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06/10/2006 Archived Entry: "Training with the Shotgun for Home Defense"

The 12-gauge can drop a dove in flight without spoiling the meat. Change loads and the same gun will take a deer, wild boar, or black bear. Add a rifled barrel and modern sabot slugs, and you can put fearsomely large chunks of lead into targets at 100 yards and beyond.

I’ve hunted with a shotgun for over 40 years, and I’ve kept one handy for almost that long just in case an intruder needed some persuasion regarding the wisdom of breaking into my house or apartment. I was trained to hunt by my father and other male relatives, but I had never been trained in the defensive uses of the shotgun.

That changed recently when I spent 2 full days at a professional firearms training center learning the theory and practice of close quarters combat with the shotgun and pistol. The short version of this story is easy: if you plan to use any weapon in self defense, you need to train. Hunting, target practice, and home defense are utterly different. In a real defensive situation, your pulse will race, your hands will shake, and your fine motor skills will vanish. It's much worse than the worst case of buck fever. If you’ve practiced working under those conditions, you might have a chance. If all you’ve ever done, as I had, was target practice at the range and hunting, your odds of surviving a defensive encounter are greatly reduced.

The long version of the story begins with the preparations:

Which training facility? There are many; Packing.org has a good list. Find one convenient for you and call them, on the telephone (be sure to say hello to the NSA snoop.) If you are going to spend a day or two with a bunch of strangers carrying loaded weapons, you need to be confident that the facility is professional and safe. I find a telephone conversation much more enlightening than any amount of web page design or even recommends from friends.

I had purchased an 18 ½” barrel for my 30-year old Mossberg many years ago. The shorter barrel is much easier to maneuver indoors than the 28” to 32” barrels used for hunting. One can choose either a traditional bead or a ghost-ring sight. I find these to be matters of personal preference and fit to the gun rather than something to debate.

Most courses require the use of a sling. I bought a simple 3-point tactical sling and a sling plate. The sling plate is much better than a front swivel; it keeps the sling to one side rather than underneath, where it can interfere with the pump action. Likewise the 3-point sling, with its Velcro rear fastener, may not look as cool as the swivel in the stock, but it keeps the sling to one side. When the sling is properly adjusted, the gun hangs ready, flat across your body, muzzle NOT pointing at your toes, with the heel of the stock just below the pocket of your shoulder where you mount the gun. (More on slings and mounting below.)

After the gun you need eyes, ears, and ammo. I’m not going to review all the fine products available to protect sight and hearing, but I will note that many of the fancy electronic headsets will interfere with the gun’s stock when you mount it.

Ammo for two days consisted of a case (250 rounds) of 00 buckshot, 150 rounds of rifled slugs, and 100 rounds of heavy bird shot. You’ll also need 300 rounds of pistol ammunition. Most facilities will loan you a pistol and holster if you don’t have one; some require the use of expensive lead-free frangible ammo in their pistols. I learned at the course about a new kind of frangible buckshot shotgun shell, but apparently it is presently offered to law enforcement only. Some facilities will loan shotguns, but I strongly suggest you bring your own.

I purchased Federal “tactical” buckshot. While the case is marked “Law Enforcement only” this product is widely available in gun stores and on the net. The ‘tactical” used to mean nothing more than low recoil. The shell is loaded with 9 pellets rather than the traditional 12 and has less powder. Federal has improved the round with changes to the wad and a polymer filler that cushions the charge. I fired cartridges I had purchased in 1999 and 2006; the newer cartridges had substantially tighter patterns with far fewer fliers. I also purchased Federal rifled slugs. While my Remington auto-loader with the rifled barrel and rifle sights is deadly accurate to 100 yards when using sabot slugs, the short-barreled pump is the weapon of choice for home defense, and at 3-7 yard ranges the diminished accuracy is not important. For the birdshot I took 4 boxes of handloaded #4 shot with a heavy charge, suitable for turkeys.

Which 12-gauge? While enthusiasts love to debate the merits of pump versus semi-auto, with some holding out for the venerable double-barrel, what I saw during the course settled the issue. On day 1 we had an assortment, Mossberg pump-actions, Winchester and Remington skeet guns, stainless-steel marine versions, parkerized and camo finishes, tricked-out “combat” guns with folding stocks and cartridge holders, even an import with a name none of us had ever heard of and dared not try to pronounce (it appeared to be Russian or perhaps Ukrainian.)

On day 2, virtually everyone was carrying a Mossberg 500 pump with an 18 ½” barrel. I think several people actually went out after the first day and bought new ones, others borrowed from the range’s armory.

With my car loaded up with guns and enough ammo to finish a modest battle, I drove very cautiously to the training facility. State laws vary widely regarding what one is allowed to carry, but many police are astonishingly ignorant of firearms laws, and getting stopped with guns and ammo in the car is always tense and sometimes extremely dangerous. I made the trip without incident, and pulled into a friend’s driveway shortly after sundown.

Class started at 8 AM sharp. Our instructor introduced himself; he had an impressive set of credentials for both shotgun and most other weapons instruction. The class had a wide variety of students: doctors, dentists, engineers, businessmen, security guards, retirees.
We started with a review of general and range-specific safety. The four rules were explained and discussed at length. Training for close quarters combat means you will fire while moving and turning very close to other people with loaded shotguns. There was a heavy (and welcome) emphasis on muzzle control and trigger finger discipline. We had no incidents during our course, but the range facilities showed scars where previous students had sent rounds the wrong direction.

After safety there was a review of shotguns, the various kinds of actions, and their suitability for home defense. The pump was the clear favorite. It is simple, inexpensive, and rugged. It is less susceptible to operator error and less likely to malfunction if mounted poorly, as sometimes happens in extreme situations.

There was an extensive review of malfunctions, their causes, and how to respond to them. Our class experienced virtually all of them: failure to feed, failure to fire, failure to extract, failure to eject.

There was instruction on the various carry methods and positions. I found the tactical sling much more practical and useful than I had expected. Most in-home situations will be handled in the “high ready” or “low ready” positions but we covered all the safe possibilities both with and without slings.

Loading a shotgun in a defensive situation is an art unto itself. Fine motor control vanishes when you pulse is pounding and your fingers trembling. The casual “administrative load” used in hunting and clay shooting simply won’t work. We practiced combat loading the entire course. With the action open, the left hand takes a cartridge, passes under the receiver, and pushes it into the ejection port. The left hand then works the slide to close the port and chamber the round. If time permits, the left hand is used to fill the magazine tube, all the while keeping the gun at low or high ready with the right hand. (Holding a long gun to your shoulder with one hand quickly gets tiring, and the short barrel really helps out here.)

You may have seen cowboy action shooters load 1897 pump guns with an overhand technique, but they have practiced thousands of times and are not in fear of their lives. The underhand technique allows you to catch a fumbled shell rather than dropping it, and leaves your left hand in position to work the slide as soon as the round is in the gun. It’s simple enough in theory; trying to do it while dozens of shots are going off nearby, you are walking or turning, and the instructor is barking commands at you is an entirely different story. We had dropped cartridges all day, both days.

After several hours of instruction we were ready for the range. Our weapons were inspected carefully by the instructor, slings adjusted, a few actions oiled.

We started with dry firing exercises; a few cases of flinch were diagnosed and trained away. We then patterned our guns at 3, 5, 7, and 10 yards. As our instructor pointed out, almost no one has a house big enough for a 10-yard indoor shot.

Hollywood loves to show giant holes blown in people’s midsections by shotguns, such as Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her. Ignorant folk sometimes opine about how one “doesn’t aim a shotgun, you point it.”

The truth is much different. At 3-7 yards, all 9 of those 33-caliber pellets pass through a hole about an inch to an inch and a half in diameter. You have to aim for center of mass shots, just as in defensive pistol shooting. Cardiovascular and central nervous system hits are important. While shredding your adversary’s shoulder, arm, or leg may disable him, it may not.

The close range does change aiming compared to wing or clay shooting. Basically, your eye should see target all around the muzzle as soon as your cheek hits the stock. When you get that picture, you take your first shot. The time from the “UP!” command to firing can get to about half a second with practice.

After patterning and some work on sight picture, we started a series of exercises. Each one added a layer of complexity. A basic combat load and firing one shot was relatively easy, but a few hours later I found myself feeling like I was in some kind of armed ballet troupe. We were combat loading, firing standing, dropping to kneeling, firing again, continue to top off the magazine while standing again, engaging a second target, moving to the side, engaging another, dammit I’m out I didn’t keep up with the loading, check left and right, muzzle down, safety on, check to the rear, see the instructor holding up his hand, but don’t pay enough attention to see him holding up three fingers, get embarrassed a few minutes later when he asks everyone how many fingers they saw.

We practiced turning and shooting. It takes some confidence and discipline to stand in a line of men carrying fully loaded shotguns, facing to the side, just a few feet from the next guy’s back. Keep those muzzles DOWN until AFTER you turn! No one messed up, and the exercise was quite instructive. We did 90 degree turns in both directions and 180 degree turns.

One of the hardest exercises, at least for me, was one-handed shooting. What if you are hit, or you have a screaming child clinging to your weak side? It’s perfectly possible to load, mount, and fire a shotgun with one hand. I didn’t get the mount right on one shot and got a nice bruise for my trouble, then short-shucked the action and tied the gun up good. It took me and the instructor 5 minutes and tools to get the fired case and the jammed new cartridge free. I wasn’t the only one; the guys with autoloaders had a terrible day of it. Mount a recoil-operated gun poorly and you often don’t feed the next round properly.

Day 2 found us somewhat bruised and sore but ready for more. The bruises weren’t from recoil so much as poor mounts made in haste. The short barrel is lighter and so recoil is definitely stronger than with clay shooting, but trap shooters put hundreds of rounds downrange without injury. If the gun is mounted tight to the shoulder, and the body properly positioned, firing those Federal tactical loads was no problem at all. I tried a few Remington 3” magnums with 15 pellets of 00 buck; they hurt just as much as I remembered.

As I mentioned earlier, there were many more Mossberg 500s today. All but one of the autoloaders was gone, and that one had been taken to a gunsmith for some quick adjustments and thorough cleaning. The Mossberg isn’t the only good pump gun made, but the top-mounted safety falls right under the thumb when the gun is mounted. It proved easier and much, much faster to work the Mossberg safety off and on than to work the cross-bar safety common on most hunting guns. One of the few rules that was broken was putting the safety back on at the end of an exercise, or after each shot. All of the rule breakers were using the crossbar safeties and either fumbled them or forgot under the stress of the exercise. Your thumb on that safety reminds you it is there, and you naturally put it where it belongs, almost without thinking about it.

We began the second day with basic pistol shooting at 7 yards. I was using a borrowed gun and my “patterns” were just terrible. I knew I wasn’t flinching and was getting a good surprise shot off. The instructor noticed my (lack of) accuracy and immediately diagnosed the problem as an improper grip. The borrowed gun was a bit small for my hands and I was unconsciously crossing my thumbs. Correcting the grip brought my groups to something tolerable if not competition-grade; I’ve never been a great pistol shot.

We practiced transition drills; combat load one round in the shotgun, start with pistol fully loaded, round in the chamber and two extra magazines on the belt. We’d fire one round from the shotgun then try to fire another; at the “click” sling the shotgun, draw the pistol, and put two rounds in the center of mass. Did I mention it was pouring down rain? You don’t get to choose when you have to fight.

As before, the exercises got progressively more complex as the day went on. After basic turns and moves with pistol transitions, the instructor told us that for the remainder of the day we should always switch to pistol if we ran out of shotgun rounds during an exercise. The trick was to sling the shotgun so that the muzzle stayed safe, then getting the pistol cleanly in and out of the holster while it was covered by a raincoat. We practiced various methods of sweeping clothing out of the way. Most of the pistol shooting was one-handed, with the other hand controlling the shotgun muzzle.

We practiced firing from behind barricades. This is harder than it sounds, you don’t want to be too close or you have to expose too much of your body when peeking around the cover. I found working the left side of the barricade particularly challenging. Some of the shooters switched to a left-hand mount; I may want to practice that in dry fire exercises.

The range had a “shoot house,” a mock-up of a typical home with hallways, doors, rooms, and closets, but with armor plate on all surfaces. Only frangible ammo is allowed in the shoot house so we practiced with our shotguns empty. The exercise was very challenging. Even with the short barrel the shotgun is long and difficult to maneuver in typical indoor spaces. You don’t want to poke your barrel past a corner or doorway lest a bad guy grab the muzzle. Clearing a room requires careful consideration of angles, noticing all doors, gradually covering an ever-expanding area, and eventually making a quick move into the room to cover that last corner you can’t see otherwise. There were lots of banged elbows and muffled curses.

We practiced with rifled slugs and birdshot in order to understand the differences. Rifled slugs work pretty much as well as buckshot but might be more of a penetration problem for some homes. The hole is ¾” rather than 1 ½” but the bad guy is unlikely to notice the difference. Birdshot, particularly the #8 some people used, looked pretty ineffective. As our criminal veep recently demonstrated, #8 in a 28-gauge is just too light a load for lawyers and other dangerous game. My #4 turkey loads looked a little better but I would worry about something like a heavy leather jacket stopping or significantly slowing the pellets.

By the end of second day I found that I was combat loading and topping off without consciously thinking about it. My time to mount and shoot had dropped from several seconds to well under a second, and I was hitting center of mass every time with both shotgun and pistol. I learned to walk and shoot at the same time, something I had never even tried while hunting or clay shooting. Kneeling was easy, sitting was harder. Not in the shooting, but in getting up and down with good muzzle control.

All in all I found this course extremely informative. I’ve kept a gun in the house for decades but the course showed how utterly naïve I was about being able to use the gun well in a defensive encounter. Hunting and home defense are vastly different skill sets and mind sets. I plan to repeat the training, perhaps with a different instructor or facility, in a year or so. Anyone with a shotgun owes it to themselves to get some quality training in defensive use and tactics. Anyone without a shotgun should acquire one of these versatile tools as soon as possible.

Posted by Silver @ 09:04 AM CST

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