To anyone who has been paying attention, it should come as no surprise that I am a fan of the shotgun. It is the round for round heavyweight champ inside 25 yards. Usually, shotgun fights are short-lived affairs. Our training focus should be on getting quick, effective hits, but eventually, we need to start rounding out the skill set and thinking about loading the gun too.
Why the Shotgun is Different
Unlike most other guns, there are two types of shotgun loads. One is just topping the gun off as able, and fairly straightforward. The other is emergency loading, and since that is the higher stakes game, that is what is on the docket for today.
The shotgun is unique in that we can essentially load a round directly in the chamber to minimize the amount of time the gun is actually in an unusable condition. This also means that if we need more lead downrange quick, port loading is the best route to that destination.
For the sake of simplicity, just assume I am talking about a right-handed shooter since most of us are. For left-handed folk, the math is actually a little different, since their support hand is on the same side of the gun as the ejection port. There are two basic approaches to port loading the shotgun and there are pros and cons for each technique, so let’s break them down.
Over the Top Port Load
Usually, when we think of spare shotgun ammo stored on defensive shotguns, it is in a side saddle opposite where the ejection port is located. An “over the top” port load is when the shell is retrieved from the side saddle (or somewhere else I suppose) with the support hand and passes over the top of the receiver on its way to the ejection port. The gun can be held in the shoulder and remain in its normal orientation, or it can be rotated to the left slightly. Rotating the gun gives better visual referencing of the ejection port, and reduces the odds of a miss.
Where an over-the-top reload can fall short is when the shotgun has optics mounted, or when using it with a semiauto gun. With optics mounted to the top of the gun, they are usually right above the ejection port. The extra height of the optic makes it more difficult to get access to the ejection port, requiring the hand with the shell to travel further.
Additionally, on semi-auto guns, the bolt release is almost always just below the ejection port. When reaching over the top of the gun, it is easy to obstruct the forward travel of the bolt handle when pressing the release. It isn’t impossible to use an over-the-top reload, you just have to be more careful.
Underneath Port Load
The other port load option is to bring the spare shell underneath the gun and load it into the ejection port from below. It is my opinion that loading the gun well this way requires a bit of extra work to execute well compared to running port loads over the top of the gun. It does come with some advantages though. At least in my opinion.
Believe it or not, I actually took almost a two-year break from shooting shotguns, and then 2020 hit and shotgun ammo was the only ammo not crazy expensive. Before my hiatus, I was a pretty devout “over the top” port loader. When I came back to the shotgun though, I was noticing some continuity issues with my reloads when I was just topping the gun off by loading into the magazine tube, and when I was doing an emergency port load. Since I was rebuilding the skillset anyway, I decided I might as well change the way I do things, and start running my emergency loads under the gun also. This allows me to do everything the same with regard to retrieving the shell from the side saddle and how I hold it. The only change between loading into the magazine tube and the ejection port is the destination. I personally find this continuity of technique useful, and it simplifies the reloading process. Your mileage may vary of course, but I think it is worth looking into at least.
The other upside is that running reloads under the gun will work on basically any type of magazine tube-fed shotgun, whether it be a pump gun or a semi-auto gun. We don’t have to worry about any bolt handles running into fingers, optics being in the way, or anything like that.
This technique doesn’t come without its issues though. This is, in essence, a blind reload. There is very little, if any, visual reference of the ejection port. This means it is fairly easy to miss the reload if someone has not really put in the practice. People will smaller hands, or shorter fingers, I have also found typically struggle with this technique.
So Which is Actually Better?
The question everyone wants answering (or maybe they don’t), is which one is better? Well, neither really. They are both viable emergency loading techniques assuming the person using the technique can do it well. It really comes down to personal preference. You notice I didn’t even mention which one might be faster because in reality they can be accomplished in so close to the same amount of time as to be insignificant.
The primary factors that will dictate which is better will depend on the shooter, and the shotgun they are using. With that in mind, if you really want to know you should grab some birdshot (you can still buy it pretty cheap), a shot timer, and few paper targets and go try them out.