A frequent question from prospective new gun buyers is, “What’s the best gun for home defense?”
Many are seeking to maximize the utility of their first firearm purchase while others may be facing immediate threats such as a surge in neighborhood home invasions, stalkers, or they live in remote areas far from police. For most, it is simply better to have and not need than need and not have.
An ideal home defense gun would be a Pistol-Caliber Carbine or any quality AR-15 Carbine.
While both selections possess similar overall characteristics, we will detail why each design makes them ideal for home defense while relating these characteristics to a wider pool of firearm choices so a prospective buyer can make an informed choice when purchasing a home defense gun.
Home Defense Scenario Basics
The average maximum range within a house will be 15 meters or less, lines of sight will be limited, and other members of the house might be behind walls and doors. There will be limited need for long-range capability, but accuracy, precision, and deliberate restraint will be crucial to reduce the risks of over-penetrating bullets.
A home defender must always confirm that a potential target is an attacking intruder. Having a flashlight mounted onto a firearm could be the difference between firing upon an aggressive intruder, a compliant intruder (such as an intoxicated neighbor), or a member of the house.
While awareness, the ability to act rationally under duress, and training will be the ultimate tools, certain types of firearms will enhance a defender’s ability to act (or not act) during a home defense scenario when an intruder proceeds to present aggression and violence.
Why Pistol-Caliber Carbines are Ideal Home Defense Guns
Carbines are shortened long guns, usually rifles with shortened barrels and adjustable stock lengths. By reducing the overall length and weight of a long gun platform, the weapon handles better in close quarters while maintaining the stability and accuracy of a long gun.
Many variants of the AR-15, lever-action rifles, and the Ruger 10/22 are examples of carbine rifles.
Pistol caliber carbines are designed around pistol caliber ammunition, and this includes rifles converted to load and fire pistol caliber ammunition. They maintain the barrel length, buttstock, foregrip, and sight radius of a carbine, trading rifle power for a decrease in recoil, muzzle flash, and decreased overall weight.
The Ruger PC9, Kel-Tec Sub2000, Hi-Point Carbine, and CZ Scorpion are examples of Pistol-Caliber Carbines. Chambered in common handgun calibers such as 9x19mm, 10mm Auto, and .40 S&W, ammunition can be shared with handgun counterparts.
Close-Quarters Handling, Reduced Recoil, Reduced Muzzle Flash
A carbine’s reduced length is easier to maneuver in tight quarters, around corners, and through doorways while their shorter sight radius provides greater situational awareness while aiming. This aids split-second decision-making, specifically when or when not to use force during a confrontation.
While heavier than a handgun, carbines are lighter than a shotgun or full-sized rifle. Carbines still retain points of control used by long guns (buttstock, forward handguard), and their size and weight substantially reduces felt recoil when firing pistol ammunition.
When combined with a carbine’s longer barrel, the size, brightness, volume, and concussive effect of pistol ammunition’s muzzle flash is greatly reduced. This can aid accuracy and precision for initial and follow-up shots when attempting to stop an aggressor
These combined characteristics make a Pistol-Caliber Carbine suited for smaller-framed individuals, and the use of a brace enable the use of Pistol-Caliber Carbines by individuals whose ability to use a firearm would normally be limited by physical injuries or limitations.
Ability to Mount a Tactical Light
Designed for home defense, many pistol caliber carbines have accessory rails molded into the frame to mount a tactical light. The life-saving utility of a tactical light cannot be overstated. In darkness, being able to see and know a target can make the difference between firing upon an aggressive intruder or holding fire from a member of the house.
Additionally, a mounted tactical light can often blind or stun an attacker allowing a defender to gain the initiative. Even an aggressive attacker might choose to comply or flee when blinded by a tactical light to their face and eyes. The ability to safely hold or drive off a home invader with the mere threat deadly force is usually the best option for a home defender.
Low-cost of Training and Practice
Since Pistol-Caliber Carbines can use a wide array of pistol ammunition, practice and training can be conducted cheaply and effectively at the range using cheaper target ammunition. The ability to train at higher volumes at lower cost will increase an owner’s accuracy, precision and ability to react appropriately when using their weapon defensively within the home.
Greater Stopping Power
Compared to a handgun, the longer barrel of a carbine generates more power per shot using the same ammunition. When loaded with defensive ammunition, such as hollow-point and soft-point rounds, the overall increase in stopping power can reduce the number of shots needed to stop an aggressive threat.
By requiring fewer shots on target to stop a threat, the need for follow-up shots that might miss or penetrate through an aggressor is potentially reduced. Penetrating and missed shots might travel through interior and exterior walls and barriers around and behind a target.
While soft-point and hollow-point ammunition are designed to reduce over-penetration, it should be noted that pistol ammunition still possesses significant over-penetration risks. This risk presents itself with any defensive use of firearms, regardless of ammunition or firearm type.
Projectiles fired from pistol rounds are relatively heavy, and despite lower velocities compared to rifle and shotgun rounds, their greater weight causes them to penetrate barriers and walls made out of drywall and wood as consistently as many shotgun and rifle rounds.
Why the AR-15 is an Even Better Home Defense Gun
Rifle caliber carbines such as the AR-15 share the same ideal handling and weight characteristics of pistol caliber carbines. They also share the ability to mount defensive accessories such as tactical lights, and their ammunition affords substantial stopping power when used against an attacker.
Reduced Risk of Over-penetration
The AR-15 possesses all the ideal home defense characteristics of a Pistol-Caliber Carbine while firing ammunition that has a lower risk of penetrating interior and exterior walls than pistols or shotguns. The notion that the AR-15 is merely a “high-powered” rifle that is unsuitable for home defense has been empirically disproven by both FBI and independent testing.
From R.K Taubert, a retired 20+ year FBI veteran experienced with SWAT and Special Operations:
… the FBI recently subjected several various .223 caliber [the standard caliber for the AR-15] projectiles to 13 different ballistic tests and compared their performance to that of SMG-fired [similar to pistol-caliber carbines] hollow point pistol bullets in 9mm, 10mm, and .40 S&W calibers.
In every test, with the exception of soft body armor, which none of the SMG fired rounds defeated, the .223 penetrated less on average than any of the pistol bullets.
If an operator misses the intended target, the .223 will generally have less wounding potential than some pistol rounds after passing through a wall or similar structure.
… in most shootings, the round would probably strike something, hopefully a hard object, break up and quickly end its potentially lethal odyssey.
Despite possessing greater velocity than pistol ammunition, the standard AR-15 round actually has less risk of over-penetration compared to heavier, slower-moving pistol rounds. This is due to .223’s lighter profile and high velocity creating a tendency for its bullets to fragment upon impact.
The key to maximizing this effect is choosing either frangible or hollow-point bullet types for home defense; these bullets are specifically meant to reduce the risk of over-penetration.
Larger calibers such as 7.62x39mm or .308 will not assume the same fragmentation qualities as .223 Remington or 5.56x45mm and would be less ideal for home defense.
Proven Effectiveness and Reliability
The AR-15 has over 60 years of proven reliability with decades of continuous research and improvement invested into the platform. While there are Pistol-Caliber Carbines that can be purchased for prices as low as $350, some pistol caliber carbines will cost upwards of $1000.
An entry-level AR-15 can be purchased for $750 while offering a quality product due to the competitive nature of the AR-15 product market. Additionally, due to the AR-15’s wide popularity, the cost of parts and accessories lower the long-term cost of ownership when compared to some Pistol-Caliber Carbines.
Greater Recoil and Muzzle Flash
The AR-15’s will generate slightly greater recoil and significantly greater muzzle report when compared to a Pistol-Caliber Carbine. While felt recoil is largely managed by the weight and handling characteristics of the AR-15, the muzzle flash and report might be overwhelming to some, especially if fired indoors. Some individuals might find a Pistol-Caliber Carbine to be more suitable for its comparatively reduced recoil and muzzle flash.
While there is a strong case for the AR-15 and Pistol-Caliber Carbines for home defense, these options might not be available or suitable for everyone. A person might live in a restrictive jurisdiction, every person has different budgetary limitations, and some might simply be more comfortable with other types of firearms.
Handguns are compact with a wide range of models and variations chambered for a wide range of calibers. They also have access to the widest variety of ammunition for defensive use and target practice, and they are the most ubiquitous type of firearm for civilians in the United States.
Handguns are the most difficult type of firearm to control and master due to their size and lack of a stock or forward handguard. Their smaller size generates more felt recoil, and handguns require the most training and practice to build proficiency and mastery.
Their shorter barrel length also limits their stopping power. Against a motivated aggressor, more rounds are required to stop an attacker when compared to the same rounds fired from a carbine.
Handguns can be ideal when:
- Regular training and practice establishes proficient defensive marksmanship skills.
- Defensive ammunition with adequate stopping power and minimal over-penetration are used.
- Firearms with fast follow-up shot and reloading capability are used.
Handguns are less ideal when:
- They are smaller, designed for deep concealment, and use smaller, less-powerful calibers.
- Reduced overall size and weight exacerbate felt recoil, challenging accuracy and precision.
- They are loaded with solid target ammunition with minimal expansion characteristics.
A shotgun can deliver unmatched levels of firepower that have consistently ended confrontations with a single shot. Many shotguns readily mount accessories such as tactical lights and red dot sights, and semiautomatic and pump-action shotguns allow for rapid follow-up shots. They are also largely unrestricted by jurisdiction which makes them an attractive option wherever semiautomatics might be restricted by feature and/or magazine capacity.
At typical home defense distances, the spread of a shotgun shell will be limited, and both buckshot and slugs will readily penetrate multiple walls and barriers. The notion that a person does not need to aim with a shotgun is purely a myth.
Shotguns also generate large amounts of felt recoil and they might be the loudest of all firearms, especially when fired indoors. Shotguns still require regular training and practice, especially if they are intended to be used for home defense.
Shotguns can be ideal when:
- Regular training and practice accustom the operator to recoil and report.
- Employs either a semiautomatic or pump-action repeating action.
- Equipped with defensive accessories such as a tactical light.
Shotguns are less ideal when:
- Recoil and report are overwhelming for the operator.
- Over-penetration is a real concern.
- Precise shot placement is required at average home defense ranges.
While many hunting rifles are available in semiautomatic designs, the most prevalent hunting rifles are bolt-action designs that lack the ability to deliver fast follow-up shots. They are generally long, heavy, and hard to maneuver in close quarters, and most lack the ability to equip defensive accessories such as tactical lights.
The main advantages of a hunting rifle is they are widely available without restriction, and their ammunition is powerful, quite capable of disabling an attacker with a single shot. However, the power of a hunting rifle will almost always over-penetrate, so precise shot placement and use of a solid backstop are necessary to reduce the risks of over-penetration.
Due to the unwieldy nature of most hunting rifles and their lack of follow-up shot capability, hunters will usually carry a backup sidearm such as a large-caliber revolver or semiautomatic pistol in case they are attacked by an aggressive predator in the wild.
Hunting rifles can be ideal when:
- It’s the only option available.
- The shooter is practiced and proficient using a bolt-action firearm.
- A solid backstop capable of stopping a full-powered rifle round is available.
Hunting rifles are less ideal when:
- It has to be employed in close quarters.
- The opportunity to hit a target with the first shot is not guaranteed.
Make an Informed Choice
When selecting a home defense gun, it is ultimately a personal choice that should be based upon the operator’s ability to use their firearm accurately and proficiently, especially under duress.
Overall, a home defense firearm should be controllable in close quarters, possess fast and accurate follow-up shot capability, possess the capability of mounting a tactical light, and use defensive ammunition that delivers stopping power with reduced risk of over-penetration.
Regardless of one’s chosen home defense gun, it is important to acquire training from a certified firearms instructor while committing to the practice required to establish fundamental marksmanship skills. No single choice of firearm will ever be “perfect”, but thorough practice and training can help compensate for any inherent limitations in one’s chosen hardware.
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The Value of Firearms Training
- Wikipedia Contributors. (2009, January 12). Ruger PC4. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:00, Resized, Added Vignette June 10, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ruger_PC4.jpg
- Wikipedia Contributors. (2013, December 17). The Aero Precision upper receiver and carbine barrel assembly is slapped on top to complete the rifle build.. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:00, Resized, Added Vignette June 14, 2019, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:How_to_build_an_AR-15-_Step_7-_Completed_rifle.jpg
- Taubert, R.K. “About .223 Penetration.” Olypmic Arms. Olympic Arms Inc. Web. 11 June 2019. http://www.olyarms.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=14&Itemid=26