The best home defense shotgun ammo can be a variety of loads depending on who you ask. The purpose of this article is to shed some light on the subject of the different types of loads that can make sense for defensive purposes. We seek to cover the differences between the types of loads and projectiles available, and then an overview of the commercially available loads that will best utilize the design of the load.
From a stopping power perspective, you are likely entertaining the shot sizes from #6 to 00 Buckshot – see the next section for some clarification on why this makes sense.
Something you need to know
Home Defense Shotgun Ammo Size
Size 6 shot
The smallest of the viable home defense loads is probably #6 shot, which by most would be considered to be bird shot. The dense pattern will work in ranges up to about 30 yards effectively, and yet, will not penetrate both sides of a modern construction wall, even in a clear miss of the target. Note: under heavy clothing a target may not sustain mortal wounds.
Size 5 and Size 4
These are more interesting densities of shot for a home defense load if the chance for friendly fire exists, as the shot size is small enough to provide some protection on a direct wall shot, and the chance of penetration through a target is minimal. It is also significantly more lethal than smaller shot sizes that offer similar performance.
Shot size 3 through BBB
These are better penetrating shot sizes and still offer some benefit of reduced deflection and limited multi-wall penetration concerns. BBB is a .19 in diameter pellet, which is significantly larger than loads in the range. A BBB is sufficient for defensive purposes and poses fairly small risk in a multi-wall environment, though penetration can still be significant.
Shot Size 2, 1, 0, 00 and 000
These are MUCH more lethal rounds and pose significant potential for single wall penetration on a glancing shot or in a clear miss of the target. These are ideal for home defense from a practical stopping power perspective but should be used with training and understanding of the potential for over-penetration.
For some perspective: a 000 Buckshot pellet might be loaded into a 9 shot cup each representing a projectile similar in diameter to a 9mm projectile and a total grain weight exceeding several hundred grains.
Why is the projectile and load style important from a safety perspective?
When shooting inside of a home, especially one in an urban or suburban environment, there is a special consideration that should be taken into account: overpenetration and friendly fire. In the case of modern shotgun loads dedicated to home defense and tactical use on human defensive targets, there is still a very real concern because of the amount of lead and the amount of propellant.
A defensive user with loved ones inside the home should take precautions to understand what exactly they are getting with a given load. In the case of most current home dwellings, a shotgun shell with a slug load or even buckshot projectiles may be too much to guarantee that the projectiles won’t penetrate the walls and injure or kill others.
First and foremost, the most important aspect of avoiding friendly fire is tactical understanding and training on proper engagement techniques. However, there is a necessity to also understand the power of the rounds you are using for defensive purposes. While the Author has chosen to use 3 inch Magnum 00 Buckshot in a primary home defense weapon (a pump action shotgun), it may not be a legitimate choice for another user, with a different home layout, or building materials.
Generally, a slug would be overkill and represents a legitimate danger in a residential neighborhood if not planned for judiciously.
In a home where a missed shot could penetrate a wall, behind which lies a family member, one might consider a smaller shot size, like a #4 or #5 shot. Such shot is unlikely to penetrate through two sides of a modern residential wall and still have the lethality.
Similarly, it’s important not to overthink the concept, as a #7 or #8 may not be enough, even in a short engagement scenario like a home, to stop a threat with a single shot.
For the purposes of a close quarters combat scenario where there is a friendly fire concern, the smartest range of loads lies between the #6 and the 00 Buckshot loads. You can adapt as needed to ensure a tailored experience for your situation.
Talking about the 12 gauge
Because of the scope of this article, and the propensity for American shooters to use 12 gauge shotguns, we will default to using the 12 gauge shotgun loads as a focal point. If you shoot a different caliber/gauge, you can still choose the same brand and load type if it is available in a different caliber (most of these offer several options).
But these aren’t marketed as self defense or home defense loads
Some of these shotgun loads are not marketed as self defense rounds. In fact, it’s well known that most loads marketed for the purpose are simply the most potent threat stopping rounds available. It is true, when you have the choice given no other variable than to stop a threat, that a more potent load is preferable.
We wont attempt to sell you on the idea of using game specific loads as personal defense options except in the sense that the science behind the shot sizes and the behavior of the load prove their potential as legitimate defensive options.
There are some loads listed here that are not traditionally marketed for the purpose of stopping a human threat, though they lose no potency in such a task just because their box denotes another primary purpose.
The best home defense shotgun loads
HORNADY - BLACK AMMO 12 GAUGE #00 BUCKSHOT
This is a top-quality load that offers good stopping power and very reliable performance. There is nothing incredibly special about this load however, except that it is built to a high standard with a good history of reliable functioning in all types of firearms.
It is also a moderate load for the #00 Buckshot platform with a 2 ¾” length and provides a potent bit of lead on the target without adding powder or pellets that can penetrate further than you’d like. The uniformity of the build is such that it can reliably be counted on in any type of shotgun. Run it a couple times to ensure you have function, and then count on it when it matters most.
It’s not cheap, but of all the benefits a given round could offer, reliability is the top attribute. You need to know your shot will fire and function when you pull the trigger. Simply made, with a high brass base, a full rolled crimp and an inconspicuous black synthetic case, this is an 8-pellet load and boasts a powder that surprisingly clean and produces a bit less flash than most others in the same load variant.
Hornady has an impeccable manufacturing facility and offers a wide spectrum of premium shotgun loads. This load is generally regarded as a top-quality load without a specific purpose. The build quality makes it particularly good for semi-automatic shotguns and this will serve the homeowner well in a tactical scenario.
Best for: larger capacity semi-automatic or magazine fed shotguns that are geared to shoot quickly.
Sellier & Bellot, 12 Gauge, 2 3/4" Shells, #4 Buckshot, 10 Rounds
A bargain for a legitimate defensive round that doubles as a small/medium game and large bird load. Sellier & Bellot is a value priced brand that has been delivering good quality ammunition since 1825. Decades of a footprint in the ununited States has turned this once boutique producer into a powerhouse in the domestic market.
The Czech manufacturer is a major producer of ammunition throughout the world and it is easy to find a value price on their premium offerings. Much like the firearms produced in the Czech Republic, the ammunition from S&B has proven to be legitimately reliable and has produced a significant reputation for the maker.
This is a #4 Buckshot load that offers minimal penetration concerns in an urban setting with traditional modern construction. It also offers significant stopping power in short range engagement. The 21 pellets in this load is sufficient for home defense under normal circumstances. #4 shotshells are also typically quite expensive as they offer a somewhat rare loadout that is suitable across multiple use cases and cost a lot to produce due to lower volume production.
As such, this Sellier & Bellot load is a very good option for any who want a potent load for game or for self-defense.
Best for: Shooters who need a shotshell in the #4-5 range that don’t want to overpay for it. Shooters who need to have protection against overpenetration in a home setting, but also need stopping power for close quarters battle.
WINCHESTER - SUPER PHEASANT AMMO 12 GAUGE 3" 1-5/8 OZ #5 SHOT
A very unique choice for home defense, this is a safe bet not to penetrate walls in a close quarter’s environment, this is an ample load to stop intruders without risk of overpenetration. It is also a sound choice for fast flyers in the field. As a typically dedicated field load, this is a magnum shell with a potent powder load behind a 1- and 5/8-ounce cup of copper plated shot. It makes the shells very long lasting on the shelf and potent on first shot.
The additional velocity will help achieve better penetration, but the size of the pellets constrains the shot to avoid over penetration with virtually no chance of wall penetration after a hit on target. #5 shot is a good size for multi-purpose use and may be slightly underwhelming for home defense if it weren’t for the additional shot and powder that is contained within the magnum shell.
This is an excellent round for home defense if you live in an apartment building or within an urban landscape. There is a bit of a drawback, as it is not a dedicated tactical/defensive round, and the powders are not formulated to mitigate any of the flash; given there is a large powder charge behind the wad, this can cause some concern for second shot accuracy depending on the shooter.
Nevertheless, this is a load that any multi-discipline shooter would desire to have on their shelf at all times, and despite being quite expensive on a per round basis, the benefits far outweigh the cost.
Best for: hunters of small game up to coyote-size in open fields or brush; home defense needs that require deflection and overpenetration mitigation.
FEDERAL - PREMIUM PERSONAL DEFENSE BUCKSHOT 12 GAUGE 2-3/4 AMMO
Available in two varieties, this is probably one of the better mainstream loads in buckshot. It offers superb construction and simple implementation. It is also available in bulk or by the 5 round box. Taking queues from other popular defensive and field loads, this is a hybrid set of multi-purpose loads, with the most interesting option being a 34 pellet #4 Buck load.
This offering comes in a 2 ¾” wrapper with a very reliable pattern that seeks to achieve both a density of pattern and reliably safe deflection containment. The copper plated lead shot is very uniform and the Federal production facilities and portfolio items are well built. The payload of 34 pellets arrives at 1100 fps which is more than capable of sufficient penetration but does not overdo it. The reliable crimp (a 6-point star) helps ensure the cycling and loading of this round is consistent in many different firearms. The powder is a reduced recoil powder and offers some diminished flash through a specialty formulation.
While the 2 ¾” shell size might seem underwhelming, the history of performance and the ballistics of the load seem to be in line with the specific needs of a home defense shooter. This load is by no means anemic.
Best for: home defense purposes, where stopping power is important, but friendly fire concerns are more important.
Winchester Super-X Buckshot Shotshells
A historically relevant load with a ton of stopping power, despite the smaller cup size and the reduced charge. In other words, this is a good compromise between stopping power and overpenetration, without feeling like you are experiencing a compromise. Don’t forget these are still at 1325 velocity at the bore exit.
Not only that this load is a good, balanced defensive loadout, but it is also historically a good performing round. It is reliable because of the design of the shell, the amount of powder charge and the uniform pellets and wad charge. This is an ideal load for human sized targets to about 30 yards, and less; with the capability of taking a 100 lb. target to 50 yards or so accurately.
That said, it is still a heavy amount of lead on target in a small close quarters environment and should be used as a threat stopper for those who understand how the projectiles will behave on a miss or a deflection shot.
This load is good for semi-automatic shotguns especially because the powder charge is fast burning and offers enough to cycle the weapon reliably, but not so much that it causes a too-quick cyclic rate or rebound of internals. This makes it a good choice for high capacity and sustained fire work.
It consists of a relatively standard 9 pellets of 00 buck in a standard 2 ¾” shell.
Best for: The home defense advocate that wants to buy a single shell for everything. This is a multipurpose round that has enough power out of a 2 ¾” shell to compete with lower powered magnums and will work for multiple targets.
Hornady Critical Defense, 12 Gauge, 2 3/4" Shells, 00 Buckshot, 10 Rounds
Probably the most tactically specific load on this list that has a single variant of payload (see the next item on this list as well), this is a very well-tuned, slightly out of the mainstream load that gives high velocity, smaller shot pattern and better functionality in a wider variety of guns. It is produced specifically as an optimized load for human threats.
Hornady has been very specific in their stance on producing and marketing tactical loads made precisely for stopping human threats. Most of the industry is tweaking existing loads that are used for large game hunting and calling them defensive rounds. Hornady is creating new loads for the same purpose.
In this case, it is an 8 pellet shot cup that moves at 1600 fps. The more reliable shell is a non-magnum round and this 2 ¾” length shell takes advantage of that. Notwithstanding, the user who adopts this round should be aware of non-hit penetration concerns in a friendly fire scenario. 1600 fps for a projectile nearly the size of a 9mm is a lot of velocity and presents a challenge from an overpenetration standpoint. It also happens to be a very good way to stop human targets. A hit on target will do its intended job.
We like the idea that Hornady is calling this load what it is, and we think the industry would do well to find ways to accurately make loads for stopping human targets and market them specifically for that purpose rather than just slapping a new box on an existing round. This type of thinking is what elevates this round to this list.
WINCHESTER - PDX1 DEFENDER AMMO 12 GAUGE 2-3/4" RIFLED SLUG #00 SHOT
Innovative and interesting, if not historically proven, the numbers and the concept seem to be legitimate. In the cases where you can accept risk of second hit and wall penetration, this may be a very good consideration.
The idea is this: a slug and 3 pellets of buckshot (#00) combine to put the most lead on target with a larger initial wound channel and more opportunity for mortal wound channels to be created outside of the biggest projectile. This causes bleed out potential; heavier impact on initial hit and a wider channel at the target (or multiple channels).
More bleed out; more wound channels or a bigger wound channel equates to a faster stop on a target. Blood loss is essentially the most secure way to achieve mortal stopping power.
The one caveat with this load is that it also has a problem with potential lethal missed shots in a home or apartment environment. For some this is not an issue, but for others it may take significant testing and decision making to determine that this is the right choice.
Taking nothing away from the concept or from the stopping power, this is a very good round if stopping power is the primary concern. Winchester has also mitigated some of this risk by limiting the velocity to 1150 fps (and even then, the stated velocity is out of a longer barrel than most people will use in a CQB scenario).
From hunting loads repackaged to benefit the ammunition producers by allowing them to market to the popular home defense market segment, to loads specifically built for stopping human targets, this list is comprised of what we believe to be the best 12-gauge home defense ammo on the market.
It isn’t a “knock” on the ballistic performance of the loads to say that they are simply repackaged hunting loads. Rather it is more of a commentary on the need for ammunition producers to be more innovative in tactical ammunition design.
We believe that a shooter can find a good balance between safety and stopping power by choosing the load that most makes sense for their individual situations. The author will use a variety of rounds depending on the setting but favors generally, the 00 buckshot and #4 loads for home defense in a suburban setting with family in rooms of the home with some exposure to a missed shot.
You will see as a direct result, that there is a balance in the writing of this article that speaks to the need to understand the loads you are using.
The most important way to reduce safety concerns is through training and understanding the layout of your space and how to engage tactically. It is through a combination of these ideas and proper defensive loads chosen carefully that you can achieve the type of harmony needed to optimize the home defense shotgun equation.