For almost 30 years I’ve had a tactical shotgun as part of my daily armament. Whether as a military policeman in the Army, a “city cop” in New Jersey or a homeowner protecting my family, a shotgun was always close by. But is the 12-gauge “riot gun” still a viable choice or should it be replaced by the patrol rifle and submachine gun?
From the 1960s, I remember the images on the news of police in riot gear at the anti‑war protests. Often they were seen balancing 12 gauges on their hips. The next segment might very well have shown a U.S. soldier in Vietnam with an identical shotgun at the ready as he patrolled the jungle.
In the ’70s, when I was a military policeman, we had old “trench guns” in the arms room. They were often issued when the M‑16 was too much gun for the task at hand. In the ’80s, when I entered civilian law enforcement, most departments had a shotgun in every squad car.
The last decade has seen the arrival of the patrol rifle. Special Response Teams found themselves better served by .223 carbines and traded in their MP-5 sub‑guns. This carried over to issuing carbines instead of the 12-gauge shotgun for patrol officers.
While the .223 patrol rifle is a great asset, the shotgun is a versatile weapon that still has a significant role. Many operators choose a shotgun for its power and versatility. With all the ammunition choices available, the pump shotgun is particularly versatile. For example, USMC Gunnery Sergeant Duane Hauer (who’s preparing for this fourth trip to the Gulf) tells me that his unit was trading all its semi-auto shotguns for pumps. It seems the semi-autos wouldn’t cycle properly, especially with breaching loads. He said that his MPs use their shotguns primarily for breaching and the pumps offer reliability that the semi-autos can’t.
The Remington 870 and Mossberg 500/590 have ruled the roost for decades. For years, most agencies used the standard Remington, while the Mossberg has been steadily gaining ground. Departments such as the Prospect Park, New Jersey, Police Department, where I worked in the 1980s, used plain, bead-sighted Remington 870s. A lot of them still do. Sgt. Dave Deal, of the Washington County, Minnesota, Sheriff’s Department told me that all of his department’s squad cars are equipped with the plain, bead-sighted, Remington 870s. This gun was and is the workhorse of long guns for law enforcement. It has served faithfully for years.
These days, however, upgraded guns are becoming much more prevalent. For example, the Marine Corps is issuing Benelli semi-automatics for combat patrols as well as Mossberg pumps set up for breaching. Today we also have the option of semi-custom guns from makers such as Wilson Combat/Scattergun Technologies and custom-made pieces from gunsmiths like Hans Vang.
The standard riot gun of the past will do a yeoman’s job in most cases. And with a few modifications, the basic gun can be made to really shine. It used to be that you had to send your shotgun to a gunsmith to have these changes made. Today, manufacturers such as Remington and Mossberg are offering factory guns upgraded and ready to go.
Remington’s Tactical Shotgun line offers all-black 870 and 1100 models with much sought after modifications. You can choose from four different stocks, barrel lengths from 18 to 22 inches, and two-, three- or four-shot magazine extensions. Mossberg, with its 500/590 series guns offers 18.5- or 20-inch barrels, regular or pistol-grip stocks, bead or ghost-ring sights and six-, eight- or nine-round magazine tubes.
If you want more, consider a semi-custom gun from Wilson Combat out of Berryville, AR. This operation is the home of Scattergun Technologies offering some of the best shotguns in the world. Operators can choose from several tactical models depending on the modifications they are looking for. High quality fit and finish, as well as many other options, makes the Wilson/Scattergun Technologies shotguns ready to go right out of the box.
A great candidate would be the company’s Standard Model. Based on a Remington 12-gauge, 3-inch 870 Magnum, the Standard Model offers all the best features in one complete package. These include: Trak-Lock ghost-ring sights, seven-round magazine capacity, Sidesaddle shell carrier, synthetic stock, SureFire forend light, jumbo head safety, tactical sling, Speed Feed stock and Armor-Tuff finish.
My Wilson Combat Standard Model also has a Vang Comp Systems barrel to complete the package. It has everything that you need and nothing extra. On the range it functions flawlessly and produces some of the tightest, most even patterns I’ve ever seen. I think this might be the ultimate tactical shotgun.
The shotgun I keep at home and the one that’s in my unmarked squad car is a Remington 870 modified by master gunsmith Hans Vang, founder of Vang Comp. Systems in AZ. Vang has distinguished his work in the industry. He offers the Vang Comp System, which is a set of modifications to shotgun barrels. The alterations consist of lengthening the forcing cone, back-boring the barrel and adding compensating ports. This System improves accuracy, felt recoil is reduced by 15 percent and muzzle rise diminishes.
The resulting patterns are the best I’ve ever seen. The issue with tactical shotguns is not how wide we can make the pattern, but how well we can get the pellets to hold together. A typical cylinder-bore 12 gauge, loaded with standard buckshot, is a 25-yard weapon. Beyond that range, the spread of the pellets and the probability of some of them impacting unintended targets becomes a liability.
With my Vang Comp System and high-quality loads, I’ve patterned 10-inch groups at 35-yards. This is a huge increase in performance and a major decrease in liability. They also offers some of the best accessories I know of. His one-piece magazine extension, jumbo safety head, shell follower and ghost-ring sights are all extremely well thought out and practical.
They offer a unique Shotgun Standoff Breaching Device. This is a magazine extension with a standoff device built into the end of the tube. Another find is their Picatinny rail mounted on the receiver in front of the ghost-ring sight. It’s a perfect combination for mounting optical sights.
The D.E.A. must agree. They are now the suppler for D.E.A. shotguns world-wide. As we all know, the D.E.A. is the tip of the spear when it comes to drug enforcement. These guys go head-to-head with some of the worst modern-day outlaws.
So, just what modifications do you need? That depends on your mission requirements. A patrol officer, a special operations commando and a homeowner all have very different needs. Team members often carry a breaching shotgun in addition to their primary weapon. A patrol officer or homeowner might not have the same concerns about weight.
If I could have only one thing done to a standard shotgun, it would be the addition of quality ghost-ring sights. As a young officer, trying to qualify at 50 yards with slugs and a bead sight, I was happy if I kept my five rounds on the target. Today, with good ghost-ring sights and proper ammunition, 100-yard head shots are attainable.
The second most important addition is a quality sling. A situation de-escalates, being able to sling your weapon not only allows you to maintain a “disciplined appearance,” it also allows you to get back into action quickly if necessary.
The biggest drawback to a tactical shotgun is its limited magazine capacity. That’s why a one-piece magazine extension would also be high on my list of modifications. I stress a one-piece unit because I’ve seen many of the two-piece units separate under recoil.
Criminals love the hours of darkness. Even in daylight, many of the places that they ply their trade are poorly lit. Because you have to positively identify your target, a light becomes a requirement. It is extremely difficult to manage a shotgun and a hand-held light. The best solution is therefore a gun-mounted light.
The arrangement that I’ve found to work the best is the SureFire Dedicated Forend Light. My model 618FA came with a pressure-sensitive activation pad for momentary light use, and a constant on/off switch. The P60 lamp assembly is standard, providing 65 lumens of light for one hour. The P61 ultra-high output lamp assembly can also be use, giving 120 lumens for 20 minutes.
The versatility of the 12 gauge is in large part due to the variety of ammunition choices for it. You can choose from several sizes of buckshot, various styles of slugs and specialty ammo ranging from less-lethal to breaching rounds.
The goal is to transfer energy from the projectile(s) to the target. This is where your choice of ammunition becomes critical. Buckshot is useless against a 100-yard target, but properly employed, a slug would do the trick. Likewise, a slug at across-the-room distances would pose over-penetration problems with related liability issues.
The average 12 gauge, with average buckshot is limited to 15 to 20 yards before it starts throwing pellets past the intended target. However, with proper loads, this average gun can be effectively used out to 20 or 25 yards.
I’ve become extremely impressed with Federal’s Tactical Buckshot with Flitecontrol wads. It’s the tightest-patterning buckshot I’ve ever used. Likewise Federal’s Tactical Truball Rifled Slug is capable of outstanding accuracy. Compare them side-by-side with what you’re shooting now. I think you will be pleased.
Another way to improve effectiveness with buckshot is to use a tighter choke. While a tighter choke will give you a tighter pattern, too much choke can be detrimental.
Train and Know Your Equipment
While there are a number of excellent facilities that offer shotgun training, one of the first and one of the best is Gunsite. Jeff Cooper standardized the concept of zones of fire for the combat shotgun and made the use of ghost-ring sights commonplace.
There are three zones to consider when employing the tactical shotgun. These distances will vary slightly based on the specific gun and loads used. They are:
A Zone: From 0 to about 7 yards. The pellets are so closely packed that they act like a single projectile. You shoot like you would with a rifle or a shotgun with slugs.
B Zone: From 7 to about 25 yards. The pattern has spread out to a workable size. Our goal is to keep all the pellets on target.
C Zone: From 25 to around 100 yards. When not all of our pellets can be accounted for. This is the point where we should be switching to slugs.
The C Zone ends when you can no longer reliably keep all your slugs on target. This may be 50 yards for some combinations of weapon, ammunition and shooter. It can also extend past 100 to almost 125 yards for others.
Proper gun handling is our next area of concern. Well-known trainer John Farnam makes a distinction between “administrative” and “tactical” gun handling. In either case he stresses the critical importance of maintaining control of the muzzle and making sure that your finger is off the trigger. Here John teaches the value of using the higher positioning of the trigger finger, called “register.”
John also notes the four proper conditions for the shotgun. The first is “clear,” with no ammunition in the weapon. The second is “loader safe,” in which the magazine is loaded, the chamber is empty, the hammer is forward and manual safety is off. This is the proper condition for a shotgun locked in a patrol car. When the action is cycled and the weapon brought up on target, it is now considered “armed,” our third condition. At this point our fourth condition, “armed/safe” can be obtained by simply moving the manual safety to the “on” position.
You must consider high profile versus low profile carry, options for sling carry of the shotgun and be comfortable with a variety of muzzle-up and muzzle-down positions. It’s critical to be able to smoothly transition from one to the other. Being able to rapidly go from any given carry position to successful engagement of the target is a skill that must be learned and practiced regularly.
With the right gun, loaded with the proper ammunition, a properly trained operator can do things with a tactical shotgun that our forefathers never dreamed.
A Sling Built For Combat
There’s a bonanza of slings on the market. You have your choice of single-point, traditional (two-point), three-point, and even four-point slings to choose from, and you can choose from any number of vendors. For the combat shotgun, the traditional two-point and three-point slings probably make the most sense, with the three-point unit probably having the edge in popularity. As for vendors, there are a number of good, reliable manufacturers out there, but one company makes the slings at the top of the market: Wilderness Tactical products. And that firm makes the original three-point sling: the Giles Sling, named after Giles Stock, the long-time Gunsite staffer and retired big-city cop.
Actually, the 1-inch cotton sling that comes with the HK MP5 was the original three-point sling, but in the ’80s Giles wanted to adapt its functionality to other guns, starting with his signature rifle, the Steyr AUG (it’s now available for most common weapon systems.) He improved on the HK sling by making it wider to support the increased weight, securing the tails, adding a stop so that the sling didn’t compress tight to the operator, and adding a fast-release mechanism. As a result of partnering with Wilderness Tactical, the very best webbing and Delrin hardware are used in the sling’s manufacture.
Actually, “manufacture” is the wrong word. Each Giles sling is made one-at-a-time, specifically to order and to the exact dimensions of the user’s gun. When you call to order one, have your gun in front of you and have a sewing tape measure handy. You’ll also want to get the exact sling adaptor(s) for your gun.
There’s good and there’s best; with the Giles sling, you’re getting the best.
Today’s Best Loads for the Combat Shotgun
If people don’t know what to look for, they can easily be overwhelmed by the plethora of choices when it comes to shotgun shells. Even narrowing it down to just buckshot and slugs doesn’t really help. The question becomes, “Is there really a difference?” I believe that the answer is “Yes, a big difference!”
Over the years I’ve patterned more buckshot and shot groups with more slugs than I care to remember. (Just ask my bruised and battered shoulder!) The result is a very strong opinion as to what are the best loads.
In the buckshot category, keeping the pattern together, longer, is the goal. No round on the market today does that better than Federal Premium’s Tactical Buckshot. Featuring copper-plated and buffered shot to reduce pellet deformation, these shells are also home to Federal’s latest revolution, the Flitecontrol wad. This combination results in the tightest, most dependable pattern available today.
Federal Premium Tactical Buckshot comes in reduced-recoil loads with eight or nine pellets of 00 buckshot. However, for my money, the full-power, nine-pellet, 00 buck load is the way to go. I’ve gotten 10-inch patterns at 35 yards with this load in my Hans Vang custom 870!
When talking about slugs, Federal’s Truball Rifled Slug is hard to beat. This load truly offers an amazing improvement in accuracy for the 12-gauge shotgun. The unique Truball centers the slug in the barrel, adding stability.
Federal’s catalog speaks of 2-inch groups at 50 yards. With a good gun and proper sights, I’ve gotten groups almost that small at 100 yards! These awesome slugs are offered in standard 2 3/4 inch and reduced-recoil loads.
If there are any other loads out there that even come close to this kind of performance, I haven’t found them.
Top-Notch Shotgun Training
Over the past 30 years I’ve had the opportunity to train with many of our nation’s top firearms instructors. There are basically two approaches to training today. Some trainers travel around the country teaching at various locations. Others have a facility where students go to receive their training. In this second category, the best school I’ve attended has been Gunsite, Inc. Originally founded by LTC Jeff Cooper, USMC‑Retired, in 1976 as the American Pistol Institute, Gunsite is located in Paulden, Arizona, about 20 miles north of Prescott.
Gunsite’s “260-Defensive Shotgun” course is a five-day program that will give you command of the combat shotgun. Covered are: marksmanship, gun handling, ammunition selection, malfunction clearing, transition to the handgun and much more. Students learn proper manipulation of the shotgun as well as effective engagement of targets out to 120 yards.
The shotgun’s flexibility allows it to be used as a breaching tool and gas delivery system in addition to its more conventional roles. Special training is a must to make the most out of this powerful weapon. Students are also run through both indoor and outdoor simulators during the week-long course. (It wouldn’t be Gunsite without the shoot houses!)
Gunsite also offers their “SATP-Shotgun Advanced Tactical Problems” course. Billed as a “finishing school” for the shotgunner, this three-day program deals with complex tactical problems. More time is spent in the simulators and force-on-force scenarios are added.
Training at Gunsite is always a great experience. Whether you are new to shotgunning or just need to polish up your skills, attending Gunsite’s shotgun training programs is time well spent.
For almost 30 years I’ve had a tactical shotgun as part of my daily…
by Rob Garrett / Sep 1, 2007