Are Shotguns the Ultimate Survival firearm? I’m gonna save you some time in case you don’t feel like reading the rest of this article: NO. I’m fully aware I may have just opened up a Pandora’s Box of Drew-hate, but I’m going to stand behind my statement. Are shotguns versatile? Yes. Are shotguns brutally effective within their envelope? Absolutely. Will I be heading out the door with a shotgun in hand as a primary firearm in a SHTF event? Nope.
By Drew, contributing author to SHTFblog and Survival Cache
I’m not just postulating out of my posterior here; I have spent many, many hours of my life with a shotgun (call it a “shotty” and we can’t be friends) in my hands. I have poured incredulous amounts of time, money, and brainpower into developing, building, training with, and testing “tactical” shotguns (I may have gone through an “I love shotguns” phase), but none of them truly honored their reputation as an all-around versatile arm very well. Conversely, many the aviary fowl has been blanked from the sky in a cloud of feathery down courtesy of my beloved bird hunting shotguns, but I would never clear a house with these long-barreled, elegant wonders. And the middle ground between the two scenarios – the “Goldilocks” zone of a single gun that’s just right for all your survival needs – is a no-man’s land with a chirping cricket soundtrack instead of the ominous sound of a racking pumpgun.
The Evolution of a Myth With a Dash of History
Thanks to Hollywood movies, Old West fables and rugged war tales, the shotgun has grown a mythical status and culture around its very existence and efficacy. The supposed badguy-launching power of the impact of a load of buckshot coupled with everyone’s favorite burglar deterrent – the “shick-shick” of a pump-action shotgun being readied for duty, and the shotgun’s legendary “just point in the general direction of your target and you’ll blast it” capability- means that everyone just knows the shotgun is the most devastating sidearm of all time. Right?
Also read: Cut Shotgun Shells for Survival
Well, pretty much all of that myth is, well, less than accurate. However, this storybook fable is indeed based on some fact. And though we could go back further in time, to find that fact we’re going to start in the Philippines, in the first year of the 20th century. The year 1900 found the fabled General John “Black Jack” Pershing’s troops fighting drug-addled Juramentados in the Philippine Insurrection. The Juramentados were Islamic fanatical sword-wielding Moro fighters, who trained and readied themselves to fight in ritualistic, drug-enhanced, pain-frenzied attacks with edged weapons, all the while fully expecting to be killed during the attack in an insane martyr jihad. Pershing’s troops were having difficulty stopping these brutal close-range attacks with their standard sidearms – Colt 1892 double-action revolvers in the anemic .38 Long Colt and the .30-40 Krag rifle. The fabled Colt 1874 Single Action Army (you may know it as the “Peacemaker”) in .45 Colt – and other .45 caliber revolvers – were brought into the mix, and the larger caliber was found to be far more effective against the Moro attacks. However, another platform gained notoriety as being a potent manstopper under these bizarre fighting circumstances. General Leonard Wood, who commanded the US Forces in the Philippines, stated:
“It is thought that the .45 caliber revolver is the one which should be issued to troops throughout the Army… Instances have repeatedly been reported during the past year where natives have been shot through-and-through several times with a .38 caliber revolver, and have come on, cutting up the unfortunate individual armed with it… The .45 caliber revolver stops a man in his tracks, usually knocking him down… It is also recommended that each company be furnished with 12-gauge Winchester repeating shotguns… There is no weapon in our possession equal to the shotgun loaded with buckshot.”
Those “Winchester repeating shotguns” were the ubiquitous Winchester Model 1897 in short-barreled, open-choked form. These John Browning-designed pump-action shotguns became incredibly popular for instantly stopping Moro charges, and 200 specially modified 1897 shotguns were sent to the Philippines at the US Army’s request.
Fast forward 18 years. The US military has once again found embroiled in war – this time with “Black Jack” Pershing at the helm of the American Expeditionary Forces during a conflict that eventually became known as World War I. To maximize effectiveness in the brutal close-quarters combat of the trench warfare they found themselves in, Pershing had his “Doughboys” armed with specialized 1897 Winchester and Model 12 Winchester 12-gauge shotguns dubbed “Trench Guns”. These ‘97s and Model 12s held six rounds of brass-cased 00 buckshot, sported 20” barrels with heat shields, and had the capability to mount bayonets to keep fighting even when the shotgun ran dry – and that happened quickly. Both the ‘97 and the 12 had no trigger disconnectors and could “slam-fire”, which meant that as soon as the pump was racked fully forward while the trigger was held back, the hammer would fall on a freshly-loaded shell and the round would go off. Either model of Trench Gun could get off all six rounds – that’s a total of 54 .33-caliber 00 buckshot pellets – in about two seconds. Many a German soldier fell in the mud to the vicious effectiveness off the Trench Gun. Its remorseless close-in capability led to the German government issuing a statement that any US soldiers caught with shotguns or even shotgun shells would be summarily executed, as they believed the shotgun and its terminal effectiveness were inhumane and did not fall within the confines of the Hague Convention.
Cascading further forward in history, during World War II and Vietnam, shotguns were vastly praised for their effectiveness in close quarters jungle fighting – and the shotgun continues to be a staple infantry weapon, once again for its effectiveness and versatility. In Somalia and Iraq, short-barreled, specially equipped shotguns were utilized for door breaching as well as close-range, door-to-door fighting. Shotguns are also utilized for riot control with less-than-lethal ammunition, and have been modified for line-throwing and grenade launching.
So, absolutely – the shotgun has a place, definite lethality, and versatility of mission – but does that mean that your shotgun is the be-all, end-all prepper/survivalist firearm as many have opined? Let’s dig in.
The How and Why of SHTF Shotguns
But where to start? And why am I dead set against not having a shotgun as a primary (meaning first choice) survival weapon? To understand these questions, we first need to understand what characteristics the shotgun platform has that make it so desirable for our target audience.
I guess I should stop here and qualify that my following statements are generated towards repeating shotguns of the ilk that most survivalists seem to gravitate towards – pump action and semi-autos. Of course, there are many multi-caliber break-open shotguns that are indeed stellar to depend on in a survival situation – if you’re out in the middle of the woods with zero security issues and plentiful small game. However, due to the next-to-nothing capacity and slow reload speed of these break-open wonderguns, I do not consider them to be all-around SHTF arms.
So, then, why is the repeating shotgun considered by many to be so desirable as a survival firearm – strike that – THE survival firearm? Here are the (forgive me) bullet points:
- Ammunition versatility: the wide range of ammunition types available for the shotgun allow the operator to theoretically accomplish different missions. Typically, this includes buckshot for anti-personnel, anti-big game, and anti-light-skinned target use. Slugs for use against “distant” targets, where precision is needed, or for targets where penetration and/or more horsepower than what buckshot can provide are required. Birdshot in its many shot sizes will hopefully enable you to harvest small game and flying/fast-moving animals.
- Mission versatility: utilizing the wide range of ammunition available for the shotgun platform, one man could – in theory – have one gun with the capability of performing any need a hand-held firearm might be called upon to do in a survival situation. We’re talking small game hunting to stopping charging SUVs and everything in between. Remember, though – this mission versatility is directly dependent on ammunition availability.
- Horsepower: The shotgun – especially in its 12-gauge (or even 10 gauge if you’re feeling saucy) iteration brings big-bore power to the table and (again, in theory) levels the playing field with hard-hitting buckshot (usually 00 size) and slugs. The big hole in the muzzle and instantly-recognizable sound of a shotgun being operated theoretically ups the intimidation factor big time.
- Reliability – shotguns by quality manufacturers have a general reputation of being extremely reliable in pump-action or break-open guise. Big, clunky parts to move big clunky ammo are, in theory, hard(er) to break.
A Victim of The Great Compromise
But what is the heart of my beef with the shotgun for a SHTF gun? Simple: undesirable compromise. The shotgun system is, by nature of its versatility, necessarily a compromise – it fulfills a lot of missions pretty well, but excels at none of them unless the shotgun is specifically built for an intent…and specifically building or accessorizing a shotgun for a dedicated purpose limits its versatility by definition.
For example: A vast majority of survivalists will lean towards a tactical-esque theme when selecting or building a shotgun to be a friend for the end of the world. Like AR-15 builds, a tactical pump-action or semi-auto shotgun’s specifics can vary widely, but a few common themes appear when you start looking. First and most noticeable, we notice short barrels, usually (but not always) with fixed cylinder bore chokes. Contrary to popular opinion, the short barrel doesn’t “open up the spread, bub!”, but merely functions to enhance the close-in handling qualities of an arm that has limited range to begin with. Extended magazines to increase the shotgun’s meager capacity will usually sprout under the stubby barrels. These hallmarks are where tactical shotguns start and often end…and honestly, at the basest level, what more do you really need to make a shotgun more useful?
However, the standard bead sights that are wonderful for sighting down on fast-moving birds start showing their limits when the shotgun’s prowess is asked to move out beyond the 25-30 yard buckshot envelope. A big bead sight starts to cover up even man-sized targets out past 40 yards, making the slugs that are necessary for anything close to a precision shot, well, imprecise. And here’s where the hallowed versatility of the shotgun system starts to break down.
To get that big chunky slug to hit where you want it to at ranges where a bead sight is impractical, we need to – at the minimum – consider sight upgrades. And I have found that once we cross the sight upgrade line, our do-it-all rig suddenly becomes increasingly limited in function. Ghost ring aperture sights (or occasionally buckhorn type sights) are usually the first logical upgrade for the tactical shotgun to increase the probability of a hit at distance. Red dot sights and other optics are the next step beyond ghost rings. I have found through personal experience that adding dedicated sights does at least two things, both of which are detrimental to our end goal of keeping the shotgun for its versatility. First, the sheer mass of the already-beefy shotgun is increased – especially with the added bulk of optics. Second, the ability to use the shotgun for fast-moving game – something the shotgun excels at in its stock form – is hugely diminished. Trust me, it’s very difficult to align a rear sight, front sight, and a running rabbit (usually travelling at Warp Factor Four through dense brush) or a flushing grouse well enough to ensure a clean shot. 1x magnification optics can be okay for still game and foraging purposes, but again – you’re making a big gun bigger and harder to pack and have with you in the first place. The plain bead sight rules the roost for small game harvesting – but sucks at precise slug placement at distance. Sights make putting slugs in a specific spot easier, but really just aren’t great at getting on a small critter who is desperately performing evasive maneuvers. Your call – do you want a rifle or a shotgun?
Taking Up Space
Up next on my list is the sheer size of the ammunition for a shotgun. While the 20 gauge is increasingly appreciated for its efficiency and slightly smaller size, the 12 gauge remains king of the prepper/survivalist community. The shotgun’s versatility hangs solely on the availability of the big plastic-hulled fodder that is a shotgun shell – and when we boil it all down, those beautiful lead-filled shells take up a ton of space. Yes, they are they key to the shotgun being the do-it-all arm, but once the ammo runs out you’ve got a paperweight that makes really intimidating mechanical sounds. That’s all folks. Better hope your scavenging skills are up to par so you can find more ammo; maybe it’ll even be the type you need.
To put things in perspective: In one .30-caliber steel GI ammo can, I can fit a quantity of ninety-five 2 ¾” 12-gauge shotgun shells, maybe 100 if I get creative. In that same ammo can, I can put well over 500 loose 5.56mm/.223 rounds, or 500+ 9mm rounds depending on packaging. Or, we can go crazy and put THOUSANDS of .22 Long Rifle cartridges in our ammo can. Granted, with a 20 gauge or even a .410 you can up your ammo can shotgun shell capacity, but I used the 12 gauge for our example due to its prevalence in the market. Keep in mind, though, that with diminished gauge comes diminished power – a .410 slug really doesn’t have any more power than a .357 Magnum fired from a handgun – so keep that fact in the back of your head for future consideration.
So while you’re looking at your ammo storage space and wondering how best to fit a ton of shotgun rounds on your shelf for long term storage, take a second and think about how much of that shotgun ammo you could carry on your person if you had to grab your favorite SHTF shotgun and head out the door, never to return to your ammo bunker again. You might have 5 to 8 shells in the magazine of the shotgun (a few more with a Kel-Tec KSG), but then what? My favorite method of holding shotgun shells at the ready – a drop pouch with loose ammo dumped in – will hold about 30, maybe 40 12-gauge shells when topped off to almost overflowing (and you’ll lose some if you have to run ‘cause that drop pouch is open-topped.) A nice, clunky shotgun shell bandolier sling will add 15 or so shells. You might have five or six more shells in a side-saddle carrier on the receiver of the gun. Even with your pockets crammed full of ammunition and a couple extra boxes of shells in your bug-out bag taking up too much room, you’re looking at 200 12-gauge shells. Maybe. And that 200 shells will weigh a ton and generate an organizational nightmare if you’re carrying a nice selection of birdshot, buckshot, and slugs (because a shotgun is versatile, right?). Better make sure you didn’t grab the go-bag with 3” shells if your gun will only handle 2 ¾” shells, too. And when you run out of ammo, you can lament the fact that you could have probably had a Ruger 10/22 Takedown with 1000 or more rounds PLUS an AR or AK with 180+ rounds in about the same amount of space it takes to store and feed your beloved tactical shotgun.
Oh, and have you trained with your shotgun? Can you top off that magazine quickly under duress? How about get rid of the birdshot and plunk a slug in the chamber while you’re running with an irate bear or feral hog making up the distance to your heels in an unnervingly speedy fashion? Can you reload your shotgun and run it with one hand? When your shotgun runs dry – and they DO tend to do that quickly – is it properly equipped with a sling to allow you to transition to a handgun and engage targets? Have you even tried to transition to a sidearm from a long gun before? Do you know where those big slugs will impact a target at 50 yards? 75? How about 100 yards? That’s why you put those sights on, isn’t it? A shotgun slug has a trajectory like a rainbow and WILL drop quickly, trust me. And it’s probably not going to be really that accurate anyway without a rifled barrel – but rifled barrels suck with shot loads. Have you trained through the significant recoil that defensive shotgun loads present and how to counter that with proper stance and handling? Have you realized that a shot load still needs to be aimed with precision to be effective, not just pointed from the hip in the vague direction of your target?
The damage has been done.
You see, there’s a lot more going on with a shotgun than meets the eye – and solving the issues and preparing yourself to use a shotgun in a SHTF scenario takes skill and practice – hopefully not acquired on the job while a catastrophe is happening. This skill set is more involved and requires more forethought, organization, and constant practice to master – it’s a commitment to your commitment to use the shotgun as a SHTF arm. And that commitment means compromise – a gun that really isn’t great at everything, just necessarily adapted for a purpose (like anything else) and eating up really big, expensive, hard-to-store ammo – for really not much return on investment in the survival world when you play the scenario through.
So, while I have indeed trained and used a shotgun with the mindset and forethought that it might be a perfect survival gun, I’ve simply found through my own experiences that the shotgun falls flat on its face when you ask it to do too much. Personally, I have decided to keep my shotguns for use inside their envelope – call it 35 yards or less – and maximize their strengths for that distance with bead sights, a tough weapon-mounted light, and a large payload of 00 buckshot. Home defense and close-range use is where a shotgun shines – don’t try to make a Ferrari out of a Ford. I tend to use a .22 LR or a shotgun that was built for small-game hunting for foraging purposes when I go out, and if I ever find myself in an INCH situation, an AR-15 with a .22 LR conversion kit will fill most of the needs I expect to encounter.
Sorry, shotgun. I tried hard to make it work between us, I really did. But it’s not me…it’s you.
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