The Myth of the Magical Shotgun

By now you may have heard that Vice President Biden advises you to buy a double barreled shotgun for self-defense. He also suggests to his wife “Jill, if there’s ever a problem, just walk out on the balcony here, put that double-barreled shotgun and fire two blasts outside the house”. He also suggests “You don’t need an AR-15, it’s harder to aim, it’s harder to use”. On today’s segment for Gun Myths and Misconceptions, we’re going to take a look at the Vice Presidents advice to see if it holds water.

Point 1: The Double Barreled Shotgun is The Only Home Defense Weapon You Need.

Joe Biden suggests in his interview that all you need is a double barreled shotgun to defend your family in the home. I’m not picking on the Vice President here. He’s not the first person to suggest this and it’s a commonly held belief among many. However, is this right?

In the pro column, a double barreled shotgun is mechanically simple. It breaks open at a hinge point, loads by simply dropping in the cartridges, and closes as easily as it opens. It’s easy to aim as roughly sighting down the barrel is “close enough” due to the spread of the shot as it leaves the barrel. This is especially true in the home where we can assume that you won’t be more than 20 feet away from your attacker in most cases. So far, so good.

What about the con column? Well, shotguns are not light. Typically a double barreled shotgun is created for sport shooting where the gun won’t be carried around much. They have heavy steel barrels and heavy wood stocks. They can be upwards of 7-8 pounds before you load them. In addition to the weight, DB shotguns are also long. They can be 45” or more in length depending on the model which means that gun is not only heavy but much of the weight is cantilevered out beyond your hands making it feel heavier and more difficult to control. In fairness, you can cut down the barrel on a shotgun but only down to 18”. That means you still have a 35” long gun and I’m guessing Joe wasn’t suggesting taking your trap gun out to the garage and introducing it to a hack saw.

That extra length poses another set of practical problems. How wide are your doorways? Most are only about 36” wide or so. That means when you exit one room into another in your home you’re going to stick about 12” or more of shotgun barrel into the hallway before you can see what’s out there. Alternatively, you could point it down as you cross the threshold but now you have to be ready to quickly raise that 45” long 7lb gun up and get it on target if your attacker is nearby! This brings us to another issue with long barrels. They’re easy to grab. If, in a moment’s hesitation, your attacker can get within about 6’ of you they can reach out and grab the end of that barrel.

Finally, there’s the claim that they are easy to use. I’ve already mentioned that a DB shotgun is easy to load and to aim. But is it easier to shoot than an AR15? I don’t believe so. First, a 12g shotgun has a huge recoil. It’s a very powerful gun and home defense cartridges for them are often among the most powerful of cartridges. That adds up to a big kick. If you are small, have a weak upper body, or any form of persistent shoulder issue, you may not find it easy to shoot. My wife, who is only about 98lbs hates to even hold my shotgun. However, she finds the AR15 easy to shoot. For larger, stronger individuals, a shotgun may be easier to shoot. But I would argue strongly that for smaller individuals, unless they have trained, will not find a shotgun easier to use.

To summarize, a DB shotgun is easy to load (with only two shots) and easy to aim. But, it’s heavy, extremely long, difficult to maneuver, very susceptible to being grabbed in close quarters, and not easily fired by small or physically challenged individuals. I’d call this a MYTH.

Point 2: The AR15 is Harder To Aim and Harder to Use Than a Double Barreled Shotgun.

Mr. Biden also suggested, “You don’t need an AR-15, it’s harder to aim, it’s harder to use”. Let’s take a look at that statement. We’ve already debunked the idea that the double barreled shotgun is the perfect home defense weapon, but is it easier to use than an AR15?

Let’s break this down to the two halves of the statement. First, is an AR15 harder to aim? To answer this we have to assume that we are indoors (as we did above to the shotgun) and that we are shooting at a person sized target. At a distance of 20 feet, even if you removed the sights from the AR15, if you used the same method to aim as you did with the shotgun, you could easily hit your target. This is because you are sighting the targeting along a relatively long barrel, just as with a shotgun. The key difference is that the AR15 shoots a .223 caliber projectile instead of the 00 Buckshot you may shoot from a shotgun which would be 9 .32 caliber projectiles. If you are a little off target with your .223, you miss. If you are a little off target with 00 buckshot, your target may still get hit with a pellet or two since, at 20’ you’ll get a spread of about 9” or so when the buckshot hits. So when people say a shotgun is easier to aim, what they really mean is that it’s more forgiving when you miss. Since you’re in a home with your family, you don’t want to miss. Additionally, there are a plethora of scopes and sights available for the AR15 that make aiming accurately at close distances remarking easy. Double barreled shotguns usually don’t accept scopes without modifications. At worst, I’d call an AR15 as easy to aim as a shotgun.

The other half of the statement claims that an AR15 is harder to use than a double barreled shotgun. We’ve already established that a double barreled shotgun is easier to manipulate mechanically. However, we also established that it is a real challenge for the small or physically challenged to fire and its size and weight make it very difficult and potentially dangerous to maneuver with in the home. So what about the AR15?

The first thing to understand is that an AR15 can be configured, cheaply and easily, in a number of configurations. It can be fitted with a short or long stock for those with short or long arms. There are hundreds of grips to choose from. The barrels can be configured from 16” out to 24” or more. You can also choose parts for them that shave weight from the gun. So, you can get an AR15 that is only 32” long and weighs between 5 and 8 pounds depending on setup. What’s more, the weight in an AR15 is much more evenly distributed than a DB shotgun. This means that the gun will feel lighter and be more maneuverable. You don’t need to look any further than the US military. The AR15 platform is their weapon of choice for close quarters combat!

The second thing to consider is the ability to easily shoot the gun. The AR15 is a gas operated semi-automatic rifle that utilizes a counterweight (buffer) to absorb recoil. This means that the felt recoil when shooting the rifle is dramatically reduced. Not only can you shoot it all day long, but the lower recoil allows the shooter to get their aim back on target very quickly for a second shot.

The final question is about controls and mechanics. Let’s compare. Both the shotgun and the AR15 have safety switches. The shotgun has a switch to break open the barrel for reloading while the AR15 has a button to release the magazine. The AR15 has one extra element to operate in the bolt. The operation consists of pulling back a charging handle to open to charge the bolt or pressing a button to release the bolt if its locked open. This one extra element, technically, would make it more complicated to use. However, I’d offer that this is dramatically offset by the fact that it can hold 15 times more ammunition and that reloading is even easier than in a DB shotgun. So, you have to operate at least one of those controls on a shotgun 15 times more than you would on an AR15. I’d call that one a draw.

Overall, I’d saw the idea that an AR15 is harder to operate than a double barreled shotgun is a MYTH

Point 3: The Sound of a Shotgun Will Deter All Intruders.

The Vice President has suggested, as others before him have, that the mere sound of a shotgun begin fired or its pump action being operated will make even the most hardened criminal quake in fear before running away. It’s been perpetuated around water coolers and in movies and TV shows for decades but is it true?

It’s offered by this study found in the Northwestern University School of Law, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology that guns are used for self-defense about 2 million times a year. Of those times a gun is used, it’s fired at an assailant about 24% of the time. So, in about 1 in 4 cases, the mere presence of a gun was not enough to deter the attack.

Debates can be held endlessly on the validity of the exact numbers above. In the interest of quelling that argument, the US Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey found the overall number to be more like 108,000 and the number of events where the gun needed to be fired more like 17%. So, using those two very different studies we can still say that somewhere between 17% and 24% of the time, people actually have to shoot their assailants to stop them.

While the racking of a pump shotgun or a blast from a shotgun may scare aware a teenager looking for cash and jewelry, it’s not likely to stop someone who it prepared to or intent on doing harm. In those cases, you will need to be prepared to actually use that firearm. Not only is this point a MYTH, it’s a dangerous one.

Of course, what statements like the Vice President’s are supposed to do is minimize the importance of firearms for protection. They do a pretty good job of it. Just remember, the Vice President, who is constantly surrounded by an elite Secret Service detail is about as well equipped to talk to the average person’s home protection as I am to talk to science of solid rocket boosters.