The ABCs Of Patterning Your Defensive Shotgun

posted on June 5, 2022
female shooter at shotgun training
Photo: Gunsite

Is any weapon more versatile than a defensive shotgun? You’d be hard-pressed to come up with something else that can shoot such an amazing variety of ammunition and be tailored to very specific purposes.

Gun owners overwhelmingly support the idea of shotguns for home defense, and I imagine there are millions of them stashed in closets, safes and under beds all over America. Remington is slowly getting back into production of the iconic 870 pump-action shotgun, but in my opinion, no company has matched Mossberg for its lineup of sporting, defensive and military models in both pump and semi-automatic configurations. Regardless of what brand you choose, though, if you’re looking for a shotgun, you should have no trouble finding one that suits your needs.

At Gunsite, we refer to the shotgun as the thinking man’s defensive weapon. Why is that? Well, because you need to put a little thought into understanding the care and feeding of a shotgun if you’re to get optimum performance. This understanding starts with selecting the right loads, then testing their capabilities.

We do this by defining the ABCs of shotgun zones. In the A zone, the shot is essentially acting like a single projectile and has not begun to spread very much. Since we can’t take advantage of a large pattern, we have to aim well. The old Western movie standby of kicking open the barroom door and cleaning out the room with one shot just wouldn’t cut it. While you might think it impossible to miss with a shotgun at across-the-room distances, it’s not only possible but we see it all the time in our simulators when students neglect to aim.

The A zone extends from just off the muzzle out to seven yards or so, depending upon the gun and the ammunition, so you need to select your ammunition and check how it patterns. By the way, every shotgun produces different patterns than other shotguns just like it, or with the same barrel choke (constriction at the muzzle) and with different ammunition. You must pattern your gun and your ammunition; you should also shoot several different loads to discover what your gun likes. The A zone ends when your pattern spreads out to about 10 inches or so.

The B zone is next and may extend out to 15, 25 or even 35 yards with a good barrel and good ammunition. In the B zone, we’re making use of the spread of the pattern to give multiple hits at different locations on a silhouette target. This zone ends when pellets start missing the target. Again, barrels and ammunition can have a big influence on pattern size, so experiment with different loads.

The C zone is next, and this is where we transition to a slug—a single projectile—and then we aim and shoot the gun like a rifle. At these longer ranges, we need three things to make hits: a good barrel, ammunition that barrel likes and sights we can use to aim precisely. With a good combination, it’s not unusual to extend the C zone to 100 yards or more—sometimes all the way out to 200 yards.

Because people tend to get adamant about shotgun ammunition, I don’t want to open that can of worms or promote specific brands, but I will make some general observations. In the A zone, whether you’re shooting birdshot or buckshot, the pattern is, in effect, acting like a single projectile and will produce a hole about the size of your fist in your target, or a wall or a bad guy. The B zone is the realm of buckshot, of producing a powerful, fight-stopping pattern. And once we switch to a slug, in the C zone, a 12-gauge shotgun with good ammunition is one of the most-powerful weapons you can use and will take down any beast in North America.

Remember the part about the thinking man’s weapon? Once you’ve patterned your gun, you have the knowledge to load it with whatever ammunition suits your circumstances. Bird or buckshot in the house? Your choice. Buckshot always and forever? Go for it. Or, if you’re like some very savvy Western lawmen, you may simply load with slugs and be ready for anything.


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