The Riot Gun

Door breaching Remington 870 shotgun


What is a riot gun? It is a 12 gauge pump-action shotgun with an open cylinder choke and 18-inch barrel. It just may be the best all-around personal defense firearm in the world. The short barrel and typical high magazine capacity—compared to sporting shotguns—gives the riot gun an edge in personal defense.

Door breaching Remington 870 shotgun
This is a door breaching Remington 870 shotgun.

The riot shotgun and the combat shotgun are really one and the same with the difference purely conversational. The riot gun is compact enough for any foreseeable need. The 18-inch barrel shotgun handles quickly and swings from one target to the other rapidly in trained hands. The open cylinder choke gives us a wide pattern compared to a sporting shotgun.

The pattern is sufficient for typical shotgun chores at ranges of 5 to 20 yards. The short barrel makes handling inside the home easier than managing a full-length shotgun, easier to keep at ready in a vehicle, and easily and securely mounted inside a police cruiser. You may even mount the shotgun at home and ready in the new Hornady wall safe configuration—a great product at a fair price.

Federal Personal Defense buckshot shot into a gel block
This is a gelatin block shot with Federal Personal Defense buckshot.

The typical bead sighted, short barrel shotgun is a 12 gauge. Extended magazines that increase the riot gun capacity from five to eight shells are popular. That is a lot of firepower and a sufficient reserve for any foreseeable emergency. The modern riot gun is as likely to have a synthetic stock as the traditional wood stock set. The wood set, however, is the traditional riot gun set up and remains the most popular.

The efficiency of the riot gun for short-range anti-personnel work relies on the effectiveness of 00 buckshot. Eight or nine double aught pellets are a terrible harrow at close range. Buckshot is effective to about 20 yards, with 15 yards the ideal range. Buckshot can be dangerous far past this range. When you address the combat load, it is good to remember that the effect of a large number of shot, striking the adversary instantly, is what makes the shotgun effective.

Military testing has proven, the shotgun has a higher hit probability than any other shoulder-fired weapon including fully automatic military assault rifles. (Versus civilian AR-15 rifles that are actually sporting guns.) The Winchester PDX uses a payload of both buckshot and a slug. These loads are no doubt effective and offer a good option for the person using a shotgun for personal defense that wishes to hedge his bets. When the shotgun is considered an all around, go anywhere, do anything firearm for personal defense, the true riot gun with an 18-inch barrel and bead front sight is simple to use and easily taught.

Winchester PDX shotgun slug
Winchester’s PDX load features a single slug and three 00 buckshot.

Some riot guns have modern features. These may include a heat shield on the barrel and rifle sights or Ghost Ring sights. These sights are more efficient with slug loads. Slugs are effective, well past the normal effective range of buckshot. I tested several buckshot loads in the riot gun, ranging from standard 2 ¾ buckshot to 3-inch Magnum to the reduced recoil personal defense loads.

After 20 yards, it is best to transition to slug loads to get a good hit that anchors the threat. With slugs, even a bead sighted riot gun will hit a man-sized target at 50 yards. An authority on personal defense tells me that his research indicates that buckshot hits on humans do not add they sum, that three hits feels like five to the nervous system. He feels that three hits are needed with 00 buckshot, per his personal experience and research, to provide an effective wound and cessation of hostilities. A modern load, such as the Federal Personal Defense buckshot load, produces a cohesive pattern with good performance.

Riot shotguns have roles in modern times not envisioned by their original inventors. Shotguns are also a great device for launching special munitions. I had a good friend that worked security and police at airports, and the threat of birds causing aircraft to crash is real. These men and women are holders of special permits that allow them to kill migratory birds if needed even out of season and in numbers due to the possibility of death or severe damage caused by these birds.

Shotgun-launched bird bombs are highly effective for frightening birds, but that fright provides only temporary relief. Bird dispersal teams are involved in immediate protection. They have shotguns and frightening devices including distress calls and even pyrotechnic devices.

Less than lethal devices, fired from the shotgun, have seen much use in civil defense and police work. The bean bag or flexible baton is one such device. Tear gas and ferett projectiles are others. Rubber buckshot and tear gas rounds are used in police and military shotguns. The bean bag is a bag filled with dense lead that is used to knock a person off of their feet. Those engaged in psychotic behavior or threatening suicide have been knocked off their feet with this type of projectile. When peace officers address a threat from a dangerous individual—and suicidal individuals are just a turn from homicidal—the officer usually has a backup officer armed with buckshot in case the non-lethal loads do not take effect.

Bob Campbell shooting a shotgun from a barrel
The author is practicing tactical shooting from cover with a short barrel shotgun.

Another very interesting use for the tactical shotgun is as a door-breaching device. This use is an important tactical role that is used often by both the military and police. As many of you know, the old TV myth of a cop using his .38 to shoot a door lock open is just that, a myth. A .38 would not penetrate most door locks, and if it did, you would never get the door lock open.

The door-breaching shotgun is used to shatter hinges and take the door down in a quick manner. The shotguns used in this role are typically very short barrel shotguns with a stand off device on the muzzle. This device adds to safety when firing the door breaching round into the latch. The actual charge then knocks the latch off of the door. The charge is designed to expend all of its force on the door and not pose a threat to anyone on the other side of the door.

When all of the roles the tactical shotgun may be called upon to fill are studied, it is obvious the old-style riot gun comes up short. Sure the riot gun is useful, but the tactical shotgun must have good sights to efficiently launch its projectiles. The combat shotgun must have the capacity to launch slugs accurately well past effective riot gun range. The good old riot gun is still useful, and it’s all the shotgun most of us need. However, the modern tactical shotgun is a more capable firearm.

Riot gun or tactical shotgun: Which one do you prefer? Do you own one or both? Which make and model of shotgun do you prefer? Share your answers in the comment section.


The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog. "The Shooter's Log", is to provide information - not opinions - to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decicions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (29)

  1. I learned a lot from this simple article. I have a whole new outlook on home protection now and even as a car protection carry tool.Thanks for keeping the good people informed.

  2. Just bought an 18″ Mossberg 930 for home protection only. With my RA and other physical problems with my hands, I figured that with 8 shots from my semi auto shotgun, if that doesn’t take care of the problem I’m done anyhow.
    Did get some ideas on loads from this article.
    Mick 7

    1. I have personally used and seen what the newer Federal premium Vital Shock 00 buck shells that have the “flightcontrol” wad in them and they hold the tightest pattern I’ve ever seen out to 20yrds or a little further I’m talking 1 ragged hole and have blown clean thru the wood railroad ties they are truly devastating. If your looking for a very tight pattern that will do the job we’ll try em out u won’t be unsatisfied. I do not work for them or profit from this info in any way just sharing my experience

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