Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat. The only compelling reason to use BB (or any other small shot size) in a shotgun intended for defense is that buckshot is not available. It has been a crazy year, and while shotguns are as panic resistant of a firearm as possible, buckshot has gotten hard to find anywhere except the internet. It is pretty much unobtainable in my local area, only being available from online retailers charging 2-3 times what it was less than a year ago. The really primo buckshot loads are even harder to get. Now that we have that out of the way…
As a thought experiment, I posed the question on the That Shotgun Blog Facebook page asking what load would people recommend if buckshot were not available? Kind of like it was earlier in the year when finding buckshot online was even hit and miss.
As a general rule, buckshot is the only acceptable answer for social use of the shotgun. There is a lot of discussion online about using smaller sizes of shot to reduce penetration through walls or other various building materials, but it is all pretty much hogwash. The gold standard has always been, and will probably always be 00 buckshot. The bottom floor of defensive shotgun loads has been #4 buckshot for a long time. Even it is considered marginal though, and a compromise solution that actually isn’t much of a compromise.
The experiment must go on though, so I hit my local big box store (Bass Pro) to see what was on the shelf. All the usual suspects were there, except for buckshot and slugs. Locally, none were to be found. After considering the choices available, I walked away with Federal’s Black Cloud BB load. In my case, 3”, but it is available in a 2-3/4″ shell length as well.
Again, let’s be clear. This is about making the best of a list of only bad choices. The reason I went with this load is because it was the largest shot size available at the store, and it uses a version of the Flite Control wad, which is part of what makes Federal’s 00 buck loads so great. Even with a shot size smaller than buckshot, we still need a reasonably tight pattern. My hope was this wad would help deliver it. At least out to a reasonable distance.
The pattern results were decent I suppose. The Flite Control Flex wad does seem to respond to choke a lot better than the standard Flite Control was used with the buckshot loads. With a full choke, the pattern did okay out to 15 yards. With a cylinder bore gun, 10 yards is about it.
This whole experiment turned into a huge rabbit hole though, and it goes beyond just what BB load I might pick. It got into whether or not BB sized shot is adequate to do the job we are asking it to do. Like I mentioned earlier, the general rule has been nothing smaller than #4 buckshot for a long time, and even that was pushing it. In an effort to find answers, I hit the internet and started looking for data. Specifically what I was looking for was penetration data with calibrated ballistics gel. We need at least 12 inches in bare gel for a projectile to be considered viable.
I found a YouTube channel that had exactly what I was looking for. If you are familiar with Brobee223 on YouTube and you like shotguns, you really should be. He has put out some really useful videos.
He test nearly the exact same load I did in ballistics gel at 5 yards, and pattern test it through various shotguns. I wish the penetration testing included more distance than just 5 yards, but it is something. Brobee223’s results seem to suggest this BB load could actually give us the penetration we need.
The only BB load Brobee223 test at distance is a Hornady 3” BB load that uses Hornady’s Versa-Tite wad. The Hornady load is viable out to about 20 yards according to this test. At least in terms of penetration. Interestingly enough, the penetration of this load is very similar to a 4-buck Brobee223 test in a different video.
The Hornady load uses nickel plated lead pellets instead of steel though. Steel is only 70% as dense as lead, so it will shed momentum quicker than lead will. With that momentum will go the ability to penetrate as deep. Is it enough to matter? I really don’t know. That is a question yet to be answered. It would be nice to get someone to test the Black Cloud BB load at 15 yards or so just to see what it would do.
So is a BB load good enough for home defense? The data I have found seems to support that as long as the engagement distance was not more than 15-20 yards it would probably work. At least in terms of penetration.
The other thing we have to consider when choosing loads for personal defense is pattern size. Regardless of the size of the shot, we are still responsible for everything that leaves the muzzle of the gun. As patterns get wider, that gets harder to do. We probably are not going to get a full front profile shot at our intended target. My general rule is once a pattern hits 8”, that is about the limit of its practical range. For the Black Cloud BB load, that was about 10 yards. Even the use of a full choke couldn’t get me another 5 yards.
Am I willing to load BB in my home defense shotgun if I have buckshot available? Heck no. I will give myself as much margin as I can and roll with what has been the accepted answer for decades upon decades. If I didn’t have buckshot, couldn’t get buckshot, and needed something right at that moment though, I think BB fits that bill well enough. It is considered a goose load, so readily available at most sporting goods stores that carry ammunition. Even the ones that aren’t particularly fond of firearms for personal defense.
I plan to mess around with this concept a little more and see how other BB loads respond to chokes. Maybe it is possible to get more than 10 yards out of a BB load. Maybe. Shooting super tight patterns isn’t exactly what they are designed to do.