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Pistol, rifle or shotgun for home defense?

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

A timeless question that has die hard fans for each option. The real answer is, as usual…it depends. I think there is a common fantasy out there that the perfect home defense set up is your plate carrier loaded with mags and edgy patches, a full ballistic helmet with your night vision and your 10lb battle belt. If you happen to have 20 minutes of advanced notice that bad guys are coming to your house, then that’s a great set up. The reality is when someone bangs at your door in the middle of the afternoon or the middle of the night its just as likely to be someone lost, drunk or confused as it is a legitimate threat. Realistically you will probably not be donning your full closet of tactical gear every time there is a bump in the night. For this article I will simply cover the pros and cons of each type of firearm in regards to a home defense type scenario.

Before we start I want to cover a topic that always gets brought up in home defense discussions - over penetration. The concern around over penetration is that rounds shot in self defense can “over penetrate” through a target or after a miss and potentially hit other people in your home or exit through you home and hit other unintended targets. While a valid concern, the reality is that any ammunition designed to stop a human threat is going to have little issue going through a few layers of drywall. The truth is that common handgun rounds, buckshot, slugs and rifle rounds will all easily travel through several layers of drywall. It might be a surprise to some that lighter rifle rounds like .223/5.56 from an AR actually often penetrate less than something like 9mm or buckshot because they have less mass and are more prone to tumbling through barriers. The best ways to mitigate over penetration are to train to increase your chances of making hits on your targets and to pre-plan your home defense. Knowing where likely engagements might take place you can plan accordingly. Whenever possible shooting at angles either up or down can help mitigate the danger of rounds travelling further than intended. There is no magic bullet that will give you great performance but stop dead at a standard interior wall so I would caution anyone making a choice based largely on over penetration.

Ok, with that out of the way, lets get to the most common choices.

Hand gun – The venerable handgun certainly has a place for home defense. It is the most likely firearm we have access to; it is small and concealable and easy to maneuver. It is hard to fit an AR-15 in a night stand. A handgun also has the benefit of being operable with one hand which can be useful if you are using the other hand to do things like opening or closing doors, holding a partner or child, or

calling 911. Handguns also excel in small cramped spaces where maneuvering something like an AR-15 or shotgun can be difficult. Is it possible to use shorter rifles and shotguns in indoor spaces? Absolutely, but doing it right and efficiently takes training, especially if you want to be able to do it in the middle of the night when you just woke up.

When it comes to firepower a modern full-size handgun provides us with somewhere between 12-20 rounds, depending on type and caliber. Something like a Glock 17 gives us 18 rounds of 9mm. As a deputy, that plus two additional magazines was all I carried for 95% of situations. Modern defensive ammunition is very effective, but you are certainly giving up some lethality when choosing a handgun over a rifle. It is good to know that statistically the majority of people

shot with a handgun live, whereas the majority of those shot with rifles do not.

When it comes to recoil, muzzle flash, and noise, a handgun will be fairly mild compared to rifles and shotguns. Shooting indoors, especially in the dark will still be very loud and depending on your ammo of choice can create a fairly bright flash which can make it more difficult to identify your target.

AR-15 – A go to for many people. AR-15 type rifles are extremely customizable and setting one up for your needs is easy. The adaptability of these rifles means you can add lights for identifying targets in the dark, optics for accurate shooting, slings for going hands on, and muzzle devices to reduce your recoil, sound and or flash. With a typical AR-15 you are getting 30+ rounds of .223/5.56 ammo in a low recoiling package. The biggest advantage of an AR-15 is the ability to make rapid, accurate shots. Shooting a rifle accurately is much easier than a pistol because of the increased stability and points of contact along with the use of modern optics. A rifle also provides increased lethality over a handgun along with the ability to defeat pistol rated body armor.

On the downside a rifle is hard to make accessible. They are often locked up in safes and take more time to make ready. They are less maneuverable inside structures, especially something with a 16-18in barrel vs an AR pistol or SBR. Without a flash hider or suppressor you will experience significant muzzle blast and flash when shooting indoors. Some say this is an advantage and serves to scare any intruders into leaving. Personally I would rather be able to hear and see and would prefer having a suppressor if possible. If you don’t have a sling you don’t have a way of using your hands without putting your rifle down and while possible to use one-handed it is difficult and not very effective.

Shotguns – The favorite of many and something I hear suggested often. Personally this is my least favorite option and something I would actually advise against for the majority of people. Before I trash shotguns too much, I’ll go over their benefits.

The first is that they are fairly simple and reliable. You can pick one up, set the safety to fire and pull the trigger. The second major benefit is lethality. Whether you are talking buck shot or slugs, a shotgun excels at putting a lot of lead

downrange. If I was told I could only make one guaranteed hit on my target, I would go with a shotgun. A slug is devastating and 00 buck shot is like shooting 9 individual 9mm rounds at a target. Unfortunately we live in the real world and we cannot guarantee anything. This is where the issues with shotguns come in.

The first is the manual of arms for shotguns. I’ve heard many people say how simple they are, especially for a pump-action. Simply pump that shotgun and keep pulling the trigger, easy right? Well, under normal situations it might be. However, when under stress it is very easy to short stroke the action on a shotgun and if you do induce any malfunction it is going to be slow to fix and difficult to do in a low light situation. As a patrol deputy I qualified with a short barreled Remington 870 and personally saw many people have issues with consistently shooting shotguns even at the training range with little added stress.

Shotguns also have very limited ammo capacity and are very slow to reload. Whereas a handgun might have 18 rounds and a rifle 30+, a shotgun is probably going to have 8-9 shells. Many people argue that it doesn’t matter because a shotgun will just blast everything in a 3ft cone and you don’t even have to aim. The reality is very different from the movies. Modern defensive ammo will group within 2-3 inches out to 30ft or so which is probably further than you would shoot in most homes. 2-3 inches is well within the margin of error with a rifle or handgun under stress so you are really not gaining much in terms of useful accuracy. In addition, you are firing 9 individual 9mm sized projectiles out of something that likely does not have an optic or light and is significantly harder to shoot accurately. Each of those pellets is a potential liability and they will have no problem going through your interior and exterior walls.

But once I rack the slide the bad guy will just run away in fear! Well that’s a nice thought but what happens if he doesn’t? I would rather not handicap myself with an inferior tool on the hope of the bad guy doing what I would like him to.

If you do choose a shotgun I urge you to train with it extensively and honestly. Can you shoot at a similar level as with a handgun or rifle in regards to speed and accuracy under pressure? I would bet good money I can put more accurate rounds on target with an AR-15 far faster than someone working the pump on a short barreled 870 with a bead sight.

Whatever your choice I would suggest having a weapon light and a handheld light available as part of your home defense plan. If something happens at night you need to be able to identify your target and determine if that is actually a threat before you pull the trigger and kill a drunken neighbor trying to get into the wrong house.

Having a well thought out and executed home defense plan is far more important that what firearm you choose and can hopefully ensure you never have to use one in the first place. Stay tuned and subscribe for more on keeping your family and home safe.

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