Should You Use A Handgun or Long Gun for Home Defense?

Should You Use A Handgun or Long Gun for Home Defense?
Should You Use A Handgun or Long Gun for Home Defense?

For whatever reason – crime, predatory animals, anything – you have decided to look for a firearm to add to your home defense plan.  OK.  You’ve thought it through and now you have to go get it.  Where do you go?  What should you look for?  What is the best choice – shotgun, rifle, handgun?  How will you store it at home?  Who will use it?  If you are not familiar with the firearm, where will you go to learn?  These are just some of the many questions that you will undoubtedly ask yourself.  Let’s explore the details (and there are a lot of them!) and see if you can make an educated choice after reading this today.

First, you should start with some determining factors that will be very important in making your choice.  The most important factor is your location.  Do you live in the country where there are no neighbors close by, or do you live in the city where the houses are practically on top of each other?  If you live in the city, are you in a house or in an apartment building with neighbors above, below, and to the sides?  Does your home have wood sheathing and vinyl siding, or are your walls brick?  You need to consider the fact that a bullet or slug can travel great distances if it does not have an adequate backstop.  Your average handgun round can penetrate at least a couple of walls and exit your home.  This risk is higher with a shotgun slug or even a medium caliber rifle round.  You should designate some “safe zones” or “no shoot zones” for your house so you won’t put innocents at risk when you have to discharge a round.

Next important is the legal detail.  What firearm are you legally able to possess where you live?  Who can possess it?  A lot of municipalities have enacted limits on the firearm type, size, capacity, etc. that you are allowed to own or keep in your home.  Another legal issue is a permit or a license.  Most states in the U.S. have a permit system for handguns.  Some are easier to get, some are not.  I would advise checking your local laws as part of your search.

Experience is an important factor as well.  If you or your family are unfamiliar with firearms, you may want to choose something simple to operate and shoot.  If you have to figure out the controls, rather than just pointing the firearm and shooting it, you will be confused or stressed even more than you should be. Educate your family and yourself by taking a firearms/home safety course.  This will help you understand and be more comfortable with your choice.

Now you have to consider the other people in your home.  Children, spouses, etc. all have different body sizes and types.  Someone else in the house may not be able to handle what you can handle.  A female will generally have less strength than a male and may have trouble operating a slide on a semi-auto or even pulling the trigger on a double action revolver.  A smaller person may not be able to handle a shotgun’s or rifle’s recoil.

The presence of children in the household is not a reason to avoid having a firearm in the home for protection.  It is an excellent reason to include them in your choice and to educate them – not to hide the firearm from them.  One of the worst things you can do is to hide any firearms in your home from your kids.  Prohibition breeds fascination, especially in children.  “You cannot gun proof your home, but you can gun proof your kids.”  As soon as your children are old enough to understand, tell them about firearm safety rules.  If they want to see your gun, use that as a chance to educate them and reinforce the firearm safety rules.  The NRA has a great program for kids called the Eddie Eagle program.  If you let them see and handle a firearm under your supervision, they are a lot less likely to go looking for it while you aren’t around.

Now, for the equipment.  There are really three choices:  handgun, shotgun, and rifle.  There are plusses and minuses for each.

We’ll start with the handgun.

The handgun can be either a revolver or semi-auto.  Handguns are probably the most popular firearm for home defense.  They are very portable as you can carry one just about anywhere in your home – either in your hand or in a holster.  You can hide a handgun on your person with a decent quality holster, or in a hidden spot somewhere in your home, ready to use when you need it.  Handguns are usable with both hands, your dominant hand, or your non-dominant hand if need be.  Say, for instance, you are calling the police – it is easier to hold onto the handgun AND dial the police for help rather than using both hands to hold a long gun or – worse yet – put the firearm down!  Handguns are shorter and, therefore, easily maneuverable in your hallways, bedrooms, doorways, etc.  They also have (in general) less recoil than a rifle or shotgun as the ammunition is smaller in size.  Handguns, specifically autoloaders, usually have a larger ammunition supply than a revolver and can be reloaded faster than most of the other firearms if you have a spare magazine (and it is full!).  The best advantage to a handgun is that you can keep it close to you – under your mattress or in a nightstand.

There are, however, some drawbacks when considering a handgun for home defense.  Some handguns are harder to operate and shoot than others.  Those of us with smaller or weaker hands may not be able to work the safeties, triggers, or, in the case of the semi-auto, the slide.  Handguns are also fairly difficult to shoot accurately under stress.  Handguns are by nature woefully underpowered when you need to stop an intruder or animal predator.  The chances are great that you may miss your target altogether.  There is also a huge risk of over-penetrating your target, thus putting someone else at risk.

Next up:  the shotgun.

Although shotguns are longer than handguns, and are fairly difficult to move around in your home with, they do indeed have the “power” to put down your target.  If your aggressor or home invader has been drinking, is on drugs, or is incapable of feeling pain due to his habit, you will not have the desired effect with a handgun round; you definitely will with a shotgun round.  One of the biggest advantages of a shotgun is cost.  You can get a well made, reliable pump action shotgun for less than the cost of your average handgun.  Most shotgun ammunition is also less expensive than handgun ammunition.

Ammunition selection is wider with a shotgun.  You can choose between slugs (big hunks of lead) or shot (pellets of lead encased in the cartridge).  The slug would be advantageous in a rural area where distances are plentiful, whereas the slug would most likely go through a few of your neighbors’ walls before stopping.  Shot (#4) would have less of a chance of penetrating a wall beyond your target and has a better chance of striking your target rather than missing it.  Shot will also lessen the chances of over-penetration.  Note that 00 buck shot has only 9 pellets and will still penetrate a wall as the shot does not “spread” early enough as would #4 or birdshot.

One of the more pronounced advantages of the shotgun, specifically the pump action, is the sound when you work the action.  This is very intimidating and can inform the offender that you are aware of his or her presence and that you are most likely armed.  I would be willing to bet that everyone knows what a pump action shotgun sounds like.  According to the research of Professor Gary Kleck, a majority of defensive firearm uses end without shooting because just the threat of being shot is usually enough to stop the aggressor.  That intimidating sound is very valuable to you as the defender.

And now, the rifle.

Rifles can be very valuable in a rural setting, as well as in an urban one.  In the country, they can be used to eliminate a predator such as a fox, wolf, bear, etc.  You have a longer distance to shoot and the round is inherently more accurate.  In the city, rifles can be useful, but only under the right circumstances.  A rifle bullet has a lot of energy and will definitely go through your target, the wall behind him, and quite possibly, into your neighbor’s house.  Of course, some rifle rounds will stop in their target, such as a .223, but the chance of over-penetration is still very high.  If you can adjust to the penetration factor, a rifle at close range can be very effective.

Rifles can be just as bulky as shotguns to maneuver in your home.  If you have a large home with wider hallways and rooms, this problem becomes a bit less of a hindrance.  Still, if you decide you have to move around in your home, you have to be very aware of the muzzle and where you are going.

Saving the best for last, one major factor in choosing a firearm for home defense is your mindset.  Are you prepared to defend your family?  This is a very difficult decision and should not be made lightly.  Shooting another human being, even if they are threatening you and/or your family, can be very tough.  I would suggest attending a formal training class that deals with the mindset, as well as the physical skills, behind shooting.

Now, if you have to defend yourself, here are a few things that you need to be aware of:

1)         No warning shots.  A warning shot is reckless and dangerous.  You just dumped a round past the aggressor and you have no idea where it went.  Remember, bullets always have to end up somewhere.  Bullets can ricochet off of any hard surface:  the ground, a brick wall, a vehicle’s rim.  A bullet that does not hit your target will end up in the very worst place that you can imagine.

2)         An aggressor can be more dangerous after you have shot them.  They will most likely still be in the house, either on the floor or resting against something.  Don’t go help them.  When you call the police, let them know where the aggressor is, or where you think he/she is.  Do not go looking for them. If you can see them, stay away from them.  If they need first aid, tell them what to do.  Do not do it for them.  Your safety and your family’s safety comes first.

3)         Do not move the aggressor or their weapon(s) unless you absolutely have to in order to make it safer for you and your family. Unless your safety is at stake, leave everything alone. Your home is now a crime scene and everything involving you and the aggressor is now considered evidence. Inform the police when they arrive that you had to move the weapon –  they will understand.

4)         The most important factor to remember is to let the police know exactly what happened.  “Officer, he/she tried to kill us.  We had no choice.”  Do not embellish.  Do not use slang words.  Learn to use terminology that the police use or know.  This will help you out in more ways than you can imagine.  You also should not have a weapon in your possession when the police arrive.  They may mistake you for the aggressor.

As with any subject, there are a lot of other ways to accomplish your goal. The above suggestions are only a couple of ideas.  The firearm is only a part of the total equation for home defense.  Your mindset and training will form a more complete package.  Learn what you can do, when you can do it, and how to do it.  Attend a defensive shotgun, handgun, or rifle class to learn what you will need to do in your home.  Learn to develop a plan and then practice it so that everyone knows what to do in case of that emergency.  Best of all, the more training and education you can get, the better equipped you will be in the long run.

Hopefully, this article will help you make the best choice for you and your home.  This is not something to take lightly.  Take the time to decide and you will be better for it.  Good luck and stay safe.

Dave Jenkins is the founder of Rochester Personal Defense, LLC where he trains and educates people on both weapon and non–weapon based personal defense, home security, and firearms safety.  Dave has trained with police departments, military personnel, and civilian instructors.  The training and theory basis he provides has been used to model home defense and concealed carry training across NY State. Dave can be reached through his website at


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Dave Jenkins is the Founder and Managing Partner of Rochester Personal Defense, LLC, based in Rochester, NY. Dave has been shooting for over 20 years and training for about the same timeframe. Certified as an NRA Instructor and Training Counselor in every discipline in the curriculum, Dave and his instructors have been providing top quality education and training opportunities all over NY State and beyond. Offering classes ranging from basic self defense thru OC training thru firearms defensive use and tactics, Dave has been able to assist people from all walks of life in learning about self defense and firearms safety. Come see Dave and his instructors are working to ensure that there are no more victims, only winners.
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IMHO the handgun is for moving through the house but once settled in a location the long gun is artillery and should be used from a fixed location with the family safely behind the fire line and the bad guys coming through a choke point. Grab the pistol secure the family call LE pull out the heavy firepower and stay put.


Great article. I always have my pistol on me, even when at home, if someone were to cause trouble I would use it until I could get to my shotgun. I have a Remington 870 with a pistol grip and adjustable stock, with side saddle for extra shells for in-home defense and an AR-15 for defense on my property. As the article states, your choice of home-defense weapon depends on your particular situation (city, suburban, rural, the layout of your house or apartment). It is important to practice with whatever you choose to defend you home with and to keep it properly secured, but readily available. It is also a good idea to have a plan and to practice it with every member of the house. We have planned and practiced for as many situations as we could think of, and everyone has a role. There is a lot of good information out there on home defense, so if your family doesn’t have a plan then it wouldn’t be difficult to gather the information and come up with a plan that works for you and then walk through the plan with the members of your household so that everyone knows what to do if and when the time comes.

Sharp Shooter

“Most states in the U.S. have a permit system for handguns.” What? To carry concealed, yes. To possess in your home, I don’t think so. Most states allow simple possession in the home or place of business.