Umm, Vice President Biden…?

shotgun_tlcI already knew that Vice President Joe Biden’s recent comments on the relative suitability of Modern Sporting Rifles and double-barreled shotguns were a bit silly. An AR-15 (something around 5.5 foot-pounds of recoil energy) is harder for a woman to shoot than a 12-gauge shotgun (17 up to a staggering 54 foot-pounds of recoil energy, depending on load and gun weight)? Hate to break the bad news, Mr. Biden, but in a contest between politics and physics, Newton’s Second Law wins every time.

But now, I don’t have to fall back on nebulous little trivialities like science. I’ve experienced the difference myself firsthand.

A friend of mine gave me the opportunity recently to shoot a shotgun for the first time (thanks, Matt!) The weapon in question was a Remington 870 – not quite the double-barreled form of the weapon Mr. Biden seems to like so well, but close enough for present purposes. Better yet, it was loaded with relatively light target shells, so I should have been on the favorable side of the recoil energy curve. Right?

Umm, not so much, as it turns out.

By way of background, I own neither a rifle nor a shotgun, but I’ve shot a friend’s AR-15 on a number of occasions. I’ve also shot bigger and higher-powered rifles (like the M-1 Garand). The AR-15, being relatively low-power and light on recoil, is quite comfortable for me to shoot and control. I’m a bit of a recoil junkie so I love the Garand, but it doesn’t take too many rounds before it starts to get uncomfortable. So I was curious to see how I’d do with the 12-gauge.

After a brief orientation to the shotgun’s controls, we selected as our target a few discarded clay pigeons on the hillside. I lifted the shotgun to my shoulder and chambered a single shell. The Remington was surprisingly heavy and felt nowhere near as ergonomic as the AR, and it took me some effort to get the butt stock comfortably seated on my shoulder. (To be fair, the fact that I was facing slightly uphill probably didn’t help in this regard).

“Lean in to the shot,” Matt advised, as I adjusted my stance and pondered the shotgun’s lack of much in the way of sights. “She kicks a little.” I dutifully leaned forward. “More,” he said. I leaned a bit farther, feeling vaguely ridiculous, and he nodded approvingly. I disengaged the safety and snugged my finger on the trigger. Deep breath. Gentle squeeze. Steady…steady…

BOOM! I was expecting the thunderous sound and the sharp kick of the recoil, but the force of it still took me by surprise. The noise was almost a physical presence, and my shoulder ached a bit where the weapon’s stock had been touching it. I looked up, and Matt smiled. “Nicely done!” he said. “Want to try another?”

Carefully, I slotted another shell into the chamber and racked the action. I leaned into my stance and took aim again. This time, one of the clay pigeons exploded into a cloud of orange dust. I tried twice more, and then I was done. Despite my success at hitting the target, and despite my recoil-junkie tendencies, my shoulder was just getting too sore, too quickly, for the shotgun to continue to be much fun.

So, what do I think of Mr. Biden’s advice? Well, I, and countless other women, are living proof that girls can shoot shotguns. I know some women who are champions with them. But is a 12-gauge better for a woman to defend herself with than an AR-15 or a pistol? I don’t think so, and here’s why:

  • The shotgun kicks. A lot. My shoulders were getting tired after just a few rounds, which means that just a few rounds is all I shot. Proficiency with any weapon requires practice, and I just don’t think I enjoy having my shoulder muscles tenderized enough to practice that much with a 12-gauge.
  • Shotguns are bulky, heavy, and hard to maneuver. As it was, not falling on my butt on the side of the hill was a major victory for me – and I was in open space. In the confines of my house, I can think of few places where I could actually have the maneuvering room to aim a shotgun and get into a good shooting position. And, unlike with an AR, I simply don’t have the upper body muscle to overcome a less-than-optimal shooting stance with the shotgun.
  • Shotguns are more challenging to aim. I don’t know if they make lasers and red dot optics and the like for shotguns, but certainly the weapon I fired didn’t have any of those. It had only a colored bead at the far end of the barrel. With practice, I’m certain that’s sufficient, but see above about practicing.
  • Shotguns carry much less ammo than rifles or pistols. Even in California, one can buy centerfire pistols and rifles with 10-round magazines. Reloading a magazine-fed firearm takes just a second or two. By contrast, the shotgun I fired only held three or four shells, and it took me nearly 10 seconds to fully reload it. I expect I could get faster with practice, but I doubt I’d ever be as fast with a shotgun as I am with the magazine-fed weapons I shoot regularly. With Vice President Biden’s double-barreled shotgun, it’d take even longer to reload – not necessarily a good thing when you’re facing multiple assailants.

None of this is meant to suggest that a woman couldn’t use a shotgun for self-defense. Under the right circumstances and with proper training and practice, I have no doubt a 12-gauge would be an extremely effective weapon. And certainly I wouldn’t mind the chance to shoot one again. But for a woman of smaller stature and less physical strength, to depend on a 12-gauge for self-defense? Sorry, Mr. Biden, but I just don’t see it. Not even a little bit.


  1. A 12 gauge is definitely more than most women would ever want to shoot regularly. I have a 20 gauge Mossberg in the gun rack, and I can shoot that one all day if I can afford the ammunition. It would be quite effective for home defense, but there are some serious things to consider before settling on a shotgun of any kind for that purpose – especially if that’s going to be your only home defense weapon.

    A shotgun, preferably with an 18 inch barrel, would be a good home defense weapon if you live anywhere with people on the other side of your walls. Loaded with #4 shot, you probably would not have the problem of over penetration, endangering your neighbors or children sleeping in the next room. The shorter barrel also makes it easier to maneuver around inside a house, through doorways, etc.

    Consider the serious damage a shotgun blast is going to do to walls, furniture and so forth, even if you don’t hit a person. This is not trivial.

    A gunshot, from anything, is going to be loud, but a 12 gauge would be murder on your ears indoors. You will probably not be able to hear a darn thing for at least a while afterwards unless you had time to put in earplugs first. Sound suppressors ought to be standard equipment on all guns, but we’re probably going to have to leave that battle for some other time.

    Personally, I’d never use a rifle of any kind inside my home. All the disadvantages of a long gun in close quarters, and none of the advantages of a shotgun.

    I carry 14 rounds of frangible ammunition in my handgun, and it is available at all times. I have the advantage of mobility, maneuverability, and far less chance of over penetration of walls. The shotgun is still handy, just in case.

  2. It can take a lot to handle a 12 gauge, that’s true. I’ve doctored mine up, so that I have an 18.5″ barrel and a collapsable stock (just like the AR), a light, and a rail to attach whatever goodies I want. If you remove the plug in the magazine, you can load 7 or 8 rounds and carry another six in a side saddle attached to the receiver.

    I love my shotgun, I love shooting it, and I love the “oohs” and “aahs” I get when I whip that puppy out. However, my shotgun (unloaded) runs about 12.5#, so the AR definitely wins when it comes to weight, comfort to carry and amount of ammo you can shoot without reloading.

    That said, Biden’s an idiot and no one should listen to him when it comes to gun advice.

  3. Susan says:

    I agree that an AR-15 is a much better firearm for a woman than any shotgun. However, I own a Remington 870 12 gauge. If the need arises to use it for self protection I hope the sound of chambering a shell will be all that is needed to deter a criminal. MamaLiberty is absolutely correct about using #4 buck in close quarters. I purchased my first Rem. 870 while living in a townhouse and my neighbors on both sides only a thin wall away.

    The advice you received to “lean into the shot” was good, but did not go far enough. You must also pull the butt into your shoulder and hold it tight there so that the butt cannot move away from your shoulder when it fires. Your body should rock with the firearm with no separation between firearm and shoulder. This prevents the bruising many get when firing a shotgun.
    I became a police officer in 1975 and my shotgun training was all done on a single day. In that day I fired 65 rounds from a Rem. 870 pump; never knowing when I pulled the trigger whether the round was bird shot, #00 buck, or a deer slug. The ammo was mixed in the boxes and we were not allowed to look at what we loaded into the magazine. This was to teach us to NOT flinch when the gun was fired. All 3 types of ammo give a different amount of “kick”. I am pleased to say that my instructor was very good at his job and by following his instructions I was able to fire all 65 rounds without receiving the slightest bruise or have sore, tender muscles. I was 5’6″ tall and weighed 125 lbs at the time.

    • “I hope the sound of chambering a shell will be all that is needed to deter a criminal.”

      Maybe, but I’ve read a lot of things that call this a myth. In any case, I wouldn’t want to count on it. I had to shoot a man to save my life at one point, and even pointing the gun right at him didn’t impress him at all… until I pulled the trigger. (Here’s the whole story:

      I think it is probably quite true that man threatening a woman may not be likely to believe that she can and WILL pull the trigger, compared to a similar attack on a man who presents with a gun.

      My attacker’s last words to me were, “You won’t shoot me.” Then I did. And I would again. I just wouldn’t make the same mistakes.

      • Susan says:

        Hi MamaLiberty,

        Having worn a badge and worked the midnight shift alone for several years before changing careers, I certainly know that not everyone will run from the distinct sound of chambering a round in a shotgun. I prepared myself decades ago to shoot at a person who didn’t take the hint. I was lucky in that I have never had to that. Drew a gun on a person many times, but never had to take the shot. I do know my survival instinct is very strong.
        I live in a bad urban neighborhood now, but so far the criminals around here are cowards too. My neighbors know I am armed and when a crime wave hit last Summer and almost everyone on my street got either their house and/or car hit by burglars in a single night, nothing of mine was touched.

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