The Home Defense Carbine

Generally, when you ask anyone about "the perfect home defense weapon," they're going to tell you to get a pump action shotgun or a handgun.

The Shotgun Considered

The reasons for using a shotgun for home defense are generally given as:

Let's examine each of these claims carefully, and analyze each one against a reality test, beginning with the slide racking sound....

In general, I believe it's best to count on clear verbal commands to inform an intruder or attacker of your intent, rather than counting on sound clues they might not hear or respect, or they might use as justification for shooting in self defense.

What about the spread of a shotgun? Will it really clear a room if the barrel is short enough? Let's start with asking a simple question: If a shotgun really spread to the point that you could just "point and shoot," to "clear a room out," is it really something you'd want to use for self defense? Perhaps you don't have kids, but you also don't ever have any guests? It's far too easy to be in a position where a precision shot is required for the shotgun to be useful if the spread is really that much. To see the answer to this question in action, take a look at this article on the Box'O Truth web site. I've copied a picture from their web page to show the problem in a target.

This was shot at around 10 yards, based on the pictures from the Box 'O Truth web site. Of course, this picture gives away the real problem with the spread myth: even with a short barrel, shotgun pellets just won't spread that much. They spread enough to possibly cause problems when the target overlaps something or someone you don't want to shoot, but they don't spread enough to really give you the "room cleaning" power you might think.

What about penetration? Consider this: If 00 shotgun shells won't penetrate wallboard, they won't penetrate humans enough to effect a stop. There are multiple tests showing 00 shotgun pellets penetrating three or four standard pieces of wallboard, as we should expect of any round which effect a stop. Finally, many people will tell you you don't need any training to shoot a shotgun--and this is where I really break with the shotgun theory. In reality, shotguns require a great deal of training to use effectively, possibly more than a handgun would.

Am I saying the shotgun is a terrible home defense weapon? No, certainly not! Shotguns are terrific home defense weapons--if you understand their limitations, and if you get the proper training in their use in these situations. They have positive attributes, and they have negative attributes, like any other firearm.

The Handgun Considered

Handguns are generally considered "the weapon of last resort." A common saying in self defense circles is: "Never take a handgun to a gunfight." Or, rather: "If you know there's going to be a gunfight, brings lots of friends with rifles. If you don't have any friends, bring a rifle. If you can't bring a rifle, then bring a handgun."

That said, handguns do have a good number of advantages for home defense, primary among which is transportability. You can leave a handgun in a holster on a belt or vest, and pick the entire set up if you need to go investigate something--leaving your hands free for other uses. You can operate a handgun with one hand, leaving your other hand free for a flashlight, opening doors, etc. Of course, whether or not you will actually be doing these things when in a home defense situation is going to depend on your home, the area you live in, and other factors. If you live in a suburban neighborhood, or an apartment complex, the odds of you trying to "clear" your house while waiting on some outside help are minimal, so the ability to open doors, operate flashlights, etc, are probably minimal. The best plan, in most situations, is to find a safe spot, call outside help, and wait.

The main downside to handguns is they require a good bit of training and regular practice to use effectively.

The Other Option: The Home Defense Carbine

What is the other options for a home defense firearm? The carbine. Let's examine the characteristics of a carbine, so we can get a handle on what this option actually consists of. Carbines generally:

Let's look at a few carbines, to better understand the type of weapon we're discussing. Below are a few carbines with descriptions for each one.

The Ruger Mini-14 and Mini-30 are both well made and widely respected carbines. All of the Ruger Mini line shoot rifle rounds, with the Mini-14 shooting 223 Remington, the Mini-30 shooting 7.62x39, and a new model shooting 6.8 SPC.This specific rifle is set up for longer range shooting, with a scope. Since this is a semi-auto rifle with a box magazine, it can sustain a high rate of fire with very quick reloads. Ruger carbines generally sell for prices in the $500 range.

Many rifles used in Cowboy Action shooting would make very nice home defense carbines. This is a Puma 94 in 357 magnum, but lever action carbines are available from various makers in 38 Special, 357 Magnum, 44 Magnum, and 45 Colt. They can range in price from two or three hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. These use tube style magazines, holding 6 to 8 rounds, and are slower to reload than most semi-automatic rifles.

Taylor, US Firearms, Marlin, and Puma all make lever action carbines. You can find used Winchester lever actions as well, but they are no longer in production. Ruger also makes a lever action 44 magnum, but it's modern styled, rather than traditionally styled.

The AR-15 is a classic carbine platform, and probably the one most people are familiar with. While this one is DMPS chambered in 223 Remington, various other calibers are available, The AR-15 has many available accessories which would be useful for home defense, including lots of rail space for mounting lasers, flashlights, and other equipment. This is a semi-automatic rifle fed from a box magazine.

Olympic Arms makes handgun caliber uppers for the AR-15.

The Auto-Ordnance Tommy Gun is another widely recognized and respected carbine. These are only currently available in 45 ACP, although they were originally made in many other calibers. The main problem with the Tommy Gun is its weight, which comes in at around 8 or 9 pounds--heavier than some lightweight bolt action rifles today.
The Beretta CX-4 Storm is a carbine based on the Beretta PX-4 Storm handgun, and is available in 40 Smith and Wesson as well as 9mm. This one is in 40 S&W. Generally, this is a light, fast handling carbine, with a number of rail mount points for sights, lights, and lasers. These sell for about five hundred dollars (or less).

Now that we have an idea of what sorts of weapons we're discussing, let's consider some of the advantages of a carbine for home defense.

If you get a carbine with a lot of places to mount "things," you can mount a light, optical red dot sight, and laser to the gun, allowing you a great deal of flexibility in sighting systems and capabilities.

One note to be aware of when using a carbine for home defense: Generally, carbines are sighted as rifles, so the sights are set up for shooting targets between 100 and 200 yards. In a short range sitauation, sights set up for use at 100 yards will shot a couple of inches high. In general, it's best to resight a carbine to the most common in home distances, probably 25 yards or less, before putting it into home defense use. It's a mistake to take a carbine to the range, shoot it at 100 yards, and then expect the sights to be correct for a 5 yard shot down your hall, or across the kitchen.

Comparing the Options

How does the carbine stack up against the other options? The following table provides a direct comparison.

Characteristic Handgun Shotgun Carbine
Precision Relatively precise, very dependant on level of training. Relatively precise. More precise than either the shotgun or rifle
Mobility Can be used with one hand, so you can open doors, hold an extra flashlight, etc, with the off hand. Requires two hands to operate, so it's more difficult to move through a space effectively as a single person, or to carry and use additional equipment.
Magazine Capacity Varies widely, generally semi-automatic handguns are magazine fed with up to 20 rounds available per magazine. Generally around 6 rounds maximum. Varies widely, generally semi-automatic carbines are magazine fed with up to 20 rounds available per magazine.
Accessory Mounting Single rail models are available for a laser, light, or combination. Multiple rails can be mounted on some models for a wide array of accessories.
Storage Generally easy to store. A lot of fast access secure storage systems are available for handguns. A small number of fast access secure storage solutions are available for long guns.
Training Required Generally require a good deal of training and practice to operate and use effectively. Less training to effectively aim and fire with precision than other options.
Exposure Can be held in positions which do not expose the firearm while moving into and out of many situations. A short carbine or shotgun generally extends from the body about the same distance as a handgun held in the low ready position.

As you can see, each platform has various positive and negative aspects; there are always tradeoffs, but the carbine is a good all around choice for most people's home defense needs.

What do You Use?

My personal choice is to keep two firearms in the bedroom for home defense: A handgun and a carbine. The handgun is a 1911A1 in 38 Super with a rail mounted light, while the carbine is a Beretta CX-4 Storm in 40 S&W. The carbine has a rail mounted light and laser, as well as a red dot optical sight which aligns to the same position as the iron sights permanently mounted on the carbine. One full magazine in each firearm, one extra set of magazines, and an extra flashlight (actually two) complete the home defense setup in our house.