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Home Defense Shotguns:
Pump-Action vs Semi-Auto

By: Trent Gander |

Semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns

The shotgun is a popular choice for home defense, because of the versatility and firepower it provides. Most emergency defense situations will happen at short distances, and the shotgun is very effective within 20 yards. Shotguns are generally easier to use than handguns, and being able to use the weapon is key to self-defense.

Most shotguns used for home-defense are either pumps or semi-automatics. It’s important to choose the action type that works best for your needs. This article will help you do just that.


Mossberg 500 Pump Action Shotgun

Pump shotguns or slide action shotguns are the primary option people look to first for home-defense. They work by pulling the forearm manually back towards yourself and pushing it forward. This ejects the chambered shell, and chambers the next shell. This basic back and forth motion is repeated until there are no more shells in the gun.

But what makes it good for home defense? The pump shotgun is simple, reliable, and affordable. They are also legal in most areas compared to other home-defense options. Since you are the power behind chambering the next shell, pump action shotguns are not as sensitive to ammunition. This means you can use lighter recoiling loads without having to worry if the shell can cycle your shotgun.

Pump shotguns are relatively lightweight, usually ranging from 5-7 pounds in total. This makes them easier to handle but more susceptible to felt recoil. Since the shotgun is so light and doesn’t have as many moving parts, most of the backwards energy of a shell goes right into your shoulder. This can be mitigated by your stock design or by using the “Push-pull” method.

The “Push-pull” method is when you try to push the forearm forward while pulling back on the grip, almost like you are trying to pull the shotgun apart. This helps mitigate recoil by producing a rigid shooting stance. You don’t have to maintain this method at all times, just before firing.

Pump Shotgun Pros:

  • Low cost
  • Reliable
  • Not ammunition sensitive
  • Lightweight
  • Legal in most locations

However, there are some trade-offs for the pump design. The biggest drawback is user induced malfunctions. Since you are manually cycling the action, you can induce a malfunction by “short stroking” the gun. This is when you do not fully pull the forend back. This can result in a failure to eject the spent shell and/or a failure to chamber the next shell. Short stroking can occur under pressure for experienced shotgunners, and there are few situations more stressful than a home-defense scenario. You need to be confident in your ability to cycle the weapon.

Another drawback to pump shotguns is modularity. Being able to put better sights or lights on your shotgun easily improves the usefulness of the gun. Lights allow you to access a threat to see if it actually is a threat while sights allow for better shot placement. If a shotgun cannot cannot be upgraded with either of these, they will be harder to use in a self-defense situation.

A pump shotgun’s modularity is model dependent. There are numerous designs that have been modified to fit home defense roles, but your standard hunting shotgun may not be able to accept these modifications.

Pump Shotgun Cons:

  • User induces malfunctions/short stroking
  • Not as modular as other options
  • More felt recoil

A Few of Our Most Popular Pump-Action Shotguns


Benelli M4 Semi-Automatic Shotgun

Semi-automatic shotguns use the energy from the last shot to load the next one. This allows for faster rates of fire and a lower chance of malfunctions. The lesser malfunction rate is the primary benefit of a semiautomatic system.

Semi-auto operating systems come in two major forms: gas and inertia. Gas systems use the gas that’s escaping from the previous shot to move a piston, cycling the action, and pulling a new shell into the chamber.

In the inertia system, the backward motion of the released shell creates enough energy to open the chamber and slide the bolt. A return spring then moves the bolt forward again, bringing a new shell into the chamber.

For beginner shooters or those not used to sliding the forearm of a shotgun, semi-autos are the better option. You just have to focus on aiming, firing, and reloading the gun without adding the extra worry of short stroking.

Semi-Automatic Shotgun Pros:

  • No risk of short stroking
  • Easier for new shooters
  • Faster followup shots
  • Better recoil mitigation
  • Better modularity (model dependent)

While semiautomatic shotguns are great options, they are not free of drawbacks. Since the ammunition helps with the cycling of the gun, semi-automatics are ammunition sensitive. If a shell doesn’t provide enough gas or recoil, the shotgun can malfunction by not fully cycling the bolt. This can be easily avoided by running the recommended shells for your shotgun. Usually this is standard recoil or greater.

Another drawback of a semi-automatic shotgun is the semi-auto system. Gas systems are typically heavier, but this also means they have a less intense recoil. They also require more maintenance and cleaning. The inertia design doesn’t require as much cleaning since the gas is expelled from the gun, but they are lighter and are less comfortable to shoot.

The final drawback of the semi-automatic shotgun is price. Since they are more complex internally, semi-automatic shotguns are more expensive than a pump shotgun, usually being at or above the $1000 price tag. Any lower and you are more likely to encounter a low quality, finicky gun.

Semi-Automatic Shotgun Cons

  • Expensive
  • Ammunition sensitive
  • More maintenance
  • Legal restrictions (location dependent)

A Few of Our Most Popular Semi-Automatic Shotguns

Pump vs Semi-Automatic at a Glance

Pump-Action Semi-Automatic
Reliability User dependent Ammunition dependent
Modularity Base gun, less modular Base gun, more modular
Affordability More affordable Less affordable
Legality Legal most locations Restricted in some locations

In Conclusion

The reality is that all of these options will help you in a home-defense scenario. The most important thing is to find a gun that you can use reliably, and that you’ll be able to activate in the event of an intruder or attack. Whether you go with pumps, gas system, or inertia system make sure you are comfortable using the gun, and that you choose the one that suits you best.