In defense of the shotgun

     The shotgun has long been a mainstay in the arsenal of U.S. law enforcement. For many years it was viewed as a general purpose weapon: If you needed more than a pistol, the shotgun was deployed. But the 1997 North Hollywood bank robbery — where officers with standard-issue shotguns engaged heavily armored criminals with automatic weapons — changed all that, and rifles began springing up in police service across the nation. In fact, the explosion of rifle usage since 1997 has overshadowed the shotgun and caused some agencies to consider getting rid of the shotgun altogether.

     This would be a huge mistake. While the rifle is a great addition to our law enforcement arsenal, the rifle should not be viewed as the shotgun's replacement. Rather, like the rifle, the shotgun is a specific tool for a specific purpose. Proper deployment of the shotgun requires knowledge of its capabilities and limitations.


     Patterning is how you determine the spread of the buckshot as the range increases. It is the first step in understanding how your weapon will perform with buckshot. To pattern, fire single rounds at paper targets from 5, 7, 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 yards. Knowing how the gun patterns is a very important part of training and should be the first thing taught to shotgun shooters.

     A shotgun has three levels of use typically referred to as zones. The A zone is where the shotgun is a truly devastating weapon. It's measured from the muzzle out to where the buckshot pattern stays together so that it makes one big ugly hole in the target; this hole can be covered with your open hand. Depending on the weapon/ammo combination, the A zone is out to around 7 to 10 yards.

     The B zone is where the pellets have had time to spread out and develop a pattern but are still on target. This is the zone where the shotgun is most effective and can be exploited to the fullest. The weapon can be fired quickly with a flash sight picture and still make good hits. The B zone goes from about 10 to 20 yards. Inside 20 yards, the shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot is king, but if you need to engage a target at more than 20 yards and you only have 00 buck, the rifle is the way to go.

     The C zone is the point at which the pellets spread out and some may be off the target. While still lethal, the loss of control of the pattern makes the use of buckshot unacceptable for law enforcement.

     Advances in modern ammunition have a huge effect on how a shotgun patterns. Simply changing ammunition can reduce the spread of the pattern by 50 percent. Each gun and ammunition combination will also pattern differently. It is important that the gun be patterned using the same ammunition that is carried on duty so that an officer can be certain of how the gun will perform in combat.


     Proper training with the shotgun is crucial. The most common cause of malfunctions with a pump-action shotgun comes from improperly working the action after firing, commonly referred to as "short-stroking." Short-stroking occurs when the shooter does not work the action all the way. It can often result in an empty chamber or a Type 2 malfunction. It takes training to work the action fully to the rear and then fully forward. This skill can be covered and practiced in dry-fire mode and used throughout live-fire training.

     A common complaint about the shotgun is the low magazine capacity, but this is also is a benefit when reloading because the shotgun can be topped off, one round at a time, as it is fired. With a semi-automatic rifle, you must unload by removing the magazine before you can top it off with a fresh magazine. With a shotgun, even a short lull in the battle allows time to top it off, so you can replenish the expended ammo while scanning for additional threats or while covering the adversary you just shot. Should another lethal threat appear, it can be engaged immediately, as the weapon is still loaded. In training, have your officers shoot drills referred to as "Shoot one, load one" or "Shoot two, load two."

     Recoil can be the biggest problem for shotgun shooters, and once a bad experience with recoil has occurred it is sometimes hard to get the shooter to stop flinching. Properly pulling the weapon back into the pocket of the shoulder and maintaining a good cheek weld are keys to controlling recoil. Also, many low-recoil 00 buckshot loads on the market today reduce recoil but deliver enough energy for a good ballistic performance.


     While the basic operating mechanism of a Remington 870 or Mossberg 500 Series is the same, both companies also make guns with many desirable modifications. Many after-market accessories and modifications are available, too. One of the most important modifications concerns the sighting system, because the standard bead sight is least desirable — it lacks the precision needed for combat use. Rifle sights work well and are easy to use. They also provide a finer sight picture for shooting slugs at extended ranges.

     The most effective sights for a combat shotgun, though, are ghost rings. These are made by a range of manufacturers and are even offered as an option by some shotgun makers. They are very fast and provide the needed precision for proper shot placement. As with any other firearms gear, though, you get what you pay for, so do not skimp on the price of your sights and make sure they are durable and easy to use. The ones made by MMC work well.

     Optical sights, such as red-dot scopes and holographic displays, are also an option. Again, if you go that route, spend the money to get good ones and keep a supply of batteries handy. Most importantly, make sure your optical sights are backed up by iron sights of some kind; should your optics break or your batteries die, you'll need to go back to your back-up system.

     Barrel length and overall length of the gun are important. If a gun is too long, it will be hard to deploy, and if it is too short, it may not perform properly. Also, as the interiors of our Crown Vics get smaller and we pack more gear into them, our guns must still be easily accessible. I find an 18-inch barrel is perfect for a general purpose gun. It keeps the pattern tight enough for most situations, allows for a six-round magazine, and I can still get it in and out of the car easily. Some guns are available with 14-inch barrels but these are designed for entry use and are best suited for SWAT applications.

     A shorter butt is also desirable. Having a 12-inch length-of-pull allows the weight of the gun to be held closer in to the body and provides better control. Balancing the weight also lets you hold the weapon up for longer periods of time without getting tired, and it makes the weapon easier to operate for smaller-framed officers. A pistol grip, too, makes it easier to hold the weapon one-handed if need be and provides a little better control while shooting. If your department uses an AR-style patrol rifle, the pistol-grip shotgun will be more familiar to your officers.

     Slings are important: A long gun without a sling is like a pistol without a holster. You must have the ability to transition from your long gun, to hands-on, to your pistol, and back again. Slings allow you to do this. Keep in mind that if your adversary grabs your sling, you can be in trouble. For that reason, a sling with a quick release is a good idea.

     Another useful item to add to your gun is a dedicated light so you don't have to carry one in your support-side hand. The one made by Surefire replaces the forend of the gun and provides a bright white light.

     Because of the shotgun's low magazine capacity, ammunition storage is also recommended. I like the side-saddle holder made by Tac-Star; it mounts to the receiver and holds six rounds securely on the gun. Buttstock ammo carriers are available and can be had in rigid form or as strap-on nylon pouches. Of these, Blackhawk makes a good one. The least desirable are the bandolier-style slings with cartridge loops built onto them because the weight of ammo dangling from your gun can disturb your aim. They are, however, better than nothing.

     With the proper preparation and training, and with modification when appropriate, the shotgun should and will continue to be a valuable tool for law enforcement for years to come.

     John Marrs has been a deputy with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department in California since 1988. A prior SWAT operator and team leader, he serves as a firearms instructor for his agency and the Allan Hancock C.C. Regional Training Site Basic Academy. Marrs is a graduate of the California POST Master Instructor Development Program. He also retired from the California Army National Guard as an Infantry Captain and served as the State Marksmanship Coordinator for California. He can be reached at