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Shotguns for the 21st Century warrior

Part One: For more than 50 years, the shotgun was the predominant shoulder weapon for the American law enforcement officer

Recently, I spent a few hours watching the John Carpenter cult classic, “Escape from New York.” Throughout the movie, friend and foe alike react to their initial meeting with anti-hero Kurt Russell by stating, “Snake Plissken... I thought you were dead!” Ironically, many people have a similar gut reaction when the subject of the police shotgun comes into play.

For more than 50 years, the shotgun was the predominant shoulder weapon for the American law enforcement officer. Over the last decade, the paradigm has shifted and rifles have moved into the forefront. Today, many agencies have bought into the concept of the patrol rifle, and the role of the shotgun is in flux. Some departments have abandoned the shotgun altogether or use it solely for less lethal applications. A more balanced approach is integrating rifles and shotguns into the law enforcement mix.

A number of naysayers have proclaimed that the shotgun is a relic of the past and has become obsolete. The term ‘obsolete’ implies no longer used or outdated. Considering the many attributes the shotgun brings to the table, I couldn’t disagree more.

Issues for Consideration
There are, however, a number of issues that need to be addressed in order to make the most of this versatile weapon system. Some are very real obstacles, but even they can be overcome with a little attention to proper equipment and a comprehensive training program. Others, such as modest ammunition capacity and limited range, are only perceived shortcomings and really aren’t much of an issue when you factor in the reality of the street.

Without question, the biggest hurdle to clear in training with the shotgun is recoil. Until we repeal Newton’s Third Law, the shotgun is going to generate significantly more rearward thrust than a carbine chambered for the 5.56mm or a pistol round. However, by using reduced recoil buckshot or slug loads, felt recoil can be brought into check and the shotgun can be easily managed. These improved offerings kick only slightly more than light target loads, yet terminal performance is not degraded in any way.

The effects of recoil are exacerbated by poor stock fit. Most off-the-rack shotguns feature a buttstock with a 13-7/8 – 14 inch length of pull. Soft body armor and winter jackets make it very difficult for even a good size officer to snap into a proper stance and mount with too long a stock. For small stature officers, long stocks equate to the proverbial train wreck and performance suffers in every way. My personal shotguns are equipped with 13 inch L.O.P. buttstocks, which enable me to get a proper mount and cheek weld.

For smaller stature officers, consider retrofitting their shotguns with a “youth stock” featuring a much reduced length of pull. Another consideration is an M4 style collapsible stock with an adjustable length of pull. These stocks are offered by AGI, BLACHAWK! and Mesa Tactical and include models with integral recoil reducers.

Better Guns and Ammunition
Years ago, the only criteria that differentiated the bird hunter’s shotgun from that of the law enforcement officer, was barrel length. That has all changed and firms such as Benelli, FNH-USA, Mossberg, and Remington are turning out designs dedicated to the law enforcement mission. Factory guns are available with desirable features such as ghost ring sights, Picatinny rails, extended magazine tubes, pistol grip stocks, and short 14 inch barrels. Accessories such as tactical slings, shell carriers, and weapon mounted lights can turn that plain vanilla smoothbore into a first class fighting system.

Pump-action shotguns still rule the roost, but semi-autos are commanding more attention. Autoloaders are easier to shoot while moving or from non-typical positions. Some semi-auto shotguns also transmit less felt recoil to the shoulder.

Buckshot remains the most commonly utilized police shotgun ammunition. The typical round of 2-3/4 inch 12 gauge buckshot contains 9 pellets approximately .32 caliber in diameter. Today, all of the major manufacturers are turning out reduced recoil or tactical loads optimized for law enforcement. I’m particularly fond of Federal’s LE 132 00 load with the Flite Control wad. This offering prints hand-size patterns out to 20 yards and felt recoil is considerably less than garden variety buckshot loads used for hunting.

Many agencies have replaced their traditional pumps with semi-auto shotguns and while this is all well and good, a word of caution is in order. Pumps are omnivorous and will digest everything from light, less lethal rounds up to magnum buck and slug loads. On the other hand, autoloading shotguns can prove finicky, particularly if they aren’t properly maintained or, if accessories such as sidesaddles or lights have been added. Fortunately, rounds such as Hornady TAP Light Magnum have been developed that will ensure reliability, yet throw tight, even patterns throughout practical range.

Rifled slugs give the shotgun even greater potential and come highly recommended. A shotgun loaded with slugs has limited rifle capability and can be used to engage a threat well beyond practical handgun or buckshot distance. Slugs can also defeat light barriers such as automobile doors or windshield glass.

Shotguns Still Rock
Many law enforcement officers view shotgun training in the same light as an IRS audit or root canal surgery. That is indeed unfortunate because they will never be comfortable with one of the better tools in the police armory. I, for one, am not ready to give up on it and after one considers the shotguns tributes, it is easy to see why it will still be with us into the foreseeable future.

In close quarters, the shotgun remains the undisputed heavyweight champ. Simultaneously introducing nine pellets of 00 buck or a .73 caliber solid projectile into the chest of an assailant typically brings hostilities to a screeching halt. Within its practical range, there isn’t anything else in the police armory that exceeds the knockout punch of the police shotgun. Up close and personal, it remains the ultimate power tool. Limited magazine capacity will seldom be an issue.

In the hands of a trained officer, first shot hit potential exceeds that of the handgun. This is especially true when subjected to life threatening stress. In a confrontation with multiple assailants, the shotgun can also provide the edge needed in order to prevail. I can also report from personal experience that racking a round into the chamber of a shotgun can create a strong psychological impact on individuals who might otherwise be inclined to offer violent resistance.

Much has been made of the fact that shotguns might not be the best tool for dealing with heavily armed subjects wearing body armor or against domestic terrorists with rifles. I couldn’t agree more. But, just as you wouldn’t play a round of golf with a single club, I would submit the rifle is a better tool for the above listed scenario. On the other hand, shotguns can still effectively manage the most common threats requiring an armed response.

In our next installment, we will examine some proven techniques that can turn shotgun training from a negative to a positive experience and help officers achieve a level of confidence. In a confrontation, chance favors the prepared combatant.

Captain Mike Boyle served 27 years with the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife, Bureau of Law Enforcement. Mike was responsible for all aspects of pre-service and in-service training and also supervised the internal affairs section of his agency. Mike has also been an assistant police academy director and continues to participate in both recruit and instructor level training. He is a certified instructor in multiple uses of force disciplines including handgun, shotgun, rifle, SMG, impact weapons and unarmed self-defense.

Contact Mike Boyle