Shotguns in the 21st Century


By Mike Boyle

The repeating shotgun has been on the scene for well over 100 years. Originally designed as a sporting arm, the attributes of this system were quickly recognized by law enforcement and the military. In the years following World War II, the pump action shotgun established itself as the primary shoulder weapon for police. 

Although the concept of the patrol rifle has been gaining momentum, shotguns are still the only shoulder gun most cops have ready access to. But is the shotgun still a viable tool for the 21st Century? 

Many critics have opined that shotguns, like call boxes and typewriters, are relics from an earlier era of law enforcement and need to be put out to pasture. There are indeed some legitimate concerns relative to deployment of shotguns, but they still do some things better than anything else. 

Consider the following advantages:

More Decisive Stopper – At short to intermediate range, shotguns are the ultimate power tool.

Better Hit Potential – Four point index and longer sighting plane make hitting under extreme stress or in low light easier.

Faster Threat Engagement – Especially important if multiple threats are present.

Extended Range – Life threatening stress often plays havoc with the officer’s ability to hit beyond a few yards. Even when loaded with buckshot, the shotgun may provide the ability to successfully engage threats beyond conversational distance.

Public Acceptance – Cops and shotguns go together like ham and eggs. Some communities may have a difficult time seeing their police armed with what they perceive to be military weapons.

Psychological Impact – The mere presence of a shotgun often diffuses potentially volatile situations without any shots being fired.

What’s Out There?

Until fairly recently, the pump-action shotgun was the overwhelming choice for law enforcement. Pumps are still the king of the hill, but autoloaders are starting to chip away at their popularity. If properly maintained, a pump action shotgun is ultra-reliable, fairly robust and handles both light and heavy loads without missing a beat.  Autoloaders on the other hand, are easier to fire while moving or from non-typical positions. On the downside, they are far less forgiving of neglect and are often ammunition sensitive.

Today, the most popular police shotguns are the Remington 870 pump action, Mossberg 500/590 pump action, and the various Benelli autoloaders. Remington currently owns the largest share of the police shotgun market. The ever popular Model 870 hit the market in 1950 and continues to sell very well today. The 870 features a steel receiver, twin action bars and well placed easily-accessible controls.  It is available in a wide variety of barrel lengths, stock configurations, finishes and sight options.

More aftermarket accessories are available for the 870 than any other design. Over the years, the 870 has benefited by any number of subtle improvements. Perhaps the most notable is the flex-tab carrier, which allows the user to clear a stack feed stoppage merely by pumping the action. However, the basic design is unchanged, proving that Remington’s engineers got this one right over 50 years ago.

O.F. Mossberg is yet another firm that has made a commitment to the law enforcement market. Mossberg offerings include the Model 500 and the heavy-duty Model 590A1. Notable features include a lightweight, but strong alloy receiver and a tang-mounted, ambidextrous safety. A wide range of factory options are available to meet every tactical niche.

The tough-as-nails M590A1 is especially impressive. This is the only pump action shotgun to pass the US Armed Services torture test which involved firing 3,000 rounds of full power buckshot. The nine shot Model 590A1 with ghost ring sights represents a best buy in a properly equipped police shotgun.

Benelli has succeeded where many other firms have failed. hile there had been earlier efforts in marketing a self-loading shotgun for police, no manufacturer has been able to capture a significant piece of that market until Benelli came along. Clearly, they have built the better mousetrap.

Current Benelli offerings include the M2 and M4 shotguns. Like the earlier Benelli designs, the M2 operates via a simple, relatively bug free short recoil system. The M2 Entry Model features a 14 inch barrel for easier handling in confined spaces. A M2 Tactical version with an 18.5 inch barrel is also available. Options include standard, pistol grip or ComforTech stocks and open rifle or ghost ring sights.
For users who prefer gas operation, Benelli is now offering the innovative M4. The M4 uses the self-regulating ARGO system which ensures reliable cycling with a wide variety of loads. The system is also outfitted with dual, self cleaning gas pistons.  Externally, the M4 resembles the M2 and it is available in the same configurations.

Ammunition

The most commonly utilized ammunition remains 00 buckshot. On a positive note, today’s loads are vastly superior to traditional buckshot loads originally developed for deer hunting. Every major manufacturer of shotgun ammunition is now offering tactical or low-recoil buckshot for law enforcement use.

If your agency runs pump guns, this is the only way to go. These rounds are loaded down to trap velocities but feature harder pellets and better wad technology. The end result is less felt recoil and tighter patterns, adding up to better shooter performance. Many autoloaders however, will not function reliably on low-recoil ammunition. Always test your firearm with the ammunition you plan on using to make sure it cycles reliably. This is especially true after adding aftermarket accessories such as a light. Hornady TAP #8627 Light Magnum buckshot was specifically engineered for autoloading shotguns, and delivers reliable performance without excessive recoil.

Rifled slugs give the user the ability to hit over the length of a football field. Unlike buckshot, slugs are target specific and will breach light cover. For law enforcement use, low-recoil Foster style slugs from Federal, Remington and Winchester are best.

One of the many advantages of the shotgun is its capability to fire less-than-lethal and specialty munitions in addition to lethal munitions. If used as either a less-than- lethal delivery system or in a specialty role as door breaching, a readily-identifiable dedicated shotgun should be utilized. Mixing and matching is often a recipe for disaster.

Accessories and Modifications

Aftermarket accessories for the combat shotgun are readily available. Some can turn the shotgun into a more efficient fighting tool, while others are of questionable value. Shoulder weapons need slings and shotguns are no exception. Unlike a pistol, a shotgun cannot be holstered. A sling allows the user to have the shotgun instantly accessible, yet keeps the hands free to perform other tasks.
Another essential accessory is a gun-mounted light.

To put it simply, a light allows you to make a more informed decision as to whether deadly force is justified.  Considering that most police action shootings take place under low light, a gun mounted light is the way to go.

Length of pull on most off-the-rack shotguns runs about 14 inches, making stocks too long for small stature shooters. Even fair size users may be pushed to the limit when body armor, tactical vests or heavy winter jackets are added to the mix. A slight reduction in stock length can often pay dividends in shooter performance. 

Telescopic M4 style stocks from Knoxx and Mesa Tactical are also worth a look.  These stocks feature adjustable length of pull, and an integral recoil reduction system. With an open choke barrel, buckshot patterns spread out approximately one inch for each yard the shooter is from the target. At 20 yards, the typical nine-pellet buckshot pattern has an extreme spread of nearly two feet. Needless to say, keeping all the pellets on target is next to impossible.

The newer tactical buckshot loads represent a partial fix to this dilemma. In order to guarantee all those pellets stay on target throughout practical shotgun range, consider a Vang Comp choke system.  Vang Comp Systems has developed a proprietary process of back boring, porting and reworking the choke that is truly revolutionary. Not only are patterns tighter, but muzzle flip and felt recoil are also reduced.

It All Comes Down to Training

Many officers view shotgun training in the same light as going to the dentist for a root canal. Much of this apprehension stems from negative training experiences.

Shotguns do in fact generate recoil. Since we are not going to repeal Newton’s Third Law any time soon, we instead have to find a way to deal with it. A good place to start is proper stock fit. Stocks that are too long amplify felt recoil to an intolerable level. Use low-recoil loads and keep round counts conservative.

Shotgun training is best done in short doses at more frequent intervals. Reactive steel targets provide instant feedback to the shooter, reinforcing the positive and keeping the mind off unpleasant aspects such as felt recoil.

So what does the future hold for the shotgun?

In the years to come, the patrol rifle will continue to encroach on the niche currently dominated by the shotgun. It remains to be seen whether the patrol rifle will replace or merely supplement the shotgun. Either way, this process is not going to totally unfold any time soon.  The shotgun remains a viable conflict resolution tool for all but the most unusual emergency. Considering its many advantages, it will be part of the scene until we can set our phasers on stun.

About the Author

Captain Mike Boyle is with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Law Enforcement and has been a use of force instructor for 26 years. Mike is a police academy instructor and rangemaster and serves on the Firearms Advisory Committee of the New Jersey Police Training Commission. He is also on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors.

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