A shotgun is a great multi-purpose weapon.
A shotgun is a great multi-purpose weapon.

The amount and variety of firearms available today is staggering. Some are designed for specific uses. When choosing a firearm to fill multiple roles, you often find that only one type of firearm will work for one specific job.

Take the Barrett M82 .50-caliber sniper rifle. It is designed to engage targets at very long distances and to interdict hard targets such as vehicles. But it doesn’t make a very good varmint gun.


Picking a firearm to fill multiple roles is difficult, to say the least. This is especially true when trying to pick one gun for survival purposes. I believe the best way to pick a firearm is to define what roles you need to fill. At a minimum, a survival gun needs to be able to do the following:

Taking small game. Small game such as squirrels and rabbits are a main staple of a subsistence diet. They are best taken with smaller calibers such as .22 Long Rifle, .22 Magnum, and .17 HMR.

Taking large game. This category is broad and includes many varieties of game. There is a big difference in the caliber needed to bag the average North American deer compared to what it takes to drop a grizzly bear. A round such as the .300 Winchester Magnum could probably fulfill the need, though you could argue it’s a bit on the small side for some of the really big beasts.

Taking game in flight. Ducks, geese, and other birds are best taken with a shotgun. In a survival situation (hunting laws notwithstanding), birds can be taken with a .22 when they are stationary, though it would be difficult to take one with a rimfire while the bird is in flight.

Shotguns are a good choice for your bug-out mobile.
Shotguns are a good choice for your bug-out mobile.

Self-defense. This is a broad category that is situation dependent. Home defense is different than defending oneself when in the field. But generally, a long gun such as an AR-15 or AK would be a good catchall for self-defense.

Combat. I added this category separate from self-defense because self-defense means protecting yourself and others, while combat is the act of seeking out and eliminating threats. Self-defense could generally be considered reactive whereas combat is more proactive. Like self-defense, a semiautomatic long gun (or select fire if you can get one) is the way to go.

Each category calls for a different, unique weapon system. In a perfect survival scenario, you would have a variety of weapons to fit every need, like a golfer choosing the right club for the situation. I’ll use the dreaded toolbox analogy used in firearms training schools everywhere — “using the right tool for the job” when you have multiple tools to pick from.

Can one type of firearm fulfill all these roles? Yes and no. There is no weapon that can do them all well, but one firearm can do them all pretty well—the shotgun. Before you stop reading and go find an article from the late, great Louis Awerbuck, let me explain.


Three good tactical shotguns: Benelli M4 semi-auto and two Remington 870s. Bottom gun is custom build from <a href=

The shotgun is the ultimate all-purpose weapon. It can adequately fulfill all the aforementioned roles. Loaded with birdshot, it can take most small game. My mother-in-law has used a Remington 1100 20-gauge for years to take all kinds of small game, including larger varmints like woodchucks. With larger shot, waterfowl can be taken too.

You can take deer, elk, mountain lion, and more with slugs. In a pinch, you can use it to defend yourself against an angry bear (multiple shots recommended). The obvious limitation here is range. Slugs run out of gas. Depending on the type of ammo and whether or not the barrel is rifled, a 12-gauge slug can get accurate hits out past 100 yards and beyond. Not nearly as good as a .300 Win Mag, but it will still do the job.

For self-defense and combat, a shotgun excels in some areas but is definitely lacking in others. 00 buck and slugs are great for close-quarters combat. With multiple pellets, 00 buck increases close-range hit probability through the number of projectiles launched at the threat and the spread pattern they make.

Slugs tear through cover like a hot knife through butter, making them great for engaging threats hiding behind cover. A 12-gauge slug is roughly a .73-caliber bullet with a weight of around 430 grains. Compare that to a .223 round weighing 56 grains. Obviously, other ballistic factors need to be considered, such as velocity and round composition, but that 12-gauge chunk of lead weighs as much as eight .223 rounds!

Author keeps 00 buck and slug shells readily available.
Author keeps 00 buck and slug shells readily available.

As a cop, I’ve personally witnessed the results of different types of firearms on victims and suspects. The effects of a relatively close-range 00 buck round are devastating. The pellets are about .33 caliber and shotshells generally have eight or more pellets. A direct hit is usually lethal. I once saw a victim hit in the shoulder with 12-gauge birdshot. It wasn’t fatal, but it left one heck of a jagged hole.

Shotguns have been used in every major conflict since the Revolutionary War. I personally witnessed them being used in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom for CQB and vehicle defense. Many SWAT teams still carry them with the added plus of their being useful as breaching weapons. Many departments employ them with less-lethal munitions and chemical rounds.


Where shotguns fall short are in range and ammo capacity. If you’re duking it out with a guy armed with an M4, he can reach out and touch you from much longer distances. More importantly, the long gunner can change magazines quickly, resulting in a higher volume of fire. Tube-fed shotguns have about eight rounds at the ready, compared to 30 or more for an AR.

That being said, great advances have been made in the past ten years to help make up for the capacity gap. If your shotgun can handle Aguila 1¾-inch rounds instead of standard 2¾-inch rounds, you can load and carry a lot more ammo.

Picatinny rail on Benelli M4.
Picatinny rail on Benelli M4.

If you’re limited to a tube-fed pump or semi-auto shotgun, some great rapid reloading devices are out there. Three-gun competition has driven designing these devices for the sport, with the peripheral effect of making them useful for tactical applications as well.

Mossberg and Remington now have magazine-fed pump guns that allow for quicker reloads. Some fine mag-fed semi-autos are based on the AK platform as well. Kel-Tec’s KSG Bullpup has two tubes that hold seven rounds each of standard 12 gauge. A long-barreled KSG 25 holds 41 rounds of 1¾-inch rounds. Reloads are quick too.

Most tactical shotguns readily take accessories such as lights and optics. A Picatinny rail is standard on the top of most tactical shotguns. A good holographic sight can be used to engage human threats as well as for hunting.

Don’t rule out the old scattergun when it comes to a multi-purpose weapons platform!

Nick Perna is a sergeant with the Redwood City Police Department in Northern California and has spent much of his career as a gang and narcotics investigator. He served as a member of a Multi-Jurisdictional SWAT team as an entry team member, sniper, and team leader. He previously served as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army and is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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