Guns for Home Defense

By Chuck Hawks

As they say, the first rule of gunfights is to bring a gun, so any home defense firearm is better than none. But some guns are better for the purpose than others. Let's take a look at the most common options.


A .22 caliber hunting or target rifle is better than nothing, but like any rifle it is unwieldy. And a .22 rimfire rifle is under powered for the purpose of home defense. Homo Sapiens is much larger than the game normally shot with .22. Any rifle is fairly easy for an intruder to grab at close range, and the long barrel gives a bad guy plenty of leverage to take the gun away from the homeowner. A violent criminal may well turn a rifle on the homeowner.

Centerfire rifles are also unwieldy and difficult to retain in a struggle, but generally have plenty of power, particularly the ordinary deer rifle. In fact, they have way too much power, offering an extreme risk of over penetration in urban and suburban areas. They thus represent an unacceptable hazard to neighbors and other innocent bystanders.

If a rifle is the only available firearm, a relatively low powered, carbine length weapon is probably the best choice. A Winchester or Marlin lever action carbine chambered for a pistol cartridge (.357 Magnum, .44 Magnum) would fill the bill, as would a military surplus M1 Carbine. These would also be satisfactory choices to defend a neighborhood during a riot or other civil insurrection. Use bullets designed for quick expansion.

Rifles such as a lever action .30-30 or Ruger Ranch Rifle would be a sensible choice outdoors for defending farm or ranch property from two or four legged predators. For defensive use inside the home, particularly in populated areas, there are better choices than a rifle.


Shotguns, particularly the short barreled type familiarly known as "riot guns," can be quite effective. These generally come with 18"-20" barrels. They are extremely intimidating to an intruder. No sane person wants to argue with a shotgun.

12 gauge pump guns are probably the most popular type of riot gun, but an autoloader or double-barreled "coach gun" will also serve, as will similar guns in 16 or 20 gauge. Small bore 28 and .410 bore guns do not pack enough payload and should be avoided for home defense. Good examples of pump action riot guns are the security versions of the Mossberg Models 500 and 590, and the Remington Model 870.

Shotgun slug loads involve the same risk of over penetration as a centerfire rifle, and should be reserved for use outdoors. Shot and buckshot loads considerably reduce that risk. However, shot loads will do substantial and often unacceptable damage to the home in which they are fired.

Like rifles, shotguns are unwieldy weapons indoors and are liable to be seized by an intruder. Replacing the buttstock with a pistol grip makes a shotgun somewhat handier in tight spaces. I find that particularly true onboard a boat. Pachmayr makes a good replacement pistol grip for the most common brands of shotguns, and some Mossberg security models come with both standard and pistol grip buttstocks. Remember that you still have to aim to hit a target. Do not fire a shotgun from the hip!

A shotgun would seem to be an excellent choice for sweeping rioters from the front porch steps during a civil insurrection, but for defense inside the home a handgun is probably a better choice. However, a riot gun is a fine back-up weapon if the situation gets out of control.


A handgun is handy indoors and can be conveniently concealed almost anywhere in the home, ready for use. It is the easiest of all guns to retain in a hand to hand struggle. It can be fired from either hand in an emergency situation. (This is especially true of revolvers). Centerfire pistols and revolvers from approximately 9mm/.38 caliber on up, assuming appropriate ammunition is chosen, offer good stopping power for indoor home defense without the extreme risk of over penetration of a deer rifle or shotgun stuffed with slugs. They are much less likely to severely damage the home you are trying to protect than a shotgun. For all of these reasons handguns are the first choice of the majority of experts for home defense.

Of the various types of handguns, only revolvers and autoloading pistols should be considered for home defense. Service type handguns are the typical, and best, choices. These usually come with better sights and are easier to shoot accurately than the smaller, lighter handguns designed primarily for concealed carry.

Autoloading pistols

Modern examples of service style autoloaders include the Beretta M92 series, Ruger P series, SIG P229 and P239, and the Full-Size and Compact Glock pistols. All of these are double action or safe action pistols that can be safely stored with the chamber loaded and the safety (if present) off. If the whistle blows it is not necessary to manually cycle the action or manipulate a safety, just pull the trigger and the gun will fire. In this they are much like a double action revolver.

Autoloaders hold more cartridges than the ordinary revolver, typically about 10 rounds, and are faster to reload if a pre-loaded magazine is handy. However, autoloaders are very slow to reload from a box of loose cartridges--the situation that usually pertains if a homeowner shoots his or her pistol empty. An autoloader can deliver very rapid fire, but remember that you can't miss fast enough to win a gunfight.

Autoloading pistols are more likely to jam than a revolver, particularly if fired through cloth, say from under a bathrobe in a sudden emergency, from an unusual orientation (upside down for instance), or with a "limp wrist" (insecure hold). They have one other very significant drawback: they are magazine fed and the spring in a loaded magazine is tightly compressed. Magazines should be rotated regularly. The spring in a loaded magazine left unattended for an extended period of time may take a "set" and then lack the pressure to reliably feed cartridges, causing a jam.

If I used an autoloading pistol for home defense I would choose one chambered for the 9mm Luger (9x19) cartridge. Given proper ammunition, the 9x19 offers excellent stopping power with less muzzle flash and recoil that the popular big bore pistol cartridges (.40 S&W and .45 ACP).

A high quality autoloader, owned and maintained by an experienced shooter, is a very good home defense weapon. It is perhaps not so good for the casual user who is not a recreational shooter.


My top choice for a home defense gun is a revolver. Revolvers usually hold six cartridges, but some hold more. Revolvers are ambidextrous. Perhaps best of all, they can sit fully loaded and untouched for decades, as all springs are normally at rest, and still be ready to go into service at a moment's notice. Just grab the gun and commence firing should the need arise.

Medium size revolvers, the kind I usually favor for home defense, come in two action styles, single action and double action. The difference is that the single action (SA) revolver must be manually cocked before the trigger will fire the weapon. These are the traditional "western" style guns, such as the Colt Single Action Army and Ruger Blackhawk and Vaquero models. Such guns are slow to reload, but powerful, accurate and deadly.

Somewhat like autoloading pistols, I regard single action revolvers as an entirely satisfactory choice for home defense, particularly for experienced shooters, but not the best choice for the casual user.

The all-around best choice among firearms for home defense is the double action (DA) revolver. These are the typical "police" style revolvers, such as the Colt Python, Ruger GP100, or the Smith and Wesson Model 10 Military and Police. Double action revolvers may be thumb cocked, just like a single action revolver, and then fired by a light pressure on the trigger. This is generally referred to as shooting "single action," and it is the most accurate way to deliver aimed fire. They may also be fired by a single long pull on the trigger, which first cocks and then releases the hammer (trigger cocking or "double action" shooting).

Trigger cocking requires a longer and much heavier trigger pull, but it is fast. Shots can be delivered as rapidly as from an autoloading pistol. It is sufficiently accurate for close range shooting (out to perhaps 7 yards) in trained hands.

Double action revolvers are very safe, simple to operate, relatively easy to shoot accurately, very reliable, and extremely difficult to jam. They can be reloaded quickly if a speed loader is employed, and are very easy to reload from a box of loose cartridges should that become necessary. For the average homeowner as well as the expert pistolero, a DA revolver is hard to beat for home defense.

I consider a 4" barrel the best compromise for a home defense handgun. The shortest barrel I would recommend for a revolver is 2.5", and the longest 6".

I prefer the .38 Special over the smaller revolver cartridges due to its superior stopping power, and to larger cartridges, such as the various Magnums, because it produces less muzzle blast and flash, an important consideration indoors and in dim light.


Whatever gun is chosen for home defense, become familiar with it. Make it a point to practice at reasonable intervals. A firearm can potentially save your life and the lives of your family. But it isn't the firearm per-se that gets the job done, it is the person behind it. Skill and determination, reinforced by regular practice, will carry the day. Remember that, as Bill Jordan pointed out, there is no second place winner in a gunfight.

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Copyright 2004, 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.