Home-defense shotgun: 6 things you need to fix right now

A Rangemaster Defensive Shotgun AAR and lessons learned

Tom Givens of Rangemaster is a defensive firearms expert who’s been teaching regular people the realities of self-defense for more than 30 years. Within the training community, Tom is well known for his skill with all firearms, but specifically for his affinity for using a shotgun for home defense. I was honored to train with Tom and his assistant, Tim Reedy of TDR Training, during an 8-hour Rangemaster Defensive Shotgun course April 26 at KR Training near Giddings, TX.

Givens defensive shotgun TimReedy Becky
Tim Reedy of TDR Training, Tom’s assistant instructor for Defensive Shotgun April 26 at KR Training.

Change your mind about home defense

We started the day in the classroom, learning the history, nomenclature, parts and applicability of self-defense shotguns and ammunition. Tom’s knowledge and research make the case for using a shotgun rather than any other platform for defense of the home, in a context that applies specifically to the armed private citizen.

While handguns and rifles are popular choices inside the home, the typical 9 mm handgun round or .223/5.56 rifle round most likely won’t stop a threat with one shot. While you may need to “serve up” 5 (well-placed) shots from a handgun or rifle to stop a single determined threat, each shot shell contains a hearty serving of 8 rounds for one Bad Guy. You may only have 3 “servings” in a handgun or 6 “servings” in a rifle. A properly set-up shotgun carries 10 “servings” of stopping power. Even Bad Guys have friends, but a scattergun can stop all of them quickly and efficiently.

Another issue is length of travel for rounds fired from each platform. Each pistol or rifle round has the ability to go through your house and out into your neighborhood (up to 1 mile) resulting in an unacceptable hit that is 100 percent your criminal and civil responsibility. Shot loads travel about 1,500 feet if they don’t encounter resistance, a distance which is much safer when you’re talking about self-defense in the home and reducing the number of unacceptable hits. Any hits you didn’t intend to make could be deadly and have serious consequences to your emotional health, freedom and finances for a long time, and more importantly, they could end an innocent life. That’s always unacceptable, and it’s in direct conflict with the reason we train and handle guns responsibly.

So, the first thing you need to fix is your home-defense mindset: shotguns are the way to go to quickly save lives and minimize risk.


Use the right shotgun

The range portion of the day began with 17 students who brought a variety of shotguns,

Givens defensive shotgun Becky
Becky, shooting Tom’s Remington 870 Police pump 12-gauge at 7 yards.

everything from highly accessorized tacti-cool jobs to lengthy semi-autos better suited to 3-gun competition, and even an antique Karl Rehn was running as an experiment. Tom sent explicit instructions about which guns were acceptable and unacceptable in class, how they should fit the student, and how they should be set up. I didn’t own an appropriate shotgun, so I used Tom’s Remington 870 Police 12-gauge pump. Right out of the gate, a Mossberg 930 SA crapped out on the line and Tom loaned the student his Beretta 1301 12-gauge.

Tom said he had yet to teach an all-day shotgun class without a Mossberg puking on the line; they’re just not able to handle much use. Tom would call that a “clue:” if you can’t rely on your home-defense shotgun to make it through a class, how can you rely on it to protect yourself and your family’s lives?

Use the right defensive ammo

Most people I know are country folk who’ve “been around guns” their whole lives. They know much of nothing about safety or home defense, and when it comes to shotguns, they’re stuck in dove-hunting mode 365 days a year. These are the people who need Tom’s class the most, and they’re the least likely to seek out any type of training. Here’s the sacred cow we’re sacrificing today:

Stop. Using. Bird. Shot. In. Your. Home. Defense. Gun.

Bird shot is made to take down a critter that weighs about four ounces, without doing much damage to the meat. Instead, the shot spreads out wide and disables the bird’s ability to fly. Hunters most often need to help it into the light after it falls to the ground.

Home defense rounds are effective and tightly grouped out to 25 yards (depending on your gun’s pattern) and, if you choose the right rounds, display no errant—and possibly deadly—“flyers” that hit something you weren’t aiming at. At Tom’s suggestion and subject to what was available locally before the class, I went with Hornady Critical Defense 00 Buck with an 8-pellet load and the Versa-Tite Wad. A better option would have been the Federal Flight Control 00 Buck, but Tom’s gun handled the Hornady just fine with absolutely no flyers off target. My shoulder was sore since the shells I brought were a bit high-powered for defense purposes, but I sucked it up. I ended the day with a clean target with a single, high-thoracic hole after about 150 rounds (from me and my relay partner), with no unacceptable hits.

Know your pattern

While we’re on the subject of proper defensive ammunition, let’s address patterning and why it’s important. Lee Weems of First Person Safety says, “Shotgun barrels are all snowflakes.” Tom explained in the classroom portion of the class that shotgun barrel manufacturing standards vary widely (and no, you do not need a rifled shotgun barrel, and if you have one don’t ever load it with anything other than slugs). Some barrels aren’t centered in the gun, which will lead to unacceptable hits if the gun isn’t sending shots where you’re aiming.

The important takeaway is to pattern your shotgun at a cardboard or paper target at 5 yards with at least 10 rounds of the defensive ammo you’ll be using. Watch for donut-shaped patterns and diagonal lines. Patterns like that at 5 yards will turn into multiple unacceptable hits at typical living room distances. If you can’t consistently produce one ragged hole right where you want it, without flyers, find a good-quality defensive round your gun does like, or replace the barrel and start over until you do. Yes, it’s that important.

Maintain gun and skills

Closet shotguns are often forgotten except for maybe once a year when they come out for some target shooting. It’s important to remember to clean and lube your shotgun so that it will run when your life depends on it. Once you’ve patterned your shotgun and set it up properly, everyone in your home who has access to that gun needs to learn how to use it and practice at least once every couple of months. Schedule a “shotgun day” every other month where everyone dusts off their defensive skills and you clean or at least lube the gun to prevent rust. Once a year or so, replace the magazine tube spring—they’re fragile little snowflakes under a lot of stress and can fail at inconvenient times.

Store your shotgun properly

I’m not going to preach about the 5th rule of gun safety: Keep all firearms inaccessible to unauthorized persons. You’re an adult, and that responsibility is yours and applies to all your firearms.

What I am concerned with is the big “A-HA!” moment every single person in our class had when it comes to shotgun staging for home defense: shotguns are NOT drop-safe. The safety on a shotgun only prevents the trigger from moving. It does not prevent the hammer from falling. Tom shared a case where a man’s dog knocked over his shotgun, obliterating both the man’s ankles with a single shot. That’s a permanently disabling injury that could have been avoided.

To set up a shotgun for home defense, close the action (applies to pumps and semi-autos) and load the magazine tube to capacity. Fill the butt cuff and/or side saddle so that you have about 10 defensive rounds with the gun, counting what’s in the tube. What’s on and in the gun is all the ammo you’ll have when you need it. Engage the safety. When you need to deploy the gun, you’ll immediately disengage the safety, work the action to chamber a round, and you’re ready to go.

Personal take-aways

Tom taught more about magazine tube extensions, necessary and stupid accessories, techniques and how to carry more rounds on the gun without affecting its function, but you’ll have to take the class to learn all the juicy details. The man is a treasure trove of information, so take lots of notes and ask all the questions while you’ve got him in front of you.

Remington 870 Magpul SGA stock mod
Remington 870 Police Magnum pump 12-gauge with a Magpul SGA stock replacement. New LOP is 12.5 inches, versus a 14.5-inch LOP with the original stock.

Immediately after the class, I took Tom’s advice and found a Remington 870 Police Magnum pump 12-gauge with an 18.5-inch barrel that was a police trade-in and still had the K-9 Unit dog hair stuck to it. It’s not ready for use quite yet, but I’ve taken it apart and thoroughly cleaned and lubed so I can get to know its internal workings and check the condition. I’ve replaced the stock (which is always too long, per Tom) with a Magpul SGA Stock without any of the spacers, taking the length of pull from about 14.5 inches to 12.5 inches. Next modifications will be adding a 1-round mag tube extension, spring, and High-Viz follower from Wilson Combat to give me a 5-round capacity. Then, I’ll add a Velcro butt cuff and side saddle for an additional 5-7 rounds on the gun, and we’ll be good to go.

The most important upgrade I can make to the gun, hands down, is the knowledge base of the one who will operate it. As with any new skill, a little training has helped me realize how much I still need to learn about the shotgun. While I was pleased with my performance in the class, I realize that I need to solidify the skills Tom taught us with regular practice and training to commit them to memory. Right now I’m in the “conscious competence” phase of training, but my goal is always “unconscious competence.” That means that you do something right so frequently that you cannot get it wrong, and when it comes to the devastating destructive ability of the shotgun, or any firearm, that’s the only goal any of us should be working toward.

Train hard. Train for real life.

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