A lot of people I know ask me what firearm they should buy for protection. The answer to that question depends largely on how they intend to use it. Protection is such a vague description, especially when choosing what weapon is right for you. What sort of protection are you looking for? Are you interested in a concealed carry firearm that will be on your person at all times? Are you after something for just around the house (home defense)? Do you want something to keep in the glove box of your car on long trips? Do you want something you can also shoot recreationally? All of these questions are important to know. Most importantly is: how much experience do you have?
I've been shooting all my life. I've handled hundreds of guns and I've shot nearly every type I could get my hands on. I feel no less comfortable shouldering a shotgun over a semi-automatic rifle. I don't care if the pistol in my hand is a revolver or an automatic. It doesn't matter if I shoot a 9mm, a .357 magnum, a .45 acp, or a .380 auto. I don't have problems with ghost ring sights, buck-horn sights, blade sights, peep sights, or even glow in the dark sights. I can shoot through a scope, irons, holographic sights, and at times using no sights. As far as the average Joe is concerned, I'm a skilled shooter. Ironically, as far as the average shooter goes, I'm still an average shooter. That being said, I carry with me a wealth of technical knowledge as well as practical experience with guns of many types and I'm not afraid to use either to my advantage or to help someone out with a question, such as "What kind of gun should I buy for protection?"
Let's face it. Most people who are interested in buying a gun for concealed carry are probably going to wind up with a compact pistol or snub nose revolver. In most cases, I recommend that the average guy buys a revolver if the gun is for concealed carry. Why? They are so damn reliable, that's why. The average Joe doesn't have the skill set to run a failure drill in the middle of a shooting session, much less do so under pressure. A lot of good shooters, myself included, rely on revolvers for a good portion of our concealed carry needs because wheel guns have an amazing track record of going "BANG" when you squeeze the trigger.
Let's talk about the guy who isn't interested in carrying a gun on a daily basis. I talk to a lot of folks that are interested in only having something in the bedroom closet to use in the event their home is invaded in the middle of the night. This guy may not be an avid shooter or gun enthusiast like me, but he is concerned for the safety of his family, and his right to protection is just as valid as the man who spends his life shooting guns.
For this guy, I recommend the following: buy a shotgun. Don't just buy any shotgun though. Even though the learning curve with a shotgun is very shallow, there are different types and different gauges to consider. Rather than bore you with the technical details of all kinds, I'm going to get straight to the point.
Buy the following: A 12 gauge pump-action shotgun with an 18 inch barrel and a 5-7 shot capacity. That's it. It doesn't matter which brand you buy. Get a Remington 870, or get a Mossberg 500 or 590. You can even pick up a used Winchester 1300 Defender like the one pictured above (I bought mine new).
12 gauge refers to the size of the barrel. It is about .73 of an inch inside diameter. The higher the gauge number, the smaller the barrel. 12 gauge is the largest practical shotgun diameter you can get, and it is the most common. A pump-action shotgun is a gun with a pump handle as a fore grip. To "rack" the shotgun (that is to bring a shotgun shell into battery), you vigorously pull the handle back and then push it forward. After each pull of the trigger, you "pump" the handle to eject the spent shell and bring a fresh one into battery. An 18 inch barrel is as short as you can legally get without special licensing. Most home defense shotguns have a barrel that actually measures 18 1/4" long so you are absolutely certain it is legal. You wouldn't want to be arrested by an overzealous BATF agent with a faulty tape measure. Shot capacity in a home defense gun is critical. You don't want to have any less than 5 shots available before you have to reload. You don't know how many thugs you could come up against and you don't know if you will miss the first shot. In the world of weapon capacity, more is better.
Okay, so what do you load it up with anyway? The answer is simple: shotgun shells. Now, there are a lot of different varieties of shotgun shells, different load types and power ratings. I'm not going to go exotic on you. When you go to the average gun shop or the local Wal Mart for shotgun ammunition, you will see three basic types: bird shot, buck shot, and slug. Which is better for home defense? Bird shot is for shooting, well... birds! You could use it for home defense, and it may provide enough power to disable the threat, but after more than a few feet, the very tiny pellets that comprise a bird shot round don't account for much. Buck shot is the more desirable self defense round. Even buck shot comes in a variety of flavors and it will be up to you to research and find the one that works for you. Buck shot rounds are typically sized from 0000 (quadruple-ought) to 4 buckshot. Each shot size will have a different amount of small lead balls, called pellets. I have a handy chart below:
Size Nominal diameter Number of Pellets
0000 ("quadruple-ought") .38" (9.7 mm) 5
000 ("triple-ought") .36" (9.1 mm) 6
00 ("double-ought") .33" (8.4 mm) 8
0 ("ought") .32" (8.1 mm) 9
1 .30" (7.6 mm) 10
2 .27" (6.9 mm) 15
3 .25" (6.4 mm) 18
4 .24" (6 mm) 21
Due to the risk of over penetrating Sheetrock in a home defense scenario, I personally like to load my self defense shotgun with a 4 buck sized load. With 21 .24" pellets, they are not only smaller and less likely to over penetrate, but there are also more of them to ensure a hit instead of a miss. Shooting a shotgun, as opposed to shooting a rifle is akin to throwing a handful of rocks at a target verses throwing a single rock. In a home defense situation, throwing more lead at a time is favorable.
As an aside, many shotguns come with various "choke tubes" which screw into the end of the barrel. These allow you to choke, or constrict the shot pattern as it leaves the barrel to affect how the shot pattern will group on target at various ranges. For a home defense shotgun, a cylinder choke (basically no choke) will work fine. You don't need uber tight groupings in the house. In fact, you are looking for a good wide spread for close quarters, which will increase your chances of hitting your target instead of missing.
Other rounds, called slugs, are simply one big chunk of lead that usually weighs an ounce. Shooting a slug at someone would be like driving a small car into the target rather than tossing some rocks. You can buy different types of slugs, including rifle slugs, deer slugs, and sabot slugs.
By now, you may be thinking to yourself, "this sounds like an absolutely devastating weapon." You'd also be correct. Readily available and inexpensive, a shotgun is a lot of weapon for the money. For close quarter encounters in the home, there is no substitute for a good solid pump-action shotgun with the shortest barrel you can legally get. Plus, the pump-action shotgun has that distinct "click-click" when you rack a round into the chamber. Thanks to the movies, nearly every person in America knows what that sound means and will probably run like hell when they hear it. The reputation that precedes the shotgun is amazing.
Shotguns are versatile. With different load options, choke configurations, and different stock configurations, you can essentially build or buy what you need for your situation. They do have their drawbacks though. They are not long range guns, and they are slower to reload than magazine fed rifles/handguns. They also kick rather hard and despite having an 18 inch barrel, they tend to be a little on the long side. You can overcome these drawbacks easily though.
They don't have a lot of range, but then again you have to ask yourself, "how big is my house?" If the answer is less than 50 yards from room to room, then the shotgun is still ideal for you. The largest room in my house is about 20 feet long, with about the longest distance I could shoot (3 rooms long) being nearly 50 feet. That's perfect shotgun territory.
The hard kick can be overcome by a few things. You can buy "tactical load" shot shells which have a little less powder charge and will kick less. You can also buy compensating stocks or slip on rubber butt pads, which will do a good job at absorbing felt recoil. You can also have your shotgun barrel ported to reduce muzzle rise. The best method though, is to shoot the gun at the range until you are comfortable with it, and then keep training with it until you are proficient with it. Then keep training with it because it's not only fun, but it's essential to know and understand your firearm inside and out.
Shotguns are long, but that isn't the end of the world. Practice in your home. Find locations in your house, like room thresholds and hallways/stairs that impede your ability to sweep the gun barrel around (gun unloaded and finger OFF the trigger of course). Train with house clearing methods adopted by SWAT by either buying training videos or attending a class. You will find that the length of the shotgun is easily manageable with a little time invested in training for your situation.
Think training is overkill? Chew on this. Police, SWAT, military, and other para-military organizations train for their roles constantly. That's the only way they are as good as they are at whatever it is they do. Taking some time to train yourself to handle your gun at your home, and on the range is not asking too much of the self defense shotgunner. If you won't take the time to train, then you shouldn't take the time to buy the gun. If the goal you have in mind is to protect you and your family, then the time invested to teach yourself to shoot, teach your wife to shoot, teach your kids to shoot, and develop safe handling habits is part of that deal. Plus, if the situation ever occurs that you must use your shotgun to defend yourself/home/family, you will have a foundation to fall back on and experience with the weapon instead of fumbling in the dark with a gun you aren't as familiar with as you should be.
Despite the fact that I have a collection of pistols and rifles at my disposal, I keep a 12 gauge shotgun in the house. Pistols are great for personal defense, but as the old saying goes, "pistols are used to fight to rifles" or in this case, shotguns. My pistols are last ditch effort weapons, ideally suited for situations where either shotguns are impractical (concealed carry) or when you've run out of ammo and need to just do a New York reload (which is to drop the big weapon and pull the handgun out). For home defense, the shotgun wins every time.