How to Pick the Best Home Defense Shotgun Ammo

This subject tends to get a lot of vocal opinions.  But, since we’re entitled to our own as well, we’ll voice an opinion on the best home defense shotgun ammo.

Everyone should be able to agree that home defense shotgun ammo requirements can primarily be boiled down to:

  • effectiveness stopping a threat
  • levels of penetration for misses and (to a lesser extent) pass-through rounds

By pass-through, I mean a round that isn’t substantially slowed or deflected by the body of the perpetrator and continues on behind the assailant.

While everyone will advocate for a home defense shotgun round’s ability to stop a potentially lethal threat in his tracks with a well placed shot, it’s important to appreciate that you also have a responsibility to consider what lives that round may impact as it continues on its course beyond your assailant.  Shot can carry enough energy to penetrate an interior wall and still do serious damage to those on the other side.

Home Defense Shotgun Ammo: Stopping Power

Of course, your primary concern is having adequate firepower to cease any advance by a criminal that threatens you or your family.  The FBI standard for testing ammunition is 4 layers of jean material and at least 12 inches of penetration in calibrated ballistic gel.  The idea is that a round that passes the test will reach critical organs when entering the body at any angle and still have enough energy to cause serious damage.

There are plenty of opinions about how applicable that test is in real-world situations, but it remains a well-promulgated standard that tests the ability of a round to stop a bad guy.  In keeping with that standard, the International Wound Ballistics Association recommends 1 buckshot as a round that consistently penetrates greater than the required 12 inches and offers the highest number of projectiles.  It presents a Goldilocks solution that expends all of the energy of the shot mass in the target without shot passing through the target and on beyond it like 00 buckshot is likely to do.

The Problem of Over-penetration

So what’s the problem with using slugs or 000 buckshot in a shotgun?

If you fire a weapon, you are responsible for the rounds you send flying. If that includes going through the wall of your apartment and fatally wounding your neighbor, you should assume that you will be held accountable for that in the legal system.  You could be granted leniency based on circumstances, but I personally wouldn’t want to really on that assumption.  So, it makes sense to put some thought into the problem and choose your rounds carefully.  At a minimum, your defense could include the fact that you chose your home defense shotgun ammo based on considerations of collateral damage.

To be clear, it’s irresponsible to just assume that you will always hit your target and that no rounds will continue beyond your assailant.  The lion’s share of people who will defend their homes with a shotgun do not train often enough and in realistic enough circumstances to be truly prepared for a home invasion.  Even law enforcement officers have difficulty regularly performing adequate, realistic training.  Because of the training deficit, the average homeowner’s handling of a home defense shotgun will not be rote or automatic.  They will be affected by nerves, fear, and adrenaline in large quantity.  Any one of those could cause a person to entirely or partially miss their intended target.

When that miss does happen, you must consider where those rounds will go.  As an example, 8 count 00 buck shot, a very popular home defense round that is also favored by law enforcement officers, can easily pass through 4 interior walls.  If you’re in an apartment, that could mean that the round continues with lethal velocity into your neighbor’s apartment and possibly their neighbor’s apartment as well.

Every Home and Situation Will Be Different

Before getting into specific recommendations, I need to convey that this is not a one size fits all answer.  A person defending a two story, single family dwelling with all of his family members upstairs should choose a very different home defense shotgun ammo than a young, single person in an apartment with neighbors on both sides.

[alert type=”info” close=”false” heading=”Disclaimer”]Before people get their panties up in a bunch, let me be clear that if you’re a single person in a cabin by yourself, blast away with 00 buck shot if you like. It gives you 8-9 pellets at 0.33″ diameter that will pass through all but the largest targets.  If you want, it’ll even let you shoot people on the other side of walls!  Bonus:  It’ll do for a bear in a pinch too.[/alert]

The question becomes, what is the probability that an innocent will be behind the perpetrator when you would have to engage him?  If you don’t know where you would engage a home invader, then you need to stop and put some thought into that.  And, your answer will likely include several locations depending on the situation.  Once that exercise is completed, you still need to account for scenarios outside of those you’ve identified (however unlikely) and factor those into your decision.

Best Home Defense Shotgun Ammo: Candidate Data

To give you an idea of the variance in shot sizes for shotgun shells, here’s the data all the way from 00 buck to #8 bird shot.

Shot SizeDiameter (in)Avg. # of pellets in 1 oz.
00 buck0.338
0 buck0.329
1 buck0.3011
2 buck0.2715
4 buck0.2421

Over at, they like setting up and shooting wall analogs (among other things).  They have done a couple of helpful experiments testing the penetration of drywall.  To summarize, slugs passed through all 12 sheets that were set up, while 00 buck went through 8 sheets, and #4 and #1 buck went through the equivalent of 3 walls (6 sheets of drywall).

That gives you an idea of what kind of damage buck shot could do in an apartment type of setting.  As far as penetration into ballistics gel, here are a few samples from a post on (original link for attribution is dead).

# 8 bird shot ballistics gel penetration
[counter num_start=”0″ num_end=”4″ num_suffix=” in.” num_speed=”1000″ num_color=”#272727″ text_above=”#8 average shot penetration”]

#2 shot ballistics gel penetration
[counter num_start=”0″ num_end=”9.5″ num_suffix=” in.” num_speed=”1000″ num_color=”#272727″ text_above=”#2 average shot penetration”]

00 buck shot ballistics gel penetration
[counter num_start=”0″ num_end=”20.5″ num_suffix=” in.” num_speed=”1000″ num_color=”#272727″ text_above=”00 buck average shot penetration”]


  • 00 buck has more penetration than is needed for a close-range, home defense application
  • BB is as small as you want to get if you aren’t worried about over-penetration and still want to meet the 12 inch FBI standard for penetration
  • #2 is going to make it through most torsos and will minimize wall penetration (you can load #1 buck for the rest of your rounds if you like)

Recommendations for the Best Home Defense Shotgun Ammo

Because of the difficulty of coming up with a one size fits all home defense shotgun ammo recommendation, I’m going to analyze a couple of scenarios, take you through my thought process, and provide some recommended loads for each.

Scenario 1: Two story, detached home

Dwelling:  Two story, detached home with neighbors 40′ away

Innocents:  In the second story of the home and in both levels of neighboring homes

Probable defensive positions: Covering the stairway to the second floor and walls while clearing the first floor

[dropcap]If[/dropcap] the homeowner’s family is all upstairs and it’s a detached home, then he may be able to go a little heavier when picking a good home defense shotgun ammo.  The primary defensive position would be at the top of the stairs, where any fliers would strike the floor at the bottom of the stairs and wouldn’t endanger anyone.  If the homeowner could not confirm that anyone was in the house after an initial sound and a period of listening, then he or she could clear the bottom floor without minimal concern of collateral damage since his family is all upstairs.  If he does fire at an intruder on the ground floor, then the shot would have to penetrate at least 2 external walls with drywall, 2x4s, insulation, a sheet of plywood, and siding (possibly brick).  Those will slow or stop the rounds so that he doesn’t jeopardize his neighbors.

Recommendation: #1 buck shot in a reduced recoil load

Winchester Super X 1 Buck

Reasoning:  Plenty of power to stop an assailant and the reduced recoil cuts down on penetration beyond the assailant and speeds up target acquisition for follow-up shots

Scenario 2: Apartment

Dwelling:  An apartment with neighbors on both sides and across a hallway

Innocents:  In bedrooms in the apartment and in neighboring apartments

Probable defensive positions: Covering the main hallway and potentially hall walls while clearing the remainder of the apartment

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his is a tricky situation when it comes to a good home defense shotgun ammo and balancing effectiveness and the potential for collateral damage.  If the apartment is laid out with an initial common room and kitchen area and then the bedrooms further away from the door, the homeowner could set up a defensive corridor in the hallway that accesses the bedrooms from the common area.  The primary defensive position would likely be facing the exterior wall of the apartment in the event that he had to engage a burglar, meaning that there would be two exterior walls behind the perpetrator before rounds entered another apartment.  If the homeowner in the apartment had to move into the common area to clear the front part of the apartment, then fields of fire would include areas backstopped by interior walls with his neighbors on the other side.

Recommendation:  #2 shot

Express Extra Long Range
The elusive 2 3/4″ #2 lead shotgun shells

Reasoning:  The probability of taking a shot with innocent bystanders directly behind the perpetrator as you clear the rest of the apartment is very real.  #2 shot has enough penetration to go through most torsos (as seen in the gelatin above) while significantly reducing the penetration of walls.

That should give you an idea of what the considerations are when choosing the home defense shotgun ammo that is right for your application.  Know that there are no perfect choices when balancing the safety of you and your family with that of your neighbors.

As long as you don’t pick these shells, you are going to be better off choosing something.

You can figure that out by the amount of debate that there is on forums and other gun websites.  But, armed with the knowledge that we’ve compiled here, you should be able to make the best decision possible and end up with a round that protects your family as a primary purpose and also limits your liability.

The next time you see home defense shotgun ammo being argued about on a forum or web site. Feel free to use this article to instantly win the argument.

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Remember, once you choose your home defense shotgun ammunition, you need to put some range time in to simulate a home invasion and your response as well as you can. The best way to avoid shot going into your neighbors home is to make sure they hit your assailant first. You can also add gun safe accessories for extra protection of your weapons. If you need more options for home defense, go ahead and check out our article best handgun for home defense where we also cover the must-have features for your weapon.

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3 thoughts on “How to Pick the Best Home Defense Shotgun Ammo”

  1. Very thorough explanation on this subject. It is reinforcing seeing the actual penetration photos with the ballistics gel. Thanks!

  2. Nice, the descriptive scenarios are helpful as well as the penetration pics Dean already mentioned! I’ve read many articles on HD shotgun ammo.. it’s surprising how few backup their arguments with data and/or real life examples.


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