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Handguns for Home Defense

By Chuck Hawks

Handguns are the most popular firearms for home defense. 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 .380/9mm/.38 caliber on up (all three actually use .35" diameter bullets), assuming appropriate ammunition is chosen, offer adequate stopping power for indoor home defense without the extreme risk of over penetration of a deer rifle. 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. Single shot pistols, derringers and other oddities may have their niche, but it is not home defense. Sub-compact pistols, while excellent for concealed carry, are not a good choice for home defense. A home defense gun does not normally need to be carried on the person and if it does an exposed holster and gun belt can be employed. The petite size of sub-compact pistols is a disadvantage in a home defense handgun.

Service type handguns with 4" or 5" barrels are the typical choices and they deliver the full rated velocity from factory loaded ammunition. Service revolvers and autoloaders usually come with better sights and provide a longer sight radius. Self-illuminating Tritium night sights are often available as an option. They are easier to shoot accurately than the smaller, shorter and lighter handguns designed primarily for concealed carry. Full size handguns also kick less than lightweight guns, allowing you to recover more rapidly for follow-up shots. Why handicap yourself in both accuracy and power with a concealed carry pistol when better handguns for home defense are readily available?

Jim Fleck, Guns and Shooting Online's Chief Technical Advisor, suggests the following rules for selecting a handgun for home defense:

  1. 100% reliability is required. The weapon must function every time. It cannot malfunction once in 25 shots or once in 100 shots, etc.
  2. You must hit the target's vitals (head or chest); remember that speed is wonderful, but accuracy is deadly.
  3. The weapon should be simple in operation and require a minimum of thought and action. (You will be under great stress!)
  4. You must be throughly familiar with your gun and have absolute confidence in its operation. READ the owner's manual.
  5. The gun should be able to sit idle for years, without use or cleaning, yet still function at a moment's notice.
  6. The gun should have a barrel length of at least 4" and no longer than 6.5" to balance retention, sight radius and ballistic efficiency.
  7. The cartridge selected for home defense must be of sufficient caliber and stopping power, factory loaded, affordable and available.
  8. Use a cartridge with sufficient power to get the job done, but no more. You will probably be shooting indoors in the dark; minimize muzzle flash, recoil and noise as much as possible. (This will help in fulfilling rule #3.)
  9. Above all, the weapon must be safe to yourself and others. You have a moral right to defend your home and your family, but also a moral obligation NOT to endanger innocent bystanders while so doing.

These are sensible guidelines. I suggest you follow them. Note that rules 1, 3 and 5 make autoloaders unlikely choices for anyone not supremely proficient in their use and willing to perform monthly maintenance. If you are not an IPSC "Combat Master" or the equivalent, an autoloader is probably not your best choice for home defense.

Autoloading pistols

Autoloaders, or semi-automatic pistols, are the choice of the world's military services. Bear in mind, however, that military requirements are quite different from civilian home defense requirements. The military is thinking in terms of groups of defenders armed with professionally maintained guns facing a group of assaulting enemy troops. (Barracks troops defending against an unexpected commando assault, for example.) In such circumstances, a high rate of fire and interchangeable magazines are important. The military, of course, supplies ammunition extensively tested and specifically tailored for their service sidearm.

Examples of modern service style autoloaders include the Beretta 90-TWO, SIG P226 and Glock 19. 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 respect they are much like a double action revolver.

Autoloaders hold more cartridges than the ordinary revolver, typically from 7 to 17 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 unaimed fire, but remember that you can't miss fast enough to win a gunfight. Unlike actors in movies, you have to take the time to aim and squeeze the trigger if you are to successfully defend your home!

Autoloaders are much more sensitive to ammunition variations than revolvers. To work, an autoloader requires ammunition that produces the pressure for which it was designed to operate. Cartridges that generate too much or too little pressure will cause malfunctions, even if they are the correct caliber. If you choose an autoloader for home defense, be absolutely certain it functions reliably 100% of the time with the ammunition you feed it. You will also have to keep it clean and properly lubricated. Most autoloaders, especially older designs such as the M-1911 and Luger, become unreliable if left uncleaned.

Autoloading pistols are more likely to jam than a revolver, particularly if fired through cloth (say from a pocket in a sudden emergency), from an unusual orientation (sideways or upside down), or with a "limp wrist" (insecure hold). If a criminal grabs the barrel/slide of your auto pistol in an attempt to disarm you and you fire the pistol, it is practically certain to jam, as the reciprocating slide's velocity will be slowed by the criminal's hand.

Even the best home defense autoloaders have another very significant drawback: they are magazine fed and the spring in a loaded magazine is tightly compressed. Magazines should be rotated on a monthly basis. 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 at the worst possible moment.

A high quality autoloader, owned and maintained by an experienced operator, can be a satisfactory home defense weapon. It is not so good for the casual user who is not an avid shooter and/or not particularly knowledgable.


My top choice for a home defense gun is a revolver. Civilian home defense favors an extremely reliable repeater that can deliver one to three accurately aimed shots without any routine maintainence and revolvers are ideal in this scenario. Unlike an autoloader with a magazine, revolvers have no separate parts to drop or lose. Revolvers usually hold six cartridges, which is plenty for almost any home defense situation, and 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 go into service at a moment's notice. Just grab the gun and commence firing should the need arise.

Revolvers are insensitive to ammunition and will fire any load you can stuff into the cylinder, as long as it is the cartridge for which the gun is chambered. In the event of a misfire due to a defective cartridge, the rotation of the cylinder brings up a fresh cartridge for the next shot without the shooter taking any special action. Unlike most autoloaders, revolvers will work even when they are very dirty. "Six for sure" is not an idle boast. Medium size revolvers, the kind I favor for home defense, come in two action styles, single action and double action.

Single action revolvers

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. Such guns are relatively slow to reload compared to a double action revolver (not important in typical home defense situations), but are reliable, powerful, accurate and deadly when the whistle blows. Incidentally, an empty SA revolver is faster to reload from a box of ammuniton than an autoloading pistol. Most SA revolvers can be visually checked for load status by looking from the side at the cartridge rims through the cylinder/recoil shield gap. (This does not apply to revolvers with recessed chambers, however.) Their "plowhandle" grip shape fits most hands exceedingly well, making accurate fire relatively easy. They can be fired rapidly from a two handed hold by cocking the piece with the thumb of the off hand. Do not attempt to "fan" a single action revolver.

I regard SA revolvers as entirely satisfactory for home defense in the hands of shooters familiar with the type, but reasonable familiarity is required. I learned to shoot with a single action revolver and for about 20 years I relied on a 6.5" Ruger Blackhawk .357 Magnum (stoked with medium velocity loads) for home defense. As I write these words, Jim Fleck is using a Ruger New Model Super Blackhawk .44 Magnum with a 5.5" barrel as his primary home defense gun. He keeps it loaded with CCI Blazer .44 Special ammo using 200 grain Speer Gold Dot bullets. This potent load is easy to shoot in the big Ruger revolver.

Ruger New Model single action revolvers use a transfer bar ignition system and are perfectly safe to carry or store with the cylinder fully loaded. To load, unload, or check a New Model Ruger, simply open the loading gate and rotate the cylinder. No hammer manipulation is necessary until you are ready to fire the gun; only then do you cock the hammer. These are the simplest and safest of all single action revolvers to use and the best for home defense.

"Old Model" (or "three screw") Rugers and all Remington, Colt and similar reproduction single action revolvers must be loaded so that an empty chamber ends-up under the lowered hammer. This is not difficult to do, but it requires a degree of operational competence. To rotate the cylinder for loading/unloading, the hammer must be thumbed back to the "half-cock" position. Because it requires a competent user, a traditional single action revolver is not the best choice for the homeowner who is unfamiliar with the type.

Double action revolvers

The all-around best choice among handguns for home defense is a double action (DA) revolver with adjustable sights. These are the typical "police" style revolvers, such as the Ruger GP100 and Colt Python. Double action revolvers may be thumb cocked, just like a single action revolver, and 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 a shot can be delivered quickly with one hand without manupulating any controls on the gun. DA fire can be delivered very rapidly at near contact range. It is sufficiently accurate for close range shooting (out to perhaps seven yards) in trained hands. However, remember that accurate shot placement wins gunfights and it is much easier to shoot accurately in single action mode.

Double action revolvers are very safe, simple to operate, relatively easy to shoot accurately and extremely reliable. They are safe to carry or store with the hammer down on a fully loaded cylinder. They can be checked by merely swinging out the cylinder. All cartridges or spent cases can be ejected simultaneously with the ejector rod. They can be reloaded quickly if a speed loader is employed and are the fastest of home defense handguns 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.

The gun

My personal home defense gun is a .38 Special Colt Diamondback. This is a medium size DA revolver with a 4" barrel and fully adjustable sights. I consider the 4" barrel a good compromise for a home defense handgun. It is better than a longer barrel for retention at close quarters and much easier to shoot accurately than 2-3" barrels. The ballistics for factory loaded revolver ammunition is typically derived in 4" barrels.

For use at night, I like a nickel finish or a polished stainless steel finish on my home defense revolver. The silver finish makes it easier to see and point the gun at night. Its fully adjustable, target-type sights make the Diamondback very accurate in decent light. The Diamondback fits my hand well for both SA and DA shooting and it is a very high quality revolver. Unfortunately it has been discontinued and a Colt Diamondback in good condition is expensive on the used market. However, it is well worth the price.

My choice in home defense ammunition has evolved over the years. These days, my home defense revolver is normally loaded with Federal Premium .38 Special +P 129 grain Hydra-Shok JHP ammo. I prefer the .38 Special to smaller rounds due to its superior stopping power and to larger rounds, such as the various Magnums, because it produces less muzzle blast and flash, an important consideration in dim light.


Whatever handgun you choose for home defense, become completely familiar with it. Make it a point to practice at reasonable intervals. A handgun can potentially save your life and the lives of your family. However, it isn't the weapon 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, 2017 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.