This page is not meant to replace the information that you will get in a handgun safety course or from a qualified professional, and it is not meant as an exhaustive resource on the tactical and legal issues surrounding the use of deadly force. You must consult a professional both in self-defense and the law for the real dirt about these issues in your place of residence.
It’s “O-dark thirty” when you are awakened suddenly by the sound of strange noises in your home. Your pulse instantly goes from resting to over 100 beats per minute. Every noise you analyze and each new sound seems magnified. You wipe the sleep from your eyes as you quietly roll over fully awake. Fear quickly sets in as you are struck by the sudden realization that you are not truly prepared for what comes next.
|The author says rather than going in search of an intruder in your home, a better strategy often is to seek cover and call police while being prepared for any eventuality.|
This is not the time to be questioning anything, especially your choice of a defensive handgun or what tactics are required to deal effectively with an unwanted intruder. The first step in preparing for this situation is to analyze certain factors present in your home. And, in my opinion, the best way to do this is by writing them down.
Visualize how your home is laid out
What are the probable entry points from the outside? Can you turn the lights on in the main living areas and hallways from your bedroom or other convenient location? Do you have common walls with your neighbors that a bullet might penetrate? Are there children living with you? What plans have you made to guard them? Where can you defend against an aggressive intrusion?
Also, consider whether you need to go in search of the intruder. Why force an encounter over a few possessions? And it may be better tactically to let them be surprised when they find you prepared for them!
What are your current handgun-handling skill level and level of training in home-defense?
Who else is capable or likely to use this handgun if you are not home, and what is their level of training?
Be very honest in your evaluations of these issues. Your life and the lives of others may depend on your truthful evaluation and the resulting steps you are about to take.
Once you have written all this down, you are now ready for step two of the process: selecting the appropriate defensive handgun. Having determined that the primary use of this handgun is for home self-defense, ask yourself if it is going to pull double duty as a concealed-carry weapon.
Typically, handguns that are designed for concealed carry are small in size with barrel lengths in the 2- to 4-inch range. They also tend to be as light as possible to minimize fatigue to the wearer and are usually not chambered for one of the larger magnum calibers.
Will it also do duty as a hunting gun? Handguns designed primarily for use in hunting will be much larger in size, having massive barrels in the six- to eight-inch range, and will be heavy in overall weight. Hunters often utilize some sort of rest or additional support while shooting. This aids in stabilizing the additional weight of the hunting handgun. This technique is not always possible in the home-defense scenario.
Best Handgun to Buy for Solely Home Defense
A handgun whose sole purpose is home protection should typically have a barrel length of three to five inches and be of moderate weight. The moderate weight aids in recoil control. A handgun that is too light will transmit more energy to the shooter, making it less comfortable to shoot and thus more difficult to control during recoil. A handgun that is too heavy is not as quick to point or steady to aim under stressful situations.
Is there a handgun that others in your household already know how to use? This will assist in the training, in which all adult family members should participate.
How easy will this new handgun be to learn and use by all potential users? Ease of use under stress is critical. Once your body receives that massive adrenaline charge, your fine motor skills will deteriorate quickly. This is where the revolver can have a slight edge over the semi-auto. Normally, revolvers have only a few controls: a cylinder release, ejector rod and, of course, the trigger. Some revolvers may also have a usable hammer spur.
The typical semi-automatic may have as many as six or more external operating controls. While both types of handguns require supervised training to be operated to their full potential, under stress simplicity of operation is always a desirable feature.
What caliber selection should you select? Ideally, a home-defense handgun should be of at least a 9mm Luger or .38 Special caliber or larger. Cartridges with bullets of 9mm/.355-diameter or less often lack the weight to penetrate deeply enough to reach vital areas and stop aggressive attacks. So the probability of bringing your life-threatening situation to a quick resolution is greatly diminished. You should choose the largest caliber and frame combination that fits your hand and that of the others likely to use your home-defense handgun.
|A lighted safe box like this one from Mossberg offers quick access to a home defense handgun while keeping it secure from children.|
You must be able to guarantee your hits 100 percent of the time with that handgun. A center hit from a 9mm is far better than a miss from a .44 Magnum.
Your handgun and ammunition choice should comprise a complete defensive combination. They must be mutually agreeable to each other and to you. Your defensive combination must also be 100 percent reliable. Price is not always an indicator of reliability.
I have had experience with very expensive handguns that required a 500- to 1,000-round break-in period before they were 100 percent reliable. I have also had to exchange new magazines when they did not feed 100 percent of the time. Reliability cannot be over-stressed. A medium-priced defensive handgun that shoots two- to three-inch groups at 25 yards 100 percent of the time is a much better choice than opting for an expensive handgun with only 80 percent reliability but has the potential to shoot one and a half-inch groups at 25 yards.
It should be noted that to a great extent your selection of ammunition affects functional reliability, especially with a semi-auto. Be sure that 100 rounds of your selected ammo runs through your handgun flawlessly before finalizing that round as your defensive choice. Any decent defensive handgun must be able to function reliably with cartridges loaded with hollowpoint bullets.
Knowing where and in what condition you prefer to store the handgun will also aid in your selection. Again, if there are children in the home, this will significantly influence your weapon choice and secure storage options. Handguns must not be stored where those we don’t want to get to them can access them. A quality gun vault, locked file cabinet or drawer goes a long way in obeying the laws and protecting not only you but also your children.
Other handgun features such as high-capacity accessory rails and fancy stocks may be nice, but they should carry only minor points in making your final selection of a self-defense handgun.
Equally important with your new handgun purchase is getting proper home-defense training. Would you risk your life by buying an Indy-style race car and without proper instruction take it to a track and try to drive 230 miles an hour? Of course you wouldn’t. So why would you pay good money for a defensive handgun and not seek out quality ongoing training? Your life is at stake in both scenarios. What most people don’t consider is for about the price of that handgun, you can get professional training that is just as important as choosing the proper handgun.
|Revolvers with 3- or 4-inch barrels such as this Ruger SP101 are desirable defensive firearms over 2-inch snubbies because of the better balance and recoil control.|
Tactics and proper home-defense skills must be learned and practiced. Sometimes the only thing that separates you from your armed opponent is your level of training. Any edge you can get in an armed confrontation may be what makes you the victor that day.
Having thoroughly thought out and written down your answers to all of these questions, notes in hand, a trip to your local gun store is now in order. If a revolver has your interest, here are a few of my personal favorites. One manufacturer that sometimes does not get the press it deserves is Taurus. Its models 65 or 66 offer excellent quality at affordable prices. Taurus’s model 66 holds seven cartridges. While capacity is only a secondary factor, there is something to be said for the comfort of having that one extra chamber. Even if for no other reason than that you can store your handgun safely with the hammer down on that empty chamber and still have six rounds in the other chambers ready for service.
Smith & Wesson certainly offers a plethora of fine choices. Take a close look at its models 65LS, 686, 60 or 66. These all have good triggers, satisfactory sights, enclosed ejector shrouds and come in numerous variations that should fit any hand and budget. Plus, they will give you a lifetime of service.
Ruger also makes some fine revolvers. Ruger’s GP100 or SP101 and its cousins again have ejector shrouds, come in three- and four-inch barrel lengths, are of medium weight and like any quality tool, given proper maintenance, will last a lifetime.
Another factor to consider when looking at revolvers is how, under stress, will you reload this handgun? I recommend that you only choose a revolver that will accept the use of either a speedloader or full moon clips.
If you find that a semi-automatic would qualify more for your defensive needs, here are a few to examine. One could never talk about semi-autos without first going to the granddaddy of them all, the Colt Government Model of 1911 and all of its clones. I must advise you not to get caught up in the gadget-de-jour syndrome associated with many 1911s these days. Stay away from competition or “race” guns for self-defense. Stick with the basic, old reliable Browning design.
|The SIG-Sauer line of semi-auto pistols have a proven reputation with law enforcement and are deserving of serious consideration for a home defense handgun.|
Many of the 1911s available today have been modernized conservatively to make them more user-friendly tools. Kimber has been making extremely reliable 1911s for a few years now. The Royal Classic has just the right balance of today’s improved manufacturing techniques and preferred features. Standard is an extended beavertail, flared ejection port and full-length guide rod, all at a very reasonable price. Kimber offers its 1911s in several sizes and finish options to fit any defensive need.
Wilson’s recently came out with the Millennium Protector model. This is a very high-quality production pistol from a custom house at a reasonable price.
The Glock name certainly will jump to the forefront of any handgun discussion today. For variety of models, diversity of frame sizes, caliber choices, ease of use and training, reliability and low maintenance, Glock is one to seriously consider. Several of mine have tens of thousands of rounds through them under harsh conditions without ever experiencing a single malfunction. Equipped with a set of Trijicon night sights, a Glock would fit the bill for many a homeowner’s needs. The Glock 22 in .40 S&W;, the Glock 17 in 9mm, or the smaller brothers of the above two�the Glock models 23 & 19, respectively�should all be considered.
I would also suggest you give a serious look at the models from SIG-Sauer. The SIG 220s, 226s and 229s in their various calibers have earned a well-deserved reputation for accuracy, reliability and durability from many law enforcement agencies around the country.
If you are unsure about making the right choice, check with your shooting range about gun rentals. Many ranges now offer gun rentals by the hour. Go and try out your potential selection first to find out if it really fits your requirements.
Once you have made your purchase, get qualified training, not just once but on an ongoing basis. Rotate your defensive ammo periodically through your handgun and make sure all those able in your household are qualified in the safe handling and use of it. Have a safe area in your home where emergency supplies such as a flashlight, spare batteries, a cell phone and a land line phone are available.
Finally, shooting should not be thought of only in defensive terms. It is a fun activity for the whole family to enjoy and a good way to spend quality time with your children.
So far I’ve talked about how the various types and sizes of handguns will influence your choice based on their mechanics and ergonomics. But the most important thing you’re probably wondering is how these guns and ammunition will perform in a self-defense situation. “I know which one to choose based on how it fits in my hand, and how easy it is to manipulate, but how well will it stop an attacker?”
This addresses the basic term used to describe how well a bullet will do just this — stopping power. Put simply, you do not ever want to shoot to kill someone, you shoot only to stop the attack. The basics behind this issue are fairly simple to address: You want the widest, heaviest, and fastest bullet that you can get that will come to a stop inside an attacker’s body and not pass through him.
So the considerations are:
The bullet’s cross-sectional area — how wide it is
The bullet’s weight — how heavy it is
The bullet’s speed — how fast it is moving
This part of the page is likely to be unpleasant, as it must discuss such things as the most effective way to injure an attacker. Just a word of warning. It’s not a pleasant topic, but learning about it can often prevent such knowledge from having to be applied.
It seems stupefyingly simple to say that bullets damage things, but there are actually a number of reasons why.
First, a mass that is moving very quickly carries energy with it — kinetic energy is the strict term, the energy of an object associated with its motion. When a bullet is moving quickly, it has a great deal of kinetic energy. When it stops, it has none. (An object has to be moving to have this kind of energy associated with it.) So if a bullet is moving quickly upon entering an attacker, and comes to a stop inside of him, all of that energy is deposited into him, and that sudden “shock wave” caused by this deposition of energy does damage and can put an attacker out of the fight.
However beyond this, the single most important consideration in how well a bullet will stop an attacker is the size of the hole it makes in him. A larger hole is more likely to pierce something important, be it a bone or a soft organ, and put an attacker out of the fight.
For this reason, the larger calibers are often much more useful. Recall that a .22-caliber bullet is only a shade over a fifth of an inch across, whereas a .45-caliber bullet is almost a half-inch across. The .45 bullet will make a larger hole in an attacker, and is also much more likely to come to a stop inside his body, and not pass through. This way, it will also deliver its full “jolt” to an attacker, and also it will not pass through him to endanger a family member, friend, or prized possession behind him.
However, it isn’t only bullet caliber that reflects the bullet’s cross-sectional area! Remember the hollowpoints — bullets that mushroom out into a flat shape when they hit a target? The diameter of a hollowpoint bullet that has been shot into a target (police test bullets on wet newpaper packs and “ballistic gelatin” — industrial Knox, basically) is dramatically larger than it was before impacting the target. Some .45 caliber hollowpoints, starting out around half an inch across, can mushroom out to over an inch in diameter after they have hit their target.
Hence, hollowpoint bullets are very likely to accomplish the above two objectives of any bullet — that it makes a large hole that will incapacitate an attacker, and that it comes to a stop inside of him, not endangering anyone or anything behind him.
Also, despite the fact that hollowpoint bullets seem gruesome, they are actually more humane for the attacker. If you were to use standard round-nosed ammunition, and an attacker were on drugs or simply maddened, it would take many, many rounds to put him down. (One story told by Ayoob in his book relates a violent criminal who took over 15 rounds of .22 ammunition and then had to be clubbed with the now-empty rifle before he stopped his attack!) Since he will therefore have many more holes in him, his chances of survival are dramatically decreased. However, if you can put him down with only two or three hollowpoint rounds, the better for him when he is in surgery. You only want to shoot someone until they no longer present a threat, and if you can also shoot him as few times as possible, of course that’s far better, morally and legally.
Bullet Weight and Speed
Both of these considerations impact the amount of kinetic energy an object has — its weight, and its speed (which depends on the amount of powder contained in the casing). A light object travelling quickly may have the same amount of kinetic energy as a larger object travelling more slowly. Often, it may have more, since kinetic energy increases more sharply with greater speed. (If you’re reading this and feel motivated to “educate” me about physics or dynamics, please refrain from doing so. I’ve got an MS in physics and I’ve taught the subject at the university level, so I can guarantee you I know whereof I speak. So I’m not interested in having amateur know-it-alls mangle kinematics in an effort to “teach” me, or “impress the girl.”)
So do we use a light, fast bullet or a slower, more massive one? The above considerations illuminate the proper choice.
While the amount of energy imparted to an attacker’s body is a consideration in bullet and caliber choice, the size of the hole it makes is, as well. And plainly put, larger, more massive bullets make bigger holes. They are also more likely to come to a stop inside an attacker and thus deliver the full jolt of energy to him in the first place, as well as safeguarding any innocents who might be standing behind him.
As a result, the balance weighs more heavily on the side of slower, more massive bullets. A fast .22 will not be an optimum choice compared to a lower power .38.
What Not To Use
There are certain kinds of handguns and ammunition that you should avoid using for self-defense purposes. In general, you want to avoid overly small and also overly powerful ammunition for a number of reasons, with some exceptions.
This means that the .22 and .25 caliber rounds are out, unless you have a physical problem that prevents you from shooting anything more powerful. .22’s are far too small, and .25’s are far too weak! The latter is also regarded as a traditional “ladies’ weapon,” as well — of course, the weakest of all handguns with the least stopping power is considered the ideal handgun for the most uniformly victimized segment of society. Bleah. Ignore the useless .25 caliber, along with any other weapon that is solemnly recommended to you based on your double X chromosomes. Your sex has nothing to do with the right handgun for you .
Other extremely powerful rounds (mostly very, very fast ones) should be avoided, such a .357M and .44M. They are very fun to shoot, and the .357 caliber handgun can be an excellent choice since it shoots .38’s as well, but as a home defense choice, they are poor. One of the things that people tend not to consider when they choose a handgun for home defense is the noise that it makes when it is shot. When you are in your home at 2am, the noise from a Magnum round of any caliber may damage your hearing permanently. (Of course a .38 isn’t going to be terribly quiet either, but the Magnum calibers are staggeringly loud.) When you may well have to scope out your house for a second intruder who will be on alert from hearing the gunshot, and possibly calling for police and an ambulance, it’s not the time for a dull ear! Magnums also have a reputation for extreme penetration, and hence the increased amount of powder may well blow a bullet, even a hollowpoint, clear through an attacker to endanger a loved one or prized possession behind him.
Your ideal choices for defensive handguns are, in order of increasing strength:
- the .380, usually an autoloader
- the 9mm, also an autoloader caliber, although there are some revolvers that can shoot this
- the .38, usually for revolvers; the .38 is my ideal choice
- the .45
If you are interested in shooting .38’s, you may want to seriously consider purchasing a .357M revolver anyway. You can enjoy shooting two different kinds of ammunition out of it at the range, and load it with .38’s for defensive purposes. The increased weight of the .357M handgun often makes shooting .38’s a breeze since the heavier the handgun, the better it absorbs the recoil.
My Personal Choice
True Confessions time — what’s my own choice? A Ruger GP100 .357Magnum six-shot revolver with a 4″ barrel.
Why? I’ll outline it for you so you can see an example of one person’s decision-making process.
I’m a resident of southern California, where the permits to carry a concealed weapon are almost as rare as blue diamonds. I’m not interested in concealability on my person, so a 4″ barrel suits me fine. I was actually hoping to purchase one with a 6″ barrel because I enjoy target shooting, and the extra 2″ of barrel makes sighting easier. However, I decided to go for the 4″ barrel, and it worked out well since it fits perfectly in my concealment spot in my place of residence.
I opted for the larger GP100 six-shot over the SP101 5-shot since my hands are larger and hence I have no concerns over finding a gun that fits my hand in the slightest. And shooting magnum caliber rounds out of a heavier frame makes the recoil more manageable.
I chose a .357M because this revolver can also shoot .38sp cartridges as well — this isn’t doing anything against the design of the gun; it’s supposed to take .38’s or .357’s. This way, I can practice with a magnum caliber handgun (and they are fun to shoot) and still put .38’s in it for defensive purposes. A .357M revolver essentially gives you two-for-one since you get a .357M and a .38 for the price of one handgun.
I chose a Ruger because, after shooting a friend’s GP100, I loved the way it felt. It shoots fairly smoothly, has a nice even trigger pull, and is ergonomically compatible with my grip and stance. I also wanted to patronize Ruger since the president of the company is lefthanded, and hence his autoloaders are all designed as ambidextrously as possible. Some people dislike his politics since he sometimes supports some gun control measures, but I feel that the superiority of his product outweighs that.
I chose a revolver because I preferred the mechanical transparency of the device; revolvers are certainly complex, but can seem less so than autoloaders, and hence they make excellent choices for first handguns. They are simpler to operate, and are less likely to snap a nail! Even long acrylic or silk nails won’t keep you from using your revolver, whereas they would get in the way with an autoloader. I also chose one since I am lefthanded, and autoloaders often eject the empty brass towards my head instead of away from me, as they would with a righthander.