What to Look for in a Home-Defense Handgun

What to Look for in a Home-Defense Handgun


Plenty of ink is spilled over choosing the right revolver or pistol for concealed carry, the same is not true for home-defense handguns. But there are important design features and attributes that should be taken into consideration when searching for the right gun to defend hearth and home.

Handguns that pull night duty are vastly varied. Most gun owners just use whatever they have or whatever they’re most comfortable shooting. Those are both good reasons to use what you use, but the truth of the matter is, there are characteristics that make some handguns more suitable than others.

Those characteristics can be defined as the attributes that make for an honestly capable combat handgun. Attributes that will help you deal with whatever threats you may face when that bump in the night tells you that it’s time to patrol the home front. Whether you end up facing a single assailant with deadly intent or a civilization-wide state of emergency caused by foreign invasion, you want that one handgun to be the most capable, versatile tool possible.

Full Size
Full size is what allows a proper combat-capable handgun to be all it can be. Hand-filling grips aid recoil control and enhance rapid-fire capability. Generous magazine wells (the inside part of the grip that houses the magazine) provide room for high capacity magazines. Longer barrels offer accuracy-enhancing sight radius and aid velocity, which translates into more downrange energy and thus better projectile impact performance. And so on.

Several things tame recoil, weight and grip design among the most important. Weight is the most effective, but a gun can get cumbersome if it’s too heavy. You want a gun that is light enough to carry. I particularly like polymer-frame high capacity semiautos in the lighter calibers (9mm and .40 S&W), because they provide a good balance of an adequate cartridge that kicks comparatively little, plenty of rounds, and quite light weight. I’m also partial to a good metal-frame .45 ACP—the weight in the metal frame dampens recoil and aids quick follow-up shots—but they are heavier. An alloy-frame .45 ACP is a good compromise for a full-size gun that will be carried a lot.

In full-size semiautomatic handguns of reasonably good design, it could accurately be said that almost all malfunctions are caused by one of two things: poor ammunition or faulty magazines. Assuming you use correct, high-quality ammunition, consistent malfunctions can usually be remedied simply by discarding the magazine or magazines causing the problem, and replacing them with top-quality mags. (I’m not ignoring revolvers in this section, it’s just that they don’t suffer from bad magazines.) Other, less common causes are neglect, where the owner overlooks the need to clean and/or lubricate his or her firearm. A good, thorough cleaning and oiling works wonders on tired, abused semiautos.

Contrary to popular opinion, short, compact handguns aren’t necessarily less accurate than their full-size counterparts. Rather, they are simply harder for humans to shoot accurately. Locked in a machine, many compact guns shoot very accurately. Locked in a fist, full-size guns do much better. Why? Two primary reasons. First, a full-size gun fills the hands better, making it easier to hold steady. Second, it has a longer sight radius (the distance between front and rear sights), making it much easier to achieve a consistent sight picture.

Light Rails
I used to mentally scoff at the concept of attaching a flashlight to the bottom of my handgun, but I kept my contempt to myself in case that attitude might eventually prove me an idiot. Good thing, too: I’ve grown into the realization that anyone who does not do all he can to have illumination—very, very powerful illumination—available during a potential nighttime encounter with a person of deadly intent is foolish indeed.

Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt of the book Firearms for Personal Protection.


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  1. Whatever you choose, practice, practice, practice! I can’t overstress the importance of getting used to a new pistol. You got to develop a relationship with it. Remember, your life may depend on it. Don’t buy all the gadgets. Fist do the basics, then slowly add things to your practice like weak hand, barrier, shooting form desk or table top.Try spending your dollars on good ammo. I imagine all the spots in my house where I could be vulnerable like kitchen(everyone knows), but how about the bathroom? It’s 0100hrs, your taking a nice, hot, relaxed bath or shower, and crash! You hear your front door getting kicked in! Is your weapon within reach? How long will it take to get to it? Can you clear, load, function check and fire lo-lite/no-lite conditions?
    Yes I pity the poor slob who takes the time to buy a good gun just to leave it in the nightstand and then believe that he’s protected and prepared for anything…………………………….

  2. I certainly like the idea of a light also but I’m not so keen on attaching it to the gun. In the police academy we taught officers to hold the light away from their body because the bad guy, if armed, will probably, instinctively shoot at the light. If you’re behind it………….

    I agree totally with the above idea of a short barreled 20 ga. shotgun. Aiming becomes much less important when pointing a barrel full of buckshot. And, a 20 ga is more easily handled by everyone in the house. A pump is nice because that sound of racking the slide just might make your interloper decide to back out. Would you rather win the fight or avoid it?

  3. I question ‘light rail lights’ on a home defense firearm for people with wives and kids. I keep a bright hand flashlight so as not to point a loaded firearm in the dark at an unidentifed “object” (which could just be my son coming home late from work).

  4. Home defense handgun, how about a pistol grip 20/12/410 shotgun with shortest legal length not needing AOW permit, sure sounds good to me. The article mentions sight radius, not sure that will come into play much at night in the dark most likely. Also mention 9 or 40, I wouldn’t say 40 is a light recoiling round, maybe 380 or 9. Personally, some of the most accurate off hand shooting I have done is with one of the smallest handguns I have, however it is metal not polymer and it is a 40. I would imagine in most homes, if their is an indoor confrontation, you will be no more than 10 -15 yards apart, but most likely between 5 and 10 yards (or less). It seems it would be more like a point and shoot rather than aim and shoot scenario at the closer ranges (20 feet or less). As is often mentioned in many articles, you need to find what works best for you. A full size may be too big for many peoples hands, even with interchangeable palm swells. Replacement grips on some smaller weapons, allow them to fill your hand nicely, especially with extended magazines and finger rests. My P938, LCP w/laser and MK40 are good examples. Still, shotgun is my top choice. One of the 3 pistols mentioned is always available as well.


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