Multipurpose: Thoughts on the 12 Gauge


This post will be different from my normal ones, as it concerns practical advice instead of ideology. As a patriot, homesteader, and plain old country boy, I long ago made my acquaintance with the ubiquitous weapon of rural folk in America –the 12 gauge shotgun. I think I shot my first one when I was around 10 years old.

The shotgun has its limitations, but within those limits it is highly useful. The shotgun moves a huge amount of lead downrange at velocities higher than those of a pistol, but much lower than modern (post 1890) rifle calibers.

The 12 gauge is the most common caliber, though there are also 20, 16, 28 and 410 gauge shotguns out there. Most military and police shotguns are 12 gauges, and so are most of the ones that guys I know own. A 12 gauge has an approximately .70 caliber bore diameter.

Shotgun shells, and shotgun chambers, come in different lengths. The 2 ¾ inch is the standard length of 12 gauge shells, though many modern guns have a 3 inch chamber. Birdshot normally comes in the standard 2 ¾ length; buckshot and slugs are sometimes also available in 3 and 3 ½ inch lengths.

The shotgun can be loaded with three basic types of ammunition: birdshot, buckshot, and slugs. Let us examine them. Birdshot comes in a variety of sizes. Birdshot is simply a very fine (smaller than a bb from a bb gun) shot that is useful for three things: (1) birds and light skinned small animals, (2) shooting clay pigeons/disks, and (3) playing around on the range. As the shot column spreads out it forms the pattern. The tiny pellets lose velocity rapidly, and do not penetrate deeply. Birdshot is not appropriate for large game! Likewise, birdshot is of little use on a human opponent past 5 yards; it will create a nasty but not necessarily incapacitating wound.

Buckshot is the primary antipersonnel load of shotguns. Buckshot comes in a variety of (large) sizes. The most common buck size employed is 00. In a standard 2 ¾ inch length 12 gauge shell, 00 Buck consists of nine .33 caliber pellets –often collectively weighing an ounce and moving at 1,300fps! That my friends, is as effective as a three round burst from a 9mm submachinegun.

Slugs come in two varieties: rifled and sabot. A rifled slug, such as the classic Brenekke pattern, is just a huge (roughly 70 caliber) chunk of lead weighing an ounce or so cruising downrange much faster than a 45ACP round. Sabot slugs are below bore diameter, are enclosed in a two piece plastic jacket (sabot), and are driven to higher velocities than rifled slugs on account of their lighter weight.

There is a fourth load occasionally encountered: buck and ball. I have read that buck and ball, which is a single relatively large lead ball on top of several small buckshot pellets was commonly used in smoothbore muzzleloaders and muskets in early America. I have fired some modern 12 guage loads made in Italy for the Centurion brand and consisting of one 65 caliber ball and six #1 Buck pellets. Not bad.

There are three basic types of barrels for shotguns: choked, rifled, and cylinder bore. A choke barrel has a constriction, often screw in interchangeable, in the end of the barrel to squeeze down the shot column for a tighter pattern. A rifle barrel is rifled, just like a rifle or pistol barrel, and is designed to fire a sabot slug –and nothing else. If a few bore diameter lead “rifled” slugs or loads of shot are put through a rifled barrel, it will leave a noticeable lead deposit –that is a pain to clean out. A cylinder bore is a straight pipe, and can fire any type of load –slug, buck, or birdshot. Cylinder bore is the preferred choice for a combat shotgun.

Modern pump guns, like the Remington 870 and Mossberg 500, often come with interchangeable barrels that an average operator can switch without special tools or gauges or worrying about headspace -unlike with rifles (where headspace is a BIG deal).

My personal shotgun is a Remington 870 in 12 gauge, with a 3 inch chamber. I normally fire only 2 ¾ inch ammo in it. I have three factory barrels for it: a bead sight vent rib choke barrel, a rifled barrel with open sights, and a bead sight cylinder bore. The cylinder bore sets on it as I write this. It is within arm’s reach, and is loaded with 00 Buck.

On final note about barrels is, do not saw your own barrel off! Federal law mandates a minimum barrel length of 18 inches. A short barrel is nice for defense; buy a factory one. You can buy factory barrels in the 18 to 20 inch range; do so. If you cut off your barrel, a crooked cop can cut it off even shorter and claim that you did it -a felony. All my barrels are factory spec and of legal length. You also would lose your end bead/sight if you cut your barrel off –not a good thing.

Also, if someone tries to get you to cut your shotgun off below the legal limit, or help them to do so with theirs, assume that they are either an idiot of a fed. Remember Randy Weaver’s entrapment.

Now that we have covered the basics, on to usage. You will want to do most of your target practice with birdshot. Birdshot is the least expensive load, and recoils much less than buck or slugs. Buck and slugs recoil/kick significantly –much more than a 308 battle rifle.

Knox Industries makes two types of recoil reducing stocks for pump shotguns, one sporter styled and one tactical styled. (My 870 has the sporter style on it). They allow the front of the buttstock to compress into the rear/buttpad area of the stock, absorbing significant recoil.

I have read, from multiple good sources, that a combat shotgun is benefited by having a “ghost ring” aperture rear sight. I do not doubt this, but have not personally tested it.

What barrel or barrels you own, and what ammo you use, will depend on your personal situation. Someone who is nothing but a bird hunter needs nothing but a barrel with screw in chokes. Someone who is nothing but a deer hunter in an eastern state must have either a cylinder bore or rifled barrel to fire slugs.

Someone who is primarily interested in defense will do just fine with nothing but a cylinder bore. I have all three, but rarely use anything but the cylinder bore. The cylinder bore is the most versatile, but gives no pattern tightening constriction and also decreases the range at which a slug will be effectively accurate (compared to a rifled bore).

A shotgun slug has major stopping power –at close range. Think of it as giant pistol. The shotgun is somewhat akin to the smoothbore muskets of American Revolution vintage. But it has high recoil, comparatively short range, and low magazine capacity (normally 5 or less rounds, unless one buys a tube extension). An open sight shotgun firing a lead rifled slug is best used at ranges under 100 yards. While an optically sighted, rifled barrel, sabot slug firing shotgun might double that range –it is a far cry from what a 30-06 will do.

If you are defensive minded, and perhaps even preparing for the looters that will swarm the earth after a major economic or social collapse, then you had better stockpile a bit of 00 Buck.

Because of its limited range and lack of penetration of body armor and masonry barriers, the shotgun has basically zero military utility. This is why the shotgun is the last weapon regulated by oppressive governments.

Also to be considered is that a shoulder fired weapon is easier to fire accurately than a pistol, because of the three points of contact with the firer’s body. This can be very important if you want someone who is basically a non-shooter, such as your wife, to be able to accurately engage a threat. But, there is still the recoil or a non-shooter to deal with.

Years ago I read an experienced combat shotgunner, the late Louis Awerbuck, state that the same load will pattern different between different shotguns –even those of the same barrel length and choke configuration! Also note that different loads will often pattern different from the same barrel. I recall that several years ago I found Czech Sellier&Bellot 00 buck patterned MUCH wider from my Rem. 870 than American made Winchester 00 buck.

For my own education, and that of my readers, I decided to do a formal test. I acquired four different loads of standard 2 ¾ inch length 00 Buck from four different makers. These loads were Remington (1325fps), Federal “Power Shok” (1325fps), Winchester Ranger “Low Recoil” (1145fps), and Rio’s Royal Buck (1345fps). The Rio was made in Spain; the other three are American.

I got out eight cheap nine inch paper plates and went to my range on the homestead. I had the cylinder bore barrel on my 870. I fired two rounds of each of my loads, one round per plate, from 10 yards distance. I examined the plates and chose the best group of the two for each of the four loads. On a scale of 9/9, the best Winchester group went 6/9, the best Federal 8/9, the best Remington 5/9 (with a 6th nick), and the best Rio 7/9. In addition to number of pellets on the plate, group size varied.


Then I took the same gun/barrel and four rounds, and did this test on fresh plates with one round each at 15 yards. Results degraded. The Winchester went 4/9, the Federal 6/9, the Remington 1/9, and the Rio 6/9. Yes, the Remington only put one of the nine pellets on the plate.

On this 15 yard test, I shot the Winchester load first, before the IDPA target my paper plates was stapled to was shot to pieces with little holes, and noted that the Winchester put 3 in the plate (roughly over the 8 inch A zone), 3 in the C zone, and 3 in the D zone.


A few days later, I put my 25 inch ventilated rib barrel with screw in choke on my 870, and reshot the 10 yard portion of this test on eight fresh plates. As I was using a barrel with a choke, I expected better patterns. The best Winchester went 9/9, the best Federal 6/9, the best Remington 9/9, and the best Rio 9/9.


I then patched up my IDPA silhouette target, taped a fresh paper plate over the A zone, and shot it with one round of Federal 00 from approximately 25 yards using the choke barrel. It put 6 of the pellets on the silhouette, but only 1 on the paper plate.

Two things surprised me from these recent tests. First was that the quality of group of the same load occasionally varied widely from the same barrel and range. An example of this was the Rio from the choke barrel at 10 yards. In contrast the Winchester did very well with two tight 9/9 patterns from the choke barrel at 10 yards. The second surprise was how poorly the Remington performed from my gun.

For several reasons, the Winchester Ranger “Low Recoil” is my preferred 00 buck load. And of course, these are not the only buck loads from these manufactures, and there are other manufacturers. Test your own gun with several loads and learn before you make your load selection.

The shotgun is not some kind of sci-fi death ray. You can completely miss with a shotgun and buckshot if you flinch; I personally saw another guy do this once. A shotgun must be aimed, not pointed! Shotguns patterns are not as wide as you might believe from viewing movies. At ranges past 15 yards, a perfect center shot might not place every pellet on the threat, a shotgun must be employed carefully if there are bystanders. In summary, if you are fighting outside of a building, you will almost always be better off with a rifle.

The shotgun is a great tool for the homesteader, survivalist, and home defender. It is a rather poor paramilitary weapon.

Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Charles Putnam of Orange County, Indiana. All rights reserved.


Author: Joe Putnam

I am a Christian (Reformed/Sovereign Grace Baptist type), white American of Western European bloodline, advocate of an agrarian social order, Kinist, White Nationalist, admirer of America’s Founding Fathers and the Boys in Gray, homesteader, indie published author, and amateur historian. I have indie published several books, all of which are available from Amazon. I am a life long resident of rural Orange County, IN –in the part of the Upper South that many would term Greater Appalachia or the Dixie Frontier. In addition to my own blog, I am a contributor to the multi-author blog Identity Dixie. I am active in promotion of the Alt-South movement. In addition to my blog writings, I am currently gearing up for (at least) two more book projects –one theological and one historical. The theological one will cover the three interpretational views of Daniel’s 70th Week. I hope to have this book in print in late summer 2017. (Hint: I am, not a Dispensational Futurist). The historical book will be a biography of George Rogers Clark (1752-1818). Clark was a noted Virginia militia officer who’s campaigns, including his successful siege of Vincennes, basically took the Old Northwest from Britain during the American Revolution. Clark spent the rest of his life around the river that separates Clarksville, IN from Louisville, Kentucky. I hope to have my Clark bio in print in early 2018.

2 thoughts on “Multipurpose: Thoughts on the 12 Gauge”

  1. Yes, the versatility of the 12ga makes this type of firearm a must. Anyone wanting to purchase there first firearm should start with the 12Ga shotgun. more bang for the buck. or I should say you get more gun for the money you spend.


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