To Rack or Not To Rack: The Perpetual Shotgun Question

police officer with shotgun

Whether in law enforcement or civilian hands, the shotgun sounds as intimidating as it looks. Photo: author

A discussion I’ve had with students and friends, almost as frequently as the “Which gun should I buy?” discussion, is in response to that age-old statement, “I have a shotgun for home defense. All I have to do is rack it and the bad guy will go away.”

I have heard this skewed logic many times and I must say that people who think the racking of a shotgun will unequivocally scare off a burglar, murderer or other home invader, these people are true believers! In their minds, this action is the perfect solution because it allows them an “out” from having to engage in a deadly force confrontation. And who would debate that if you’re not the person racking the shotgun, this is perhaps one of the scariest and most potentially deadly sounds in the world?

And far be it from me to say they’re wrong. When I was a reserve police officer in a small southern city a few years ago, my partner and I were called to investigate a warehouse where an alarm had been going off. I stepped in the open door of the warehouse and yelled out, “This is the police and we’re going to search the building, so come out now.” I followed up that statement with the rack of my trusty Mossberg 500. The sound it made echoed through the building with absolute authority! It made me feel great! And had there been a perpetrator in there, I’m sure he would have at least considered giving up his evil ways, possibly allowing me to simply handcuff him and take him to jail rather than face the muzzle of that 12-gauge shotgun and a load of 00 buckshot.

homeowner with shotgun

Homeowner ready to repel boarders. Photo: author

Home Defense

But when it comes to home defense, I believe that while the racking of a shotgun can be an assertive sound recognized by man and beast alike, it is also akin to yelling out, “Mr. Bad Guy, I am in here and I am armed. Please take your time, contemplate your actions, and if you still decide not to leave my home, you may now figure out how best to assault me!”

Crazy? Yes. Facetious? Yes. However, most people who consider a firearm for home defense would normally take many precautions. They have considered that they are the best and most effective means of defending themselves from a bad guy if that bad guy insists on doing them harm. These people are normally cautious and somewhat savvy about what it takes to defend their homes.

They lock their doors to give themselves a barrier against a determined bad guy. They install alarm systems and keep a cell phone handy to call 911 if something goes bump in the night. They install motion-activated lights or keep a porch light on to warn never-do-wells that they should choose an easier target.

And most people I know who are serious enough about home defense to keep a gun in their home would take added precautionary measures if their initial measures failed. If they heard someone breaking in, they would lock the bedroom door, pick up a phone and call 911, possibly also turning out the lights or the bedroom TV in order to ensure they were hidden. These actions are done for safety and, whether the defenders know it or not, they are also trying to maintain the tactical advantage.

calling 911

It’s important to get the police on their way immediately. Even a cell phone without service can call 911. Photo: author

Tactical Advantage

In a potential deadly force situation, one always wants to obtain, maintain or regain the tactical advantage. Why? Because the person with the tactical advantage will usually come out on top of the gunfight, knife fight, fistfight, or whatever the conflict is.

In a home-defense scenario, it behooves you to be quiet and not allow the bad guy to know exactly where in the house you’re located. It is distinctly to your advantage to know which floorboard on the stairwell creaks, which door squeaks, where mirrors are placed, and what corners you can, or cannot, see around. Why? Because with knowledge of your house in mind, you can hide, call 911, and if necessary engage the bad guy with force from a position of cover and concealment … and hopefully come out unscathed if a deadly force scenario ensues. But this is all contingent on maintaining the tactical advantage and staying in a position of advantage that best suits you.

If you decide to give up the tactical advantage, the risk must be weighed against the reward. Remember, while we are concerned about the potential harm to others from our actions (e.g., a bullet going astray and striking an innocent person), the bad guy has little concern for such things. If he did, he probably wouldn’t be breaking into your house! Therefore, if when defending your home, you decide to rack your shotgun and make a statement, who’s to say the bad guy won’t make a statement right back by shooting through the closed door, the wall, or the windows? Who’s to say the bad guy won’t start shooting indiscriminately in the hopes of striking you or your loved ones?

This consideration must be taken in context with your particular situation. For example, I live in the country and have a small household. If someone broke into my home and I were behind a locked door (concealment), with stout wooden furniture between myself and the doorway (cover), have my cell phone in hand (911), and know my loved ones are ensconced in a safe place, I may consider racking the shotgun and announcing loudly, “I have called the police. I have a gun. Go away!”

bullethole in wall

Bad guys don’t care about gun safety. They may simply shoot through a closed door or wall. Photo: author

That’s Why They’re Called Bad Guys

However, what guarantees do I have that the bad guy won’t walk into an adjoining room, or outside, and begin shooting through adjoining walls or windows, a situation for which I may not have been prepared when I sought cover? I have no guarantees, because there are no guarantees when it comes to dealing with the criminal element! I’d be hoping the bad guy isn’t smart enough to take advantage of this tactical faux pas on my part or that he’s fearful enough to high-tail it to the next county. I’d be hoping he doesn’t think my racking the shotgun means I’m fearful, emboldening him into further criminal action at my expense. I’d be hoping I could entreat logic into someone who is obviously being illogical. I’d be hoping his breaking into my home was a random event, that he wasn’t targeting me specifically and now may be more apt to continue his assault cautiously to ensure he gets what he came for. That’s a lot of hoping and very little in the way of guarantees.

Does that mean I should stay silent and shoot when the first opportunity presents itself? No! This is when I will hope the bad guy bypasses my locked bedroom door. I will hope he only takes what he needs to pawn for his next fix. I will hope the sound of police sirens in the distance causes him to run away. I will hope that everyone comes out of this alive. But I will ensure that I maintain the tactical advantage so that I, the good guy, the guy who is not breaking the law, and my loved ones stay safe and sound!

Consider this when you think about what you’ll do if the proverbial wolf comes to your door late one night. How will you deal with it? Will you rack your shotgun and hope? Do you have an alternate course of action if that doesn’t work? Are your family members in a safe place if the bad guy decides to shoot through the door(s) or go exploring other areas of your home?

There’s a consequence for every action. Some may be good and others not. Your particular situation dictates what’s best for you and your loved ones. Think about your plan and think about the “what ifs.” Ensure you maintain the tactical advantage to win the fight!

Share tips, start a discussion or ask one of our experts or other students a question.

Make a comment:
characters remaining

65 Responses to “To Rack or Not To Rack: The Perpetual Shotgun Question”

  1. Cws Fan

    A lot of keyboard warriors sounding off. Talk is cheap.

  2. Dan Faingnaert

    I appreciated and enjoyed the article and many insightful comments. My perspective on the scenario is I would never enter such a situation with just one weapon. While my Mossberg 500 has a shell capacity beyond what is typical I would also bring my .38 and .45 to confront any danger. They are all as equally accessible as my AK-47 but I would hope there would be less than 10 people involved in this assault. I like the idea of the chainsaw, but one probably would need to get too close.

  3. Phillip Frost

    If serious experts wish to convey important information to the citizenry, they should effort to be precise and concise in their writing. I got tired of reading all the superfluous bullshit before arriving at the punch line.

  4. Dave

    My pump shotgun is my goto for home defense hands down.

  5. Steven

    if i did have a pump shotgun in the home for self-defense, rest-assured there’d already be a round chambered (same as with any other self-defense gun)

  6. StLPro2A

    Here's a wild idea. Record your racking sound, devise a way to trigger/play over speaker away from your position. Gets the potential of the perp leaving in fear, without giving away one's true position. Kinda like a burglar alarm.

  7. Juan B

    Not having to rack a shotgun is the reason I have an AR style shotgun. One in the chamber and safety on, just a flip on the switch and she's ready to rock and roll.

  8. Sandy

    Good points to consider, but moot for those of us in the People’s Republic of New Jersey. We have “a duty to retreat” if we can. So if someone’s breaking in the front door and we can get out the back door (in freezing weather in our pajamas, leaving our pets behind, whatever), we are supposed to do it. NJ is run by mush heads.

  9. James

    If it came to the point where I needed to rack my gun? I have a Panzer AR--12 Pro with a 10-shot magazine. A second after I closed the bolt I'd be emptying that magazine. And the intruder would already be inside. I seriously doubt he would still be shooting randomly through the wall. Because the second 10-Shot magazine would immediately follow. :-)

  10. Domingos Oliveira

    Lock and lode ! I would stay low key and just wait and when i have him at rang take him out without a second thought!