by Allen Ball
Self-defense is one of the most important factors in many gun owners’ decision to purchase and train with a firearm, and while it is a scenario that every shooter hopes they will never have to encounter, it is also true that home invasions, robberies, and other crimes are impossible to predict—which is why it is vitally important to prepare for any eventuality. We’ve created this guide to serve as a short but thorough rundown on choosing the right firearm, equipping it for defensive situations, and providing fast, secure access to it in an emergency situation without endangering others.
Choosing the Right Firearm
Choosing a firearm for self-defense is a controversial topic – even the experts can argue endlessly about everything from caliber, action, and choice of ammunition to whether a pistol, rifle, or shotgun is a better option. As with many complex issues, there isn’t one clear answer – it will largely depend on your living situation, the layout of your home, and what kind of guns you have trained with and feel comfortable using. Though there are always exceptions, here are some pros and cons for each basic category of a defensive firearm.
Pistols are the smallest option for a defensive firearm, which gives them an advantage when it comes to maneuverability, especially in tight indoor spaces. Their size also makes it possible to effectively use them with one hand if necessary, which could be an important factor if you need to call 911, if you become injured, or if you need to drag someone else to safety while still being ready to deal with a threat.
If you already have a compact or subcompact handgun for concealed carry, such as a Glock 43, it will be perfectly usable for home defense as well. Otherwise, we recommend a full-frame pistol such as the Glock 17 or SIG P226 to help minimize recoil and provide a slightly improved sight radius. 9mm is the most common caliber for a defensive pistol thanks to its low cost, relatively soft recoil, and excellent ballistic profile, and I highly recommend hollowpoint rounds, which are both more effective at putting down assailants and less likely to over-penetrate drywall and put neighbors at risk.
Most semi-automatic pistols will boast a decent magazine capacity, which is certainly a benefit if you are dealing with multiple intruders in the dark while your adrenaline is pumping.
Finally, a note on revolvers: while experienced shooters may shy away from them as a home defense option due to their lower capacity, slower reloading time, and the lack of options for aftermarket night sights or light mounts on many models, it is worth highlighting that a revolver offers one of the simplest and most reliable home defense options for inexperienced shooters.
A double-action revolver is as close to a “point and shoots” defensive tool as you are likely to find, and unlike a semi-automatic handgun, there is no need to worry about disengaging a safety, operating a slide, or accidentally thumbing the magazine release in a moment of panic. If you are going this route, I recommend a heavier revolver with a decently long barrel length – while a lightweight snub-nose might make a better-concealed carry option, they provide little benefit in a home defense situation, and having a bit of extra heft and length helps mitigate recoil.
It may seem strange to see rifles mentioned as a home defense tool, but semi-automatic rifles such as the AR-15 are actually a highly effective option thanks to their high magazine capacity, low recoil, and ease of use. The popularity and affordability of these rifles mean that many shooters likely already own one and are familiar with its operation, which is one of the most important factors in choosing a defensive weapon.
While they are certainly longer and more unwieldy than a handgun, a shouldered carbine-length rifle is actually still fairly compact, and having multiple points of contact with the shooter’s body makes it easier to aim and control the weapon during a tense situation. They can also easily be equipped with a red dot sight, flashlight, or laser to make it much easier to properly identify and accurately fire at a target in low light or pitch dark conditions.
And while it may sound strange, testing conducted by the FBI and independent labs both concluded that a rifle chambered in .223 is less likely to over-penetrate drywall than either a shotgun or pistol when using soft point or hollow point ammunition, as the combination of extremely high velocity and a lightweight round means the majority of the round’s kinetic energy is expelled as soon as it connects with solid material.
A major caveat, though: effectively using a rifle like the AR-15 in a defensive capacity relies on the user having a substantial amount of hands-on experience with the weapon. Improper handling and maintenance of these rifles can lead to all sorts of problems, ranging from unseated magazines, failure to feed, short strokes – the list goes on. If you are the only one in the house and you have experience clearing these malfunctions, they’re a great option. If you have family members who don’t hit the range and wouldn’t have the faintest clue how to do a basic “tap, rack and reassess” drill when something goes wrong, you need something simpler.
Shotguns are the “classic” home defense weapon, largely thanks to their inexpensive cost, simple and intuitive operation, the idea that buckshot spread means you don’t have to worry as much about aiming, and the fact that the sound of a pump-action shotgun being racked is enough to make most would-be burglars reconsider.
But the truth is that relying on a sound to scare off a potential assailant, as intimidating as it might be, is not a sound plan for home defense, and in fact, it risks both giving away your location and immediately escalating the situation if the thieves are also armed. If you are going to pick up any weapon in an emergency situation, you must be prepared to use it.
While shotguns have a Hollywood reputation for not needing to be aimed, buckshot actually doesn’t scatter all that much in close quarters – at 10 yards, you can expect only a roughly fist-sized spread. Combined with the robust recoil, comparatively lower capacity, and the tendency for most shell sizes bigger than #4 buckshot to over-penetrate, it is still vitally important to be aware of your surroundings and what you are aiming at, especially if you have family in other rooms or if you live in an apartment complex.
That’s not to say that they’re a bad choice, though, and many of those shortcomings can be mitigated through the use of reduced-recoil loads, extended magazine tubes (in states where they are legal), and sticking to #4 buckshot. Like rifles, shotguns are easier to aim under pressure than a handgun, and there is certainly something to be said for their ability to quickly and decisively incapacitate a target. Shotguns are a classic choice for a reason – they’re cheap, easy to use, and very good at what they do.
It’s important to remember that the firearm itself is only part of the equation. Many home defense scenarios take place at night, and that means you might find yourself being startled awake and having to deal with intruders in a pitch dark room. In these situations, having a reliable source of light could be the difference between life or death, which is why I consider a good flashlight and a nighttime optic an absolute necessity on any defensive weapon.
The majority of modern pistols and rifles come equipped with rails that allow for accessories to be mounted to them, including tactical flashlights and lasers. While it’s a less common feature on shotguns, it is still relatively simple to purchase a mounting clamp that can hold a light.
Night sights are another crucial tool. Typically made with glow-in-the-dark tritium rods and phosphorescent paint, night sights allow you to quickly and accurately acquire a target even in pitch darkness. I mentioned the Glock 43 above as one of the options for a self-defense handgun, and if you’d like to see an example of the sort of night sights that are available for most pistols, head over to The Hunting Mark for a rundown on the best Glock 43-night sights.
Finally, outside of Illinois, while it involves a pricey tax stamp and a bit of extra hassle, a handgun or rifle suppressor is an accessory worth considering. Firing any kind of gun indoors without hearing protection is an incredibly loud, disorienting experience that could potentially leave you and nearby loved ones with permanent hearing degradation, so if you have the budget for it, it’s certainly nice to have.
Staging Your Defensive Firearms
The final thing to keep in mind when preparing for a home defense situation is where your gun will be stored. This is commonly referred to as “staging” your firearm, and where you choose to keep it will largely depend on the layout of your home and where you spend your time.
If you spend the evening watching TV in the living room, keeping your firearm there might make sense. And if you are usually in bed by the time it gets dark, the bedroom is likely a better choice. But one important factor to consider is where an intruder is most likely to enter the home from—if you have a heavy-duty front door, but there’s a sliding glass door leading to the backyard, it’s safe to assume that a criminal will take the path of least resistance. Make sure that your gun is accessible with that entryway in mind since having a gun in your bedroom won’t be much use if the hallway is blocked by an intruder.
You can probably see why many gun owners have multiple home defense tools throughout the home, but make sure you are prepared without neglecting basic safety precautions. Small keypass or biometric safes can allow you rapid access in an emergency without the risk of leaving unattended firearms in the home – you’d end up feeling pretty foolish if someone broke in while you weren’t home and walked away with your pistol because it was laying out on the nightstand.
While it’s possible to write dozens of pages about all of the ins and outs of home defense, I hope this short guide has been helpful for anyone who is interested in learning about how to safely and effectively prepare to defend their loved ones and their property.
[Editor: Lastly, the folks over at Hunting Mark have all manner of reviews on scopes and sights for your rifles and handguns… If you’re looking for a new sight, you might as well as expose yourself to the pros and cons of various models to find the one that works best for you!]