As an firearms and personal defense instructor for just shy of 25 years, I’ve had countless people ask me what’s the best gun for home defense over the years. If it were only so simple. It’s analogous to “which car should I buy?”

The answer? “It depends…”

For those wanting to buy their first defensive handgun, especially for those who aren’t going to practice much, I generally recommend selecting a revolver and I’ll tell you why: The operation of revolvers is very simple, making it a great selection for first-time handgun owners or those who aren’t going to practice. What’s more, they are dead nuts reliable compared to semi-auto pistols.

From a safety perspective, they are very safe because once the cylinder is open, even Alec Baldwin can figure out if the gun is loaded or not.  That is if he opens the cylinder.

To use a revolver, simply stuff the cylinder with live rounds, close it, point it at the target and pull the trigger. It’s the ultimate point-and-click interface.

It even works great from the pocket or purse! “Surprise, sucka!”

Semi-auto pistols, like the ones most cops carry today are a little more complicated to use. And they don’t work as well from the pocket or purse.

If modern pistols like Glocks appeal to you, that’s fine. You’re not alone. Seek out training to learn how to safely load and unload the gun and how to handle it – safely.

Shotguns – simple, affordable pump-action shotguns – make outstanding home defense guns. Loaded with buckshot, a 12-gauge or 20-gauge will decisively drop an intruder with a single blast.

Plus everyone knows the sound a shotgun makes when chambering a round thanks to Hollywood. Some call it the “universal sound of peace.” If an aggressor ignores that sound and continues their attack, that’s a clue that they aren’t there selling Girl Scout cookies.

Intimidated by a shotgun? Rest assured, the intimidation flows both directions. Even bad guys who have had guns pointed at them previously generally want little to no part of a shotgun.

What do I have for home defense? The same thing as my fellow GSL Defense Training instructors.

Each of my fellow instructors are quite fluent in handguns and pretty good to exceptional with long guns as well. In other words, we can have whatever we want and make it work.

Except the one fellow who has an autistic son at home, we all have pump-action shotguns as our go-to home defense gun. Ponder that for a moment.

In any event, once you find a gun that fits you (or your hand for handguns), consider visiting an indoor range and asking to rent that particular gun to try it out before you buy. You might discover that the gun that looked and felt good to you isn’t one you can manipulate if you have physical limitations (including things like arthritis, for example).

As you will soon learn first-hand, there’s some paperwork and a three-day waiting period in the Land of Lincoln after you initiate the purchase before you can walk out with your new gun.

You’ll also learn from your visit to the gun shop that gun aficionados are generally nice people.

Lastly, get some formal training. Classes are readily available and affordable. They’ll make you safer and more comfortable around the gun.

A good training class will never make you an expert marksman or gunfighter overnight, but they can make you an expert on safety in a day.

After class, you can then share proper, safe gun handling skills with your friends and family to keep them safe too.

Training or not, you’ll need to practice once in a while if you hope to successfully operate your gun under stress. So go visit your favorite local range at least a few times each year to get the dust bunnies off our familiarity with shooting your new gun – aka safety rescue tool.

Enjoy your new hobby. It’s fun, empowering and could save your life someday. You can’t say all that about most recreational activities.

8 thoughts on “Which gun should I buy for home defense?”
  1. Great article as always. I would like to add something, With money tight and prices on everything going up you don’t have to trade family protection for gas and groceries. At your local gun store be sure to check out what they have as far as used guns if new ones are out of the budget. Hope this helps.

  2. Good article; for someone new. as in unfamiliar with any kind of firearm, a five or six shot revolver .32 to .38 caliber so as not to have overwhelming recoil is ideal, although .22 caliber is less recoil but less “knock-down”, cheaper to feed and fun to “plink” and get used to weapon handling. .357 caliber has stronger knockdown and can be fed with .38 ammo. I would suggest a shorter barreled gun as in 2″ to 4″ to keep weight minimal and maybe “hammerless” or striker fired, for pocket or purse carry.
    Shotguns are definitely a top choice and “someday” I hope to have a Henry lever action .410 “Axe” which is a short-barreled gun, and with .410 defense ammo I personally think it will make a great home defense weapon.

  3. Well done John.
    1. I echo the recommendation of a revolver for people who don’t/won’t shoot much. Simple, safe, reliable. Pull the trigger and it is probably going to work and is easy to get familiar with.
    2. Pump shotgun is also proven and dependable. I have recommended 20 ga pumps for years to people who are not gunners or who want something their spouse can shoot. Smaller or non-gun people may not want to repeat sessions of 12 ga recoil! You can get 20 ga loads suitable for defense and most 20 ga can be had with a smaller or reduced size stock which is easier to handle and shoulder. Why force the punishment of a 12 ga buckshot or slugs on someone already not keen on recoil?
    3. Forget the “Sound of a shotgun slide pumping.” Hollywood and fable stuff. Sound is not all that loud, may not be identified correctly… and did you just start with an empty chamber and had to rack a round in??? Or was it already loaded and you just pumped one out onto the floor? If you want to make noise in the dark, make this one: “I have a shotgun and I have called the police!” That is a scary sound.
    4. Big name brand semi-autos are popular because they work. Not a time to be cheap and try for a sub-bargain. Try and buy first if you can. DO NOT accept gun counter advice about what is perfect for the “little lady.” Small guns have to recoil. Smaller guns- with shorter barrels, shorter grips and less overall weight still have the same physics to deal with. Makes everything harder. The shooter or potential shooter should lay hands on prior to purchase.
    5. If you buy from a name brand expect it to be dependable, have good ergonomics and backed by factory warranty. As they say: buy once, cry once. Spend the money on a good one…or save up a bit till you can afford one.
    My two cents.

    1. #4: Avoid Turkish semi-auto shotguns like the plague. Pump guns are fine and VERY affordable.
      Once more, avoid Turkish-made semi-autos because they’re not anything close to reliable.

  4. Whatever you choose, definitely get familiar with the use, cleaning/break-down, operation and especially SAFETY. Training is high on the list as well, enjoy, BE SAFE, have fun, and BE SAFE for those around you and yourself!

  5. My beside home defense gun is still a very tried and trued Mossberg 590 Shockwave configured for and loaded with shorty 12Ga. shells. Absolutely reliable. Backing that up is my equally reliable FN Five-Seven. My wife relies on her S&W 66 .357 Magnum round-butt 4″ which she is very proficient with. There are lots of good choices out there; the most important thing is to be proficient with your choices, and practice constantly.

  6. Great article, but I must disagree on the 12 or 20 gauge PUMP shotgun for home defense, especially for newer shooters and for smaller men and women or elders with reduced strength. The problem for many people with shotguns is recoil. In my experience with new shooters, it is just unpleasant for most. As far as recoil energy, it is like handing a new shooter a .308 bolt-action rifle – not advisable in my opinion. Depending on the shells, recoil may be worse with the common defensive buckshot loads (#3 & #4 buckshot) . However, with the exeception of the very lightest loads for trap/skeet/sporting clays, even small game loads are not pleasant for new shooters. Clay busters and hunters of course get used to the recoil and also wear shoulder pads or padded vests and jackets. But I’ve seen many new and smaller shooters as well as children and teens be turned off by shooting a 20 gauge shotgun (12 gauge is usually worse unless the gun is well over seven pounds). There are some online videos of these bad experiences for new shooters with shotguns.

    If a person wants to use a 20 gauge for home defense, then I’d recommend rather than a pump shotgun a quality brand semi-auto with one of the good cushy aftermarket recoil pads installed by a gunsmith (or some can be purchased to match exactly the gun stock for do-it-yourself screw-in installation) , which will reduce the recoil and feels more like a “push” or “shove” than the sharper impulse of the pump shotgun. There are also a few new shotugn models (such as Benelli) that come with very good recoil pads (most of the old ones were not very soft or effective). I’d also recommend a “non-tactical” shotgun that can do double-duty for home defense and hunting. These also tend to be more “juror-friendly” (and police-friendly) especially those guns with wood stocks and engraving (pretty too). That can be very important if you live in a blue state (same deal with a wood stock Mini-14 vs. AR-15). Sad but true.

    And for young hunters who are definitely going to progress up to 12 gauge for long-range on ducks and geese, it is also far better to start them off with a semi-auto 20 gauge or even a .410 pump – even if they miss a lot. (28 gauge shells are too hard to find these days, and the resale value on the 28 is lower). There are now some OK .410 loads for hunting and self-defense (but not many gun stores carry them.)

    I would suggest people look up the several online tables of recoil energy (ft-lb) of 12 and 20 gauge pump shotguns in approximately seven pound weight compared to a variety of center fire rifles and carbines, especially the popular .223/5.56 semi-autos and pistol-caliber carbines (less than one-half the recoil). As I mentioned, a 20 gauge pump is about equivalent to a .308 bolt action rifle in recoil. Most of the tables use that seven pound weight for shotuns, but that is for an all-steel shotgun like the Wingmaster or BPS; lighter guns will be even higher recoil. And note that in comparion to AR-15/Mini-14 type rifles and pistol caliber carbines, a seven pound shotgun is not a light long gun. For someone say 5′ 7″ and 150lb, of average strength, seven pounds is not a “handy” gun to wield, especially in a stressful defensive situation (different for a 6ft tall, 200lb muscular cop).

    For most people who are not going to hunt, a pistol, revolver, rifle or carbine in a lower-recoiling cartridge is going to be a better choice than a shotgun for home defense and pleasant practice/target shooting (and the latter is important). For someone who wants the absolute in simplicity of operation, a steel revolver in 38 Special/.357 and one of the new Ruger/Marlin lever rifles in that calilber (available soon) would be worth considering. For new shooters who can master semi-auto stoppage drills another option is a 9mm semi-auto pistol along with a carbine in the same caliber. (I’ve found semi-auto pistols are easier for most to shoot accurately than revolvers, which require more practice.) For someone who is very recoil sensitive, such as an elder who hasn’t shot much, the similar guns in 22LR would be minimally adequate and ammo for practice is much less expensive and available everywhere. (Henry even makes a nice walnut-stocked pump 22LR carbine that is a lot of fun for everyone to shoot).

    By the way aside from home defense, if a person is also going to carry concealed, the best choices are obviosly the 9mm or .380 semi-auto pistol, due to much higher capacity and slim width compared to revolvers, and ammo availability. Five-shot light polymer or alloy revolvers like the Ruger LCR and S&W Airweights are difficult to shoot accurately and have a lot of recoil due to the very light weight. (And I’ve found 38 Special cartridges are getting much harder to find than 9mm or even .380 these days in local stores). All-steel revolvers are fine for home defense but are somewhat less handy for conceled carry (even five-shot like the Ruger SP101 or S&W Model 60). And I’ve found that they take more practice for most people to shoot accurately due to the generally heavier trigger pull (can be lightened a bit a gunsmith if necessary). However, some revolvers are very handsome guns to own for that reason alone, such as the medium-frame blued Smith & Wesson classic models with wood grips (now being made again), and are also juror and police friendly. Not very practical for concealed-carry, but shooting them with light 38 Special rounds is great fun and everyone at the range will ask to try it to pretend they are Clint Eastwood.

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