Long before I had my own home, I pondered the Pistol vs Shotgun vs Rifle for home defense quandary.
Consider: It’s the middle of the night. You’re sound asleep until a noise wakes you. Perhaps it your watch dog barking, something breaking, or even a loved one screaming. You think there’s a bad guy in the house intending to do harm to you and your loved ones.
Which would you reach for first?
Pistol vs Shotgun vs Rifle for Home Defense
I’m going to examine the strengths and weaknesses of each, then end with a summery of what I think is the best option. I’ll also explain why (unfortunately) I don’t have the best option by my bedside… yet.
Using a Pistol For Home Defense
Pistols are very convenient. They are small, lightweight, easily maneuvered, they have good capacity (excellent with extended mags), and fairly low recoil. Many people keep them next to the bed because of that.
Pistols have two HUGE problems.
Problem #1: Pistols are MUCH harder to shoot accurately than long guns.
Novice rifle or shotgun shooters with about ten seconds of instruction can easily hit an 8.5×11 sheet of paper at ten yards practically every time.
Pistols, not so much.
Being far smaller and lighter, they are way easier to pull off target than a rifle or shotgun. For those who practice a lot, it’s not much of an issue. But if you only get to the range occasionally, then under stress it will be an issue.
“Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion; you sink to the level of your training” – Anonymous Navy SEAL
If you’re a real shooter and have a lot of practice under your belt, then this applies much less. But newer and intermediate shooters should beware the effects of adrenaline on your accuracy.
“According to a 2008 RAND Corporation study evaluating the New York Police Department’s firearm training, between 1998 and 2006, the average hit rate during gunfights was just 18 percent.”
Just over 4 out of 5 shots missed. Even those who have training have trouble hitting with handguns under stress. And as I say all over this website, you can’t miss fast enough to win a gunfight.
So Practice. Practice, practice practice.
Problem #2: Pistols are FAR less powerful than rifles or shotguns.
I think the biggest problem is this: Pistols don’t stop people well.
They just don’t.
They don’t have the mass or velocity to create a truly devastating (read: “fight stopping”) wound.
You might not believe me, so I submit stories like this as proof: Bad guy not stopped by 14 rounds of .45 ACP Hollowpoint. And no, he didn’t have drugs or alcohol in his system.
I explain why in my article on “stopping power” and terminal performance, but the simple truth is handguns don’t stop people well. That’s not to say a pistol can’t or won’t kill someone.
It certainly can.
However, there’s a very large difference between killing someone and stopping them. For example: if you put a pistol bullet through the heart, the odds of survival are almost non-existent.
However, even with a destroyed heart, a person can still move, fight and attack for 6-10 seconds. 6-10 seconds might not seem like a lot, but in a fight it’s a lifetime. It’s enough time for the bad guy to shoot a whole magazine, do some serious stabbing damage, break bones, or cause permanent damage some other way.
I want to stop them RIGHT NOW.
Not in 6-10 seconds.
Not in 2-3 seconds.
Pistols don’t have that kind of power unless it’s a very large and powerful pistol. (Think 10mm and .44 Magnum minimum. Even 357 magnum has issues: 357 Magnum? Check. “Center Mass” hit? Check. Instant Stop? Er…)
However a single high center of mass round from a shotgun or rifle can stop people right now.
With very few exceptions, handguns cartridges like the 9mm, 40 S&W, and .45 ACP can only poke holes. That’s it. Nothing else.
Don’t believe me?
That’s what the FBI says.
After the Miami shootout in 1986, the FBI released a Report called “Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness“. In it they detail how handguns wound bad guys. I can sum up what they say in one sentence. “Handguns only poke holes“.
Hollywood makes it look like any gun hits like the hammer of Thor.
But they don’t.
Not even close.
Pistols only poke holes unless we’re talking about large and powerful magnums. Rifles and shotguns with high quality ammo are much more powerful.
There is good news for pistol though.
In the vast majority of civilian defensive gun uses, the criminal flees after the first hit with anything. Doesn’t matter if it’s 22LR or 500 S&W Magnum, they tend to run once they’ve been hit. That’s REALLY great news for the good guys because we all carry pistols for self defense.
But the bad guys don’t always flee after being hit once. If they keep attacking you need to force them to stop by causing damage. Pistols have trouble causing enough damage to stop people.
However, since a single hit is usually enough to make the bad guy flee, Pistols can work very well for self defense. That is IF you can hit the intruder…
An therein lies the problem. (remember the police’s 18% hit ratio.)
Handguns are harder to shoot accurately than pistols, especially under stress.
Personally, I think Pistols are the WORST possible option. It’s also unfortunately what I currently have on my nightstand. (more on why later) That said, a pistol is FAR better than nothing.
(and if you are looking for a good pistol, I have an article on the Best Concealed Carry Pistols for any budget. The first one on the list is especially suited for home defense.)
Using a Shotgun for home defense
There are a LOT of people who think the pistol vs shotgun vs rifle debate begins and ends with a shotgun.
The reasons usually cited are the incredible “stopping power” and the “fact” that you don’t have to really aim. “just point in the general direction and pull the trigger” is the usual saying.
It’s true that shotguns are very slightly more forgiving with shot placement than rifles or pistols. But the “fact” that you just need to point it in the general direction is completely wrong.
You DO need to aim a shotgun.
The Box O’ Truth did a great test on home defense shotgun patterns. If you look at the targets, none of them spread very wide at ten yards. Certainly not wide enough to “just point in the general direction and pull the trigger“.
For home defense, 10 yards is a long way. Possibly a long hallway or great room could be that long, but half that distance is more likely.
But lets say ten yards for the sake of argument.
As a quick guesstimate, the commonly used 00 Buckshot usually spreads around 1 inch per yard. It’s worth noting that higher quality defensive shells actually spread LESS than 1 inch per yard.
1 inch per yard is only ten inches at ten yards. At the far more likely distance of 5 yards, it’s only 5 inches. That’s certainly a wider margin of error than a Pistol or rifle, but You STILL need to aim.
I’ve probably said this in every article on this website: You can’t miss fast enough to win a gunfight.
Okay, I’ll get off the soap box now.
The biggest advantage of a shotgun is it’s raw power. The most common self defense shotgun load is 00 Buck. 00 Buck consists of 9 (sometimes 12) .330″ diameter round lead pellets. They weigh roughly 60 grains each and are launched at around 1200 feet per second.
That’s comparable to getting hit by 9 (or 12) .32 ACP bullets at the same time.
I have heard some people recommend bird shot for self defense, often to limit penetration. Let me say this clearly: Birdshot is a terrible choice for shotgun self defense ammo because it doesn’t penetrate deeply enough to cause a fight-stopping wound.
The ideal is actually #1 Buckshot (with Federal’s LE1321B flight control being the gold standard) but 00 is very effective too. A good high center of mass hit with good shotgun ammo can end a fight instantly, which is ideal.
The biggest downsides of a shotgun?
Massive recoil, low capacity and long reload times.
If you have a tactical style shotgun with an extended magazine tube, you only have 6-7 rounds. (assuming 2 3/4″ shells.)
I realize the average self defense encounter happens at 7-10 feet and only last 3 rounds on average. However, 6 or 7 shells is not a lot of ammo if your encounter falls outside of average. 6 or 7 will *probably* be enough. However, I don’t prefer to rely on “probably” when my life or my loved one’s lives are on the line.
But what if there’s more than one attacker?
Under stress your accuracy won’t be the best.
And what if they don’t stop attacking just because you have a shotgun?
I like the motto “hope for the best and plan for the worst“. Worst case is 3 or 4 bad guys who are ready and willing to kill, but aren’t scared by your shotgun. Are you comfortable with only 6-7 rounds now? Plus, here’s another thing:
Shotguns not only have the lowest capacity, but they also take the longest to reload.
If the worst happens and you do need to reload, shotguns are very slow. (unless you have a box magazine, but shotguns with box magazines are fairly rare.)
Another big problem of a shotgun is recoil.
I am a self-professed and unashamed recoil baby. (I do not like high recoil guns when they go bam. I do not like them Abe I am. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere.)
Dr. Seuss references aside, recoil is a big problem for some of us. I have to fight hard not to flinch when shooting a 12 Gauge. Yes, even trap loads. If you don’t have that problem, that’s fine. If you do, that’s fine too.
Just be honest with yourself.
A good recoil pad can make a HUGE difference. The Pachmayr Decelerators, Kick-eez, and Limbsaver recoil pads can cut the felt recoil in half. However, you’re still talking 2-3 times the recoil of a 223/5.56 rifle.
If you can take the recoil and live with the low capacity, it’s an effective weapon.
Pump Vs Semi-Auto Shotgun for Home Defense
To be blunt, I think this debate is silly (as long as we’re talking about reliable examples of both types). Would you use a pump action rifle in war or carry a pump action pistol for personal protection?
Pump action is great because it’s easy to clean and cheap to buy. Reliable Semi-autos are ALWAYS better combat weapons than pump action for two reasons:
- Speed. Semi-autos are simply faster. If your first round misses, follow up shots are necessary. Under stress a miss is very possible, even likely.
- It removes an element of human error. Short stroking a pump action shotgun is a possibility, and under stress it’s even more likely.
One argument for the pump action is that it’s more reliable. That’s silly. There are semi-auto shotguns with “to hell and Back reliability“. Yes they cost more, but they do exist.
Heck, my brother has an ATI TACSX2 semi-auto shotgun he bought for like $350. After the first box of shells, it has never had a malfunction. Reliable and affordable semi-auto shotguns exist. (if you want one, do yourself a favor and google “DDI-12”)
Using a Rifle for Home Defense
(I’ll get to over-penetration in a sec.)
For the sake of this article, I’m assuming a Rifle means a semi-automatic weapon with a capacity of 20-30, chambered in a cartridge that produces low to mild recoil. (5.56/223, 5.45×39, 7.62×39, 6.5 Grendel, 6.8 SPC, 300 blackout etc.)
With good ammo, any of those cartridges are just as effective as a shotgun. Some people will balk at me suggesting the 5.56 is just as devastating as a 12 Gauge shotgun. Those people should know the 5.56’s reputation for not stopping people is because of bad ammo.
High quality ammo is a very different story.
In the pistol vs shotgun vs rifle for home defense debate, I personally think a rifle is a great option . They are powerful, the recoil is low enough for fast accurate follow up shots, and being a long gun it’s easy to aim.
Plus, a 30 round magazine means you won’t run empty. Now, I don’t think think you’ll get into a shootout in your home where you need 30 rounds of ammo.
In fact, I highly doubt it because the average self defense gunfight only lasts ~3 shots. But by that logic, would you feel comfortable carrying a 3-shot pistol for concealed carry?
I didn’t think so.
Many gun people live by the motto. “It’s better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it”
I agree completely.
Besides, there may not be just one bad guy (which we’ve already discussed) and more rounds will be better in that case.
Rifles have roughly double the capacity of pistols and far better accuracy. Shotguns have 3-6 times more recoil than a rifle, but don’t create more damaging wounds. Plus, the rifle has 4-5 times more ammo.
That’s why I’m biased toward rifles. I believe they are a more effective weapons than pistols or shotguns for most (though not all) combat situations.
But I say that with two caveats.
Home defense means close quarters, and a “regular” rifle (AR-15, AK-47 or similar weapon) just won’t cut it in my opinion. They are too long, too unwieldy, and almost impossible to use one-handed if it becomes necessary.
I favor rifles, but they have to be of the bullpup configuration.
Bullpup rifles are significantly shorter, while maintaining the same barrel length. (which is important to both increasing velocity/lethality, and decreasing noise)
The shortness makes it more maneuverable, which is a huge bonus for close quarters. Plus it’s much more balanced, making one-handed manipulation easier.
Noise is the second caveat, which I’ll cover in a minute.
One final thought about rifles before I move on. Many SWAT teams have be migrating away from shotguns, pistols, and pistols caliber carbines (like the MP5) to rifles (mostly AR-15) for close quarters combat. This is probably because of the FBI’s recommendation. (which I’ll cover in the next section)
Pistols vs Shotguns vs Rifles – Over-penetration
This is a hotly contested topic. conventional wisdom says that rifle rounds will penetrate more than pistol or shotgun rounds. As is usually the case, “conventional wisdom” is wrong….
Whether a pistol, shotgun or rifle penetrates further isn’t the issue. It’s how deadly the bullet is AFTER it penetrates.
To Quote from the Ammo Oracle: (emphasis mine)
Q. Isn’t 5.56 too dangerous to use indoors? Shouldn’t I use a pistol or shotgun instead?
Virtually any kind of ammo, with the exception of light bird shot, will easily penetrate typical wall construction (two layers of wall-board separated by 3 to 4 inches of space). Testing has shown, however, that after penetrating a typical interior wall, a 5.56mm projectile will have less wounding potential than most common handgun or buckshot loads. This is true because the low mass of the bullet sheds velocity quickly, and velocity is its key wounding component. This doesn’t mean that 5.56mm ammo isn’t still potentially deadly, but that the severity of an injury is likely to be less from a 5.56mm bullet than from a 9mm, .40, .45, or #00 buckshot round. What is important is not the degree to which these rounds penetrate, but their “ex post lethality” or their lethality AFTER encountering wallboard or other cover/concealment.
The difference is so significant that the FBI and other ballistic experts recommend that law enforcement transition to handguns to “dig suspects out” of cover because of the superior penetration and wounding ability of handgun rounds over 5.56 or .223.
This, along with the increasing number of lawsuits from “friendly fire” submachine gun victims and 5.56mm’s ability to penetrate ballistic vests, are some of the reasons that many SWAT teams are transitioning away from the 9mm MP5 and selecting 5.56mm carbines instead.
This is understandable given the longer barrel length and therefore higher velocity and consequently higher penetration of handgun rounds in submachine guns.
If our experience on the forums are accurate, most shot gunners and submachine gun fans receive this news poorly. It does seem counterintuitive since 5.56mm is a “high powered round.” All we can say to this is that the FBI FTU fired hundreds of rounds through carefully constructed wall sections and then into gel. Ignore these results at your own peril.
So there you have it. The FBI’s official position on pistol vs shotgun vs rifle over-penetration is that 5.56 rifles are less dangerous than pistols or shotguns after penetrating walls.
However, that only applies to 5.56 rifles. Other cartridges with similar characteristics (5.45×39) *might* achieve similar results. However, larger/heavier bullets like those in the 7.62×39, .300 blackout, 6.5 Grendel, 6.8 SPC, etc will likely be more lethal than pistols or shotguns because of the increased mass and momentum.
So if you’re going to use a rifle for home defense, I HIGHLY recommend you stick with with 5.56/223.
Personally, I would probably use Hornady’s 75gr TAP FPD, but that’s just one of many excellent options. You can find a list of them in the Best Choices for Self Defense Ammo on ar15.com. I would select a non-barrier load, because barrier loads are specifically designed to be more lethal after penetrating barriers like walls.
Pistols vs Shotguns vs Rifles – The Noise Issue.
Regardless of which one you use, noise if a HUGE problem.
Anyone who’s ever fired a gun at an indoor range can attest to this. We’re talking permanent hearing damage from shooting even one round without ear protection. And unfortunately, Rifles are the loudest.
Not that shotguns and pistols aren’t loud.
But they’re not as loud as rifles. On average, a centerfire pistol or shotgun measures around 160 decibels in common loads and barrel lengths. A 5.56 Rifle measures around 165 decibels, again with common loads in common barrel lengths.
5 decibels might not seem like a lot, but remember that decibels are weird. Every 10 decibels doubles the amount of sound you hear. So the 5 point decibel increase from pistols/shotguns to rifles is actually around ~50% more noise.
The biggest problem with rifles is the absolutely deafening, earsplitting noise they make when fired indoors.
I got those numbers from Silencertalk’s suppressor test results, except the shotgun which I googled. Speaking of suppressors (notice the smooth transition there?) There is a way to greatly reduce the noise generated by firearms.
…Unless you live in a communist state where they aren’t legal. Which I do. -_- (Illinois, though there is legislation to change that in the state senate as of this writing. But we’ll see.)
A good suppressor greatly reduces the noise of a rifle or pistol, and recently shotguns too.
A good rifle suppressor will add less than a pound of weight and only 6-8 inches to your rifle’s length. Pistol suppressors about the same size, but lighter. The only shotgun suppressor I know of (SilencerCo’s Salvo 12) weighs more than 2 pounds and is a whole foot in length.
In a 5.56 rifle or pistol, it’s not a big deal because they don’t start with much recoil. The shotgun could benefit greatly. However, screwing an additional 12″ inches onto a 38″ shotgun (870 with 18″ barrel) means you’re using a weapon over four feet long.
Not exactly the weapon I’d choose to clear a room.
You could attach a Salvo 12 to a Kel-Tec KSG, shortening the overall length to around 38 inches. (the Mlitary Arms Channel has a video of just that)
However, screw a 6-8 inch suppressor on a bullpup like the IWI TAVOR, and it’s only 32-34 inches long. around the length of an M4 with the stock extended.
I won’t bother hiding it: I simply LOVE bullup rifles for this reason.
They are so short compared to the traditional rifle arrangement. And I love rifles for the high power, low recoil, and excellent capacity.
Pistol vs Shotgun vs Rifle – Conclusion
Pistols have the best maneuverability, good magazine capacity, and can be suppressed. However, they are the worst people stoppers and are the hardest to aim under stress.
Shotguns have excellent power, and are (very) slightly more forgiving with shot placement. However, they have the highest recoil, lowest magazine capacity, are the slowest to reload, and are very limited in both bullpup and suppressor options.
Rifles are very accurate, have excellent power and the least problem with over-penetration (assuming proper ammo). They have the highest magazine capacity, extremely mild recoil, are easy to suppress, and there are several bullpup options. The downside? Good bullpups are a bit expensive, and rifles are extremely loud when un-suppressed. Other than that, I truly can’t think of any.
My Opinion? (if it wasn’t obvious by now).
I think a Suppressed .223/5.56 bullpup rifle with proper bullet selection is an ideal home defense weapon.
If you can’t afford that (rather expensive) combination or suppressors are illegal in your state, I’m conflicted on a second choice. An un-suppressed rifle is insanely loud, though possibly the best choice.
A shotgun has the power needed to end a fight if you can take the recoil and accept the low capacity. Plus bullpup shotguns do exist.
Pistols are probably the worst option, but FAR better than nothing.
Unfortunately, I can’t afford a decent bullpup right now and suppressors are illegal in my state. I don’t do shotguns well at all, so I don’t currently own one. I also live in a low-crime area, so I only have a pistol by my bed.
(One way to give pistols a huge leg up is some of the newest ammunition technology. More information at the very end of my 9mm vs 40 S&W vs 45 ACP article.)
That’s my opinion on the pistol vs shotgun vs rifle for home defense debate. Make an informed decision, keep your powder dry, and make sure you practice with whatever you pick.