Top Self-defense Shotgun Loads

Which shotgun loads are best for home defense? This prepping and survival article will discuss your options. Opinions on this topic vary, so feel free to disagree and to post your thoughts in the comments.

Slug Guns

Let’s start this article with what NOT to buy. Unless you are shooting an attacker outdoors, in a rural area, at distances of more than 25 yards, a shotgun slug is not what you want for home defense. The slug has tremendous ability to over-penetrate an attacker, exit the body, and possibly harm an innocent. A shotgun slug will also plow through the walls of your home and possibly harm someone you cannot even see. More power is not necessarily more effective.

If you happen to own a rifled slug gun for hunting, can you use a buckshot load for self-defense? Probably not. The rifling spins the wad that is pushing the buckshot, and centrifugal force causes the shot to spread out rapidly. Even at close range, the shot spreads out so much that some shot will miss and may hit a bystander. At only 15 to 20 yards, you could miss your target entirely. See this video demonstrating the problem: What Happens When You Shoot Buckshot Through a Rifled Barrel?

So for self-defense, you will want to be shooting shot, not slugs, and from a smooth barrel, not a rifled barrel. Most shotguns have a smooth barrel, especially those designed for home defense. Slug guns are typically designed for hunting.

Shot Size

Birdshot comes in many different sizes, from shot number 12 (smallest) to BB size (largest at 0.18″ dia.). None of these are sufficient for self-defense. What you end up with, in the words of the Firearms Tactical Institute, is a “gruesome, shallow wound in the torso” that “does not guarantee a quick stop.”

When we move up to lead buckshot, the ranges of sizes are as listed below:

However, the smaller sizes, from 2 to 4, of lead buckshot are still insufficient for self-defense. If you consider that a minimum of 12 inches of penetration is needed to be certain that you have hit vital organs, anything less than #1 buckshot will not work: “Number 1 buck is the smallest diameter shot that reliably and consistently penetrates more than 12 inches of standard ordnance gelatin when fired at typical shotgun engagement distances.” ( Firearms Tactical Institute). So your options for lead buckshot are numbers 1, 0, 00, or 000.

The Firearms Tactical Institute recommends #1 buckshot:

“A standard 2 ¾-inch 12 gauge shotshell contains 16 pellets of #1 buck. The total combined cross sectional area of the 16 pellets is 1.13 square inches. Compared to the total combined cross sectional area of the nine pellets in a standard #00 (double-aught) buck shotshell (0.77 square inches), the # 1 buck shotshell has the capacity to produce over 30 percent more potentially effective wound trauma. In all shotshell loads, number 1 buckshot produces more potentially effective wound trauma than either #00 or #000 buck. In addition, number 1 buck is less likely to over-penetrate and exit an attacker’s body.” (Shotgun Home Defense)

However, further along in the article, they recommend 00 buckshot as another option: “Third choice is any standard or reduced recoil 2 ¾-inch #00 lead buckshot load from Winchester, Remington or Federal.”

My take on shot size is that #1 buckshot may be theoretically the best choice, but you have far more options for ammo at the 00 shot size. Double-aught lead buckshot (00) is commonly recommended and used for self-defense, and the typical self-defense loads sold as such by major ammunition manufacturers are mostly 00 buck. So, be aware of the issue of over-penetration and, as always, consider where the shot might go if you miss. And then 00 lead buckshot is probably your best choice.


Both 12 and 20 gauge shotguns, with appropriately chosen loads, will have sufficient power for self-defense. A .410 shotshell either has too small a pellet size or too little shot. Other shotgun gauges (16, 28) will limit the availability and number of options for ammunition and guns.

Between 12 and 20 gauge, I’d pick the 12 gauge for several reasons. The 12 gauge is more common, so you have a wider range of choices in ammunition and guns. It also has a wider range of self-defense ammo options. The 12 gauge gives you the option of a more powerful load, if the circumstances warrant it, as well as moderate and reduced recoil loads. By comparison, a 20 gauge does not really offer less recoil than a 12 gauge when you are shooting self-defense loads. You need a loading that will be effective, so you can’t use the lighter 20-gauge loads. And reduced recoil 12 gauge loads are available from various manufacturers. So choosing a 20 gauge gives you a narrower range of self-defense ammunition choices, with no real upside. Then, too, if the SHTF, you might want to choose a more powerful loading for self-defense.

Particular Loads

There are very many shotgun loads available, so this list is necessarily a subset of all the good self-defense loadings. If you have your own preference, add it in the comments. Between 2-3/4 and 3-inch shotshells, I’d pick the 2-3/4 size. For a self-defense loading, the 3″ offers higher velocity, which might result in over-penetration, and more recoil. But the extra power is not usually necessary.

Typical self-defense loads with 00 buckshot have 8 or 9 pellets, with each pellet weighing about 54 grains. So that’s about 432 and 486 grains, respectively; plated bullets will weigh a little less. Velocities (other than in reduced recoil loadings) are in the range of 1100 to 1300 fps. Loadings with more than 9 or 10 pellets of 00 shot will have more recoil than necessary.

My Shotshell Picks

These loads from Federal are all good for home defense. They are 12 gauge 2-3/4 loadings. My estimate of muzzle energy, assuming 54 grains per pellet of 00 shot, is included.

9 Pellets of 00 Buckshot:
Velocity / Muzzle energy
1140 fps / 1402 ft-lbs
1145 fps / 1414 ft-lbs
1325 fps / 1894 ft-lbs

8 Pellets of 00 Buckshot:
1145 fps / 1257 ft-lbs (LE133 00)

By comparison, Hornady offers shotshell ammo loaded with 8 pellets of 00 buckshot at 1600 fps. The muzzle energy is about 2455 ft-lbs. My opinion is that 1600 fps is overpowered for self-defense purposes.

Remington has similar loads for self-defense:

9 Pellets of 00 Buckshot:
Velocity / Muzzle energy
1325 fps / 1894 ft-lbs

8 Pellets of 00 Buckshot:
1200 fps / 1381 ft-lbs

But their 12 Pellet 00 Magnum Buckshot loading has velocity of 1290 and a muzzle energy of about 2394 ft-lbs. That’s not really a self-defense loading, unless you are fighting zombies.

Winchester has similar offerings:

9 Pellets of 00 Buckshot:
1325 fps / 1894 ft-lbs

8 Pellets of 00 Buckshot:
1145 fps / 1257 ft-lbs

Fiocchi offers a nice medium recoil SD load of 9 pellets of 00 buckshot at 1150 fps, for an estimated muzzle energy of 1427 ft-lbs.

I’d choose an 8 pellet loading at around 1145 fps. It has sufficient power for self-defense and significantly less recoil than most other loads. If you are inexperienced at shooting a shotgun or recoil sensitive, you might prefer the lower recoil load: less recoil will mean great accuracy and a quicker follow up shot. With 00 lead buckshot at close range (inside of 25 yards), a reduced recoil load should still be sufficient for home defense.

Some #1 Buckshot Loads
(added by request of Bill G in the comments below)

Federal has a shotshell load using #1 buckshot, intended for Law Enforcement, but legal for the ordinary citizen.

Tactical® Buckshot 12 Gauge (LE132 1B)
15 Pellets of #1 Buckshot
1100 fps / 1612 ft-lbs
(assuming 40 grains per pellet as in the above chart)

That loading has quite a lot of recoil compared to most of the 00 Buck loads, but it should also be highly effective.

Sellier & Bellot offers a #1 Buckshot load with 12 pellets:
12 Pellets of #1 Buckshot
1213 fps / 1568 ft-lbs

Again, this loading is more powerful than some of the 00 Buck loads above. It seems to be intended as a high powered self-defense loading. Winchester’s 9 Pellets of 00 Buckshot (1325 fps / 1894 ft-lbs) might over-penetrate, but the #1 buck at 1213 fps probably will not.

Remington and Winchester both offer a load with 16 pellets of #1 Buck at 1250 fps (for an estimated muzzle energy of 2220 ft-lbs). These are full powered self-defense loads.

Some relevant articles for further reading:

Home Defense Shotgun Ammo by Randy Wakeman
Musings on Self-Defense by Chuck Hawks
Guns for Home Defense by Chuck Hawks
Shotgun Home Defense by the Firearms Tactical Institute

– Thoreau

6 Responses to Top Self-defense Shotgun Loads

  1. Nice thing about a 12 Gauge for “hunting” is I think they are even legal in new york and new jersey.

    You can own one without gaining alot of attention, As you have shown with the right load you can drop a deer or someone taking your generator

  2. So basically you are saying that Firearms Tactical Institute is wrong and you are right? could you please list 1 or 2 #1 buckshot so WE can make our choice?

    Choices are always good :)

    • No, I’m not saying they are wrong. I just have a different opinion. I’ll look for some #1 buckshot loads to add to the article.

  3. Yes shotgun are best for home defense, we need to survive for it when the terrorist attack but remember it’s better also to have food storage survival when the calamities is come. Be ready all the time to face the unexpected matter for tomorrow.

  4. Actually you are correct. Buckshot does not penetrate as well as a bullet. therefore heavier shot overrides number of pellets. #1 buck does not penetrate nearly as good as 00 or 000buck. Also examine whether the gun is s semi auto or pump. It it is a semi auto, lots of the tactical buck wont function. Federal tru flight shoots a very tight pattern

  5. ^ Good info Bret. There’s a reason that most police and military use pumps rather than semi’s. Also….holding a semi next to your hip and letting it rock back with the recoil will most likely make it jam.