I watched a video this morning purporting to cover this burning issue: “What is the best weapon for home defense: pistol, rifle, or shotgun?”
Basically, the video personality guy showed 3 types of weapons, covered a few points about each, used a lot of meaningless terminology (yeah, he pissed me off by using the “center mass” nonsense term… again…), glossed over a bunch of important stuff, and completely failed to discuss some of the most crucial aspects of the question.
I’ve spent a lot of time and effort researching the realities of home defense with firearms. (And no, by “research” I don’t mean I opened a bottle of adult beverage and used my google-fu to read some internet articles by people I don’t know whose opinions may or not be valid.) I have taken courses on tactical defense from accredited and nationally acclaimed instructors. I have taken courses as part of my LE training. I have read books. Many, many books. And I have learned and modified my views as a result of this research.
Here’s a brief summary of what my research has told me about how a sensible person should go about preparing for armed home defense:
Develop a Defensive Mindset
Massad Ayoob, John Farnham, Jeff Hall, Marty Hayes, Clint Smith, Henk Iversen, and many others I have taken training from have all said the same thing: your mind is the most deadly weapon you possess.
So use it. Use your mind, your imagination, your ability to assimilate information and process it to fit your unique home defense situation. After all, it’s your home you’re planning to defend.
Start by trying to visualize how an armed aggressor is going to come at you in your home. Will he come through the door? Through a window? Across the lawn, or from behind the shed? Will he drive his vehicle through the plate-glass entry hall? Will there be more than one attacker? Will they come at you from two different directions? Look at ALL the possibilities. Then start to work on how you would have to defeat each type of attack.
Oh, and by the way, this is really important: be sure you know when and how you are justified in using armed force on an attacker. This isn’t something you can get from surfing the web. You need to take a class on this. I highly recommend Massad Ayoob Group for this: MAG-40 is his extensive entry-level class that covers everything you need to know. I also highly recommend John Farnham’s Defensive Tactics International class on this. Marty Hayes, a MAG staff instructor and highly qualified firearms trainer out in Seattle also teaches this material.
Prepare the Ground
The day before the Battle of Gettysburg, General John Buford was scouting in advance of the Union army. His far-ranging patrols had told him where Lee’s Army of Virginia was, and in what direction it was heading. He plotted these bits of information on his maps, and concluded that Lee’s advance could be stopped if the Army of the Potomac could occupy the high ground above Gettysburg. His eye for ground (something that can’t really be taught, although tactical instructors have been trying for millenia!) led to the catastrophic defeat of Lee at Gettysburg, and the salvation of the United States as a union.
Look at the ground of your imagined battle, people. This is your home we are talking about here. You know it better than any attacker can know it. So use that knowledge to prepare the battlefield before the battle takes place. You can choose where and how the battle–if it ever does take place–will unfold.
You’ve already started on this, by recognizing the likely points of attack. Once you know where attacks are most likely to come from, you can prepare the ground. If it’s gonna be through your front door, prepare the doorway and entry hall. Placing a long table or a couch across from the door will dictate how an attacker can move as he enters the home, so you should place the furnishings so that he is directed in the way that is most favorable to you.
Set up your fields of fire. Where is the best place to set up to shoot at your attacker without revealing your position, or better yet, that gives you actual cover against returning fire? Plan your fields of fire so that you can interdict the attacker at the safest distance… close enough to hit him, far enough to allow you to escape to another position, or preclude him returning fire. And set up your enfilade for outdoors as well as inside your home, if you have a large yard or you live on a farm or ranch. What windows can you fire from on an attacker outside your home, should that prove necessary?
And while you’re at it, why not create some cover? A shelf packed with dense books or a heavy wooden cabinet with sandbags piled inside it will absorb bullets as well as any purpose-built armor, and you can set it up without making your house look like a fortress. If you’re going to fire from a window, is the paneling below that window bullet-resistant? If not, you need to make it so.
And speaking of fortresses, think about ways of “fortifying” your home that will make it as impenetrable as a castle. How good are your doors and locks? How about your windows… are they lockable? Do you use deadbolts? Experts tell me that the most cost-effective improvement you can install as part of your home security plan is good door and window locks.
Then look at construction. Do you have easily-breached entry points? Are your entry doors flimsy? How about the frames they’re mounted in? If you don’t have the construction know-how to assess this, hire a contractor to look at them and give you an opinion, and perhaps an estimate for installing upgraded doors and frames.
Finally, think about electronic security: alarm systems, cameras, and exterior lighting. You can go cheap and still put up a really good defense. Or you can spend a bundle and get a worthless security system. It makes a lot of sense to talk to a security expert who doesn’t sell alarm systems before you commit to an alarm system.
Make a Family Plan
Unless you live alone, your entire family needs to know what the home defense plan is. Each person needs to know where to go, what to do, and when. Someone needs to be on the phone to the police while someone else is shooting (or preparing to shoot). Kids need to move to a safe place, preferably near the defender(s), but behind bullet-stopping cover. All persons capable of handling a firearm need to have one, and know what they are supposed to do with it. Yes, it’s possible that your spouse could panic and shoot you in the back of the head instead of shooting the armed attacker. This has happened.
Choose Your Weapons(s)
You may have noticed I have put this last on my list of priorities. That’s because figuring out what type of firearm you’re going to use is less important than any of the above.
Now, I’m a firearms guy, so I’m obviously gonna tell you to have a gun. Or maybe even lots of guns. But every person who is armed in your home defense plan needs to have training. It’s not good enough to take your spouse to the range and let him/her plink at targets… we are talking about life-and-death situations when we are talking about armed home defense, so let’s train as if it was actual life-and-death stuff, okay?
I personally feel a handgun and a long gun for each trained home defender is the basic firearms equipment package. I know people who have a veritable arsenal in their bedroom, but let’s be honest… you aren’t Buford, and this ain’t gonna be Gettysburg. But the basic rule of “have a gun” does apply.
I firmly believe having a handgun on your person in your home is smart. Concealed carry is the smart way to go about life, in my longstanding considered opinion. Be deadly, but don’t advertise it. I have a handgun on my person at all times. If the doorbell rings and I answer it, my firearm is concealed. That way I don’t alarm the UPS delivery guy or my neighbor stopping by with a piece of misdelivered mail. But if it’s someone about to attempt a home-invasion type robbery, I don’t have to run back to the bedroom and hope I get to my gun before the attacker gets to me.
There’s an old police adage: “My handgun is primarily for fighting back to my squad car, so I can get to my rifle/shotgun.” There’s some merit to this. Any long gun, whether rifle or shotgun, is a better fighting weapon than a handgun. Long guns fire more powerful projectiles, and they are inherently more accurate. So having a dedicated home defense long gun makes sense.
But long guns are hard to carry around all day, every day, which is the primary deficiency of the long gun. Okay, but if we’ve covered that by being sure to carry a handgun all the time, we’re good. So let’s look at the other drawbacks of the long gun.
First, long guns are really, really loud. Muzzle blast is directly proportional to the amount of gunpowder in the cartridge and the chamber pressure of the firearm. The muzzle blast from a handgun is therefore pretty mild, but will still cause hearing damage if you aren’t wearing ear-pro. The muzzle blast from a shotgun is really loud, and when fired indoors will instantly deafen you, at least temporarily. (I have had this experience… firing shotgun inside an abandoned farmhouse while researching bullet penetration through walls for a long-ago magazine article. I only did it once, and then put on extra ear-pro for the rest of the projecat.)The muzzle blast from an AR-15 is REALLY loud, much worse than a shotgun. The hearing damage you sustain from firing one of these in your home may be major and may be permanent.
So if you’re contemplating using your 5.56mm carbine or your 12-gauge for home defense, you need to have a set of ear-pro right next to the long gun. Preferably active-protection earmuffs, so you can hear what’s going on while protecting your ears from damage. While you’re at it, put on some shooting glasses, because there may be a lot of flying debris if you let loose with a long gun in your house.
Which specific firearm(s) do I recommend? I don’t. You need to determine what works best for you. If you live on a farm/ranch or your home is huge, a rifle might be a better choice. Ditto if you are recoil sensitive. An AR-15 or M1 Carbine is a kitten compared to a heavy-loaded 12-gauge.
Personally, I prefer a shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot as a home defense long gun. I have many years of experience in hunting, competition, and police training with shotguns, and I have fired hundreds of thousands of shotshells, so I am very, very familiar with the platform. This is the most important criterion in choosing your weapon: use the type of firearm you are most proficient with, which is usually the gun you have the most experience with.
I have had several good defensive shotguns, but I’m not married to any of them particularly. I prefer 12 gauge, but a 20 gauge is suitable, too. A pump gun is good, but an autoloader is good, too. I prefer autoloaders for this purpose, for two primary reasons: 1) I can put multiple shots downrange with accuracy much faster with an auto than I can with a pump; 2) a gas-operated auto like the Remington 11-87 reduces the recoil of the gun by its design. Put an extended magazine tube on your shotgun so you have at least 5 rounds available without reloading. Then put a butt-sleeve or side-saddle on the shotgun, with another 5 shells.
My experience and research (both personally conducted and that conducted by others) into the question of shotgun ammunition has led me to unequivocally choose 00 buckshot for anti-personnel use. Birdshot is a very poor choice, and the smaller sizes of buckshot aren’t any better, with one exception: Number 1 buckshot–but only the hard-plated kind, which is really hard to come by–will work almost as well as 00 buck. But 00 buckshot is readily available, and it works. Why fix it if it ain’t broken? But whatever type of buckshot you buy for your defense shotgun, make sure you pattern it. I have done so with all my defensive shotguns, and the results have been surprising. You won’t know what ammo makes good patterns in your gun until you test it yourself.
Test your shotgun pattern at realistic defensive distances: 5 through 25 yards. Shoot several patterns at each distance with each load. You’ll know in short order which ammunition does or does not work well enough in your shotgun.
Keep in mind that the shotgun must be aimed. It’s not going to work if you just point it in the general direction of the attacker and pray some of the pellets find the target. At home defense ranges, the pattern of buckshot will be very, very tight… 2 or 3 inches wide at most. So you need to aim your shotgun as carefully as you would aim your rifle or pistol. (But you’ve taken tactical shotgun training, so you know that already, right? No? Well, go take a tactical shotgun class and get back to me if you have questions.)
Now: what about rifles?
OK, I’ll confess to being a fan of the AR-15 platform. I’ve owned a bunch, fired a bunch more, and liked almost all of them. The AR is light, ergonomic, and accurate. The standard 20- and 30-round magazines hold plenty of ammo, certainly more than enough for effective defense against a single attacker, or even a handful of attackers.
The best ammunition choices for anti-personnel work are soft-pointed bullets in the middle range of weights: 60-70 gr. Don’t cheap out and use mil-surp FMJ ammo, and for goodness sake don’t EVER use armor-piercing ammo in your defensive firearms. There are a lot of effective loadings available from the major ammunition companies in this class. These include (but aren’t limited to) Federal Power-Shok 64 gr, Winchester XP 64 gr, and Black Hills 60 gr (Nosler Partition).
I’ve heard supposed authorities state that you need to shoot bad guys 5 times with 5.56/.223 rounds. This intel supposedly comes from warfighters from the Sandbox, which explains a lot. First thing, our military rounds in the Sandbox were all FMJ, which is a really poor choice for shooting people… they don’t expand, so they simply drill a little hole through the subject. Unlike an expanding bullet, either a hollowpoint or a softpoint, FMJ rounds are not designed for maximum tissue destruction. Law enforcement agencies use expanding ammunition, and you should too.
Do you need to shoot a bad guy multiple times? Maybe. I often quote a guy who once told me, “I don’t shoot the bad guy until I think he’s dead. I keep shooting him until he thinks he’s dead.” In more professional lingo, we shoot until the threat is effectively neutralized. Which means until the attacker is no longer able to press his attack. But as I teach in every Tactical Anatomy class, “Effective neutralization by firearm is highly congruent with mortality.” So govern your shooting accordingly.
That’s about all I have to say on home defense with firearms today. To distill it down to its basic elements: get your defensive mindset straight; harden your home so it is harder to attack; get training in effective tactical use of firearms; and lastly, choose your home defense firearms according to your training and proficiency.