When considering the proper firearm tool for law enforcement, there isn’t a catch-all. Every tool has its positive qualities, like the portability of the handgun and the range of a bolt-action rifle, but none of them fit all the molds. If we look at the appropriate applications of a shotgun, many law enforcement agencies don’t consider its versatility. When it comes to ammunition appropriate for law enforcement use, I’d pick slugs every time.
Unlike metallic cartridge firearms, the shotgun can be loaded with non-aerodynamic projectiles. Some manufacturers of hunting products actually use cylindrical, or even non-concentric, shot to control or improve the dispersion of the shot pattern. For example, the same shotgun that can deliver a fully lethal round can also deliver a less lethal round. This is one of the reasons why we always designate a less lethal shotgun and use it for no other purpose.
My personal decision to use slugs almost exclusively in my patrol shotgun coincided with my agency’s decision to use slugs exclusively. This is one of the incidents that helped process the decision:
In one of the most bizarre beat calls I have ever had, I was dispatched to a call from a shooting victim. On the line with dispatch, our victim explained that he didn't know where he was after his (ex)girlfriend took him to an orchard with her (new) boyfriend, only to shoot him. Now he was lying on his back, describing his surroundings, which was, in fact, a ways from civilization.
I would never have found him, except an out-of-state-without-reporting parolee nearly ran him over. Apparently, the victim had worked his way to the middle of a country road. The parolee knew where they were and got me, and an ambulance, there quickly. Because the place of occurrence was county, not city, it quickly became an agency assist for me and I cleared aftertalking to the sheriff’s detective on scene. I headed back to my beat. But I hadn’t gone more than a mile in the country when a car pulled out from a side road in front of me. It looked like the suspect vehicle and matched the shooter’s description. It didn’t take long for me to confirm that I was following the suspect and I initiated a high-risk stop. The suspect didn’t move, despite the flashing lights and announcements. There was, however, one sound that spurred the suspect into compliance. A sheriff’s lieutenant showed up with his laser assisted slug gun. The “cha-chunk” of a shell entering the chamber of a shotgun is a universal language, and it worked here. The suspect was taken into custody.
I had a shotgun, too. However, my standoff distance, plus the length of the rear of the vehicle, added up to about 25 yards. I was carrying buckshot. At that distance, the spread would have placed some pellets on target, but what about the other pellets?
An officer has many firearms tools in the toolbox. Shotguns have enjoyed a long history in law enforcement as a means to bridge the gap between the range of a handgun and the range of a carbine. When loaded with buckshot, it is the equivalent to .24 to .38 caliber projectiles at respectable velocities. The most popular sized projectiles are in 00 ("double-ought"), the equivalent to .33 caliber, which can have muzzle velocities at 1,200 to 1,600 fps. Most 00 loads are 8 to 9 pellets, which is why they really work for duty. Basically, most 00 buck shells are the equivalent to firing eight .38 special shots simultaneously.
Most of us will train shooters in using buckshot within 25 yards, where the nominal spread of shot will land most pellets within 18 to 22 inches, which is around the width of the human torso. Theoretically, a defensive shotgun user—striking center mass—will keep all of the pellets from going beyond the intended target. There are two problems with this. First, if the shooter does not have a completely concentric, centered mass shot, the likelihood of pellets going beyond the target is very high. Second, most shot pattern tests can easily demonstrate that an 18-inch barrel shotgun will usually have patterns past 20 inches around at 15, not 25 yards. This will preclude buckshot use in most high-risk traffic stops. In fact, most uses beyond employment as an entry gun could be questionable, as long as there are non-targets in the periphery. For the record, buckshot is one of the best uses for the officer performing or covering the breaching.
Shotgun slugs are a completely different story. They usually send an ounce of lead payload at about the same velocities. What most forget is that a shotgun using stabilized slugs is usually as accurate or more accurate than a handgun at 25 yards. Most assume that it takes a rifled slug barrel to make a slug accurate enough for duty use. In fact, almost all law enforcement slugs are designed for smoothbore short barrels. There are slugs for rifled barrels, but the propensity toward leading with some products suggest smoothbore slugs are a better application.
I practice with slugs at about 150 yards, with reasonable accuracy. No one (including me) would recommend employing slugs past their recommended range (usually 50 to 65 yards), but officers should know their capabilities and their department policies. I can send a slug at 100 yards predictably under most conditions, regardless of the action (slide or auto) or brand of shotgun.
At 25 yards, I can generally get single-hole patterns with many brands. I used a Mossberg 590 A1 and my Remington 870 for this test. With either gun, the Rio Royal Brenneke (RBK12) printed tiny cloverleaf patterns that stayed under two inches at ranges under 25 yards. I shot several sub one inch groups from a sandbag. I consistently shoot patterns with Brenneke slugs under three inches at 100 yards.
For this article, I used Rio slugs. Rio is the largest manufacturer of shotgun shells in the world. Their products span all aspects of shotgunning, from game use to less lethal to some of the finest slugs in the industry. The Rio Royal Brenneke Slug Cartridge fires a stabilized Brenneke slug at 1450 fps. A Brenneke slug is a lead projectile on a special wad that leaves the gun in a single unit, based on the same principal as an arrow. An arrow has most of the weight in the front portion. Spinning imparted by fins stabilizes the Brenneke slug. In a standard shotgun barrel, it flies true for distances not normally anticipated in shotguns, delivering around 500 grains at carbine ranges. Many manufacturers, including Rio, choose Brenneke slugs because they are extremely effective. I ran these slugs through bare gelatin. (Editor's note: Look for the short video demonstrating an RBK12 going through gelatin in September's app.)There is no law enforcement projectile like a law enforcement slug.
I also fired the Rio Royal Expansive Fragmentary Slug Cartridge (RE12) through ballistic gelatin. This is a one-ounce sabot round, meaning the projectile is actually a payload designed to carry it more efficiently to the target. The slug separates into wedge shaped segments on the target. The segments destabilized quickly in the gelatin, preventing over-penetration. It shared in the astounding accuracy of the RBK12, with a margin of safety for close quarter use. This slug would be my choice for applications where the power of the buckshot is desired, but the accuracy of the slug is warranted.
Rio also makes a product that has a steel core with a lead project called the Rio Royal Armored Slug Cartridge (RMG12). I did not have the opportunity to try this product, but I intend to try to run it through some steel core doors and barricading materials soon. There are several applications where the RMG12 would be appropriate for a high amount of penetration, such as a shotgun slug needing to be able to breach a barrier to the intended target or to stop a vehicle.
In the tactical shop of the law enforcement officer, the shotgun slug is the Swiss Army knife. Slug employment is the way to go for agencies that need carbine effectiveness on an austere budget. For agencies that have not experimented with slugs in a while, it is worth revisiting them for amazing versatility.