Making Birdshot Useful for Defense

This is a guest post by Andrew Bettsbirdshot shell

At this point, most people should be well aware that birdshot is an extremely poor choice for defense. Sure, the knuckle dragging window lickers will proclaim that it has killed people, but so has heart disease. That doesn’t make a bucket of KFC a good home defense choice. And some folks inevitably argue “If you think it’s so useless, why don’t you let me shoot you with it?”

I’ll make you a deal: you let me throw rocks at you and when I get done you can shoot me with birdshot. The fact that I would consider the experience unpleasant and unhealthy is not a compelling argument for its use in a life or death crisis. The bottom line is that birdshot, even at very close range, does not penetrate deeply enough to reliably reach vital organs if it has to traverse a limb first and/or strikes the torso at an oblique angle as is so common in a gun fight. We have written about the reasons for adequate penetration many times in the past.

If you consider yourself to have more expertise in the subject than the FBI, consider me suitably impressed. I do not have that level of experience so I will defer to their recommendations and the FBI recommends the use of ammunition that penetrates a bare minimum of 12 inches. Birdshot, even the larger sizes, simply does not meet that standard and should therefore not be considered for defensive use. Given that birdshot is half a step up from a pointy stick for defensive purposes, is there a way that it could be made useful for defense?

Of course, this solution is far from ideal. The proper answer is to purchase some low recoil 00 buckshot and 1 oz. slugs. But if that was not an option and you needed to produce something useful, this method is surprisingly effective. I honestly had no idea whether the powder charge behind this budget low brass birdshot would be sufficient to get that big chunk of lead deep enough in the gel, but it worked beautifully.

There is no arguing with the effect that a .70 caliber, 430 gr “bullet” has on tissue. This method is also a great deal more dependable than other field expedient methods of “upgrading” birdshot. Both wax slugs (mixing paraffin with shot) and cut shells (using a pocket knife to cut a ring into the hull) fail to achieve adequate penetration and have the risk of leaving debris in the barrel or falling apart and jamming your shotgun. Again, this falls short of being an ideal solution, but as field expedient methods go, it’s not a bad tool to have in the toolbox.

As always, train hard and learn to run that gun like you mean it. Your training and will to fight will matter a great deal more than the tools you choose.


Andrew Betts served with the Arizona National Guard for over 12 years, including a tour to Afghanistan. Visit his YouTube Channel for more great shooting information.


  1. Dale Bailey says:

    One short thought . My grandfather carried several pieces of 00 buckshot to his grave . He was shot with two rounds at relatively close range while responding to a robbery , the other officer died . He survived fourty years to die at the age of 93 . My next door neighbor died at the age of 22, shot at close range , one round , 12 gauge ,hi-brass # 6 shot . There is no clear cut , definitive rule but bird shot in home defence beats no shot for home defence every time , so does a .22 .

    • Absolutely true. An empty gun beats no gun and bad ammo beats no ammo, but birdshot does not penetrate deeply enough to reliably reach vital organs to incapacitate quickly. No one is arguing that birdshot can’t kill, but killing isn’t what you need to defend yourself. You need to physically incapacitate the bad guy and to do that, you have to penetrate deeply enough to reliably perforate the heart, aorta, vena cava, and major pulmonary blood vessels.

  2. Harold Crothers says:

    What is good ammo for 12 gauge, leagally cut down?

    • Same as for a longer barrel shotgun. The best ammo, hands down, is the ammo chosen by most law enforcement agencies: Federal Low Recoil #00 buckshot with the FLITECONTROL wad. Second to that is almost any low recoil, low flash buckshot.

  3. Richard Botteri says:

    Nothing sounds like a 12 gauge being racked

  4. My advice for 12 ga home defense has always been to have 2 or 3 #4 shot loaded for the initial panic shots, followed with 00 buck for the followup (more carefully aimed) shots (if needed). I say this to protect other family members that may be behind that wall with 2 layers of sheetrock.

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