It’s an age-old question, isn’t it? Is there a right and a wrong? Would you hate me if I didn’t provide you with a definitive answer? Let’s delve into this subject and ask ourselves if there is a one size fits all answer to this debate.
I’d like to start by prefacing this conversation with a simple observation. Everyone’s home and household situation are different. Some folks share walls with neighbors, while others share walls with members of their household, and some must account for both. Then there are those with property, and still others with lots of it. Do you see what I’m getting at here? Our needs, when it comes to defending the home can change drastically depending on geography, structure, household, and neighbors.
Now, let’s get some basics out of the way when it comes to home defense. If we are in a situation where lives are on the line, the fallacy of racking the shotgun to “scare off” an intruder is one that can put you at risk or worse. Once someone has broken into your home, the time for warnings has long since passed. This is now a matter of survival, yours and your loved ones. There are no warning shots or Hollywood fantasies like shooting someone in the leg. Throw it all out the window, because survival is about neutralizing the threat. Full stop.
You have to give credit where its due, and a pistol surely takes the cake when it comes to maneuverability. Going room to room and navigating the sometimes close quarters in many homes can be much easier to accomplish with such a compact solution. But, what about stopping power? I see this asked all the time and it’s a great question.
This is really like arguing what is a faster sportscar, a Honda Civic or a Mazda Miata. The truth is that sometimes a handgun is simply what’s there at the moment. Training and making the best ammunition choices will give you an undeniable edge. However, if you want true knockdown power, handguns don’t even make it into the argument. And I know what many will say. 10mm, .44, .50AE… I’m a fan of 10mm myself, but seriously guys? These are not the best home defense cartridges.
Ammunition technology has come a long way, making caliber selection versatile, especially when considering more popular cartridges, like 9mm and .45ACP. I know what you’re thinking here, and that is really a debate for a different day. With over-penetration being a concern, frangible ammunition is really the king in my opinion. This type of ammunition is designed to disintegrate on impact, dumping all its terminal energy into a target. Over-penetration is much less of a concern here, and so are ricochets. Keep in mind, however, that we are talking about close quarters, which should cover “most” home defense scenarios.
Then there is hollow point defensive ammunition. Hollow point ammunition is designed to expand upon impact, and sometimes to break up into pieces, causing multiple wound channels. The idea is that the expansion of the projectile causes it to act as a parachute of sorts, slowing the bullet down upon impact and attempting to prevent over-penetration while dumping its terminal energy into the intended target. Essentially, the goal is the same as frangible ammunition, however, the method of achieving it is different. So, does hollow point ammunition work? Absolutely it does, and it has been used successfully in self-defense scenarios for quite some time. So, why do I prefer frangible ammunition in the home? Because it takes the principles of hollow point ammunition one step further and reduces the risk of over-penetration and ricochet that much more.
Now, let’s talk about full metal jacket pistol ammunition… Just kidding, let’s not. Don’t use this stuff for home defense. Buy a ton of it to shoot at the range, because that’s really what it’s for, but for the sake of brevity, I will leave it at that.
Then there is the shot placement vs knockdown power argument. This one comes with some annoyances as well. In a tense situation, perhaps in the dark, fine motor skills will be a commodity. In close quarters, things happen very fast. You will not consciously line up your sights and aim precisely for that Hollywood head shot or be able to smugly tell your assailant which vital organ you’ve managed to lodge your projectile into. These are all fantasies. Any shot placement wherewithal that occurs in this situation is a product of muscle memory coming from immense prior training. If you have honed your skills over thousands of rounds, you may just be able to work through some of the fog and be reflexively more effective. So, the next time someone tells you that it’s all about shot placement and about how deadly a .22 is in the hands of a skilled operator, ask them why those skilled operators don’t use .22 in the field.
Another thing to be aware of is that proficiency with a handgun is more difficult to achieve, mainly due to the mechanics and reduced points of contact compared to the rifle and the shotgun. With no shoulder contact, cheek weld, and essentially a single pivot point where your hands come together, there is a whole lot of practice that must be done to repeatedly be able to index that handgun on target and get the stable trigger pull necessary to make consistent hits. This is one reason why pistol caliber carbines can be attractive for home defense scenarios, as you have the benefits of the pistol cartridge mixed with the stable platform of a rifle.
So where do we go from here?
Undisputable, a shotgun will ruin an intruder’s day. There is no arguing that. Knockdown power is in abundance, whether you are using slugs or good old 00 Buck. The terminal effects are devastating. Winner, winner, chicken dinner, right? Well, let’s see…
To keep things simple, lets compare a slug to getting hit by a .50 Caliber round at approximately 1500fps, and let’s compare 00 buck to getting hit by 9x 9mm rounds at approximately 1300-1400fps. Either way you slice it, this is truly a learning experience for a home invader, and that’s putting it very nicely. Practically speaking, this is a lights out moment. So, it’s settled then… Wait, not so fast…
Shotguns are lacking in a few areas, the first being maneuverability. Most shotguns can be quite long, not really lending themselves to tight spaces and close quarters. Some people might opt for a bullpup shotgun to remedy that situation, while others might go the NFA route and pay for a tax stamp to register a short-barreled shotgun. Don’t get me started on the arbitrary, and frankly illegal, nature of the NFA. That, as well, is a discussion for a later date. Anyhow, the fact remains that the majority of the most popular shotguns on the market are a bit unwieldy for close quarters work.
Then there is the recoil. If you have trained with a shotgun extensively, then you know what to expect. But let’s face it, the average person buying a firearm to protect their home is not someone who spends their weekends at the range and shooting 3-gun matches. Realistically, a shotgun can pack quite a punch, especially a pump action which does not incorporate an automatic cycling mechanism that tends to buffer some of the shock. What if you’re not home and a family member has to use that shotgun to defend the home? The point is that a shotgun may not be the most universally friendly firearm for everyone to deploy effectively.
The drawbacks don’t end there. Capacity and speed of reloading also come into play. Sure, this confrontation could be over with one pull of the trigger, but what if it isn’t? Shotguns typically don’t hold a lot of rounds, with 7 being about the average. Reloading can also be a cumbersome and time-consuming experience, and even a shotgun pro has to admit that it is a slow and clumsy process relative to changing a pistol or rifle magazine. For any type of sustained fight or multiple attackers, you really don’t want to run out of ammunition, and this is something to consider.
Lastly, overpenetration. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how a shotgun round will not penetrate a wall. Let me assure you that it can and most certainly will in most types of housing construction. I hear what you’re saying. What about bird shot? Just don’t, alright? Think about it. How many grown adults strike you as having the physical fortitude of a bird. Remember the goal here is to neutralize the target, not upset it.
Similar to the shotgun, these can come in all shapes and sizes. However, unlike most shotguns which rely on the length of the tube to determine ammunition capacity, a rifle is typically magazine fed, no matter how long or short it is. Rifle ammunition packs quite the punch as well, however, have you ever asked why? Look at your standard NATO 5.56 cartridge. That doesn’t look so big. Certainly, the 9mm projectile is larger, and the .45ACP even more so. So where do rifle cartridges get their terminal devastation from?
Oh, so velocity is good then, right? Well, in some ways yes, and in others no. A projectile traveling at 3000fps must be designed in a manner that will induce some type of deformation, expansion, or perhaps tumble in order to slow it down upon impact in order to dump its energy into the intended target, and even then, often times it will still pass through soft tissue and make it’s way out the other side. Of course, as with handgun ammunition, you have options, including frangible and hunting specific projectiles that are designed to expand on impact. Needless to say, rifle rounds are EFFECTIVE for stopping threats.
Another benefit to most rifles that might be used in a home defense scenario is that they have relatively manageable recoil. This means more control along with faster and easier follow-up shots. The stable platform that a rifle provides is also achieved by the multiple points of contact mentioned earlier. Rifles like the AR15 and the AK47/AK74 are very manageable, making them easy to learn on and ultimately be proficient and effective with. Even more, rifles, if you live in a “free state,” allow for greater capacity and faster reloading. Further, a short barrel rifle can give you some of that maneuverability back without sacrificing capacity the way shotguns tend to do.
In my personal opinion, I would much rather be armed with a rifle than anything else, whether we are talking about a home defense scenario or an all out gun fight. Of course, all the same factors come into play here, and this is purposely a recurring theme. Training, training, training, ammunition selection, and then more training. Train hard like your life depends on it, because in a home defense scenario, IT DOES!
At the end of the day, it is important that you not be a victim or an easy target. Take precautions when it comes to your home. We don’t all live in gated communities with full time armed security like the folks who are obsessed with disarming us. There are many great ways to protect from and even deter unwanted guests, my favorite being of the 4-legged variety. That last line of defense, however, is one you do not want to skip. Don’t let the debate over which is the “best” choice of weapon delay you from arming yourself and getting the training you need to confront evil.
Until next time, stay safe, responsible and vigilant…
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