Guns and Self Defense Revisited

I am jumping in here with a new post because the string or comments is long and I need to make a few clarifications.

One–I said shoot the perp who represents lethal threat center mass and repeat, and repeat.

I didn’t say shoot someone who is down and not a threat. Law enforcement is taught and civilians in self defense course are and should be taught to shoot center mass and repeat until the threat is neutralized. I did not say execute the downed perp. Using lethal force to kill is legal.

Remember I am a lawyer too, so I try not to give bad legal opinions for my momma’s sake.

Two–I and the Chief Deputy and Sargeant Lundy still stand by loading your home defense shotgun with bird shot.

Bird shot in house defense situation will definitely stop a perp. However a 12 guage with buckshot is a problem in home defense because those 8 pellets are big and penetrate. The kick from a buckshot load for an amateur is a surprise and will impair control. Birdshot no 8 is just fine, comes out of the gun with plenty of penetrating and stopping power.

At a distance bird shot is not a stopper–but we are talking about self defense situations where the contact distance is less than 30 feet. That’s what happens in home defense. We are not talking about military situations, but close encounters with bad guys.

As I said a pump shotgun chambering a round is a very alerting sound. And the shotgun is pointed, not aimed.

As for killing, here’s the last bit–Law Enforcement is taught to use lethal force lethally. However once the perp is unable, stop. I never said keep shooting after the threat is neutralized. I just said keep shooting until that happens. Many times a hopped up bad guy will go through the first second and third shot, even if accurately placed. The Muslim insurgents were described that way by many and had superhuman strength, no doubt energized by faith, commitment and some meth or something similar.

Last, actually to be able to hit center mass in a critical situation is damn hard. That’s why home defense shotguns are a good idea except for professionals with a handgun. Confrontations between bad guys and good guys with handguns in close quarters are surprisingly inaccurate, Mel Gibson is in the movies.

A couple more things, placement of the trigger finger is essential to prevent push pull problems. Body position is angled to direction of the shot forward shoulder at an angle, two hands. But that’s for your teacher to talk to you about. Ever seen these films of novices shooting big guns, it reminds you that training and teaching is very important. Don’t hold the gun sideways unless you’re auditioning for a movie.

And one more thing. for handguns, amateurs should have revolvers. Automatics are great, but amateurs, even professionals sometimes (like some soldiers I have treated) forget the chamber. With a revolver the mechanism is simple and easy to work with. Autos have buttons and slides and have to be handled properly to keep the user safe and make the gun effective.

Class dismissed. I am not a big gun guy, I have terrible eyesight so I don’t shoot for fun or hunt, but I did study my booklet for my classes, listened to my instructor who is a preacher at one of the local churches, and I pay attention to my law enforcement colleagues.

I am a Medical Officer for the Brown County Sheriff, who is a retired Texas Ranger. I am proud to help his efforts to keep our county safe.

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20 responses to “Guns and Self Defense Revisited

  1. “However a 12 gauge with buckshot is a problem in home defense because those 8 pellets are big and penetrate.”

    Yes, they do penetrate.
    A former co-worker of mine found that out when his neighbor across an alley fire buckshot at someone in the alley.
    Some of the pellets missed and went through the fence.
    Then they went through the drywall and insulation into the house, within feet of where my co-worker was sleeping on his couch.
    At least one of the pellets exited through the kitchen window on the far side of the house.

  2. Any thoughts on the value of shot shells (of various gauges) delivering the old traditional varmint-chasing loads of rock salt?

    • I know of several accounts dating back 70 to 90 years, which describe lethal wounds delivered at close range with rock salt. From those accounts, I expect that it would be comparable to bird shot at close range. I’m also pretty sure you’ll have to load your own rock salt shotgun shells, something a majority of home-defense shotgun owners don’t have equipment to do.

  3. Thank you for posting the advice on the preferred use of a shotgun for home defense. This echoes advice I got from an LAPD officer back in the 70’s. In the late 80’s I spoke with a Texas security guard who highly recommended the use of rat shot loads in a handgun for all the same reasons – plus the advantages of using a one-handed weapon leaving the other hand free for a flashlight or a call to 911.

  4. Friend of John Galt

    Rock salt is best used in an ice cream freezer — or on a slippery front walk in snow country. Rock salt might provide incentive to encourage someone who’s already leaving (at the sight of the shot gun), but it will have near zero effect on stopping someone who is intending to do you harm. My sister (not always reliable) claims to have used rock salt in an old black-powder double barreled 12-gauge to “encourage” the departure of a “hobo” who “wanted more than a hand-out” when her home was located out in the boonies… With a modern smokeless powder shot gun, the stress of firing the salt might break it down into particles with too little energy to break the skin. Note too, that rock salt is probably not going to be effective further than about 10 feet out — and that’s a lot closer than I’d want any bad guy to approach.

    I do appreciate the comments on 00 buckshot vs. bird shot. It’s a choice that I’ve considered for years as I’d hate to cause injury to neighbors while encountering a house breaker. But the 00 buckshot will surely “stop” any threat — likely with one solid center mass hit. (One 00 buck shot delivers 8 pellets about the size of a .38 revolver bullet — at 10 to 30 feet, most of the pellets should hit the target if the least care is taken in aiming. The #8 bird shot (“dove load”) will cause much less damage with pellets that miss the target, but may require multiple shots to stop an aggressor who is ‘high’ on certain kinds of drugs.

    As for rat shot loads (in hand guns), they will not likely produce enough stopping force to slow down a determined aggressor. If used in a semi-automatic pistol, there’s considerable chance that rat shot will jam the mechanism, leaving you with a “mad” aggressor and a non-working pistol. Not exactly where I’d want to be.

    The whole issue is “foot-lbs” of force delivered to the target. This is calculated by muzzle speed and weight of the bullet or pellets — and distance to the target. At very close range (in contact), even a “blank” (usually shooting a paper wad) can cause serious injury or even death (if a vital spot is hit). But in the case of an intruder found in a home or a robber in a business establishment, something with more stopping force is the better approach.

    • Rock salt can be useful for scaring stupid teenagers out of your crops. According to my dad’s cousin, the former watermelon thief, it hurts like hell but doesn’t break the skin. I once read an interesting article that suggested progressively loading the tube in your shotgun so that you can move from less to more lethal as necessary. Sounds good for a single assailant scenario, but what if there are two?

      The video below does a pretty good job of demonstrating the effectiveness of birdshot. It may not have the ft-lbs, but it will definitely change all but the most drug-addled minds. If they’re still coming after the first one, that’s what the other shells in the tube are for.

  5. When I lived in Prescott Arizona my wife took a NRA class for women. The county attorney for Yavapai county talked to them about the law of self defense. This is what he said: you may use deathly force against an intruder. If a person nocks on your door and talks to you he is just a visitor. But should you ask him to leave and he pots his feet blocking the door he is an intruder. In that instant you may kill him. He doesn’t have to threaten you to be come an intruder. By not obeying you in your property he became an intruder. When you decide to use a gun don’t stop shooting until he is down.
    Don’t go near him to check if he is alive. Call the police and let them check it.
    (He actually said empty you gun into him.)

  6. Remember that shotgun shot comes in various different weights. While 00 Buck, aka “double aught buck” may be too stout and prone to putting holes in multiple walls, Number 8 may be too light to penetrate multiple layers of clothing and apply sufficient hurt to the target, especially during winter. Fortunately, there are additional weights of shot between those two.

  7. FBI Ammunition Protocol:

    #8 shot fails miserably.

    I repeat: ballistic personal defense weapons work by penetration. Bird shot DOES NOT PENETRATE.

    • Penetration is a function of range as well as mass and velocity. In my cramped apartment I couldn’t get more than 15 feet away from another person even if we both backed into opposite corners. The FBIs testing protocol calls for ten foot as the range. Many home invasion scenarios would occur in much tighter quarters.

      Individuals have to balance the risks of over-penetration from heavier calibers or shot with the risks of non-lethal shots. The real question is what are you preparing to defend yourself from. One could argue that multiple assailants wearing light body armor is a real possibility, but it’s much more likely that a home invader will be a petty criminal who isn’t going to stick around after having been shot at even if you miss.

      It might be smarter for people in apartments with paper-thin walls and children on all sides to sacrifice the likelihood of a one-shot kill for the reduced likelihood of accidental death. The standard penetration tests show that #8 penetrates several inches even through clothes. Whether that is enough or not depends on the size of the assailant. What the tests don’t show is the effect of multiple shots in rapid succession.

      I don’t believe the FBI or anyone else would officially classify #8 shot as a “less than lethal” round. I’ve yet to meet anyone concerned about under-penetration who was willing to stand in front of #8 with nothing more than normal clothing to protect them.

      • “I’ve yet to meet anyone concerned about under-penetration who was willing to stand in front of #8 with nothing more than normal clothing to protect them.”

        I don’t know of anyone who wants to be hit with a pellet gun. Do you think a pellet gun is an adequate defense weapon? How about a frying pan? No one wants to be hit with a frying pan.

        Even #4 buck doesn’t penetrate enough.

        If you intend to use a gun as a ballistic weapon, penetration is necessary. Critical, in fact.

        FBI Handgun Wounding Factors:

        “Kinetic energy does not wound. Temporary cavity does not wound. The much discussed “shock”
        of bullet impact is a fable and “knock down” power is a myth. The critical element is penetration.”

        If you are concerned about over penetration, then a ballistic weapon is the wrong choice for your defense.

        If you are going to use it as an intimidating noise maker, blanks would be almost as good as bird shot.

        In the end, we are all responsible for our own salvation. Use what you want. It’s not my job to save you.

        • “I don’t know of anyone who wants to be hit with a pellet gun. ”

          I guess I was less safety conscious than most as a youth. :)

          I’m not arguing that #8 is ideal, but I do believe it’s better than nothing. To be honest, no shotgun is really all that useful for home defense unless you happen to be sitting right next to it when someone breaks in. Armed intruders aren’t known for letting you go get your gun real quick and carrying a long gun around with you all the time gets a bit tiresome. Preparation has to be matched by practicality. If you’re training constantly with a high-caliber handgun that you wear on your person 24 hours a day than you might be better off looking into moving. Otherwise, you’re making some kind of compromise based on your personal situation.

          If you live in a sprawling ranch house with 60 foot hallways and no close neighbors then #8 clearly isn’t for you, but to say that it’s no better than a noise maker is ridiculously hyperbolic. If an intruder comes up my stairs then there’s no angle from my bedroom to the intruder that doesn’t potentially contain a child as a backstop. Buckshot could go from one side of my 4 dwelling townhome to the other and still be lethal. The risk of #8 not doing the job is less than the risk of an errant ball of 00 hurting someone I don’t want to hurt. That being said, I’m not interested in trying to take someone out with a Ka-bar either. Low energy rounds are a viable compromise. Who cares if I instantly kill the assailant if the projectile continues on to kill my child sleeping not 8 feet further?

          Bottom line, decisions must be made by comparing a potential situation to a realistic, worst-case scenario rather than a mythical best-case scenario. In risk management, hazards must be judged by severity and likelihood in order to determine risk. No I’m not going to stop a well-trained armed assailant whose hopped up on PCP and wearing motorcycle leathers, but I’m also not likely to have that problem. If I thought I was I’d move rather than buy a better gun.

          Over penetration isn’t the only concern but it is wrong to dismiss it as being a concern at all.

          • From your link, Ghost:

            “3. 00 Buck penetrates 4 walls with ease. It is a great “Stopping” round, but there is a price to pay.

            Until someone invents a “Phaser” like on Star Trek, anything that will stop a bad guy, will also penetrate several walls.

            4. Birdshot does not excessively penetrate drywall walls. But it does not penetrate deeply enough to reach a bad guy’s vital organs. Birdshot makes a nasty but shallow wound. It is not a good Stopper.

            Use Birdshot for little birds. Use 00 Buckshot for bad guys.”


            “anything that will stop a bad guy, will also penetrate several walls.” That is the inescapable fact of ballistic PDWs.

            “Over penetration isn’t the only concern but it is wrong to dismiss it as being a concern at all.” If it is a concern, don’t use a ballistic PDW. As the FBI determined, the problem with BPDWs is ADEQUATE penetration.

            In most cases (>99% per NRA), the mere appearance of a gun will stop confrontations, with no shots fired. The flash-bang of a shotgun will no doubt be enough to discourage some of the remaining 1%. You get the flash-bang with blanks.

            Birdshot will not likely FORCE a bad guy to stop. But the noise and the flash might. If you choose to use birdshot, be prepared for the perp to continue after being shot. He might stop; he might not. If you ever get to the point that you actually have to shoot someone, you damn sure want what you shoot to be able to FORCE the perp to stop. You do your children no favor using an inadequate weapon.

            Now, y’all go save yourselves.

            • The fact that a phaser has not been invented yet is exactly the point. What non-ballistic PDW is as effective as birdshot at getting the message across without putting you within the reach of the aggressor? Pepper spray? Single-shot Tasers? Should we advise apartment dwellers to study Iaido?

              You cite statistics that indicate birdshot will only be inadequate in less than 1% of situations. Why stop subdividing there? Within that remaining one percent there is still a range of potential situations. Where do we find the aggressor that won’t stop when he sees a gun but will change his mind when you’ve proven you’ll use it? How likely is the aggressor that will continue to advance into a hail of gunfire? Is the birdshot 99.1% effective, 99.4%, maybe more? What alternative comes close to 99.1% effective without putting bystanders in risk? Nothing is 100% so how many tenths of a percent does buck shot buy you in a situation that’s unlikely to arise in the first place? It has to be less than 9 tenths. That’s a small increase in effectiveness for the given increase in risk.

              Some quick and dirty statistics indicate that in the US you only have a 0.9% chance per year of being home during a break-in. #8 shot is likely to be inadequate less than 0.9% of times during a situation that is only likely to occur in 0.9% of households each year. That yields a 0.0081% chance of needing something more than birdshot in a given year. What are the odds that all of those few situations occur in a home where over penetration is an issue? How many of those situations would’ve ended badly even if the occupant had better firepower?

              What we’re left with is an extremely narrow band of circumstances where moving up from #8 to 00 would have a positive impact. Therefore, despite the severity of the hazard, the extreme rarity of it means the overall risk is small. In an area densely populated with non-combatants the relative risk of their accidental injury is greater than the risk of being injured or killed by the invader. Underpowered projectiles increase protection relative to non-projectile PWDs such as knives and frying pans with a minimal increase in risk of collateral damage and so stand as a sound choice for mitigating all relevant risks. More effective mitigation is, of course, possible by taking specific situations such as home layout and local crime-rates into account.

              Number of burglaries and percent with occupant present.


              Total # of housholds


            • So I was talking to a physician, ex ranger and he pointed out something important in this discussion about shot guns.

              He said, and made a very good point that long guns should be used in defense before the perp gets close enough to grab the barrel, or the long gun suddenly becomes a lever and the advantage is lost.

  8. John, if we’re honest, shotguns aren’t likely to be very useful in many real-life scenarios due to the aforementioned likelihood that it won’t be close enough to you to do you any good. You can’t reasonably carry a long gun around the house with you at all times. Putting one in every room just guarantees any invader is as likely to get to one as you are. Locking them up increases the amount of time it’ll take you to get it so we’re back to square one. Pretty much the only time you’ll really find it useful is in the clichéd sound of breaking glass in the middle of the night scenario. Even then, you’ll be taking a deadly weapon into an unknown situation while you’re groggy and scared. Not necessarily the best course of action if you have a clumsy teenager in the house.

    That being said, you could choose to become proficient in the use of a handgun and carry it on you at all times. That still gets wearisome, and the longer you wear it the greater the risk of complacency related accidents. Besides, in the event you come home to find the intruder already in your house are you really prepared to have a quick-draw competition while framed in a doorway with your family close behind you?

    I love guns, but too much of the mythology of self-defense is based on untested bravado in the face of hypothetical threats. Larger calibers or gauges, bigger magazines, and expensive accessories can always be justified by some imaginary super criminal who can sprint ten yards faster than you can pull a trigger or shrug off small caliber rounds while returning fire. It’s not anti-gun rhetoric to admit that fear mongering is a factor in gun sales.

    To the individual, the biggest advantage of owning a gun for self-defense is nothing more than a feeling of safety they get from knowing it’s there. The “bigger is always better” crowd are accurate in their data concerning stopping power, but they often discount all other considerations that are important to the would-be gun owner. Tell a person that there is no way to use a gun without endangering their children and they’ll just choose not to own a gun.

    The importance of that decision goes beyond the warm and fuzzy the individual is sacrificing. The concept of “herd immunity” can be applied to communities with regard to gun ownership. While the individual’s safety may not be as vastly improved as gun salesman would have you believe, communities with high individual gun ownership experience a preventative effect. With high enough participation criminals expectations shift from assuming a homeowner won’t be armed to assuming they will. History shows that crime rates drop accordingly.

  9. “Where do we find the aggressor that won’t stop when he sees a gun but will change his mind when you’ve proven you’ll use it?”

    He may not have understood you have a gun. Blanks/birdshot fire will get him to understand.

    The problem is that when you get in that 1% where you actually have to shoot, you are way beyond the averages already. I.e., it’s known you ain’t lucky, and counting on your luck is probably a bad policy.

  10. Personal defense is much more nuanced than the one-dimensional ‘debate’ involving the pro-gun vs anti-gun people. If you want to know more, I strongly recommend Marc “Animal” MacYoung’s website. As the nickname suggests, he was a badass as a young adult. One day, he decided to walk away from the violent lifestyle, and to communicate what he had learned about personal safety to others.

    Here are some issues that he analyzes: What are the various dimensions of personal defense? What really works? What doesn’t work at all? What works sometimes, but doesn’t work at other times? What are the legal consequences of lethal force used in self-defense? And last but not least: What is self-defense, anyway?

    Here are the opening lines from his hub on Home Defense:

    “There is an old challenge to those who take pride in their refusal to have a gun in their home. The idea is that they should put up a sign for all passersby to read that says ‘No gun in this home.’
    For some strange reason, there aren’t many takers.

    “Apparently the conviction against possessing a firearm isn’t so strong that people are willing to advertise it at the risk of their own safety.

    “While it may seem from that first blurb that we are pro-gun, that’s not exactly the case. We are not pro or anti-gun. What we are is pro-personal responsibility.

    “Before you even consider getting a weapon for ‘home defense,’ there are a few issues you must take into consideration.”

    Actually, the last sentence is an understatement. Marc is very thorough in his analyses. Some may think that he beats the subject matter to death. That said, one would need to be a lawyer, in order to misconstrue what Marc is saying.

    Part of Marc’s message is common sense. Problem is: Common sense is not always available when we need it the most.

    Here’s a link to the lead article of his home defense hub:

  11. The author sounds very unfamiliar with firearms and ballistics, so this article shouldn’t be used as a serious reference for anything, much less life and death advice.

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