There are a lot of misperceptions about shotguns – perhaps more so than exist about rifles or pistols. We addressed this topic before – see our article ‘Correcting Some Misinformation About Shotguns‘ for some helpful information about what they can and can’t do.
We got into the middle of a conversation about shotguns yesterday. A client was considering buying a shotgun, and another person was advising them about shotguns. Unfortunately, the advice wasn’t very accurate. The first comment perpetuated the myth that shotgun rounds spread sufficiently at short ranges as to guarantee you an effective hit on your target, even at close range such as inside your house.
As our earlier article explains, at a 20′ range, a 00 buck load will spread to perhaps 4″ in diameter. That is of course better than firing a single pistol round, but it is a long way short of guaranteeing that your shot will effectively strike the target. While the shotgun advocate didn’t say exactly how much spread he thought a shotgun round would experience at short-range, it was clear he was expecting it more like a foot or two rather than an inch or two.
This leads on to an interesting topic that we did not consider in our earlier article about shotgun misperceptions and also follows on from the next piece of advice this gentleman volunteered – what is the maximum effective range of a shotgun?
His answer was ‘Oh, about over to that bush there’ – a distance of maybe 30 ft. He was again wrong.
Let’s first of all understand what determines the maximum effective range of a shotgun, then decide what that range actually is. Note that in this discussion we’re primarily considering self-defense situations, rather than the maximum range you’d get if duck shooting or using the shotgun in some other type of situation (shotguns designed for bird shooting will have much longer effective ranges than shotguns designed for home defense).
There are four factors influencing the maximum effective range you’ll get.
Definition of ‘Effective Range’
The first thing to consider is what is meant by ‘effective’ range. Do we mean the maximum range at which the shotgun remains reasonably accurate, or reasonably lethal, or something else?
Let’s define effective range as being the maximum range where a shotgun is both sufficiently accurate as to give you a high probability of scoring a hit, and with the hit you score being sufficiently lethal as to take your adversary out of the fight. This dual factor definition reduces the range substantially below the theoretical maximum range.
Shotgun Barrel Length and Choke
A shorter barrel on your shotgun will cause the shot to spread more rapidly, and the more rapidly the shot disperses, the less the gun’s effective A and B zone ranges will be.
A shorter barrel will also result in slightly less of the energy from the explosive charge in the shell being used to push the shot out of the barrel. A longer barrel obviously is the opposite – a tighter pattern (better A and B zone ranges) and slightly more energy from the shell is passed on to the shot (better C zone range, too).
The minimum length of a shotgun barrel, by law, is 18″; at the other extreme, you can get sporting shotguns with barrel lengths up to 34″. That’s a huge range of different lengths, but for home defense purposes, you’ll be wanting something short and easy to carry/point with – 18″ – 20″, ideally.
Just so you know, there are two exceptions to the 18″ minimum barrel length requirement. The first exception is if you get a special federal license for a shorter barreled shotgun. The second is if you have a shotgun with a shorter barrel but a permanently affixed ‘flash suppressor’ type device on the end, so as to bring the length of barrel and flash suppressor up to the 18″ minimum.
A barrel’s choke refers to if it has an internal taper. Some shotgun barrels have an internal taper, such that the barrel gets narrower in the last few inches as it gets closer to its muzzle (the end which the shot comes shooting out of). If the barrel has some internal tapering, then it is said to have a choke. If it has no choke at all – if the diameter of the barrel is the same all the way along, it is said to have a cylinder bore. All pistols and rifles have no choke, but unlike rifles and pistols (which have rifling in their barrels) a cylinder bored shotgun has a smooth bore barrel.
The purpose of the taper or choke is to cause the shot pellets to spread more slowly. This can be useful when shooting at birds from a distance, but it is less useful in a home defense situation, where distances are very short, and you’re probably hoping for a good deal of spread to compensate for any lack of perfect aiming.
A barrel with choke can not be used to fire slugs.
There are many degrees of choke, and they are usually described by name. Those names that include the word ‘Full’ in them have the most choke, with the least amount of choke being possessed by a Skeet type choke, followed by Improved Cylinder, then various types of ‘Modified’ before progressing on to Full choke types.
To give you a feeling for the impact choke has on spread, you can get twice the range for the same degree of spread from a barrel with a Light Full choke than you could from a barrel with a Skeet choke. Bearing in mind there are even tighter choke options (and also the unchoked option too), clearly the choke has a big impact on spread and therefore also on effective range.
Which brings us to the next point.
Spread – How Much Shot is On Target
Some spread is a good thing when firing a shotgun, because it gives you a broader ‘cloud’ of pellets when they reach the target. If they all hit the target, you’ve scored multiple hits in multiple parts of the target; potentially causing multiple wounds to multiple organs and speeding the rate at which the adversary is incapacitated and taken out of the fight.
And if your aiming is slightly off center, hopefully the spread of the shot will be enough so that some of the pellets will still hit the target, on the basis that ‘some is better than none’.
The biggest real world advantage of a shotgun is with a compact cloud of pellets all hitting the target. The biggest hoped for but imaginary advantage of a shotgun is the incorrect expectation that the expanding cloud will reduce the need for careful aim.
If you’re firing 00 buck from a 2 3/4 inch shotshell, you are probably shooting nine balls, each comparable to a .380 bullet, at the target. You could accept a few missing the target as long as most hit, and still have an excellent chance of winning your encounter after firing a single shot with less than nine (but more than one or two) of the balls hitting the target.
Now for the swings and roundabouts of spread. Clearly, some spread is good.
But, equally clearly, too much spread is bad. For bird shooters, too much spread can mean that the distance between each pellet becomes so great that a bird can fly through the gaps unharmed. In a home defense situation, it can mean that instead of landing nine balls on your target, or eight, or seven, you might end up with only one or two reaching the target, and the others all flying harmlessly off somewhere else (or – even worse – going harmfully off, through other rooms in your house/apartment and risking anyone else there, and continuing on into your neighbor’s house/apartment, risking anyone there too).
These issues are recognized in the transition from your shotgun’s B zone to its C zone, discussed below.
The Type of Round being Shot
If you’re firing bird shot through your shotgun, then the first thing you should do is replace it with buckshot! You’re not seeking to defend yourself against vicious attacking birds. You’re seeking to defend yourself against vicious attacking people. If you are firing birdshot, it becomes ineffective pretty much at the end of your shotgun’s A zone (see below).
If you’re firing buck shot, it is a good solution all the way out to the end of your shotgun’s B zone.
And if you are firing solid rifled slugs, you’re in good shape – and your adversary is risking transitioning to becoming in very bad shape – all the way out to the end of your shotgun’s C zone.
And now for the part you’ve been waiting for – an explanation of these three zones.
The Three Shotgun Distance/Range Zones
A shotgun’s pattern/effect/spread is typically described in terms of three different sets of ranges or zones.
Note that these zones are only loosely defined, and also vary greatly depending both on the shotgun you are using and the ammunition you are running through it. But understanding this three zone concept is a key part of understanding your shotgun and how best to use it, because the three different zones require different tactics and – ideally – different types of shot shell load (or slug) too.
Shotgun A Zone
The A zone starts from the muzzle and typically stretches out 5 – 7 yards. This zone is defined as being where the individual pellets or balls travel closely together, with very little spread.
Because there is so little spread, when you are shooting your shotgun at a target in its A zone, you need to aim and shoot it as carefully as you would a rifle or a pistol.
We never recommend you use birdshot in a shotgun – birdshot is, as its name clearly expresses – designed for shooting birds, not for home defense. But within the A zone, your shotgun is likely to delivery a tightly compressed pattern of birdshot that is only slightly less solid in effect than being hit with a single shotgun slug, and so if you have nothing else, you could use birdshot within your gun’s A zone.
Shotgun B Zone
Your shotgun’s B zone starts from the end of the A zone and typically extends out to about 20 – 25 yards (assuming a cylinder bore on your barrel). It is hard to say exactly where the A and B zones transition, but it is easier to determine where the B zone ends.
The B zone ends at the point where the spread of balls is greater than the size of the target you are aiming at. In a self-defense situation, you’ll be aiming for the center of the thoracic cavity (the chest, if you prefer a simpler term).
Remember we said you need to aim your shotgun very carefully while shooting in the closer A zone? Unfortunately, you ‘re going to want to aim your shotgun very carefully in the B zone, too. Although the spread of shot is increasing, so is the distance, so just a ‘smidgen’ off in your aiming will have greater effect in where all the shot lands downrange.
Even at the end of your B zone – say 20 yards/60 feet – you’ve only got a spread pattern that is maybe 12″ in diameter. In other words, your pellets will spread in a pattern extending out about 6″ to the left, right, above and below your aiming point. That means that best case scenario, you can only be 6″ off in your aim if you want to get sufficient of your shot pellets on target. And at 20 yards away, 6″ isn’t much leeway for your aiming.
Shotgun C Zone
So what happens at the end of your shotgun’s B zone? Yes, of course, that is where the C zone starts. The C zone is the area where you are best advised to stop shooting buckshot and switch to solid slugs.
The C zone starts at the end of the B zone, which you’ll recall from the preceding paragraph is where the individual balls of buckshot are starting to spread out so that not all of them are landing on the target. Just as with the transition from the A to B zone, this is a fairly vague sort of distance. It also can’t be stressed too much that the distance can vary enormously depending on your shotgun, its barrel and the loads you are firing – the same gun might have a 15 yard B to C zone transition with one type of ammo and a 25 yard transition with a different type.
The C zone extends from this point of transition out to about 100 yards. Somewhere beyond 50 yards, and probably not much further than 100 yards, your ability to get a reasonably accurate hit from a slug is going to diminish to the point where it is no longer worth taking the shot.
We should also add that, in a self-defense situation, there are very few scenarios where you would be validly shooting at people 100 yards away anyway!
For those people who have been waiting for the point where the shotgun’s mythical ‘no need to aim’ super-powers take over, we have more bad news. So far we’ve analyzed that you need to do careful aimed shooting in the shotgun’s A zone and also in its B zone. Guess what? Now that we’re in the shotgun’s C zone, and we’ve switched from multi-pellet shotshells to single round slugs, the shotgun no longer offers any spread or related benefits at all. Quite the opposite. You now find yourself firing single slugs from a shotgun with perhaps only the most basic and rudimentary of sights. You’ll still have to aim very carefully.
The Fallacy of Shotgun Patterns/Spreads
Many people think that it is a very good thing that a shotgun spreads its pellets or balls out over a broad area. They see the benefit, but don’t consider the two trade-offs associated with the benefit.
The benefit is, of course, that a spread of shot means that your odds of scoring at least a partial hit on your target improve. If a pistol or rifle bullet misses its target by even a single inch, it has no effect whatsoever on the target (other than perhaps a psychological one, and even that is far from certain – in the adrenalin maxed out situation of an exchange of gunfire, your adversary quite likely won’t even notice shots going close by him).
The reasoning goes that ‘half a loaf is better than none’ – it is better to get some amount of a shotgun load onto your target than it is to miss it entirely. There’s some truth in this.
But what about the remainder of the buckshot you fired? Where is that going? Is there something behind the target or near to the target that could be damaged/destroyed? Remember that 00 buck will readily penetrate six pieces of sheet rock – that’s enough to go through probably every other room in your house/apartment and still be dangerous when it flies on out into the open ground outside.
And while getting half your load onto your target is good and better than not hitting it at all, it is also not as good as getting all your load onto the target.
Consider also that as the spread of the shot expands, so too does the distance to the target. So while the shot is more spread out at say 20 yards compared to at 10 yards, the target is also twice as far away and therefore twice as small (or ‘hard to hit’). The growing size of the spread does little more than only partially compensate for the shrinking size of the target.
There’s another factor too. Most shotguns have very basic sights on them, making it harder to accurately aim them in the first place.
As you’ve seen in the preceding analysis of tactics for engagements in a shotgun’s A, B and C zones, you need accurate aimed fire at all distances and in all situations.
The bottom line is that a shotgun is not a magical cure-all solution. Most of all, it won’t compensate for lack of training and poor accuracy on your part. You still need to practice with it and get competent at using it.
Summary – So What is the Effective Range of a Shotgun
Now that you’ve read the entire article, let’s compress it into a single sentence. The practical/effective range of your home defense type shotgun, with 00 buckshot, is about 20 yards. If you’re confronting adversaries further away, switch to a rifle, or – failing that – use solid rifled slugs in your shotgun.