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The Police Shotgun: Versatile, Powerful & Still “The Great Intimidator”

By Bill Campbell

From The Police Marksman magazine

A decade has passed since events at North Hollywood, California’s Bank of America shocked the nation. Two heavily-armed and armored gunmen brazenly walked into the bank, robbed it and held officers of the Los Angeles Police Department in a deadly gunfight for nearly an hour. This particular incident has been viewed as one of the turning points for the police firearms culture.

Because of these events, law enforcement was forced to recognize that first-responding officers must have the ability to protect themselves and their community better in mid-range gunfights, bringing about the patrol rifle trend. Some officers were given the authority to purchase personal rifles and others were armed with used rifles from the military’s surplus. In some instances, local government treasuries were opened and money that never seemed available before suddenly appeared in order to arm first responders across the nation with rifles.

Those of us who were arguing for the use of rifles long before the North Hollywood incident were asked to create training programs, select rifles and arm our officers appropriately, in hopes that a scene resembling North Hollywood would not happen again. In the 10 years that have passed, the trend has successfully swept the nation, resulting in the patrol rifle becoming the primary long gun of the first responder.

However, this article is not about the patrol rifle; its success speaks for itself. Rather it’s about the shotgun–the weapon that the rifle seems to have replaced. When we recognized the need for rifles and armed ourselves appropriately, how many officers no longer concerned themselves with the bulky and seemingly archaic shotgun? How many sheriffs and chiefs bought into the concept of patrol rifles and pulled the shotguns altogether? How many shotguns are gathering dust in the corner of departmental armories? What is the role of the police shotgun now that we have rifles?

Let’s make this clear: the rifle was never intended to replace the shotgun. Rather, it was meant to fill a specific purpose in mid-range gunfights. Law enforcement’s need for the shotgun is alive and well. I want to offer ideas as to how, where and when you and your agency might still use it. The police shotgun has been loved by cops for years. When I started my law enforcement career in 1985, the shotgun was introduced to me as “the great intimidator.” There was nothing quite like the sound of the shotgun being racked. That sound gave comfort to officers and filled suspects with a quick dose of reality. That sound meant one thing… “The cops are here and they are not kidding!”

The shotgun was my best friend in the patrol car for many years, and when the rifle joined us, I found myself taking a deeper look at when I needed the rifle versus when my shotgun would be more appropriate. What I’ve learned from my own experience and from others is that the shotgun is absolutely the most versatile firearm I have available. While it may not be my first choice at all high-risk calls, it can certainly fill many roles. Let’s start by taking a look at a few uses of the shotgun.

Close Quarter Battle (CQB)

The traditional “meat and potatoes” of the shotgun has always been its devastating role in close quarters battle. Loaded with heavy buckshot, the shotgun places multiple high-energy projectiles on the target instantly. Several years ago, I was having a conversation with another SWAT operator about how devastating the MP-5 submachine-gun was. He was discussing cyclic rate and accuracy and boasting the sheer power coming from the sub-gun. He described how he could put 60 rounds (with a mag. reload) of 9mm ammo into a target about five yards away in less than eight seconds. While I agreed with him, I mentioned the similarity of the Benelli shotgun that I was currently carrying. He was puzzled for a moment until I pointed out that my semi-auto Benelli M-1 could hold nine rounds of .00 Buckshot ammo, and that each pellet of buckshot was approximately a .33 caliber lead projectile moving over 1,000 feet per second (slightly smaller, but similar to the 9mm or .35 caliber projectile he was firing).

I then explained that I knew several officers (including me) who could fire that Benelli fast enough to empty all nine rounds into the target in about two seconds. That meant we could fire 81 rounds of near 9mm ammunition in less than three seconds. In a comparison of fire power and speed, that shotgun was faster than any sub-gun I had ever used or knew of. My point is that in a CQB range, the shotgun (loaded with heavy buckshot) is absolutely the most devastating firearm in the police inventory.

The argument against using buckshot has always been that as range increases, the pattern becomes larger and therefore misses may occur. While I agree, I also recognize that there are circumstances where the ranges will certainly be close, such as during building clearings or raids into small confined structures. At close range, the shotgun delivers the most bang for the buck and should not be overlooked as an option. Not long ago, I was assigned on the entry portion of our SWAT team during a high-risk entry. The default weapon assigned to the entry team is usually an M-4 or an MP-5. Regardless, I always choose to take the Benelli instead. A few of the younger SWAT officers noticed this and asked about it. I explained that I would always choose the shotgun when going into very close quarters. It may not be as sexy as the sub-guns, but it certainly does the job and is my first choice in very close quarters.

Less-Lethal Delivery

While the technology for the delivery of stun bags took a few years to become accurate, the shotgun has always been a consistent delivery system. Some agencies mark the shotguns with paint to specifically designate them so that the less lethal delivery system isn’t confused with a shotgun carrying deadly force munitions. Consequently, many agencies have turned their entire shotgun inventory into less lethal weapons. Although I’m a big proponent of less lethal shotguns, agencies that use the shotgun solely for this purpose without keeping some of these weapons set aside for other uses are cheating themselves of its versatility.

One of the primary principles of delivering less lethal munitions is that the officer delivering the stun-bag, should never be left without a lethal cover officer. The reason for this is simple: if the suspect suddenly attacks the officer, he will be left unable to protect himself in a deadly force situation. So why not equip the lethal cover officer with a shotgun loaded with buckshot? At the ranges that the less lethal munition will likely be fired, the buckshot will be devastating and the pattern controllable.

“Patrol Rifle”

Here’s one we sometimes forget. We generally consider a patrol rifle to be a firearm that fires a rifle cartridge in .223 like an AR-15 or Mini-14. The truth is, any firearm that can deliver a single accurate deadly force projectile over the mid-range, which will likely hit a man-sized target out to about 100-150 yards or a suspect’s head out to 50 yards, is filling the role of a patrol rifle. Some agencies fill this role with pistol caliber carbines such as an MP-5 or a Beretta Storm.

While a pistol carbine does not have all the capabilities of it’s rifle counterpart, it still fills the role in a pinch. The same can be said for a shotgun loaded with rifled slugs. A 12 gauge, 1 oz. slug is very accurate out into the CQB ranges and into the mid-range up to 100 yards.

While rifle sights are preferred for firing slugs, I have found that 50 yard hits are realistic, even with a simple bead sight. So while I believe that patrol rifles are the primary desired firearm in a mid-range gunfight, if an officer finds himself with only a shotgun, a simple reload selection from buckshot to slugs can turn his scattergun into a “patrol rifle.” In my agency, the default load in the shotgun is .00 buckshot, with four slugs loaded on the sidesaddle storage tray. If the officer finds himself with the potential for a mid-range gunfight, he is trained in the option of select loading a slug into the shotgun, using the appropriate deadly force at greater ranges.

Gas Delivery

While not generally used by first responders, many tactical teams have used shotguns for delivering chemical munitions into confined places for years. Today, there are multiple types of shotgun loads which can deliver OC, CS or a mix of the two into soft or hardened structures. These projectiles can be fired with extreme accuracy out into the mid-range, through the walls or glass of a structure or vehicle, making the suspect’s environment unbearable. Without immediately injuring the suspect, these chemicals can persuade the suspects to surrender or remove them from hiding places.


Many tactical teams have found that a simple modification to the muzzle of the shotgun and the use of frangible “avon” rounds makes a safe and quick breaching tool that is lightweight, fast and effective in defeating locks and hardened doors. The modification is a muzzle standoff which is mounted to the barrel. This standoff has claw-like teeth used to bite into door jams. Holes in the side of the standoff allow for the venting of the muzzle blast in a safe manner. While some agencies may not have this need on their tactical team, the premise of an “avon gun” shows that the shotgun’s versatility is limited only to the load and the training of the operator.

The Practical Role of the Shotgun on a Typical High-Risk Scene

Scenario: Your agency is responding to a barricaded suspect call with possible hostages in the house. The suspect might be suicidal or homicidal, however, that hasn’t been established yet. Your initial patrol force has responded and a sergeant is taking command from the first responding officers. As the first incident commander, the sergeant has to deal with three immediate concerns:

1. He has to have a force ready to enter and rescue the hostages, and stop the suspect if he becomes an active shooter.

2. He has to have a force ready to take the suspect into custody if he surrenders (arrest team).

3. He has to be able to contain the suspect if he exits the house to prevent him from escaping and or endangering other citizens.

If you were that patrol sergeant and you had a smattering of first responders, how would you place your officers and firearms so that you could have the safest outcome for everyone involved? If you had shotgun armed officers, where would you place them? Here are some suggestions:

If you have patrol rifles on scene, use them on the perimeter. Rifles are made to cover distance with accuracy, so place them on the corners of the house ready to protect the arrest team, prevent the suspects’ escape and ready to defend the perimeter in general. This is the natural strength of the rifle. If you don’t have rifles or if one is not available, have a shotgun officer reload with slugs to create a “patrol rifle” until the traditional rifle arrives.

The immediate action team or arrest team should be made up of about four officers. Their role is similar to that of a rapid-response team in an active shooter scenario, with two primary roles: If the suspect exits the house to surrender, they should be ready to cover and contact him, and take him into custody. If the suspect becomes an active shooter, they may have to move directly into the fight to stop him and protect innocent life.

Both of these roles require close-quarter contact to the suspect. Therefore, in my opinion, this is where the shotgun (loaded with buckshot) is most desirable. Regardless of these two possibilities, the shotgun-equipped officer is better prepared for CQB than with a handgun or rifle. If the officers have a ballistic shield available, you can equip your point man with the shield and the shotgun(s) can take close positions on either side, ready to defend the team in their sectors.

Now, lets throw in a little bit of murphy’s law . . . the suspect comes out with the pistol to his own head or maybe a samurai sword, but no hostage. He might be on drugs or talking about suicide, but he is not attacking or trying to reenter the house. If you have a less lethal team ready, they can follow the arrest team to contact the suspect. The arrest team might have to begin point negotiations and the less lethal team will maintain cover until they have an opportunity to deliver the stun bags in a safe manner, while being covered by the lethal shotguns on the arrest team and the rifleman on the perimeter.

Let’s say the suspect doesn’t do anything, he stays inside and doesn’t respond. You know that it would be very dangerous to forcibly enter the house with your patrol response, so you activate the department’s tactical unit. Now, you change roles to tactical sergeant. You have already used shotguns on the arrest team, how might you use them in equipping your tactical team?

Perhaps you have a designated less lethal element on your tactical team using a less lethal shotgun. Perhaps your breacher is equipped with an “avon” shotgun for breaching locks and doors. Perhaps your chemical munitions officer is equipped with munitions which will be deployed from a shotgun. Perhaps your entry team is equipped with shortened shotguns loaded with buckshot ready for the hostage rescue, should it become necessary.

My point is that the versatility of the 12 gauge shotgun, whether in pump action or semi-auto is obvious, and can fill multiple roles for the first responder or the tactical operator.

If you aren’t quite sure how all these roles work or would like to know more about them, let me recommend the NRA Law Enforcement Tactical Shotgun Instructors Course. The good folks at NRA Law Enforcement Activities Division (LEAD) have always been at the forefront of the patrol rifle trend and recognize that the shotgun’s role has changed. This week-long firearms instructor course was designed from the ground up, to address the versatility of the shotgun, stressing its multiple applications and including a less lethal instructor certification as part of the course. Understanding the versatility of the shotgun is only the first step in using it to its full potential, so this course will also develop the instructor’s ability in operating and teaching the shotgun systems.

In summary, the shotgun is the most versatile and possibly the most underused firearm in our inventory. The unfortunate incident played out in North Hollywood taught us that we had a tactical need which persuaded agencies across the nation to respond with the purchase of the proper equipment and training to meet that need. My fear is that in putting our focus on this new need for rifles, we have overlooked the versatility and firepower we had all along in the shotgun. The shotgun can and will fill a great number of roles if we only take the time to train and equip it properly. I hope that in reading this, you have a new respect for the “the great intimidator” or at least recognize a place it might fill in your police response to high risk calls.

Contact National Rifle Association
Law Enforcement Activities Division
11250 Waples Mill Road • Fairfax, VA 22030
Phone (703) 267-1640 •

About the Author
Bill Campbell is a veteran tactical officer and firearms instructor with the Gilbert, Arizona Police Department. Bill teaches instructor development courses for the National Rifle Association’s Law Enforcement Activities Division and is a member of The Police Marksman’s National Advisory Board. You may contact him at:

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