Selecting a Home Defense Gun
v1.2 David S. Markowitz
Since I am "into guns," I have been asked a number of times what would be a good choice for someone looking to buy a gun to use for home defense. This is not as simple a question to answer as it may sound. Rather, there are a number of factors which need to be considered before making your final choice. These include:
- The laws in your jurisdiction regarding firearms ownership. Some of the best guns you can use for home defense are illegal in many jurisdictions.
- The "social environment" in which you live. I.e., urban, suburban, or rural? House or apartment building?
- Your level of experience with firearms in general, and the particular gun you're considering, in particular.
- Whether or not someone else in your household may have to use the gun selected.
- Whether or not you have children in the home.
- After taking these factors into account, we can then turn to the gun itself, and worry about things like rifle vs. pistol vs. shotgun, caliber choice, etc.
Let's look at these in turn.
First, the laws regulating firearms ownership in your jurisdiction. It does you no good to select your ideal firearm, only to find that it's possession by ordinary citizens is forbidden by law in your place of residence. For example, Morton Grove, Illinois has a ban on the possession of handguns by ordinary citizens. Other places make the ownership of certain weapons extremely difficult, e.g., New Jersey and New York City. While the net effect of these laws is to increase crime, rather than decrease it, the person who wants to stay out of trouble must at least be aware of them. Moreover, even if you choose to disregard these oppressive laws on moral grounds, you must periodically practice with your defense gun for it to be an effective means of defense. This is made difficult where you have to constantly worry about being caught with an "illegal" firearm.
The next item in my list of things to consider before choosing a home defense gun is what I've chosen to call "social environment." Where you live will influence what an appropriate choice will be. For example, suppose you live in an apartment building. One concern you'll have is overpenetration. You absolutely don't want a load which will go through a criminal, then through the wall behind him, and then strike an innocent bystander. In this situation, a short-barreled shotgun loaded loaded with one of the larger sizes of birdshot is an ideal choice, in my opinion. It offers excellent "stopping power," but the pellets won't blow through several walls to possibly hit someone else, like a pistol or rifle bullet will.
Likewise, whether you live in an urban, suburban, or rural environment should be considered before selecting a home defense gun. In the vast majority of defensive encounters in any of these locales the range is apt to be short -- inside your home. However, if you live out in the country, there is the possibility that you may have to engage an adversary at longer range. Or, wild animals may be a concern. This is where the rifle comes into its own. However, just because you live in the city doesn't necessarily rule out longer range encounters. Remember the sight of the Korean shopkeepers in L.A. during the riots following the acquittal of the policemen accused of beating Rodney King. In the event of a similar social breakdown, a rifle with which you can engage targets at ranges over 100 yards could come in very handy.
How much experience do you have with firearms in general, and the specific kind of gun you are considering, in particular? Handguns are the most difficult firearms to shoot well. For this reason, a short-barreled shotgun is often an excellent alternative to a pistol for home defense. At the close ranges you'd encounter inside a house, the shot hasn't had the time to spread out yet, but the longer weapon is still much easier to achieve solid hits with. The shotgun possesses other advantages, which I'll discuss below.
If you do not have a great deal of experience with guns, you would be wise to choose a home defense gun with a minimum of controls so that it is easy to use under stress. Double-action revolvers, while not very "hot" in today's gun market, offer ease of use combined with dependability. Further, there is currently a glut of police-surplus double-action revolvers on the market, which has made prices very reasonable. Likewise, a pump-action shotgun can be kept with the magazine loaded, but the chamber unloaded for safety. When needed, all that is required to make it ready for use is to work the action -- a simple back and forth motion which doesn't require the kind of fine motor skills which deteriorate under stress.
If someone else in your household may also need to use the gun you choose you must take this into account. For example, if you get a semiautomatic pistol, and your wife cannot retract the slide because she has weak hands, it may be impossible for her to use it when needed. Or, if you keep a 12 gauge shotgun, the recoil may be too much for her to handle.
The presence of children in the home is not a reason to avoid having a home defense gun. However, it does mean that you need to take them into account when securing the firearm, not only from them, but also from any friends they bring over.
I cannot stress enough that one of the worst things you can do is to hide the presence of guns in your home from your kids. Prohibition breeds fascination, especially in children. As gun guru Massad Ayoob says (approximately), "You cannot gun proof your home, but you can gun proof your kids." As soon as your kids are able to understand, you should instruct them in gun safety rules. If they ever ask to see your gun, treat that as an opportunity to reinforce safety rules. If you let them see the gun under your supervision, they are a lot less likely to go looking for it while you aren't around. The National Rifle Association has a good program to teach gun safety to kids called the "Eddie Eagle" program. (Also check out "Gun Play", by David Kopel, to see the potential disaster that can happen when a "sheltered" child gets exposed to firearms for the first time in the absence of adult supervision.) Even if you choose not to have firearms in your home (unlikely if you're reading anything on my website<g>) you should still make sure your kids know about gun safety. They may go to a friend's house where there are guns, and be exposed to them that way.
Since we've gone over the preliminary factors, you're probably wondering by now what, specifically, good choices are for home defense guns. I'll answer this by describing my choices.
I own many firearms, since shooting is my hobby. Thus, when I chose a defense gun I had a number of choices available to me. You should also know that I live in a house with three other people, but no children. Also, here in Pennsylvania, we don't have any repressive laws as to what kinds of guns I can own as Joe Citizen.
I actually have two guns which I keep for especially for home defense. My primary piece is a Winchester 1300 Defender, 20 gauge pump-action shotgun. This has a 20" barrel and holds four shells in the magazine. Five extra rounds are kept in a carrier made for that purpose, which fits on the buttstock. I keep the magazine loaded with birdshot, while the chamber is kept empty.
One reason that my primary weapon is a shotgun is because pistols are inherently underpowered. While handguns possess the advantages of portability and concealability, no handgun is what you can call sufficiently powerful for self defense. There are only degrees of being underpowered. To get real power, the kind reliably sufficient to halt an aggressor, you need to use a shotgun or rifle. This is especially true of the criminal has been drinking, is on drugs, or is the kind of endorphin junkie that gets excited by pain. (Yes, the latter does exist, and if you run into him you have a real problem on your hands.)
The shotgun also possesses the aforementioned advantage that with birdshot loads, the projectiles won't whiz through a criminal, the wall behind him, and go on to strike one of my family members. Another advantage, which is not to be discounted, is that the sound of the slide being worked on a pump-action shotgun is very intimidating. The .62 caliber bore of a 20 gauge is pretty scary if it's pointed at you, too. When you consider that according to the research of Professor Gary Kleck, of the million or more defensive gun usages which occur in the U.S. every year, the vast majority never see a shot fired because the threat of being shot is usually enough to stop the crime in progress, an intimidating appearance or sound is very valuable. In my opinion, a short-barreled 20 or 12 gauge shotgun is the top choice as a home defense gun for most people.
Other good choices in pump-action shotguns include the Remington 870 and Mossberg 500 and 590. Another type of shotgun that can work well in a home defense situation is a short-barreled double shotgun. I'd venture to say most people in American society have watched enough old Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd cartoons to instantly recognize a double-barreled shotgun. Remember the intimidation factor. And a double gun offers two quick shots, which will be enough to handle most drawing room confrontations.
My secondary home defense gun is a Smith and Wesson Model 15 Combat Masterpiece, a .38 Special revolver. I keep this loaded with the "FBI load" -- a +P 158 grain lead semiwadcutter hollowpoint load. This gives me a simple to use, extremely reliable, and reasonably powerful (for a handgun) weapon to serve as a backup to the shotgun.
Other good choices when it comes to revolvers are pretty much any medium or large frame Smith and Wesson, Colt, or Ruger double-action revolver in .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .44 Special, .45 Colt, or .45 ACP. For home defense, I would avoid anything with a barrel shorter than four inches. Such guns, while good for concealment, are more difficult to shoot well, have increased muzzle blast and flash, and less ballistic efficiency. For a house gun, a barrel four to six inches in length is ideal. Unless your jurisdiction (like New Jersey) prohibits them, load your revolver with hollowpoint (HP) ammunition. This will decrease the likelihood of overpenetration, and increase the likelihood that an assailant with be stopped with as few shots as possible. I'd recommend bullet weights as follows:
- .38 Special: 158 grain lead semiwadcutter HP (LSWCHP) +P (the "FBI Load").
- .357 Magnum: Either a 110 grain jacketed HP (JHP) or a medium velocity 125 JHP. These loads will give less blast and flash, and be more controllable than the full-blown 125 grain jacketed HPs.
- .44 Special: 200 grain LSWCHP. This can also be used as a defense load in .44 Magnum revolvers.
- .45 Colt: 225 grain LSWCHP, or a JHP from Cor-Bon.
- .45 ACP: The best loads are the heavy (200+ grain) JHPs.
Semiautomatic handguns can also be good choices for home defense. They are generally easier to shoot than double-action revolvers, but do require more training. Generally speaking, I would stick with one of the major manufacturers and a caliber of 9mm Parabellum (aka 9mm Luger) or better. Examples include pistols made by Glock, SIG, Browning, Colt, Springfield Armory, Beretta, and Smith and Wesson. It is critical that you test a semiauto with the same loads you intend to use for defense. It must reliably feed and extract the rounds from at least two boxes of ammunition (100 rounds) before you can consider it reliable enough for defensive use. Further, semiautos require a break-in period before they should be considered reliable -- shoot about 400 to 500 rounds through it before depending on it to save your life. As far as I know, the only manufacturer that advises its customer of this fact is Kahr. However, it applies to all semiauto pistols. Recommended loads include:
- 9mm Parabellum: 115 grain or 124 grain JHP. The 147 grain is likely to really overpenetrate and may not expand due to low velocity -- especially in subsonic loads. The 147 grain JHP was originally developed to give 50 meter head shot accuracy from Heckler & Koch submachine guns for use by Navy SEALs. The 124 grain bullet is what the 9mmP was originally loaded with, and most guns probably function best with it.
- .40 S&W: 155, 165, or 180 grain JHP.
- .45 ACP: As in revolvers, the best loads are the heavy JHPs.
If you are on a tight budget and want a semiauto handgun, then your best bet is a Makarov. This has been the standard service pistol of the old Eastern Bloc for several decades, and is a thoroughly proven, reliable design. It's also surprisingly accurate. It's only drawback, in my opinion, is the cartridge it chambers -- 9mm Makarov. This is less powerful than a .38 Special or 9mm Parabellum; it's a little bit more powerful than the .380 ACP. Also, the 9mm Mak is less easily available than these other rounds, though this isn't as much of a problem as it would have been 20 years ago, since you can mail order the ammunition. Hornady loads the 9mm Mak with its excellent XTP hollowpoint; this would be my choice for self defense with a Makarov. The Mak is also small and light enough for concealed carry. One change I recommend that you make if you get a Mak is to put aftermarket grips on it. The stock grips are very uncomfortable for most people. The Pierce Grip makes it a really sweet little gun, though. You can get more information on the Mak at Makarov.com.
In the unlikely event my locality is ever struck by some man-made or natural disaster which causes a breakdown of the social order, I also have rifles to choose from with which to defend my home. Right now, my number one choice if this were to happen is my No.4 Mk.I Lee-Enfield. This is a bolt-action ex-British military rifle in caliber .303 British. It is currently the rifle that I am most proficient with. It is extremely reliable and rugged, as you would expect of an arm originally designed for military use, and it's accurate out to several hundred yards. The No.4 has better sights than the older No.1 Mk.III SMLE. The Lee-Enfields also possess some advantages compared to other military surplus bolt actions: bigger magazine capacity (10 vs. 5 for Mausers) and a smoother, faster action. You can load the magazine with single rounds, 5-round stripper clips, or get spare magazines and swap for a loaded one when you run dry.
If you can find it at a gun show or through mail order, there is some surplus 1980s vintage .303 ball ammo made by Winchester which is really good stuff. Also, newly-manufactured Sellier & Bellot ball, from the Czech Republic, is good -- and cheap. I've had good results with some Greek military surplus .303, which is headstamped "HXP" and the year of manufacture. These are all noncorrosive and the brass is Boxer-primed, and good for reloading. If you can find it, German-made "MEN" .303 is also high-quality, noncorrosive ammunition. Unfortunately, it's Berdan-primed, so it's not feasible to reload it. Avoid old military surplus ammo that's loaded with corrosive primers and Cordite.
Besides the Lee-Enfield, I also have an SKS semiautomatic carbine, and an M1 Garand semiautomatic rifle. The SKS is significantly less powerful and less accurate than the Lee-Enfield or Garand, but it is almost perfectly reliable. While I like my M1 a lot, I am just more comfortable with the No.4, and that's why it's my first choice in rifles. Either one would make a good choice, however.
Other good choices in rifles would include the Springfield Armory M1A, US M1 Carbine, the Colt AR-15 or a good quality clone, Ruger Mini 14, and the various AK types.
Don't underestimate the value of the good old Winchester or Marlin lever actions, either. These were developed from designs which were intended to serve both as hunting and defensive arms. In .30-30 or .35 Remington, they also offer a lot more power than any of the 5.56mm rifles like the AR-15, or pistol caliber carbines. One of the Winchester or Marlin lever guns in .444 Marlin or .45-70 also make outstanding weapons for defense against large, thin-skinned wild animals (read: "bears"). They are reliable, rugged, and accurate enough for the task. Additionally, they are less regulated in many jurisdictions than "assault weapons."
That being said, some of the pistol caliber carbines offer light recoil, large magazine capacity and better accuracy than handguns. Both Winchester and Marlin make lever guns chambered for such rounds as .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum and .45 Colt. Ruger makes a semiauto carbine in 9mm Parabellum and .40 Smith and Wesson. Marlin's Camp Carbine in 9mm or .45 is also available. Any of these would work well for home defense in the right situation. If I were to choose one of these carbines, I'd lean towards one of the larger calibers, e.g., .44 Magnum. In my opinion, if I'm going to be using a rifle, I want rifle-like ballistics.
Before closing this piece, I want to state that your choice of what gun to use for home defense is really only a very small part of the equation. Before you can be truly well protected, you must have more than a good gun. You need training in how to use it, and just as importantly, when to use it. You need to make yourself familiar with your jurisdiction's laws regarding the use of deadly force. What do you know about tactics? If your knowledge of tactics comes from watching reruns of "NYPD Blue," you need to get training. Moreover, you should have a plan in place on what you'll do if your home is invaded. E.g., do you have a "safe-room" to retreat to if your home is invaded, where you and your family can wait until the police arrive? Do you have a cellular phone to call the police if the crooks are smart enough to cut your telephone lines before they break in? Do you have a good flashlight at hand?
In conclusion, don't approach choosing a home defense gun lightly. It is a serious choice to make, and carefully evaluating the factors I've outlined above will help ensure that you've made the right choice, if you ever are faced with defending your home and loved ones.
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