Shotguns for preppers

What might be the ultimate prepper firearm? What would its attributes be? Off the top of my head, versatility, power, reliability, and ammunition obtainability spring to mind when I think of what I’d want with me if I could only have one firearm. To fill that bill, with those requirements, a shotgun is the way to go.



What is a shotgun?

A shotgun is a firearm that fires shells (pictured above) that can contain many different payloads: birdshot, BBs, buckshot (large pellets used for self defense and hunting big game at short range) slugs (a huge hunk of lead), and less commonly, rock salt, flechettes (steel darts), bean bags, rubber balls (both less-than-lethal, in theory) and even magnesium, which shoots a stream of white-hot ignited particles out of your barrel with a flamethrower effect. Cool, huh?  This kind of versatility allows us to fine-tune our loads to what we’re doing with the shotgun.


However, the everyday shotgunner will usually focus on the first three: birdshot, buckshot, and slugs. These are the bread-and-butter loads for our scatterguns, and the easiest to find.

Birdshot is used for small-game hunting, hitting smaller, moving targets (such as flying birds….hence the name). Its payload is hundreds of small pellets that spread out in an ever-widening cone, making it easier to catch moving targets in the pattern the shot makes. To tell size of the shot, remember that the BIGGER the number, the SMALLER the shot is. For instance, number 7 1/2 shot is smaller than number 6 shot.

For small game hunting, #7 1/2 and #6 shot will work best, being a good compromise between number of pellets and pellet size to ensure penetration into game vitals. For turkey hunting, or shooting at longer distances, #4 shot works well, with the larger pellet size carrying more energy. BB sizes are hell to pay on woodchucks in the garden or coyotes. For the prepper, #7 1/2 target loads (used for sporting clays target shooting, but will work fine for game) can be found in bulk 100-packs at Wal-Mart and other retailers. These can help keep a large volume of shells in a nice tidy space on the shelf.


Buckshot is a more specialized load for the shotgun, but still extremely useful. Buckshot, like birdshot, comes in many, many different sizes, but it is generally accepted that #00 buckshot is the best balance. A standard 12-gauge #00 buckshot load will usually house 8 or 9 pellets that are .32″ in diameter. This is the standard for a self-defense buckshot load; when propelled at 1300 feet per second out of a shotgun barrel, it is very similar to launching 8 or 9 9mm pistol rounds AT ONCE towards your target. It is this kind of raw horsepower that gives the shotgun its legendary status in the defense and close-range big game hunting world.


Slugs are nothing more than a huge hunk of lead being shot out of your shotgun barrel. A standard 12-gauge slug is one OUNCE, and they can be served up at a snarly 1600 feet per second. This equates to approximately 3,000 ft-lbs of energy, and a big hole in whatever you fire it at. Slugs are the way to go if you need to turn your shotgun into a bit more of a precision weapon, landing hits on targets with more aimed reliability at up to 100 yards.


Pros and Cons


Well, all this versatility must come with a price, right? Right. As a general rule, shotguns are bigger, heavier, and recoil more than other standard rifles. Newton’s Third Rule of Physics states that for every reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So, if you’re propelling an ounce of lead downrange at high velocity, you’re also propelling a shotgun back into your shoulder at high velocity. However, the eight pound mass of a shotgun dampens that force and makes it tolerable. Recoil pads and recoil reducing stocks, combined with reduced recoil loads (made for smaller-framed and female shooters) can ease the shoulder tenderness as well.


Shotguns are also limited in range. As a general rule of thumb, with a standard cylinder bore choked barrel (usually found in short defense shotgun barrels) the shot pattern opens up 1″ for every yard away from the muzzle of the gun. That means that at 25 yards, your pattern is over TWO FEET across. If you have hundreds of small birdshot pellets, this is actually desirable, as it makes a huge area a moving bird has to fly through. But, if you’re shooting buckshot at something shooting back at you, the chances are you will only be hitting your target with a small percentage of those 8 or 9 pellets. When used as a home defense weapon, though, this is alright, as most hallways in houses are far less than 25 yards, and a shotgun with #00 buck or even birdshot (I dunno about you, but a faceful of birdshot sounds pretty awful to me) will be a fearsome deterrent wielded this way. Ammo is also kinda big, with a standard 12 gauge round being about 1 inch in diameter, and almost 3 inches long. One 25-round box of 12-gauge shells is the same size as a 333-round pack of .22 Long rifles, or 90 .223 rounds.


A good pump-action shotgun has a TON of benefits, though, and they more than outweigh the cons. They are EXTREMELY reliable. Due to a small number of moving parts that are quite big, a pump-action shotgun is hard to break and easy to fix. The Remington 870 and Mossberg 500/590 series are the gold standards here. Semi-auto shotguns have more springs and parts that can fatigue and break, so for the prepper, the pump-action or break-open types are the way to go. Barrels can also be switched out quickly and easily, so you can take your 18″ barreled hole defense shotgun, swap the barrels out in less than a minute, and have a 26″ close-choked bird hunting barrel ready to go for FAR less than the cost of another gun. The classic “clack-clack” of the pump action chambering a round is a stereotyped, but still effective deterrent to badguys. Anything from quail to moose can be hunted with a 12-gauge shotgun with just a change of ammunition. Sights can be mounted easily, but really, a good high-visibility front bead will cover all the sighting needs you have, even being able to place slugs reliably in the chest cavity of a deer at 50 yards. They are unequalled in close-quarters combat and home defense. How can you go wrong? I think the world would be a better place if every sane-minded prepper had a good, reliable, well-stocked 12-gauge shotgun as part of their preps.


What do you think?


Stay safe!


38 comments… add one
  • Ray October 2, 2013, 6:07 am

    I own three pump shotguns , an 870 Wingmaster made in 1964 for the PD, a “Norchester” 1897 and an 1897 Winchester trench gun (pre-1918). I consider my shotgun the “go to” home defense option. Guys I know for a fact that a 12 bore at 4 feet STOPS an attack cold, even using bird shot. Guys NOTHING ON EARTH beats the 12ga. pump shotgun for killing at close quarters, and I know of few weapons on earth that are as good in a CQB “dog fight”. With a spare barrel my 870 is a prime bird and rabbit gun. With slugs I can take deer , elk , or just about any animal in N. America. For a survival weapon you could do WAY worse than a pump shotgun

  • j.r. guerra in s. tx. October 2, 2013, 7:27 am

    Sound advice, my brother killed a 200lb + wild hog with buckshot (Federal Controlled Flite) at 40 yards with his 870 12 gauge and was impressed – the animal died within 10 yards of where it was hit. For the reasons you list above, the shotgun is a wise choice where short ranges exist.

    What is your take on ‘cut shells’? This is the process of physically cutting the plastic case behind the load so that entire shell is shot out of the bore to act like a slug. I know it was done in the past and is still being done even today. It destroys the shell from being reused of course but is a way of turning bird shot into a slug load.

    My thought – when you look down a shotgun’s bore from chamber, you see the forcing cone, a shelf where the opened shell case opens up, allowing the shot column and wad to pass through the barrel. A cut shell forces the entire load inside that space, to me raising pressure significantly. Or maybe I’m incorrect ?

    Sorry for drift, but I thought an appropriate place to bring up. And ‘I don’t know either’ is a perfectly good answer. :^) Thanks for your write-up.

    • Greg April 8, 2017, 1:03 pm

      Most guys who I see use cut shells,will use only in Break Open Models

  • The Road Warrior October 2, 2013, 8:04 am

    J.r., my grandfather shot many deer in the’40s and’50s with cut shells, and he swears it works great at close ranges. I would be concerned about the forcing cone issue, but not overly concerned. Shotguns operate at a very low pressure, much lower than most handgun and rifle rounds. Where I can buy slugs at hardware stores and gun shops, I wouldn’t bother, but if I had to feed my family and it was all.I had, I wouldn’t think twice before digging out the pocket knife.

  • j.r. guerra in s. tx. October 2, 2013, 8:50 am

    Cool – thank you.

  • Roseman October 2, 2013, 9:50 am

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Of course, reloading just adds to the versatility. I load #6 for small game, BB for unwanted critter removal and #1 buck for HD purposes. I’m partial to the higher quantity of the .30 caliber pellets of the #1 that can fit in a standard shell. I do not reload slugs. Way before the ammo crisis I purchased a couple of cases of 250 ea. for a very resonable price.

  • Leon Pantenburg October 2, 2013, 9:56 am

    Great, informative article. At one point I owned three Remington 870s and I’ve used them almost exclusively for waterfowl and deer hunting in the swamps of Mississippi. An 870 would be my choice for that “if you could only have one” firearm.

    • Nightshift October 2, 2013, 2:43 pm

      Leon, What area of MS are you in? I’m in the deep south.

  • ThatguyinCA October 2, 2013, 11:26 am

    Recently nabbed a shotgun Remmington 870 (got it used at a great deal). First gun I have owned. I’ve fired a lot of different guns as a family member (ex-marine) has an ever evolving (and revolving) collection. Eventually, I want to trade up to a shotgun with changeable barrels so I can have a more versatile gun. I recently visited a freind in Nevada and got to play with a kel-tec sub2000 9mm. Shot VERY well, packed more punch than I expected. Pretty damn accurate and very manueverable in a firing position. To bad they aren’t CA legal. Having shot it, I would much prefer that for a home defense weapon. Easier to bring to bear (than the shotgun), more easily controllable (read accurate) than a handgun or shotgun. That said, I like having the shotgun. You can’t get a more versatile all around useful gun. I can actually agree with Joe Biden, “Get a shotgun.” (not a double barreled one like he says, but a nice pump). But unlike J.B. I would say, “then get a handgun, then a rifle. BUT, start with the shotgun.”

    • The Road Warrior October 2, 2013, 12:05 pm

      Thatguy , you’re in luck! The Remington 870’s barrels are east to swap; just unscrew the cap on the end of the magazine tube (looks like a knurled dome) and then the barrel slides right off! Reassemble in reverse order…just be sure to have the action OPEN (pump back) so the extractor doesn’t get messed up. New barrels will run you around $100-150. Luckily, used barrels are in gun shops everywhere; keep your eyes open. Hang onto that 870; it’s as good as pump shotguns get!

      • j.r. guerra in s. tx. October 2, 2013, 1:25 pm

        I’ve seen gun shows with what appears to be parkerized on 18″ bead sighted barrels for $75. But they do not have choke tube screws, if that is a want.

        • ThatguyinCA October 3, 2013, 11:36 am

          Gun shows aren’t a common thing in my neck of the woods. Will have to keep an eye out when one comes into town (I believe there is an annual gun show in San Fran that I’ll have to hit up). Heck, a gun store near me can’t even keep their guns out on display, you have to ask to see the one you want. I know, I know. Why don’t I move? Because, the weather is mild and the landscape is b-e-a-you-tiful. And I like wine (is that a crime).

      • ThatguyinCA October 3, 2013, 11:30 am

        Cool thanks. THAT is great news. I was told it was a fixed barrel (didn’t come with a manual). I’ll have to do some googling to find a video. Gotta learn to tinker with it anyways. I just can’t afford another one should I break it. :-)

        • Mike October 3, 2013, 7:53 pm

          Hi ThatguyinCA, I feel your pain, living in a Anti-gun state. To help things better , 2 ideas–vote against any politician that wants to make an honest citizen a criminal because of his choice of firearm to protect himself, his family & his property. Second idea–join the California Rifle Pistol Association or Gun Owners of California & there’s another one Golden State 2A Council or something or another. They lobby at the Capitol for us. I’m a Life member of Cali R & P and I’ve never even been there. Why ? Whenever an ant-gun law sprouts up in Cali, other states try pushing for the same law. To me an attack on the 2A in one state is an attack on all. Some may call me a fanatic, but if more gun owners were doing something for the 2A, we wouldn’t be talking about all these restrictions. …stepping off soap box :-)

          • Ray October 3, 2013, 8:16 pm

            Yeh. That 870 is stupid easy to field strip and clean. The instructions are all over the web. The Barrels are EVERYWHERE in their millions -including rifle barrels. Parts are cheap, and it’s probably the last weapon Demofornia will outlaw.

  • Mountainwoman74 October 2, 2013, 11:58 am

    Can only wish I were younger and bigger so I, too, could shoot a 12 ga. Alas, being old, small, and female I am restricted to my little Mossberg .410 pump and a bunch of different types of shells.
    Decided a while back that sustaining an injury from the back end of your own gun was not an option for me.

    • PrepNow October 2, 2013, 1:49 pm

      Some 17 years ago when I was part of my sons scout troop we had target practice outing. We were told to bring a shotgun if we’d like. Parents and other leaders showed up with a nice array of 20 ga & 12 ga of various models. Side by side, pumps, over and under…you name it. We brought our .410 H&R single shot and a couple boxes of game shot of some sort.

      Darndest thing though, some parents were struggling with the 12 ga shotguns and the young scouts were intimidated by the recoil. Once they saw the size of the .410 and the accuracy we were achieving, that little shotgun became a favorite. The .410 has a definite place in the realm of learning how to shoot.

    • Ray October 3, 2013, 8:22 pm

      Mountainwoman, you can upgrade to a 20ga. pump. It will effectively double your fire power, with little increase in recoil. My Mom is in her late 70s with neck and shoulder injuries and can shoot one without injury.

  • Expat October 2, 2013, 12:56 pm

    My go to defense and survival gun here at the retreat is a H&R single 12ga. I’ve got all the rest of the guns a couple of minutes from ready but the single is in the kitchen with one up the spout and another 6 on the stock sock. The shell loaded is 1 7/8 oz. #2 bird shot. The rest are #4’s and 00 buck.
    The stock is a survival type in that the butt is hollow as well as the forearm and holds all sorts of survival gear as well as another couple of shells. There’s a sling on the gun as well.
    If I well and truly have to get going then and there, that’s what gets grabbed. Worked at my isolated Colorado property for bears just fine in the past loaded with #4 shot, which to tell you the truth is all I ever use for hunting anyway.
    My theory on survival is number one you actually have to hit what you shoot at, not spray and pray with a 223 (and you know you do). While snow bound one winter I went to bed hungry learning that lesson. I didn’t eat the next day either.
    I’d much rather have 8 rounds that kill 6 times, than 90 that kill 20 because that means I missed a whole bunch when I could not afford to and probably left rounds unused for somebody else to find.
    Why a single and not a pump? A single is simpler, shorter, lighter, faster, especially if you’re good with it and carried it for 40 years as I have. Love that gun all $35 dollar worth.
    What about armed assailants?
    If you think you’ll prevail over multiple bad guys you’re naive or delusional or walk around malls acting tough. Carrying a single means you’ll most likely not be confrontational and live another day.
    There’s also the fact that one shot can come from anywhere, Two shots locate you exactly.
    I used to read stories of my ancestors who lived in the NW frontier which then was Ohio. After they shot a deer they’d wait hours before moving just to see who might come by. Those would be Indians and not friendly ones either. They never shot twice form the same location. Hell they never shot twice period.

    • j.r. guerra in s. tx. October 2, 2013, 1:30 pm

      I have that H&R in 20 gauge – nice ‘grab ‘n go’ woods walker. I shot a 12 gauge version once and it was too much for me – just too light to comfortably shoot (you would likely hardly notice it when ‘facing the elephant’ :^)

  • Templar October 2, 2013, 1:00 pm

    The perfect defensive/offensive all-purpose reliable shotgun:
    1. Rem 870 or Mossberg 5xx pump.
    2. Parkerized finish.
    3. 20″ barrel, improved-cylinder choke w/bead sights.
    4. Pistol grip with buttstock (collapsible or not).
    5. Extended tube magazine.
    6. Sling swivels (w/sling, of course).
    7. Sidesaddle shell carrier.

  • waterboy October 2, 2013, 1:11 pm

    Thanks. A lot of info in a short space, with no useless blather. Much appreciated.

  • Kevin Ayres October 2, 2013, 2:10 pm

    Well done. I am always advising my family, friends and clients on the importance of the shot gun in home/personal defense.

  • irishdutchuncle October 2, 2013, 2:32 pm

    saving my pennies now, waiting for the right one.
    (or two)

  • Michael October 2, 2013, 2:50 pm

    Yep, gotta have a shotty. But, I’ll stick with my 20 gauges.

    Those big shells have an advantage as they’re easier to work with when your hands are cold or your heart rate is really pumping.

  • Brian_427 October 2, 2013, 3:49 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. I have had my Mossberg 590 over 20 years, and carried an Remington 870 on duty. Nothing will get a bad guy’s attention like racking a shell into the chamber of a shotgun. If you are a little recoil sensitive, Mossberg and Remington make good pump guns in 20 gauge too. The ammo is relatively cheap (especially birdshot) comparted to .223 or most other rifles. (besides the 22lr of course)

  • Priest October 2, 2013, 4:24 pm

    I own a Mossberg Maverick 88 12 gauge with a compstock reducing recoil stock. That new stock makes a WORLD of difference. There is a company that makes a Saiga 12 conversion that allows the operator to use the 12 rd magazines but still with a pump operation. Its around $500 but its cheaper than buying a saiga 12.

    I prefer Buck & Ball due to it having the best of both worlds(Slug + Buck Shot). Same price as slugs but the only time i’m shooting it is when i’m defending. Other than that the various birdshots are great and cheap!

  • Dennis October 2, 2013, 4:54 pm

    The shotgun can even be made to be more desired by adding chamber inserts. These come in various gauges and they shoot pistol calibers and I’m not sure what else. Bad memory on my part. They are about the size of a 12 ga. round. They extend the cartridges you can shoot.
    You can search Shotgun Chamber Inserts if you are interested.

    • j.r. guerra in s. tx. October 3, 2013, 8:23 am

      These inserts really work better in the extended barrelled versions. Much longer rifling for the cartridge used. I have a 18″ 30-30 Winchester 20 gauge barrel sleeve for my Savage 24 Camper. Works pretty well and having iron sights really helps me dial in for better accuracy (of course the upper .22lr then loses zero). And the firearm get gain some weight as you are now essentially carrying a much heavier barrelled gun.

      The short inserts do have one major advantage – you do increase what can be shot in it. ‘No shotgun shells, but I do have some .38 specials’ for example. And the report from the lower powered cartridges (i.e. 38 Special – .45ACP) vs. the rifle cartridges are quieter

  • T.R. October 2, 2013, 5:17 pm

    Dragons breath rounds , look it up on youtube ……… will like it !!!!!!

    • Brian_427 October 2, 2013, 6:00 pm

      Just check state laws on dragon’s breathe or flechettes, the are illegal here in Florida. (A couple of the few things related to firearms that aren’t legal here)

  • Douglas October 9, 2013, 2:43 am

    Its been proven by military research that hit probability is higher with a shotgun by all levels of shooters. I have the same results despite being a rifle shooter since childhood and former infantry for a dozen years.
    The drawbacks are weight of ammo, speed of reloads, and effective range. Brenneke type slugs can extend range to 100 meters if you have good sights or optics and zero the weapon at 50 meters.
    practice can greatly help reload skills.
    If I had to choose just one firearm its hard to choose between a .308 battle rifle and a ghost ring sighted 9 round pump 12ga.
    but I’m over 6′ and nearly 200lbs.
    But if i were advising a group on a single survivalist arm, both home and ranch defense, possible offense,and hunting, factoring in cost of ammo, training and (low)skill set, and reliability, recoil, and effective range and fire power, any of the AK-47 variants in 7.62×39 would be my advice, not the 12ga. the 12ga would be the 3rd gun for a survivalist group (after buying at least 2 AKs and 2000 rounds of ammo), but the 12ga is definitely a 1st rate gun for the any home defense scenario, and my very 1st late night “what was that noise honey?” choice. A handgun is just there for polite concealed carry, and/or if needed to fight your way back to a rifle, yours or the enemies. The .308 is in the safe, in a silicon oil gun sock, but the 12ga, right by my bed, loaded.

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  • Jimmy Muller January 18, 2017, 7:23 am

    Definitely what is a fantastic and informative post about the importance of a clean shotgun. Good cleaning is great for guns. Thank you.

  • Rem870 March 22, 2017, 7:40 am

    Very good article. Shotgun is the must have too for any prepper. My choice is Remington 870 shotgun.

  • Greg June 6, 2018, 2:59 pm

    The 870’s Of today(in my opinion)are not well made and checked by(QC)My Buddy bought one,Standard Remington(00-buck)was jamming at least 1-round for every 6 put in the tube.I believe Freedom Arms,cut QC in order to pump(no pun intended)870’s at a fast production rate.I prefer a Mossberg 500,plus it was $75.00 cheaper.Not saying it’s any better.But I’ve had ZERO,problems.Plus(at least to me it’s still family owned)not a we don’t give a SHIT,massive conglomerate.


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