Shotgun Effective Range Considerations

This spread of shot shows the shotgun to be at the outer limit of its B zone range.
This spread of shot shows the shotgun to be approaching the outer limit of its B zone range.

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  
Negative -0.005″    0.735″
Cylinder   0.000    0.730
Skeet   0.005    0.725
Improved Cylinder   0.010    0.720
Light Modified   0.015    0.715
Modified   0.020    0.710
Improved Modified   0.025    0.705
Light Full   0.030    0.700
Full   0.035    0.695
Extra Full   0.045    0.685
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.

Zone C

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.

15 Replies to “Shotgun Effective Range Considerations”

  1. Reginald

    I am a fan of shotguns for personal defense. I seek articles like yours to further my knowledge without wasting scarce expensive ammo.

    I have 2 pump shotguns, an 870 and an Ithaca deerslayer with side folding stocks and short slug barrels with rifle sights but not rifled. They are both 2-3/4 guns. I have another 8 shot pump that I keep loaded in the closet. It will shoot 3 ” shells but it is loaded with 2-3/4. For out to 100 yards which covers the tree line around my house I have a Marlin Goose gun loaded with 3″ 00 buck.

    I would like comments.

    • David Spero

      Hi, Reginald

      Yes, you obviously are a fan of shotguns. 🙂

      Let’s think about your ‘Goose Gun’ first. If I’m correct, this is a bolt action shotgun, probably with a 36″ barrel and only has two rounds in its magazine? I don’t think this would be effective at 100 yards, and I’m not even sure about 50 yards.

      Can I suggest you get some plywood and put up a target, maybe 15″ wide and 30″ tall, and mount it 3′ above the ground, then shoot at it from 100 yards. Maybe double up the thickness of the plywood, make it an inch or so thick. You’re looking for three things. First, do any of the 00 buck shot balls hit the target. Secondly, how many do. Thirdly, how many of them penetrate right through the target?

      If it is convenient to do so, repeat the exercise with a rifle and twice the wood thickness.

      My guess is that you’ll struggle to get any of the shot onto the target, and any of the balls that do hit the target will fail to penetrate. If they can’t penetrate an inch of wood, they’re probably not much good with other types of targets at that range.

      On the other hand, you should be landing consistent hits on the target with a rifle shot after shot, and they should be going all the way through the first inch of wood and probably through the second inch too.

      Now for the side folding stock guns. Have you fired them from the pistol grip alone? Was it fun? Were they controllable? I’m going to guess the answers to the second two questions are ‘no’ and ‘no’. Try another experiment. This time have your target at close range rather than long range, and see how quickly you can get two rounds on target, first using only the pistol grip, secondly the shoulder stock. To make it a more interesting experiment, do both from a ‘low ready’ position – sort of the way you’d be carrying the shotgun prior to finding a threat. Compare this to doing the same with a pistol (or rifle).

      Shotguns can be effective at short range, for sure, so I’ll not pre-judge your second experiment. I will say that I teach people never to use the pistol grip and always to use the shoulder stock.

      I suppose the biggest point here is that while it is sensible to read around the internet and to attempt to learn from appropriate third party sources, the most valuable thing of all is to ‘suck it and see’ – to test your own assumptions, directly, yourself. Sure, you’re paying about $1 a round for your 00 buck, but less than $10 will show you, for sure, just how well you can rely on your shotguns for short and long range defense.

      I hope these comments are helpful, and if you do any of this experimenting, please do share your results.

  2. Hillbilly in Ok.


    I always read your posts and never remark as we usually see “eye to eye” but I must disagree on this one.

    I think you over look the fact that a double 00 blast can put 9 .32 cal projectiles on target faster than you can with a pistol. A single pull of a trigger can send 9 down range with the second that would be 18 the third 27 and so on. There is a definite advantage in your “B” zone in this regard.

    Most pump defense shotguns hold 5 in the tube that’s 45 .32 cal rounds down range in 5 seconds or less with practice. Some of the relatively cheap guns can hold 9 rounds (think Mossberg 500) – that’s 81 .32 cal rounds down range in 8 seconds or less! How long would it take for a pistol to send 81 projectiles to your target even with a 15 round mag? You would need to have 5 and a half mags loaded ready to go plus the time it would take to change them out.

    Also in your “A” range you want to stop a threat with one shot and with 1 pull of the trigger the shotgun wins again. The 9 projectiles have a better chance of hitting that vital organ and dropping your target even with a hurried shot. So in a golden horde situation in your “B” range or a break in, in the middle of the night in my home in your “A” range give me my 12ga every time please.

    Thank you for your posts they are always a good read.

    • David Spero

      Hi, Hillbilly

      Thanks for writing. And if we usually see eye to eye, that’s a better average than most! 🙂

      I’m accepting of a shotgun for short range defense, pretty much for the reasons you detail, indeed I even said a shotgun is much more lethal than a pistol in the A zone.

      The B zone is more tricky. The first thing to remember is that while nine .32 rounds, at the start of their travel, are a fairly formidable load to be sending down-range, once you get into the B zone, where they have slowed down some so no longer have as much energy, there’s a chance that not all nine will hit the target, so maybe you get five on target. Okay, that’s still five impacts, but let’s also remember that none of us carry .32 caliber pistols (well, actually, I used to have a lovely little Seecamp as my backup pistol but even that has now been upgraded). It isn’t a very meaningful round to start with, and with the balls losing energy much more quickly than the pistol bullet, it quickly becomes even less meaningful.

      Another point, and not to dispute the arithmetic of your nine times table at all, but perhaps there’s another way to count. I should also say I’m unfamiliar with a nine round capacity shotgun (other than the Keltec type dual barrel/dual tube). If we look at the length of tube to hold 9 x 2.75″ shells, that would be a 25″ tube which sort of requires a 26″ barrel above it so it doesn’t extend beyond the end of the barrel, and most ‘tactical’ shotguns have barrel lengths under 20″ allowing for typically a maximum of seven rounds. Not a big deal, but just correcting the record a tad…

      Anyway, back to the arithmetic. Sure, you can end up with over 50 pieces of 00 buck flying through the air, but here’s the other way of looking at it. Those seven blasts can be directed at a maximum of seven targets, and more likely only at three or four. What happens when you’ve emptied your shotgun, if you have the ‘golden horde’ all showing up for a party at your place?

      At least with a pistol – say a 17 round Glock, for example, you can send three rounds to each of half a dozen ‘visitors’, and in a second or less, be ready to interact with another half dozen guests. Or with a 30 round magazine in a rifle, you can send one or two rounds to each of very many more visitors, and be ready to continue the conversation still further in just another second or two. The shotgun sort of wimps out after it is emptied in these time-pressured scenarios.

      So, I’m very ambivalent about a shotgun in the B zone, and I guess if I can squirm out of this by trying to ‘change the subject’ I’d say that in reality, as soon as we’re out of the A zone, I’d be hoping I had a rifle in reach.

      Shotguns have a very undeserved reputation as being a magic ‘can’t miss’ and ‘guaranteed to stop’ solution to everything. They aren’t. That’s the main point I tried to make. Beyond that, yes, there definitely are situations where they are good, and probably also situations where they might even be the best option.

      So, bottom line, I think the good news is that this is another subject that we see more eye to eye on than not!

      Thanks for encouraging me to talk some more on the point.

  3. muscoe

    Okay, I see both sides of the argument. However, how abut this: Use the shotgun, drop it when empty and pull your Glock and keep going. Who says you can only use one or the other?

    • reginald

      I have a Glock 21 and a Star Firestar both good weapons but I am of the belief that a pistol should be used if rocks aren’t available, I can carry my shotgun slung over my neck for up close and personal but a FN FAL will win the big battles.

      • David Spero


        I don’t see many Firestars out there, indeed, I’ve never seen one in real life. I have seen a few Glocks, though. 🙂

        Completely agree about the FN FAL. A lovely rifle.

        As for me, I’ve always thought a pistol is the thing you use to fight your way to your rifle. That’s a good line about throwing rocks, too!

  4. danrshaw

    I loved your article.

    The wife and I started our gun experience with a Daisy air rifle. We then progressed to a 22lr. In the meantime we inherited about 5000 rounds of 9mm. So for my wife’s CCW we decided to get a Sig P290Rs.

    We both have gotten pretty darn accurate with it out to 25 yards. We’ve been trying to decide what our next home defense weapon would be. We kept reading about how the shotgun was the ideal weapon because it was good for home defense and hunting. We went to the gun shop to talk to the boss and he had us over his house to shoot a couple of shotguns. We could manage to hit a target at 10 yards the first time but never could manage a second hit without a long delay to get lined up again. Keep in mind we are both at or near 60 years old. After that experiment we ruled out the shotgun altogether.

    We watched the shop owner hit targets at 25 and 50 yards and he showed us exactly what you explained about spread and penetration. In other words he totally agreed with you.

    Since we have so many 9mm rounds we are going to see how we do with a couple of different rifles chambered in that round. We’ve read both good and bad about what’s available and we don’t have the cash to spend on a JP Enterprise GMR-13. Love to own one though.

    Or we might just skip to a full blown AR with a standard rounds of 223 Remington/5.56x45mm.

    I still want a Ruger 10/22 though. We do have a ton of 22lr and we can practice in our own yard with it.

    • David Spero

      Hi, Dan

      Thanks for the interesting background on your experiences, and I’m glad the gun shop owner agrees with me. But is that a case of ‘great minds think alike’ or, perhaps, ‘fools seldom differ’?! Let’s hope for the former. 🙂

      As for your rifle needs, please don’t be ‘penny wise and pound foolish’ and choose a carbine that will also digest your 9mm pistol ammo. The 9mm is an inadequate pistol round at the best of times (I can say this because most of the pistols I carry are chambered for 9mm!) and it is a disgracefully useless rifle round.

      For the benefit of other readers, Dan and I discussed this earlier, in the comments to this article : Choosing Rifles for Your Retreat.

      • danrshaw

        What scares me about the AR platform is the complexity of it and the maintenance required to keep one working. Now if I could find someone who likes to take care of those things for our little group maybe.

        Our shop owner has assured me there are new ARs that are much better and more reliable than the M16 but when I looked at the price tag I went into sticker shock. I know you recommend having one AR for each adult plus a spare for parts. When that computation entered into my figuring I bout had a heart attack. I know you can’t put a price tag on what our lives our worth.

        Since we’ve been doing a lot of practice with the 9mm pistol at 25 feet I have had no problem with it passing through 7/16 inch plywood. I notice in my previous comment I said 25 yards and that wasn’t right. We choose 25 feet because that is the most open space we have inside the barn. So if we can hit anything inside the barn it should be no problem inside the house.

        I also know how you feel about the 9mm but it’s the one my wife is most comfortable with and likes to shoot. So much so we signed up for some tactical training. What was funny was when we had the discussion about how we would feel and react to having to actually put a round(s) into a live human being. When we both looked at each other we could see the determination to “get er done” in each other’s eyes and started cracking up. We both know we would do what was required to protect each other and our loved ones with no regret.

        So I guess the bottom line is I guess I could train myself to master the cleaning and maintenance on the AR platform.

        • David Spero

          Hi, Dan

          I was impressed with your ‘accurate to 25 yards’ claim you made yesterday. and felt a bit inadequate, as I struggle to get pistol rounds anywhere close to a target at that sort of distance. Heck, I increasingly struggle just to see the target, let alone hit it!

          25 feet is indeed a much more tactical self defense range and a better range to practice at (I tend to focus on 7 – 12 yards, on the basis that if you can hit at 7 yards, the shorter distances take care of themselves, and if something is more than 12 yards away, it’s time to switch to a rifle). People pose a credible immediate threat at that range, pretty much no matter what they are carrying – gun, knife, stick, or nothing at all, because they can usually close the distance to you faster than you can draw and shoot (the so called ‘Tueller drill’ concept).

          Field stripping an AR-15 type rifle is not too hard. It becomes more difficult when you start to go beyond field stripping and into major dis-assembly and repair. There are manuals you can buy, videos you can buy, and of course, a ton of Youtube type videos you can watch for free.

          Buying a lot of AR-15 type rifles is indeed expensive, especially if of the gas piston rather than gas blowback style. But buying one is better than buying none! And the cost of having no decent rifle might be much greater than the cost of having one.

          Truly, I see this concern in many contexts. Rather than thinking ‘I can’t afford to be three rifles’ (or however many the number might be) you should focus on ‘I need to first budget for and then buy one rifle’. After you have one rifle, the need for a second rifle perhaps is a lower priority than the need for something else – shutters on your windows, more food, more solar panels, who knows what.

          When the priority for getting a second rifle nears the top of your list, you then start to focus on that. Then, you go back to all the other things you need to invest in as well, before in time, having a third rifle appear on your list.

          Sometimes if we approach these tasks step by step, we get there faster than if we stand back and look at the total requirement and feel overpowered by it.

          And that’s it for dubious wisdom and philosophy from me, for today!

          Continuing best wishes to you and your wife and great good fortune to you both in your prepping endeavors

          David S.

  5. Terry

    I leave my smooth bore pump loaded with rifled slugs. They work at 10 feet and they work at 100 yards. I can routinely hit a 1′ x 1′ box at 100 yards . . . easily. Anyone can with just a little practice. Aiming is very fast. A rifle is not better than a slug/shotgun out to 100 yards when the target is an intruder. And a slug wound is devastating.

    As you point out, 00 buck is at its most effective when the spread is minimal. So . . . why not just shoot slugs and have aimed accuracy and no spread at all out to 100 yards? The only issue is over penetration, which is likely the only reason 00 buck is used in law enforcement.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *