How to Select the Best Home Defense Weapon

When I teach home-defense courses, I’m always asked, “What is the best gun for home defense?” And I always answer with a definitive “That all depends.”

This vagueness belies the truism that there really is no perfect home-defense gun. While there are three firearm platforms that most would argue are “standard” home-defense firearms — the AR-15 style rifle, the handgun, and the modern pump or semi-auto shotgun — could any be considered perfect? I would argue that, while each platform has its own distinct advantages, they also have detriments in a firefight on your home turf.

The AR-15 Personal Defense Weapon (PDW)

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Many gun guys and gals strongly advocate the AR-15 PDW for home defense, and indeed it presents a strong argument for being used as such. Why? Because it has superior stopping power, high magazine capacity in the event of multiple intruders, and the standard 5.56mm/.223 caliber round has excellent penetration in case you have to engage a bad guy through a wall or some other structure or barrier within the home. The 5.56mm/.223 caliber round also allows the shooter to get accurate shots at relatively long distances if you have to mount a defense across 50, 75, or even 300 yards.

However, some of these advantages could be considered arguments against using the AR-15 as a home-defense firearm. While penetration through walls could be a necessity in some home-defense scenarios, if you live in suburbia or other locales where houses are close together, that penetration could upset your neighbor if, while defending your home, you start putting bullets in his home! The long-range capabilities of most ARs, with rounds leaving the barrel at 2350 to 3700 fps, also mean increased danger in suburban environments in the event of a shot going astray.

The high-capacity magazine also increases the weight of the firearm, and the increased magazine length could make it more awkward to handle, especially in tight spaces.

I live in a rural area and the potential to defend over a fairly long distance is something I have to consider, along with long police response times. These make the AR platform a top contender in my home-defense plan, along with its long-range firepower and high-capacity magazine to hold off multiple assailants until the cavalry can arrive and arrest the bad guy.

Selecting The Best Handgun for Home Defense

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If the AR-15 is too bulky, too heavy or has too much penetration, one could consider a small, lightweight handgun. Today’s handguns have high-capacity magazines capable of holding 15, 17 or more rounds. The typical handgun round will still penetrate through most walls and other barriers found in the home. Most modern self-defense ammunition retains enough energy and expands reliably after penetration through light barriers to stop a threat from doing you any further harm.

This poses a strong argument for the handgun as the perfect home-defense weapon. However, handguns aren’t as easy to use as other firearms. While training is not mandatory to use one, it’s still strongly recommended that you become educated on its manipulation and use, cleaning, and how to correct malfunctions.

Speaking of malfunctions, while modern semi-auto handguns are very reliable, they are still finely tuned tools and can easily malfunction if not held properly or if allowed to make contact with a person, clothing, or any other objects while shooting. This must be taken into account when considering a handgun as a potential home-defense firearm.

Handguns, while at the low end of the power spectrum in the 850 to 1500 fps range, still pose a risk of over-penetration. In suburban environments, most handgun rounds could pose a risk to loved ones in your home or to your neighbors. Consider appropriate fields of fire within the home and safe areas where a firearm may or, more importantly, may not be used during a home-defense scenario.

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I prefer a handgun to a long gun in the event I have to move within my home or on my property. A bump in the night is often a raccoon after a garbage can or a coyote (the four-legged kind) venturing onto my property. These situations don’t warrant a call to the sheriffs department and the requisite 45- to 60-minute wait for them to show up and tell me, “It was probably just a coyote.” Often a simple “shoo” or noise from me will accomplish what I need. But I know I have the handgun by my side in the event the critter turns out to be more nefarious, such as a burglar who means to do me or my family harm.

Because of its high-capacity magazine, light weight, small size, and portability in case I need to move around, I keep a 9mm Glock 19 close at hand. Its modern 9mm ammunition retains good to excellent stopping power if I have to engage a bad guy through a door or wall, and it provides enough power to stop a threat at short to intermediate ranges (3 to 50 feet). At longer distances, past 30 feet or so, practice is a necessity to gain combat-accurate hits on a threat.

Many people may not be able to afford an AR-15 PDW or a modern handgun. They often cost $500 and up and can be very expensive to equip and shoot. Also, in light of recent political actions, ammunition for many ARs and most modern handguns is virtually non-existent on sporting-goods and gun store shelves. This brings us to the modern shotgun as a potential perfect home-defense weapon.

Home Defense Weapons: The Shotgun

This is an image of a shotgun - Best Handgun for Home Defense

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Nowadays shotgun ammunition is about the only ammunition that is plentiful, and I use that word loosely. The modern pump-action or semi-auto shotgun also provides a great platform for home defense for several other reasons. Shotguns are inexpensive compared to many other firearms, less likely to jam, simple to shoot, and can often be aimed with something as basic as a flashlight attached to the gun that approximates the same spread pattern of the buckshot that’s shot out of it.

With the right selection of ammunition, the issue of over-penetration can be minimized, although never really eliminated. And even simple, inexpensive #6 or #8 buckshot provides a formidable wall of lead to help change the mind of a bad guy intent on doing you harm. While most modern pump-action or semi-auto shotguns hold only five to eight rounds, this will normally be enough to hold off a threat until the police arrive on the scene.

Many shotguns have saddles installed, or they can be purchased and installed. These saddles hold a wide array of shotgun ammunition, which can vary from short-range-use buckshot to project a spray pattern of buckshot, to a one-ounce shotgun slug with enough stopping power to drop a large animal at 50 to 100 yards.

Considering the wide array of ammunition, ammunition availability, relative lack of over-penetration, and lower-than-average firearm cost, the shotgun may be the perfect home defense firearm. Personally, the Mossberg 500 pump-action shotgun is a top choice for my home-defense plan.

However, one must consider the weight, recoil and unwieldy nature of the shotgun itself. In order to be a legal firearm, the shotgun barrel must be a minimum of 18 inches. With the addition of the receiver and stock, the shotgun can become an unwieldy firearm in the close quarters of a house.

Summary

When it comes to the perfect home-defense firearm, each person, each home, and each person’s bank account play a part in determining which firearm is best.

Other factors that must be considered are a firearm’s relative capability to stop a threat (stopping power), magazine or shell capacity, penetration or over-penetration possibilities, and combat-accurate distance capability. Each firearm platform will have its own distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Personally, my perfect home-defense firearm is all three! I keep an AR-15 PDW on hand in case I need to counter a threat across a long distance or penetrate a barrier. My Glock 19 handgun is close at hand in the event I need to move throughout my home or land. And I have my Mossberg 500 shotgun, equipped with flashlight and five-shot saddle, if I need to defend my loved ones or myself within a confined area. Your situation will determine your perfect home-defense firearm.

Discussion
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46 Responses to “How to Select the Best Home Defense Weapon”
  1. Robert 411

    I am so glad that there are people out here that understand the use of a firearms, and give a respectful account of what it should be used for. Great article.

    Reply
  2. Randy Carlton

    Thanks for the article.
    What type of shot shell holder do you have mounted on the butt of the Mossberg?

    Reply
    • TAC

      Sorry for the late reply. I use a “TacStar SideSaddle Shotshell Holder.” The reason is that it is secured, via screws, to the side of the shotgun and doesn’t shift and move around. It’s proven very reliable and indestructible so far!

      Reply
  3. K.B.

    Great article giving consideration to the age old question and decisions facing a large population in this day and age. You seem a little bias towards glocks or maybe I read into your article a little too much. Any thoughts on providing future articles concerning specific weapon groups, ie pistols, and providing an analysis between polymer, non’s, etc. I look forward to reading any future articles Mr. Watson.

    Reply
  4. Mike

    Thanks for the informative article! I guess I like it because you echo my conclusions on the “perfect” HD weapon very closely. I have 2 of the 3 recommendations and am saving for an AR-15/M4. I hope I never have to use them for defense, but even if I don’t, I have a lot of fun at the range improving my skills!

    Reply
  5. Frank

    What a nothing story I though. You said nothing worth while except over penetration. Maybe this maybe that, Blah Blah.

    Reply
    • Jack

      Write your own article then Frank, or a constructive response. If there was a perfect answer to the question, we would all own one. I agree with the author – it is all situation dependent, and for that reason I have the same combo of firearms available ranging from the 9mm at arms reach, to the 5.56 and 12gauge in a ‘lockdown’ situation.

      Reply
    • TAC

      Frank,

      I’m always open to suggestions and ideas. I think you missed the point of the article though. It WAS about “maybe this maybe that.”

      The point of the article was to point out that there is NO perfect gun. It’s all situationally, and occasionally financially, dependent.

      An elderly person on a fixed income who can ONLY afford a $100, 2-shot derringer is going to be dependent on THAT gun for personal and home defense.

      This article hopefully points out that there are a lot of factors to consider; from cost to penetrative capabilities, to one’s ability to carry or use a particular type of firearm.

      Reply
    • gunnut

      Gee Frank, I guess that you don’t belong here. Your way to smrt for us blah blah common folk. “WE’RE NOT WORTHY”. So Frank, just how many friends do you really have? I mean real friends. Plus someone who doesn’t know how to spell thought shouldn’t be so critical. Mellow out Frank and love your fellow man, except the BG’s, shoot them if it’s legal 🙂 Stay safe Frank

      Reply
  6. John Baker

    Great article! I know that you often recommend a Glock and it is a fine handgun but what would you recommend in a SIG? I own a SIG 1911 Taget Match pistol and was wondering if there are any SIGS you would recommend .

    Reply
    • TAC

      John,

      Sorry for the late reply. The problem I see with pistols designed for “uber-accuracy” is that they tend to be very intolerant to dirt. Now, given that we’re talking about a home-defense gun, then dirt may not be an issue. But I tell students all the time, “You will NEVER be able to choose the time or place to be a victim.” And, “You will never choose the circumstances.” Therefore, I want a gun that works anytime, any place, in any scenario. For me, that’s a Glock.

      However, Sigs are fine guns. I have owned one, and I owned it for about one week and, for a variety of reasons, decided it wasn’t for me. Therefore I wouldn’t be a good person to make recommendations on them.

      When I choose a handgun I want it to do one thing. It MUST go “bang” every, single time I press the trigger. Whether that means I’m at the range or in a Walmart parking lot, whether I picked it up or had to draw it with my right hand or left, on a bright sunny day or in the rain, standing on my own two feet or laying in the dirt after getting knocked down….It must go “bang”!!!

      I think if you apply this criteria to a Sig, Colt, Glock, etc., then you’ll be able to find the right gun for personal defense.

      Thanks for your question,
      “TAC”

      Reply
      • Tony

        They must go BANG. I have owned S&W’s, Beretta’s, Sig’s, and Glocks and each for a specific reason. I have found that a Glock doesn’t care what you feed it, but you should check the mechanical function of any firearm used for personal defense on a regular basis.

        Reply
  7. Me

    I would like to hear your reasoning for choosing bird shot for home defense. Educate me, please – or change my mind – but I don’t believe bird shot (or as you said “#6 or #8 buck shot) can be effective and just might be dangerous to use.

    Reply
    • David Flora

      If you choose to use a shotgun for home defense, smaller size shot would help to reduce wall penetration. At close quarters, even shot size 5 or 6 will make a huge hole in a perpetrator.

      Reply
  8. TAC

    Hello “Me”,

    One of the reasons for choosing birdshot, over say “00”/”000″ Magnum buckshot, would be to reduce the chances of overpenetration.

    When using a shotgun, or any firearm, in a home defense scenario the defender has a lot of things to take into account, other family members being the primary concern. Slugs and “00”/”000″ buckshot would be preferable IF you’re not worried about overpenetration and the potential for injuring other family members in the home or neighbors.

    However, IF that is a potential then the lighter, smaller loads at “normal room distances” (12′-20′) creates a very small (6″-8″), tight group that has less penetrative potential than the heavier slugs and “00”/”000″ buckshot. When the #6/#8 buckshot is used in short-distance scenarios (e.g. 12′-20″) the spread-pattern is such that it presents a shot-group approximate to a softball size pattern, potentially larger based on shotgun choke, distance to target, etc. However, with a tight spread pattern and muzzle velocity from 12′-20′ this is why it would present the aforementioned “formidable wall of lead.” Albeit a “small wall!!”

    The point is to prevent overpenetration and when that consideration can be eliminated (ie. no other family members in the home, no neighboring houses, etc.) then I would recommended the larger buckshots (e.g. “00”, “000”).

    Lastly, if all that can be found or purchased, based on availability or cost, then the more available and cheaper buckshot can be used. I hope this helps.

    Thanks for your question,
    “TAC”

    Reply
    • Gary B

      TAC, I have read your article and I agree with most of what you have written and your choices. Now I will add just a bit to it. It is evident you from what I have read that you are a Semi-Auto Glock aficionado and that is your right. Yet, as someone that carried a Semi-Auto and was a Range officer we can both state unequivocally that they Semi-Autos do have malfunctions and with that said I will give another option. A Semi-Auto in the hands of someone who spends hours working with one to the point of having to clear duds placed in mags at random locations without looking at the weapon makes an awesome HOME defense weapon. Yet, after having seen many range malfunctions along with several time costly and what could have been very dangerous fumbled clearings had not the Range Officer stepped in. Makes me wonder. Also, while we are talking about clearing weapon malfunctions that were FUMBLED lets be aware that Absolutely None were under STRESSFUL conditions that would be in play were someone is in your home and it is dark. Therefore, with that said it is my humble opinion the best home defense PISTOL is a REVOLVER. That is, unless you can spend hours and hours working on clearing malfunctions while being able to shoot blindfolded as your partner staggers the duds in different locations in the Pistol Magazine. As that is difficult to do unless you live in the country you are therefore better off with a pistol that if it DOES NOT GO BANG when you pull the trigger all you have to do is pull the trigger again while looking at your target. Now, In your original post you said #6/#8 BUCK SHOT and repeated in again in the post above.There is no such thing a #6 or #8 Buck Shot yes there is #6 and #8 Bird Shot but the smallest BUCK SHOT is #4 Buck and yes there is also #4 Bird Shot and it is smaller. When I am asked about Pistols for home defense I will recommend either a Taurus Judge or a S&W Governor and mine are Judge’s. With number 4 Bird shot there is about a 3 foot pattern at 10 feet. So if the wife’s hands are shaking after being awoken in the middle of the night the perp will still be hit by some pellets as the pattern spread from a 3 inch rifled barrel really opens up at close range. Also there are about 65 pellets in that pattern and if that does not stop him 000 Buck will as the next shot.

      Reply
  9. RichP

    One thing to consider about the AR for home defense is the noise. I’ve shot AR’s inside a shoot house and can tell you even with ear protection the sound is incredible. I have to think that shooting one inside a bedroom with no hearing protection would scramble your brain a little.

    Reply
  10. Martin

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    Reply
  11. David

    Thanks for the great article. The main point is there is no absolute in home defense. I prefer the .45 1911 and I also have a wide range of defense knives available. They can be used over a firearm in some circumstances.

    Reply
  12. Steve

    Uh, I’ve seen numerous tests and the .223 fragments after one layer of drywall unlike 9mm, 45 ACP, 12 gauge and nearly every other round. Are you sure you know what you’re talking about?

    Reply
    • Anthony

      A key aspect of selecting a home defense weapon is also choosing the correct ammo to feed it. If you’re using the proper ammo, premature fragmentation isn’t going to be a problem.

      Reply
    • Dave Holmes

      I agree, this guy has NO IDEA what he is talking about. The .223/5.56 has less penetration than a 9 MM….Perhaps, the author might want to do his research before making a complete ass of himself!

      Reply
  13. Kelly

    There are many home defense weapons. But if you never killed before. Let me tell you it is hard to live with I know I am a combat veteran. My home defenses are bb guns taser paintball gun with pepper rounds and rubber rounds. That way u don’t have loads of paper work or charges against you by the state

    Reply
  14. STEPHEN SHAPIRO

    I enjoyed reading your articles and apprecaite your in site and opinions. Thank Yu!!

    Reply
  15. CLAUDIO CIFONI

    A comfortable defense for the home in a multi dwelling area (normal row home area) might want to consider a good old Remington or similar pump shotgun with a small saddle for extra shotgun shells if needed. This in my estimate should not threaten innocent neighbors or whatever close by and might prove itself as a comfortable weapon of defense & not necessarily homicidal. A modest load of Nº 10 shot might be less harmful and probably do the trick. After all the blast should prove itself quite efficient.

    Reply
  16. James Fox

    Your article mirrors everything I have said for years. I always answer this same question is A, what fits your hand B, what recoil can you handle but most importantly what weapon do you like. You could spend $1500 on a weapon you don’t like therefore you will not practice but you like a $200.00 firearm you do like and will practice with and get know how to use it. I absolutely love this saying “ beware the person with 1 gun because they are most apt to use it well”

    Reply
  17. timothy j mcphillips

    good article, personal home defense is not always against humans, bears, cougars, wild boar can all ruin your day but quick. but that is just 1 situation. in a shtf situation a woodchuck, rat, possum or other small rodent may be eating your survival garden. if said rodent eats you food plot your survival may be in danger. birds can also present a problem we had flocks of birds decide to eat the cherries off our trees, a little rat shot and my .22lr revolver cured that dilemma. just food for thought. thanks for sharing the article.

    Reply
  18. 33Charlemagne

    Why restrict the carbine choices to AR15s? An AK would make an excellent choice for home defense as well as having some advantages over the AR15 platform. The gun itself is lower maintenance, more durable and the those examples with folding stocks can be collapsed to as little 25″ with a legal 16.25″ barrel. The are less fussy about ammunition with steel cased round going for as little as 20 cents a round for the 7.62×39 cartridge. In addition the 7.62 is more powerful tha either the 5.56 or the .300 Blackout.

    Other carbines could also fill the same role. I am thinking about the Mini 14, the M-1 Carbine and the SKS.

    Reply
  19. Anthony

    I agree with your article. I think it was wise to factor in cost and experience with each weapon as selection criteria.

    Reply
  20. Stone Jones

    Well written, though I prefer the 45 over the 9mm. I believe both would be effective. Too many people list the upside of the weapons but you included overpenetration which I think many people do not consider. There are a couple of good home defense/self defense rounds that can help reduce that possibility. No matter what a person decides on, practice with it regular. A co-worker from another state decided he wanted a personal/home defense weapon and purchased a 40 cal. He hasn’t taken it out of the box except to wipe it off and load it. Never pulled the trigger, how helpful will that tool be? Thanks for the insight.

    Reply
  21. Bill Snyder

    I believe the Taurus Judge is an excellent choice; with #6 shot. Leave double ought buck to SWAT teams. You don’t want damage to your wall. Jeff Cooper said bird shot will do nicely across the room.

    Reply
  22. John

    If you are shooting someone at 300 yards, it’s going to be hard to convince the jury you are just”standing your ground”.

    Reply
  23. John Dana

    Excellent article but it raises more questions than answers. Personal home defense today is a can’t win situation. If you hit hit you target and come away without a scrap then you are a hero. If not, you’re a fool or under arrest. That’s why my weapon is a 1935 Colt ditective special revolver in .30 caliber. If you can shoot, then will knock a crook down. If you don’t shoot straight, then grab a baseball bat and wail away. Bud Dana

    Reply
  24. Matt carrico

    Thank you so much for the information. As I live in a good neighborhood, I’m happy to have 2 handguns so far. 9mm S&W Sd9 Ve, and a Rock Island Armory 1911 A1. 45.

    Reply
  25. James Gregory

    I prefer the best of both worlds. My home defence weapon is a Taurus Judge. If I want penetration I can use 45s Otherwise the 410 Shotgun Shells will make any intruder think twice, They will meet the “Judge” before they meet the Judge.

    Reply
  26. Douglas

    >Good article. I use a .40 S&W with frangible bullets to help prevent over penetration, and due to the fact I am getting older and slower, a semi-auto shotgun instead of my pump with #6 Buckshot, not birdshot. By the way, experience showed me that intruders get very cooperative when looking down the barrel of the .40…

    Reply
  27. David

    Considering that most home defense situations will be at close quarters, a semi-automatic hand gun of sufficient power and ammo capacity is probably the best choice. This is providing that the user has proficiency with that weapon. To solve the problem of inadvertent wall penetration (potentially harming a friendly person), shooting at an upward angle from a kneeling position may help. This is of course true in there are no friendliest on upper floors.

    Reply
  28. Gary Sackman

    Daniel: Your article was well-balanced and provided enough basic information for someone to choose a firearm for home defense. I have a Ruger 9mm and a Marlin 30-30. With the
    advent of all the “improved” ammunition, the 9mm should be sufficient for self-defense and
    the standard 30-30 is more than enough to stop any intruder, out to 100 yards. I carried the M16 and M203 is the Army. Great in the woods or open areas, but under stress, I don’t know if I would want to try to maneuver in a home and have to make an accurate shot. A friend of my keeps a “coach” gun by his front door and he lives in a rural area. A coach gun is the basic double-barreled shotgun with 18″ barrels. Not much will stand after getting hit with it. I say just select the firearm you, personally, are comfortable with and can shoot well. If a .22 magnum is the most you can handle, it’s better than throwing silverware. Beware of the handgun videos. I selected a full-size 9mm for the ability to control the recoil and get back on target quickly. I had a Walther PPK/S in .380. Beautiful gun, but it kicked like a mule and I was in the Army firing every small arms in the inventory. I much preferred my 50’s or 60’s (?) model .45 automatic. If you can’t control the shot, a firearm is just an expensive club. Bigger calibers will give you bigger results, but if the recoil scares you, you’ll probably not practice much and be hesitant to engage an assailant. There was an article in one of the gun magazines years ago. The son of one of the writers wanted to try his dad’s Smith and Wesson .44 magnum. His dad said sure, just be careful of the recoil. First shot, wrong grip, he got bonked in the forehead pretty good. But lived to tell the tale. Just be sensible and practical for what you need the firearm for. The idea is for you to survive and terminate the attacker. Have fun.

    Reply
  29. Chuck

    Nice article although I was a little surprised that handguns (like the Judge) which can be loaded with more than one type of ammo (.45 caliber and/or 410 gauge) was not mentioned to solve both the stopping power and accuracy issues.

    Reply
  30. Roy

    Great article and very informative. The only question I have is about a weapon that is capable and accurate up to 300 yards. Just not sure why you would be shooting at a threat that far away. I would think that would be a hard one to explain to the law enforcers as to why you shot someone at that distance. Please set me right on this. Thanks

    Reply
  31. Norge

    The article is about nothing. A human has only one pair of hands.The author has no logic. Three different weapons cannot be used simultaneously. I regret the time spent reading this worthless article.

    Reply