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So you are looking for some home defense loads for your 12 gauge home defense shotgun. The first stop for some is the sporting goods counter at Walmart (hey, don't knock it.....pretty darn hard to beat the ammo prices). Once there, they may see a couple of different brands (or perhaps just one) of 00 buck shot. They buy a couple of boxes, shoot a round or two to see how bad it kicks, and keep the rest for those moments when one wakes up from a "bump in the night" sound. At that point, they hope for the best.
For others, they hit the local gun shop after reading a few magazine articles. A couple of boxes of 00 buckshot are purchased since they got a pretty good review in the magazine. At that point, the story follows that in the previous paragraph and they hope for the best when it is needed.
For still others, they ask the gun guru at work which brand of 00 buckshot is best. He gives them one or two recommendations based on the excellent experience he/she has had with them. At that point, the story follows first paragraph and they too hope for the best when it is needed.
What is wrong with all of these scenarios? One basic thing, in my opinion....the shotgun owner is pretty much clueless as to how their shotgun is going to perform in the middle of the night with what ever brand of buckshot they ended up with. A typical 12 gauge 00 buckshot shell contains nine pellets of roughly .33 caliber ball. Some shotguns will shoot a very tight pattern (very little spreading of the pellets) with one brand of buckshot at a given distance while the same shotgun shooting another brand of the same size buckshot at the same distance will shoot a larger pattern. So who cares? You should, that's who!
Part of the reason for using a shotgun with buckshot is that the shooter does not have to obtain a perfect sight picture in order to stop the threat. The buckshot is assumed to produce some pellet spread at a typical shotgun usage distance. Being "fairly close" when aiming can be close enough when you have a 12" diameter pattern that those 9 pellets are hitting in.
But what happens if you have a really tight pattern, say just 3"~4" at that same distance? In that case, your "fairly close" shot might end up putting a few of the pellets into a non-vital area (an arm vs. the chest) while the remaining pellets miss the threat all together. Not good....there is no assurance that the threat will be stopped with a shot like this.
Pattern testing your shotgun is very important. It gives you a reasonable expectation of how the buckshot will spread at a given distance. The remainder of this article will describe the basics of pattern testing and it will show the different patterns from several brands of buckshot shot from the same shotgun.
When pattern testing, several rounds of one type of buckshot are fired from each of several different distances. This allows you to see what size pattern is produced for that buckshot at that distance. If the desired results are not obtained, repeat the process using another brand of buckshot. It's really no more difficult than that (and that isn't really difficult....it just takes a little time to do it properly.)
Shotgun patterns fall into three zones, "A", "B", and "C". Starting at the muzzle of the shotgun and extending typically to 5~7 yards, the "A" zone sees the buckshot load traveling as a tightly grouped mass of pellets with almost no spreading. Because there is no spreading pattern, shot placement must be accurately delivered just as though you were using a handgun.
The "B" zone starts around the 5~7 yard mark (the end of the A zone) where the buckshot pattern is just opening up to a hand sized pattern. It continues out to the point where the majority of the pellets remain within the thoracic cavity (more on that later). For many shotguns, this is around the 20 yard range but may be less or more depending on the barrel length, choke, and brand of buckshot.
The "C" zone starts at the end of the "B" zone and is used to extend the effective range of the shotgun by shooting a slug projectile (usually 1 oz of solid lead). The "C" zone typically reaches out to 100 yards (with a little practice on your part) for a man sized target. This article doesn't address the "C" zone nor the use of shotgun slugs.
Let's take a look at several targets shot at 15 yards which is within the "B" zone of my Benelli SuperNova. I'll only be showing one distance (15 yards) for each of the three brands of buckshot I used. In addition, I only shot each target one time. When I normally do this, I would shoot a target at a specific distance three times with the same brand of buckshot. This would give me somewhat of an "average" pellet spread and would let me see how tight or loose the pellet spread was at that distance.
Note: The target photos have been "touched up" to remove the wad impact
hole and to remove the holes from the other two rounds to make it easier to
analyze just the pattern of the desired round. It is possible that some of
the pellets traveled through the wad hole since not all pellets could be
accounted for. It is also possible that those same pellets may have been
deformed when fired and became flyers (didn't hit the target at all even those
the range was close enough for them to do so). In a case like this, more
shots must be taken, perhaps with a larger target, to determine if the missing
pellets were flyers and if so, is this common for this brand or just a one time
The brand used for this shot was Estate, 2 3/4" 00 buckshot, 9 pellets @ 1325 feet per second. The thoracic cavity is the semi-circular area with the #5 in it. This is sometimes referred to as "center of mass". Shot placement in this area will normally cause heavy bleeding (vital organs, heart and lungs) and is usually considered the best place to aim to stop a threat. (A cranial-ocular shot in the head is better but a much smaller target.)
As I mentioned earlier, one would usually shoot three rounds (same point of
aim each time) at the target and then see how the pattern looks. This
single shot reveals a vertically oriented pattern and 2 missing pellets.
This pattern, shot with Winchester Ranger, 2 3/4" 00 buckshot, 9 pellets, was more uniformly spread over the thoracic cavity. In fact, at 15 yards, it appears to be reaching the far end of the "B" zone. A few more shots would confirm this but it is my guess that at 20 yards, a number of the 9 pellets would no longer be in the thoracic cavity portion of the target.
This last spread was from a round of Hornady TAP, 2 3/4" 00 buckshot, 9
pellets @ 1600 feet per second. It has not opened up as much the
Winchester round although two of the pellets are missing, as they were with the
Here is the target, as originally shot at the range. You can see the large hole from the wad. This is very typical of the Estate 00 buckshot rounds.
So there you have it.....pattern testing is pretty straight forward. Take your time, aim carefully (and consistently) and note the spread of the pattern at each distance. I would test at 3 yards, 5 yards, and 7 yards for my "A" zone analysis. I would then move back to 10 yards, 15 yards, 20 yards, and 25 yards to evaluate where my "B" zone coverage began and ended. It is possible that you will need to take intermediate distances also in order to get an accurate picture of the pattern for that brand of buckshot in your shotgun. Yes, you will shoot up a few rounds but it won't be that many.
The best thing for your shotgun is to shoot it....a lot. You need to be able to run your home defense shotgun like it was an extension of your body. No stopping to think where the safety is or the action release. You need to be able to load rounds in the dark, into the magazine or the ejection port, and quickly too. Practice will help you achieve those things.....and knowing where your shotgun is going to hit the target, at a given distance, will make you more effective with it.
Above all, get some quality professional training with your
shotgun. It will be the best money you spent on your shotgun and should
the need for self defense ever arrive, you will be much better prepared.