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Defending your family in your home is probably the most common reason for someone to purchase a firearm. Many experienced shooters, when asked by a new shooter what gun is the best for home defense, will simply say, “Shotgun”. Some will at least give a more specific answer: “Get a pump-action, 12 gauge shotgun”. In many cases, they may be right. But without knowing more details of the specific situation, a pump shotgun may in fact not be the best choice. Many factors need to be examined when choosing the right firearm to protect your family and property.

Things to Think About When Buying Your First Home Defense Firearm

  1. Layout of your home. Does your home have wide hallways and easy maneuverability throughout the structure? Or are there many narrow hallways and tight corners?
  2. Your home’s construction. How thick are your walls and what are your they made of?
  3. The neighborhood. What surrounds your home? Are you in a single-family house, with your closest neighbor being hundreds of yards away? Or are you in an apartment complex with just a wall separating you from your neighbors?

In houses with poor maneuverability, using a rifle or a shotgun effectively can be difficult due to their long length. In these cases, you should consider a full-size, large caliber handgun — at minimum, 9mm or larger for semiautomatic pistols, .38 Special or larger for revolvers. Smaller calibers than these are not as effective in quickly incapacitating a threat. Stepping down below 9mm or .38 Special in your handgun is only recommended if there are particular reasons why you cannot shoot a larger cartridge. For instance, people with severe arthritis may find the recoil in a large caliber handgun to be unbearable and uncontrollable. In these situations, a smaller caliber with less recoil would be a better choice.

One of the most important factors to consider is bullet penetration. One of the rules of firearms safety says, “Be aware of your target, your backstop, and the capabilities of your gun and ammunition.” A firearm propels a dense chunk of metal at extremely high velocity, in many cases with the potential to penetrate through walls and severely injure or kill someone in the next room. If you live in an apartment building or an area where houses are built close to one another, this potential becomes even important.

In general, rifles penetrate more than handguns, and handguns penetrate more than shotguns. The reasons for this is due to their general design. Rifles have long barrels, and the bullets they fire spend a longer amount of time being pushed by the powder in the cartridge. Therefore, rifles generally fire bullets at higher speeds than handguns, making over-penetration more likely. Shotguns are a bit different. Instead of firing a single bullet, a shotgun fires many smaller projectiles at the target. These projectiles are also simple metal balls rather than the more aerodynamic rifle or handgun bullet. Because of these characteristics, shotguns generally over-penetrate less than handguns, even though they have the longer barrel like a rifle.

1st Choice for a Home Defense Firearm

A pump-action 12 gauge shotgun with a short (18″) barrel.

Pros: Extremely effective, less chance of collateral damage due to overpenetration, cost effective
Cons: Large size makes it hard to maneuver through narrow hallways and tight corners, much more recoil than a handgun

In most cases, a pump-action 12 gauge shotgun is the best choice for home defense. A Mossberg 500 or Remington 870 are excellent choices. An 18″ barrel is recommended, as it can be maneuvered around all but the tightest spots. Shotguns are considered to be the most effective short-range firearm because they fire many projectiles with a single shot, which spread out slightly as the distance to the target increases. Shotguns do not have as large of a spread as often depicted in movies and television. At 7–10 yards — across the room distances — a typical shotgun will have a spread of 3-4 inches. Even though the spreading is not the 3+ feet seen in the latest action flick, a 3–4 inch spread can make aiming not as critical compared to a handgun or rifle. This is important, because under stress, you will not be able to shoot anywhere near the accuracy you can achieve while practicing at the range. You can’t just point a shotgun in the general direction of the threat without aiming properly, but if you aiming the best you can when your adrenaline is surging, being a couple of inches off will still likely score some solid hits on the target. Being a couple of inches off with a handgun or rifle means missing the target completely.

One of the biggest disadvantages of a shotgun other than their reduced maneuverability is the amount of recoil. A 12 gauge shotgun firing a standard-load shell of 00 (“double-aught”) buckshot is launching 8 or 9 .33 caliber pellets. Physics tells us that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so the large amount of energy needed to launch up to 9 pellets, each about .33 caliber in size, means that there is going to be a large amount of recoil. There are reduced-recoil shells which remain very effective but tone the recoil down a bit, and these are recommended for home defense use, especially if you do not practice shooting regularly. But even the reduced-recoil shells still have quite a bit of recoil. Don’t despair, because though it may be very uncomfortable, or even painful, now, after a few practice sessions most normal-size adult men and women can effectively use a 12 gauge shotgun.

2nd Choice for a Home Defense Firearm:

A pump-action 20 gauge shotgun with a short (18″) barrel.

Pros: Lower recoil than a 12 gauge shotgun, lower risk of overpenetration compared to rifles and handguns, cost-effective
Cons: Less effective than a 12 gauge shotgun, less loadings available compared to a 12 gauge shotgun due to the less widespread use of 20 gauge shotguns

In situations where the recoil of a 12 gauge shotgun is simply too much even with practice and reduced-recoil shells, there are still options available. 20 gauge shotguns are smaller and have significantly less recoil than a 12 gauge, and the vast majority of people can wield one effectively. Of course, 20 gauge shotguns are not as effective as 12 gauge shotguns when it comes to incapacitating a threat, but they are still devastatingly effective at the close ranges most home-defense scenarios occur.

3rd Choice for a Home Defense Firearm:

A Handgun.

Pros: Small size makes it easy to maneuver through the tightest of spots, lower recoil, ammunition for practice is cheaper compared to shotguns and rifles
Cons: Limited stopping power compared to shotguns and rifles, more difficult to aim properly due to a much shorter sight radius, can be mechanically more complex than shotguns, necessitating malfunction clearance drills

Handguns are less effective at stopping a threat than shotguns or rifles, but they have a number of benefits that places them higher on the list than a rifle. Maneuverability is not an issue with a handgun due to its much smaller size. And while handgun bullets can overpenetrate more than shotguns, they do so quite a bit less compared with rifles. And with good choices in ammunition — hollow-point bullets that expand upon entering flesh instead of cutting through cleanly — the risk of overpenetration is brought down even lower. You still of course need to be keenly aware of what your handgun cartridges are capable of doing.

Handguns, especially semi-automatic pistols, can carry many rounds in their magazine. More than a dozen rounds is typical depending on the size of the handgun and the caliber of its ammunition. You can also keep spare magazines loaded with rounds, making reloads extremely fast (no more than just a couple of seconds with practice).

Revolvers generally hold less rounds than semi-automatic pistols, and are generally slower to reload. Despite this, revolvers do have some advantages over semi-automatic pistols. Revolvers are simpler to operate; there are no external safety levers or switches that need to be set in order for the gun to fire. Pulling the trigger on a revolver does two things. First, it rotates the cylinder to bring an unfired round into the firing chamber while cocking the hammer back. Then, it releases the hammer, which fires the gun. To fire a second round, all that needs to be done is pull the trigger a second time. If a round turns out to be a dud and does not fire, all that needs to be done to clear the malfunction is to pull the trigger again to bring a new cartridge into firing position. Revolvers are also less apt to fail from neglecting maintenance. While it is of course always best to maintain your firearms thoroughly and properly, a revolver that has sat in a safe for several months without being touched has a pretty good chance of functioning properly. The same cannot be said of most semi-automatic pistols, which require regular maintenance to keep them dependable and reliable when you need to use them.

4th choice for a Home Defense Firearm:

A Rifle.

Pros: Much more effective than a handgun
Cons: Large size makes it hard to maneuver through narrow hallways and tight corners, overpenetration can be severe

A rifle is, in many cases, a poor choice for a home defense firearm. While rifles are extremely effective in stopping a threat, the risk of overpenetration is simply too high. A rifle bullet shot from across the room may pass through the threat, through the wall behind him, through the outside wall of the house, through the outside wall of your neighbors’ house that is 100 feet away, and still have enough energy to seriously injure or kill an occupant of that house. Even rounds that are designed to expand, like hollowpoint ammunition, are very capable of overpenetration when fired from a rifle. Recoil, while for most caliber rifles is less than that of a shotgun, still can be significantly more than with a handgun. For these reasons, a rifle for home defense is not recommended unless you are an experienced shooter who knows and understands what that rifle can do, and who lives in a very rural area where houses have large amounts of space between them.

If you do must use a rifle for home defense, there are a few ways to reduce overpenetration and increase safety. Instead of using standard or even hollowpoint rounds, home-defense rifles can be loaded with lightweight, frangible ammunition. These bullets are designed to break apart on impact, greatly slowing down and dumping all or most of their energy inside the target rather than passing through the target. Federal air marshalls are armed with frangible ammunition in their concealed handguns because overpenetration in an airplane can have very deadly results to everyone on board.

Another option is to use a shorter barrel — as short as allowed by your local laws and regulations. With a shorter barrel, the bullet is not accelerated to as high of a velocity compared with a longer barrel. The difference is not a very large amount, but it is enough to help reduce overpenetration slightly. A shorter barrel also has the added advantage of better maneuverability in tight spots, which as discussed previously is a great asset for a home-defense firearm.

Final Thoughts

By this point, you should have a good idea of what type of gun is the best for defending your home. The next step would be to narrow down the desired caliber (or gauge), brand, and model of the type of firearm you have selected. You can find information on all types of firearms in WhichGun.com”s database in order to help you make your final decision.