Selecting a Gun for Home Defense

Published by the Author on March 30, 2008 at 7:33 pm > Guns 101 > Selecting a Gun for Home Defense

Many people purchase their first gun for home defense, and the question of which type of gun to pick is a common one. The three basic choices are a handgun, shotgun, or rifle. Of the three, I would recommend a shotgun for most situations, with handguns being recommended for people who lack the physical ability to handle a shotgun. My recommendation for the “ideal” home defense shotgun, and the pros and cons of each of these firearm types, in the order which I recommend them, are discussed below.

My ideal home defense firearm is a 12 gauge pump action shotgun with an 18″ barrel and a magazine capacity of 6 shells or more, such as the Remington 870 XCS Marine Magnum. 12 gauge is the most common shotgun gauge these days, and 12 gauge shells are amazingly effective when loaded with 00 buckshot (pronounced “double ought buckshot”). The 18″ barrel is the minimum length generally allowed by law, and does not make the gun too cumbersome inside a home. The pump action is the pinnacle of reliability, and makes it easy to keep the gun stored safely but ready to use at a moment’s notice. The gun will be amazingly effective at close range, and the risk of over penetration through exterior walls and subsequent injury to neighbors is lower than with a rifle or handgun.
The gun I listed as my 1st choice, a Remington 870 XCS Marine Magnum, costs about $900, which is nearly three times as much as as basic pump action shotgun such as the Remington 870 Express. The benefit of paying for this more expensive gun comes in the form of better build quality, a corrosion resistant coating, a nice recoil reducing pad on the stock, and the ability of the gun to easily accept magazine extensions. If you feel like spending more on the Remington 870 XCS Marine Magnum go for it, and if not the standard Remington 870 will still provide excellent protection for your home and loved ones.

Remington 870 XCS Marine Magnum

1st Choice: A Shotgun:
Pros: Incredibly effective. Less risk of injury to neighbors due to over penetration of walls.
Cons: Harder to maneuver with in tight spaces due to larger size than handguns.
I would generally recommend a shotgun for home defense, because shotguns are (rightfully so) generally considered to be the most effective short ranged firearm. Rather than shooting a single bullet with each pull of the trigger as a rifle or handgun would do, shotguns shoot multiple pellets. These multiple pellets are more likely to stop an attacker but less likely to pass through the exterior walls of your home and injure your neighbors (note that I say *less* likely, as there is always a risk to bystanders). The recoil from firing a shotgun is heavier than a handgun, but this heavier recoil is more than worth the increase in effectiveness (although there is more to the effectiveness of a firearm than the kinetic energy of its projectiles, you can compare the 500 ft-lbs of energy from a .45 caliber bullet to the 2000+ ft-lbs from a shotgun firing 00 buckshot). For those who are new to guns and not accustomed to recoil, let me assure you that you will quickly get used to it after a few trips to your local range. For those who have a physical condition that does not allow them to tolerate heavier recoil, I would suggest acquiring a gas operated semi-automatic shogun (such as the Remington 11-87) which will be more gentle than a pump action or double barreled shotgun. Another option is to use low recoil shotgun shells, which as the name suggests, will be more gentle than standard shells. Such low recoil shells are going to be slightly less effective than standard shells, but this difference is trivial in the home defense scenario, and some experts recommend low recoil shells for home defense over standard shells.
Another consideration that applies to shotguns and rifles is the length of the firearm. In smaller homes with narrower hallways, a barrel that is too long would make the firearm difficult to maneuver with. For this reason I would suggest a barrel length of 18″, rather than the 30″ barrel which might be more appropriate for hunting or trapshooting purposes.
There are also some accessories you may want to consider for your home defense shotgun.

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2nd Choice: a Handgun:
Pros: Easier to maneuver with in tight spaces do to its small size. Lower recoil than most shotguns and rifles.
Cons: Less effective than a shotgun or rifle.
A handgun, such as one from the Springfield XD line of pistols, would be my 2nd choice recommendation for home defense.
Handguns are generally less effective than shotguns or rifles, as their projectiles have less energy, but they do have the benefit of being easier to maneuver with in cramped quarters, such as smaller houses and apartments. Handgun bullets will generally penetrate exterior walls more than shotguns, but less than rifles, meaning that the hypothetical danger to your neighbors is lower than with a rifle but higher than with a shotgun. My recommendations for the proper pistol self defense calibers are here.  Those who are unsure whether they should select a pistol or revolver will find this article helpful.
Another benefit of handguns is that they often have less recoil and can be less intimidating to some people. Indeed my girlfriend is more comfortable with handguns than with rifles or shotguns, as discussed here. You may also wish to consider certain accessories for your home defense handgun.

Remington 7600 Rifle

3rd Choice: a Rifle:
Pros: Generally much more effective than a handgun.
Cons: Rifle bullets have a tendency to over penetrate walls, increasing the danger to your neighbors.
A rifle would be my last choice for a home defense firearm, although it would certainly be preferable over throwing sticks and stones at a home invader.
Rifles are generally more effective than handguns, however rifle bullets are able to penetrate much further than the shot from a shotgun or the bullets from a handgun. This creates a much greater risk to your neighbors, without much benefit to you. Rifles are generally designed for longer range shooting (e.g. 100 yards, and much further +) so there is no appreciable benefit in a rifle designed for long range shooting within your house, since if you are ever forced to shoot a home invader it will be at very close range. Indeed, shooting at someone who is 100 yards away is rather difficult to justify as self defense. Although rifles are great for many purposes, home defense is not usually one of them, since rifles possess the drawbacks of shotguns (heavier recoil, more physically bulky and difficult to maneuver with in close quarters) while having almost none of the advantages (such as less of a risk of over penetration).  That said, pistol caliber carbines can be a viable self defense option.

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Now that you have selected a gun for home defense, pick the proper ammunition.


When discussing the risk of overpenetration, I assumed that the shotgun ammunition being used was 00 buckshot from a 2.75″ shotgun shell, that the handgun ammunition being used was somewhere between 9mm and .45 caliber, and that the rifle ammunition being used was somewhere between .243 and .30-06. Although the danger of over penetration may be lower with shotguns than with handguns or rifles, the projectile(s) from any gun can over penetrate and pose a danger to innocent bystanders. Even if you are forced to fire your gun in self defense or defense of your family, you should not endanger the lives of your neighbors or other innocent bystanders.

Also, it should go without saying that firing at a human being is the absolute last resort and is only justified to prevent death or grievous bodily harm from being inflicted on yourself or a loved one. The decision to possess a gun carries with it the moral responsibly to use the utmost care and good judgment. Similarly, it is the responsibility of the gun owner to ensure the gun is not stolen by criminals or misused by children, and to comply with any applicable laws on the storage of the firearm.

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  • Eric

    For the budget minded, a Mossberg 500 runs about 200 bucks. Excellent reputation and reliability.

  • Ryan

    I just bought the mossberg 500 for $230. It came with both an 18 and 28 inch barrel. Now I not only have a home defense shotgun, but one I can hunt with as well. It is fun to shoot.

  • JAMitchell

    If your situation requires depending on a hunting-type rifle for home defense, my recommendation is use only light-weight hollow-points, as this will mitigate (not prevent) over-penetration. I used to use a .270 loaded with 100 gr hollow-points as a varmint gun (couldn't afford a .22-250 at the time). Had (2) cases shooting coyotes where the shot was made between 25-40 yds and the bullets never exited. The insides of the coyotes were soup. And the cross-section of a coyote is not nearly as large as a typical human. I fully understand that a home defense situation may not even be at this long of a range, however I think the theory may still remain valid.

  • Jim

    I am taking a trip to Alaska canoeing & back packing. I will be taking a Remington 870. What load do you recommend for bear defense?

    • Six

      If all you have is a shotgun, I would load it with Slugs (3" Magnum loads). 00 Buck is a great load, but you have to let the bear get to close to be truly be effective. I would rather shoot that Grizzly at a distance. It allows your shotgun to function like a short range rifle and gives you greater stopping power at distance. With Practice you should be able to shoot consistent groups at 50 yards easily and 100 yards with a little more trigger time.

      Also if you use 00 Buck make sure you go and pattern your shotgun at multiple distances so your understand the spread and your effective range.

  • Michael Moriarty

    Shotgun ammunition sufficient to stop an attacker (00 buckshot) is powerful enough to go through at least 2 interior walls in a house or apartment. Anyone in the next room or apartment is going to be hit with lethal force.
    The most important thing is target identification and shot placement. I suggest trying all three types of weapon, and finding the one you both most comfortable handling, and most accurate with. Buy that one, and practice, practice, practice.

  • Arturo Mtz

    I like a short barreled and strong revolver (2½” to 3” barrel) because you could use the butt as a club instead of firing at the bad guy and if he grasps the gun you could shot his hand. I recognize that is preferable to keep the intruders at a distance of more than 15 ft. and avoid physical confrontations but anything could happened in a home invasion.

    I know somebody who have a .30-.30 carbine for home defense and I like the logic of using such a gun: with enough power and round nose bullets that expand very well, It is light and easy to point with.

  • stephen

    There are plenty of studies showing that handgun and buckshot rounds are more lethal after penetrating wallboards than the .223(5.56 NATO). Don't beleive me? FBI agents are encouraged to draw their sidearms to flush out "bad guys" from behind barriers as opposed to their .223 rifles. .223 bullets fragment violently at short ranges and are less likely to cause fatal injuries on the other side of barriers including two layers of wall board(check out FBI ballistics studies). It is true that a .223 round will penetrate walls easier than pistol rounds, but will fragment and be much less lethal on the other side, more like a low velocity birdshot. AR-15 is the way to go, home defense and long range efficacy in one.

  • stephen

    Disclaimer about previous comment: I have all 3 weapon types: for home defense, every day carry and long range defense in case society fails. Everyone looks at me like I'm crazy when I say that.

  • Thomas

    I agree with you Stephen…. I’m of the same mindset

  • ders notu

    I prefer Rifle 😉

  • Harry

    Your have a website advising people on what guns to use in the home and you dont know 00 buck will go clean through your house? Now I"m skeptical you know what your talking about.



    It looks as though you should go back and re-read what I wrote. Just about any round capable of penetrating an attacker's body to stop them is also capable of penetrating interior walls. However buckshot will not overpenetrate as badly as, say, a slug or a .30-06. You may also wish to read this article:

    Either way, you're certainly welcome to your opinions :)

    • Hicus Dicus

      Harry I have to agree with you about your comment about being skeptical of our dear author. He buys into bucket of truth equals baloney. I usually shoot every Sunday and I have learned that things don't always work out the way you think they will. Peoples ideas of their shooting skills are mostly fantasy. The reasons they think they can shoot someone will most likely end up putting them in the penitentiary if they ever have to do it. Having shot people and being shot and going through the court system I have a little different take on gun fantasy land. I sure don't know it all but I know more than most people do. most of the stuff I read here is hearsay and inconsistent with reality.

  • Micah Hardin

    Good point Steve. Varmit rounds like 22.250 or 223 have no more recoil than a pistol. 223 amo is cheep and some bull pups, short carbines and even some pistols are chambered in it. On the other hand, they still mean bussiness at 200 yrds. When shot, they feel very little different from a 22 mag or light 22LR. A good varmet round wont make it out of a bad guy or the wall if you miss, just blow him hollow. For 12 gages consider #2 or#4 shot(Turky Loads)rather than OO. it gives the huge FTLBs with lower penatration. Don’t over look a 410 with OOO buck(5-36Cal,100 grain balls in the 3″ shell)Lower recoil, faster recovery+less shooter hesitation/flinch = higher rate of fireand and accuracy. The penatration is comperable to a .380, lower than the hanguns mentioned above, but higher than 00 buck. Since self defence is almost always under 15 yards 410’s have reascently become popular for home defence. Tarus armes makes a 410 pistolfor those with the moxie to shoot it.

  • Micah Hardin

    I think a sime auto carbine in 45 acp would serve well for those who are recoil sensativ. The 9MM has poor stoping power and too much penatration. a basic double action carbine could be manufactured more cost efectivly than any of the other things mentiond above. High point has a good pistol caliber carbine for a low price, it is a tack driver past 50 yrds. With a colapsable stock and a lazer sight things could get ugly fast for the badies, just point the lazer and shoot from the hip.

  • Six

    I like all three, own all three, but the particular tool is less important than the family plan. Don't make the home defense selection based on your ability to shoot, alone if you have other family members who may have to use the tool, and are not as gun savy as you. Handguns give you more manueverability and greater weapon retention capabilities; shotguns 12 gauge give you enhanced stopping power at traditional handgun distances and the pattern gives you a little more margin for error, AR15 with its limited recoil is easier to shoulder for a new shooter than a shotgun. Bottom line is training for the family and the family plan. If the family is not going to train don't fool yourself or them. Get a big dog instead.

    Go to YouTube and check out Mark "Six" James – Home Defense Tool Kit. Additional tips on putting together your plan.

  • Jennifer

    I prefer my colt 357

  • Mat

    there is always rock salt. doesnt penetrate walls and is usually non lethal. just load one of your shot shells with rocksalt. not so sure its legal but its better than killing the fellow and sufficiently stops attackers.

  • josh

    I use an ar-15 with 45 grain hollowpoints at high (3600 fps) velocity. I have heard of people loading shotun shells with dog tag chains. Lightweight, lethal, low penetration. Just a thought.

  • AZ_Gun_Nut

    I agree with the comments previously regarding AR/ 223 rounds. They won't over-penetrate and they tend to fragment easier. However for me, my rifles and shotguns are locked in a rifle safe, too far away to use in an emergency situation. For real emergencies, I use a glock 19 in 9mm with a TLR2 light/laser combo. It's easy to get to, using a finger type combination gun safe under my bed.
    Lessons Learned from a breakin I had:
    1) Laser helps tremendously to communicate your ability to dispense lethal force
    2) Prepare a grab bag to easily get to with proper gear, light, walkie talkie to provide instructions to wife, etc
    3) Prepare a belt with holster to easily put on
    4) Be prepared to holster your weapon quickly once the police arrive (and by no means turn towards police until your weapon is holstered!)
    5) Prepare in advance your mindset of when to use lethal force. Imagine in your mind the line that ,once crossed, will trigger your action. You need to do this in advance and not at the moment that you need your firearm.

  • matrt

    I have a 12 ga mossberg 535 with a 20" bar. First two shells are bean bags – they will at least drop the guy to the ground. If there is more than 1 person, the guy keeps coming, or gets up those first two shells are followed by 3 #4 buck. We dont have castle domain in PA yet, so i cant "just shoot the intruder" like in FL, TX,, etc.

  • Lloyd Booth

    Michigan has finally passed the Castle Domain law, don't come over at night without calling first.

  • Lloyd Booth

    Here is an updated list of the states that adopted some form of the Castle Doctrine law, as of June 21 2008.

    Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, Wyoming

  • Matt

    The following is such a spectacularly bad piece of home defence advice that I just had to share it.

  • Lloyd Booth


  • Firearm Criteria

    Criteria when selecting a firearm for self defense:

    First: The firearm fits in your hand.
    Second: The firearm is light enough to handle.
    Third: You can load the magazine and chamber a cartridge.
    Fourth: You know where the safety is located.
    Fifth: You can engage, point, shoot, and disengage.
    Sixth: The cartridge recoil is manageable when discharged.
    Seventh: The firearm cycles the chosen cartridge.
    Eighth: You can un-chamber a cartridge and unload the magazine
    Ninth: You can disassemble, clean, and assemble the firearm.
    Tenth: You can install trigger lock and safely store the firearm.
    Eleventh: You can store the cartridges in a locked container.
    Twelfth: You can find time to practice shoot.

  • Shotgun to go!!!

    "An argument between husband-and-wife ended when she shot him once at close range with a shotgun…"

  • Brian

    Ive never owned a handgun for home defense but am now in the market for one as I watch my community become taken over by meth and the riff raff associated with it, im looking at the Judge strictly for the intimidating visual appeal that it offers. I would like an opinion on this handgun before I buy it or another option that would serve as a good home defense weapon.

    • tim roland

      Hey Brian, If you looking for other than using a gun for protection, buy Bear long rang pepper spray. This will hit the intruder from long range and burn,blind, the M.F. .Temporally blinding the intruder of course but last a long time. It can take down a big black bear then it truly can take down a human. We have a cabin in the mountains and like to hike and have seen bear around and decided to buy some bear spray just in case. They usually wont attack you unless they have young cubs around or with them. So sure enough one weekend were walking see a mother black bear with her cubs and before we knew it she comes charging at us fast. I pull the spray that shoots very far and covers a wide range and she stop and takes off back the other way allowing us to get away. Scared the shit out of us but don't blame the bear shes just protecting her babies.With that said i also us it for home protection. tim r.

  • Blueronin

    There are so many other considerations to choosing a home defense weapon. Suppose you are engaging home invaders that had the foresight to wear body armour. A handgun probably won't get it. A rifle would. An AR carbine type weapon with a 30 round magazine, loaded with 5.56 mm rounds would be exceptional in a rural enviornment, particularly if your neighbors live a distance away. On the flip side of the same discussion: Many ammo companies are now making handgun ammo that has reasonable stopping power, that is designed not to over penetrate walls. There are just too many variables to consider to make a blanket statement.

  • Phoenix HP22

    Updated my home defense and conceal carry arsenal with the Phoenix HP22.
    It is loaded it up with Federal hollow points and keep it close when at home.
    I also got a shoulder holster for on-the-road conceal carry.
    This is a very nice little shooter.

  • Jeff

    I live in the country on 7 acres. I do worry about a home invasion. I have a loaded 357 mag revolver that goes on the night stand when
    I go to bed each night. I also keep a 12 guage auto on the other side of the night stand in the corner and I would be able to use a dresser
    to hide behind at the same time. PLUS a burgler alarm that will sound off if any door is opened.

  • Maine Handgun Safety Course

    Love my XD for home defense.

  • BrunoT

    1. You fail to mention the deafening (literally, you will lose hearing) effect of a 12 ga fired indoors.
    2. You fail to mention the “stunning” effect of a large blast and concussion on the user in tight quarters.
    3. You fail to mention the blinding effect of flash at night, especially when woken up suddenly.
    4. You fail to mention the effect of recoil on follow up shots. Unless you hit first time every time, this matters.
    5. Related to this, you fail to mention the “weak” 22lr in a 16″ rifle barrel now becomes powerful enough to penetrate sufficiently, but since the recoil is almost non-existenent, one can “hose down” an enemy accurately with multiple quick shots. Various stock versions of small carbines can give you a much shorter weapon. One you can actually put around a corner w/o exposing yourself. Do that with a 12 ga and it will leave your hands when you fire it.
    6. You overstate the danger of overpenetration. The odds of you hitting a family member exactly in line with your intruder are close to nil. Think of it, at what angle would you be firing on an intruder where he could align himself between you and your child asleep in another room?
    7. There are also plenty of YouTube videos demonstrating that 12 ga 00 buckshot penetrates MULTIPLE walls of sheetrock and with enough remaining energy to do damage.
    8. Your girlfriend can’t use your 12 ga. She can, however, use a handgun or many types of carbine.

    The 12 ga sounds good on paper, and is deadly if it hits square on, but it barely spreads at “accross a room” ranges so it’s really a slow firing rifle with a lot of punch. A simple $250 10/22 Ruger with a 25 rd magazine would be more effective when you account for all the above factors. And once again, you will be highly unlikely to be “quick-drawing” an armed intruder at home. He will either surprise you and kill you or you will be ready and surprise him. You don’t need to one-shot it either. In 99% of cases people fired upon either fall down or run. And the odds of being able to deploy a handgun or 4 lb carbine quickly vs a heavy long shotgun are better.