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Pistol-grip shotguns offer a more maneuverable and compact alternative to the traditional shotgun configuration. How do you hold and fire a pistol-grip shotgun—and is there any magic to it?
Traditionally, shotguns are shoulder weapons. That is, military combat shotguns, riot shotguns, and hunting shotguns are typically long guns featuring a stock that you brace against your shoulder.
The advantages of a stock on a shotgun are numerous: it allows you to stabilize the weapon, effectively manage recoil, exert more control, and it’s an additional point of contact between you and the firearm.
However, due to the need for portability and maneuverability, some shotgunners prefer pistol-grip shotguns. A pistol-grip shotgun eliminates the traditional buttstock in favor of a perpendicular pistol grip, akin to that of a handgun or modern service rifle, or what’s called a “bird’s head” grip.
This latter type, which has become increasingly popular on short-barreled shotguns, offers a less acute angle and increased comfort.
You’ve probably seen pistol-grip shotguns or shotguns lacking shoulder stocks in films and TV shows. Mad Max Rockatansky in the titular film series and the T-800 (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) both carry and use sawed-off shotguns with pistol grips.
Some fire it with one hand, others use two. Firing a shotgun with one hand may look cool, but it’s not practical—the recoil can be potent with buckshot or slugs.
A more practical grip consists of a two-handed hold—one on the pistol grip and the other on the fore-end. In a pump-action shotgun, your support hand should be on the fore-end.
You’ll also find shotguns with spade- or chainsaw-like grips above the barrel. These are designed for a film-like hip shooting that looks good on TV or the silver screen. Unfortunately, they give you no tactical advantage whatsoever.
Pistol-grip shotguns are also used extensively in police and tactical applications, because the lack of a buttstock—or the inclusion of a folding stock—reduces the overall length.
If you need to maneuver a shotgun in the confined space of a corridor, the inside of a vehicle, or through dense brush, a shorter package can stop the gun from catching on the environment. A shorter shotgun is also inherently easier to defend from an attacker attempting to disarm you.
How to Shoot a Pistol Grip Shotgun
It’s customary in movies for the shotgun-armed protagonist, especially if his weapon has a pistol grip, to fire the weapon from the hip. This method usually overlaps with the Hollywood portrayal of shotguns as fan-like in their spreading pattern.
In the movies, you can’t miss with a shotgun firing buckshot because the spread is so wide. So there’s no need to aim or even point the weapon. As a result, the hero can assume a far more nonchalant and cavalier stance.
However, when you’re learning how to shoot a pistol-grip shotgun, you should always start with aiming.
Unfortunately, in a defensive context, at anything other than point-blank range, you do run the risk of missing your intended target if you fire a shotgun the way they often shoot shotguns in the movies.
The cluster of buckshot pellets covers less area than a tea saucer, even after traveling one or two meters—even from a relatively short barrel.
You can learn how to shoot a shotgun from the hip effectively at close range. But this takes practice. Furthermore, if you intend to fire slugs, in which there is no dispersion, aiming becomes even more important.
As a result, rather than holding the shotgun at the hip or waist level, you should instead raise the weapon to eye level and use your support hand to drive the weapon forward toward the threat.
As you drive the weapon forward, you can see the bead front sight or iron sights (if the gun has them), allowing you to aim for a more precise shot.
If you’re using a pump-action shotgun with a relatively short barrel, such as the Mossberg 590 Shockwave, the fore-end will usually feature a strap to prevent your hand from slipping. Use this to apply forward pressure.
The Mossberg 500 series, including the 590 and 590A1, features an ambidextrous safety on the top of the receiver. A bird’s-head pistol grip allows you to place the thumb of your firing hand on the safety catch. Starting from low ready, you can disengage the safety as you aim the shotgun in one continuous stroke.
Maintain a firm grip on the gun at all times. Even a 20-gauge shotgun firing slugs or buckshot can recoil much more than a heavy-caliber handgun.
The best way to determine which pistol-grip design suits you is to experiment with a variety of different types. This way, you can see which pistol grip you find the most comfortable and controllable with your choice of scattergun. This is where your choice of targets becomes important.
Paper and cardboard targets are good for identifying the spreading pattern of the shotgun, and this is something that you should take the time to investigate. The spreading pattern of your shotgun will depend on a variety of factors relating to both the weapon and the ammunition.
However, once you determine the spreading pattern, paper targets are arguably less than ideal because they deteriorate rapidly. Instead, consider investing in a steel target that you can shoot repeatedly as you test different grip types and stances.
If you experiment with birdshot rounds, you will quickly pepper the paper target and destroy it. The exact location where each pellet hits is not important. You need to know where the majority of pellets end up, which a steel target can demonstrate.
Furthermore, as a long-term investment, steel will last far longer than paper. It also has the advantage of weight on its side.
Part of learning how to shoot a pistol-grip shotgun is managing recoil. As pistol-grip shotguns provide one less point of contact between you and the gun, this can pose a challenge.
Some shooters find recoil of pistol-grip shotguns particularly uncomfortable because now the impulse is delivered to their wrist rather than their shoulder.
Many shotgun pistol grips are composed of ergonomically shaped hard rubber or rubberized plastic for this reason. These types compress to dampen the felt recoil against your palm.
As with other types of shotguns, compensators, muzzle brakes, and ported choke tubes can mitigate the recoil by exhausting gases laterally. An alternative way to manage the recoil of short-barreled pistol-grip shotguns is to load and fire mini shells.
Rather than standard- or magnum-length shotshells, mini shells are typically 2–2½” long and carry lighter shot charges. The reduced shot and powder charges recoil more lightly.
While this may sound like a compromise, it has an upside. In pistol-grip shotguns with short barrels, such as the Mossberg Shockwave, the magazine tube is also shorter and carries fewer shells.
Mini shells, however, can increase the magazine capacity of the 590 Shockwave from five to eight. This serves two purposes: it increases your firepower and reduces the strain on your hand, leading to an overall more effective weapon.
A pistol-grip shotgun, whether it has a short or standard-length barrel, can offer a few benefits compared with a traditional scattergun. It’s worth spending some time getting to know the way your pistol-grip shotgun handles.