When it comes to defensive shotgun loads, 00 buck is usually the standard, and for the guys who are really clued in, #1 buck is the preferred load. Even so, many people use #4 buckshot for the supposed reduced penetration risk, especially in a home defense setting. There is an interesting analysis of buckshot loads at brassfetcher.com. A big take away from that analysis is that standard #4 buck loads are not acceptable in a defensive capacity because they generally do not meet the FBI’s recommended penetration criteria. This finding seems to jive with what anecdotal stories I have heard in reference to the use of #4 buckshot as a defensive load.
One of the cool things about 00 buck loads these days is the amount of technology that gets applied to the shell. With 00 loads you have things like Federal’s Flite Control, plated shot, and buffer material. Hornady has their Versa-Tite loads, and Remington runs reduced recoil loads that are actually pretty good. The ammunition manufacturers that care have really tried to get the 00 loads to shoot better. To the best of my knowledge, there are not that many #4 buck loads that have had the same effort applied to make them more viable as defensive loads. For the most part, #4 buck loads are just plane Jane loads without much thought given to making the loads pattern tighter and/or more consistently, which is a critical component for defensive loads.
Federal has a 12ga #4 buck load in their Personal Defense line, but for whatever reason they left the Flite Control wad at home and just loaded the shell with copper plated shot. The copper plated shot will help prevent pellet deformation when it is launched and give a little more consistent pattern, but the Flite Control wad is Federal’s best shotgun technology, and they left it out for some reason.
There are also low recoil #4 buck loads available from some manufacturers, but they are generally a little more difficult to find and other than being low recoil, are not any different from standard #4 buck loads. I tracked down a low recoil #4 buckshot load from PMC that uses unplated shot, but has buffer material to help protect the shot load as it is launched down the barrel. I will be honest, I am a big guy, but I still like low recoil shotguns loads for defensive use to speed up my ability to recover the gun and deliver an additional dose of lead if required. This PMC load will represent “most other” #4 loads.
Probably the most promising #4 buckshot load I could find is Hornady’s Varmint Express #4 Buckshot. Hornady built the load using their Versa-Tite wad, which while perhaps not as tight a patterning wad as Federal’s Flite Control, it gets pretty close and draws on the same design principles. This is the same wad design that Hornady uses in their Critical Defense, TAP, and American Gunner 00 buckshot loads, as well as some other smaller shot size loads. One thing I will give to Hornady, they are good about leveraging that wad design as much as possible and putting in as many loads as it makes sense to. Probably something to note, this #4 buck load is not marketed by Hornady as a self defense loading, that might be a clue.
So how did they do, and did my preconceived ideas of performance hold true?
Even though the PMC load isn’t all that special, I can actually appreciate how uniform it patterned. Pictured on the left is how it shot from 10 yards out of a 20″ Mossberg 500 with a cylinder bore. While the pattern is not what I would consider tight, it is for the most part evenly distributed. After the shot at 10yd, I backed up to 15yd and fired one more.
From 15 yards (right) the pattern, in my opinion, is much too large for practical use. We are always responsible for everything that leaves the muzzle of our firearm. Even though in this case everything landed on the target, I do not know how likely it is to have a full frontal presentation on an actual threat. So inside of 10 yards, I might give this a chance. Outside of that, not likely.
I had higher hopes for the Hornady #4 buckshot load (pictured below). At 10 yards, it is significantly tighter than the run of the mill PMC load, similar to its 00 buckshot bigger brother in the Critical Defense and American Gunner lines.
At 15 yards though we start to see a problem with the Hornady load, some very significant fliers. These fliers in effect increase the size of the pattern even though the bulk of it is still basically where we want it to be. So again, we have a #4 buckshot load that while it might be viable inside of 10 yards, it isn’t really viable outside of that envelope.
Putting aside the potential penetration issues as outlined in the Brassfetcher analysis, I think #4 buckshot, at least the loads I have tried that I think are fairly representative, is too range prohibitive to be a viable defensive tool. Quite simply, the technology that has been applied to 00 and #1 buck loads either has not been applied to #4 loads yet, or it is not a direct translation and tweaking of the design needs to occur. There is only one variable that I don’t have a way to introduce, and that is chokes. It may be that someone could find a load to play nice with whatever choke they want to run. I don’t have that capability, so I can’t really go there. Since the vast majority of “tactical” shotguns are cylinder bore with no provision for running a choke, it is fairly representative to test without one. Would I use any of this ammunition for serious defensive use? Probably not unless forced too. There is too much evidence to suggest #4 buckshot is already a marginal load penetration wise. Add to that less than ideal patterning and it gets put in the “no go” column for sure.