Tightening The Group

Tightening The Group

The Sheriff shows you how he tightened the patterns of his self-defense shotgun.

My disillusionment with the police riot shotgun came to a head some years ago during the apprehension of a felony suspect. The bad guy was hit with a load of 00 buck. He did not go down. He did not even seem too uncomfortable about the whole affair. And finally, his injuries from the shotgun blast were not very serious. I quickly became very unimpressed with riot guns.

Lengthening the forcing cone, backboring the barrel, and porting the barrel resulted in significantly tighter patterns from the Sheriff's self-defense shotgun.

Now, you have to understand that back in those days, our shotguns were part of the equipment that stayed in the squad cars. You had to continually check to see if the gun was loaded or if there were extra shells in the car. And the buckshot loads we were issued were not purchased because they were the most powerful or gave the best patterns. That shotgun ammunition was selected because it was the cheapest ammo the city could buy.

Clearly, none of us knew very much about the management of fighting shotguns. My solution was to back away from the whole deal completely and rely on my personal short-barreled, lever-action carbine in .44 Magnum. I had tricked it out myself, and I had selected and tested the ammunition myself. Over the years, I built up several of these guns and still have the last one I carried; it's a Browning 92 with a 16-inch barrel and a Williams receiver sight. In my view, shotguns were a good thing to stay away from.

A few years ago, I became interested in studying the causes and cures for bear attacks. One of the most knowledgeable people in this field is a Canadian named James Gary Shelton. Shelton is a hunter and a wildlife conservationist who realizes that bear attacks must be dealt with quickly and decisively. And surprise to me, he recommends using a short-barreled pump shotgun loaded with slugs as a defense against felonious bruins.

While doing research on this, I obtained a Remington Model 870 shotgun. It had an 18-inch barrel, ghost-ring sights, and a synthetic stock. Initially, I tested the gun with slug loads but finally was moved to do some work with the various modern buckshot loads. What I came to realize is that there is buckshot and then there is buckshot. The various loads are not created equal.

During my early police shotgun experiences, No. 4 buck was quite popular. After all, it held more pellets and the pellets were only slightly smaller than the traditional 00.

The problem is, buckshot pellets are round lead balls that, because of this configuration, quickly lose their velocity and, thus, their ability to penetrate. While No. 4 buck might, then, be the choice for home defense, it is probably not the best choice for dealing with a criminal threat at 25 yards. It spreads too much and loses too much velocity to be very reliable.

After all this time, defensive shotgunners have come to agree that the old traditional 00 buckshot is still the best all-around choice for use in the defensive shotgun. During my tests, I fired several popular brands of 00 buckshot on silhouette targets. It quickly became apparent that 25 yards was about the maximum range at which one could expect to keep all nine pellets in the chest area of a silhouette. Beyond that range, one is well advised to make the switch to shotgun slugs.

But it also became apparent that certain shotguns like certain buckshot loads. And this is not meant as a criticism against any one brand. Winchester, Remington, and Federal, to name the major manufacturers, all build excellent shotgun shells. It's just that shotguns are quirky. For no good reason, a particular shotgun will just shoot tighter groups with one particular brand. Another shotgun of the same manufacture may show a marked preference for another brand of buckshot.

It has become very clear that once you select the defensive shotgun that suits you, you should run buckshot pattern tests with several different brands of buckshot loads to see which one the gun prefers. Serious bird hunters have known this about their favorite shotguns for quite some time, and they always make sure to have a good supply of the right ammo on hand before bird season opens.

One of the reasons that shotgun patterns spread is that many pellets in the payload are deformed as they fly down the barrel. They are deformed by smacking into each other and by contacting the harder metal of the barrel. Out-of-round pellets fly off at odd angles, causing the group to spread. This phenomenon occurs whether you are hunting birds with No. 8 shot or using 00 buckshot to deal with a criminal attack. It is the reason that ammunition companies designed the plastic shot cup that surrounds the pellets and travels down the shotgun bore with them.

My renewed interest in the defensive shotgun has shown me that the shotgun can be a very effective tool in fighting criminal attacks. With properly selected buckshot loads, the defensive shotgun delivers a massive, close-range blow to the attacking felon out to about 25 yards. With the addition of a good set of sights and shotgun slugs, it can do a deadly job even at the 100-yard mark.

In the course of my investigations, I began to hear about a fellow from Arizona who could tune up a defensive shotgun so it would perform even better, and at the 2007 SHOT Show, I found out his name, Hans Vang, and I even got to meet him. Vang invited me to bring him a shotgun, let him work his magic, and come to my own conclusions. Vang Comp is located in Chino Valley, Arizona, and I took my Model 870 out there this past July.

What Vang and his crew do is really quite simple. They lengthen the gun's forcing cone so that the shotshell has room to open completely when it is fired. Then they backbore the barrel to minimize the contact that the nine 00 pellets have with the barrel steel as they fly out of the gun. Finally, quite a number of holes are bored into the barrel near the muzzle to dampen the felt recoil and reduce muzzle flip. These simple operations make all the difference in the world.

My 870 has a preference for the Federal Premium Tactical 00 buckshot load (published velocity is 1325 fps) with the new Flitecontrol wad. My gun, which used to print nine 00 buckshot into 10 inches at 20 yards, was dumping the nine Federal pellets into 8 inches at 30 yards. Up closer, at 10 yards, the Federal payload was cutting one ragged hole in the silhouette target.

I know there's a saying about old dogs and new tricks, but I have to tell you that Vang Comp, Federal shotshells, and Remington pump shotguns have completely changed my opinion about the defensive shotgun. It just takes a bit of research, ammunition testing, and range time to develop a good defensive scatt


Nowadays, I keep my 870 in the back of my car, and it travels with me wherever I go. If things get too rough for a pistol to handle, I'll be reaching for the 870. The police riot gun has a long and honored career of protecting the American public. In retrospect, I should have given it a better chance to prove itself all those years ago.

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