When to Use a Handgun vs. a Shotgun for Home Defense

If you wake up at 2:00 am to the sound of a window being smashed and you hear someone entering your house, here’s what you should ideally do: Gather all of your family members together in the same room, lock the door, call the police and have your gun ready in case the intruder should try and enter that room.

However, we don’t live in an ideal world so it’s much more likely that if you hear someone breaking into your home at 2:00 am you’ll have to go confront them or at the very least, you’ll have to go to the top of your stairs and make sure the intruder doesn’t make it past you to get to your family members.

So, if the above ever happened to you, should you use a handgun or shotgun for home defense? Well, to tell you the truth, it depends on the situation. For instance, let’s say you’re a prepared homeowner and you’ve already rehearsed a “home invasion” plan with your family. So they know if they hear you shout a special code word they’re supposed to quickly run to your master bedroom.

And let’s pretend…

That one day someone did try to break into your house and since you were prepared you were able to safely get all of your family members into the designated “safe room.” For this particular situation, I would want a shotgun. I would want to be able to have my family in the bathroom (out of the line of fire) and I would find a good piece of cover and just sit there with my shotgun pointed at the bedroom door. My shotgun of choice is the trusty Remington 870 and my ammo of choice is 00 buckshot. (But be very careful with 00 buck. If others are in the house – besides the intruder – you’ll want to consider birdshot.)

On the other hand, if I weren’t able to get my family in the “safe room” and I had to go confront the intruder and clear my house, I would definitely want a handgun. Here are a few of the reasons why:

First off, there are a lot of corners in a house.

And the last thing I want to do is have my long shotgun barrel sticking out around a corner so that an intruder can grab it and perhaps take my gun away. Also, if you have to enter other bedrooms on the middle floor or basement floor it’s much easier to open a door and bring a handgun to the “close contact firing position” than to clumsily open a door with the shotgun sticking out for a person to grab.

Let’s not forget, if you’re trying to be “stealth” and sneak around your house so the intruder doesn’t know you’re coming, there’s a much better chance you’re going to knock your shotgun into a wall or hit something, especially if you haven’t practiced clearing your house with a shotgun, which most people haven’t. That’s why my handgun of choice for this situation is my concealed carry gun, the Glock 19.

Of course, the gun you have at the time of a home invasion is the one you use whether it’s a shotgun, rifle, or handgun. But whatever gun you decide to go with I would practice the two scenarios above: Gathering your family in the safe room and clearing your house.

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Jason Hanson is a former CIA Officer and author of The Covert Guide to Concealed Carry. He is also the creator of the Ultimate Concealed Carry Experience, which allows you to take your concealed carry training without leaving home. For full details about this training, please visit Concealed Carry Academy. You can also follow him on Google+ and Twitter.
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Personally I’d want an 11.5″ AR with a sling, a mini Aimpoint, and purpose built rounds. The 5.56 when made correctly has less chance of over penetration than either the shotgun or the handgun. The sling and short barrel should take away the awkwardness and the ability for someone to grab it from you and the red dot makes it super fast on target…


A sound suppressor would be a good addition if you are going to pay the tax stamp any way. An SBR inside will ruin your hearing very quickly.


I would pretty much agree with this.  I also would pay particular attention to the ammunition used.  Jason mentioned that as well.  If you can’t gather your family together, which most times won’t be feasible, you don’t want to be shooting through walls.  Things get hectic when you’re surprised in the middle of the night.  The most important thing you can have is a clear mind and purpose. 


Very good points!  As my choices are limited to a 12 gauge over/under and a .45 M1911A1, I believe the handgun is a better choice for me.  Less noise fumbling for position in the middle of the night, more chances to make up for a missed shot and/or multiple invaders, and faster reload (I know, it sounds like trading accuracy for volume, but we are not in a very large place).


Very good points!  As my choices are limited to a 12 gauge over/under and a .45 M1911A1, I believe the handgun is a better choice for me.  Less noise fumbling for position in the middle of the night, more chances to make up for a missed shot and/or multiple invaders, and faster reload (I know, it sounds like trading accuracy for volume, but we are not in a very large place).


Very good points!  As my choices are limited to a 12 gauge over/under and a .45 M1911A1, I believe the handgun is a better choice for me.  Less noise fumbling for position in the middle of the night, more chances to make up for a missed shot and/or multiple invaders, and faster reload (I know, it sounds like trading accuracy for volume, but we are not in a very large place).


Very good points!  As my choices are limited to a 12 gauge over/under and a .45 M1911A1, I believe the handgun is a better choice for me.  Less noise fumbling for position in the middle of the night, more chances to make up for a missed shot and/or multiple invaders, and faster reload (I know, it sounds like trading accuracy for volume, but we are not in a very large place).


I can get the 1911 quickly but if there’s time, I’m going for the shotgun.


Somebody once said “that custom 1911 in my nightstand is what I’ll use to fight my way over to my rifle/shotgun”, or something to that effect. They all have their pros and cons but it’s hard to beat a properly set up carbine or shotgun for home defense.


Shotgun or pistol….it depends upon a lot of factors.  In my case, there is just me and the wife with two large (100 + pounds) dogs that alert on ANYTHING not sounding normal, plus, the master bedroom is on the second floor.  The practiced plan is for me to grab my 18 1/2 inch barreled 870 loaded with #4 buck AND my SIG P239 .40S&W and my VERY bright (120+ lumens) flashlight and take up my position laying down at the top of the stairs, while the wife calls the police on the cell phone.  Everybody’s situation is different from everybody else’s, though.  The key is to have a plan and have a back-up plan when the main plan goes to crap.


It’s hard to beat a couple of big dogs for your first line.  Inform you, distract intruder(s), and anyone getting past two angry large dogs is going to have problems showing less than evil intent in either criminal or civil court.  Of course, having only one witness simplifies the situation and shortens the trial.  Being confident and reasonably competent with your tool of choice is probably the most important factor.  And try to be sure all the bodies are inside the house when the police come. 


Plan A and plan B… Glock 17 w.33rd + surefire G2 are my 1st choice w/safe room entry and  outside exit if safe room breaks down.


i prefer the torus 5 shot revolver in 410 loaded with 3 wafers and 9 bb-s

Alexandra K.

Problem with the revolver is you either have to keep it loaded at all times (dangerous if you kids or untrained people around) or you keep it empty in the name of safety and then have to quickly fumble in the dark (so you don’t give away your position) to load it. The semi-automatic pistol is the better bet because you can keep the gun empty but have clips handy that insert and bring you to a state of readiness much more quickly than feeding individual bullets (or even pairs of bullets, depending on how you were trained), plus instead of being limited to 5 rounds (such as the Judge) or even 8 rounds (as in the Taurus 608), you can have 15 (in say a Glock 20 10mm) or 17 (in a Glock 17). Though many instructors teach to not keep a clip or mag more than about 80% full so the spring is not over-tensed and therefore more reliable when needed. The nice bonus about a semi-auto pistol with a built-in rail (such as many of the Gen3 and Gen4 Glocks) is you can mount a laser, which when appearing on the bad guy’s chest breaks all language barriers and can potentially save you from having to fire a shot, or put the bullet where it needs to go if the intruder grabs a family member (third eye).

-Alexandra K.


I have taken an interest in Kel-Tec’s new KSG bull pump shotgun (on the cover of the august Guns&Ammo). Two 7 rnd magazine tubes allow you to keep 00 buck in one and birdshot or slugs in the other. Then you can select which ammo to use on the fly. At 26″ overall length and no NFA needed it fits the bill nicely.
If I don’t go that route, i’m looking at a (integrated) suppresed 9mm AR upper from Battle Born. It’s really quiet which would be nice if I actually had to shoot inside my house.
Currently it’s an 18″ pump 1300 defender with a surefire mounted on the forend. I keep my electronic ear protection on top of my gun safe so I can throw them on quickly and still hear.

Dennis Adams

I’m going to do the right thing. If someone breaks into my house they’re probably hungry and thirsty and maybe just need a little fix or something. I believe I would cook them some breakfast and make a pot of coffee for them. After they have a full belly I would probably offer them a hot shower and a few hours sleep in my bed. When they are completely rejuvinated, I’ll give them a wad of cash to go buy some stuff they can shoot up their arms to make them feel better. Kill them with kindness!

In Box

Not even sure where to start on this one…

First, there is not a single situation or scenario where using birdshot against a human assailant is a good choice of ammo. If all you want is to inflict a whole lot of pain and hope that is enough deterrent, there are much better options. There have been parades of forensics experts that have torn the efficacy of birdshot apart, and while it is not a reliable incapacitator it will go through walls and can cause life threatening and altering injuries. There is absolutely no upside to birdshot. Save it for the birds. Recommending birdshot for a shotgun makes just as much sense as recommending shot shells for your 9mm. 00 Buck will go through less drywall than that 9mm JHP by the way.

As for the rest, there are obviously lots of trade offs. Handguns are much more difficult to aim, pose a higher over penetration risk, and are comparatively very poor incapacitators compared to shotguns, but handguns are convenient to carry. Maneuverability in my opinion is a confounded trade off. Even mediocre training can teach a person to handle a long gun without leading the barrel around corners, and in a case of little to no training, the shooter is vastly less likely to hit the assailant with a handgun.


Taurus 605 .357 mag snubbie by the bed !

keith wentz

I personally would not use bird shot except for small game hunting.My uncle God rest his soul was a Chief of Police for a town in Lehigh county,Pa.when I was about 10 he told me,that sometimes just the clicking noise of a shotgun as you pump the single 0 or 00 buck shotgun shell into the barrel,could scare and should tell the intruder he better get out.Now should it happen that you have to shoot in defense maybe if the intruder has a knife or gun and does not stop coming at you ,say freeze,should he keep coming shot to kill and put a 2nd.one right between his eyes.Dead men don’t talk,and your castle was invaded,life threatened,even gave command to freeze,which  would have given you a chance to dial 911 to report intruder is being held at gun point. My father God rest his soul too was also an ex officer and WWII vet. ,when my 2 brothers and myself grew up,my father had rules you would follow,#1 don’t touch his shotgun that was in a corner fully loaded ready to pump one into the barrel.We all were small and large game hunters since we were maybe for sure 12 years of age.Your home is your castle protect it and your family.Thanks to our founding fathers that added the right to bear arms.Proud to say I’m also a member of the Sons Of The American Revolution,as  Macungie Militia, Pa.Born 1749 came to the usa from Beerfeldon,Hessen,Germany(Microfilm of manuscript (89 p., made in 1883) at the Historian’s Office.Johnann Jost Wentz born 1749 in Beerfelden, Hesse, Germany, died in Pennsylvania 1812.


I keep my 9mm with a mag of frangible ammo for home use.


Hmmmm.  Many variables, many solutions.  From a medical standpoint, if I had a family in the house I would opt for the shotgun as I have seen more people survive (yes, even) buckshot scatter than I have rifle or large caliber bullet wounds (this is, of course, in case your aim isn’t as good at 2:00 am or if you get a larger than expected pattern).
Being alone in the house, I know that the distance from the front door to my bedroom is 22 feet and can be covered in about 4 seconds.  The distance from my bed to my .45 in condition 1 is 1.5 feet and can be covered in about 2 seconds.  When the perpetrator sees the little red beam and the bright light from the M6, I hope they smile (and drop their weapon).  Hey, I don’t want to clean up the mess.


Regardless of the type of firearm, one person clearing a room is in a very dangerous position. Particularly in the dark; it is further complicated by your inability to look in more than one direction at a time.

I personally think locking yourself in a room is the way to go. If that is not feasible then you perhaps should stop at a choke pont where you can control entry suchas the top of a stairwell but only if your absolutely sure no one is behind you.


I’d talk the poor, misled and shunned young man down from his frightened state and have him put his gun or knife down.  I’d talk to him and let him know that there is still hope.  I’d call 911 to get the police there so they could give him a ride to a help center.  Now, isn’t that so very much better, and so very much more comforting than the shedding of human blood?  After all, it’s our fault there are people hungry and in need when we have more in life than most others around this one big and soon borderless world.  Guns should be banned anyway, only toothless barbarians would want to have one.  I’d rather have a brain than a gun.  Self defense is such a terrible thing to consider, so why worry about it?  Turn in your guns and get a latte!


Are you kidding me?! Self-defense is your God given right! A gun is merely a tool, it is a remote-control drill. That’s all it is. It is the operator that determines the usage of that hardware. Please let me know how your plan of “comforting” your home invader works out for you.


This is either an attempt at sarcasm, or you’re the biggest fool on the planet.


wow, if you really have that much courage, which I truly doubt, give us your your address so we can post it on the internet for all the bad armed perverts out there to visit? Then we will see what you net posting will be.  🙂

S Izzors

You are a true retard. I hope you never have to face a home invader because you won’t last more then a second..Do you actually think people who intend to break into your house in the middle of the night are going to listen to your dumb comments like you stated so child like..
If you had a brain you would be dangerous. OH I’M SORRY your already dangerous. to yourself and anyone who be foolish enough to depend on you in a home invasion Grow up and smell the coffee before it really happens and some dirt bag sticks a gun in your face while you piss in your pants saying oh crap I was so wrong about home invaders..

Isaac Addison

well if you are backed up in ur room and have a shotgun than ur pretty much covered. if you cannt hit the perp from there than u dont need to own a gun!


oh I will do more than hit them….

Isaac Addison

hey tarawa1943, it is still ridiculous that u have to back up that far in ur house to truly show that you were life was in danger =( A shot gun if your backed up in ur room ready for him had gun if ur surprised or out and about in your house. This is just my opinion but the most logical way though!


Isaac, I understand, backing up is only plan B or C. Otherwise it is advance and clear first. But then again you may not have lived in NY, maybe it is also my training from a legal lawsuit perspective having had in the past a CCW in NY. When the dust settles, you still have to consider the lawsuit.

Isaac Addison

tarawa1943, very true!! After the crimimal suit, which is really all up to the state attorney to pursue [thats where alot of self defense cases could just be dropped]. Then it is on to the civil which you never win. So to sum deffending yourself “YOU LOSE” either way and i might add Your job could be at risk and now the people around and people on the street look at you in a different way. Ok sorry for venting on you, to me it seems really like the laws are almost deffending the bad guys!

Alexandra K.

[flamethrower mode=on]
We have the the bed-wetting liberals our nation has put into power to thank for those laws defending the bad guys and vilifying the mother or father defending their family the bad guy. It’s “popular” and chic to hate guns, and that view is pushed down from the schools and universities (though I’m sure there are noteworthy exceptions somewhere…I hope) except when you need one. Then, these same bed-wetting liberals have either carry permits themselves or bodyguards. The lawmakers should be subject to the same laws they impose on the public, but I digress.
[flamethrower mode=off]


A. K. agreed it has slid downhill pretty bad in the US regarding the 2A, we heed a super-natural revival of the Constitution in the USA!


I would no doubt be alerted to trouble by the world’s loudest beagle, the ever-trusty Shiner. Since the only family member I have to worry about is my wife, who’ll be sleeping next to me, snoring in a ladylike manner, I’d wake her up, get her down behind the bed on her side — away from the door — with a cell calling 9-1-1 and with her pepper spray in hand … I’ll be at the foot of the bed with my Springfield 1911, gun and spare mag loaded with Hornady Critical Defense rounds, a 9P Surefire flashlight and a 4-inch folder … there’s a short hall from the bedroom to the bedroom door, a perfect funnel, and anybody coming in on foot would be leaving on a gurney … I can see where a shotty would be worthwhile in certain cercumstances, but not for me … just got a 9mm carbine, so as soon as I am convinced it will go off every time I pull the trigger, I may keep that in the bedroom too … there are as many ways to defend your home as there are people trying to break into it …


I must have skimmed the part about birdshot earlier. There is never, ever a reason to use birdshot for defense. People have been shot point-blank in the face with birdshot and walked to their ambulance when it arrives. If your intended target is bigger than a bird and you’re using a shotgun – use ammo built for an animal that size. Birdshot will do nothing but piss off a determined attacker and if they’re strung out on the right cocktail they might not even feel it. If someone is in your house while you’re home it wasn’t a mistake – they knew they could handle whoever was home…

Tommy Reed

I would use #1 buck.not O,OO,OOO BUCK , BIRD SHOT IS FOR BIRDS. 


As it is just me & my wife in the home with our two Labs, my handgun is going to be the way to go.  My dogs are our first line of defense as they are going to sound off if someone even gets close to the house.  Plus, they’ll be able to keep our intruders busy while I get my wife squared away & make my way into the fray with a tactical light, my firearm, & at least one reload.

Richard Parrish

In response to your article about cocked and locked, I agree it should be carried cocked and locked.  However, I prefer a double/single action with a de-cocker such as my  Walther PPK.  However, I often carry my little Kel-Tec in my pocket because the climate in Savannah is too hot to wear a cover garment.

Richard Parrish

In response to your “shotgun or pistol” article, I agree on “it depends”.  Some of the new home defense rounds for a shotgun sound good.  But, I’m still using 7-shot.  It’ll clean out a doorway, but probably won’t go through two layers of sheetrock. However, I keep a Taurus 92 with flashlight/laser combo by the bed. QUESTION: If I were to get up to investigate a possible intruder, should I turn on the light and laser, thus giving away my possition, or at what time should I turn it on?


great article Jason.


I keep my son’s 870 youth model 20 gauge loaded with 00 buck. They are hard to find but did find some at BassPro. It handles like a BB gun and packs a punch.


An ounce of lead is an ounce of lead.  At five feet either is a compact ball – birdshot can be expected to do far less damage on the other side of a wall if you miss than 0 or 00.  But if you expect to be confronting an intruder across the length of a long hall or livingroom/diningroom rather than coming in your cozy bedroom door or window, then 0 or 00 is a better choice.  Any is better than using your shotgun for a club, but a baseball bat is easier to handle for that use.  Main thing:  be confident in your use of whatever you have, be it 12 guage repeater or .22 short pistol – which means practice -we are still sufficiently animal to radiate and to sense confidence, which can make all the difference in quick decision making in a faceoff.


get BOTH. for HD i say revolver for ease of operation if you dont have a ton of time to train(or for HER if she wants protection but doesnt like guns all too much). keep it loaded but SAFE (ie in a location only you can get to, and not kids) just aim and pull till empty. the semi always has a higher chance of failure, AND requires fine motor skills for operation which go out the window during tense situations. shotgun would be more for a “holed up” situation, get in the closet, call the cops, and keep the shotgun aimed at the door until the cops come. as for anyone who argues that “the law” is against you in court – you need to brush up on recent laws. MOST (but not all) states now have a castle doctrine law that prevents anyone from counter sueing when they were being unlawful on your property. in any case, i’d still take jail time over death or injury to me, my wife, or child — in any situation. for me, its a mossberg 500 in the closet loaded with 00 buck (5 in the mag, chamber empty), safety is OFF. reason: just rack and tap. MY night stand is a glock 19. 15rd mag inserted with chamber EMPTY. again, rack and tap. HER night stand is a S&W 38special. loaded and ready to go. i have 3 other revolvers strategically and conspicuously placed. all other guns are in the master bedroom closet in a quick access safe, along with some survival items (flashlights, food/water, a couple 2 way radio’s, first aid, etc). the “hole up” location is again, the closet in the master bedroom due to location in the house it has the most “barrier” protection. i do not recommend ANY rifle round in a HD situation. i dont care if its 5.56, it WILL penetrate more than any typical handgun or average power shotgun (2-3/4 buck or slug) round. I also have a small security camera system which allows me to view and record about 80% of the house for use in court, and to view from where the intruders are coming from/going. wife can advise me via 2 way radio on direction and i can intercept and deny as required while the fam is holed up.


I have to disagree with your assumption that a 5.56 / .223 round will penetrate more than a pistol or shotgun load (bird shot aside). I remember back last year on one of the gun shows (best defense I think) when they did tests with different rounds going through drywall. The 5.56 round was the one that penetrated the least. That round tends to fragment on impact and breaks up into smaller pieces. It did not penetrate the second wall and was much safer to use in a home. The pistol and shotgun 00buck / slug rounds all penetrated multiple walls.

Frame up a couple of stud bays with sheetrock and head to the range and do some testing yourself, you’d be surprised. I certainly was.

One other thing that I saw on PDN was to place a bookshelf with books on it in your kids rooms where there may be a shoot through if there is an intruder. Just a little extra insurance.

Michael Johnston

It wood be very dangerous for a SWAT to even brake down my door 3″ 00 mag shot gun and 44 mag 260gr or 7.62 NATO and the walls are concrete a old WW2 MILITARY BASE converted to Apartments.

Frog Legs

Just jumping in to say that if you’re going to use birdshot you shouldn’t use a shotgun for home defense. You’d be better off shooting a .380 than doing that.

Richard Ormandy

My choice is the Mossberg 590 Shockwave, with 1 3/4 inch shells….I have an attached light and camera and a Sidesaddle laser. Yes, I have practiced moving through all rooms and hallway. I am a Firearms Instructor and teach clearing methods.