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The Fighting Shotgun: A Tool for Professionals, Not Amateurs

martial defensive shotgun training range
Courtesy Paul Markel

In September of 2019, several armed men, dressed in black, broke into a home outside of Houston. One of the residents ran for cover and the other grabbed a shotgun and exchanged gunfire with the home invaders. The score of the encounter: one resident wounded, three felons DOA.

Apparently the homeowner hadn’t read any articles that said a shotgun won’t work when multiple attackers are present.   

A Career with the Martial Shotgun

When I was eighteen years old I purchased a Winchester Model 1300 12 gauge shotgun but it wasn’t until I was in the Marine Corps as a member of the Security Forces Battalion that I had professional training with such a weapon. At first we were using Vietnam-vintage Remington 870 pump guns. When the Corps transitioned to the Mossberg 590A1, it seemed so much more modern and combat-ready than those old 870’s.

The 870’s we had were dressed with wooden furniture and most of the original finishes had long since worn off. Our new 590A1 shotguns had black polymer furniture, heat-shields, and bayonet lugs. We also quickly realized that they were not only easier to load, but also to unload after duty shifts had ended. 

After leaving active duty for the first time (another story for another day), I went to the police academy where we had even more thorough and extensive shotgun training than what I got in the Corps. When I earned my state certification to become an Ohio Peace Officer, there were shotguns in every cruiser and we ‘re-qualed’ with them annually.

Of the many lessons regarding the shotgun that stuck with me, I recall the discussion of realistic shot patterns or spread. It was explained by our academy instructors that, “Standard 00 buckshot will spread between ½ and 1 inch per yard traveled from a cylinder bore shotgun.”

00 buckshot pattern at 5 yards
00 buckshot pattern at 5 yards (Paul Markel for SNW)

I remember a demonstration our academy instructors did for us. Posting two silhouette targets next to each other, an instructor made a headshot on the “bad guy” while missing the “hostage” at about five yards. All nine pellets of the 00 buckshot stayed in the bad guy’s head/face. 

Such a hostage shot was taken in real life by Columbus police officer James Niggemeyer on December 8th, 2004, when he arrived at the Alrosa Villa nightclub during the rampage killing that took the life of “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott. The killer was holding a hostage when Officer Niggemeyer entered with a Remington 870 shotgun in hand. The officer fired a single round into the monster’s head and stopped his killing spree right there.  

Versatility: A Blessing and a Curse

The fact that the 12 gauge shotgun is so versatile due to the plethora of ammunition available is a blessing on one hand and a curse on the other. This versatility often causes confusion regarding which ammunition to use for self-defense/martial applications. The answer is simple: buckshot first and slugs second.

For approximately 150 years, there were men who used 12 gauge shotguns loaded with 00 buckshot in lethal force encounters at close range with dangerous felons, not a few times, but thousands of times. These men were American law enforcement officers. I’m not aware of a single instance in which an officer used a shotgun to stop a felon and then said, “We really need to switch to birdshot.” 

Save the birdshot for training, hunting, and pest control. Regarding the novelty shotgun loads; ‘Dragon’s Breath’, buck and ball, bolos, links of chain, pulverized razor blades, etc. … those are expensive range toys and they’re neither realistic nor practical. Stick with good ammunition made by reputable manufacturers with a hundred years of experience. 

A Lethal Force Tool

A shotgun is a firearm and firearms are classified by every state in the union as “lethal force (deadly force) tools.” You are only legally and morally justified in pointing or discharging a firearm at a human if you can honestly testify that you were in jeopardy and threatened with deadly force. Putting ‘rubber buck’ or some other ‘less lethal’ novelty load in a shotgun does not magically make it not a firearm. If you work as a corrections officer or on a riot squad, we can talk, otherwise, such ammunition is a no-go. 

Think about it like this, if you are not threatened with death or grievous bodily harm, you have no legal justification to point or discharge a firearm at another human being. If you are threatened with deadly force, why in the name of all that is holy would you handicap yourself with something like ‘rubber buck’? 

For those who say, “I couldn’t shoot a person with a gun,” the shotgun isn’t your answer. Purchase a large dog, buy a can of pepper spray, or sacrifice a goat to god of reasonableness that the monsters who break into your house at 3:00 a.m. don’t have guns.   

The Shotgun Militia

In his book, The Shotgun Militia, Nicholas Orr offers the argument that the shotgun is the most prevalent centerfire firearm in the United States. He points out that both Remington and Mossberg have each sold over 11 million units of their flagship models, the 870 and 500/590. That doesn’t even include all of the other brands and models. 

Remington 870 shotgun
Remington 870 shotgun (Paul Markel for SNW)

From Orr’s book . . .

In the event of an emergency or disaster, whether natural or man-made, it is expected and common for the citizens of the community to rally together as armed men to protect their families from the evil men who would take advantage of the situation. Trained and experienced men, either military veterans, law enforcement officers, or simply those who have invested time and money in tactical training, will likely find themselves the de facto leaders of their neighborhood security team. As said team leader, you will, as likely as not, have volunteers arriving to help with shotguns in hand. 

The military veterans in the audience will most assuredly lean toward some type of Stoner-based rifle, similar to the M4 configuration. Some hard-head tactical guys are likely thinking, “F*ck a shotgun, they need an AR.”

Be that as it may, the middle of a civil emergency is not the time to send your volunteer neighbors gun shopping. If all they have is their “deer gun” or their “bird gun” then that is what you will be working with. I believe that, rather than view the guys who show up with their shotgun in tow as lesser or substandard, you should have a plan in mind to make the most of what you have available. Hence, the idea of the Shotgun Militia was born.

The Martial Application of the Shotgun

During this past Memorial Day Weekend, Student of the Gun University held a “Martial Application of the Shotgun” two-day training course. Participants fired hundreds of rounds to include birdshot, buckshot, and slugs.

Student of the Gun Martial Application of the Shotgun
Martial Application of the Shotgun course (Paul Markel for SNW)

Yes, at some point, each student experienced a miss. Despite conventional “wisdom,” it really is possible to miss with a shotgun, even with birdshot. The students ran their guns rapidly in a variety of situations and practiced loading and loading again until it became second nature.

‘Martial’ means fighting, not sports. Many folks with a great deal of experience with a shotgun have only ever engaged in hunting or sport shooting. That’s great. However, hunting and sports are not the same things as fighting for your life. There’s a difference and if we’re serious about using a shotgun as a personal defense fighting tool, we need to treat it as such when we train.

Training with a 12 gauge shotgun
Paul Markel for SNW

The shotgun is surrounded by hundreds of years of mythology and misunderstanding, much of which comes from totally unrealistic portrayals by Hollywood. The rest comes from anecdotal or cliche advice, largely dispensed by those who have never had martial training or experience with fighting shotguns. 

No, “racking” the shotgun will not send home invaders fleeing into the night. No, pointing a shotgun at gangbangers is not a guarantee that they will void their bladders.

Career criminals have guns pointed at them on a regular basis. Many have been shot, sometimes repeatedly, and lived to tell about it. Some may run, many may not. No, a single round of buckshot will not fill the hallway like a swarm of angry hornets. Finally, yes, it is possible to miss with a shotgun. 

The absolute best way to dispel all of the myths and misunderstanding regarding a fighting shotgun is to actually participate in training that’s dedicated to using the tool in a martial fashion. After you have realistic training, you’ll be armed with knowledge and experience and not need to rely upon gunshop myths and online “experts” for advice regarding this most valuable fighting tool.    

Paul G. Markel is a combat decorated United States Marine veteran. He is also the founder of Student the Gun University and has been teaching Small Arms & Tactics to military personnel, police officers, and citizens for over three decades. 

16 Responses

    1. I hate to admit it, but the Joe method worked on us. Granted, we were somewhat rowdy kids, and not hardened criminals. Coming out on the deck, and taking one shot with the shotgun made us skedaddle.

  1. “The score of the encounter: one resident wounded, three felons DOA. Apparently the homeowner hadn’t read any articles that said a shotgun won’t work when multiple attackers are present.”

    Seems like the outnumbered “amateur” did a damn good job…and any “articles that said a shotgun won’t work when multiple attackers are present.” would be a load of bullshit.

    1. Would take a lot for me to feel under gunned with a shotgun for home defense. Pistols are easier to keep close at hand and may result in less hearing damage but it is difficult to argue with a shotgun’s effectiveness unless capacity becomes an issue. Well written and nuanced article.

      1. I once took a 4-day tactical shotgun course. By the end of Day 2, I was astonished at how much I realized I *didn’t* previously know about shotguns, despite having owned & fired them for many years prior. Day 3 went thru room/hallway clearing, tactical OODA, and then high-stress drills (instructors doing unexpected things to distract you). Day 4 was vehicles & hostages, and that afternoon wrapped it all up with the skills test for certification. Almost 500 shells made Mr. Ibuprofen my temporary best friend until my chest/shoulder toughened up by the end of the course.

        Out of 23 students who started on Day 1, enough kept dropping out (exhaustion, soreness) so that there were only 7 of us remaining to line up for the final skills test. Only three of us passed…first and second place were younger guys with nice autoloaders. I was the third, and *barely* passed with my pump model. It was tough, but of all the courses and certifications I’ve achieved over the years, it’s one of the top two that meant the most to me.

        A good shotgun, a good CQB AR, a good deer rifle, and a good handgun.

        1. Nice only ever did 2 1 day trainings with a bit under half that many shells. Didn’t have as many cool scenarios but loading under stress was fun to learn and develop as a skill. I didn’t have the sore shoulder issue but that could be being a bit younger or the door breacher muzzle device the 870 came with at the time. Either way looking forward to doing a few courses at SIG this year.

        2. Haz, I desperately want to attend a tactical shotgun course. There are few offerings in central Illinoisistan. Most close involve an 8hr drive and multiple overnight stays, thus exponentially raising the cost of this endeavor.
          I clicked on the author’s school website ( highlighted in article) only to discover he doesn’t offer any shotgun training!
          WTHeck !¿

  2. ““racking” the shotgun will not send home invaders fleeing into the night.”

    Only sometimes. I’ve personally and first-hand witnessed that very thing working. I’m not saying I recommend it.

    1. I have settled on ignoring that statement entirely and basing how I keep things stored on legal and practical realities and whether I make any intentional noise on the situation at hand.

    2. I racked the slide on my home defense pistol, my wife charged the AR, didn’t try to make it quiet – jerked it back and let it go, the noise didn’t seem to be much of a deterrent. It gave the four intruders down the hall way ‘pause’ for a second or two and I heard one of them going “shhhh ya hear that?” in a not so quiet whisper. Then they went right on ‘home invading’ … that is until my wife and I shot them when they started through the door of the room we were in.

        1. I’ve had several over time. That home invasion happened where we used to live.

          The condensed version: It was a nice area, homes started at $300,000.00 and went up from there. Was quiet, friendly…. until the (at the time) democrat county commission said the area was too nice not to have an ‘affordable housing complex’ built on a piece of county land adjacent our ~300 home ‘community’. So the county commission got the state involved and the (then democrat) ‘powers that be that decided such things for development’ also though it would be nice to have ‘affordable housing’ for the ‘Justice Impacted Individuals in the gangs that infested the city right across the state line’. So it came to pass, the ‘affordable housing’ was built despite the best efforts and thousands of dollars and lawyers to prevent it by the residents of our little community. And lo and behold guess who moved in when it was finished – the ‘Justice Impacted Individuals in the gangs that infested the city right across the state line’, with their relatives and baby-mommas.

          Well, to make a long story shorter … there goes the neighbor hood.

          It was horrible. It was an easy day if there were just several assaults and a home invasion.

          1. Odd how I have been shot at (or close enough to the intended target to not matter) on more than one occasion yet was never in a situation where I could reasonably shoot back (retreating, civilians in the way, couldn’t get PID) yet you have had to light up multiple bad guys multiple times…….. remind me to double check what general area you live in before I retire and move out of NY to avoid for my safety 😉

    3. Bingo. Done it myself and saw it happen in a bar.

      The bad guys are not intelligent or highly trained and organized. They will scamper, mostly, when meeting serious resistance. And those that don’t scamper you will need the power of the shotgun to overcome the drugs in their system.

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