When considering the proper firearm tool for law enforcement, there isn’t a catch-all. Every tool has its positive qualities, like the portability of the handgun and the range of a bolt-action rifle, but none of them fit all the molds. If we look at the appropriate applications of a shotgun, many law enforcement agencies don’t consider its versatility. When it comes to ammunition appropriate for law enforcement use, I’d pick slugs every time.
Unlike metallic cartridge firearms, the shotgun can be loaded with non-aerodynamic projectiles. Some manufacturers of hunting products actually use cylindrical, or even non-concentric, shot to control or improve the dispersion of the shot pattern. For example, the same shotgun that can deliver a fully lethal round can also deliver a less lethal round. This is one of the reasons why we always designate a less lethal shotgun and use it for no other purpose.
My personal decision to use slugs almost exclusively in my patrol shotgun coincided with my agency’s decision to use slugs exclusively. This is one of the incidents that helped process the decision:
In one of the most bizarre beat calls I have ever had, I was dispatched to a call from a shooting victim. On the line with dispatch, our victim explained that he didn't know where he was after his (ex)girlfriend took him to an orchard with her (new) boyfriend, only to shoot him. Now he was lying on his back, describing his surroundings, which was, in fact, a ways from civilization.
I would never have found him, except an out-of-state-without-reporting parolee nearly ran him over. Apparently, the victim had worked his way to the middle of a country road. The parolee knew where they were and got me, and an ambulance, there quickly. Because the place of occurrence was county, not city, it quickly became an agency assist for me and I cleared aftertalking to the sheriff’s detective on scene. I headed back to my beat. But I hadn’t gone more than a mile in the country when a car pulled out from a side road in front of me. It looked like the suspect vehicle and matched the shooter’s description. It didn’t take long for me to confirm that I was following the suspect and I initiated a high-risk stop. The suspect didn’t move, despite the flashing lights and announcements. There was, however, one sound that spurred the suspect into compliance. A sheriff’s lieutenant showed up with his laser assisted slug gun. The “cha-chunk” of a shell entering the chamber of a shotgun is a universal language, and it worked here. The suspect was taken into custody.
I had a shotgun, too. However, my standoff distance, plus the length of the rear of the vehicle, added up to about 25 yards. I was carrying buckshot. At that distance, the spread would have placed some pellets on target, but what about the other pellets?
An officer has many firearms tools in the toolbox. Shotguns have enjoyed a long history in law enforcement as a means to bridge the gap between the range of a handgun and the range of a carbine. When loaded with buckshot, it is the equivalent to .24 to .38 caliber projectiles at respectable velocities. The most popular sized projectiles are in 00 ("double-ought"), the equivalent to .33 caliber, which can have muzzle velocities at 1,200 to 1,600 fps. Most 00 loads are 8 to 9 pellets, which is why they really work for duty. Basically, most 00 buck shells are the equivalent to firing eight .38 special shots simultaneously.
Most of us will train shooters in using buckshot within 25 yards, where the nominal spread of shot will land most pellets within 18 to 22 inches, which is around the width of the human torso. Theoretically, a defensive shotgun user—striking center mass—will keep all of the pellets from going beyond the intended target. There are two problems with this. First, if the shooter does not have a completely concentric, centered mass shot, the likelihood of pellets going beyond the target is very high. Second, most shot pattern tests can easily demonstrate that an 18-inch barrel shotgun will usually have patterns past 20 inches around at 15, not 25 yards. This will preclude buckshot use in most high-risk traffic stops. In fact, most uses beyond employment as an entry gun could be questionable, as long as there are non-targets in the periphery. For the record, buckshot is one of the best uses for the officer performing or covering the breaching.