot charge is critical to your ability to know and understand the value of your tactical shotgun in a self-defense encounter. The tactical shotgun is a very combat effective weapon, if you maximize its effectiveness by focusing its shot charge in the center of your intended target. It is capable of doing more things than any other weapon system and uses its energy very quickly on the target medium. For these reasons, it is a very efficient home defense tool.

Next I will be discussing some aspects of the tactical use of the shotgun as a self-defense tool.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Self-Defense Shotgun

A friend just asked me what I thought of the shotgun as a home defense tool. As I went through an explanation of my high regard for that application, I decided to turn it into a blog topic, discussing various modifications I have employed to create a self-defense shotgun, or what is often referred to as a tactical shotgun.

The shotgun is a very powerful self-defense tool, ideal for home defense for a variety of reasons. Many people do not realize that the shotgun has been part of our military combat arsenal for many, many years and continues to be so today. However, it can easily be put to a wide variety of uses from home defense to recreational, including trap shooting, skeet and hunting. It can employ a wide variety of ammunition, including birdshot, buckshot and single projectile ball (or “slugs”) and when compared with handguns and rifles (and their ammunition), it is a relatively low cost alternative. Clint Smith of Thunder Ranch has been heard to say, “I don’t need a $1,000.00 shotgun. I need to learn to run the gun I’ve got.” Very true. It is combat effective up to and with proper training, and ammunition, beyond 100 yards. The registration requirements are, at least at present, much less onerous than those for handguns and rifles, and it can be employed with equal success both in the home and in an open outdoor environment.

Properly set up, a tactical shotgun should include specific features and equipment. In this example, I started with a Mossberg 500A, 12 gauge pump shotgun that I purchased, used, several years ago for $125.00.

I swapped the 28” standard barrel out for an 18 ½” cylinder bore police barrel. This one had a typical bead sight mounted on the barrel, so I had a ghost ring sighting system installed on the gun. Adjustable rear sight on the receiver, and front sight silver soldered to the barrel. This created a permanent sighting system. I added a heat shield to the barrel, since rapid fire during range practice and the real thing can heat the barrel quickly.

I installed a “side saddle” 6 round ammo carrier on the non-port side of the receiver

and have the option of using a 6 round “butt cuff” on the butt as well.

I also placed a Pachmyr recoil pad to absorb recoil. It’s fairly stiff since an overly soft pad can grab at clothing and interfere with the ability to shoulder the weapon to ready for firing.

I also swapped out the standard magazine plug for a plug drilled and tapped for a sling swivel. By replacing the standard stock with a polymer pistol grip tactical stock, I also gained a sling swivel installed in the underside of the stock.

This enables me to use a 1” nylon web sling for carrying the shotgun. I have not installed a tactical light at this time, but intend to, since the ability to illuminate targets in the dark is a vital part of the response to a self-defense situation.

There is debate over the issue of using a magazine extension. The extension requires a bracket, bolting the extension to the barrel.

Many people, including the expert gunsmiths at Gunsite near Prescott, Arizona, argue that the use of the bracketing system will alter the point of impact every time it is used. There is also concern about the effect of an overly long magazine spring, which, of course, is required with the magazine extension. These experts advocate use of the sidesaddle and butt cuff systems, to carry extra shells on the gun, coupled with reloading discipline that demands that you to use speed-reloading techniques to replace what you shoot immediately.

Next, I am going to explain the very important process of patterning your shotgun and the use of various types of shotgun rounds in varying applications.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


An important part of the process of considering and selecting a handgun for self-defense is that of deciding what caliber of handgun you intend to employ. Considering the fact that there may just be one hundred and eleventy thousand different combinations of bullet caliber, composition, weight, and velocity, that you might have to think about, this can appear at the outset to be a daunting task. However, if I do this right, this discussion might make that an easier job for you.

Step one requires that we identify the primary objective sought in using self-defense ammunition in the first place. Simply stated, it is to stop an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury that has been made upon the actor (or someone the actor deems it necessary to protect). The “actor” - that’s you – or me.

A bullet fired from a handgun may be effective in stopping that threat as a result of a number of different effects. Disruption of blood supply to the brain, impairment of the central nervous system, fracturing bones necessary for skeletal support, neural shock or the psychological impact some persons might experience as a result of being shot. A simpler way to put this is to say, the bullet needs to hit something vital to the operation of the human body and do enough damage to it that it stops working properly - real soon. If a fired bullet can repeat that process more than once during its travel into (or through) the body, that is even better.

It is not my intention to get into the physiology of wounds, or to try to do a lesson in human anatomy in this discussion. But hopefully, I have made the point that to be an effective self-defense choice, a handgun cartridge must be able to deliver its energy in such a fashion that it is capable of stopping the threat, right now.

Earlier, I did say “maybe effective” for a reason. Despite what a person might think, handguns are not terribly powerful tools and they can only do a limited amount of damage. Remember the story about the Sheriff who, when asked if he had brought his sidearm to a civic event because he was expecting trouble, replied, “No ma’am, if I was expecting trouble, I would have brought my rifle.” Funny story. Deadly serious point being made about the relative effectiveness of rifle cartridges versus handgun cartridges. Here, we are focusing on handgun cartridges and accepting the limitations that they inherently have.

But in the ultimate analysis, it doesn't really matter what the caliber of the bullet is or what the bullet is made of or how fast it travels. What matters is that it fulfills its primary objectives. And because there are any number of cartridges on the market capable of completing these tasks, debate rages in every corner of the kingdom about which is the “best” cartridge for self-defense. Some of the debate is healthy. Some of the debate is based upon claims that are so fanciful that they are ludicrous, or nearly so.

For example, let’s look at the widely popular 9mm parabellum:

”9 mm self-defense rounds are not capable of stopping an attacker and they never will be.” You’ve heard it, or read it, and so have I. So I posed that question to my father, a combat veteran from WWII Europe, who was hit by a single full metal jacketed 9mm round in the chest, fired by a German Officer commanding a machine gun emplacement. He said, “Well, it sure as hell stopped me.” “What happened to the German officer?”, I asked. “I killed him before I fell on my face and everything went black”. Do we have a “one shot” stop here? Sure, I guess, the officer fired once and it "stopped" my father. But thank goodness for papa (as well as me and my brothers and our progeny), the “stop” took him out of the action, but not before he inflicted several fatal wounds on his adversary with a Thompson .45 cal. sub-machine gun. However, numerous experienced self-defense experts do consider the 9mm to be quite effective in stopping an adversary. I know a number of them that carry the 9mm as a personal defense weapon, as do I and my spouse, from time to time.

Most commentators insist that it is imperative that you stick with hollow point ammunition as opposed to “ball”. ('Ball' is round-nosed ammunition with a full metal jacket). It is used for auto-loading firearms like semi-automatic pistols. It is often referred to as "full metal jacket" or “FMJ”. Ball ammo does not expand when it hits its target. The military use ball because it is not significantly prone to jamming in operation, and they are required to use ball under the terms of the Geneva Convention.

Former police detective and writer, Evan Marshall has written reports following studies conducted in 1992, 1996 and 2000. These reports are based upon the examination of thousands of actual shootings. However, his reports and conclusions are based upon the concept of the "one shot stop" where an attacker was incapacitated by one shot to the body other than the head. Marshall gave the 9mm Federal 115 grain JHP +P+ a 91% rating based upon it having been involved in 209 shootings with 190 one shot stops. My concern here is that while I do strive to achieve a one shot kill while hunting wild game, I do this to preserve edible meat. And if I am unsuccessful, I can always attempt a carefully aimed second shot. I do not intend to attempt to devour an assailant who attacks me in my home or on the street and I am not going to have time to stop and carefully assess whether my first shot was sufficient to stop his attack. So the concept of the one shot stop is virtually meaningless to me and I am suggesting that it is equally meaningless to you. It is sufficient to say that the 9mm cartridge possesses a sufficient level of stopping power to be considered a good self-defense choice. Which 9mm cartridge is a slightly different subject.

At least one handgun commentator has stated: “Be sure you have the heaviest grain bullet you can get.” Yet research has shown that the heavier 147 grain 9mm slug is not superior to the lighter, but faster 115 grain jacketed hollow point. Adopted by the FBI in 1988, it was found that the the 147 grain slug did not expand reliably and often passed through the suspect’s body without stopping, exposing innocent bystanders to injury. According to noted self-defense expert, Massad Ayoob, the lighter, faster 124 to 127 grain jacketed hollow point is considered by most experts to be the load of choice for the self-defense handgun chambered for the 9mm parabellum cartridge. However, the 115 grain jacketed hollow point also has an enthusiastic fan club as well.

So, in the end, you are still left with choices. .45 auto, or .40 S&W? .38 special or .357 magnum? What about the 9mm, or the .380? Is the .32 automatic capable of saving your life? Can you get by with a .25 auto, since the gun is small and easy to carry in a concealed fashion? What about a .22? I have a buddy that has a nifty .44magnum revolver with a special 3 inch barrel. Is this a good self-defense combination? Help! I'm lost . . . .

In the early 1900’s, General Julian Hatcher, a noted and respected firearms expert, developed an index to measure the relative “stopping power” of various cartridges. Known as the Hatcher Rating”, it has been widely quoted as the end all of discussions on the issue. According to its proponents, a rating of 50 or higher will produce a one shot stop approximately 90% of the time.

Problem solved? Not exactly. Any number of other experts consider Hatcher’s “ratings” to be based upon flawed research. Additionally, the Hatcher rating for a .44 magnum, lead wadcutter bullet is 136.8. Well then, that makes it simple. We should all carry the .44 magnum loaded with lead wadcutters, right? This is where the “one shot stop” crowd loses me.

You could use a bazooka for a one shot stop. But if you miss with your first shot, your ability to stay on target to deliver rapid follow up shots is non-existant. Have you ever fired a .44 magnum? Have you ever tried to fire three or four accurate shots from a .44 magnum in rapid succession? If you have, you realize that this is a very difficult task even for an experienced handgunner. I have one hell of a time doing it and I have been shooting big bore handguns for over 35 years. Okay, I can’t do it and I suspect that you can’t do it either.

And in the dark of the night, confronted with an adversary who is trying to kill me, whether by gunfire, or in the midst of a charge, armed with some other mechanical weapon, I am going to want to shoot accurately and keep shooting until that adversary is down and out of action. I cannot and will not shoot once, then stop to see if I have achieved the “one shot stop”. There are plenty of people in cemeteries who have tried that. I need to keep my gun in action, and firing as accurately as possible until the fight is over.

You can stop an attacker with well placed .22 rounds. But the .22 simply does not have the stopping power of a larger caliber bullet. Most experts will tell you that the .22 will have greater penetration than a .25 auto load. While the .32 and the
.380 cartridges have their own cheerleaders, the greater number of experts who study and write on the topic will tell you to stick with the .38 special in a jacketed hollow point, and up in order to maximize stopping power. This would include the
9mm, the .40 S&W, the .45 ACP as well as the .41 magnum and the .44 special. You can find an interesting discussion of a dizzying variety of cartridges at sites such as In this article, Chuck Hawks cites the reader to the work of Massad Ayoob. I do too, every chance I get. “Mas” Ayoob has made a lifelong study of such issues in his never ending effort to keep cops alive out on the street.

The one common thread that runs through the writings of people like this is the idea that you should find something that works for you and practice, practice and practice in a wide variety of situations and conditions to develop your own proficiency with, and understanding of the tool that you have chosen. After all, its your life, or the life of your loved ones you are trying to save. It should be worth your investment of time, energy and expense.

I did not set out to point you in the direction of the ubiquitous “best self-defense cartridge”. It does not exist because the variables do not permit it. But there is a good one out there for you. What do I use? As I have stated before, sometimes I carry a 9mm, the Kahr CW-9. Sometimes I use the .45 ACP in a full frame 1911. For home defense, I employ a Mossberg tactical pump shotgun, loaded with 2 3/4 inch number 4 buckshot. But that is backed up by a variety of other things that can be reached by either myself or my wife, depending upon the circumstances. With these ideas in mind, what you choose will be up to you. I hope that this discussion gives you some things to think about in making that decision for yourself.