On a home defense tool

What follows is my take on this particular religious war. 

When it comes to defending your home, there are many things you can do. Exterior lights (cockroaches don’t like light), dogs, alarm systems (and using them), keeping your doors and windows locked, trimming back the bushes from exterior windows, and things like that. All of these things are good things to do and add to your layer of home security. I would also say that a firearm of some sort is another layer.

When people think of home defense firearms, what typically comes to mind is a shotgun. When I first thought about a home defense firearm a 12 gauge with 00 buckshot was the direction I headed. But recently I’ve encountered some thinking that has changed my mind, and while a 12 gauge is still part of my home defense battery, it’s no longer my go-to gun.

I believe it started when I read this post in Tam’s blog (if not that specific post, certainly one with a similar ending: that she opts to hole up with a carbine). If you read Tam’s blog you know she knows a couple things about guns, so that her choice of home gun went against the popular grain intrigued me. 

Much of my firearms training occurs locally with KR Training. I’ve been working my way through the offered courses and some months ago the Defensive Long Gun class was put on the schedule. If you read that page you’ll see while the class is oriented towards the defensive use of any long gun, there’s certainly a preference towards a rifle. Here’s a reprinting of the relevant section:

Why a rifle instead of a shotgun for home defense?

  1. Shorter. 16″ barrel legal for rifle vs 18″ barrel for shotgun. Manipulation of a long gun indoors around furniture and people, while keeping the muzzle in a safe direction but also being able to quickly bring it up and on target, is more difficult as the barrel length increases.
  2. Capacity. Most semiauto rifles and pistol caliber carbines hold at least 10 rounds. Most practical length shotguns hold 5-10 shells. While most home defensive shootings require few rounds, reloading a shotgun is signficantly slower than reloading a magazine fed semiauto rifle or pistol caliber carbine.
  3. Less recoil. 12 ga shotgun w/ buckshot loads have equal or greater recoil than a big-game rifle. By comparison a pistol caliber carbine or medium power rifle (.223, 7.62, .30-30) is easier on the shooter which makes accurate shooting easier. Often the “family long gun” is something that any family member could use if needed, but typically most family members are not as enthusiastic about shooting or as comfortable with recoil as the primary gun owner. Choosing a “family long gun” that’s easier and more comfortable to shoot increases the chances they will enjoy shooting the gun and become more skilled in its use. If a shotgun is preferred, a semiauto shotgun such as the Remington 1187 has significantly less recoil than a pump shotgun.
  4. Faster shot recovery. See “less recoil”. It is unrealistic to expect that a single hit from any firearm will cause an ‘immediate stop’. Since multiple shots will likely be required, follow up shot speed matters.
  5. Simplicity in operation. Manually operated long guns (pump and lever action) require the user to remember to manually cycle the action between shots; with a semiauto all that’s required is to continue pulling the trigger until the fight is over. While this may not be a concern for the primary gun user, the less trained family member using the gun under life-threatening stress may find this a problem. Even in the hands of an experienced shooter, manually cycling the gun’s action takes time and can be done improperly, causing a malfunction. Clearing malfunctions with manually operated long guns is more complex and slower than malfunction clearing with semiauto long guns, particularly semiauto rifles.
  6. Simplicity in ammo selection. With a rifle there’s no need to have 3 different types of ammo (birdshot, buckshot and slugs) and try to switch between them as shot distances changes. Changing ammo requires on-the-fly target distance estimation, decision making and time to manipulate the shotgun.
  7. Ease of precision shot placement. The most complex situation is one in which a family member or other person is between the shooter and the threat, in the line of fire. With a rifle, precise shot placement is much simpler. With a shotgun, the shooter must know the exact relationship between visual alignment of the gun and the center of the shot pattern, and be able to estimate the shot pattern size at the target’s estimated range in order to determine whether the person in the line of fire might be hit.
  8. Less sensitive to dominant eye issues. Shotguns shoot instinctively unless the shooter has a dominant eye opposite the dominant hand. Then shotgunning is more difficult. Rifle – particularly scoped rifle – is less dependent on eye-hand dominance being on the same side.
  9. Penetration concerns. Shotguns are often favored over rifles because of concerns that shotgun pellets are less likely to overpenetrate and are more likely to be stopped by walls and other inanimate objects. Some studies and reports (123, others available online) indicate that the shotgun’s reputation for “low penetration” is exaggerated and that there are penetration concerns regardless of what ammunition is used.

On top of that, when I inquired which long gun to use for the course, shotgun or rifle, this is the response I received:

You bring both and use both during the course. It will be painfully obvious during the drills where the shotgun works better and where the AR will work better. Anytime we start putting “no shoot” targets up that you have to shoot around, or any target past 15 yards, the AR is the better choice. When it’s one big close target right in front of you, the shotgun works great.

And one final bit from my instructor, that he posted to a mailing list.

Shotguns were originally designed for shooting small flying things, not for personal defense. People have figured out how to use them for personal defense, but from a pure engineering standpoint, the shotgun is a kludge, not a tool designed for the home defense task. I ask the hunters how well they know their pattern size and relationship between point of aim and pattern distribution at 7 yards with their home defense load, then ask if they’d be willing to put one of their children downrange and shoot around the child to hit a paper “shoot” target simulating a bad guy that’s in their house near their child.

The modern M4 rifle is specifically configured for confronting armed “bad guys” in buildings and crowded urban areas where there are lots of “no shoots”. This is the same “mission” that patrol cops and home defenders have.

One fantastic website is The Box O’ Truth. If you’ve never seen this website, make the time to go through everything on there. There are some “bits of truth” that are relevant to this discussion:

  • The Box O’ Truth #3 – Shows that shotgun loads don’t necessarily penetrate walls worse than handgun or rifle rounds.
  • The Box O’ Truth #14 – More about round penetration through walls, and with rifle rounds.
  • The Box O’ Truth #20 – Shotgun patterning. Check out the spread, and those distances aren’t that far. Remember, you have to account for every bullet fired, and that means every pellet of shot must be accounted for.
  • The Box O’ Truth #22 – 20 gauge isn’t that bad.
  • The Box O’ Truth #42 – This is a very telling one. For me the take home is beyond a few yards the pattern is rather wide and if “no shoots” have to be involved, it makes precision shooting difficult. 
  • The Box O’ Truth #43 – Shooting buckshot out a shotgun with a rifled barrel. Stick with smooth bores for home defense. (Updated)
  • The Box O’ Truth #83 – Fighting with a shotgun. A lot of good information here.

This past weekend I attended the Defensive Long Gun class at KR Training. Very educational, time well spent. And as alluded to earlier, you go through the exercises and it becomes sorely evident where the shotgun and where the rifle have their strengths and their weaknesses. You can experience it first hand, and it really brings to light the importance of truly knowing your weapon, whatever you choose.

By no means is a shotgun an ineffective tool; it’s just like any tool: you have to know where and how to use it, strengths, weaknesses, and practice with it a great deal so you can know it and deploy it effectively. I still have shotguns as a part of my home defense battery, tho on the ones where I can change the choke to something tighter I did. So what is my go-to gun for home defense? These days it’s my AR-15 loaded with Hornady TAP FPD.  

There’s a lot more to home defense than picking some firearm and hoping for the best. You have to pick what works for you in your context and situation. Get training, practice, and be prepared.


Updated: I was adding more material to this and the post was getting long, so I opted to break it up into parts. 

Go to “On a home defense tool – part 2“.