STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY OLEG VOLKShotguns are a perennial home defense favorite. They are generally inexpensive, very common and perceived as being simple to operate. Nearly every gun-owning household has at least one smoothbore. But, since research and anecdotal evidence point towards the relative ineffectiveness of birdshot against large intruders, buckshot is typically used to deliver multiple simultaneous impacts while adding some margin for aiming error.
Buckshot, from .35 caliber 000 to .24 caliber No. 4, works fairly well on opponents up close and in the open, but doesn’t penetrate cover well. For people who want the ability to get through furniture, walls or auto glass, slugs provide another option. The same applies to rural residents who worry less about overpenetration but may have to ﬁre in self-defense at longer ranges where buckshot spreads too much, and individual pellets lack adequate penetration.
Large-bore smoothbores and riﬂes have long been the ﬁrst choice of dangerous game hunters. A typical musket was around .70 caliber, and black powder riﬂes varied from .70 to .45, with long conical bullets providing necessary penetration on ornery creatures like Cape buffalo or grizzly. Jacketed bullets developed by the 1890s and monolithic solids introduced in the second half of the 20th century continued this trend.
While traditional big game hunting riﬂes and ammunition have always been extremely expensive, North Americans and Russians, two populations with relatively widespread shotgun ownership in areas with dangerous ursine neighbors, developed a number of shotgun slug loads also optimized for penetration and massive stopping power. Century-old Brenneke hardcast lead slugs and the more recent Latvian steel Monolith load both offer accuracy and straight-line punch to put down a wild boar or a bear. For the same reason – great penetration – slugs aren’t favored for home defense use. Nobody wants to overpenetrate while hitting an intruder and endanger family members or neighbors behind the actual foe.
SLUGS COME IN SEVERAL GENERAL TYPES: penetrative, expanding, fragmenting and frangible. Penetrative designs are generally excessively energetic for human foes: they are likely to make a .70-caliber hole and keep on whistling past, with all that power wasted on perforating the landscape or, worse, some innocent positioned behind the attacker.
Frangibles are designed to break up against solid backstops during training. D Dupleks Caviar 26L frangible, a plastic slug with embedded steel BBs, breaks up on ﬂesh with about 8 inches of penetration and nearly 5-inch spread. That’s considered a bit shallow for reliable stopping, but not shabby. By contrast, the Remington Disintegrator round acts as a nonexpanding penetrator on ﬂesh and only breaks up against hard surfaces, like steel range backstops.
Expanding slugs are large-bore variations on hollow point pistol bullets. With much more energy and mass, and fewer constraints on the initial shape, they can be quite effective. For example, the new Team Never Quit 375-grain copper slug sits in front of a 90-grain plastic base. The slug is slightly subcaliber, so it can be ﬁred through any choke. The plastic base acts as a gas check, but also as a drive band when used in riﬂed barrels or as a drag stabilizer when ﬁred from smoothbores.
With a full weight of just over an ounce and muzzle velocity of 1,200 feet per second, it has mild recoil. Spread was about 3 inches at 25 yards when ﬁred through an Armagon G12 cylinder bore barrel, and 1 inch when used with a riﬂed choke. The same slug grouped 2 inches at 25 yards from a Benelli M3.
SMOOTHBORE ACCURACY DEPENDS ON MANY FACTORS, including the concentricity and evenness of the bore, the amount of ﬂex on ﬁring and many others, so it is difficult to predict accuracy without testing individual ﬁrearms. Molot Vepr 12 and Fostech Origin 12, for example, are extremely accurate even in smoothbore versions, as are most Remington 870s. Similarly, nominal velocities listed here can vary by 10 to 15 percent based on the barrel length, choke and chamber used.
In testing, the Team Never Quit slug delivered textbook perfect results, with about 12 inches of penetration through four layers of denim, and reliable 1½-inch expansion. Fired into bare gelatin, it penetrated 16 inches and had just enough energy left to penetrate halfway into standard residential drywall. While high-energy numbers make for easy marketing, this load minimizes overpenetration and reduces follow-up time, both of much value in home defense. This slug was designed for use in smoothbore defensive shotguns at ranges under 50 yards. With riﬂed barrels or with riﬂed chokes, it can be used for deer-sized game out to about 100 yards.
OATH Ammunition recently introduced the Tango expanding slug, a 600-grain, 1,200 fps copper projectile available in traditional plastic or in a machined aluminum case. I was only able to obtain one unﬁred shell, and unﬁred and expanded slugs for photos, so I can’t comment on accuracy or recoil. I would, however, expect the sheer weight of the slug to produce a noticeable push on the shooter.
The wasp-waisted projectile uses two rubber rings for obturation. The slug expands to an impressive 2.6 inches, with a ring instead of a solid base to reduce resistance. In gel, it penetrated 12 inches and then bounced back to 7-inch position from the resistance of the media. That’s consistent with how OATH pistol ammunition works, being designed for a penetration depth of 7 inches. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, the company is in Chapter 11, so the future of this load is uncertain.
D Dupleks makes two loads that combine fragmenting and expanding features, a 1.25-ounce Hexolit and a 1-ounce Dupo. Both are made of mild steel and have six preformed petals attached to a cylindrical base, then encased into plastic. The plastic provides obturation and improves aerodynamics. Both loads are very accurate from smooth or riﬂed barrels. Hexolit always expands to 1.5 inches and then produces six sharp 24-grain fragments penetrating about 12 inches with equally wide spread, and a base penetrating about 20 inches.
Destructive effect on gel was greater than from a .308 Win soft point, and approaching that of .338 Lapua Magnum soft point. At longer ranges, Hexolit acts as a large hollow point, penetrating up to 20 inches! The lighter Dupo acts similarly at close range or in case of bone impact, but stays together as a 1.2-inch expanded hollow point in soft tissue at longer ranges. As a hollow point, it penetrates about 18 inches.
With the initial velocities in the 1,400 to 1,460 fps range, these rounds have more felt recoil than Team Never Quit but also a longer useful range. They were originally developed as medium and large game hunting loads, so they are accurate out to about 65 yards from smoothbores and past 100 with spin stabilization. Because of the highly penetrative base, however, both have the potential to hit bystanders beyond the target.
All of these expanding loads are lead-free, which is helpful for indoor use. D Dupleks and OATH slugs, in particular, gain an efficiency from having relatively hard materials shaped with sharp edges facing forward to cut tissue.
FRAGMENTING BULLETS have a poor reputation among handgun users, primarily because of insufficient penetration. With shotguns, each fragment has the weight similar to a complete pistol bullet and higher velocity, so they are rather more effective. Both Winchester and Rio loads proved very accurate, with groups around 1 inch at 25 yards from smoothbores. Both stayed together well through such obstacles as car doors and laminated glass.
Winchester PDX1 is a 1-ounce load starting at 1,600 fps, and the high velocity makes ﬁring one a bit exciting. When I ﬁred it from a Vepr 12, a semiauto shotgun with some drop to the stock, the muzzle rise knocked my safety glasses off. It was much more comfortable ﬁred from MKA1919 and Origin 12, since both are semiautos with straight-line stocks. The same high velocity makes it very effective on target. The slug breaks into three 145-grain fragments, each sufficient to go through 18 inches of gel with considerable cavitation around. The fragments dispersed about 6 inches by the end of their travel, pretty much destroying the 10-inch by 10inch by 20-inch block. If you can handle the recoil, this is a very effective round.
The Rio Royal Expanding Fragmentary slug – there’s a nice mouthful of branding – also weighs at 1 ounce but comes out slower, at 1440 fps. Breaking up into four 45-grain petals and a base, it produces 7-inch penetration with 7-inch dispersion – meaning an approximately 22-degree cone of fragments. The base, about 60 percent of the whole and smaller than the bore diameter, keeps on going 18 inches or so. This load combines reasonable recoil and terminal performance with excellent accuracy and budget price. At $1.40 per shot, it’s the least expensive of the specialty loads.
While most of these slugs can be used from a riﬂe bore, they are accurate enough at typical self-defense ranges to make it unnecessary. Riﬂing would make the shotgun less versatile by dispersing shot patterns into donuts, and so should probably be reserved for hunting use. With fragmenting projectiles, the spin would also cause slightly wider dispersion of petals.
The last round to consider is the American hunting stand-by, the Foster “riﬂed” slug. With the ribs on the outside designed to pass safely through chokes, these projectiles are unsuitable for actual riﬂed bores. They stabilize by having most of the balance forward, and are hollow based. Remington Slugger, the most widely available (and cheapest at around $1 each) Foster slug, is thimble-shaped. On impact, at least up close where the 1,550 fps muzzle velocity is retained, it acts as a frangible despite its intended use as a solid.
Further out, at ranges more typical of deer hunting, the slug holds together better. At room distance, Slugger turns into a cloud of small lead chunks extending about 9 inches deep and nearly 6 inches wide. The smaller 20-gauge Slugger does the same, but to 7.5 inches and 5 inches of width. This is less depth than is recommended by the FBI testing protocol, but probably noticeable to the hostile recipient.
ALL MODERN EXPANDING LOADS are generally adequate for selfdefense. Except for D Dupleks Caviar, none of them would safely break up on typical residential walls in case of a miss. Caviar won’t stop for drywall, but tends to break up enough on wooden studs to pose reduced danger downrange. Given the massive variability of shotguns, be sure to test your selected load for functioning: I’ve seen Mossberg 930 autoloader run with plastic riot-control birdshot, and have also seen pump shotguns choke on standard slug or buck loads. Given the precision with which slugs should be applied for best effect, I would also recommend adjustable riﬂe sights or a red dot zeroed to your favorite load. ASJ