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Racking the Shotgun: Fear Factor or Bullet Magnet?

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Things in the firearms world tend to suffer something of a pendulum swing. One such thing is the concept of racking the shotgun. For decades there was a lot of really obnoxious conventional wisdom that said working a pump shotgun’s action was a terrifying sound. The sound alone, it was said, would make a bad guy run away in fear.

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Now the pendulum has swung. Lately I’ve noticed a lot of voices out there – including really smart guys – saying you shouldn’t rack the shotgun. A common reason for this is that the shotgun’s noise might give away one’s position. To be honest I think this position misses some really important nuance.

Let’s discuss both of these positions and see where we land.

Rack: It’s Scary!

First, racking the shotgun is not guaranteed to make a bad guy run away. It’s just not – those who claim to know what some random human will do when confronted with a given stimulus don’t know people very well.

Predicting Bad Guy Behavior?

There are numerous options a bad guy could choose upon the sound of racking the shotgun. He could run away, freeze, or immediately charge the sound. Or he could completely ignore and go about prowling through your house. One thing I have learned from doing and teaching surveillance for years: people do things you would never expect for reasons you’ll never be able to fathom. Predicting the behavior of individuals is an exercise in futility.

Also, bad guys don’t think like you and I do. They are operating under the idea that breaking into someone’s home and stealing their possessions is an acceptable way to make money. They may give zero thought to their own personal safety. By nature burglars are already exhibiting a pretty high tolerance for risk. The risk of getting shot may be something they confront all the time.

While racking the shotgun is indeed an intimidating sound to me and you, it might not be to a bad guy. You and I know what it is, but bad guy may or may not even recognize the sound. Secondly, you and I have probably spent considerable time shooting shotguns and understand its devastating effect. The bad guy might not understand a shotgun’s terminal ballistics and thus, might not be intimidated by it.

Or again, he just might not care. But there are other reasons racking the shotgun might not have the desired effect.

If a Shotgun is Racked in the Forest…

There’s the real possibility that the bad guy might not even hear it. If you have a big home, are behind a closed bedroom door, and/or are on a different floor that’s possible. He might be hard of hearing, or be doing something dumb like wearing earbuds. If you’re doing things right, it should take the bad guy a minute to get in the house. He shouldn’t be able to get in without making some noise. If that’s the case you’ve likely readied your shotgun before he’s even inside.

The bad guy might not recognize the sound, even if he does hear it. And again, if you’re locked in a bedroom or on a different floor the sound may be muffled or distorted. If it’s muffled it might lose its punch and end up just being a weird noise, not the panic-inducing sound it’s intended to be. The bad guy also might be so preoccupied that he misses really obvious things, like that noise. Remember, this is just another “day at the office” for him.

Even if the bad guy is thinking rationally and knows shotguns inside and out, there are plenty of plausible reasons the noise of racking might not scare him off.

The Problem?

The point is that the shotgun’s action does produce a scary sound, but you shouldn’t depend on that to do the job. The bad guy might not hear it or recognize it. He might not care care if he does. We just don’t know, so we have to be prepared to use the shotgun’s devastating force.

Unfortunately this particular myth leads people to believe that all they need to do is rack. This may prevent them from seeking good training and practicing regularly. It might also lead them to a pump gun when a semi-auto, a pistol, or an AR, might be the better choice. And – most dangerous of all – it may prevent mentally preparing to use deadly force.

Now, does that mean we shouldn’t rack the shotgun? Sure, it doesn’t have the panic-inducing power some are seeking, but can it actually be harmful? The other side of the argument thinks so. Let’s take a look.

Don’t Rack: It’s Noisy!

The competing narrative that has sprung up in recent years is that racking the shotgun will give away your position. I’ll give you the bottom line up-front on this one: I think that’s going overboard in the other direction. Here’s why.

Early Warning

First, I would strongly recommend some security measures that will let you know there’s a problem before the bad guy is standing in your bedroom. Hardening your exterior doors and windows, high security deadbolts, motion lights (these are what I use), an alarm system, and a German Shepherd dog are a few measures that will give early warning.

A hardened strike-box will make a good, high-quality deadbolt even more effective.

Of course, these can all be defeated. Unfortunately, if they are all defeated, you’re probably going to wake up surrounded by dudes wearing NODs, with three or four suppressors pointed at your torso. But let’s be honest: a SEAL Team Six-like asset is probably not a credible actor in your threat model. You should know the bad guy is trying to get in before he is in.

Make your home harder to get into, and harder to get into quietly. Giving away your position is much less of a concern when the bad guy is outside your house.

Your Position is Probably Pretty Predictable, Pal

I don’t know how big your house is, but mine is pretty small. Actually it doesn’t much matter – most homes have a predictable layout. It’s unlikely that you’re sleeping under the stairs, in a half-bath, or under the kitchen sink. You’re sleeping in the master bedroom. I know it, you know it, the bad guy knows it. That makes it pretty damn easy to figure out where you are.

Burglars are skilled in the art of reading architecture as A Burglar’s Guide to the City explains. They don’t have to go room-to-room to find the bedrooms – they are obvious via the layout of the home. Your position can probably be guessed from outside the house. If it can’t many modern homes in neighborhoods are built as one of just a few (like, less than 6) patterns. If the burglar has access to a couple homes, he probably knows what most of them look like.

Other Giveaways

Most importantly there are some other things that are probably going to give away your position. First, you’re going to need to identify your target. Positive target identification is non-negotiable! Positive target ID is absolutely, 100% imperative before you fire a shot. This is going to require light. Most often nowadays this is going to come from a weapon-mounted light. If it doesn’t come from a WML the light is going to come from somewhere, and it’s only helpful if you’re near it.

Second, it’s probably a good idea to issue some verbal commands. I’m not looking to kill someone, and you probably aren’t either. So, I’m not going to wait quietly and snipe the dude. I don’t want the legal battle, the media attention, a potential lawsuit, loss of income, additional family strain, or any other negative outcomes. I’m satisfied with the outcome if I can convince the bad guy to leave my home. So, I’m going to give him the chance to do that by yelling something to the effect of, “get the hell out of my house!”

Since I’m yelling and shining lights, racking the shotgun probably isn’t the biggest tell-tale.

Racking the Shotgun Verdict: Rack

At this point, what have we learned? Let’s quickly recap:

  1. Racking the shotgun probably won’t scare the bad guy. He might not hear it, recognize it, or be frightened by it.
  2. Racking the shotgun probably won’t give away my position as it’s probably predictable, and I’ll be using white-light and verbal commands anyway.

So, should you rack? I think so. Why? Because I store my gun in a slightly modified† cruiser ready, and I recommend you do, too. Storing the gun in cruiser ready drastically increases your safety margins and lowers your risk of a negligent discharge (ND). A ND is way, way more likely than home invaders kicking in your door. Keeping the gun in cruiser ready increases my safety (the whole point of having a gun) without imposing any real downside.

Racking the shotgun. This is my trusty Scattergun Technologies 870.

At the end of the day, to each his (or her) own. There really isn’t a ton of black-and-white, right-or-wrong in the firearms/defensive world provided you train and practice. Your system will probably work for you as long as you’ve put in some hard hours on the range an dry-practicing.

The Bigger Lesson?

There’s also maybe even a bigger lesson tangled up in here. That is that just because something is incorrect, like racking the shotgun to scare a bad guy, doesn’t mean we have to prove the opposite is correct. We can still prove that thing wrong on its merits or lack there of.

Another good example is the pendulum swing toward 9mm. The 9mm is the caliber I’d recommend to all of my friends for a defensive handgun. It’s the caliber I generally recommend to all of you. That doesn’t mean your .40 or .45 is bad, though. There are guys out there who could run circles around my 9mm with their .45. Though 9mm is the darling of the police, gun writers/YouTubers, and the firearms-owning public, we probably don’t need to spend a lot of energy proving how bad every other handgun cartridge is.


†My modification is to keep the shotgun’s safety engaged. The reason? Again, I have redundant layers of security. If I have to pick up my shotgun, rack it, and fire so quickly that I don’t have time to disengage the safety I have failed elsewhere. Much more likely I will pick the gun up, rack it, then be waiting around for a while before I need to fire. I don’t want to forget to engage the safety, then be handling a  12-gauge with a round in the chamber and no manual safety engaged. Also, my manual safety is fast and easy to disengage. It’s a Vang Comp Big Dome safety, and I’m extremely well-practiced in its use.

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