If you've read this far, chances are that I don't have to sell you on the need for home defense. Instead, let's talk about the best tools for that job.
I'd like to talk about rifles first because they're about the least-suitable type of gun for self defense, so let's get them out of the way.
Rifles are wonderful things, and are certainly the most accurate type of commonly made firearm there is. They are also usually fairly powerful, and tend to fire a single projectile, or bullet.
When it comes to home defense, great accuracy is almost never needed. Fights are fought at spitting distance, and they need to be won quickly and decisively - without endangering your neighbors by slinging bullets through walls.
Rifles are the most likely to over-penetrate, and the most unwieldy to handle in close quarters... especially a bolt action hunting rifle. Even the much-touted AR type rifles are at the bottom of the heap for home defense in most situations, although they provide ease of use and large magazine capacities.
Rifles can do the job of killing an assailant - any firearm can - but they are not well-suited for the task of close-quarters defense against a small number of assailants in your home. If you decide to use a rifle, though, then please carefully consider which rifle caliber to use for home defense.
I have to get this out of the way right now: not all handguns are pistols, no matter what your daddy (and mine) or the guy behind the counter at your favorite gun shop always said. A pistol is a pistol (and pistols come in several different types), and a revolver is something else.
Most pistols - including those that we're discussing here - are semi-automatic. Semi-autos are good guns, and have been widely used by members of the military and police for a long time, but they are not always dependable. Worse, they can be overly complicated to operate in a high-stress situation.
A semi-automatic pistol usually has more external moving parts than a revolver, and the largest of these is the slide. While not present on every semi-auto pistol, it is certainly part of the design of most of them. The slide on some guns can be easily manipulated by an adversary in very close quarters to disable the gun, and it can also hang up on cloth (bedclothes, pajamas, bathrobe) if fired in a hurry.
Pistols may also malfunction if fired without being held in a grip that's firm enough, or sideways, upside-down, etc - all of which may become necessary when you're fighting for your life.
Pistols also typically have more external controls (safety levers, decockers, etc) and are thus more complicated than other guns. If one must use a pistol for home defense, I suggest a good double action / single action design rather than straight single action. In a high-stress situation, I don't want to have to cock my gun before it will go bang.
It is always more difficult to achieve accuracy with a handgun than with a rifle or shotgun.
A semi-auto pistol can be a very good home defense tool in the hands of an experienced shooter who has used it quite a bit, but I can't recommend its use to a beginner or casual user.
Revolvers are less complicated to use than most semi-auto pistols, and are always more reliable. While they usually hold fewer rounds of ammunition than pistols, revolvers are better able to fire those cartridges with much less chance of malfunction.
As far as handguns go, the best choice for home defense is a good quality double action revolver in an appropriate caliber. With this type of handgun, pulling the trigger will cause the hammer to cock and then fall. A second pull will do the same, and each pull also rotates the cylinder. It's simple and effective, and that's why the revolver has been popular and in wide use for much longer than a century and a half.
You should avoid single action revolvers for home defense, because one must manually cock the hammer before a shot can be fired, and this must be repeated for every shot. They are also almost always slower and more difficult to reload than double action revolvers.
The minimum caliber for a home defense revolver should be 38 Special, and I would recommend 357 Magnum or larger. A 357 revolver will safely fire 38 Special ammunition for practicing, but will allow the use of the more powerful 357 Magnum cartridge for defense. I consider 38 Special the smallest (least powerful) reasonable cartridge for home defense.
A double action revolver is second best for home defense, in my opinion. Being a handgun, it's more difficult to shoot accurately, but it's still very reliable. Speed loaders are available, and it's not a bad idea to keep a loaded one close by your home defense revolver, along with some more ammo.
Handguns still fire single bullets, and most handgun ammunition still presents a risk of over-penetration through walls.
Okay - now we're talking good defense. Shotguns are fairly easy to fire accurately, and their spreading shot patterns help one to hit the intended target even if your aim isn't perfect. And most shotguns are easy for the casual operator to use.
Now, let's talk about shotgun actions.
Bolt action shotguns are notoriously unreliable, and I wouldn't even consider using one for home defense. When my life is on the line, I want something a whole lot better in my hands. I would have to rate the bolt action far below even a single shot scattergun.
The single shot action is also a poor choice, because reloading after just one shot may cause a delay in firing that your assailant(s) can take advantage of.
A double barrel shotgun is low on the list as well, but in well-practiced hands a double barrel with automatic ejectors can be very quickly reloaded - but again, that means a whole lot of practice. For the occasional user, both the single shot and double barrel break open actions are poor choices.
Semi-automatic shotguns can be extremely effective, and a good reliable one is an excellent home defense weapon, but as a rule semi-auto is the least reliable shotgun action available. Clearing a jammed shotgun is a hassle that nobody needs when she's fighting for her life. For this reason, I would avoid semi-auto for most situations.
We have now boiled the choices down to the basic essence of home defense firepower, and that is the pump action shotgun. These guns are more affordable and more reliable than semi-autos, can easily be had with extended magazines to hold more ammunition, are simple to operate, can usually be very easily cleared should a shell fail to fire, and can be fired accurately more easily than any handgun.
Even if your accuracy is a little off, the spreading shot pattern helps make up for this, although in close quarters you can't always depend on a big wide pattern. Use shot shells rather than slugs, and over-penetration is greatly minimized.
As with any firearm, practice is very helpful - but a good pump gun is not hard to master and will likely require less range time than other types of firearms to maintain proficiency.
The shorter the barrel, the better. In close quarters, you need maneuverability, and a short barrel gives it to you. The legal minimum is 18 inches, and they're usually sold just a bit longer than that, which will work fine.
Well, 12 gauge is the very best. If you've been scared by blustery talk of a 12 gauge shotgun's massive kick or recoil, get over it. You don't have to fire extremely powerful magnum shells - and you probably shouldn't. Use good, medium power shells. I recommend heavy bird shot (number 4 or larger) or light buckshot (again, number 4 is a good choice).
If you refuse to use a 12 gauge, don't go any smaller than 20 gauge - and even then you're compromising unnecessarily.
16 gauge is not much smaller than 12 gauge, but shells are more costly and are not as widely available. Your best bet is still to stick with 12 gauge.
So there you have it - my choices for the best home defense guns around. Do yourself a favor and don't buy a cheap gun. Affordable is good, but cheap usually isn't. Ask around among experienced, modest shooters (not the blustery know-it-alls that populate some online forums) to determine what brands are serving them well at affordable prices.
Then, grab a gun and some ammo and head for the range to practice. You might even want to consider taking up hunting while you're at it. It's definitely worth a try, anyhow.
Best of luck!
- Russ Chastain