At this moment I have a safe full of nice and expensive rifles and handguns. But…it is a shotgun that sits by the bed.
Because, per trigger pull, it delivers the most terminally devastating payload possible from a controllable, shoulder fired firearm.
When it comes to home defense we all want the most effective weapon possible. Our family, our lives, and our homes deserve that protection.
That’s not the only reason though. Throughout this article we are going to dive into what the tactical shotgun is, why it rocks, and how to recognize and address the weaknesses.
Plus, we’ll cover our Top 5 Best Tactical Shotguns across all price points:
What is a Tactical Shotgun?
What separates a tactical shotgun from a hunting shotgun?
There are certainly a few different features that makes a shotgun ‘tactical’:
- 18 to 20-inch barrel: This length of barrel keeps the weapon short and maneuverable when used inside buildings or even vehicles. 18 inches is as short as you can legally go with a shotgun barrel without requiring a tax stamp and federal registration.
- Pump or Semi-auto operation: Shotguns come in every flavor imaginable. This includes pump action, semi auto, lever action, bolt action, and single and double barrels. P ump and semi-automatic actions are the only two that are practical for home defense. They are the fastest forms of operation for a shotgun.
- A good set of sights: Most shotguns come with a single bead at the end of the barrel that acts as a sight. These work for a lot of applications but if you want to squeeze the most out of your shotgun a front and rear sight are important, or even a quality red dot (Aimpoint, Trijicon, etc.)
- Sling Mounts: A sling allows you to attach the weapon to your body. This allows you to retain the weapon while using your hands for other tasks, and makes it difficult for an attacker to strip you of your weapon.
- Chambered in 12 or 20 gauge: 12 gauge is the most common combat shotgun caliber, especially when it comes to semi-automatics. The 12 gauge is the more powerful option as well. It is also makes the firearm larger, heavier, and recoils fiercely. A 20 gauge is still a very potent round and is much friendlier for smaller people.
- Capacity of 4+1 minimum: The shells a shotgun uses are quite large and therefore most shotguns are limited in capacity. 4 +1 will settle most encounters, but preferably you are using something more akin to 7+1 to give yourself that extra edge.
- A stock: Any fighting shotgun needs a stock. Pistol grip only shotguns are fun, look cool, and handy in some situations. However, a shoulder stock makes a shotgun much easier to handle, much easier to shoot accurately, and more comfortable.
What Can the Shotgun Do?
Why is a shotgun so effective?
I can fire the widest variety of projectiles from a shotgun. I can engage anything from pests like possums to two legged varmints, and even creatures as big as bears.
The shotgun has three primary loads:
- Birdshot: A load filled with small pellets, ranging from dozens to hundreds depending on the particular load used. Designed for hunting birds, clay pigeons, and other small game. Not very effective for home defense.
- Buckshot: A load of larger pellets commonly ranging in caliber from .24 (No 4 Buckshot) to .36 (000 Buckshot). Number of pellets vary per load and caliber of the ball used. Perfect for medium game and tactical applications. The most common is 00 (“double aught”) buckshot.
- Slugs: Solid projectiles, often quite larger, heavy and powerful. They allow you to extend your effective shotgun range.
The One Thing to Remember
A tactical shotgun is made to end the threat.
Load it accordingly.
When we start talking about using a shotgun defensively we will focus primarily on buckshot and slugs. Inside the home buckshot is king. If you keep a shotgun as a truck or trunk gun you can toss in some slugs for longer range encounters.
Ammunition for shotguns is ridiculously common. You have a wide variety of choices for buckshot and slugs for home defense as well. Every major ammunition company has a line of defensive shotgun ammo.
Per round price wise shotgun ammo seems quite expensive. I can get 9mm for 16 cents a round if I go looking. (Good) shotgun ammo is a little pricier.
It’s also much more effective.
Ammo Price Rundown
I train a lot with birdshot, especially for reload drills, and weapons manipulation, I can buy birdshot for 25 cents a round for training.
In a home defense situation, you will be in close quarters combat. CQC moves extremely fast and is supremely chaotic. You want to end the fight as fast as humanly possible. The last thing you want is an extended firefight happening in your home.
That’s why the shotgun rules in close quarters.
Looking for more choices? Check out the Best Shotgun Ammo for Self Defense & Range.
Paying to Play
A great quality shotgun can cost almost as much as a great quality rifle. See our most popular article…AR-15 Buyer’s Guide.
A quick search shows me the running price for a Daniel Defense AR-15 is $1700.
Meanwhile, a Benelli M4 goes for $1,700 also. Both of these weapons represent the best of the best when it comes to design and build quality.
On the opposite spectrum the cheapest AR I can find right now is the DPMS Oracle for $599.99.
I can find a Mossberg Maverick 88 for $220.
Shotgun Downsides + Fixes
With this, all said the shotgun does have some inherent weaknesses. A shotgunner needs to acknowledge these weaknesses and train or accessorize past them.
Training is certainly the primary means to overcome weaknesses.
Accessories also have their place on a shotgun.
1. Short Range
A shotgun will always have a shorter range than a rifle.
These range estimation are based on effective combat distances, not hunting birds range. There are also different factors that cause variance, like ammunition used and the presence or lack of a choke.
Buckshot is largely limited to roughly 25 to 35 yards.
This one is massively dependent on the load you use. In general birdshot is not the best defensive choice. It’s made for birds, which are significantly smaller than people. I’d say five yards for a critical wounding shot with most birdshot.
Birdshot is like putting a fire out with a bucket of water. You can do it, but a fire truck works a lot better.
Even when loaded with slugs you are looking at 100 yards effective range for a defensive encounter. Because of the shotgun’s inherent short range, you need to squeeze every yard possible out of it.
A choke is designed to constrict the barrel at different levels.
Different chokes produce different results with most ammunition. Some chokes are removable, some are fixed. Chokes can keep your pattern tighter, and give you a more effective range.
Most tactical shotguns have a cylinder bore, which is the lack of a choke and encourages a wider spread for CQC.
Maximize your Shotgun’s Range
As a shotgunner, this means having a solid set of basic marksmanship fundamentals.
This includes trigger pull, using sights, breath control, and turning your body into a stable firing platform. The old myth you can’t miss with a shotgun is just that, a myth.
Pattern Your Shotgun
This means trying a variety of loads and see which loads is the tightest out of your shotgun. When you pattern a shotgun you learn how the pellets hit over different distances. The old rule 1 inch for every yard is not always accurate. Again, chokes and ammo selection cause a lot of variance here.
With my Federal FliteControl 00 ammunition and a cylinder choke I get basically one ragged hole at 10 yards.
At 15 yards we have a palm sized group. At 35 yards I cover the A zone of a IPSC target, which is roughly a 6 x 11 inch rectangle.
Buckshot gives me about a fist size group at 10 yards. At 15 yards I’m hitting mostly in that same 6 x 11 inch rectangle. 20 yards and I’m covering the entire upper torso of a IPSC target. At 35 yards the entire target is covered and some pellets miss.
As you can see patterning is quite dependent on the weapon, the choke, and the ammunition.
Patterning will allow you to find the best load for your shotgun, and you can also squeeze out a little extra range from it. You should also test slugs, and see how and where the slugs hit, and zero your sights for slugs.
Why Do Sights Matter?
In terms of accessories, the best thing you can do here is get a good set of sights. Open rifle sights were the old standard, and they still work fairly well. However, a solid set of peep sights, mounted on the rear of the receiver are much better.
My favorite set is made by LPA and is completely adjustable for zeroing. Alternatively, you can use a short range optic. A good red dot like an Aimpoint or the Trijicon MRO are excellent choices for a shotgun.
2. Lower Ammo Capacity
You basic combat shotgun is a tube fed model, that typically contains 7 to 8 rounds.
Personally, I prefer tube fed for a shotgun over a magazine any day of the week. External box magazines are often bulky, and occasionally unreliable. A tube fed shotgun gives the user a smaller profile, and a reliable feeding system.
7 to 8 rounds is a relatively low ammo capacity compared to the 30 rounds a standard modern sporting rifle can hold, or even the 17 rounds most 9mm handguns can hold. To address this weakness you need to learn how to top off a shotgun.
In a perfect world, your shotgun will never go completely dry. You should always ‘top it off’ when possible. This means feeding the tube during every and lull in action.
One of the more common tactics is to fire two, load two. Maintaining this rhythm will keep you from ever running out of ammo.
To top off your shotgun you need to have ammo on hand. My personal preference is a side saddle ammo carrier.
This gives you a reload on hand as soon as you grab the weapon. So if something goes bump in the night, you can respond immediately and still have a reload on hand. Just remember to train with that side saddle, it isn’t there to just look pretty.
Lastly always keep the shotgun fully loaded.
There is no reason to pump your shotgun unless you are reloading for a second shot. Do not fall for the gun store gossip that, “racking the shotgun will scare them away.” It won’t, and you’ll give away your position.
The only time they should hear the sound is because you’re about to take a second shot.
The shotgun delivers a devastating payload into your target and can do the same for your shoulder. A shotgun’s recoil, especially the classic 12 gauge, can be quite fierce. It is still controllable, but when compared to a modern sporting rifle it’s quite powerful.
There are a few things you can do if recoil is an issue.
For a pump action shotgun, reduced recoil buckshot is an excellent idea.
Stance is still key.
You can also use the recoil from the shotgun to help you pump the weapon faster. As the inertia pushes your shoulder backwards you use that inertia to rack the shotgun. By the time the recoil impulse is over you’ll be ready to shoot again.
How a Semi-Auto Shotgun Can Be Better
You can also look into a semi-auto shotgun. The actions and operating systems of a semi auto shotgun reduce recoil significantly since either the gas or inertia is used to rack the next round.
Most will not cycle reduced recoil loads reliably, but it’s not really needed with a semi-auto shotgun.
A semi-auto shotgun can use several different operating systems, the most common being gas and inertia.
Gas powered shotgun diverts some gas from the barrel to the action. Just like in the AR-15 and other gas operated guns.
This gas is created by the gunpowder in the shells. As it burns and becomes gas it pushes the projectiles out of the barrel and cycles the shotgun simultaneously. Gas guns are typically more reliable with ‘lighter’ loads and reduce the most recoil.
Use That Inertia
Inertia systems essentially use the recoil of the shotgun to cycle the bolt.
The bolt carrier and what’s known as the inertia spring are not fixed to the receiver. The recoil caused by the gun firing causes the spring to compress and the spring then stores enough energy to send the bolt to the spring and hit the return spring to send the bolt back forward.
Inertia guns tend to be thinner and lighter than gas guns, and need less maintenance.
Top 5 Tactical Shotguns
With all this in mind, let’s look at the top 5 tactical shotguns on the market today…
1. The Military Standard – Mossberg 590A1
If you want one of the longest serving combat shotguns in your corner the Mossberg 590A1 ($520) is for you.
Built upon the standard Mossberg 500 ($379) receiver it’s hardened for combat and tactical use. Mossberg has built a wide variety of different configurations for the 590A1.
This includes Ghost ring sights, or night sights, fixed or collapsible stocks, and capacities of up to 9 rounds. Regardless of the features you choose, you are getting one of the best pump action combat shotguns ever designed.
Built for the dangers involved in military life, the Mossberg 590A1 is a solid combat shotgun. From the finish to the thick walled barrel the 590A1 is a tank.
You can even mount a bayonet to it if that floats your boat. As a pump action shotgun, it can handle everything from powerful magnum loads to the lightest reduced recoil ammunition, and even less lethal ammo types.
2. The Classic – Remington 870
Something can always be said about a classic hardwood stock and pump. Combined with the classic Remington 870 ($400) platform and you get a design that has lasted the test of time.
The Remington 870 gives you 6+1 capacity and an 18.5-inch barrel for maneuverability inside close quarters. You get a front rifle sight, so I would certainly suggest adding a nice adjustable rear sight.
The 870 design is so well known and so popular that there are tons of different accessories for it available.
This includes numerous different designs of sight saddles, and even scope mounts for a red dot.
You can swap the barrel with any other 870 barrel without modification as well.
Top it off with a solid sling and you end up with a perfect home defense pump action shotgun.
Intermission: Mossberg 500 vs Remington 870
We could stop right now if we wanted…since these two big boys of the tactical shotgun market are the two most suggested firearms.
But if you were to choose between these two dependable pumps…how would you?
No worries…we’re here to help!
- In materials, the 870 has the upper hand since its receiver is made out of steel while the Mossberg is alloy. However, for the normal user this will never be a problem.
- In ergonomics, we believe the Mossberg wins because of it’s placement of the slide release and safety. You can reach everything with your shooting hand.
- The Mossberg also gets some points in having two extractors on its bolt instead of the Remington’s one. This is a “just in case” sort of thing since the Remington has a huge following and history of reliability.
- One thing we don’t like is that the Remington’s ejector is riveted while the Mossberg’s can be removed and changed with just a screwdriver. If your 870’s ejector wears out or breaks, you’re going to your gunsmith.
- Both have similar accessories such as shell carriers to extend capacity (Remington 870, Mossberg 500) and forend grips with flashlights (Remington 870, Mossberg 500).
In the end…I chose the 590 since it holds more rounds (8+1) and I liked the placement of the safety on the top. But you really can’t go wrong with either. Hold them both in your hands and see which one chooses you!
3. The No Holds Barred Choice – Benelli M3
Am I biased in this choice? Maybe a little.
Ever since I saw the movie Heat I’ve loved the Benelli M3.
That love grew the first times I got some trigger time on one. First off, Benelli makes the best combat shotguns on the market, and yes, their price reflects it.
They innovate and grow shotgun technology with every design. What makes the M3 stand apart from other shotguns is its operating methods.
Yes, that plural.
The Benelli M3 can function as both a semi-auto shotgun or a pump action shotgun with the twist of a ring. It easily changes from semi to pump to for handling lighter loads, or less lethal ammunition.
The semi-auto mode reduces recoil and is one of the fastest cycling operations of any shotgun. As a Benelli you know it’s built to fight, and built tough enough to be an heirloom weapon.
My Benelli M2 is my primary semi-auto shotgun that I run in 3-Gun competitions. If you’re looking for the best pure semi-auto shotgun…that’s my choice!
4. The Budget Choice – Hatsan Escort Aimguard
If you are looking for something that is incredibly affordable, and extremely durable the Hatsan Escort series of shotguns may be for you.
The Escort Aimguard has a 7+1 capacity and comes with a 20-inch barrel or 5 + 1 with an 18-inch barrel.
One thing that is important to remember is the low price is not because the shotgun is poorly made. In fact, the Escort even has a chrome lined barrel and all metal components.
The pump is actually quite unique and placed more rearward than most shotguns.
This makes it much easier to use for people with shorter arms.
The pump actually passes the receiver when used. The shotgun is available in both Marine grade finish and standard blued for between a $150 to $200 dollars.
Want another choice for a budget shotgun? Check out our review of the Maverick 88 made by Mossberg.
5. Affordable Semi-Auto – Mossberg SPX 930
The Mossberg SPX 930 ($700) is the tactical derivative of the Mossberg 930 series.
Out of the box, this shotgun is ready to rock and roll in the tactical shelf. Out of the box, it’s ready to go.
It’s also one of the most reliable semi-auto shotguns and is priced affordably.
The 930 SPX is topped with an amazing set of sights, sling swivels, 7 +1 capacity and a Picatinny rail for mounting an optic.
Since it’s made by Mossberg you know it’s a quality firearm and backed with an excellent warranty. The 930 SPX is built like a tank, and the semi-auto action reduces recoil to a pleasant thump.
Adding a side saddle is incredibly simple, and there are a variety of options to go about it.
The ambidextrous safety is certainly handy. You also have a wide ejection port for speed reloads, and clear and consistent ejection.
A shotgun is a helluva weapon.
A tactical shotgun represents the absolute power a shoulder fired weapon can have. If you go the tactical shotgun route remember that like every weapon you need to train with it to be effective. A shotgun is only as good as the shotgunner holding it.
What shottie did you end up getting?