Randy Cain’s Shotgun Class

One of the best things about Randy’s classes is his encyclopedic knowledge firearms equipment. Randy’s philosophy is that the most important aspect of a defensive weapon is that it is reliable, and the goal of shooting is to hit the target. As a result his gear selection tends toward the tried and true, with availability of replacement parts weighing strongly in his selection. Hence, his choice of shotgun is the Remington 870 as much for its ubiquity and availability of parts as for its inherent reliability.

Moreover, you will get a chance to see other people with various options and how they work, giving you ideas for your own gear, both what works and what doesn’t. And of course Randy will try to help you steer clear of transfer devices—gear whose main purpose is to transfer your money to the vendor.

This fall, I took Randy Cain’s Shotgun class. In preparation for the class, I have already posted a couple articles on the shotgun in general and what to look for in a Remington 870. Now that I have taken the Shotgun class, I will be posting an article on recommended modifications to the Remington 870. But this article is dedicated to the class itself.

Videos from the class are available for friends and family. E-mail me.

Day 1

Shotgun I is the second class that I have attended with Randy, and it followed the same pattern as Tactical Handgun 101. The first thing is a discussion on safety. You will learn Jeff Cooper’s safety rules for firearm safety word for word. Following safety is a general orientation to the shotgun as a whole and the Remington 870 in particular (everyone in our class had an 870) including how to load and how to unload the shotgun.

Then we were out on the firing line with buckshot to pattern the guns. Patterning consists of shooting buckshot at paper at varying distances to see what the pattern (or shot distribution looks like). You will need (at least) six rounds of two different types of buckshot (12 total) There are three reasons for this exercise:

  1. It helps you determine the best ammunition for your shotgun. Every barrel shoots every load differently.
  2. It helps you to understand your shotgun’s capabilities with buckshot at various distances.
  3. It demonstrates the folly of the Hollywood school of shotguns. At 7 seven yards (across the room distance), the pattern on my shotgun was only 4 inches across—so much for the “just point and you can’t miss” myth.

We exchanged our buckshot for birdshot and went to the steel plates and practiced various drills such as firing on the move, searching, and Rolling Thunder. Rolling thunder is a team exercise designed to put you under a bit of stress while manipulating the shotgun as quickly as possible just to keep it loaded. We would repeat Rolling Thunder with different variations several times over the next few days. This was followed by a competition to see who could knock down three steel plates the quickest.

Day 2

The next day, Randy showed us various slinging techniques and how to shoot from them. We then had a demonstration of how quickly one can shoot from African Carry. After some more birdshot drills, we exchanged shot for slugs and began the process of zeroing our shotguns, while Randy instructed us on prone shooting, the seven points of contact, and natural point of aim. The idea is that the prone shooting should be totally relaxed, and the sights should only move up and down as you breathe—easier said than done.

thumb_870_exp_combo_ban1.jpegRandy’s preferred zero with the shotgun is at 25 and 75 yards. The parabolic trajectory of a slug makes the zero the same at 25 and 75 yards, allowing for a very versatile zero. Our day was scorching hot (the following weekend was cool and crisp), so we had frequent breaks where class members picked Randy’s brain for gear selection. Here we learned that the clamps that most extension tube manufacturers use affect the zero of the shotgun, and you must re-zero after every time you remove the barrel for cleaning. So Randy doesn’t use the clamp and has his gunsmith drill and tap the metal between the barrel and retention ring to mount his slings (see picture).

Then we learned various shooting positions, sitting, squatting, and reinforced kneel. We shot several exercises in various positions followed by yet another Rolling Thunder and called it a day. Depending on the time of year and level of the class, Randy sometimes has a night shoot, but our class did not.

Day 3

After recapping the basics and what we had learned the previous two days, we shot several birdshot drills, refined our zeroes, and proceeded to shoot several several slug drills and competitions (some of which you can see on my videos page). We also performed select slug drills and a drill where Randy gives you a sequence of slugs and birdshot to shoot, and then you must load the shotgun correctly and hit the appropriate targets (hint: don’t shoot slugs at the steel targets).

And then all too soon we were saying good-byes and driving back home.

Last thoughts

Randy’s courses are incredibly fun and educational. They can also be incredibly frustrating if you show up with the wrong gear. In the case of the shotgun, you’ll get the most out of the course if you have a Remington 870 with Rifle sights with a recoil pad. (A maxi pad under your shirt also helps.) A sling is mandatory. You should cut the stock down to a comfortable length of pull (this will help your shoulder immensely). Get a fanny pack or military style drop bag to hold your shotgun shells, but make sure you can close it with a zipper or pull string, because some of the drills have you getting up and down, going prone, and spilling your shells everywhere. Also bring a mat or blanket of some kind. If you forget to, you can use your car’s floor mat in a pinch. Other than that, wait until you complete the course before spending any additional money on your shotgun.

And finally come with an open mind. As Randy says, you’re paying him good money, so you might as well try it his way first. You can always go back to what you were doing if it doesn’t work out for you. Take good notes, and start saving up for your next class.

Shotguns: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.

Those famous words were spoken by Wesley (Cary Elwes) in The Princess Bride in response to Vizzini’s convoluted arguments.  I feel the same about anyone who can understand all of the intricacies of firearms.  I have already written about some of my adventures into the realm of handguns, but this did nothing to prepare me for the dizzying variety in the world of shotguns.  Shotguns have infinitely more variety than handguns

This little article will describe some of the choices and options to consider when purchasing a shotgun.  (Please keep in mind that I have not yet had the opportunity to take a shotgun class, so much the information here will most likely need to be updated afterward.)

As always, the first question to be asked of any gun purchase is the gun’s intended purpose.  With shotguns, the basic purposes boil down to recreational shooting such as traps and clay birds, hunting birds and small game, hunting larger game (such as deer), and self defense, especially home defense.  If you are on a tight budget you will probably want one shotgun that can serve multiple roles.  This can be accomplished because most shotguns allow multiple barrels that, in combination with different types of ammunition, can be configured for different roles.

The shotgun I am buying is first for self/home defense, and second for hunting/sporting (two things I do not do that often).  The key things to consider when purchasing the shotgun are the action, the gauge, and the barrel.

The Action

The action refers to the type of shotgun.  The basic (most common) three actions are break-action, pump, and autoloading.  The break-action has a pivot between the chamber and the barrel.  The action “breaks” or pivots open and the shells are loaded into the barrel.  This is the traditional shotgun and comes in two basic varieties.  Single barrel, and double barrel.  Double barrels may be side by side or over-under, which describes the placement of the two barrels.  These shotguns are very simple, very durable, and the barrel can be changed out for different purposes.  They have been around for hundreds of years and vary from extremly inexpensive to very expensive.

The second type of shotgun is the pump-action shotgun.  This is the iconic police shotgun from just about every movie featuring a policeman.  Pump shotguns offer the advantage of quicker follow up shots when compared to break-action shotguns but are more complicated and can be more expensive.  The shotgun shells are typically loaded into a magazine tube mounted below the barrel.  The user loads a new round by sliding (pumping) the action.

The third type of shotgun is the autoloading (or semiautomatic) shotgun.  These shotguns use the recoil of the shotgun to load the next round.  These offer the quickest followup shots but are the most complicated and most prone to mechanical failure. 

Generally speaking, the pump action is preferred for self defense purposes, due to it combination of quick follow up shots and rugged, reliable action.  Of course reading any internet forum will bring a myriad arguments in favor of all three.  So which did I go with?  The pump action.

The Gauge

The gauge refers to the size of the round the shogun will accommodate. Gauge is typically measured as a fraction, so 12 gauge is actually larger than 20 gauge (1/12 > 1/20).  The most common gauge by far is the 12 followed by the 20, with the oddly named .410 recently gaining in popularity.  (The .410 is measured in inches and would be equivalent to 67 gauge.)   Other relatively common gauges include the 10 and 28 (probably best known for being the gauge former vice president Dick Cheney used to shoot a hunting partner by accident).

Shogtun shells are verstaile creatures, able to accommodate, birdshot, buckshot, slugs, and specialty rounds such as flechettes (tiny darts) or tear gas cannisters.  For civilians, the first three are the most common ammunition.  The size of the gauge determines how much shot or what size slug can be used.  The trade off is the amount of shot vs the kick or recoil of the gun.  Shotguns are notorious for their kick, and new users are often steered to the smaller gauges because of their lighter recoil.

Randy Cain (my gun guru of choice from reputation, accessibility, and experience) maintains that this is a mistake.  There is more 12 gauge ammunition available than any other choice, and if recoil is an issue, low-recoil 12 gauge shells have less recoil than traditional 20 gauge rounds.  Anne Langlois also offers that loading a 20 gauge magazine is more difficult than a 12.

So what did I go with?  12 gauge.  I haven’t paid for Randy’s advice on shotguns yet, but I might as well try to do it his way first.

The Barrel

The barrel on most shotguns can be replaced, so a single shotgun can be configured for multiple purposes.


Generally speaking, a short barrel is desirable for self defense applications because it is more maneuverable.  The shortest barrel that can be owned by civilians without hassle is 18 inches.  Shorter barrels are also used for hunting in more densely wooded areas.  Generally speaking, a longer barrel is used to for hunting game that moves because the heavier barrel swings more smoothly.


The bore refers to the inside of the barrell.  There are two types of shotgun bore: smooth and rifled.  Rifled barrels are a more recent development and are generally used for hunting with slugs.  Smooth bores can be used for shot or slugs.


Some shotgun barrels are choked, which means the muzzle end is constricted.  Choking the barrel prevents shot from spreading as much, allowing the shotgun to be used for longer distances.  Some shotgun barrels have interchangeable chokes so that the same barrel can be used for several different purposes.  For self defense shotguns,  cylinder or improved cylinder barrel is preferred.


The traditional shotgun sight is a single bead at the muzzle end of the barrel.  The shotgun is pointed not aimed.  However for slugs and longer distance hunting, traditonal rifle sights or vent-ribs may be used.  A vent rib is a tube or ridge that sits above the barrel and aids in sighting.  For a defensive shotgun, rifle sights are preferred. Note: Jeff Cooper decided that ghost ring sites were best for tactical shotguns, so that is what is most popular, but in more recent times, instructors such as Randy Cain have discovered they shoot faster and better with traditional rifle sights.

The Conclusion

We have only begun to scracth the surface of shotguns, but hopefully, you have enough basic vocabulary to choose  a shotgun for home defense.  The preferred home defense shotgun is a 12 gauge, pump-action, shotgun with an 18 inch, improved cylinder barrel with rifle sights.

The Contenders

The two most common types of shotgun that meet these criteria are the Mossberg 500 series and the Remington 870.  (Please note that I have no experience with the Mossberg, so this information is either factual or 2nd hand anecdotal).  The Remington 870 has been around a long time and is a standard among armed forces, police, and hunters.  It seems to be the standard by which all other pump shotguns are measured.  There are a ton of replacement parts and accessories available for it.

The Mossberg 500 series is both stronger and weaker, more and less reliable, more and less rugged than the Remington 870 depending on who you listen to.  Generally speaking, the major factors in its favor are that it is often less expensive, and the safety is located on top of the receiver and is completely ambidextrous, making it attractive to left handers.

The choice

Randy Cain’s preferred shotgun is the Remington 870, and since I have no preferences whatsoever (my shotgun experience is only with break-actions) I went ahead and bought a Remington 870.   Of course, that brings another set of dizzying choices with it.  The next article will highlight the different models of Remington 870 and guide you through some of their major features.