Sunday, January 26, 2014

Riot gun part 4: Danger radius and Rule Four


Rule Four of the rules of gun safety tells us to be sure of our target and what is beyond it. The idea is to eliminate mistaken identity shootings and collateral damage downrange. It is an important rule; all of them are. But it needs to be applied intelligently.

You've heard the mantra: You are responsible for each projectile that you send downrange. Every shotgun pellet has a lawyer attached. You must not use buckshot beyond the range at which all the pellets will stay on the target. Otherwise pellets will sail past the target and cause incidents downrange.

There is a flaw in that reasoning. Most shots fired in anger miss, and this is true for all types of firearms, so there is always a downrange hazard cone in a gunfight. The frequent advice that you switch to shotgun slugs beyond very short range is questionable on that ground. A miss with a slug produces a highly significant downrange hazard, an ounce of speeding lead, and a slug has a long danger radius. It is still flying, and still deadly, at farther distances than buckshot. On occasion, a shotgun slug whizzes through its target and then continues on its merry way. If you could assure that every slug will hit (and you cannot), you have not eliminated the downrange danger. You have, though, created a different problem by using slugs. The hit probability of slugs is lousy when you compare it to buckshot. It is rather essential to hit your target, after all, and buckshot gives you your best chance.

We may as well be realistic in our thinking and say that using a shotgun always requires a conscientious downrange check, a good look, not a cursory glance. You should be aware of how much the pattern spreads and look well off to the sides of your target. If there is someone in the danger zone who is not an assailant, you are faced with a no-shoot scenario, and must deal with it as best you can.

The shotgun's danger radius can be reduced by using smaller than usual shot, but there are limits on how small the shot can be and still be reliable as a fight  stopper. Using small birdshot seems to me to be a poor idea. It doesn't have a big danger radius but it lacks penetration for shooting hominids. The danger to your neighbors is reduced but the danger to you is very much increased. If, God forbid, you ever need to shoot someone, you had best use something that will stop him. Repeat after me, class: Birdshot is strictly for the birds.

I am not sure what the minimum shot size is for effective self defense. It is one of those questions that I weigh on an ongoing basis. In other words, I have not made up my mind. At the moment, the smallest stuff I have on hand for defensive use is #4 buckshot, which is not to be confused with #4 birdshot, which is clearly too small for defense. I am thinking, though, that for short range uses it might be possible to go a size or two smaller than #4 buck, with the result of increased pattern density and reduced danger radius. I will need to do some tests to satisfy my curiosity about this; I'm not sure when I'll get to it. Until then, #4 buck seems a sensible minimum.

As to the question of pellets that fly wide of the target, the danger is comparable to a fusillade of bullets that mostly miss, as commonly happens when people shoot at each other, particularly when they use pistols. People situated downrange are not safe whatever weapon you are using. When due caution is exercised to look past and to the sides of your target (and above and below) the downrange danger of the shotgun is not anything startlingly and terrifyingly different from other weapons. The lesser danger radius of shot, as compared to most bullets, gives us a bit of extra insurance. Concerns about pellets that miss, as we hear them expressed these days, are largely overblown. Buckshot was in use for centuries before we decided we needed to worry especially about it.


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