Rifles for Home Defense

By Chuck Hawks

Rifles are probably the least popular firearms for home defense, trailing both the handgun and the shotgun. This is understandable in most urban settings, where threats are usually engaged at short range and the risk of over penetration is considerable.

On the other hand, in some suburban and most rural settings the risk of over penetration is much reduced and threats may have to be dealt with at longer range. In these environments a centerfire rifle may be a valuable addition to the home defense battery. (Rimfire rifles are certainly better than no gun at all, but they are an inferior choice for the mission; this article is about centerfire rifles for home defense.)

Many cabins and ranches in the Old West were successfully defended against hostile attack by rifle fire when pistols and shotguns simply could not have done the job. In today's troubled times, similar scenarios are not unthinkable.

The home defense rifle should be chambered for a reasonably powerful cartridge, say .223 Remington caliber or bigger, but not so powerful that it makes quick second or third aimed shots impossible. Cartridges on the order of the .30-30 would the most powerful I would consider in most circumstances. Recoil should be moderate to allow fast reacquisition of the target after every shot. It should be a repeater that allows quick follow-up shots; usually this means an autoloader, pump or lever action. Our ideal home defense rifle should be reasonably light in weight with a barrel no longer than 20" (a carbine in other words) for maneuverability in tight corners. It should balance well and handle fast.

Note that low power telescopic sights (high power scopes need not apply) are fast and accurate to aim in daylight, but are often nearly impossible to use at night without external artificial illumination (streetlights, etc.), unless they have illuminated reticles. Perhaps the "scout rifle" concept of an extended eye relief scope mounted forward of the receiver has some validity here.

Perhaps better for home defense would be a carbine equipped with a red dot optical sight. Such sights are visible in all lighting conditions, allow fast target acquisition and are much more accurate than iron sights. Iron sights are a viable choice for a home defense rifle that might have to be used at night or in very poor light, if the operator's eyes have sufficient accommodation to allow their use.

Rifles do have definite advantages for home defense. Centerfire rifle bullets are usually highly lethal and excellent stoppers. Any bullet recommended for hunting deer and other CXP2 game will be adequate for our purpose. A rifle is much easier for most users to shoot accurately than a handgun. (Remember that only hits count in a gunfight.) Carbine length rifles are generally shorter, lighter and handier than most shotguns. They easily out range a shotgun. Autoloading, pump and lever action rifles offer quick follow-up shots and most traditional lever action rifles offer large capacity tubular magazines that can be reloaded without taking the rifle out of action. A centerfire rifle is highly intimidating in a standoff.

The sportsman and hunter probably already owns one or more rifles that he or she can shoot well. The slowest types of rifles for home defense purposes, although they are very popular for big game hunting, are single shot and bolt action models, which are usually equipped with telescopic sights. The latter, although repeaters, also tend to be relatively long and heavy. However, if that is what one owns and feels confident using, they can do the job. Such sporting rifles are particularly applicable for counter-sniper duty.

Ruger Mini 30
Ruger Mini-30P, 7.62x39 caliber. Illustration courtesy of Sturm Ruger.

Better than the typical bolt action hunting rifle for most home defense purposes is a fast firing carbine. The ubiquitous semi-automatic, AR-15 type .223 caliber rifles are a popular example of the type, as are the Ruger Mini-14 (.223) and Mini-30 (7.62x39). These rifles are adaptable to optical sights and can use high capacity detachable magazines that are easily exchanged. However, in the event of an extended fight, the empty magazines are slow to replenish.

M1 Carbine
U.S. Carbine M1, Caliber .30. Image courtesy of the U.S. Army.

Similar but less powerful is the U.S. M1 Carbine, chambered for the .30 Carbine cartridge. Stoked with hollow point or soft point expanding bullets weighing 90-110 grains, this handy little carbine is far more deadly than it ever was with military FMJ (ball) ammunition. It is, however, not designed for optical sights.

Winchester Model 94
.30-30 Winchester Model 94. Illustration courtesy of U.S. Repeating Arms Co., Inc.

The lever action Marlin Model 336 and Winchester Model 94 are traditional home defense rifles. They are most commonly seen with 20" barrels in powerful calibers such as .30-30, .32 Special, .35 Remington, and .38-55 that offer very serious stopping power. These tubular magazine fed rifles are loaded via a port in the right side of the receiver and cartridges can be replaced as they are fired without taking the rifle out of action. Such rifles can keep firing as long as you have ammunition on hand, as they have proven in sieges lasting for days. Marlin lever actions and Winchester angle-eject Model 94's are drilled and tapped for optical sights.

Other possible choices are the Remington Models 760/7600/7615 pump carbines (.223 and .30-06), or Remington's autoloading carbines Models 740/742/7400/750 (.308 Win.). Browning offers carbine length versions of its BLR lever action rifle in a number of popular calibers from .22-250 on up. Browning also offers their Lightweight Stalker BAR autoloading rifle in .243 Win. and .308 Win.

Another option is a rifle chambered for a pistol cartridge. Such guns offer superior range, accuracy and stopping power to a handgun of the same caliber with considerably less recoil. They usually hold a lot of cartridges. Ruger and Marlin have in the past offered handy "camp carbine" type rifles in 9x19mm and .40 S&W caliber. Ruger still offers their Model 96 lever gun in .44 Magnum caliber. It uses a 4-round, detachable rotary magazine.

Henry RAC offers the modern but traditional looking, brass framed Big Boy rifle in .357 Mag. and .44 Mag. This carbine uses a high capacity tubular magazine, but is loaded like a tubular magazine fed .22 rifle. That is, the inner magazine tube is partially removed and cartridges are droppen into a cutout in the underside of the outer magazine tube, thus taking the rifle out of action while reloading.

Uberti 1866 Short Sporting Rifle
Uberti 1866 Short Sporting Rifle, offered in .38 Spec., .44-40 and .45 Colt. Illustration courtesy of A. Uberti S.R.L.

Perhaps even better home defense rifles chambered for pistol cartridges are the Marlin Model 1894, Winchester Model 92 and various replicas of historic Winchester lever action rifles (usually Models 1866, 1873 and 1892). The excellent Uberti Models 1866 and 1873 carbines are representative of the latter type. Lever guns chambered for revolver cartridges are usually offered in .38 Spec./.357 Mag, .44 Spec./.44 Mag., .44-40, and .45 Long Colt. The .357 and .44 Magnums offer the greatest range, flattest trajectory and the most stopping power.

Bullets from the magnum calibers leave the muzzle of a rifle at much higher velocity than from a typical revolver. The Winchester Ammunition catalog, for example, shows a muzzle velocity of 1235 fps and muzzle energy of 535 ft. lbs. for their Super-X .357 Mag. 158 grain JHP bullet from a 4" revolver barrel. The same load clocks 1830 fps and 1175 ft. lbs. from a rifle barrel. That's over twice the energy! The maximum point blank range (+/- 3") of that load from a rifle is approximately 163 yards when zeroed at 140 yards (or +2.7" at 100 yards).

All of the rifles mentioned in the paragraphs above are fast firing models. All are available with barrels of 20" or less in length and are a viable choice for home defense. Only the current version of the Marlin 1894, however, is drilled and tapped for mounting optical sights.

Let me conclude this little piece with a true story. A good friend of mine happened to be working at home in his upstairs office one afternoon when he heard an intruder enter the kitchen. He grabbed his Winchester Model 94 .30-30 deer rifle, which he habitually left with the chamber empty but the magazine full, from the corner where it stood and worked the action to chamber a cartridge. When he ran downstairs all he could see, looking out the kitchen window, of the would be burglar was his back side as he fled at a dead run down the street. The sound of a pump shotgun may be unmistakable to criminals but, thanks to TV and movie westerns, so is the sound of a lever action rifle. Intimidation will often carry the day without a shot being fired and a rifle can be very intimidating!

Note: Full length reviews of most of the rifles mentioned in this article can be found on the Product Reviews page.

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Copyright 2007, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.