Choosing a Gun For Home/Personal Defense

I often am asked about an appropriate gun for personal defense. Many people today are, for the first time, considering keeping a firearm available in their home. This is not a decision that should be made lightly, nor is the choice of firearm for this usage. The purpose of this article is to assist you decide what an appropriate gun might be for personal and home defense. This is not an in-depth article, and you’ll want to do more research on some of the topics covered. The goal is to give the reader a range of factors to consider in making a decision, not to steer you to a specific conclusion.

Personal Inventory

Before tackling the issue of what kind of gun to use for personal/home defense, I recommend that you devote some thought to the following questions:

  1. Would I be able to use the gun? At first, this might seem a no-brainer, but people have been known to falter when the time comes to fire a gun at another human being. This is understandable, as a human life is at stake, but…if you have doubts that you’ll be able to actually discharge the gun in a moment of crisis, you’re better off with another option for defense. A gun that you’re not willing to use is worthless, or even deleterious to your safety.
  2. Am I willing to invest the time needed to become proficient with my gun? A gun, like any other tool, is only useful in the hands of a skilled user. If you’re new to firearms, many hours at a shooting range will be necessary before you’ll become good enough, and comfortable enough, to use your gun well in a time of need. A lesson or two is also recommended.
  3. Am I prepared to deal with the (possibly adverse) consequences? Even in the situation of a “good shoot,” there will be repercussions to you. Some people have reported legal bills of $40-50,000 resulting from defending themselves against an over-zealous district attorney. You may find that your neighbors become fearful or hostile toward you. And there is the small but real possibility that you may make a mistake, and shoot someone who turned out not to mean you any harm. You need to know that you can live with these possible outcomes if you’re going to protect yourself with deadly force.
  4. Am I willing to store and handle the gun responsibly? Storage of guns has become a hot button in many states and municipalities. You would be well advised to check your local laws before making a decision. And you’ll definitely want to consider storage to prevent undesired access to the gun.

Handgun or long gun?

The biggest (and most controversial) decision to make in selecting a firearm is whether to go with a long gun (rifle or shotgun) or a handgun. Conventional thinking has been that a shotgun is the best choice for home defense.

In almost all cases, I disagree with this.

A long gun is just that: long. It is unwieldy and cumbersome indoors, and the long barrel makes an inviting handle for an attacker to grab at. It’s very difficult to hold ready as you’re moving from room to room, or around corners of your home. It also requires the use of both hands, meaning you can’t keep it ready and dial a telephone at the same time. Simply put, long guns aren’t meant for indoor use, and are (in the writer’s opinion) a poor choice for home defense. If you do go with a long gun, get a barrel as short as possible.

Revolver or auto-loader?

Assuming that you’ve decided upon a handgun, the next decision is whether to go with a revolver or an auto-loader (or semi-automatic). A revolver is a simpler device and less error-prone. An auto-loader is easier to load, and generally allows you to make follow-up shots, but bears a (slightly) higher risk of malfunctioning during the firing/loading process.

A big factor in your selection is whether you’re willing to keep the gun loaded at all times. Loading a revolver takes precious time, time that you may not have during an emergency. If you’re comfortable with keeping a loaded gun in your home (and if prevailing laws permit it), the revolver may be the way to go. If not, an auto-loader is probably the better choice, but…be sure to include quickly loading the gun as part of your training and range time.

There are other, more subjective considerations here as well. I suggest you try handling and shooting both before you commit to a decision. There’s no universally correct answer here; the choice is what you feel best with.

What caliber?

There is an almost bewildering array of choices of calibers for handguns, from the tiny .22 LR to the mammoth .500 S&W magnum. When selecting your caliber, remember that the purpose of the gun is to stop a threat in your home, nothing more and nothing less. I’d recommend a medium-power cartridge like the .38 special (for a revolver) or the 9mm Luger (for an auto-loader). Both are proven people-stoppers with a wide variety of available commercial ammunition.

If you’re tempted to go with something more powerful, I won’t argue with you, but I will caution you that more powerful guns typically take longer to become proficient with. There is also a greater concern for collateral damage, as a high-power cartridge will be more likely to leave your premises with enough energy to hurt or kill an unintended target.

Choosing the gun itself

Once you’ve decided on a caliber, it’s time to choose the gun. I recommend a gun from a quality manufacturer with a solid reputation. Ruger, SIG SAUER and Smith & Wesson all make reliable guns and have reputations of excellent customer service. They also offer a good selection of models.

The size of the gun should be a factor in your decision. A gun that is too big or too small will be uncomfortable and difficult for you to hold and operate properly. Two factors determine a handgun’s size: the frame, and the barrel. (Strictly speaking, the grips can affect a gun’s size, too, but we’ll ignore this minor factor for now.)

The frame of a handgun is a somewhat ambiguous term, as it varies from maker to maker, but for our purposes, you can consider it the “chassis” of the gun. It’s generally the biggest piece of metal in the gun, and is what everything else is connected to. Many gun manufacturers have a few sizes of frames (S&W actually has five for their revolvers), and each will provide a different feel and shooting experience. You’ll want to try several sizes before settling on one.

For personal protection, a relatively short barrel (3” or so) is probably sufficient in a revolver. While it’s true that a shorter-barreled gun is more difficult to aim accurately, this is a minor consideration measured in inches at 25 yards. You’ll have no problem aiming a short-barreled gun for protection against an attacker who is only a few feet away. If you go with an auto-loader, you’ll probably want a model with at least a 4” barrel, as anything shorter will probably come on a gun that is smaller than you want (further discussion below).

On a related note, your personal size and strength will play a factor in how much caliber you can handle. It must be stressed, though, that with sufficient practice, even the smallest of people can handle a high-powered handgun. Please do not let a salesman convince you to choose an underpowered caliber due to your size.

Just as important as the size, is the material the gun is made of. In the old days, guns were made of high-carbon steel. Later, stainless steel emerged, and in some rare cases, aluminum was used. In the last few decades, though, the material sciences have given gun makers many high technology alternatives to steel. Polymers, scandium, titanium and other materials have enabled the creation of handguns that are much, much lighter than those made of steel. I refer to guns like this as “carry guns,” as they are popular with people who have to carry the gun on their person for several hours a day, but are expected to be used very rarely. Some of these carry guns come in extra-small configurations, often used as a backup gun. Law enforcement officers often carry these as a form of extra insurance.

This cannot be stressed enough: a “carry gun” is generally NOT a comfortable gun to shoot. Gun weight is a primary factor in recoil (the sensation you feel when you fire a round). Excessive recoil is highly unpleasant, and may discourage you from much-needed practice with your gun. For your first gun, I recommend that you choose something that weighs at least 24 ounces. This will render recoil that most people find acceptable in the calibers mentioned above.

Storage

This is yet another controversial topic: where do you keep your gun? Do you keep it loaded? Who in the household should have access to it? Again, prevailing laws and regulations will influence your decision. If you live somewhere that expressly prohibits making handguns available to minors, for example, you’ll have to take this into consideration.

Many people, especially those who own several guns, keep them in a safe in the home. While this is not a bad idea in general, it will greatly reduce the availability of your defense gun in an emergency. You may want to consider keeping the gun in a nightstand or somewhere readily accessible. (A good compromise might be a small biometric safe that can be opened quickly with a thumb scan, rather than a key or combination.)

As mentioned above, if you’ve chosen a revolver for personal defense, you’ll probably want to keep it loaded. Revolvers, even with the use of speed loaders, are too slow to load for most people in a high-stress situation. If you’ve chosen an auto-loader, you might want to keep it unloaded, but with a loaded magazine kept in the same location as the gun.

There is no perfect answer to this issue: the more available the gun, the greater the risk that it will fall into the wrong hands and contribute to a tragedy. On the other hand, the less available the gun is, the greater the risk that you won’t have access to it when you most need it. Only you can decide what trade-off is most appropriate for your needs.

Summary

If owning a gun is a big responsibility, then owning (and keeping) a gun for self-defense is a huge one. By considering all the implications, you’ll mitigate the risks as well as maximizing the potential benefits. As always, I welcome questions and comments.

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