Tactical shotguns have been favored for home defense for quite some time due to their decisive fight stopping potential. Unlike sporting models, tactical shotguns, or "riot guns" if you prefer, have barrels that are shortened from around 26" to 28" in length down to 18.5" or 20". This makes the gun much more maneuverable in confined spaces such as hallways and bedrooms. However, the potency of tactical shotguns usually comes with the tradeoff of increased levels of felt recoil.
In addition to the kick, I've also found than many tactical scatterguns are sized for medium- to large-framed operators. If you are of a more compact stature like I am, these guns can feel awkward and uncomfortable to use. So over the years I've kept an eye out for defensive shotguns designed to generate more manageable levels of recoil.
The Mossberg 940 Pro Tactical 12-gauge, 590S 18.5” Shorth Shell 12-gauge, 500 Persuader .410 Bore and the author’s modified 835 Ulti-mag.
Mossberg has set the standard for big, beefy tactical shotguns favored by the military, law enforcement and civilians alike. The expansive 500 series has proved to be both reliable and affordable; the 590 lineup has been tuned specifically for folks in uniform; and Maverick 88 pump actions are durable home-defense options at budget friendly prices. However, this company also offers a diverse selection of tactical shotgun models well suited to small-framed home defenders. Here's a closer look at a few of my favorites:
The 940 Pro Tactical 12-gauge Semi-Automatic
In 2021 I had the opportunity to test drive the top-notch Mossberg 940 JM Pro semi-automatic 12-gauge competition shotgun. The JM in the name comes from the design contributions of World Champion competition shooter Jerry Miculek and his family. The gun is loaded with features, swings beautifully, and the gas-vent action soaks up felt recoil quite effectively, even with heavy sporting loads.
The 940 Pro Tactical’s controls and features are inspire inspired by the utility of high speed completion configurations.
When the evaluation was complete, I thought to myself that this version of the 940 Pro would make a terrific defensive option with just a few modifications. It appears I'm not the only one to think this because in March of 2022 the 940 Pro Tactical arrived on the scene. It keeps the features I liked best about the JM version, including the oversize controls, adjustable length-of-pull shoulder stock, a drilled and tapped receiver, the effective recoil pad and that soft shooting action.
The gas-vent semi-automatic action successfully tames felt recoil with a variety of shells.
Tactical modifications include a round barrel, flush-fit interchangeable choke tubes, a bright fiber-optic bead sight, MLOK accessory slots up front, and an all-matte black finish. This model is also available with a Holosun micro red dot optic installed at the factory. I tested this shotgun with the red dot and it provides a useful, quick-acquisition sight picture that is enjoyable to work with, especially useful for those who are using red dots on other platforms.
The Shorty Shell 590S 12-gauge Pump Action
One of the more innovative shotgun designs that I've seen landed in the market at the end of 2021. The Mossberg 590S pump-action draws most of its design from the enduring military-grade 590 series of combat shotguns. The key difference is a modified action that allows this version to reliably cycle 3", 2¾" and the 1¾" long "shorty" 12-ga. shells. Most shotguns configured for 3" and 2¾" shells will not reliably feed the shorter rounds. But this gun will reliably feed all three, even with mixed shell sizes in the magazine.
The 590S series can chamber and fire three 12-gauge shell lengths.
The 590S is a handy option for small-framed home defenders for a couple of reasons. First, the shorty shells generate lower levels of felt recoil while launching suitable #4 buckshot or 1-oz. slug payloads at a respectable velocity of 1200 f.p.s. These shorter shells also allow more rounds to fit into the gun's tubular magazine. The 20"-barrel version of the 590S will hold up to 13+1 rounds, nearly doubling the on-board round count. You can read a full evaluation of this platform here.
Using 1¾” shorty shells in the 590S reduces felt recoil to around 20-gauge shotshell levels.
The Youth Pumps and the SA-20 Semi-Automatic 20-gauge
Years ago I read an article by self-defense expert Massad Ayoob that touted the efficacy of 20-gauge shotguns for home defense. These smaller shells, which usually sport yellow hulls, can deliver around 80 percent of a 12-gauge shell's payload with about 50 percent of the recoil, depending on the cartridge fired. This information turned me on to defensive 20-gauge shotguns and I've been a fan ever since.
Youth Model 20-gauge shotguns like the Model 505 shown here can comfortably straddle field sport and home-defense roles.
Youth model pump-actions chambered in 20-gauge, like the 505 Bantam shown here, which often have 20" barrels and shorter shoulder stocks, are ready-to-use as home-defense guns for smaller framed individuals. Mossberg's 500 Bantam and Mini Bantam models can do the trick. For those on a budget, youth models can often be found on the used gun racks at local sporting goods stores. There isn't much variety when it comes to 20-gauge buckshot and slug loads, but those cartridges which are available are up to the task.
The author found the 20-gauge Mossberg SA-20 to be comfortable and controllable when using buckshot cartridges.
If you are in the market for a tactically tricked out semi-automatic 20-gauge, Mossberg International's SA-20 has a lot to offer. Made for Mossberg in Turkey by Armsan, this 20" version of the platform is based on the company’s successful and reliable series of hunting shotguns. Features include ghost ring sights, lightweight polymer stocks, and an optics rail. Firing the softer shooting 20-gauge shell with this gun's gas-operated action, rubberized pistol grip and the vented rubber recoil pad makes for a comfortable and controllable shooting experience.
Mossberg's Fightin' .410 Bore Pump-Actions
Some folks question the use of .410-bore shotguns for home defense, and depending on the ammunition used, rightly so. When loaded with birdshot shells, a .410 is not a reliable option. But when they are loaded with defense-grade shells, they become a viable, lightweight shotgun with much more moderate levels of felt recoil. But rather than rehash that information in this write-up, a discussion of the efficacy of .410s for home defense is covered here.
Mossberg resized its 500 series to fit the smaller .410-bore shell resulting in slimmer, lighter defensive shotguns.
Over the years, Mossberg has offered a variety of Youth and Bantam models chambered in .410 bore that, like the 20-gauge models, can comfortably be pressed into defensive roles. But the company has also offered configurations set up specifically for home defense, including the 18.5"-barrel 500 Cruiser, the spreader-choked 500 Tactical HS410 and the slim and trim 590 Shockwave. As of this writing, one of the best dedicated defensive models currently in production is the 590 7-Shot. It features a 6+1 capacity with 2½" shells, it can feed and fire 3" shells, it sports a brass bead front sight and a lightweight polymer stock.
The .410-bore 590 holds more ammunition than previous models with additional tactical features.
An Aftermarket Mix & Match Tactical Model 835
Sometimes managing costs can be just as important as managing recoil. Due to Mossberg's longevity and popularity, the marketplace is replete with aftermarket components and upgrades for its pump-actions. This makes it easy to convert inherited or less expensive used sporting models into security guns. The company offers 18.5" combat barrels that can be purchased on line and dropped into sporting models with no gunsmithing required. Here's my somewhat unusual DIY project:
The Model 835 Ulti-Mag in its original sporting configuration.
About two decades ago, I wandered into the sporting goods section of a big-box store where I found a plain-Jane, wood-stocked Mossberg 835 Ulti-Mag on sale for a startlingly low price that was somewhere south of $150. What sets the 835 apart from other Mossberg pumps is that it is chambered to accept potent 3½" 12-gauge shells, developed to compete with heavy-duty 10-gauge shells, as well as 3" and 2¾" shells. I had been looking for a 12 gauge and the price was right.
Before I made the purchase, I went home and called Mossberg customer service. The answer to my question was yes, the company did offer an 18.5" fixed cylinder bore choke security barrel for the 835 which could be purchased by mail for a price just north of $100 (this barrel is no longer available). I did the math. Buying that particular 835 and the second barrel would cost about the same as the Mossberg 500 security models available in my area. But this cobbled together package would give me two barrels and the flexibility of three shell lengths. As for wood stocks, I could just upgrade them with tactical components down the road, which is what I did. The only down side has been that I've been subjected to some good-natured ribbing about my tactical shotgun having a shiny gold trigger.
The Model 835 outfitted with aftermarket tactical components.
Here’s the ol’ 835 as it looks today. I recently traded out an AR-style stock system for the Tactaload Flash-5 shoulder stock. Located between the grip and the thick recoil pad, this stock contains an easy access, spring-loaded magazine, which holds up to five rounds of 2¾" or 3" shells. A removable spacer allows the stock to be configured for 3½" shells as well, which makes it a great fit for the 835. I like this system because it preserves the sleek lines of the shotgun, unlike a side saddle shell holder, and it does a better job of protecting the spare shells from dirt and impact damage. The company also offers a thin tactical butt pad and spacers which can be used to adjust the length of pull. This stock is a great fit for home defense or sporting guns.
And for those who are curious, no, I wouldn't choose to load the 835 with 3½" long 18-pellet 00 buckshot shells for home defense because of the excessive recoil. Those shells launch 2.2 ounces (968-grains) of lead at around 1200 f.p.s. A low-recoil 2¾" buckshot load with eight or nine pellets will do nicely without the shoulder-breaker recoil. But it's nice to know I could use 3½" shells, if I ever had to.
For more information, visit mossberg.com.