So as I stated recently in this YouTube video, there has been a lot of crap floating around on the internet in the past month about rifles and pistols and which type of weapon is better for home defense. As I pointed out in the video, there are a lot of armchair experts that are making comments from a place of well-intentioned but misguided ignorance. I just want to cut through the BS and get some good information out there so you’ll be able to make good, informed decisions when it comes to your own home defense strategy.

Here is the bottom line up front (BLUF): If I am going to be using a firearm to defend myself against somebody trying to kill or hurt me, then I want a long gun in my hands, period.

Long guns (rifles and shotguns) are just superior to handguns in almost every possible way. In fact, there is only one aspect in which handguns trump long guns: concealability/convenience. Handguns are small enough that we can conceal them and carry them around with us all day without being totally impractical. That’s it! In all other ways that really matter, the rifle is the better weapon. The fighting long gun is has superior shootability, handling & maneuverability, range, magazine capacity, power, and penetration characteristics.

 

Shootability

The primary factor that the aforementioned YT video honed in on was shootability. I focused on this aspect for the video since I didn’t want to make it 30 minutes long, and since about 50% of the arguments against rifles have to do with shootability. If you haven’t watched it yet, then go ahead and give it a view right now.

So what exactly do I mean when I say shootability? A weapon is more shootable if it is easier to shoot it accurately with a higher degree of speed. Even though I use the term accuracy in the video to avoid a lengthy explanation, what I was really demonstrating in that video was that rifles are more shootable than pistols.

Think about it like this: At common home defense ranges (0′ to 30′), is there a significant difference in mechanical accuracy between the rifle and pistol? If we locked each gun in a vice and fired a 10-shot group at a distance of 10 yards, what would be the results? Well, each gun would make a single, ragged hole. All the rounds would punch out an extremely tight group.

So when I say shootability, what I mean is not that the rifle is inherently any more accurate than the pistol, but rather that the rifle is easier to shoot more quickly and accurately. If you think about it logically, then it makes perfect sense; why do we put shoulder stocks on rifles? To make them more stable and easier to aim. We also have four points of contact with a rifle (left hand, right hand, cheek, and shoulder) as opposed to one point of contact with a pistol (either one- or two-handed right on the pistol grip). Everybody understands that adding a shoulder stock and a vertical fore-grip to a pistol makes it easier to achieve good hits. There are a lot of reasons why; it makes it easier to hold the weapon steady when aiming, it makes management of recoil easier, etc.

So why do so many people seem to argue that pistols would be faster and more shootable than rifles? I think it’s because their experience is with 24″ barreled hunting rifles that have 10x scopes mounted on them. I’m concerned with guns as weapons – as tools for defense of life and liberty. With a modern fighting rifle with a shorter (16″ or so) barrel and iron sights or a 1x red dot, the shootability factor at close range is insanely high. To quote Brooke when she first started training in close-range rifle after having only trained in pistols for so long, “This is so easy that it’s like I’m cheating.”

 

Handling & Maneuverability

This is pretty closely tied into shootability, but it is distinct enough that I want to go ahead and address it separately. The rifle is just plain easier to handle than the pistol. Ask a small-framed, minimally-trained woman or child to run an AR15 and a fighting handgun side-by-side through some timed drills. The same person that struggles to manage the pistol will breeze right through the course of fire with the rifle. So for women who are okay shooting pistols but intimidated by rifles: I promise after spending just a couple hours training with the rifle, you will come to greatly prefer it. Don’t believe me? Just see the quote above from Brooke, and contact her to ask about her experiences.

Okay, I believe you that it’s easier to shoot a rifle accurately at speed than a pistol. But Josh, what about when you are maneuvering around your house to clear it of badguys? It’s really hard to do open doors and flip light switches with your rifle. That’s why Super-Duper High Speed SWAT Agency X decided to ditch their rifles and only do entry with pistols.

The first thing I will say in reply to this is that when holding a modern, 16″ barrel, lightweight fighting rifle such as the AR15, it’s actually not hard at all to open doors, flip on light switches, and just generally maneuver around your house. Yes, I have done it, and military and tactical police units do it all the time. It doesn’t take a super special forces ninja to do this stuff.

The next thing I will say is this: How did you find out for a fact that SWAT Team X has gone to all pistols for entry? Did you go straight to the unit commander and ask him? No? Then I don’t believe that claim. SWAT Teams generally use AR15’s as entry guns for the same reasons I’m describing in this article.

Speaking of the SWAT team thing, if you can find a SWAT team that has definitely gone to pistols for entry, then I would ask you when making your own decisions, just which SWAT team is it you will be a part of when conducting home defense for your own home? Seriously – how many jocked-up tactical LEO’s will be there stacking on the door with you when you hear your living-room window get smashed open at 0200, and you start reaching for your gun?

I’m guessing exactly zero. So here is what you need to understand: SWAT entry is a totally different mission than home defense. So even if you can find a SWAT team that has gone to pistols for entry (you probably can’t), you need to understand that YOU are not on a SWAT team and your mission is different from theirs.

Why do you think it’s your job to run around your house trying to clear it when somebody breaks in? That is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard, and it’s a great way to get yourself killed. This home defense we are talking about, not home offense. Just remember, in this situation, you want to be the spider with this unsuspecting hornet that has come flying straight into your web. Instead of going out and hunting for the bad guy, just hole up and wait for him to come to you.

The best thing you can do if you find yourself in this sort of home defense scenario is to grab your rifle, aim it at your bedroom door, call the cops, and wait. If the attacker tries to come into your room? Shoot him. Repeatedly. Until the attack stops.

Just try it...

If somebody invades your home while you are asleep, then don’t leave your room if it can be avoided. Just hole up in your bedroom by grabbing your rifle, aiming it at the door, and calling the cops.

There are two situations I can think of in which you would want to leave your room during this sort of scenario, but neither one involves going around every square inch of your house to clear it of badguys.

The first is that you have other defenseless people (ie: small children) living in your house that are not in your same room. In that situation, the best idea would probably be to make one movement to where they are and establish your defense there. Seeing as this is not an article about home defense strategy, that’s all I will say about that situation, but understand that there are variety of things you can do to set yourself up for success if this situation applies to you.

The second situation where I would leave my bedroom would be if the home invader decided he was going to burn my house down with me in it. In that case, you’ve just been served a crap sandwich and you’re going to have to figure out the best way to eat it. In that case, however, you’re still not going to be clearing your house; you’re going to be shooting your way out.

 

Range, Magazine Capacity, and Power

Though these are three separate topics, they are so quick to address that I will lump them together.

Range
You might think that range doesn’t matter much because of the distances involved in home defense, but home defense can also mean property defense. If you have to head outside to investigate something, then you are working with greater ranges. This is especially true if you live in a more rural area or own a lot of land.

Magazine Capacity
A standard capacity AR15 magazine holds 30 rounds. A standard Glock 19 magazine holds 15 rounds. Any more questions on this one?

Power
While the idea of “stopping power” or “knock-down power” has been proven to be a myth, the wounding capability (or just “power” for short) of long gun ammunition will always be much greater than the power of handgun ammunition.

Home Defense Terminal Ballistics

Look at these wound profiles for a 9mm round, a 5.56 round, and a 12ga buckshot round. The rifle and shotgun wounds are vastly larger than the pistol wound.

 

Penetration Characteristics

The first thing you need to understand about overpenetration concerns is this: If the round you’re shooting won’t penetrate drywall, then it won’t penetrate a chest cavity, either. So for all you “I’m going to use birdshot so I don’t shoot through walls” people, you need to understand that birdshot isn’t really up to the task of physiologically stopping an attacker.

With that said, you also need to understand that overpenetration is a valid concern during home defense. A missed shot can send a round sailing off into the landscape, and we are responsible for where our bullets go.

In this category, a lot of people think that the pistol would be better, but the .223/5.56 rifle still wins out.

For starters, since you’re more likely to hit what you’re aiming at with the rifle, errant rounds become much less of a concern. Secondly, handgun rounds will often penetrate more layers of sheetrock and plywood than 5.56 rounds will. The rifle rounds are a lot lighter and move a lot faster than pistol rounds, so they tend to more readily break up into pieces on impact. That’s also a big part of their wounding capability and why rifle rounds work so much better than pistol rounds. But this tendency to break up on impact also means that light rifle rounds like the .223 have much less of a tendency to overpenetrate through common home building materials. A 5.56 round is still deadly after it goes through an interior wall, but it will go through less of those walls before it loses enough energy to be safe than the pistol round will.

Don’t believe me? Doctor Gary K. Roberts is the nation’s leading expert on terminal ballistics and wound ballistics (ie: what bullets do when they actually hit things, to include living things). He has conducted more testing of various rounds than probably anybody on the face of the earth. Here is what he has to say about .223/5.56 penetration compared to 12ga and handgun rounds:

“Keep in mind that over the past 20 years, the vast majority of the 5.56mm/.223 loads we tested have exhibited significantly less penetration than 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and 12 ga. shotgun projectiles after first penetrating through interior walls. Stray 5.56mm/.223 bullets seem to offer a reduced risk of injuring innocent bystanders and an inherent reduced risk of civil litigation in situations where bullets miss their intended target and enter or exit structures, thus 5.56mm/.223 caliber weapons may be safer to use in CQB situations, home defense scenarios, and in crowded urban environments than handgun service caliber or 12 ga. weapons.”

Like I said, if the round you’re shooting can stop an attacker, then it will penetrate through the materials from which your house is made. But lightweight rifle rounds will penetrate through less of that material and you will be more accurate with your rifle, which means you will miss your target less of the time.

 

But What About Shotguns?

Like I said early on in this article: long guns are better than handguns. So everything I wrote in this article (except maybe magazine capacity) applies to shotguns, as well. A 12ga shotgun, loaded with 00 or #1 buckshot, is a fine home defense weapon, and light-years beyond a pistol for that role.

When it comes to rifles vs. shotguns? Well there are a lot of arguments to be made both ways. Shotguns definitely get the nod on power; there aren’t many people that can take a high-center-mass shot from #1 buck and continue to function. With that said, I think the rifle has the advantage on shootability (which includes recoil), range, magazine capacity, handling, and overpenetration risk.

I like both rifles and shotguns for home defense, and I think you are making a fine choice in either case, but I still personally prefer the rifle. Then again, I’m also just a rifleman at heart. Regardless, both rifles and shotguns trump pistols all the time. In my home, we have both and are perfectly willing to use either… but my default is still the rifle.

 

In Closing…

When it comes to fighting, long guns beat handguns every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Long guns are just superior weapons to pistols – end of story. Whether you pick a rifle or a shotgun for home defense, you are making a good choice, but I give the nod to the rifle as the better general-purpose weapon.

ATA provides the Armed Citizen with high quality tactical training in the real-world defensive use of both rifles and handguns. We don’t teach shotgun classes, but I do have a YouTube Playlist on Shotguns for the Armed Citizen that you can watch to learn basic defensive shotgun skills and drills. Click the buttons below to learn more about our training classes and register to take a course with us. I look forward to seeing you out on the range!

And remember: be good out there and stay dangerous.

Josh
 

Click here for ATA Pistol I + KY CCDW  Click here for ATA Rifle I  

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Josh Bales is a Level 10 Paladin with an 18 in Charisma and over 100 Hit Points. He gained most of his XP by serving in the Marine Corps as an Infantry Officer, where he deployed to Afghanistan as a Rifle Platoon Commander. He has been training in combative shooting and tactics for the past 11 years, and teaching these topics for the past 8 years. He currently resides in Southeastern Kentucky where he spends time doing cardio, powerlifting, fighting fire, reading, and just generally training for the fight.