Shotguns for Law Enforcement: Old School? No. Grad School.

In the wild days of the American frontier, savvy law dawgs routinely chose the scatter gun when they knew they were going into a fight. Hard boiled street cops chose them to combat ruthless killers in the bloody days of the gangster era. Throughout both World Wars, our military (especially the Devil Dogs of the Unites States Marine Corps) relied on them through intensive close quarters battle. Holloway’s Raiders in Dallas and Jimmy Cirillo’s Stakeout Squad in New York City knew what was up, and grabbed the shottie when they needed to even up the odds against multiple armed and dangerous felons. The venerable LAPD SIS held the shotgun in the highest regard when taking down some of the most heinous criminals in the world.

Then, all of a sudden, the shotgun fell out of favor. Why? There have been many reasons. They are bulky, relatively “low capacity,” they require skill to reload rapidly, they have a robust recoil impulse, and they require the bearer to use critical thinking under duress (this is actually all deadly weapons, but we will concentrate on the why as applied to the shotgun for now). The gun culture of our country is not what it once was. We have more enthusiasts then we do actual gunmen. As for law enforcement, we have a great many new recruits that have never handled any type of firearm before. We have popular culture and video games that highlight the carbine as the long gun of choice.

The carbine functions more like the pistol, holds lots of bullets, and has significantly less perceived recoil than a shotgun. It is easier to train non-dedicated personnel to use a carbine, and to make hits at distance with them, than it is to teach them to properly use a shotgun. However, none of those reasons/excuses can change this absolute fact: the shotgun is the single most decisive, man portable tool that the peace officer has in his arsenal to swiftly and definitively end a violent and combative felon hell bent on murder and mayhem. The shotgun, when morally/legally/ethically deployed by a lawful, trained professional, is simply an unadulterated consequence.

Action Types: The two most prevalent action types are the slide-action (pump) and the self-loading (semi-automatic).

The slide-action requires you to use your support hand to slide the fore end back to eject the round in the chamber, and slide it forward to chamber a new round. It has the advantage of not being as finicky about different loads as the self-loading models. The disadvantage of this is that the shooter must be trained, and remember, to do this after every round is fired (as part of follow through), regardless of if they think they will shoot again or not. It is possible to short stroke this action and create a stoppage. All of this said, the slide-action tends to be more tolerant of under lubrication and can be run as fast (by a skilled gunman) as all but a few self-loading variants. The most common variants are the Remington 870 (get the Police Magnum version) or the Mossberg 590 (go for the A1 variant). *Note: if you begin to have issue chambering rounds, on the 870, the apparatus that holds the fore end to the rails may have come loose. This is a simple fix, but knowing about it is a big first step. Making sure it is fully tightened should be part of your normal maintenance.

The self-loading shotgun does not require the shooter to remember to load the next round. It generally has less perceived recoil, and is faster on multiple rounds for all but those that are the most dedicated practitioners (I will never forget when a grizzled old revenue agent with a worn out wingmaster outshot me in every drill of a shotgun class while I was running a Vang Comp custom 11-87P. Instead of being sore about it, and thinking he was just lucky, I talked to him about how he ran the pump, and gained some knowledge). Some models (from Benelli and Beretta) allow a very slick and expediate way to quickly swap from one ammunition type to another. However, they do tend to function better with a more narrow selection of ammunition. The most popular duty grade guns are the Remington 11-87 (get the Police Magnum….) the Benelli M4, and the Beretta 1301 Tactical. Of those, Benelli and Beretta have a better track record of reliability.

Regardless of action type, one thing to remember is that all shotguns are not drop safe (with two exceptions). Even if the safety is engaged, a shotgun has the possibility to fire if dropped on a hard surface, or at the correct (or wrong, depending on your thought process) angle. The two exceptions are the military variants of the Mossberg 590A1 and the Benelli M4 (1014). This is one reason that “butt stroking” or muzzle strikes with the shotgun are not recommend.

Sighting Options:

Bead – Most common, small, designed for taking fowl, easily misaligned, and hard to pick up against certain backgrounds. They do get you on target fast, and can be precise, but you will have to test them at various yardage to figure out your hold. Due to this, the serious student usually goes with another option.

One product that helps out, when you are on a budget, is the XS Big Dot front sight. This is a larger white circle with a tritium dot in the middle. You can pick this up much faster than a regular brass bead, you can use it an extra hour a day (30 minutes before dawn, and 30 minutes after dusk – the rare times you can identify your target without a light, but can’t see your sights so well.) The major drawback to this set up, is it requires that you J-B Weld it over the brass bead. Most of the time they stay on, but I have seen too many products fall off guns. The saving grace is that you will still have your bead if the XS falls off.

Pistol Sights – Before the influx of pistol mounted optics, many knowledgeable end users preferred to have these style sights on the shotgun for commonality with their pistols. They are more precise than a bead, but less precise at distance than Ghost Rings.

Rifle Sights – These allow more accuracy than the previous options, but can be sharp and fragile. They tend to get caught on things, and are better off on a deer gun than a duty gun.

XS/DEA – These have a front sight like the previously described XS Big Dot (but the DEA version is dovetailed into a front ramp, which makes it much more robust). The rear sight is a dovetailed, shallow “V” notch with a vertical white stripe. These are a modern take of the “express” sights found on famed Holland and Holland double rifles that were used to hunt dangerous game in the golden days of hunting on the dark continent. They are quick, rugged, and precise enough to get hits out to 100 yards with slugs.

Ghost Ring Sights – First put on the shotgun by Col. Jeff Cooper, while he was developing the Modern Technique of the Shotgun. When shotguns were more common, and optical sights were not common on the AR style guns, the Ghost Ring gave some commonality on sight picture. They are still very fast, accurate, and rugged for a shotgun sight. They allow consistent, accurate, fast hits (with slugs) out to around 125 yards on an 8″ target. One caveat: silver solder the front sight on. Do this correctly, and it will last you many decades.

Optical Sights – Shortly after the Aimpoint Micro T1 came out, certain specialized units with LAPD began putting them on their Benelli’s. Another OGA, started putting EoTech’s on their Benelli’s. As much as the Aimpoint M68 was a force multiplier for the AR system when it came out, the optical sight on a shotgun seems to be even more so in most applications. For what is possible with a shotgun, with an optical sight, in trained hands, search for “Bristish SAS Benelli M4” to read an anecdote.

Spare Ammo:

In previous articles we have talked about capacity. We talked about the revolver not having enough capacity for a front line officer. We have talked about duty pistols not having to have 20+ rounds on tap out of the holster. We have talked about a minimum of at least 8 rounds on board. Why all the different numbers, and how did I come up with them? Practicality, research, and experience. Certain calibers have certain effects on the human body. Certain types of ammunition have a certain type of effect. This will be discussed in a future article. The short version is, that the 12 gauge shotgun, when loaded in 00 buckshot or slugs, usually requires only 1-2 solid hits to immediately shut down the threat. The foot pounds of energy and mass of the rounds creates a crush cavity that in unequaled by other common duty rounds.

Side Saddle – This can hold from 2-8 spare shells. It is generally bolted onto the receiver on the left hand side, opposite of the ejection port. The best of the breed is made of aluminum, and has a replaceable rubber strip inside to help keep the shells in place. Avoid the plastic ones. They tend to dump rounds after they have been on there for a while. Avoid the velcro ones. Velcro is adhered to the side with glue. Glue, when it is hot, melts. It can melt into the trigger group or action of the shotgun, shutting it down (I know this from personal experience). Velcro cards also get ripped off at the worst time, like hunting a cop killer in dense brush, at night, in the rain.

Be careful on aluminum receiver guns when adding a side saddle. Tighten them down too much, and they will pinch your receiver and will shut the gun down. Depending on the recoil system your self-loading model uses, they can also add too much weight to the receiver causing cycling issues.

Butt Cuff – The only ones to consider for serious use are made of leather, and they are expensive. They place them on the right side of the shotgun stock, and can interfere if you are left handed, or like to swap shoulders for tactical reasons, so be aware.

Belt Mounted – The best solution I have found is made by Safariland, and holds 2 shells. For duty use, most other belt mounted options are too bulky, and cumbersome.

If you are going to train with your shotgun, and dedicate yourself to be able to replenish ammo quickly, then carry spare ammo. If you are not going to practice swapping out 00 buck for slugs, or replenishing, then don’t add the bulk and weight. What probable (not possible) situation are you going to have to reload after shooting AND hitting (in the proper area) 4-9 rounds (model and accessory dependent) with a 12 gauge load of 00 buck or slug? Think about it, and if you still feel you need more ammo, carry it.


Much like a carbine, the shotgun only needs a sling and a white light; maybe, some way to carry spare ammo. With one added exception, everything else is either nice or unnecessary. That exception is the length of pull of the stock. Most shotgun are way too long for our uses. If the shotgun stock is too long, it is harder to handle, slower, and beats the shooter up. Either get a Magpul or other specifically designed stock that allows a reduced length of pull, or have the stock modified to be shorter. While we are looking at the stock, a rubber recoil pad helps with ease of use. The top of that pad needs to be rounded and smoothed. It will catch on fabric and slow down you presentation on snap shooting.

When making modifications, think of how they actually benefit you, and how they can hurt you. Make informed decisions, instead of what marketing or someone else recommends, including me and this blog.

Sling – On shotguns, due to weight, I prefer a military 2 point, or a quickly adjustable 2 point. Single points do not distribute the weight enough, and 3 points are cumbersome. When you add a sling, pay attention to where it attaches on the stock or rear receiver, and make sure it does not get in the way of quickly mounting the gun. Where it attaches to the front of the gun, make sure it does not interfere with the light, especially on the slide-action versions since that can keep the gun from fully closing on a new round.

On Gun Light – Surefire integrated fore ends are the gold standard. On one of my slide-action guns, I have a Laser Products (original name of Surefire) that has been on that gun since the mid-90’s, and it still works great. I have replaced the incandescent bulb with a LED model, and it refuses to quit. Streamlight now has some models that integrate the light, and they are good for the budget minded.

If you must use a light that bolts on, get a pressure switch. Also, make sure the end cap on the light has an override button for when the wiring for the pressure switch breaks or becomes disconnected, and it will. Lights that use toggle switches, or push buttons, are not as quick or intuitive. Even if you train up on them, they tend to hurt the fingers under heavy recoil, they turn off or on at the wrong time, and just are not very conducive to being operated correctly when you are making decisions in situations that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.

Ammunition Selection:

For our purposes, we are talking about buckshot or slugs. The type of situations we are concerned with do not require birdshot, less lethal munitions, breaching rounds, or the whole host of other ones that are available.

Use 2 3/4 shells, not 3″ magnums (even if the gun will run them). 2 3/4 offers a balance between speed and definitive ballistics. A while back (like 90’s era) they came out with reduced recoil rounds. These are pretty nice, but may or may not function in your self-loader. So vet them before you play for keeps.

Buckshot – Stick with 00, 8 or 9 pellet, with 8 pellet preferred. The reason for this is that the 8 pellet version patterns more consistently. With the 9 pellet loads, we tend to see a little flyer off from the other 8 in the main group. That little guy? Yeah, really do worry about that little guy. Remember, you are morally and legally responsible for every single round that misses an intended target, and where it lands.

Also, we must actually “pattern” our individual shotguns. Each barrel is different, and throws a different pattern. I have seen consecutive serial numbers throw different patterns. One would hold 8 pellets in an 8″ group at 45 yards, and the other would only hold into 8″ out to 20 yards. Same lot of ammo, same gun just the last digit in the serial number off. Pattern the gun when you swap ammo, swap lots of ammo, and at least once per year.

We also have the wonderful invention of “flight control wad” now available to us. It is a special wad cup that constricts the pattern, extending the maximum effective range of the individual pellets. One problem that can arise is if your shotgun uses a screw in choke, or a custom barrel modification. Not only can those interfere with the flight control wad, but can sometimes create a very erratic pattern from shot to shot. Test your chosen gear.

Slug – The best one out there, has mostly been forgotten about. The Brenneke is the the absolute finest in slug design for professional, serious use. The wad is screwed into the base, making it more accurate and preventing the wad from turning into a second impact device at close range. Other slugs are suitable for duty use, but the Brenneke remains the best.

You need to weigh the options of choosing to use all buck, or all slug. You may choose to use slugs in reserve for hostage or precision shots. Whatever you do, do not mix slugs and buck in the tube. You cannot foresee what each individual gunfight will be, and you will not remember where the rounds are if they are mixed together in the tube.

In closing, while not fully comprehensive, this article provides a solid base for the reasons to use and the why’s of the shotgun in modern law enforcement service. Carbines definitely have their place, and are absolutely a great option for some situations. I carry one and still train a lot of people in their use. But the shotgun, the old familiar friend; that is my baby. When properly set up, and in skilled hands, the shotgun has no equal as a tool of protection for the lawman or private citizen, even today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Comments (



  1. Tye Daughenbaugh

    We can be friends.

    When I started, all we had were 870’s. Also, my first sergeant and trainer had been a “point man” in Vietnam; he detested the 5.56 and credited the 12 gauge with getting him home on several occasions. They worked.

    But after going on too many jobs where the bad guy had a rifle (or in today’s vernacular, “overmatch”), I wanted a carbine and would still choose to use it 4/5 times. I think it was Bill Jeans who said something like, “…but they are bitchin’ in a pistol fight!”

    That said, when the probability was engagement within 25 yards, I tended to grab the gauge. And if bad guy was going to be in a car? 100% tube time. Nothing, but nothing, punches holes in – through – cars and their contents better than a Brenneke.

    Today, I definitely go with a the Beretta or Benelli. I’d actually say they are MORE reliable than the pump due to reduced likelihood of shooter error.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. apiprodigy

      Thank you. Bill Jeans is a good man, and legendary instructor. I never got the chance to train with him, but talked to him at length on Jeff Cooper’s patio. My study of the gauge started with Col. Cooper and Louis Awerbuck; then over the years with Scott Reitz, Tom Givens, John Farnam, and some pretty serious old school cops (not many outside LE in Georgia have heard of) from a couple of Metro Atlanta SWAT teams. You nailed it on the slug aspect for vehicle take downs.


%d bloggers like this: