Using Birdshot For Home Defense Doesn’t Work

The power of a shotgun for personal protection is unmatched when it comes to close-range personal protection. From the blunderbusses of centuries past to “riding shotgun” on a stagecoach to the trench brooms of World War I, when it’s time to stop a threat at close range, it’s time to reach for your shotgun. 

Fast Facts: Using Birdshot For Home Defense

  • Birdshot is for hunting birds and busting clays 
  • Defensive buckshot ammunition is tailor-made for personal protection
  • Lower pellet weight means less penetration, less chance to stop the threat

Just having a shotgun nearby isn’t enough, though. A gun is almost useless without the right kind of ammunition, and a shotgun is no exception to this rule. When it comes to ammo selection, the versatility of the scattergun presents a unique problem. The same shotgun that can be used to hunt quail or ducks can suffice as a home defense gun, as long as you don’t make the mistake of relying on birdshot for home defense. Why is that a problem? Read on and find out. 

It’s What’s Inside That Counts

birdshot pattern

Birdshot speeds out so much that at even at 10 yards, it barely covers the target

First, let’s talk about what’s inside a shotshell. The amount of shot pellets inside a shotshell varies greatly. The rule of thumb to remember is the higher the number, the more pellets are inside the shell. For instance, #9 birdshot is loaded with lots and lots of tiny pellets that cover a large area when fired. #00 buckshot has only eight or nine pellets, but each of those pellets weighs about as much and travels at about the same velocity as a .32 ACP caliber bullet. 


Numbers like this begin to show us why using birdshot for home defense is probably not a good idea. Birdshot pellets are meant to knock a flying object out of the sky, not stop an attacker from destroying your life. 

Birdshot Is For The Birds

You’ll note that I said “knock a flying object out of the sky,” not “make a clean, one-shot kill.” Even the best of wingshooters know that sometimes, it’s not the impact of the pellet that finishes off the bird, it’s the fall to the ground that does them in. Even in those instances, sometimes a quick wring of the neck is required to finish off the bird. Experience tells us that birdshot isn’t a one-shot stop for birds. It stands to reason that using birdshot for home defense would be an even worse idea. 

buckshot pattern

Flite Control buckshot stays tight and on-target at 10 yards

Why, then, does the idea of using birdshot for home defense seem to never go away? The answer, I think, is similar to why some people choose to use “less lethal” shotgun ammunition instead of self-defense buckshot rounds. The feeling is that rather than incapacitate an attacker, shotgun rounds should warn them off or disable them. 

The Idea Of Using Birdshot For Home Defense Just Won’t Go Away

However, that’s not the role a firearm plays in personal defense. A gun, any gun, projects lethal force at a distance. It’s been that way since the days of the first handgonne, and it’ll be that way for at least the foreseeable future. If you have a need to use less-lethal force, consider something like pepper spray, and let your gun do what it’s meant to do. 

We’ll use an industry standard gel test to see what the effect using birdshot for home defense really is. We should note that ballistics gel isn’t meant to show exactly what happens when a bullet impacts a human body. Rather, gel testing is used as a neutral testing medium to compare the terminal ballistics of one round to another. 

Think of it this way. Cars that have a low 0-60 time tend to be sportier and faster than cars with higher 0-60 times. A 0-60 test is a good way to compare the performance of one car versus another in a neutral, repeatable setting. That’s what ballistic gel provides us. Bullets that do well in this test tend to perform well in the field, helping us choose what ammo works best in a real-world situation. 

Comparing Birdshot To Buckshot

For this test, we’re going to compare the effects of a round of #7.5 birdshot versus a round of #00 buckshot, fired from a 12 gauge cylinder bore Mossberg 500. We’ll set up a block of clear ballistics gel at the standard 10 foot distance from the muzzle of the shotgun. We’ll set four layers of heavy cloth in front of the gel to test any effect that clothing might have on the path of the pellets. According to the FBI, the birdshot pellets should penetrate at least 12 inches into the gel to be effective at stopping a threat. We’ll also test a round of 12 gauge 00 buckshot as a comparison. 

Test results 

birdshot gel test

The birdshot penetrated just over 6 inches into the gel

Simply put, birdshot is for the birds. The pellets from our test round only penetrated just over 6 inches into the gel. According to the FBI testing protocol, this is nowhere close to penetration needed to reach the vital areas of a human being. Will getting shot with a round of birdshot hurt? Yes. Will it physically stop an attacker? Probably not. 

buckshot gel test

Buckshot penetrated 21 inches into gel

Buckshot, on the other hand, is different. The eight of the nine pellets from the round of 12 gauge #00 we tested exceeded the 16 inch minimum, and a few penetrated as far as 21 inches into the gel. Ballistics gel is not real life, but the results from this sort of thing tend to mirror real-world results. Buckshot stops the threat, birdshot doesn’t. 

It’s Either Lethal Force, Or It’s Not. 

This is important, because in the eyes of the law, guns are considered to be lethal force. We talked about this when we looked at less-lethal shotgun ammo, but when a shotgun comes into play, it’s considered lethal force, even if you’re just using birdshot for home defense. I must emphasize here that I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice, but you should choose your defensive rounds based on what they do to the target, and nothing else. 

Using birdshot for home defense is one of those ideas that just never seems to go away, even when it’s been proven to be marginally effective, both in testing and in the real world. Shotguns are a devastatingly effective close-range firearm, but they need the right ammunition to do their job. Go bird hunting with birdshot. Use a round like #00 buckshot to defend what’s important to you, and get the training you need to be ready if that time should ever come.