There haven’t been any secrets that I don’t particularly like #4 buckshot as a defensive shotgun load. It is kind of like the .380 of the shotgun world. It will probably work, but if for some reason things go particularly sideways, it may not be as effective as we need it to be. Mostly this is related to the size and mass of the pellets, their corresponding sectional density, and the ability to penetrate the human body sufficiently to reach and damage critical structures in such a way as to ensure near-immediate incapacitation. When all the chips are on the table, I want the safer bet, and 4-buck isn’t it. I understand many people disagree with that position though, so I took a look at the one 4-buck load that I think might be worth someone’s time. Not mine though, I am sticking with 00. Just to put it out there.
The Biggest Issue with 4-Buck
The other issue with smaller buckshot loads, or really any buckshot load that isn’t 00 is pattern performance. I have just about beaten this horse to death, at least twice. Manufacturers have focused on developing 00 loads because those are the loads that sell. The development of rear braking wad designs (Flite Control and VersaTite) have greatly improved the pattern performance of 00 loads over loads that do not use a rear braking wad design.
Unfortunately, the technology in higher-performing 00 loads has not been applied to loads with smaller buckshot sizes, with two exceptions. One is Federal’s #1 Flite Control load that is out of production. According to Federal, not for forever, but they sure aren’t getting in a hurry to bring it back. The other is Hornady’s Varmint Express #4 buckshot load. This is the one 4-buck load that might be worth looking at for the defensive shotgunner.
Hornady’s Varmint Express #4 buckshot load is readily available, usually around $1.50/shell. It is a 24 pellet, 2-3/4″ load with Hornady’s VersaTite wad and an on-the-box velocity of 1,350 fps. Hornady uses a 30” test barrel for their 12ga shotgun loads, and there is usually quite a disparity between the on the box velocity and what we can expect from an 18”-20” defensive shotgun. I have seen reports of around 1,200fps for this load, but have not tested it personally.
The felt recoil impulse of the load is on par with a standard velocity 9 pellet 00 load. It is not excessive, but neither is it light. Definitely less than Hornady’s Critical Defense 00 buckshot load. Over the years I have probably fired over 100 rounds of this 4-buck load in a handful of different shotguns and never had any issue with the shells feeding or extracting out of any of those shotguns. Pattern results have also been fairly consistent across several samples.
Keep It Simple, Maybe
The construction of the load follows Hornady’s familiar approach. The pellets are not plated, and there is not any buffer material added to help protect the integrity of the pellets as they are launched down the barrel. It is a pile of powder, a VersaTite wad, and a pile of pellets. That is it. To the best of my knowledge, all of Hornady’s buckshot loads except for one follow this same basic pattern of construction. I do think the construction leaves some improved performance on the table. While the rear braking wad is a big step forward, there are still a few things that could help even more.
Patterning out of a cylinder bore shotgun (because that is what most defensive shotguns are), the load holds about 13” at 15 yards with 1 or 2 fliers and about 7″ at 10 yards. Depending on the construction of the home, 15 yards should cover most interior distances. For a 4-buck load, a 13” pattern at 15 yards out of a cylinder bore gun is above average. Larger than I would personally like, but better than what most can do without involving choke tubes. The same is true of the 10 yard performance. It is better than usual for a 4-buck load, but way behind what can be done with a good 00 load.
Missed It By That Much
This is the unfortunate part. As a defensive load, this one is nearly there but just falls short. Large patterns at likely engagement distances for this context create downrange risks that are not acceptable. If Hornady would use copper-plated pellets, add some Grex (buffer material), and reduce the recoil by dropping the velocity down to around 1100 fps, I think there would be a significant improvement in pattern performance. If they did that, they could sell the load in their Critical Defense product line and probably make a fortune.
Where It Could Work
If your likely engagement distances don’t exceed 10 yards, maybe this load could work for you, at least in terms of pattern size. There are better-performing loads, and the need for a less penetrative buckshot solution is dubious at best. I am not certain why someone would choose 4-buck over 00 loads, but if that is you, and you are limited to only the potential for 10 yard shots, then this one might be worth consideration. I wouldn’t use it, but you can 😉