There was a lengthy discussion about shotgun loads with the article from Greg Ellifritz I shared on Facebook. Specifically, several people insisted that his conclusions were invalid and birdshot was an acceptable option for self-defense. I’m going to respond here with some longer thoughts because I think this is a very misunderstood topic that has a lot of un-scientific lore behind it.
As a caveat, I am not an LEO and I was issued an M240, not a 12 gauge. What I am sharing here are perspectives I’ve gleaned from several officers and arms experts in the field who have a science-minded approach to the topic. Ellifritz has done exhaustive work to gather data for his analysis of wound reporting, perhaps more than anyone else out there.
The Obscene Sailor spent a lot of time researching this topic and perfecting his loadout from the civilian side; you should check his page out for his practical advice. Both of them used a rigorous and scientific methodology to draw their conclusions.
The argument people make for birdshot is that it works well ‘up close’. Distance and positioning are the best allies that gun owners have. We train more diligently for distance and we own the terrain we’re in. Leaving cover and aggressing on an adversary negates these advantages. Don’t embrace bad tactics to make suboptimal equipment work.
We know that #00 buckshot is a very effective manstopper. In fact it is overpowered; past a certain point there is just too much penetration to justify the extra recoil and energy needed. Dropping to #1 buck not only still guarantees penetration, but we also gain a 30% increase in surface wounding area over regular #00.
#4 buckshot is approximately 25 pellets of .25 caliber each, and every one of those is averaging between 1100 and 1300 FPS. These pellets have sufficient mass and velocity to meet FBI gel test penetration standards at most common shotgun ranges. An ideal loadout uses tuned chokes and ammo to deliver 100% of the pellets into a man-sized target at the maximum distance in our home turf. For civilian defenders this is nearly an optimal option; for LEOs, it’s recommended to stick with #1 or #00 due to the presence of intermediate barriers like vehicles.
What happens when we go below #4? Velocity stays roughly the same but the pellet mass and size decreases quickly.
Birdshot starts at 0.16″ pellets and goes down to as little as 0.07″. This means every pellet is carrying significantly less energy, and makes it more likely for them to be deflected or stopped by bone or tissue. At a distance of 20 yards, #7 shot will have lost 40% of its muzzle velocity.
It’s important to remember our hierarchy of fight stoppers: Direct hit to the brain/spine > Exsanguination (Loss of blood)> Mechanical destruction > psychological compliance (the FIBS principle; F**k I’ve Been Shot!) This is why Ellifritz made the critical distinction between shots that ended the opponent’s will to fight, and shots that neutralized the attacker’s capability to be a threat.
CNS hits are the ideal impact. Incapacitation is instantaneous. Birdshot is less likely to penetrate the skull or impact the spinal column. This takes CNS hits off the table as an immediate end to the threat.
A hit to high-center mass is standard shooting dogma for good reason. Bullets must penetrate into the mediastinum and perforate the heart or aorta. From there the blood fills the heart cavity and starts bleeding into the lungs. This pleural effusion makes breathing impossible and leads to death. But even under ideal conditions, it can take anywhere from 10 seconds to five minutes for someone to perish from blood loss.
Lightweight pellets will struggle to penetrate bone and heavy fat or muscle. The wound tracts tend to fishhook rather than penetrate straight-on, and are narrow enough that vascular constriction can prevent them from bleeding seriously. The wound certainly looks gory and messy up close, but surface wounds don’t lead to enough blood loss to take someone out of a fight for good.
Structural damage is the next best hope; damaging the body to the point that it is taken out of the fight entirely. Many birdshot proponents argue that it can effectively blind a target.
Physics makes this inconvenient due to the inverse square function. The density of the pattern of shot equals the inverse of the square of the distance from the source. A spread of 14″ at 25 feet becomes more like 32″ at 75′; this goes from 150 sq inches to 804 sq inches, reducing the pattern density by a factor of 5.
This assumes a perfectly aimed headshot with an ideal choke and range. The distance from brows to sternum is about 12″. If we are using our training and aiming high center mass, we now need an ideal 24″ pattern with the upper edge over the eyebrows. If we break this circle into 1/6th pie wedges, we see the head is covered by only 15-20% of the pattern’s area. So there are no guarantees that pellets will hit the eyes and blind a target.
Now, I’m not a lawyer, but consider this: Imagine it comes out that someone deliberately used substandard ammunition with a game plan to blind an intruder, knowing it was not likely to kill them. A prosecutor will have a field day arranging charges of felony assault or depraved indifference. Even if the criminal trial doesn’t succeed, the defender is almost guaranteed to lose a civil suit for inflicting unnecessary and grievous bodily harm.
The last and final stopping function is a psychological/pain stop. This simply means that the surprise or the pain is sufficient to stop the attacker. As Ellifritz noted, people really don’t like being shot. Every caliber has the same rate of stopping the fight by neutralizing the opponent’s will to do combat. But we don’t stake our lives on probabilities, especially with 1 in 4 of these predators committing to their actions even if injured or surprised.
“If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying”. Winning a fight is about stacking so many advantages in your favor that you make probability your bitch. Just because something could work, we shouldn’t justify it as a choice over something that will work. It’s better to have more options than less. Options give you flexibility. A plan predicated on nothing going wrong is a bad plan to be locked into.
-Stay safe out there.