by Justin Hinckley, LPNC Second Amendment Issues Coordinator
"Fire two blasts outside the house."
"You don't need an AR-15. It's harder to aim, it's harder to use, and in fact you don't need 30 rounds to protect yourself. Buy a shotgun."
Look, ordinarily I would type a long-winded response about the inferiority of the shotgun as a platform. In the modern era, I need only cite Joe Biden's endorsement of the shotgun and condemnation of the AR-15 and that should be argument enough for all of us to dispense with the shotgun and install the AR-15 as the preeminent home defense tool. Since I have you here anyway, I may as well make a declarative statement: shotguns suck as home defense guns and so do you if you use one! Nerd.
That said, rule one of every gunfight is: have a gun. By that metric shotguns are adequate. But let's have a little fun and assume everyone reading this has "a gun" and now we're arguing about the best gun. And unless we're talking about birds or breaching, shotguns ain't it.
First, I'll define my terms. Unless otherwise noted, I'm referring to a 5.56 AR-15 with a 16" barrel using modern defensive or ball ammunition in a standard 30-round magazine. When I discuss shotguns, I'm referring to a tube-fed 12 gauge shotgun firing modern 00 buckshot with a 6-10 round capacity, either in pump-action or semi-automatic platforms. I won’t really discuss slugs because buckshot is my main concern as far as ammunition selection. Both guns are assumed to be properly zeroed and using quality parts in order to eliminate whataboutisms of specific brands.
Let's begin around the edges of the biggest issue in any home defense scenario: target discrimination. We only want to shoot the bad guys. Why is this relevant to the shotgun versus AR discussion? In order to appropriately discriminate a target from a non-target (friend from foe, as it were) we need accountability. Accountability in this context is the ability of a shooter to account for every round fired and all of that round. With an AR, this issue is mitigated. One trigger pull is one round. With a shotgun, the common home defense format includes buckshot, which typically carries 9 pellets per shell for 00 buckshot and the pellet count goes up based on other buckshot loads. This means that, with every trigger pull, there is more uncertainty in accounting for every "round" (each pellet being a fraction of a round) as I engage my threat. When I engage a target with a shotgun, the affected area usually starts at about 1 square inch and increases in size as the distance from muzzle increases. This means if I shoot with an imperfect sight picture, such as at a moving target, the chances I achieve a "partial hit" (only putting some of my pellets into my target) has relatively high probability. Relative in comparison to an AR-15 anyway, where partial hits are not really a thing, as the affected area remains the same at all distances. I have one round to account for and those rounds only go where I'm aiming.
I can already hear the screeching of the overpenetration crowd, so I'll address it here. This discussion is so commonly driven by rumors, urban legends, and anecdotes. (*Big sigh*) Here we go…
First the data is not conclusive as to whether 5.56 or 12 gauge overpenetrates more often because of the variability in ammo selection, barrel length, wall medium, shot placement, etc. That said, the data generally points to 5.56 as the superior round in terms of avoiding overpenetration. To disqualify an AR-15 because of overpenetration while endorsing a 12-gauge shotgun shows a fundamental ignorance of said data. Each can penetrate greater than the other depending on real-world factors, including round selection. I vehemently disagree with those who say 5.56 constantly, or even consistently, overpenetrates after striking human tissue. I challenge those who say that to produce either laboratory data or statistically significant observational data indicating such. 5.56 ball and defensive ammunition consistently catastrophically destabilizes inside human tissue, resulting in multiple small fragments which tear flesh and have minimal ability to cause damage beyond the first human target. Accuracy is the single greatest factor in how dangerous defensive ammunition is to bystanders. The greatest risk of "overpenetration" is really a miss. As it turns out, the human body is a great medium for projectiles to dump energy and reduces the overall ability to penetrate further. Our mitigation plan is simple; do not carelessly spray rounds of any caliber inside your home if you can help it. If you cannot help it, you are much better off missing with 5.56 than 00 buckshot.
The AR-15 is far superior in employment of the firearm for the shooter. I, personally, like follow-up shots. Scientifically, threats often need follow-up shots due to misses, multiple attackers, or a hit that does not stop your threat. The AR-15's recoil compared to a shotgun is minuscule and enables 2-4 shots for every 1 round out of a shotgun, typically. While a shotgun at this range is unequivocally more definitive in terms of terminal performance, this advantage exists solely on the first round and then further performance lags far behind the AR. If all you need is one round, a shotgun is sufficient, and maybe even best, but that is generally rare in a defense situation. For multiple rounds, the AR-15 prevails. You're still managing recoil with a shotgun, while with the AR you've already reset your sights, reassessed your target, and sent rounds out again or transitioned to a new target.
Then there’s the issue of round count. Hypothetically, you've managed to engage your threats for longer than an instant. You have 10 rounds, on the high end, before your shotgun is empty, which necessitates a time-intensive reload. My AR has easily thrice the round capacity and the ability to empty those 30 rounds accurately in a similar timeframe that 10 rounds can be accurately emptied from a shotgun. What's more, my magazine reload takes about the same amount of time as loading two shotgun shells. More rounds give you more options for more diverse scenarios. Shotguns exceed in a few niche scenarios but ARs carry the day when it comes to the ability to adapt to the situation. Since it is an axiom in the gun community that the scenario you train for is not the scenario you get, ARs allow us more flexibility to meet the specific context, particularly important in the moment which is likely high stress and unfolding quickly. Shotguns are hammers and we all know that when your only tool is a hammer, all your problems start looking like nails, and only nails.
While my rhetoric in the defense of ARs could continue for several more pages, I believe I have stated my case for their superiority over the antiquated shotgun. The AR-15 allows us to engage threats without doubt as to where portions of my lead went. Those rounds, which are easier to account for, also dump their energy in human tissue better than buckshot. Thanks to these two facts, I can confidently engage with a standard 30-round magazine from my AR in a faster and more accurate manner than my shotgun. Thus, I get more potential damage to more potential threats with lower potential collateral damage. Whilst I am the king of my castle the AR-15 is the King's Guard. This King's Guard should have a post in every home to protect our castles with accuracy, lethality, and adaptability. The shotgun is "a gun" and allows us to protect ourselves, but in the world where "best" exists, use it. The AR-15 is best.
- 5.5y fragmentation data: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3385379/
- Source for tables and general penetration discussion: http://www.mlefiaa.org/files/ERPR/Terminal_Ballistic_Performance.pdf
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