A key consideration when evaluating the suitability of a shotgun for any particular purpose is to understand its range.
Unlike rifles and pistols, where range is a simple concept (closer is better, further away is worse), shotguns have three different ‘zones’ with three different sets of considerations applying. Few people understand this. Let’s explain these three zones and what they mean.
First, it is important to understand that the length and distance of each zone varies depending on the type of shotshell you are using, the shotgun barrel length, and its barrel profile or ‘choke’. It is helpful to appreciate the interplay of these factors before moving on to consider the specifics of shotgun range issues.
In general terms, a shotgun’s range is a function of the likely target coverage by the pellets or shot balls that you are firing – ie, the spread of the shot. Once the shot has spread to the point where insufficient of the individual shot balls/pellets will land on the target, then the shotgun’s range can be considered to have been exceeded. Note that this distance is probably shorter than the range from the perspective of accuracy or from the perspective of the remaining kinetic energy and stop-power of the load you’ve just fired.
Shot Spread Issues
The spread of the shot can be influenced by three main factors. The first relates to the specific cartridge you are firing, and what type of cupping and wadding is inside it. Some shells are designed to maximize the spread of the shot within them, others act to hold the balls more closely together for longer.
The other two factors relate to the shotgun itself – the length of the barrel and its choke.
In general terms it is fair to say that the longer the barrel, the less spread there will be.
As for a barrel’s ‘choke’, this relates to whether there is a taper inside the barrel or not. Some shotguns have no taper – they are the same diameter at the breech end of the barrel as at the muzzle end. This is said to be a ‘cylinder’ bore, and is well suited if you are shooting solid slugs. We have also read about some barrels offering ‘reverse’ or ‘negative’ chokes – where the muzzle is wider than the breech (think of a blunderbus as an extreme example). We’ve never seen one of these, but believe they might exist.
All other tapers are of the type where the barrel diameter gets narrower from the breech to the muzzle. This tends to slightly funnel the shot elements together and make for less dispersal of shot subsequent to it emerging out of the muzzle.
In addition to barrels with a choke built-in to them, some barrels also have a variable choke adapter at the end, so you can simply rotate the choke setting to quickly give yourself more or less choke depending on the dynamics of the target, the range, and what you are shooting at it.
There are a number of different standard chokes, all with rather non-intuitive names. Perhaps the most complete list we’ve seen is this, in order from the least amount of choke to the most amount of choke :
|Choke Name||Constriction||Net Diameter for 12 ga|
|Super Full||0.055 +||0.675|
Most shotguns with chokes are intended for sporting or bird shooting. Self defense purposes usually sees cylinder bores only. For that reason, our discussion of the three zones assumes a moderately shot barrel length and no choke (ie a cylinder bore).
Are Nine Shot Balls Better or Worse than a Single Rifle/Pistol Round?
This is an interesting issue, with points both for and against.
On the one hand, you’ve all seen the movies, where a single shotgun blast takes a huge solid circle out of a door or something else. Now, of course, that is what you see in the movies rather than real life, but the concept of having nine 00 balls (the typical load of a 00 buck shot shell), each similar in size, weight, velocity (and therefore energy) to a .32 pistol round, hitting the target close to each other is obviously an exciting thought.
But a .32 cal pistol round isn’t exactly a highly lethal round. And this energy calculation is at the shotgun muzzle. The 00 buckshot balls quickly lose speed (and their energy drops off with the square of the speed, so a 25% reduction in speed means a 63% reduction in energy).
The lethality of the shotgun round rapidly diminishes with distance. Furthermore, its lethality is spread over nine individual balls. When those balls strike more or less as one, they also deliver their energy more or less than once. But by the time you are 10 yards or less away from the shotgun, you are now delivering nine individual balls, each with their own 1/9th share of energy, and already diminished appreciably by the 10 yards of distance.
To put this in context we’re aware of one situation where a ‘low recoil’ shotshell’s load of 00 buck wasn’t even able to penetrate a bad guy’s jacket at 40 yards! A round obviously needs to be able to penetrate through clothing, and then potentially through skin, flesh, bones, and so on if it is to have any noticeable effect on a target you are trying to stop.
Think again to movies. We now they are a terrible source of bad information, but just think of all the movies you’ve seen where a person was shot by a shotgun, and the net result is the doctor picking out pieces of shot from the guy’s butt. That’s probably more realistic than the sudden total destruction of the door images seen in other movies!
So quite apart from accuracy issues, there is an ‘ability to stop’ issue which is massively more limited than many people consider.
Now let’s look at the three different ‘zones’ of coverage offered by a shotgun and their tactical implications.
Zone A – Very Close In
A shotgun’s A Zone is considered to be the distance from the shotgun where the pellets or balls are all traveling together, in a bunch, with very little spread between them.
This is typically about five to seven yards.
Within this range, you need to aim your shot much as you would need to aim a rifle or pistol shot, although of course, at this distance, many people can instinctively point-shoot with acceptable accuracy, when shooting at man-sized targets.
In other words, in the A Zone, a shotgun is no more or no less accurate/easy to aim than any other type of firearm, while being at least as lethal as most rifles and much more lethal than a single pistol round.
Note that there’s no clear transition point between where the A zone ends and the B zone begins.
Zone B – Medium Close
The B Zone for a shotgun is from the vague point where the balls/pellets start to separate and out to the point where they have spread so much they will no longer all hit the target.
Clearly this zone depends to an extent on the size of the target. But generally, it is thought to be about 20 – 25 yards. At 20 yards, 00 buckshot has probably spread slightly more than a one foot circle. Think about that – this means that some of the balls will go 6″ to the left and some 6″ to the right, etc, of your aiming point. That means you have to aim accurately to within 6″ of the ideal aiming point so as to be sure of getting at least half the balls onto the target area.
That is hardly a ‘magic’ spread of shot that avoids the need for careful aiming, is it. Furthermore, the less accurate you are, the fewer projectiles that will land on your target.
There’s nothing wrong with having one or two of perhaps nine 00 buck shot balls miss your target. The remaining half dozen or more may still create an effective stop, although see our comments above about if nine balls are better than one bullet. When you combine a reduced number of balls landing on the target with the ballistic fact that shot balls lose their energy much more rapidly than pistol and rifle bullets, and as you move out in the B zone, the shotgun’s effectiveness starts to massively decline compared to a rifle, and by the end of the B zone, is probably no better than a pistol, but without a pistol’s ability to be fired rapidly and to have a magazine holding 15 or more rounds.
The C Zone for a shotgun is from the point where the projectiles have dispersed so much that they won’t all land on the target, and from there out to a practical limit to the shotgun’s effective range, a point defined either by accuracy or ballistic effectiveness, and probably somewhere in the 50 – 100 yard range for most people and most shotguns and their loads.
But, there’s an important consideration in the C Zone. Because you’ve now passed the point where all the individual projectiles will land on the target, it increasingly becomes sensible – and, the further out you go, essential – to switch from shotshells to solid slugs, at which point, you’re now shooting single rounds and need all the accuracy of a regular rifle.
So in the C Zone, if you’re shooting multiple projectiles from a shotshell, you’re rapidly losing effectiveness, and if you’re shooting single slugs, you need the same accuracy as a rifle, while probably lacking the same quality of aiming system.
It is possible to hit targets with a shotgun, even at 50 – 75 hard ranges, if you are sufficiently skilled and practiced with your shotgun. But it is greatly easier to do this with a rifle, and causes us to ask you ‘why bother with a shotgun when a rifle is so much easier in this scenario’.
The Three Zones, Summarized
Now think about what we’ve analyzed for all three zones. In the A zone, the shot dispersal is minimal, so there’s no benefit in terms of ‘not needing to aim’. In the B zone, the shot dispersal is still fairly small and because the range is opening up and the target getting effectively ‘smaller’, you still need to aim a shotgun almost as well as you would a regular rifle or pistol. By the time you get to the C zone (which is still actually very close range in rifle terms – only about 20-25 yards out) you should consider switching from multi-pellet shotshells to solid slugs, and unless you have something like a dual barreled Keltec KSG, you probably have the wrong load in your shotgun, while not having a tactical opportunity to empty it out and reload.
So – and without considering any of the other factors/issues associated with shotguns, let me ask you – at what particular range do you feel the shotgun to be superior to either a rifle or pistol? It seems, to us, that there’s no clear advantage at any range. Sure, there’s some extra stopping power in the A zone, compared to a pistol, but nowhere is there any need for less accuracy, and always a shotgun is more unwieldy, has massively greater muzzle blast and recoil, is slower to bring back on target for a second shot, and carries fewer rounds than most pistols and rifles.
The Mythical ‘No Need to Aim’ Claim about Shotguns
Have you picked up on something else? One of the urban legends about shotguns is that their spread of shot is such as to make it unnecessary to aim. Just point the shotgun in the general direction of the bad guys, pull the trigger, and try not to flinch too much while tightly closing your eyes, and according to this legend, by the time you open your eyes again, all the bad guys will be down and dead.
But carefully look at our analysis of accuracy needs in each of the three zones. In the A zone, the shot travels in a single solid group, giving you no real benefit at all compared to a rifle or pistol. In the C zone, you really need to switch from shot to single solid slugs, and a shotgun is harder to aim than a rifle. As for the only zone that might bring a benefit – the B zone, the spread of shot is hardly enough to balance out the growing distance and the need to carefully aim at an ever smaller target.
These considerations are very different when you’re shooting at clay targets or at ducks. In those cases, the C zone is still a lethal zone, because the clay or bird only needs to be hit by a very few of the perhaps 100+ pellets in order to be effectively shot down. But when you’re defending against attacking people, you need to get most and ideally all your balls onto the target, bringing you back to an effective range closer to the end of the B zone.
The Implied Maximum Defensive Range of a Shotgun
There’s one more consideration as well, and in this case, we’re focusing on the key word ‘defensive’.
When you transition from the A zone to the B zone, you start to move out of the ‘legal self-defense’ range. A person at 5 – 7 yards is a deadly threat, even if they ‘only’ have a knife (and possibly if they only have a hammer, or even just their bare hands). Somewhere past that point however, unless the person is also armed and is actively shooting at you, it becomes hard to plead essential self defense if you end up shooting an adversary.
Bottom Line : The Effective Range of a Shotgun
If we were in a defended place inside a house or somewhere else where the lines of sight and shot were very short, we’d love to have a shotgun with us. Because we’d not be moving ourselves, we’d have no need to be concerned about weapon retention issues, and we’d love the awesome firepower of a shotgun with 00 buck shotshells. But if we were having to sweep a building ourselves, we might prefer a pistol or maybe a rifle, especially if we were concerned about possibly multiple adversaries such that we could not be sure that a single tube full of shotshells would be enough to deal with the problem. Having to do an emergency reload of a shotgun is no fun.
The effective range of a shotgun – considering accuracy and lethality – is very short, and probably no more than 25 – 40 yards.