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.
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.)