|Shotguns for Home Defense|
This article first appeared in the Network's membership journal.
by Gila Hayes
With the emphasis in recent years on legislation providing for licensed concealed carry, much of our attention has been drawn away from the larger body of gun owning Americans – folks who have guns in the home for defense, but may not necessarily carry a gun outside the home.
I was surprised by my short sightedness on that topic during a recent conversation with Tom Givens, owner and chief instructor at Rangemaster in Memphis, TN. Givens is also an advisory board member for the Armed Citizens’ Legal Defense Foundation, and a long-time professional acquaintance whose knowledge I hold in the highest regard. While we were visiting by phone recently, he mentioned that, depending on which statistics you believe, 40-60% of all American homes contain firearms, but only about 3% of the citizenry carry guns outside the home for self defense.
That data came up in discussion of Givens’ educational DVD on the defensive shotgun, a weapon commonly owned for home defense. Givens is a great resource for any writer, because his range is located in Memphis, TN, an area that several years ago boasted the second highest crime rate in the nation, though conditions are said to have improved so that in 2008,
Memphis was merely the 14th most dangerous city in the nation. In any case, Givens trains a good number of citizens for whom use of a firearm is a serious pursuit, having nothing to do with recreation. In the 13 years he has owned Rangemaster, 48 of his students have been involved in self-defense shootings, and of those, five or six were in the students’ homes.
Givens reported that in Memphis, it is estimated that a third of the 15,000 to 16,000 burglaries reported per year happen while the home is occupied. When you figure that over half of all the citizens own firearms, the criminal’s brazenness is astounding! “I look at the home invasion as a worst-case scenario. This is the worst kind of criminal, and if the family is home this is the worst thing that can happen,” he opined.
Givens drew comparisons between the more common crime of burglary of an unoccupied home, in which the thief merely wants the property. These typically happen between the hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and though those are daylight hours, they are also the times when entire residential neighborhoods are deserted, so there is little risk to the criminal. Home invasions, on the other hand, focus on the occupants of the home, with the hope of getting at hidden goods, committing sexual assault, and other violent crime, he noted. In Memphis, Givens reported, an assailant follows a business person home with the intention of robbing them of their day’s receipts, as has happened to pawn shop owners and beauticians there recently.
While we would hope to detect the criminal before arriving home, these victims first become aware of their peril as they get out of their car and find themselves facing an assailant with a gun who forces them into their home where the crime is committed. These criminals are among the most alarming, Givens commented, owing to the boldness and aggressiveness of their approach.
Prior preparation starts with practicing awareness, since the victims in these examples failed to realize that they were being followed in time to escape. Other advance provisions Givens suggests include making sure that if someone breaks into the home, their entry will make enough noise and the intruder will have to contend with so many obstacles that they cannot do so silently. “You would be amazed how many people have alarms in their home that they never activate,” Givens commented. “It must be like a talisman they think will protect them,” he mused.
Givens also likes motion activated exterior lighting. In his own set up, he explained, when he comes home, lights along the side of the house come on. If a prowler activates the lights, the criminal has no way to know if someone inside has turned on the lights because they heard or saw him, and he may leave rather than risk encountering an alert and ready homeowner.
If at home during a burglary, Givens heartily opposes going out to confront the intruder. “I really don’t recommend going outside to challenge anybody,” he stressed. “Once [an intruder] gets inside, that is a different story as far as I am concerned,” he added, explaining that Tennessee’s castle law puts little restraint on defense inside the home.
“The first thing would be to gather all the family members that you can into one room,” he recommended. He discussed home layouts, endorsing a plan whereby all the bedrooms are on a second level if possible, so if the intruder enters the stairwell by which he will soon access the occupied areas of the home, the homeowner can shoot. When I asked about making verbal commands, Givens disagreed, explaining that he believes giving up your exact location places you in unnecessary danger.
What if the intruder makes it into the home before family members gather in the safe room? Or what of the circumstance in which you are in another area of the home and need to make it to the safe room where the shotgun is kept? “If you wear a sidearm around the house, that’s pretty well taken care of if someone kicks in the back door,” Givens responded.
Best Use of Shotgun
Ultimately, the role of the home defense shotgun, Givens continued, is to have by the bedside while you’re asleep. “If you have to get out of bed to retrieve a handgun, well, at that point, why not get a real gun? We wear a handgun because it is portable, so if you’re going to have to swing your feet out on the floor to go get something, why get a pistol if you can get a shotgun?” he queried.
Asked about tactical differences if defending with a shotgun compared to a pistol, Givens said, “If, for whatever reason, you have to leave the room with the shotgun, it will be a little more cumbersome working the doorways and hallways. If for some reason I had to leave that room, I would probably leave the shotgun behind and take a pistol,” he explained.
“Both are available in the bedroom, so I’ll take a pistol if I am going to need a hand free for door knobs,” he continued, adding that working one’s way through a door into the hall, and around corners with the longer barrel of a shotgun carries its own set of problems, including letting the muzzle extend beyond corners or doors into uncleared territory. However, given the option to stay in one place, Givens prefers the power of the shotgun over a pistol.
Does the concern about over-penetration change between pistol and shotgun? Comparing high performance pistol ammunition to buckshot, his chosen home defense ammunition, Givens says buckshot is less likely to penetrate housing construction and it loses downrange power far more quickly than handgun or especially rifle ammunition when nothing stops its trajectory. Further, he does not recommend slugs for home defense, citing the common distances for home defense shots, wherein a 25-yard shot is surely the maximum. In fact, even across a very large room, the approximate four to five inch shot spread of 00 buckshot is tight enough that slugs really are not necessary, since we’re working at distances at which the pattern really doesn’t open up.
“Across a room, [the pattern] is more like a really, really large bullet,” Givens chuckled, adding that at these distances, “It’s got to be fired precisely.” Rangemaster shotgun classes put a lot of emphasis on accuracy for that reason.
Common marksmanship errors happen when shooters “keep their head up, looking over the gun and not at the muzzle direction indicator – that’s what we’ve taken to calling the front sight on the shotgun around here,” Givens quipped, “because that is really what it is. It gives you immediate feedback about where your muzzle is pointing. If you know your muzzle was on target, then you know that last shot was a hit. If you don’t know where your muzzle direction indicator is, then you don’t know where your last shot went!”
“You’d be surprised how you can miss at 12 or 14 feet,” he added, dispelling what must be the most common myth about the shotgun. One of the first demonstrations in a Rangemaster shotgun class is a series of targets shown in the classroom on which birdshot and buckshot was fired from close in to further distances. “Of course, the one at seven feet is essentially an inch-wide hole,” he points out, commenting that “it gets across pretty quickly that an inch-wide hole is only going to help you if it hits something that matters,” commenting that not all assailants will be slowed by a shot that goes “through their fat roll.”
I asked Givens if a simple shotgun bead sight is good enough for the accuracy needed for home defense. “There are tritium beads available,” he suggested, “that actually give you an excellent muzzle direction reference in limited light; I’ve got express sights and ghost rings on a couple of my shotguns and if I were setting up for patrol work, it would definitely have better sights on it, but just for home defense, I’m not sure.”
What about other shotgun accessories? “Well, when you grab the gun, that is all you’re going to have,” he explained. “When you roll out of bed at 3 in the morning, you’re not going to have your tactical vest on, or your bandolier full of ammunition, and I like to have a little extra ammunition on the gun. I also have a one-shot magazine tube extension so I can have five rounds in the gun without compressing the magazine spring. Then I have five rounds in a butt cuff on the shotgun, so I have ten rounds and that ought to be enough,” he concluded.
Why a butt cuff and not a sidesaddle? “The side saddle can cause some mechanical problems, it really disturbs the balance of the shotgun for me, it makes the receiver too fat to put your hand around and carry the gun in trail carry, and it’s just generally in my way,” Givens explained. He went on to suggest several ways to prevent the butt cuff from traveling forward during recoil, including installing several small screws in the stock on which to anchor the butt cuff, with the addition of one of the press-on adhesive Cheek-Eez pads sold by Brownells.
Givens believes that advice about the butt cuff interfering with shooting the shotgun from either shoulder is not universally true. He reports that he does not find it a problem, explaining that he believes, “that is more of a theoretical problem,” and the shooter should give it a try before discarding the idea of using a butt cuff to hold spare shot shells.
As for shotgun selection, Givens is not partial to 12 gauge over 20. “At typical in-home distances, I don’t think it makes any difference,” he answers. “If we’re talking about a general purpose shotgun, like a patrol shotgun, I think it makes sense to stick with 12 gauge,” he added. If worried about recoil from the 12 gauge, Givens dismisses the concern, noting that a 20 gauge that doesn’t fit you will be just as uncomfortable as a 12. In his instructional DVD about shotguns, Givens repeatedly advocates cutting down the stock to fit properly, and the shortness of his suggested lengths of pull will surprise some who have become accustomed to long-stocked American sporting shotguns.
What about pump action v. semi-auto? Givens chuckled, “Tradition dies hard! I’ve shot 870s for so many years that for me that is the gold standard. There’s pros and cons like everything else,” he continued. “The main attraction to the auto, to me at least, is that most of us carry a semi-automatic pistol, so we’re accustomed to press the trigger, it goes bang, press trigger, it goes bang, press trigger, it goes bang again, so what we see a lot of times with beginners, is they shoot, stand there and don’t do anything. So, for somebody who is just starting out, if they carry a semi-automatic pistol, then maybe a semi-automatic shotgun is a good idea for commonality of training.”
He went on to explain that the semi-auto requires dedicated cleaning and lubrication to assure reliable cycling, and because it is pickier about which shot shells it will cycle, most training and practice with a semi-auto must be done with full-power buckshot. In addition, semi-autos are mechanically more complex. This comes into play especially when bringing the shotgun into action. Since the shotgun is stored with an empty chamber (as most do not have drop safeties), it is stored with shot shells in the magazine tube, but nothing in the chamber. Putting the hammer down sets it up so that simply working the action prepares it to fire, a procedure which will not be so simple with a semi-automatic shotgun. “Generally the auto is a little harder to get into action, but with a pump gun set up correctly, all you have to do is work the action.”
Still, with the pump action shotgun, he frequently sees user-induced errors, when short stroking fails to feed ammunition into the chamber or does not extract the spent shell. “That’s why in the video you hear me say over and over, ‘rack it hard!’” he explained. “So you’ve got those trade-offs: for the pump gun you must learn to manipulate it correctly, but the semi-auto is slower to get into action.”
It takes training and practice to overcome both. “What I see over and over again with shotguns is that people don’t have any trouble hitting with it, where they fall down is on the manipulation and keeping it loaded, because it has such limited ammunition.”
Training and practice is the only way to develop smooth, reliable operation of a shotgun of either design. People usually don’t shoot a shotgun “because if it is not pleasant to shoot, you don’t shoot,” Givens explained. “If you get the butt cut off so it fits you, most people can shoot a couple of hundred rounds a day without bruising or anything like that if the gun fits them. A gun that doesn’t fit you is going to direct the recoil into the cheekbone, and it will tend to migrate out to the outside of your shoulder, so what happens is that people who become fearful of the gun don’t do enough shooting with it.”
Tom Givens’ Defensive Shotgun instructional DVD is an excellent resource for armed citizens considering adding the shotgun to their preparations. He chose to speak to the shotgun in his DVD for several reasons – the first is the affordable price point for most shotguns; another is what he calls “the political end,” the benign appearance and the likelihood that jury members would not be as put off by a firearm that most recognize as a common, somewhat old fashioned gun. “I would rather see people make use of the tool they’ve already got!” Givens concluded.
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