Issue 27

Choosing The Correct Self-Defense Cartridge - Part 1

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Part 1:  Rifle and Shotgun

The thought of having to protect one's self against an attack is a frightening prospect.  Being forced to defend your life or the life of a family member is something many people simply don't want to consider.

But the reality is, people are put into such situations every single day.  Examining the options that are available is a responsibility that all gun owners must consider.  Because of the limitations placed on law-abiding Californians regarding the possession of firearms, this review will focus on the use of firearms for the defense of your home.

Let's first come to a common understanding regarding the use of any firearm.  Your intent should be to fire as few shots as is necessary to stop the threat.  When the threat stops, you stop. 

That means that if you pull out your weapon and the assailant stops, turns and runs away, you do not shoot at all.  If the assailant continues forward in a threatening manner, you fire until threat stops.

Proviso:  There are many opinions on what constitutes the best firearm and cartridge for home defense.  This is my opinion based on over 30 years of firearms and training experience.

You have three firearms options for protecting your home: Rifle, Shotgun and Handgun.


Not a good choice.  Rifles, by their very nature, are designed for long distance shooting.  Their cartridges are significantly more powerful in terms of the amount of powder they hold, and the size and weight of the bullet (the actual projectile) when compared to a handgun.  

For instance, one of the smallest sized rifle bullets (5.56mm) can penetrate 1/8" of steel at approximately 600 yards (over 1/3 of a mile away).  When you consider that the distances in a home are generally no more that 30 feet (10 yards), the risk of a stray bullet going through an wall and hitting a family member or neighbor is generally considered unacceptable.


The 12 gauge shotgun is generally considered the best choice over-all for home defense.  When used with a short 18 1/2 inch barrel, it provides a manageable and effective tool. 

There are many variations of the 12 gauge which include, pump, semi-automatic, over/under and side-by-side.  A pump or semi-automatic are generally preferred, as they both allow for 3 to 7 cartridges to be loaded into the gun.

There are three types of cartridges (called 'shells' with shotguns) usually considered:  Birdshot, Buckshot and Slugs.

Birdshot is a shell that contains hundreds of very small "BBs" (called 'pellets').  They also produce the least amount of "kick" from the shotgun. 

is similar to birdshot, in that each shell contains many pellets.  The difference is, buckshot shells have fewer, but larger pellets.  There is also a larger powder charge, resulting in more kick. 

Finally, slugs are a single piece of lead.  They are many times grooved (rifled) to improve accuracy.  Because of the mass of the slug, they require the largest amount of powder, and produce the biggest kick.

Generally speaking, birdshot is inadequate for home defense needs.  Once the pellets begin spreading in their pattern after being fired (10-15 feet), they lose their effectiveness (their "knock-down power").  That's why they're used for hunting birds - so they don't shred them!

Slugs have the same type of problem as rifle cartridges.  They have an immense amount of power behind them, and a missed shot will easily travel through your walls and the walls of your neighbors.

Buckshot is the best overall solution.  The 00 buck (double-aught) has 9 pellets, each approximately the size of a .38 caliber pistol round. 

While the chance of wall penetration exists, because of the lower mass of the individual pellets, the chance for damage is somewhat lessened.  If you purchase "tactical" shells, they will produce less kick than normal 00 buck, and the shells are designed to keep the pellet pattern much tighter.

Next Issue:  Part 2:  Pistol Cartridges

Bison Risk Management Associates is a Northern California-based company providing Personal Safety and Emergency Preparedness training, workshops and consulting for individuals, businesses and organizations.

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