As they say, the first rule of gunfights is to bring a gun, so any home defense firearm is better than none. However, some guns are better for the purpose of home defense than others. Let’s take a look at the most common options.
Shoulder Weapons (long guns)
Any long gun (rifle or shotgun) 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. An experienced and violent criminal may turn a long gun on the homeowner. These facts mitigate against choosing a rifle or shotgun as the primary home defense weapon.
If you choose a shoulder weapon for home defense, you must be prepared to shoot well before an intruder can get anywhere near grappling distance. (True for any firearm, but especially long guns.) Aim carefully and shoot from the shoulder, not from the hip. You are not a movie hero that never misses.
A .22 caliber hunting or target rifle is better than nothing, but like any rifle it is unwieldy. A .22 rim fire rifle is generally under powered for the purpose of home defense. Homo Sapiens is much larger than the game normally shot with .22. Never the less, a .22 rifle is deadly in skilled hands and should not be treated with disdain. If you have to shoot a bad guy with a .22, an instantly incapacitating brain shot works best.
Center-fire 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 too much power for many situations, offering an extreme risk of over penetration in urban and suburban areas. They represent an unacceptable hazard to neighbors and other innocent bystanders in heavily populated areas.
A lever action .30-30 or auto-loading .308 rifle is a sensible choice for defending farm or ranch property from human predators while they are outdoors. For defensive use inside the home, particularly in populated areas, there are better choices.
If a rifle is the only available firearm, a relatively low powered, handy, carbine length weapon is probably the best choice. A lever action carbine chambered for the .357 Magnum revolver cartridge, a semi-automatic carbine chambered for a varmint cartridge, such as the .223 Ruger Mini-14 or SR-556, or a military surplus M1 Carbine would fill the bill. These would also be satisfactory choices outdoors to defend an urban neighborhood during a riot or other civil insurrection.
If you choose, or are otherwise forced, to use a rifle for home defense, use bullets designed for quick expansion. Bullets designed for varmint hunting feature almost explosive expansion, are designed not to ricochet from hard surfaces and are ideal.
Shotguns, particularly the short barreled type familiarly known as “riot guns” (or more recently as “tactical shotguns”), can be extremely effective for home defense. These generally come with 18″-20″ barrels. They are probably more intimidating to an intruder than any other firearm, reducing the likelihood that you will actually need to shoot. No sane person wants to argue with a shotgun.
Pump guns are probably the most popular type of riot gun, but an auto-loader or double-barreled “coach gun” will also serve. The repeaters generally hold four to eight rounds in the magazine, plus one in the chamber. It is usually easy to attach flashlights and projected laser dot sights to tactical shotguns, considerably expanding their effectiveness in the dark. Good examples of pump action riot guns are the Mossberg Model 500 Tactical, Remington Model 870 Tactical and Winchester Super-X Defender.
12 gauge is the most popular and effective, but a 16 or 20 gauge shotgun will do. Small bore 28 and .410 bore guns do not pack as much payload and should be avoided for home defense. Shotgun slug loads involve even more risk of over penetration than a center-fire rifle and should be reserved for use outdoors. Bird shot and buckshot loads considerably reduce that risk. However, such loads will do substantial damage to the home in which they are fired.
Numbers 1 and 0, the medium size buckshot, are supposed to be the premier home defense loads, but all buckshot loads are effective man stoppers at indoor ranges. The smaller shot sizes have less risk of over penetration than the big 000 and 00 buck loads. I like number 4 buckshot for use in apartments and mobile homes, because of their typically thin walls.
Like rifles, shotguns are relatively unwieldy weapons indoors and are liable to be seized by an intruder. Replacing the butt-stock with a pistol grip makes a shotgun somewhat handier in tight spaces, but far more difficult to shoot accurately. Pachmayr makes a good replacement pistol grip that reduces felt recoil for the most common brands of shotguns and some Mossberg security models come with both standard stocks and pistol grips.
Remember, you still have to aim carefully to hit a target and at indoor ranges shotgun pellet loads are essentially a lump of lead flying through the air; they do not have the time and distance to spread into a pattern. Do not fire any shotgun from the hip! Look straight down the barrel and aim like it was a rifle or handgun
Due to its intimidation factor and excellent stopping power, a riot gun makes a formidable home defense weapon. This is particularly true for the person willing to wait in a defensible room and let the intruder come to him or her. In addition, a shotgun would seem to be an excellent choice for sweeping rioters from the front porch steps during a civil insurrection. Like any long gun, it is probably not the best choice for use in tight spaces.
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 and it can be fired from either hand in an emergency. Centerfire pistols and revolvers from approximately 9mm/.35 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. Note, however, that these folks are usually expert pistol shooters! A handgun is a far less satisfactory choice for the novice shooter.
Of the various types of handguns, only revolvers and auto-loading 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.
Examples of modern service style auto-loaders include, among many others, the Beretta 90-TWO, Glock 19, Ruger P series and SIG P229. 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.
Modern auto-loaders are often available with tritium self-illuminating iron sights that are visible even in total darkness. In addition, many of the latest service pistols come with provision for mounting projected laser dot sights. These are a great boon to quick target acquisition and accuracy. I recommend both for home defense pistols.
Auto-loaders hold more cartridges than the ordinary revolver, typically from seven to 15 rounds, and are faster to reload if a preloaded magazine is handy. However, auto-loaders are very slow to reload from a box of loose cartridges, which is the situation that usually pertains if a homeowner shoots his or her pistol empty. An auto-loader can deliver very rapid fire, but remember that you can’t miss fast enough to win a gunfight.
On the negative side, auto-loading pistols are more likely to jam than a revolver. This is particularly true if fired through cloth (as from a pocket or from under a bathrobe), from an unusual orientation (sideways or upside down, for instance), or with an insecure hold (“limp wrist”). They should be kept clean and properly lubricated for reliable operation and require field stripping (dis-assembly) for routine cleaning.
They are also ammunition sensitive, requiring loads within a narrow power range and with bullet shapes designed to feed reliably. Any semi-automatic pistol used for home defense should be extensively tested for reliability with the exact load it will be shooting when lives are on the line. Note that many of the older service pistols, such as the German 9mm Luger and American .45 caliber Model 1911, were designed to function only with military ball (FMJ) ammunition, which has proven to be notably lacking in stopping power in both calibers.
Semi-automatics have another very significant drawback: they are magazine fed and the spring in a loaded pistol magazine is tightly compressed. Magazines should be rotated regularly, at least every month. 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.
Auto-loaders are chambered for a variety of cartridges, from the .22 Short to the .50 AE. However, by far the most popular numbers for home defense are the .380 ACP, 9mm Luger, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. Any of these can do the job in skilled hands, as can the less popular, but effective, .357 SIG and 10mm Auto.
If I used an auto-loading pistol for home defense, I would choose one chambered for the 9mm Luger (9x19mm) cartridge. This is the most popular handgun cartridge in the world for good reason. Given proper JHP or fragmented (Glaser) ammunition, the 9×19 offers very good stopping power with less muzzle flash and recoil that the popular big bore pistol cartridges (.40 S&W and .45 ACP) and it is more powerful than the .380 ACP.
A high quality auto-loader, 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 choice in a home defense handgun is a revolver. Revolvers are ambidextrous. They do not have, nor do they need, any type of manual safety, so there is nothing to forget or fumble in an emergency. They are not ammunition sensitive; they will reliably fire any cartridge for which they are chambered, regardless of power level. In the unlikely event of a dud cartridge, simply re-cocking the gun brings a fresh cartridge into firing position. They do not require field stripping for routine cleaning and will still function reliably without any lubrication or when fouled by extensive shooting. (However, all firearms should be kept clean and properly lubricated.) Revolvers are substantially faster to reload with loose cartridges than an auto-loading pistol.
Perhaps most important, 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 in an emergency.
Revolvers come in two action styles: single action and double action. A single action (SA) revolver must be manually cocked before the trigger will fire the weapon. These are usually traditional “western” style guns, such as the Colt Single Action Army and Ruger Blackhawk. Such guns are slow to reload, but very reliable, powerful, accurate and deadly. They are also the fastest type of handgun for the first two shots from a holster, a trick useful only at very short range.
I consider single action revolvers entirely satisfactory for home defense, particularly for experienced shooters. However, they are not the best choice for the casual hand-gunner.
The best all-around choice among handguns for home defense is the double action (DA) revolver. These are the typical “police” style revolvers, such as the Colt Python, Ruger GP100, Smith & Wesson Model 10 and Taurus Model 608. The best of these come with fully adjustable sights.
Double action revolvers may be thumb cocked, just like a single action revolver, and then fired by a light press 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, which makes it less accurate than shooting single action, but it is fast for repeat shots. Experts can shoot a DA revolver as quickly and accurately as an auto-loading pistol, as was routinely demonstrated by the late Ed McGivern. However, most of us should shoot DA only at short range.
Double action revolvers are very safe, simple to operate, relatively easy to shoot accurately, reliable and immune from jamming. They can be reloaded quickly if a speed loader is employed and are easy to reload from a box of loose cartridges, should that become necessary. A double action revolver is hard to beat for home defense.
I consider a 4″ barrel the best compromise for a home defense revolver, but a 6″ barrel is acceptable. Short 2″-3″ barrels should be reserved for concealed carry, not home defense.
The most common center-fire revolver cartridges include the various .32 calibers (.32 Long, .32 H&R Magnum and .327 Magnum), .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .44 Special, .44 Magnum and .45 Colt. I prefer the .38 Special over the smaller caliber cartridges, due to its superior stopping power. More powerful cartridges, particularly the various Magnums, offer greater stopping power, but at the cost of increased muzzle blast and flash, an important consideration indoors and in dim light. However, it is worth noting that the .357 Mag. 125 grain JHP load has been found to be the most effective of all handgun cartridges in the various stopping power surveys.
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. However, it isn’t the firearm per-SE that gets the job done, it is the person behind it. Accurate bullet placement is much more important than raw power. Remember, as Bill Jordan pointed out, there is no second place winner in a gunfight. Skill and determination, reinforced by regular practice, will carry the day.