Which is the better choice for home defense?
Choosing a weapon for home defense is a serious matter, and as far as I’m concerned, a handgun should be an integral part of any home defense plan. Why? Unlike a shotgun or an AR, handguns are easy to keep with you at all times. With a long gun, you’ll have to go fetch it when the balloon goes up. A handgun, however, does not constitute a comprehensive home defense plan. Handguns are personal defense weapons, and while one might very well be needed during a home protection scenario, if a long gun is wielded with authority and precision, the handgun will remain in its holster.
Both the AR and the shotgun have more reach than a handgun. Both deliver a lot more power, and both are easier to shoot with precision. I’m not a shotgun kind of guy. This is not in any way a reflection on the usefulness of the weapon system—it’s just representative of my taste in firearms. As biased as I might be, I appreciate and understand that in some cases the shotgun might be the best answer.
The shotgun has long been a popular weapon for home defense. Some would argue this is due to its suitability to the role, but I believe it’s more likely due to the shotgun’s prevalence in society. Uncle Bob likely kept a shotgun behind the kitchen door because a shotgun was the only gun Uncle Bob had. Carbines—short rifles—have always cost more than shotguns and require more training for most folks to shoot them accurately. For the one-gun homestead, a high-power rifle was not the best tool for small game or flying foul.
Just because old wives tell us the shotgun is the best home defense gun does not make it so. Many of those old wives were probably married to Uncle Bob. At the basic level, the shotgun allows for a slight bit of point of aim/point of impact variance. This is because it disperses shot into a pattern that increases in size with range. The farther the target is away from the shotgun, the easier it is to hit. But everything has its limits, and the shotgun’s limits are not that far away.
Ballistically speaking, the AR-15 carbine chambered for the .223 Rem. is more powerful than the shotgun. With a nominal impact velocity of 1,250 feet per second (fps), a single 54-grain 00 buck pellet will have 187 ft.-lbs. of kinetic energy. This is very similar to a single bullet fired from a high velocity .22 LR. If you can hit your attacker with every pellet in a 00 buckshot blast, it would be like shooting the bad guy a bunch of times, all at the same time, with a .22.
On the other hand, a 55-grain bullet fired from a .223 AR-15 carbine will strike with about 1,000 ft.-lbs. of energy. But all that energy will be directed at a single spot. To further exaggerate the difference in terminal performance, shot pellets are non-expanding; they will only punch a caliber-size hole through the bad guy. A centerfire rifle bullet will expand and sometimes violently fragment, creating a much more ferocious and painful wound. Of course shotguns can also fire slugs, and slugs are wickedly powerful projectiles that make big holes and are hard to stop. A ¾-ounce slug from a 12 gauge will deliver about twice the energy of any .223 Rem. load and will make a very, very big hole going in and coming out. Hit your target with a slug and it will suffer. And as Sir Isaac Newton so aptly explained, so will your shoulder.
Aside from recoil, there are other considerations. The most popular defensive load for the shotgun is 00 buck. These 00 buck pellets will penetrate very deep—about 20 inches in 10-percent ordnance gelatin. These pellets are also capable of passing through most interior walls and easily through any, if not every, wall in a mobile home. If you’re worried about hitting a family member in an adjoining room or if you live in a trailer park, double-ought buckshot is probably not the way to go. The solution can be smaller shot; at conversational distances, #6, #7 and even #8 shot is unimaginably destructive to the human body.
The downside to all shot shells is range. Much past 25 yards, shot becomes terminally ineffective for two reasons. First, the pattern size expands to the point that a large portion of your shot will miss the target, and the resulting wound is less concentrated. Secondly, round shot is not very ballistically efficient and loses energy fast. If the engagement distance extends past 30 yards, it would be advisable to switch to a slug.
Finally, it only makes good sense to choose the ammo for your AR with the same care and concern. To eliminate penetration through interior and exterior walls, look to fragilely constructed varmint bullets or specialty loads like those in the Hornady TAP line. If, however, you are a hopeless bachelor living alone out past the landfill, you can opt for any shotgun or AR load you like. In fact, in the most rural settings, deep-penetrating loads might be a good idea; sometimes four-legged predators must be dealt with, too.
The Sensible Choice
Practically speaking, there’s not a great deal of difference between an AR and a shotgun for home defense. It is unlikely you will need the capacity or extended reach of the AR. Of course as soon as that’s said, you’ll be accosted by a horde of zombies charging across the back pasture. Shotguns are not known as precision weapons, but if equipped with good combat sights and loaded with quality slugs, they can easily keep three shots inside a 3-inch circle at 50 yards. If you choose your ammunition wisely, from a pure ballistic standpoint, it’s a toss up. The simple answer is to choose the one you can shoot the best. If you find the shotgun intimidating, it will never be a good choice. All the same, you might not be the person who has to wield it. The need to deploy the long gun in a defensive situation could fall on another member of the household.
ARs are generally more compact, often lighter and much easier for most to shoot with precision. If recoil is a big deal to you and your family but you prefer the shotgun, don’t overlook the 20-gauge. It has less recoil but is still very effective.
It might surprise you to learn my primary home defense long gun is a Smith & Wesson M&P15-22 loaded with a magazine full of CCI Stingers. No, a .22 is not the most lethal long arm, but everyone who lives in my home can operate it with enough precision and speed to deal with anything from a bad guy to a rabid fox. The key is not to rely on a home defense plan built around one gun. That’s why I also have a Mossberg 590A1 12-gauge in the den and a handgun basically on me at all times.
More from Richard Mann:
The Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to the AR-15 by Richard A. Mann presents a comprehensive and user-friendly look at today’s most popular modern sporting rifle. Among a wide variety of topics, the firearms expert and noted author provides helpful ammunition and accuracy tips, an explanation of the AR platform, a wide range of AR-15 applications, and much more, enhanced by 250 black and white photos. Keep up with the increasing popularity of the versatile AR-15 with this indispensable shooter’s guide. Get your copy