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Shotgun Gunfighting

March 28, 2011

Shoulder transitions with shotguns

This weekend I attended a Shotgun Gunfighting class taught by my fellow SI instructor Alex Nieuwland. I’ve taught classes with Alex many times, but this was my first opportunity to be his student, rather than a co-instructor. Being able to take each other’s classes gratis is one of the benefits of sharing instructional duties for South Carolina. I’ve had a little bit of formal shotgun instruction, but not much. I’m really more of a rifle guy than a shotgun guy. If I need to grab a long gun to fight for my life, it’s going to be my AK, not my 870. This was a good opportunity to brush up on a weapons system that I don’t really get much practice with.

I ran the class with my Remington 870 Express HD. This is an 870 Express with an extended magazine tube and synthetic stock. Not really high speed low drag, but a fairly standard home defense shotgun. I’ve customized it a little bit by adding a pair of sling mounts between the magazine and the extension and at the rear of the receiver so that I can mount the sling on the side of the shotgun, rather than the bottom. I also added an XSSights Big Dot front sight. While I’m not particularly fond of the Big Dot on rifles and pistols, due to their lack of precision, I really do like this sight on a shotgun. You’re not giving up precision because with a shotgun, there’s not really a lot of precision to give up. The big ball out on the front end can almost be used like we use a caveman EOTech on an AK. Put the dot between you and the target and press the trigger. If I was seriously going to use the shotgun for self defense, I would put a light on it, but since this is mainly a training gun, I took the light off a couple years ago and never bothered to put it back on. That was the limit of my customization. No sidesaddles, butt cuffs, or other additions.

I held my spare ammo in an old Hawkepack rifle bag I had laying around. The mag pockets are really superfluous when using it for a shotgun, but it has Velcro on the inside, which I used to attach three, 7-loop shotgun shell holders. I ran buckshot in the top two and slugs in the bottom one. As it happens, it takes seven rounds to fully load my 870, which works out very nicely. I usually dumped a box of shells into the bottom of the bag, which ensured I had enough ammo available for all the drills. Using the shell loops rather than grabbing a round from the bottom of the bag was nice because I didn’t have to take time making sure the shell was properly oriented before inserting it. For pistol transitions, I carried a Glock 17 in a Bladtech holster.

The other students in the class were mostly running pump guns of various sorts. There were several Remmington 870s, a Mossberg 500 and 590, and a Winchester 1300. One fellow brought a Saiga (he also brought the 1300 and 590, and switched between the Saiga and the 590 throughout the class). All the shotguns were in 12 gauge. One fellow brought an 870 with just a pistol grip, no stock. That wasn’t really suitable for the sorts of things we’d be doing, so Alex loaned the student his Mossberg 500. Later in the day, I suggested the student find someone who’d replaced his 870’s standard stock with some sort of tactical stock and make him a deal for his standard stock. Right after I said that, one of the other students, who was running an 870 with a Knoxx stock, offered to give him the leftover 870 stock for the cost of shipping it.


Alex kicked things off by discussing SI’s fight focused philosophy and gave the safety briefing. He talked about the context of the shotgun. A shotgun is a niche weapon. It doesn’t have the portability of a pistol or the range and versatility of a rifle, and much less ammo capacity than either. However, in its preferred niche, close range gunfights, a shotgun is an extremely effective tool.

We moved on to discussing terminal ballistics. Shotguns can fire an enormous variety of ammunition, but for citizens, only three are really of interest: buckshot, slugs, and birdshot. Buckshot is the shotgun’s natural anti-personnel ammunition. Compared to pistol rounds, its terminal effect is enormous. As Alex put it, at close range buckshot turns meat into ground meat. Slugs are a bit more specialized. They can be used to extend the shotgun’s range, or to penetrate cover. Birdshot makes good inexpensive training ammo.

We talked a bit about various shotguns and support gear. Aside from the Saiga, everyone brought fairly standard pump-action shotguns of various types, so there wasn’t a whole lot to discuss. Save the Saiga, everyone was running bead sights (except for my big dot, which is really just a big bead) and everyone had an 18-20 inch barrel. One student had brought a three-point sling. We don’t particularly like three-point slings because they’re cumbersome and leave you tied to the gun. Alex persuaded him to run it as a two point sling for the class. The rest of the shotguns had two-point slings, though these did not end up being entirely trouble free, as we will see later.

Alex discussed various ways to carry extra shotgun ammo. In the class, almost everyone was running a sidesaddle and had some sort of shoulder bag or belt pouch to dump extra shells into. We also discussed mounting lights on shotguns. One student had the Surefire forend on his 870 and others had other light mount solutions. We spent a bit of time discussing chokes. Cylinder is really the way to go, here, as it is the best compromise between effective range and having a decent amount of spread.

Moving on to some actual gunhandling, Alex demonstrated strong side muzzle down, or African carry. This keeps the gun out of the way, yet allows very quick mounting from the slung position. We went through the usual array of ready and carry positions, including contact ready, close contact ready, Sul, port arms, high noon ready, and patrol ready. As we moved out on the range to practice these, it started to rain, and would continue raining on and off throughout the day. Since this was going to be a dry (as opposed to shooting) drill, we moved back under the tin roof over the bench and did it dry (as opposed to wet). After a bit of practice with the ready positions, Alex showed us the loading, unloading, and chamber check procedures.

Before actually shooting, we went through the fundamentals of marksmanship. A load of buckshot from a shotgun does spread, but it does not create a wall of death that will mow down everything in front of you. You do have to aim. The fundamentals of marksmanship with a shotgun are exactly the same as the fundamentals with a rifle. If you don’t aim, or jerk the trigger, you may hit him in a less than optimal spot or even miss the target entirely.

With the fundamentals in mind, we began patterning our shotguns. You want to know exactly how much your self-defense ammo, fired from your shotgun, will spread at various ranges. The usual way to do this is to fire successive rounds at a target at progressively longer distances, circling the cluster of shots each time to show the greater and greater spread. What this actually tends to end up with is a target that’s a complete mess of holes and it’s difficult to see what the spread is at any of the shorter distances. Instead, we used a procedure that Alex and I came up with when playing with shotguns in preparation for this class a couple of months ago. We put up a fresh sheet of copy paper with a black square in the middle as a target at each range. This gave everyone a set of targets they could take home that showed exactly how big the spread was at each range. Most folks were able to keep all their pellets (though not necessarily the wad) on the paper out to 10 yards. At 15 yards we used larger paper IDPA targets to make sure we captured all of the larger spread. We shot patterns at 3, 5, 7, 10, and 15 yards. When patterning, I wanted to get the pattern as well centered on the dot as possible, so I crammed by cheek down on the buttstock to get the proper sight picture. I’d forgotten how much the recoil beats up my cheek when doing this. I usually shoot my shotgun more caveman EOTech style, looking down the top of the barrel about an inch over the receiver. This works great for torso sized targets, but not so much for getting a pattern centered on a piece of copy paper.

At this point we broke for lunch. During lunch, I suggested the fellow with the Saiga remove the vertical forward grip he was running on it. He had it mounted very far forward in order to allow enough room to insert the magazines, and had to stretch out quite a bit to reach it. He removed it and I think he was much more comfortable shooting with his hand on the fore-end. After eating, we had a ‘gun tasting’, where people had a chance to shoot each other’s weapons (with permission, of course). I shot the Springfield EMP Alex bought at the gun show last weekend. It’s quite a nice little pistol, with a nice light, crisp trigger pull and a good reset. Very svelte too. I also shot the Saiga. Unlike the previous Saiga’s I’ve shot, this one was unconverted, with the trigger at the very back of the receiver. Compared to my G2 equipped AKs, the trigger was very indistinct. When I get one, I definitely want to get the trigger moved up to the proper position.

After lunch, we did a bit of snap shooting the shotgun, followed by the first two steps of the after action assessment (AAA): “Did I hit him? Did it work?” and “Does he have any friends?” At this point it started raining again, so we retreated back to the shelter of the roof and Alex lectured on shotgun patterns a bit more. He followed that up with an interesting demonstration of the difference between a pistol bullet and a shotgun round. He stood a pair of tin cans up on a table and shot them from the 3 yard line. He shot one with a pistol (a mighty .45 ACP) and the other with a round of 12 gauge buckshot. The pistol poked a half-inch hole through the can. The buckshot blew a 2-inch hole through the can and knocked it from the table into the berm behind.

As the rain slackened up a bit, Alex explained the proactive reload and we did the Shoot 2, Load 2 drill. The drill is exactly what it sounds like. You shoot twice, then top off the gun with two more rounds. During this drill, the student with the Mossberg 590 found it harder and harder to cycle his action. Eventually we figured out that his barrel was loose. The endcap of the magazine tube had come loose and partially unscrewed. The magazine cap not only holds the guts of the magazine tube in place, it also keeps the barrel on. Not good. Afterwards I was able to find a set of pliers in my toolbox that (just barely) fit around the endcap and crank it down pretty tight.

Next, Alex explained pistol transitions. The preferred SI methodology is to raise the shotgun over our heads and drop it so it hangs diagonally across the back. Done properly, this can be accomplished very quickly, without muzzle sweeping anyone, and leaves the gun out of the way without impeding movement. One of the requirements for this is that the sling needs to be long enough. This is where a lot of problems with people’s slings cropped up. I think the only slings that were adjusted long enough when we started the process were mine and Alex’s. The other students were able to lengthen the sling enough to get it to work, but many of them were still on the short side. We do sometimes encounter these issues in rifle classes, but usually not this bad. I think that the fact that shotgun sling mounts are further apart means that more slings will be too short. After quite a bit of dry work, we went out to the range and tried it live. During these drills, we had one shooter break the loop on his front sling mount. He managed not to drop the shotgun, however, which was pretty impressive. This was the shooter who brought three guns, so he just switched to another shotgun.

Next up as ambidextrous skills and shoulder transfers. Alex explained that it was not just a right-handed world out there and the need to switch shoulders at times, then demonstrated it live. He explained that grabbing the receiver instead of holding on to the forend or action bars during a partial transfer can potentially induce a malfunction. However, he wasn’t able to get his shotgun to deliver this malfunction on demand (I, on the other hand, was able to get mine to malfunction on the first try when we shot the drill, so we used that as the demo). This is the first time I’ve worked shoulder transfers extensively using a shotgun, and in a way they’re easier than with a rifle, because you can just slide your hands along the gun with no magazine to get in the way. On a pump gun you can also make the process of pumping the gun part of your process of switching hands.

Once we had the shoulder transfers down standing still, Alex introduced the idea of getting off the X, and talked about why we might get off the X in different possible directions. We worked all the different angles, doing dry practice on each one before going live and limiting ourselves to half speed.

This finished off the training day. We got the range cleaned up, reviewed the material we covered. After class, most of us adjourned to the local Cracker Barrel for a nice dinner and some fellowship among like-minded individuals.

Aftermath of day 1


The next morning we reconvened back at the range. It was another day of rain off and on throughout the day, but it was substantially colder. This is a bigger problem with the shotgun than it might be with other weapons because it involves individual, rather fiddly manipulation of individual shells. Yet it’s difficult to wear gloves, because they would tend to get pinched and caught by the shell lifter, shell latch, etc.

We got started by reviewing some of the material from yesterday. We did a bit of snap shooting, then moved on to pistol transitions. During this drill, one shooter found it difficult, then impossible to load shells into the magazine tube of his 870. We compared it to mine, and figured out that the shell latch was refusing to move out of the way and allow the rim of the round past. Thinking there might be some bit of debris behind it, we decided to field strip the gun. The owner had never taken the gun apart, so I was nominated to field strip it. While I field stripped my 870, the last time was a long while ago. Fortunately, one of the other students who was shooting an 870 brought the instruction manual. Between that an my dim memories of field stripping mine, I managed to get the gun apart. Once broken down, the shell latch moved freely. I hadn’t really done anything to it, but since it didn’t seem to have anything obstructing it, I put the gun back together. It worked.

Next, we moved on to practicing our shoulder transfers. Our last bit of review from Saturday was to go through all of the GOTX directions (1, 3 5, 7 9, and 11 o’clock). These had been a bit rushed the day before, so it was good to have a chance to get in a few more reps. Because of the smaller bay we were using today, Alex had us do the diagonal angles one student at a time, just to keep things under control.

To keep us under cover during a particularly heavy burst of rain, Alex asked me to talk about using a handheld light with a shotgun. These are some techniques I picked up from a very experienced shooter back when I was in Utah. With semi-auto shotguns, we can use some of the same techniques we use with semi-auto rifles. Simplest is probably to hold your tube light in an ice pick grip, hold your forearm horizontally in front of you and rest the forend on top of the wrist. This is kind of like the Harries technique for pistols. This is simple and works for almost everyone, but the support hand does not provide any recoil control. Another method is to grab the light in the fingers of your support hand, with the tailcap back near the pinky, then set the forend on the palm and clamp it between the light and and your thumb. The pinky activates the light’s tailswitch. This provides a better grip and some recoil control, but it may not be workable for smaller hands. Pump guns are much more difficult, since the support hand not only needs to manage the light and support the forend, it also needs to work the pump. One possibility is to hold the light syringe style between the index and middle fingers of your support hand, working the tailswitch with the thumb. Then place the pump forend between the middle and ring fingers, with the pinky curled around on the side. This is awkward and a bit painful, even for those of us with big hands and doesn’t provide a very positive cycling of the action, but it does provide a way to work the pump and illuminate at the same time. Clamping the forend between the light and thumb, as described with semi-autos can work with pumps, but how easy it is depends on the profile of the forend. The Mossberg forend is very rounded, making it difficult to keep the light in place. The 870 forend, on the other hand, has a small recurved section where your fingertips usually go that has almost exactly the same radius as a Surefire. It’s like it was made for this technique. Even so, using a handheld light with a shotgun is always going to be difficult. It’s good to know in an emergency, but it shouldn’t be your primary plan. I think the difficulty of these techniques are a good argument for mounting some sort of light on the gun.

Our first bit of new material on Sunday was addressing threats to the left and right. Addressing threats to your left is pretty simple for a right-handed shooter. You look, see the threat, then get off the X to the right, which is the direction you’re already facing. As always, going to the support side is a bit more complicated. You still get off the X in the direction you’re facing. Rather than doing a partial transition, followed by a full transition, it’s much easier to just mount the gun directly to the left shoulder using the ‘golf swing’ technique. Using this method, you swing the weapon up, switching your hand positions as you do so. This lets you start shooting from the left shoulder immediately. This technique seemed to cause a lot of students some trouble, and we kept at it with dry practice until they got it right. As with the shoulder transition, this actually seems a bit easier to me with a shotgun than with a magazine fed rifle, because you can just slide your hand down the gun rather than having to remove it and regrasp to get around the magazine. One thing that was a bit incongruous was Alex started these drills by yelling “he’s got a gun”, to indicate you should turn your head and address the target. If you’re walking around with a shotgun in your hand and someone yells, “he’s got a gun”, they’re probably talking about you.

At this point, we broke for lunch. After lunch, Alex woke everybody back up by having us shoot from underarm assault. With everyone suitably awakened, we continued with addressing threats behind you. You turn either left or right, depending on which side you hear the noise on, and from there it continues the same as addressing a threat to your left or right.

Next up was doing a full 360 degree after action assessment. This built on the first two steps of the AAA that we practiced Saturday, along with our proactive reload. To these, we add a full 360 degree Sul scan. With the shotgun held in position Sul, you turn around and look behind you, scanning for threats. We also added in a medical self-check at the end. It is entirely possible to be hit in a gunfight and not know it. Indeed, you can be hit in a major artery and bleed out without noticing. To prevent this, the last part of our after action drill is looking down at ourselves and checking for large amounts of blood. The entire progression goes something like this: “Did I hit him? Did it work?” and “Does he have any friends?” “Does he have any friends behind me?” “How’s my ammo?” “How am I?” We ran the full AAA process dry, then after shooting while stationary. Finally, we did the full progression: get off the X, shoot the hell out of the target, and do the full after action assessment process. From this point on, we finished every drill with an after action assessment.

A student performing an after action assessment.

Shotgun shells are much more powerful than pistol rounds, but nothing is a sure thing. Even a load of 12 gauge buck can fail. On top of this, if the assailant is wearing body armor, buckshot is unlikely to penetrate. Even with a shotgun, we need to be ready to deal with a failure to stop. The procedure is the same as we use with pistols and rifles. If a burst of fire to the chest doesn’t work, go for the face. One of the neat things about shotguns loaded with birdshot is you can quite easily decapitate a cardboard target with a couple of shots. We worked the failure to stop drill both stationary, and while getting off the X.

Bad guys tent to run in packs, and we need to be prepared for multiple assailants. Shotguns have both pros and cons against multiple attackers. On the pro side, they are much more likely to put an assailant down in one shot than a handgun. On the other hand, their small magazines don’t leave much margin for error. Alex set up three targets, simulating a 3 on 1 situation. One of the tenets of facing multiple adversaries is that we would much rather have three, one on one gunfights rather than a three on one gunfight. So, we try to stack the assailants (line them up) by getting off the X to the 1 or 11 o’clock. Once we have them stacked, we’d much rather the nearest opponent, on the end of the line, be out of the fight, so they’re the one we shoot first.

During this drill, the same 870 I had disassembled earlier began suffering the same symptoms again. The shell latch was stiff and not letting the rim of the shell by when he tried to insert one into the magazine. When I took it apart last time, I noticed the magazine tube extension (which also functions as the magazine tube cap) was already loose when I removed it. Based on that suspicion (and the trouble we had with the Mossberg 590 the previous day) I checked the magazine tube extension and sure enough, it was very loose. I tightened it up and the problem disappeared. I figure the loose mag tube extension was allowing the barrel and pump to move forward relative to the receiver, putting the action bar in the wrong place relative to the shell latch. This prevented the shell latch from moving back and allowing the rim of the shell past. The student had to tighten the magazine tube extension again later in class, so I think there was something wrong with it for it to come loose so easily.

As mentioned earlier, shotguns are lauded for their versatility, because they can fire many types of ammo. For self-defense, we’re mainly interested in buckshot with the occasional slug. Many schools make a big deal of learning how to load a slug on the fly, but SI can only find one documented instance of anyone needing to change to a slug to win the fight in the last 20 years (plenty of folks have been shot with slugs, but these are almost always loaded in the shotgun before the fight starts). Nevertheless, a slug is useful both for extending the shotgun’s range, and for shooting through intermediate barriers like car doors.

Alex showed us four ways to switch to a slug, allowing each student to choose the one that worked best for him. First, the test method: You attempt to insert the slug into the magazine tube. If it fits, you hit the action release, eject the round of buckshot from the chamber, and chamber the slug. If it doesn’t fit, hit the action release and cycle the action, ejecting one round of buck, then load the slug in the tube and cycle the action again. This method can save you a round, if your tube isn’t full, but it requires making a decision. A somewhat simpler way is just to skip trying to insert the slug and assume the tube is full. Eject a round, insert the slug, eject another round, and chamber the slug. The third method eschews the magazine tube altogether. You hit the action release and eject the round from the chamber, roll the gun over and dump out the round that was just released from the magazine, then insert the slug through the ejection port and chamber the round. This is my preferred method. The fourth method Alex showed is to ease the action back until the round in the chamber has left the chamber, but before it ejects. Then you pluck the round out of the receiver, insert the slug through the ejection port, and close the action. When I tried this, a problem quickly emerged. On an 870, the default position for the shell lifter is down. It won’t pop up unless you move the action all the way to the rear, which we aren’t doing in this procedure (in a Mossberg, the default position is up, so it will pop back up as you close the action). This means on an 870 you either have to drop the slug directly into the chamber, rather than just into the receiver, or you have to push the shell lifter up manually. It’s worth noting that every method that requires ejecting one or more rounds of buckshot also has the option of firing that round instead. Even if the opponent is too far to reach with buck or behind cover that buck won’t penetrate, it may still help keep his head down. We did each of the methods live fire to figure out the one we felt worked best for us.

Our default response if the shotgun stops working is to transition to pistol. However, there may be times when we have a shotgun but not a pistol. For instance, if you use a shotgun for home defense and something goes bump in the night, you probably won’t have a pistol belt on with your pajamas. Given the limited ammo capacity of a shotgun, we may have to speedload the shotgun. The fastest way to do this is similar to one of the slug transition methods. You open the action and drop a new round into the ejection port, then slide the action closed and fire. We practiced this a couple of times, then went back to the select a slug drills. Alex gave us a chance to use the slug transition method that worked best for us.

We talked a bit about shooting from cover, then Alex dragged out a barrel and demonstrated shooting from behind it. We all got up on the line and practiced shooting from kneeling, then one at a time we shot from behind the barrel, using it for cover.

This brought us to our final exercise, one which would bring together much of what we done over the past two days. Alex set up two targets fairly close to the student’s starting position. Further downrange, there was a third target, behind some cardboard representing a car door with just the target’s head peeking over. There was a barrel representing cover the student could move to. The ‘school solution’ was to get off the X, shoot the two bad guys, get to cover, switch to slug, and shoot the remaining bad guy through the car door. We saw some students do this, but there were a variety of other solutions. The student with the Saiga made the unfortunate decision to use his American made eight round magazine for the first time in this class on this drill. He got the round in the chamber off, but it failed to feed even a single follow up round, despite some manual encouragement. He ended up transitioning to pistol and shooting the rest of the drill that way.

When I did it, I got off the X and shot each of the close bad guy twice (one shot each, followed by another one shot each). When I got to cover, I figured an attacker in a car was unlikely to come up on me, so instead of just loading one slug, I loaded three, figuring in real life I wouldn’t be satisfied with shooting him through the car door just once. It was fortunate that I tried to load three slugs. I loaded the first one through the ejection port, but because of the way the gun was rolled over as I crouched behind the low cover of the barrel, the round dribbled out the ejection port before I closed the action, so my chamber was empty. I did not notice this. The other two went into the magazine tube without a problem. When I tried to fire, I got a click. Somehow, in trying to fix this I managed to chamber, then eject the next slug from the magazine. Finally, I managed to fire the third slug, followed by a round of buckshot. Not the smoothest performance for an SI instructor, I admit. I had previously favored doing a slug transition by inserting a round through the ejection port, but this has me rethinking things. Either I need to be cognizant of the potential for that round to fall out when shooting from non-standard positions, or I need to switch to a different select a slug technique (probably the eject one, load one, eject one method).

This finished up the class, handed out certificates, and began cleaining up the range. The latter was not a trivial undertaking. It looked like we’d pretty much resurfaced the bay with shotgun hulls. After getting everything squared away, we went our separate ways.


I’d gone over a lot of this stuff with Alex a while ago as part of his preparation for the class, but after doing a bunch of dry practice and a lot of live repetitions I feel like I have a much better grasp of the material. I feel a lot more confident in manipulating a shotgun than I did a few days ago. I’m still going to grab my AK rather than my 870, but it’s good to develop my skills like this.

My gun ran well, but several others had problems. We saw two guns run into problems with the magazine tube cap coming unscrewed. Based on this experience, if someone has trouble with a tube-fed shotgun and can’t pinpoint a specific cause, the magazine tube cap is going to be high on the list of things I check.

One problem I did have with my shotgun was the length of the stock. It wasn’t really a problem when shooting, but when handling the shotgun (slinging, unslinging, changing ready positions, etc.). This was exacerbated by the fact that we were wearing rain gear the entire class, and the rubber buttpad had a tendency to catch on goretex and hang up. A shorter stock would be much easier to handle. If I’m going to change the stock, I think I might as well go to a pistol grip as well. Maybe one of the Mesa Tactical adapters or a Choate stock. On the other hand, I may just save my money for a nicer shotgun like a Saiga or KSG. Decisions, decisions.

The improvised shotgun ammo bag worked fairly well. The Hawkepack had a tendency to close up at inopportune times, but using the shell loops to keep the shells oriented and organized made loading very fast. Next time I may just bite the bullet and convert my Sneakybag over to shotgun use for the class, since it has some internal stiffeners to keep the main compartment open. I was the only student running without any ammo on the gun itself, which I may change as well. A sidesaddle or some other sort of on-gun ammo storage would make certain drills easier.

This was really a great class. Alex did a great job teaching despite the weather and other challenges. I would highly recommend Suarez International’s Shotgun Gunfighting class for anyone who wants a no-BS introduction to the combative use of the shotgun.

Destroyed target

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