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Fighting Shotguns: Alive or Dead?

Selling cops a fighting shotgun today must be like selling vinyl record players in the age of the iPod.  There is no doubt that the modern vinyl album can produce quality sound, but can you convince enough consumers of that fact to stay in business?

The current crop of young officers are “semi-auto” guys.  Most young twenty-something rookies have never fired a double-action revolver and the old pump-action shotgun looks rather antiquated when compared to the sleek black M4 in the gun rack.  Is the fighting shotgun a viable tool in the police arsenal or is it soon to go the way of the DA revolver?

Fighting Shotgun

When you consider the track record of the 12 gauge shotgun through the last two centuries it’s tough to argue about the lethal fight stopping capability.  Rarely does the officer behind the shotgun lose the fight.  If that’s the case, why has the shotgun become a tough sell and why do so many officers fail to grab these guns out the cruiser?  Worse yet, why do some Chiefs and Sheriffs mandate the long gun be stored in the trunk out of immediate reach of the officer who might need it?  I actually worked for one Police Chief that ordered us to store the shotguns at the station, ala Old West jailhouse.  “If you need one drive back and get one.” Was the actual quote he gave me when I asked “Why?”  This wasn’t thirty years ago, it was 1999.  

In my humble opinion, the police shotgun, despite its stellar reputation, is still one of the most misunderstood fighting tools in the arsenal.   A couple of potential reasons come to mind.  First and foremost is the fact that to a non-gun person, and many new officers fall into that category, the hard kicking shotgun is a bit intimidating.   Their first introduction to the shotgun is during the academy and they rarely practice with it after that.  These folks simply don’t have the experience to appreciate the shotgun’s potential.  

I’m reminded of Officer James Niggemeyer who put down the killer of “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott of Pantera.  Responding to a “shots fired” call Officer Niggemeyer grabbed his Remington 870 shotgun and entered the scene.  The deranged killer, Nathan Gale, had already shot several people including Abbott and was attempting to continue his rampage.   Niggemeyer, mindful of the innocents, moved to angle his shot.  Shouldering the 870 he fired a single round of 00 buckshot into the head of Gale.   It was reported that 8 of the 9 pellets impacted Gale’s face and he immediately ceased further hostility.

In the aftermath of the investigation one fact that came out was that James Niggemeyer was an outdoorsman and hunter and was infinitely familiar with the use of a shotgun in and out of work.  I have to believe that this fact contributed to two critical factors; 1) he thought to actually grab the gun out to the patrol car, 2) he shouldered, aimed and triggered a single killing shot within seconds of entering the venue.   Officer Niggemeyer justifiably received awards and accolades for his bravery and quick action.  There is little doubt that lives were saved by one well-trained man and his shotgun.

Practical Training      

Just recently I spent three days at Gunsite Academy outside of Prescott, Arizona focusing intently on the fighting shotgun.  Weatherby firearms the prime sponsor of the event and we would use their PA-459 12 gauge shotgun the entire time.   This, however, was no dog and pony show, it was an intensive training program.   

Fighting through below-freezing temperatures and blowing snow my compatriots and I were put through numerous training exercises and finally put on the clock (shot timer) and our skills tested.  During the long weekend of training I had ample time to consider the fighting shotgun and how to best employ it.     

An issue I encountered with law enforcement shotgun training was that essentially it didn’t exist after the academy.  We had to pass an annual qualification that consisted of a whopping 15 rounds of shotgun ammo fired.  Again, qualification programs are not training.  For most officers, Qual. Day was the only time they fired a shotgun all year or even held it.  I distinctly recall a patrol sergeant having an ND before annual Quals began.  “I didn’t know a round was chambered.” was all he could say for himself.   Luckily the shot bounced off the blacktop range surface toward the berm.   He was one of several that only touched a shotgun once a year.

Police officers must “train and practice” not simply “qualify” with any firearm with which they are armed, shotguns included.   The best target for shotgun training is steel.  During the Gunsite course the only time we shot a paper/cardboard combination was to pattern buckshot loads and while we were using solid lead slugs.

Training and practice breeds familiarity and confidence in the shotgun.  Officers properly trained with the 12 gauge will stop looking at it as a pain-inducer and view it as the most effective close range fighting tool available.  This doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time and effort.

Another myth and misunderstanding that is easily addressed during professional training is that as far as the fighting shotgun is concerned you need to learn to aim not just point.  Inside of five yards most modern pump guns with quality ammunition will throw a pattern smaller than your fist.   The new reduced recoil, 8 pellet 00 buckshot loads will more often than not cluster all their shot in a large ragged hole when fired at less than five yards.   You can indeed miss with a shotgun.    

It takes more than 15 rounds a year to maintain proficiency and skill with a pump-action shotgun.   A shooter must learn to smoothly manipulate the action for rapid follow up shots and be able to feed the hungry beast from whichever spare ammo source they have available.

Parting Shots

Every year, 12 gauge defensive ammunition keeps getting better and better.  The big ammo makers; Federal, Remington, Winchester, and Hornady all have reduced recoil, buckshot loads that offer both power and consistently tight patterns.  Pre-fragmented and frangible slugs are available to reduce the chance of over-penetration while extending the effective range.  I haven’t even touched on the myriad 12 gauge specialty ammunition available to law enforcement.

Despite the advances in modern rifles and carbines, the patrol shotgun remains one of the most versatile and powerful fight stopping tools in the police arsenal.  Officers must be thoroughly trained and then undergo supervised practice sessions to truly realize the full potential of this weapon.


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About The Author:

Mr. Markel is a former United States Marine, Police Officer, and has worked as a professional bodyguard both in the U.S. and overseas. A Subject Matter Expert on Small Arms and Tactics, Markel has provided instruction to law enforcement and U.S. Military troops.

As a recognized author and writer, Paul has penned several hundred articles published in numerous professional journals and trade periodicals. Topics include firearms training, use of force, marksmanship, less-than-lethal force options, product reviews and evaluations, emergency medical care, and much more. Sought after as a public speaker, Mr. Markel is at home in front of an audience large or small.