Same Old Question, Different Time — Handguns

For part 1 (Rimfire) of this series, go here; for part 2 (Shotguns), here; and for part 3 (Assault Rifles), here.

4.) Home-defense handguns:
No other purchase decision in the gun world gives rise to more fevered argument and justification than that of one’s handgun because, quite frankly, it’s one of the most personal decisions extant. And I will confess that there was a time when I would get onto verbal fistfights with people over whether this handgun was better than that one, because… because… because no reason. If you want to start a flame war in any gun forum, just say that H&K makes overpriced guns which weigh too much and aren’t much better than Glocks. Ditto Colt vs. Smith & Wesson, Ruger vs. Beretta and so on ad nauseam.

And let’s not even get started on arguments over the choice of caliber (and yes, I’m as guilty if not more so for my dogmatic preference for the .45 ACP).

So what I’m going to try to do in this piece is to present the philosophy which should inform your choice of handgun for home defense — please note, not your carry piece, or your backwoods must-have piece, or any other use. The key word here is home. So let me look at some of the options, along with cogent considerations why you could pick one over the other, but the very first rule of household defense is simple, regardless of your choice: you should never be further than a few feet away from a gun in your house. Believe me, when trouble arrives, it’s going to come quickly — and you don’t want to be scampering up the stairs to your gun safe when someone has just kicked in your kitchen door and is looking at your wife with unromantic intentions. Yeah, sometimes you’re going to feel like an idiot, schlepping your gun from one room to another. It’s less idiotic than being carried out of your house on a stretcher and/or your teenage daughter getting raped. Now let’s get on with it.

Revolver vs. semi-automatic:
Many people prefer revolvers over semi-autos because revolvers are like a fork: you pick it up, and it works. Mostly, there’s no safety-catch on a revolver (there are some, a development which I deplore), and if your revolver is double-action (i.e. it doesn’t require that the hammer be cocked before shooting), the revolver is like a fork: pick it up, aim, pull the trigger and bang (or BANG!!! if it’s a .44 Magnum or its big brothers). Unfortunately, that same ease of use also means that an inquisitive seven-year-old boy can make the thing go bang just as easily as his mom or dad can. (Yes, I know: teach your children about gun safety while you’re potty-training them or whatever; I’m assuming that my audience is somewhat responsible, but sadly, not everyone is.)

So: semi-autos, which have safeties and as an added precaution, can be stored without a mag. Which adds just a little more fumble-time when a goblin kicks down your back door en route to his grand plan of intra-household mayhem. And just as I mentioned in the Part 2 (shotgun) piece, loading a mag and racking the slide cannot be done in silence, which means that said goblin will be warned of your presence and your intentions.

As much as it pains me to say it, though, Glocks are semi-autos masquerading as revolvers, because they operate in basically the same way. (My dislike for Glocks is purely for personal and aesthetic reasons — I shoot the Glock 19 more accurately than just about any other handgun except the 1911 and Browning High Power.) So the Glock is a valid option — but preferably not in ordinary 9mm, and definitely not using full metal jacket ammo (see below).

It’s your choice. I personally keep a .357 Magnum double-action (DA) revolver next to my bed, but if it’s at the gunsmith for a trigger job, I’m equally comfortable with my single-action (SA) 1911 in .45 ACP in its place, simply because I’ve fired tens of thousands of rounds through both kinds of handgun and using either is as natural as starting a car. And I have no small kids running around in my house, so safety is not a concern for me. Your situation will differ, so decide accordingly.

Caliber:
Your choice of cartridge should reflect the absolute need to have a one-shot stop capability inside your house, which generally means the bigger, the better. However, as we discussed in part 2 (shotguns), you want to strike a balance between a cartridge’s stopping power and the bullet’s penetration. I consider the 9mm Parabellum cartridge an absolute stinker for a home defense round — especially the full metal jacketed rounds — because they are marginal stoppers and penetrate drywall with ease. And frankly, the high magazine capacity that the 9mm offers is a dubious one because generally speaking, very few home invasions result in fifteen rounds bring fired.

Stopping power, I think, is critical. To make it even more understandable: big boolets — certainly for your primary home-defense handgun, anyway — are going to get the job done better than smaller ones, no matter how fast the latter leave the barrel. For years, my bedside gun was chambered in .44 Special (not Magnum), and I never felt under-gunned. Now it’s a .357 Mag — and at some point, I may just go back to my earlier choice. 

Whatever you decide, though, the rule of thumb should always be: one handgun per adult household member. (You can decide whether your kids can be classed as “adults” or not; mine had their own guns at various ages, starting at 11 for the Son&Heir, 14 for Daughter and #2 Son never got a gun because while I taught him how to shoot at age 15, he’s just never been that interested. So while we were all under the same roof, we had four gun owners out of five inhabitants, and if push came to shove, five out of five.)

There is one caveat to this rule, however, and it’s a big one. If you think your wife / girlfriend / kids are even the slightest bit mentally unprepared, or unstable, do not give them a gun. That’s where the anti-gunners’ trope of “a gun is more likely to kill someone in the household” comes from. It’s bullshit as stated, but at the same time, it does happen, so be careful about this.

Here, then, are my recommendations for home defense handguns. (Note that for home defense, the size of the gun is not as important as it would be for, say, carry purposes.)

For men: a revolver in either .38 Special +P, .357 Magnum, .44 Special or similar; or a semi-auto in .45 ACP, 10mm, .40 S&W, or (reluctantly) 9mm +P. All bullets should be some kind of hollowpoint (Hydra Shok, Golden Saber, SXT and so on). Cor-Bon’s “Pow’Rball” ammo (in just about any caliber) is an excellent choice (less recoil, good stopping power and limited penetration of interior walls because of the frangible Glaser bullets), but many people just can’t justify the high price and go with the usual suspects instead.

For women: a revolver in .38 Special +P or a semi-auto in 9mm +P. (And please: if your wife can shoot the eyes out of a silhouette target with a .357 or .44 Magnum, then of course that’s what she should use.) Yes, women can and do shoot larger cartridges, but after personally training hundreds of women to shoot, I’ve come to the conclusion that the .38+P and 9mm+P are the optimal go-to choices for the average woman. If she is very recoil-sensitive, by all means go smaller (e.g. 380 ACP/9mm Kurz), but make sure that the ammo is not FMJ and can feed reliably. Remember: almost any gun is better than no gun, but in extremis you want to go as big and powerful as you can handle.

I used to have very specific recommendations when it came to handgun brands, but in recent years, the quality among the larger gun companies has markedly improved, so I’m a lot less dogmatic. I would just remind everyone that the cheaper the gun, the more compromises will have been made, whether in workmanship, materials and what have you. The Iron Triangle of Gunnery (price/accuracy/reliability) will not be gainsaid. Using the venerable 1911 platform as an example — the one I know most about — I know someone who regularly shoots a WWII-era Colt 1911A1, and it still performs as advertised. My own Springfield G.I. 1911 has fired more than 30,000 rounds over the past fifteen-odd years, and does likewise. I’m not so sure anyone will be able to get the same results with, say, a Hi-Point. That said: you get up the quality/cost curve really fast with modern guns, and a $2,000 Ed Brown 1911 is not twice as reliable/accurate as a similarly-specced Springfield 1911 at less than half the price.

My favorite semi-auto handgun brands are many, but they include Colt, Springfield and Kimber for the 1911; and for the other cartridge/action options, the Browning P-35 High Power, CZ-75 D, Beretta, Glock, Kahr and SIG. Of course there are more options out there (e.g. S&W, Walther, HK, Para-Ord, Taurus etc.), but these are the brands I’ve fired the most and therefore the ones I would entrust my life to.

With revolvers, my “favorites” list is much shorter: S&W, Ruger, and Colt. (I know about Taurus, of course, but I’ve just not fired the brand as much as the others. Many people whose opinions I respect have only good things to say about Taurus, however, so be my guest.)

As always, Reader comments are welcome. Your experiences may differ, and if so I’d like to hear about them. (Just don’t start any flame wars.)

32 comments

  1. No argument whatsoever! 🙂

    I’m a long time afficionado of Ol’ Slabsides since first shooting one at age twelve. It’s the only handgun for which I’ve developed fair expertise at gunsmithing cleanup. For years my carry choice was a Lightweight Commander with a lot of workover; very reliable.

    Old age and arthritis now has my bedtime buddy as an FN 5.7. Light weight and zilch recoil. I’m less interested in a one-shot stop than in creating a colander. For carry, a Smith 642CT works well with my clothing style.

  2. I shoot medium caliber the best, so that’s what I use. Either .38 special or 9mm, since I have carry pieces in both. They double as my house guns, as well. I only use top quality hollow points.

    As for one stop shooting, I train to shoot twice anyway, so I don’t dwell on that. Especially as I’m much more accurate with what I choose.

  3. Agree, Kim. There is no one “right” gun. There is the right gun for the individual user; a gun you will use, practice with, carry and can shoot beats the hell out of the gun that sits in the drawer because it has too much recoil, or weighs too much, or is too large to carry.

    And I know, this is a home defense gun, but for many, the home defense gun and the carry gun are one and the same.

    I’m a 1911 fan (carried one for years; right now my home defense gun is the same as my carry gun: an Honor Guard 9mm. Got tired of the weight and bulk of the 1911, but still love to shoot them. And the trigger – oh my! A bad 1911 trigger beats any striker gun.

  4. OK, So this is just a bit OT, but am I the only one here who actually prefers older (used) guns to new?

    It’s not just aesthetics, though there is that (like Kim I find myself going into “grumpy old man” mode, just like the old Dana Carvey bit from SNL, you know the one “I’m old and I’m not happy! I don’t like things now compared to the way they used to be!”) I actually prefer a gun that’s been ‘broken in’ as opposed to one that’s brand new.

    Also I have a theory on why I seem to have more issues with new guns than with older ones: My theory is that like all manufactured products, there are a certain amount of “problem guns” out there that came out of the factory with manufacturing flaws. When you buy new, there is a chance – albeit a small one – that you will get one of these lemons.

    But my thought is that a large percentage of the “lemon” guns get returned to the manufacturer where they’re either repaired or cannibalized for parts. That means that the used gun market has already had most of the “lemons” winnowed out and therefore if you buy a used gun, you’re less likely to get a “lemon.”

    Not that I haven’t gotten defective guns – I had an old Iver Johnson .22 semi-auto that would not feed for some reason. I gave it to a friend who was an amateur gunsmith to see if he could fix it for me. That was ~ 22 years ago and I haven’t seen either the gun or the friend since (not that I harbor any ill will towards the friend – after all, he was looking at it for free and if I didn’t bug him to get it back in 1995 there’s certainly no reason for him to try and track me down and return it to me.)

    But in any case, when I look at new guns, not only are they ugly and too expensive, but they just really don’t do anything for me to make me excited. But old guns – OH YEAH!!

    1. Depends entirely on the gun. Old WWI and WWII-era rifles… oh baby. Some old Winchester which has been worked on by countless people of unknown skill: not so much. I’m not much into old guns that don’t go bang, unless I’m actually looking for a mantlepiece decoration. A 1970s Colt Python with just a little muzzle wear, and I’m there. An old Colt Agent from the 1930s… pass.
      And so on.

  5. WRT revolvers vs. automatics my hoary old saying is:

    An automatic pistol is a machine, but a fine revolver is a work of art!

    (edited to add “fine revolver.” Because an RG or Rossi revolver is not so much a “work of art” is it is a “piece of sh*t.”)

  6. Kim,
    This is somewhat OT, but you mentioned owning a Springfield 1911A1 GI version. I have what I think is the same gun. I’m a reloader and a while back I loaded up a batch of .45 ACP with hollow point bullets. My problem is that I can’t get these suckers to feed no matter what I do. The gun is completely unmolested. Have you had anything done to yours to improve the situation? I also get nicks on my brass from time to time. They do not stovepipe, but I’ll find these nicks after I police my brass.

    1. JLW,
      Silly question: are you using the issue Springfield magazines? I had the same feeding problems that you’re having, except that mine went away when I started using Chip McCormick 8- and 10-round mags. As for the nicked brass: the newer GIs have a lowered ejection port — something I had to have done to mine by a gunsmith. If you’ve got an older (pre-2008, I think) Springer GI, that may be your problem.
      Hope this helps.

      1. I have one Springfield, one Colt and two Wilson Combat. None of them will feed even by slow release of the slide. I have measured the overall length and it is within specs.

  7. A lot of issues are solved by making your home defense weapon , your carry weapon-
    It does not have to be schlepped from room to room- it is already on you.
    It is perfectly familiar.
    It is under your control- kids can’t get their hands on it.
    It is never more than an arms reach away.
    It is with you when you bring out the trash, mow the lawn, or do any other chore.
    I concurr with John Bianchi’s old advice- pick one gun you like, and get used to it. Then, if you need a smaller or larger weapon, pick a variant with exactly the same operating system.
    There are gunny type folks, probably most of the readers here, who probably can pick up a wide variety of weapons and use them competently. But most folks can’t. And don’t dismiss the weird ways stress can mess with you. You should have to think about the gun about as much as you do your toothbrush.

  8. I am a grumpy old man, Browning Hi-Power 9mm and Colt Defender 1911 .45 both loaded with hollow points that feed well with extra magazines. Both purchased very gently used and they now have nice trigger work and polished feed ramps. The Colt magazines did not feed hollow points very well so I purchased three Wilson Combat magazines and threw the Colt mags in the trash and never a misfeed after that.

    As far as the RG, Rossi cheap revolvers, forty years ago a good friend woke up with an intruder in his house, he got his RG gun, yelled a bit as he started into the room where the bad guy was and the bad guy headed out the front door fast. My friend told me he went to the front door yelling at the runner and decided to shoot a few times in the air to let him know there was a gun in the house however the gun refused to fire. I asked the friend what he did then and he said he threw the gun as hard as he could hoping to hit the runner which he did not. I had a long talk with friend about how many things he did wrong which started off with thinking an RG was really a defense gun.

    1. I think if you have an RG as your defense gun and you encounter a burglar, you should just hand the burglar the RG and then while he’s trying to get it to fire, clock him with a frying pan.

  9. I’ve gone with the Beretta 92 platform, following the super lucky find of a 92D Centurion at a gun show for $300. I’ve since added a 92FS and a 92FS compact.
    I’ve added “G” decock only conversion levers, “D” springs, and Wilson SRT to the FS’s. The slide mounted lever is a terrible safety, but a terrific decocker. The D spring lightens the DA pull to feel a lot like a tuned K-Frame.
    So, in 9mm, I get a gun with low recoil, superb accuracy, high capacity, and very, very common in parts and accessories- you get Wilson making bits and bobs.

    1. See the above comments about RG/Rossi handguns. Any gun that can’t fire 200 rounds without some kind of malfunction (non ammo-related), is worse than no gun.

  10. While I like revolvers for target shooting (and attemping to break my wrist– S&W .500 call your office), I don’t know that I’d look at one seriously for home defense, save for a New York reload or backup piece. Yes, even the cheapest POS you can find will likely go bang at the correct time, but capacity and weight bother me. What if three or four or five gobblins break in? What if you pull a few because they brought guns to a gunfight? Six just doesn’t make me as happy as some order of “lots”, with two second reloads in the dark.

    For me, I’ll stick with my G29. Small, light, big hole, and extremely ergonomic (your mileage may vary on that). Plus, stuffed with G20 mags, I sleep pretty soundly at night.

  11. I am a grumpy old man too and I don’t think aesthetics have any role to play in the selection of a defensive piece. Or any other gun either except maybe something in a display case. Function is the only thing. Pick a gun that is as absolutely reliable as engineering can make, keep it maintained, shoot it often and use modern hollowpoint ammo in a common police caliber.

  12. My nightstand pistol is a Springfield Mil Spec 1911 loaded with Hornady Critical Duty hollow points. One 8 round McCormick mag in the gun and two spares. Momma has an old Charter Arms Pathfinder .22 mag revolver loaded with hollow points (don’t remember which brand) as she’s 4’10” and weighs about 95 pounds. She can put six rounds into a quarter at conversational distances and any bad guy is going to have a rough time explaining to St Peter where those six holes came from. If my 1911 wasn’t available for some reason I’d dig my first duty pistol out of the safe – an early 90s vintage 4″ Smith 686. These days I’d load it with a good plus P .38 special – most of the hot .357s I’ve fired have way too much muzzle flash for a low light situation. If I couldn’t sleep with the security of the 1911 or the 686 for some reason my third choice would be my Charter Arms Bulldog .44 special. I know that gun snobs list Charter Arms someplace below Hi Point on the desirable pistol list, but mine has been 100% reliable. Good commercial .44 special defense ammo is hard to find so I take my chances with 200 grain hollow point reloads. The Charter has a set of Crimson Trace laser grips which only adds to the fun.

  13. As I mentioned in the shotgun thread, I prefer revolvers for home defense since they go bang when you squeeze the trigger — real simple. 38 Special for my wife’s Centennial Airweight, and 38 Special +P for my S&W Model 60. The Model 60 is 357 magnum, but I loathe that kind of punishment from a 23.5 ounce revolver and always shoot +P in it. I’ve always been a S&W fan except when S&W made a deal with the devil, uh, the Clinton regime, on magazine capacity.

    When I purchased my first handgun, a S&W 9mm, the army had not yet adopted the Beretta, and the selection of quality 9mm self defense ammo was rather limited. The Winchester Silvertip was available, and so that’s what I carried. Now I load Hornady’s Critical Defense. Its seems everybody produces great hollow point self defense ammo now, you can’t go wrong with any of it, and it takes something like the 9mm Europellet and makes it a viable self defense round. It’s wonderful what a little free market competition does for a product!

  14. While I’ve shot a few handguns in my youth, I’ve never owned one.

    Until today.

    My birthday present to myself came in to my local dealer. A Kimber Stainless II (yes, in “God’s own caliber”.)

    Picking it up tomorrow.

    I’m gonna damn near wet myself.

  15. Once upon a time, in another life (yours), you castigated me for owning a Taurus. You wanted to know how it functioned after 10,000 rounds.

    It functions very well indeed ;). I see your view on them has softened. I sold mine to a buddy, and replaced it with a Ruger Security-Six, which has seen a lot of rounds itself. My buddy has put a lot of rounds through my old Taurus after I put a lot of rounds through it, and it’s still tight.

    Taurus makes a perfectly fine revolver. It’s a near copy of S&W, and it holds up just fine.

    1. IIRC the earlier Taurus’s (Taurii?) were not that well made, but some time in the 1980’s or so, Taurus decided they wanted to compete with the “big boys” and they upped their standards.

      Given my preference for “seasoned” (older) guns, I’d point out that all through the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, Ruger made a very solid and reputable series of DA revolvers, the Security Six and the Service Six. Given the absolutely insane prices of new DA revolvers from S&W (when the older guns were better anyway, grrrr….) I’d say an older Ruger DA revolver could be a great all-around defense gun.

      And that’s coming from a die-hard S&W Bigot, BTW. 😉

      1. Funny, my very first handgun back in the late 80’s was a used .357 Ruger Speed Six (blued; 2.75″). As it came with a Bianchi shoulder rig: I always figured it had originally belonged to a Chicago plainclothes cop.

        When I got my IL CCL and decided to go wheelgun, I couldn’t bear the thought of it ending up in an evidence lock up for eternity. So.. after checking out pricing of newer wheelguns…I picked up a Stainless Speed Six (2.75 in .357). Dremel polished the innards, installed a bobbed hammer – good to go.

    2. I can appreciate the mixed feelings about Taurus firearms. My stainless Taurus 63 ( Winchester 63 copy ) has been marvelous. My Taurus PT1911 9mm ( also stainless ) is a slightly different story. Out of the box it had a beautifully polished feed ramp, and a trigger that rivaled my Kimbers’. It also had numerous unfinished sharp edges which I readily stoned away. The kicker was that it shot 6″ low at 7 yards. Checking the web, it seemed this was a common problem. ( That didn’t prevent several arm-chair experts from insisting that I didn’t know how to hold and shoot a 1911. Funny though, my other six 1911s all shot just fine. 🙂 ) The front post was the shortest available, so I ended up buying an adjustable rear sight, doing a little fitting, and voila! she became a fine shooting pistol.

  16. “Revolver vs. semi-automatic:”
    Thank you for not saying ‘Revolver vs. pistol’. I may be a pedantic nitpicker, but little in the gun culture annoys me so much as the recent trend of using ‘pistol’ to refer exclusively to semi-automatic handguns. Grrrr.

    And BTW, this has been an excellent series of posts. It’s great to have you back.

  17. As much as I love my wheelguns, there is one distinct disadvantage to a revolver over a semi-auto these days: Ammo availability.

    Back in the 1980’s when every cop on the beat was packing a S&W or (more rarely) a Colt or Ruger revolver, .38 and .357 ammo was plentiful and cheap. I could swing by the local shooting range and pick up a box of .38 reloads for around $4.00.

    But with every PD in the country (pretty much) now using semi autos, the supply of cheap .38 and .357 has dwindled significantly. For those who reload, this is not a big deal, as .38/.357 is cheap and easy to reload. But for those of us who buy ammo, it’s tough to shell out $15 or more for a box of run-of-the-mill .38 when there’s cheap MilSurp 9mm sitting on the next shelf over for $8.99.

    I swear my ultimate gun would be a S&W DA revolver chambered in 9mm but they only made those for a year or so and these days they’re as rare as hen’s teeth and as expensive as Faberge eggs.

    Either that or tell the Russkies to start making bulk .38/.357 and selling it over here alongside the copious amounts of 9mm, .380, .223 and 7.62×39 they are currently flooding the market with.

    1. Staff – the thing to do is buy some reloading gear. A couple of hundred bucks will set you up. I have Lee single stage and turret presses. They’re not super high end products but I’ve loaded at least 50,000 rounds in various calibers and they just work. Straight wall pistol cartridges like 9mm, .45acp, or .38/.357 are the easiest rounds to load and you can really save money and get the rounds that you want. And if you’re paranoid, buying components for cash doesn’t leave much of a footprint.

      1. Nope, in fact after 17 years I just SOLD all my reloading gear when we moved to a new house.

        When I was young(er) and single, with no money to my name but oodles of spare time, reloading made sense. In my little apartment in Laramie, WY (where winter temps can drop to a balmy -30f) there’s not a lot to do anyway, so reloading let me shoot cheap.

        Fast forward 17 years and I now have (a) a full time job, (b) a house and (c) a wife, and, well, there goes my free time, right? 😉 Sold my gear because I hadn’t reloaded in years and didn’t really want to. My time is more valuable than any $$ I might save, but I have to admit it’s easier to shoot 9mm since I know I can get cheap “range grade” ammo for less than $10 a box. .38 hasn’t been at that price in at least 10 years. more’s the pity.

  18. For the occasional feeding problem in semi-autos, I have found that judicious use of needle-nose pliers on the lips of the magazine is a cure. If the mag feeds low, widen. If it feeds high, narrow the lips.

    Again, judicious use: It’s easy to use a Dremel tool to carefully polish the feed ramp and also the top of the chamber. Polish, don’t remove metal.

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