Survival Shotgun Selection

The shotgun is probably the most versatile survival firearm on can possess.  It has unparalleled versatility.  With a change in ammunition it teotwawki shotguncan take down large game or small birds. High quality firearms can be found for reasonable prices, ammunition is affordable and it is the one weapon where you get to practice on moving targets.  To keep this discussion from turning into an encyclopedia I will keep the discussion to firearms available to the average person (Sorry Perazzi, Kreighoff, Kolar and others).  I will also keep it to the more common gauges, specifically the 12ga and 20ga and I am going to limit the discussion to break open, semi-automatic and pump shotguns (Yes someone will want to talk about their grandfathers old bolt action .410, I won’t do it).  Let’s also skip the differences of field gun vs a trap gun.

Here are some things about shotgun manufacturers. Browning owns Winchester. Beretta owns Benelli, Franchi and Stoeger.  Stoegers are Brazilian made. CZ distributes Turkish made Huglu shotguns in the US.

I am also skipping he Kel Tec KSG Shotgun because we have already reviewed that product on Survival Cache (Click Here).

Break Open Shotguns

The break open shotguns are simply those that break open on a hinge to accept or remove shells.  This class includes over under, side by sideteotwawki shotgun and single shot.  They can come with single or double triggers and can come with barrel selectors.  They are simple to maintain and a high quality firearm can go 150,000 rounds or more without a failure.  The over under and side by side shotguns often come with interchangeable chokes and therefore each barrel can have unique shooting characteristics.  The disadvantage to the break open shotguns is they are limited in the amount of rounds they can fire without reloading.

Also Read: Survival Shotgun – 6 Reasons You Need One

The quality and prices vary dramatically in this class.  You can easily $2000 and up for a firearm in this class.  If your goal is target shooting then I would suggest something on the heavier side.  The perceived recoil on a shotgun that weighs almost 9 pounds is significantly less than one weighing in at 5 pounds.  Granted there have been advances in recoil pads to assist in managing recoil but it does not eliminate the problem.  My Browning 725 Sporting Clays weighs slightly more than my son Beretta White Onyx but is has significantly less perceived recoil.  I can shoot 150 rounds at the sporting clay range and be fine. He on the other hand will be feeling the recoil.

I own a Cynery Feather Weight 20 gauge.  I purchased the firearm thinking the deep inset recoil pad and the claim of a 25% reduction in perceived recoil would make this an excellent firearm to teach women how to shoot.  I was wrong. Shooting a 7/8oz load in this firearm is still punishing.  I now custom load 3/4oz loads that travel at 1150fps and this helps to reduce the recoil significantly.  Think of the physics.  For every action there is an equal opposite reaction.  Then think of energy is equal to mass times velocity squared.  If you compare a 12ga 1oz load at 1250fps with a 20ga 7/8oz load at 1250fps you will see that the energy created by the 20ga is only 1/8th less than the 12ga yet most 12ga shotguns weigh almost twice as much as a 20ga.You can purchase low noise, low recoil ammunition to assist with managing the recoil.  They work fine in the break action shotgun because the shells energy is not used to cycle the action.

As for reliability, my children were on a shooting team in high school, we also shot in a trap league because of this I got to see every type of shotgun possible.  The Browning’s and Beretta’s work flawlessly.  The Mossberg Silver Reserve and CZ over and under shotguns are fine. The Stoeger over under shotguns all failed.  They were simply not built to handle thousands of rounds.

Semi-Automatic Shotguns

Semi-Automatic shotguns have a single barrel and most have a magazine tube that holds extra shells. There are some semi-automatic shtf shotgunshotguns like the Russian made Saiga that have detachable or even drum magazines.  The semi-automatic shotgun comes in two basic cycling actions.  They are either gas operated or recoil driven.  In the gas operated version some of the expanding gasses from the shell discharge are bled off through ports in the barrel to a piston that ejects the shell and loads the next shell.  The recoil driven models are often called Kinematic drive or Inertia driven.  Regardless of the name the action is the same.  The recoil of the shell discharging is used to drive the bolt back thus ejecting the spent shell and loading the next shell. Regardless of the method both systems bleed off energy from the discharging shell to cycle the action thereby reducing the perceived recoil of the firearm.

Also Read: Survival Shotgun – Choosing A Gauge Type

These shotguns do take maintenance to keep them functioning properly.  Since the recoil driven model do not bleed off carbon filled gasses they tend to remain cleaner.  They are also easier to take apart and maintain.  That does not mean they don’t need to be cleaned.  They do!  A while back I went to Argentina to do some bird hunting.  The guide service told me that I did not need to bring a cleaning kit and I didn’t. That turned out to be a mistake.  After several day of hard shooting in harsh conditions my Benelli SBE II started to have cycling problems. I was lucky that another hunter at the lodge did have a cleaning kit and I was able to resolve the problem.  The gas operated shotguns are even dirtier.  They bleed off carbon filled gasses to cycle the action.  Now some people will say that you can go thousands of rounds without cleaning the piston and gas ports.  Since I don’t shoot my gas operated guns often I feel compelled to clean them every time I shoot them.  To put this in perspective, I can clean my Benelli’s and my Browning A5 in 20 to 30 minutes.  They will be immaculate, oiled and ready to go. To clean a Beretta AL391 or Browning Gold Hunter to the same level will take me several hours.  I know you are going to say I am excessive.  I am.  I admit it.  I just don’t like dirty guns in my safe.

Semi-automatic guns are extremely versatile.  Most can shoot light target loads as well as heavy game loads.  Some of them offer slug barrels for big game hunting.

The reliability of the semi-automatics is certainly less than the break open and pump shotguns.  This is not to say they are unreliable.  To go back to my Benelli SBE II, I started having cycling issues with the shotgun even though it was clean and oiled.  I sent it back to Benelli and they determined that I wore the springs out.  The good thing it was still under warranty and they did the repair for free.  They did tell me that they springs have an expected life of 10 – 15 thousand rounds. So, I started buying target guns and I leave this one for hunting.  I may be a few years behind in this line, so correct me if I am wrong.  When Cerberus Capital Management bought Remington the quality started to go down.  I have known people needing to send their 1187’s and 1100’s back because the roll pins fell out.  Several years ago there was a demo days at one of our local shooting ranges.  I felt sorry for the Remington representative because most of their firearms failed.  I hope they have corrected their manufacturing issues.  I like to see American gun manufacturers succeed.  Another of the local ranges purchased CZ semi-automatic shotguns for rentals. They all suffered from reliability issues and he was going to dump them.

As far as prices go they run from roughly $400 for a CZ, $800 for a Remington 1187 to $2000 for an upper end Benelli.

Pump Shotguns

This class of shotguns is one where the cycling action of the firearm is controlled by the operator pulling the fore-end back towards the shtf shotgunreceiver to extract the spent shell and then forward to load the next shell. They are generally single barreled and have a magazine tube to hold extra shells. The cycling rate is therefore controlled by the speed of the operator. With a little practice I have seen some pretty fast people with a pump. The perceived recoil of the shotguns is more than the semi-automatics because they do not bleed off energy from the shell.

Many of the guns we would call tactical shotguns, riot guns, self-defense guns fall into this category. They will have extended magazine tubes and short barrels (Remington 870 Mag Extension).  Many ‘non-tactical’ guns also have accessories for extended magazines and shorter barrels making them easily convertible.  You can also get tactical furniture for many of these guns as well (Magpul Shotgun).  Interchangeable tactical barrels are also available (Click Here).

As you can see the links above are all for the Remington 870.  This is probably the highest production pump shotgun ever manufactured. Many purists would say that the Winchester Model 12 is the best pump shotgun ever made and I would agree.  However, Remington determined how to make a reliable shotgun at a fraction of the manufacturing cost of the Winchester and that ended the Model 12.

Also Read: Survival Shotgun – Accessories You Actually Need

From a reliability perspective the pump shotguns perform well.  I was pheasant hunting in South Dakota and our guide was using an old Remington 870.  He was roughly 60 and the shotgun belonged to his father. He had been using it for many years after his father’s death and he never cleaned it.  The only thing he did was to spray some WD-40 on the slide.  It still worked!  I would say it was sluggish but it would still cycle.  I cleaned it for him and when I took it apart the slide was like road tar.  Also keep in mind the US military uses a variant of the Mossberg 500 for combat.

Most major gun manufactures have pump shotguns and guns in this category include the: Benelli Nova, the Remington 870, the Mossberg 500, the Browning BPS, the Winchester SXP as well as many others.  The cost of these shotguns are the lowest in the range with a Remington 870 running a little over $300 and a Browning BPS Camo costing roughly $800.

Tactical Guns vs Field Guns

I was teaching a group of people from work the basics of clay target shooting and one of the people brought their Saiga shotgun. The poor guySHTF Shotgun struggled to hit a clay target.  Based upon the stock and the sights I would rate this gun as a poor choice for trying to bring home dinner if that dinner was flying.  On the other hand that Saiga had a 20 round drum magazine that would be a huge advantage over the tube magazine shotguns.  Some of the drawbacks for the shotgun in a tactical situation are relatively low rates of fire; low ammunition capacities and long reload times. The advantage to the shotgun in a tactical situation is the hitting power. Hitting someone with a 1 oz slug traveling at 1400fps will incapacitate anyone. Even if the slug does not defeat the body armor the energy transfer will cause significant damage.  To put in perspective, a recent American Hunter magazine had an article about the proper gun for protection from a grizzly bear. They used the 4 3 1 rule for an effective handgun. That was over .40 caliber, over 300 grains of bullet traveling at least 1000 fps.  A 12 gauge shotgun is 73 caliber, a 1oz payload is 437.5 grains and shells traveling over 1400fps are common.  So, a 12 gauge shotgun shooting a slug will have more than enough energy to knock down a grizzly bear.  Imagine what it can do to a human.


The shotgun is probably the most versatile firearm ever created because of its ability to use a variety of ammunition.  The ammunition can be the above mentioned slug with enough knock down power to drop a grizzly bear down to a light load with the power to drop a dove while leaving enough to eat. To give you an idea of the range a 1oz load of 9 shot has roughly 585 pellets while the same 1oz in BB holds 50 pellets. Then think of buckshot.  It got its name because it would kill a buck deer.  Then there is all kinds of specialty ammunition.  Most of this ammunition I take as a gimmick.  The incendiary round I feel is too dangerous.  Living in the Western United States, where forest fires are common, I see this as a forest fire waiting to happen.  If you are in a SHTF situation where there are no fire departments or water you could easily destroy yourself from this type of round.  This is not to say that all specialty ammunition is a waste.  I like the door breach rounds and I like the steel slug.  I think the steel slug would be an effective way to stop a vehicle at close range.

Also Read: Survival Shotgun – Understanding Loads

Something else to consider is the size of the shot. Years ago I read an article from an army doctor who studied shotgun wounds and ammunition.  In his study he determined that light bird shot 7 ½, 8 and 9 could be defeated by a heavy winter coat. He also determined that large shot such as buckshot, F, T, BBB, BB and B could go through a person and cause unknown damage beyond the threat.  He determined that #1 shot was the most effective shot on a human at close range.  It would defeat any clothing and cause the maximum amount of damage without going completely through the individual.  I no longer have access to that paper but please comment below if you know where we can find it.

Dispelling Myth

Pointing a shotgun down a hall will destroy everything down the hall.  This probably came from some action movie and has zero bases in shotgun selectionreality.  At 20 feet the pattern is probably closer to the size of a baseball. If a shotgun sprayed pellets like they portray in the movies then nobody would every miss a close shot and they would never be able to make a long shot.  The pattern would spray so wide so fast there would not be the pattern density to do any damage.

The other myth is chokes don’t matter. Bull!  For those that don’t understand chokes here you go.  A choke is designed to squeeze the shotgun pellets together right before they leave the barrel.  The theory goes that the tighter the constriction the tighter the pattern.  You should choose your choke based upon the required pattern density.  The closer the shot the more open the choke and the further the shot the more constricted the choke.

Cylinder .000” constrictions

Skeet .005” constrictions

Improved Cylinder .010 constrictions

Light Modified .015 constrictions

Modified .020 constrictions

Improved Modified .025 constrictions

Full .030 constrictions

Extra Full .035 constrictions

This is a good article that shows the expected pattern density at 40 yards (Click Here).  Thanks for reading, I hope I have improved your knowledge about shotguns.

Photos By:
Chris Rogerson
T. Hartman
Dead Shot PhotographyInternet Archive

Written by Joel Jefferson

Joel is one of the original founders of After college, he joined the USMC where he served as an (0302) Marine Infantry Officer. Joel is an avid outdoorsman and spends much of his free time in the mountains. Joel’s hobby is researching survival gear & weapons as well as prepping. Read his full interview here. Read more of Joel's articles.

27 thoughts on “Survival Shotgun Selection”

  1. Nice read. Shotguns are an art form all their own when in the right hands.

    Love the 870 and all of iits variations, especially the Marine. Just hope the Freedon Group doesn't screw it up like they have other popular guns under their domination.

  2. I too am in the Remington camp – 870 with Magpul. To me Magpul makes it more comfortable. It's a lot of fun to shoot. Oh, and I live in bear country too.

  3. A very reputable firearms instructor who was a SWAT officer for 26 years told me while taking a 3 day tactical shotgun course that there were only two shotguns he would hunt men with the Rem 870 and the Benelli M1 or M2. After taking the class and torturing all makes and models he was right the only two types that did not fail the entire class were Remington's and Benelli's. My beloved Mossberg 590 failed as did 3 other Mossbergs as well as 1100's. Reliability is everything if your bringing the weapon to a gun fight. Also learned that if you can't win the fight in the first 7-8 rounds you brought the wrong weapons platform to the fight. Great for certain applications and good for most others. Contrary to popular belief they are not easy to fight with at all and take practice to master. IMHO. Stay safe.

    • @Docmo; I have difficulty believing the "story" of the tactical shotgun course. I have used the Mossy, which is THE ONLY SHOTGUN TO PASS the Mil-Spec 3443E requirement. I retired in 10 at 38 yrs and most of the shotguns we have used were the "spec" 590s while there were a few 870s. Most preferred the 590s due to double extractors, constant up shell carrier (easier to top off and speed load), and the "thumb safety" which is preferred by most and especially left handers since the crossbolt requires a difficult move to use for them and the slide release is definitely easier to use than the remington. As far as durability, the Benelli autos don't stand up to the abuse the 590s and 870s can stand…so I'll assume the account is a fairytale. In 38 years of military shotgun use, I've never seen an auto (and yes the military B1014 is nice) outperform a pump. To say Benelli beat out Mossys due to failure is….hard to believe…. On the range I have never had a Mossy pump fail to function…ever….thousands of rounds. And for the average buyer the average difference for comparable models on the market, the Mossys are $100 cheaper for one on one models. Buys a lot of extras or ammo. My humble opinion from experience in action. Be Well.

      • You are talking about the mil spec version only,docomo didn't specify,he just said 590,i've had a 500,and a 590 standard models fail on me,never a 870,maybe the mil spec version is reliable,but the standard pump models in my experience are not.

  4. Personally, I've been an 870 guy from WAY back—somehow, I find myself with three older 12ga 870s and a pile of extra barrels—that's it—I am covered when it comes to shotguns…
    Oh, and I would NEVER use WD40 on firearms—with time, it turns into a hard, gunk-like substance—BreekFree CLP is what I've been using for 20+ years…

    • You are correct. I even said the 870 looked like road tar. The other thing to be careful using is brake cleaner. It works fine on chrome barrels. However, one must use extreme caution as it will remove the bluing from your gun.

  5. The only thing I would state is that for home defence, an over/under gives you best in class reliability, ease of maintenance, and a follow-up shot that is _immediate_, which you can never get from a pump. And to be honest, two shots are all you will need in the vast majority of home defence situations, and practice will get you that next pair very quickly.. A side-by-side gives much the same advantages, but the sight picture is not as clean.

    Obviously in SHTF situations, you will need more than two shots, but for that I think I would prefer a box-fed 12 that makes reloading lighting quick. There is a new Turkish Akdal 12ga that is styled like an M-16 and is in actuality a 12 gauge fed by a 5-round box magazine. That and a handful of pre-loaded mags will get you through a whole lot of trouble.

  6. Have an 870 Remington Express and hate it! The slide locks up tighter than a drum when shooting ANY type ammo. I have cleaned it meticulously and lubed it properly but literally have to slam the butt on the ground in order to eject the spent case. Looking over the case shown no adverse indications of scratches, cracks, etc. If I put the shell back in and try to eject it, same thing, it hangs up! Miking it shows no unusual swelling from cases shot in my Ithaca. Have had it in the shop several times for the same problem! Three different gunsmiths, three different reasons for malfunction! Beginning to sound like the IRS! In addition, the finish is really bad and it has more or less been assigned to boat anchor duty next I go fishing. Remington won't do anything and has lost my business! I will not trade it off for something else because I wouldn't wish that on anyone. Have a Turkish made version (clone of an 1100) in semi auto and it also sits in a corner awaiting warranty work. For some reason I have had no luck with Remington types. I even had a Remington rifle I took out and destroyed after it fired off when closing the bolt. But that is another story! Have been using an Ithaca 37 that is I don't know how old! It is reliable and digests anything I shove into it! Am considering getting a Mossberg for home defense but shotguns are not my goto weapon for that eventuality for obvious reasons given the experiences have had to endure!

  7. I have a Winchester 1300 with an "ample supply" of ammo ranging from bird to slugs. I made up bandoliers with 20 + rounds each. Every 5th round is a slug. I have them arranged this way so I can locate the rounds I need even in the dark if necessary…

  8. I like 870's
    I can understand some folks just do not have luck with certain brands I have not had luck with ford vehicles
    others do.

    I have 2 that are slick as owl sh*t, I only use and have 2 3/4 inch shells I keep it simple.

    My only advice is if your not a Remington fan or a south paw / left hand shooter look at Ithaca model 37
    I like the older models no disconect they salm fire.

    I also like the 97 winchester for the same reason as the old 37 Ithaca

  9. I would like to point out that the Police use the Remingion 870 because it is a sturdy, reliable shotgun with a SOLID FORGED STEEL receiver, which is a completely scalable platform. The Mossberg 500 is a STAMPED reciever and the Mossberg 500 is not very scalable at all. I would also like to point out that the phrase that the Mossberg 500 has been adopted by the military, is true but , not because of it being a better shotgun than the Remington 870 but because it is a Cheaper priced shotgun

    Remember the Goverment goes with the lowest bidder. In spite of this, several military units carry the Remington 870 and some of the firearms training agencies like Georgia Public Safety Training Center at Forsythe Ga. recommend the Remington 870 for the above reasons given, and more.
    If you concider that the police departments mostly carry Remington 870 because they put their lives on them and want them to function when you need it to, and the military carry the Mossberg 500 becasue it will shoot the 12 ga. shells and do it at a lower price point, then it is easier to understand why its carried by the military.

    So the question should really be if you are on a budget, then the Mossberg 500 is is a good choice. If you are looking at a purchase that will be reliable for decades and has tons of options and the price is not a issue then the Remington 870 is the best choice. Bear in mind, that the difference in price betweem the two is usually about $100 or less. Then for me the choice is easy.
    I hope that this does help you to make an informed decision and understand the difference between a weapon system, being discussed, is either carried by the police or the military is really not a question of quality, but one of price.

  10. I did want to point out that a 870 pump allows for at least 3 shots with the plug left in removed 5 shots
    and you can load from an open bolt.
    I feel as well that the 870 is a superior platform and even in a basic model the express is a quality shotgun.

    A friend just wanted to extend his Mossberg pump and had to replace the tube and barrel not so on a 870
    you can remove the magazine tube nut and replace with an add on magazine extension and longer spring.
    new models have dimples inside the mouth but a round file, dremel or a drill to remove them.

    the 37 Ithaca cannot be loaded except through the tube magazine

    the 97 Winchester is a great shotgun but it's drawbacks are the bolt hits your hand if your hand rides up on the stock
    it cannot handle 3 inch shells and the design is outdated if a new version with a longer ejection port and bored for 3 inch it wold be a OK alternative.
    but the platform is non existent any accessories would have to be invented and that would only happen if the sales
    reached a worthwhile following to make it profitable.

    If a person feels they need a magazine fed semi auto pistol then a double or SXS and OU design that only spits 2 shots is not going to give the user that new car feel.

    Semi auto shotguns except maybe the Benneli M2 or a Montefeltro models are the best of the best problem is accessories are expensive but do not cout on it loading a bulged shell
    A browning A5 is good but the bulged shell issue is still a problem if it hangs your locked up and may not can get it free very easily.

    kept clean and lubed a pump shotgun is as simple a design and rugged as you can get IMHO.

  11. A side note a single12 gauge shell weights 1 3/4 ounces some more that is why I do not look at a shotgun for on foot bugging out and that is too bad but that is why I see the 22LR rifle as a on foot bug out weapon.

    500 hulls and loading components fill a 5 gallon bucket once loaded the weight is about 70 pounds not leaving you a lot of weight for your grip and food.

    Where a shotgun shines is 10 out to 80 to 100 yards depends on the choke and #00 buck or slugs.
    for a bug in weapon and night confrontation patrolling your property it has merit. day time I would choose a rifle.
    and a side arm in case rifle ammo runs thin.
    Most people can't tell one from another as it is passing by your just biding time until you can figure where all your bad luck is coming from then employ your rifle .
    single or small group confrontations are nothing like large movements so once a problem raises it's head it has to be found and tamped out and that is made harder as to time of day sun or fog terrain etc as a singular weapon
    unless you know where the trouble is and in range or not or a lot of cover about a shotgun is not the best tool.

    now here is where people have a difference of opinion my view is a 308 over anything smaller as a tree unless it is BIG is not a good cover if you have a shotgun a tree is cover especially at range.
    Then this turns into a waiting game if there are more of them bad for you.

    Unfortunately any learning curve in the short term is deadly even if your covered your opponent has no idea unless it is so obvious and then if there are more than one your all just exposed.

    weapons are just tools you have to use them to their strengths, manpower and tactics or knowledge of the group.

    • Would definately take a rifle over a shotgun in terms of capacity, range, fire rate, and just overall weight. BUT if I needed something RIGHT NOW that can solve most my problems in the normal ranges of my area a shotgun is for me along with a good semi auto pistol.

  12. IMHO nothing beats reliability in any situation, therefore my 1911, 870, and AK-47 are choices I bet my life on. Be safe, and above all, be alert!

  13. I am a Remington man period. 1100 12 ga. Two barrels 28 & slug (19 in), Wingmaster 870 20 ga. & 12 ga top
    marks for thess,and last Remington 700 in 270 ( works for me no problems) Other models Winchester 101 20 ga,
    Winchester single shot 74A, and a Ithea sxs 20 ( Doctor death on Doves) all models great, but the “ REMS.” are the
    main horses in my stable!!
    Semper Fi
    03 Grunt

  14. I love my Mossberg 590.. it’s short.. reliable.. carries 5 easily in the surprisingly with the Government we now have in NZ. I also have a Benneli M4 which is great but … really I feel.. if a SHTF moment occurred.. and we had to bug out.. I’d probably take the 590


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