Survival Shotgun Part 4: Understanding Loads

Shotguns easily have the most possible different types of ammunition than any other gun. From buckshot and slugs, to non-lethal and everything in between, the survival shotgun is an incredibly versatile tool.

Understanding the various loads and their uses is important for any prepared survivalist.

Worth The Effort

Let’s be realistic about what the shotgun is and is not.  It’s no longer the king of the hill when it comes to Close Quarters Battle.  Terms like “street sweeper” and “room broom” get thrown around but for the pros, the shotgun has been relegated to specialized tasks like ballistic barrier breaching and less lethal munition deployment.

The carbine and short barreled rifle have taken over the realm once dominated by the shotgun.  The ergonomics of the AR-15/M16 and the magazine capacity, as well as the armor penetration and terminal ballistics make it a clear winner. Shotguns are not rifles.  But let’s take a look at what kind of diversity is available to the shotgun that makes it worth the effort in the first place.


From Law Enforcement reduced recoil to full power 3 1/2″ magnum loads, buckshot is a proven performer in soft tissue.  Most buckshot is effective out to at least 25 yards.


Usually 1 oz. “Foster” style slugs with rifling, or “rifled slugs”.  The rifling on the slug is meant to conform to the contour of the barrel and collapse if there is a choke on the barrel.  It does not impart any spin on projectile.  Slugs can be fired accurately, and with Shotgun Slugsgood effect on target, with a bead sight out to at least 50 yards, possibly 100 depending on load.  Slugs are effective on all mammals, including bear, that inhabit North America.  Slugs may be your best chance at defending yourself from aggressors using soft body armor.


Also know as “shot”, used for hunting and sport, smaller lead or steel balls from the size of a kosher salt rock to loads big enough for large waterfowl, rabbit, or coyotes.

Breaching Slugs

Door Breaching SlugCompressed copper, steel, or zinc slugs that burst open locks and hinges with reduced risk of ricochet or over penetration.  Can be used on padlocks as well.  Not for a novice user, proper technique is required.

Less Lethal

Ranges from cheap rubber buckshot that can be skipped off pavement into a target or a crowd, to beanbag and rubber baton rounds that can have the option of leaving a UV marking dye.  There are also less lethal rounds that do not fire any projectile, like the ALS “Bore Thunder” which “produces a stun/diversion effect by using a flash with an extremely powerful concussion blast.”  Less lethal’s require practice and can be expensive.  But there are times when a less lethal round can cause a stop, enforce compliance, or provide cover for retreat when lethal force is not required or justified.

Survival Applications

In the survival toolkit, keeping a good supply of all these different kinds of ammunition is a good idea.  Even value packed sport loads can be useful in a survival situation for more than just game.

Assorted Shotgun ShellsIf you have no use for a #8 shot sport load, it’s possible to melt down the lead shot inside, use a slug mold, and reload them into a poor man’s slug.  Will it perform as well as a factory slug?  Absolutely not.  Will the homemade slug provide more stopping power than a dose of small shot?  Absolutely.  The process can upgrade your stopping power if all you can find is sport or game loads with birdshot, but you would really like a slug for self defense.  This processes is being used by people in countries where a shotgun and birdshot loads are the only available legal firearms to citizens.

In a survival situation, a shotgun and even mild assortment of loads can keep you protected and fed, and give you the opportunity to flee from a superior force.

Part 5

Part 5 – Shotguns Myths Explained

photo by: gfpeck

Mr. Smashy
Written by Mr. Smashy

Mr. Smashy has been shooting competitively for more than 15 years. Scouted from a junior club rifle team for the state team, he has won state championships in several events over his years. Mr. Smashy currently competes in NRA Highpower, USPSC, Action Pistol, among others. Mr. Smashy has excellent knowledge of US service rifles, reloading, and marksmanship. Read his full interview here. Read more of Mr. Smashy's articles.

31 thoughts on “Survival Shotgun Part 4: Understanding Loads”

  1. How tight of a choke is okay to use with rifled slugs? I'm using a Carlson's Dead Coyote tube and it is pretty tight. What about a modified?

  2. How tight of a choke is okay to use with rifled slugs? I'm using a Carlson's Dead Coyote tube and it is pretty tight. What about a modified?

  3. Two issues. First I agree with JTT. An aimed shotgun (yes, it is possible to miss with a shotgun at close quarters) has a lot more chance of knocking the BG out of commission that a single carbine shot. In a home environment, I don't want to be spraying rounds all over the place trying to get multiple hits on the BG. Especially if there are others in the home and I choose to use bird shot to avoid wall penetration issues.
    Secondly, the quote "But there are times when a less lethal round can cause a stop, enforce compliance, or provide cover for retreat when lethal force is not required or justified." may well be true, but unless there is no government or you are a LEO, pulling that shotgun out IS using "lethal force" no matter what round is in the chamber. In a world where 'brandishing' your concealed weapon is only allowed in a situation where actually using it would be appropriate, actually using a shot gun, even with less lethal (there is no such thing as non-lethal) ammo is probably a felony unless you would also be justified in using buckshot. I'm not claiming that is rational, or that it is that way in your state, but it is the way the world works in a whole lot of places including Houston.

  4. Three thots on the 12 guage. One: I have had a shortstroke jam in a combat situation. If you know what you are doing, it is simple and quick to clear. Learn from an experienced shooter. Two: Tuck that gunstock tight against you shoulder. The person that gets knocked down may be you if you are not well trained. Three: Learn forward, take a step forward if possible, when shooting #4 buck or heavier. Not handling a 12 guage properly can be a bruising experience!

    • I am not sure that is true. It is a commonly told tale of dimes being used and the "Defender" .410 rounds have some ballistic disks in them but studies (I even saw one on "Myth Busters") have shown that the coins do not do as well as the shot. The "mass to area ratio" just isn't good enough to get the job done. It would hurt to get hit but it would not prove seriously damaging.
      A good turkey load, #4 shot, may be the ideal shot for inside the home. Heavy enough to stop the bad guys (it is designed to stop a tough bird at 50 yards or so) but not so heavy that over penetration is an issue.

      Just my not so humble opinion.

  5. This is just my opinion…for what its worth… When it comes down to survival, I see no need to carry or use less or non lethal rounds. When it comes down to the nut cutting, I play for keeps. Even if it mean killing the enemy (whoever that may be). I don't mean to sound cruel but there is no wrong way to kill a rattle snake and no such thing as a fair fight.

    • The only "fair" fight is the one I win!

      I agree, outside of some very specific roles, none of them civilian or survival, less lethal just does not seem to have a place in my armory.

  6. This might seem like an amateur question. I've just recently started prepping, and I was wondering if it is safe for both the firearm and the gun operator to fire both slugs and shot through a non-rifled shotgun.

    • Short answer, yes, but make sure the slugs you use are not for rifled barrels if you are not using a rifled barrel, and be careful with steel shot if you are using a rifled barrel. For a multitude of applications, a smoothbore shotgun is king, just use the right loads. Using the wrong load in a 12 gauge shotgun can be disastrous, for example full choke with OOO Buck or a slug is NOT a good idea. Train, train, train.

  7. Another load- the dragons breath. Impractical: Yes. Dangerous: Yes. Make the hardest Mad Max-esque villain crap their pants: Oh HELL yes.

    • yea, I was just commenting about that at the bottom there. This old FBI dude who travels the shows makes those, among others. Frankly, I'm more than a little hesitant to pull the trigger on those things, first go 'round…

  8. Just a note for those that have bird shot, but want a slug instad of melting and molding. Back in the late 1800's and early 1900's there were no slugs (slugs came about in the 1930's). People would use a method called "Cut Shell". You take a knife, and cut the shell about 1/2 way up the shell. The cut should go around the she'll about 1 1/4 times leaving about an 1/8 inch over lap (do not fully seperate the two halve, this should be toward the lower part of the wadding). Place the round in the breach. Now you will be firing the end of the shell with the shot still encased in the shell (slug). Hope that makes since and helps.

  9. another option for home made slugs is 'waxers' cut the crimp of your shell, pour shot into melted parrafin wax and pour back into casing, add a little wax to the top to stop shot falling into mechanisms. you tube has soem good videos on this

  10. It's actually a wise policy to always consider the possibility of an attacker having some sort of body armor and preparing something with appropriate stopping power. Like they say, it's better to be safe than sorry.

    • In a teotwawki yes, but the common burglar in my part of the world is a broke thug trying to get by or buy dope. What I mean is that the type of folks who are shot in self defence situations are not the people who will have body armor at their disposal.

  11. Honestly, I'd still say the shotgun is still the best for most close range situations. With the right ammunition, it can punch a bigger hole in even steel plating than any carbine or rifle round.

  12. i agree. the only way i see non lethal being a benifit is in a law enforcement situation such as crowd control or prison riot. i still like my odds better with the scatter gun in a close quarter enviroment.

  13. Well said. Your first point is why I prefer a double. There is NO second shot faster that with a double, there is NO gun more reliable than a simple singe shot anything AND a double is just two singles on the same stock! There is even more psychological impact from two big barrels than from one big barrel. Lots of folks "KNOW" that you can not miss with a shot gun and that it will "cut you in half"! Not true but useful to the one holding the shotgun.
    Your point about recoil is well made. If you are recoil adverse (I am getting that way as I get older) a 20 gauge is as effective as a 12 at close combat distances. Only the corner can tell you if a 12 or 20 was used and he will find that out by counting the number of pellets in the body.
    Just my not so humble opinion.

  14. There's a retired FBI Range Captain who travels around to the local shows and makes his own shotgun loads for sale. He always has a mixed bag of, like, flachettes and hollowpoint slugs and even these crazy ball-and-chain things and something called The Kitchen Sink which is basically a giant PDX shell. This past time he had some orange ones that were apparently incendiary shells. Anyone know any important factoids about care and keeping of something like that? It just sounds like the sort of thing that would one day burn your house down if stored improperly over long periods of time, but would be great for dispersing a mob at your doorstep, I reckon…


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