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Shotgun Ammunition Assessment and Selection For Law Enforcement

By Chris Epperson

One of the greatest attributes of the police shotgun is the diverse ammunition available for the weapon. The operator can select from lethal to less lethal rounds, breeching rounds to distraction devices. Depending on the supplier you use the only limit is the imagination. There are rounds, which disperse powdered magnesium into the air and ignite it, creating what is advertised as a 300' fireball. Even large municipal departments such as Los Angeles police use starburst rounds fired into the ceiling of a room during high-risk entries to create an alternate distraction in cases where flash-bangs may not be practical. Even blanks fired from a 12ga. Shotgun can be used to safely remove glass from windows.

Even though the diversity in ammunition selection is a benefit to the shotgun it can also be a deficiency in its practical application. I had a swat team from a large east coast municipal department attend a custom 5-day shotgun course catered to their swat officers. At the beginning of the course they explained to me that their officers were loaded with five types of shotgun ammo on their call out gear. The five types of ammunition were 1. Slug, 2. Buckshot, 3. Beanbag, 4. Ferret (OC), and 5. TKO breeching rounds. One can immediately see the negative possibilities in miss loading these types of ammunition. If you where to attempt to breech a door with a beanbag round, you would definitely have your work cut out for you. In a situation where you were attempting to employ less lethal, a slug would require a lot of explaining. Needless to say after the third day of training and exercising practical change over drills they were taking a close look at their ammo selection for the shotgun. We must logically approach our purpose with the shotgun and define the requirements for that task.

The primary purpose of the police shotgun in a patrol capacity is to immediately make available to the patrol officer a weapons system that will accurately fire onto a target at a greater distance than the officers' side arm. It is not necessarily an issue of "Firepower" as much as it is an issue of "Accuracy and Distance".

We could spend days discussing the variants in shotguns, sighting systems, barrel types, calibers, ammunition selection, however, our primary purpose here is to compare the 12ga. 00 Buckshot to the 12Ga. SLUG. We will also access the practical application to the law enforcement mission.

Physical Characteristics

BUCKSHOT; The 12ga Buckshot generally consist of a cartridge containing 8 to 9 .33 Caliber pellets. Each pellet in general is under 60 grains and is round lead ball with no jacket. Most of these rounds leave the gun with a muzzle velocity of approximately 1600 Fps.

SLUG; The 12ga slug generally consist of a cartridge containing a 70 Caliber 436-grain (1oz) lead slug. The SLUG consists of lead and is formed with rifled groves. This round leaves the weapon at a muzzle velocity of approximately 1600 Fps.

Effective Range And Accuracy

BUCKSHOT; The industry standard for the spread pattern of a 12ga shotgun is 1" per yard. So taking this into account the shot pattern at 15yds would be 15", 20yds would be 20" and so on. The average width of a human torso squared toward the shooter is 18"; this target area drops down to 12" if the target turns at an angle. This patterning formula has been proven time and time again using standard police shotguns. With this data we can assume that the maximum effective range on a man size target with the 12ga buckshot is 18yds. This is seven yards shorter than our officers qualify with their handguns. If the target turns the maximum effective range drops down to 12 yds. It is also common for officers to be aware of the pattern or spread on a shotgun and they will often sacrifice accuracy out of belief that some of the shot will hit the target.

SLUG; The 436 grain 70 caliber projectile comes out of the shotgun at a speed which allows it to maintain its accuracy for an extended range. The fact that each individual slug is self impressed with lands and groves aides to the accurate flight of the slug. The average marksman can accurately engage 12" by 18" targets at 100yds using the police shotgun with only a bead sight. Every shooter completing a basic 3-day Blackwater shotgun course not only does this, but they do it while the target is moving. The principal of target engagement is also different for the shooter when using the slug. They rely on the same fundamentals of marksmanship they do with their handgun. They don't have the crutch of the shot pattern to fall back onto. The shooter knows he must diligently aim each shot with the weapon.

Terminal Ballistics And Lethality

Buckshot: Without question the buckshot is a lethal round. Our greatest concern during terminal ballistics is not what the pellets do on target, its what happens to all the pellets that don't hit the target. We have proven that outside of 12 to 18 yards we will be faced with rounds down range that are unaccounted for. For example at 30 yards we could potentially have 5 33-caliber bullets off target at one and a half times the speed our handgun rounds travel. We would never accept someone shooting 5 rounds from their handgun toward the general direction of a threat however; we are setting up this scenario when we place buckshot in the shotgun.

Slug: The slug is without a doubt one of the most effective cartridges available to law enforcement to immediately incapacitate a threat. The 436 Grain bullet is almost three times the weight of our pistol bullet. It travels approximately 400 Fps faster than the pistol round. The terminal ballistics for this bullet cannot be argued against. The fact that the officer takes time and, aims the weapon only aides in its effectiveness.


Buckshot has a purpose. Just as its name implies it is a hunting round designed to engage game. It can be very effective however the limited effective range, high potential for missed shots and, performance during terminal ballistics do not rate it as high on the scale compared to the slug. The slug is highly effective in terminal ballistics. It is one single, aimed bullet for each press of the trigger that the shooter is responsible for. It is not a dozen and a half pellets sent flying down range. The slug gives the officer the ability to post up from a target four times the distance he would with buckshot. In closing there is nothing that you can do with buckshot that you can't do with slugs. There are many things the slug is capable of that the buckshot is incapable.

Some Frequently Asked Questions

" Q.Doesn't the spread of the shot on the target make it more effective?
Copyright © Chris Epperson 2004
A. NO. The fact that the pellets in buckshot are not jacketed, they are not rifled or omni directional they are actually more likely to rapidly deform and decelerate on impact. This is the same in both target material as well as mediums. You often see more penetration with a single pistol bullet than with buckshot.

" Q. Doesn't the slug over penetrate?

A. No. The slug is also of soft lead construction and will also deform on impact. On impact the energy of the slug is transferred into the destruction of the slugs body and target area. This forces a rapid deceleration in the bullet. This reduces the chance of over penetration. Once again in some test the duty handgun round will penetrate further than a slug. Hillsborough Co. Fla uses the REM1100 with a 14" barrel as its SWAT entry gun. The standard load for that weapon is the 1oz. Slug. Even though it only holds 6 shots that is still twice what is fired in the average police shooting. With a shorty stock and 14" barrel the weapon is only slightly longer than the MP5 or UMP and 1/10th the cost. The 6 12ga slugs are more than sufficient for this type of work.

" Q. Don't the slugs cost more?

A. Yes. However all of your basic weapons training and manipulation work with the shotgun still takes place-using birdshot for practice. Only during qualification and marksmanship training do you employ the slugs. In reality you are saving money because you no longer purchase Buckshot and predominantly train with birdshot.

" Q. Don't the slugs hurt during recoil?

A. No. The slug recoils only slightly more than the birdshot and almost no more than the buckshot. This is a training issue that is clarified by teaching proper mounting of the weapon.

Copyright © Chris Epperson 2004