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A beginners' guide to home defense weapons and tactics.

Updated on August 18, 2011

As a former Marine and federal law enforcement agent I am often asked what weapons I recommend for home defense. Inevitably, I cannot immediately respond because there are many factors to consider. No individual weapon is correct for every person or situation. Every person must carefully answer a number of questions about themselves and develop a logical plan before making a decision of this importance.

Perhaps the most important question is “will I truly remain calm in a crisis?” On several occasions individuals have perceived a threat, reached for a firearm, and promptly killed a loved one. Any person contemplating a home defense firearm must understand that when confronted with a threat they will be unusually excited. If they allow that emotion to overcome common sense they will lose. One must dominate their “fight or flight” response in order to make the correct decision…that being shoot or don’t shoot. Consciously making that decision and having a general response plan will give an individual the tools needed to make intelligent decisions.

How do I develop a plan?

Developing a basic plan is reasonably straight forward. Start by determining what your likely threats are, when they are likely to come, and where the avenues of approach are. If you live in an inner city apartment with one door your plan will be dramatically different from someone in a rural area. The basic steps however will remain the same.

1. Ensure that your chosen weapon will be accessible and convenient at all times but especially during the hours of high vulnerability.

Use common sense when selecting these locations. Educate children concerning firearm safety repeatedly. Additionally, lock your weapon with a failsafe device. (When choosing a safety device think about manipulating it in the dark and under high tension.)

2. Estimate the time lapse between threat perception and confrontation.

As a threat enters your vicinity, at what point are you likely to perceive his presence? Most people will identify a threat as the door is opened or an opening is attempted. Determine how long it will take an assailant to reach your probable position from your initial threat perception.

3. Develop a basic plan of movement from your position to your weapon and then to a dominant defensive position.

It is imperative that you consider a reasonable time lapse. If it takes ten seconds for an assailant to get from the front door to your bedroom and thirty seconds for you to attain your firearm…the plan is flawed. Ideally, you want to be armed and in a covered position before your assailant crosses the threshold.

4. Rehearse your plan for each avenue of approach so that your action will be immediate and decisive during a crisis.

Rehearsals are the key to a successful defensive equation. If one chooses not to rehearse please stop reading now and do not complete this process. A life and death situation is similar to many sports, indeed most sports originated from warlike pursuits. In any sport, the team that practices the most both qualitatively and quantitatively will likely win. A defensive plan should be mentally and physically rehearsed periodically. The frequency of rehearsal depends upon the abilities of the individual, but after initial plan development one should rehearse daily for at least a week so that individual movements require little thought. After the basic plan is internalized, rehearse variables to that plan. For example, if you make your initial plan for nighttime what should you change for daylight hours? If you plan on perceiving the threat as they jiggle your door handle, how does the plan change if they kick to door in?

Think and rehearse several of these options but use common sense. One must beware of becoming overly paranoid. Over preparation can be as dangerous as little or no preparation. Always identify your target before you fire. Remember, friendly fire….isn’t friendly

How does one choose a firearm for home defense?

This question is probably the most common and there are more answers than one can count. The only correct response is that this depends on the individual, their lifestyle, and experience. The inexperienced person should stay with one or two firearm types. A short barreled pump-action shotgun or a double action revolver.

The pump-action shotgun is the best choice overall due to several simple facts.

1. It is easy to learn and manipulate. One can be familiar with a pump-action shotgun in a few short minutes and learn to shoot it effectively in a few hours. If setup properly only gross motor skills will be necessary.

2. Although it must be aimed (contrary to popular opinion), the larger size allows the user to follow a target at short range even under low light conditions.

3. The sight and sound of a cycling shotgun are very intimidating. (Either of these factors can easily cause a would-be assailant to soil himself while beating a hasty retreat.)

4. Standard buckshot loads will rarely over penetrate. If a shooting does occur there is a much better probability that buckshot will not end up several rooms down the hall.

5. Most pump-action shotguns are not prone to jam or misfire under standard loads. That being said, the chosen load should be tested and practiced with.

6. If one is forced to shoot an assailant the result will be immediately devastating.

The double action revolver is the second best choice.

1. Like the shotgun it is easy to learn and manipulate. It does require more practice. One must learn to focus on the front sight tip rather than the assailant.

2. It will not jam. If a misfire occurs, one simply pulls the trigger again (something that you won’t have trouble doing if you already had to pull it once).

3. With a moderate caliber and load, revolvers are not prone to over penetration. There are many different types. A large slow moving bullet is best for home defense.

A small amount of research will show that there has been significant debate on home defense weapon selection. Any weapon can be effective but most require a significant level of experience or training. For example, automatic handguns are very popular now but like any machine they are prone to certain malfunctions. All malfunctions can be addressed through familiarization and training but even among professionals there are many instances of failure. There are five basic cyclic malfunctions prone to automatic handguns. If one cannot identify the specific problem, clear the weapon, and reengage a target under adverse conditions in the dark with their chosen firearm, then they are using the wrong firearm. The brutal reality is that even few police officers are proficient with their sidearm in clearing malfunctions. If a semiautomatic pistol is chosen, one must live fire and practice removing these malfunctions at least once every two weeks at a minimum. Semiautomatic rifles are also popular today. However, they are also prone to a certain number of specific malfunctions. They are also designed to shoot longer distances and therefore prone to dramatic over penetration at short distance. While both of these firearm types are effective in the right hands, one must consider their own training level and dedication to practice before selecting a firearm.

The bad guys are here! A basic scenario.

Assuming that you have a plan, you have attained a firearm, you have trained yourself, and you have conducted rehearsals, the following scenario outlines the basic response in this unfortunate situation.

In the middle of the night you are awakened by someone forcing entry on your front door. Remember, “Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast”. You get up and move to your firearm. You quickly disengage the locks while listening for the progress of the intruder. As he gains entry you are assuming a dominant position where you can see and point your firearm at the intruder while exposing yourself as little as possible. As he gains entry you speak in a loud and commanding voice “Stop, Don’t Move, Show me your hands”. If he does not obey and you identify a threat of physical harm, shoot at the middle of his chest. Prepare to fire again if necessary. When the immediate threat has passed, approach your assailant slowly while maintaining a point of aim on his chest. Assure that he is either dead and/or disarmed. Regardless, using zip ties, secure his hands. When he is secure, call the police and turn on the lights both inside and out. Ensure there is no additional threat then unload and disarm yourself. When law enforcement arrives be visible, nonthreatening and ready to give a statement.

Things to Remember

In the course of an investigation for a law enforcement shooting, the investigators are generally trying to find three things. Did the assailant have means to conduct an assault, did he also have the opportunity to inflict harmand did he intend to act. When writing a statement for law enforcement, try to identify these things in the actions of your assailant.

In the above scenario the use of zip ties is illustrated after a shooting. These can obtained at any hardware store and can be extremely useful. In the intensity of the atmosphere surrounding a shooting one can easily mistake an unconscious person for a dead one. Securing your assailants hands will alleviate these apprehensions. Additionally, should one assailant be joined by another it is much easier to address the second individual without having to worry about the first. If the assailant is unarmed, alone, and compliant leave him where he is. Do not expose yourself to an attack by attempting to approach without need.

When using a shotgun as a defense weapon, the best status to leave it is with the magazine loaded, safety off, and with the firing pin home on an empty chamber. From this position (also referred to as “condition three” in the military or “hot standby” for law enforcement), one only has to pump the action and squeeze the trigger. This allows all the bonuses of using a shotgun without the drawbacks. One can also choose when to cycle the action producing that intimidating noise.

One of the crucial aspects of this issue is target identification. A weapon light is highly recommended for any home defense weapon. A bright light in the face of an assailant is very disconcerting and will temporarily blind anyone. A light also provides positive target identification preventing accidental death.

This guide is meant to educate people who have little or no experience with firearms or violent action. However, many of the simple premises contained here are largely unknown. I write only to enlighten and improve basic safety precaution in the home.


Have a Plan and Rehearse

Get the right tool for the job

Be mentally prepared at all times

Weapon Safety Rules

Treat every weapon as if it were loaded.

Never point you weapon at anything you do not intend to destroy.

Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you are ready to fire.

Keep your weapon on safe until you intend to fire.

"Without doubt one is allowed to resist against the unjust aggressor to one's life, one's goods or one's physical integrity; sometimes, even 'til the aggressor’s death.... In fact, this act is aimed at preserving one’s life or one’s goods and to make the aggressor powerless. Thus, it is a good act, which is the right of the victim."
- Thomas Aquinas


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    • RTalloni profile image


      2 years ago from the short journey

      Yes, it is sad. People who have been victimized are able to state that truth better than others.

      This has some important information, but on the ending I would like to add to TA's quote. When an aggressor is stopped, many more people are protected than the one who is being immediately victimized. Repeat offender is a phrase used far too often when it comes to violent crimes.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      2 years ago from Houston, Texas

      It is very sad that we even have to be concerned with such things. I do agree that anyone owning a gun should know how to use it and also practice so as not to panic in a real case scenario. Also keep it locked and safe so that kids do not find it, play with it and accidentally kill themselves or others. One hears that way too often these days on the news.

    • profile image

      Recon jack 

      4 years ago

      I appreciate the apparent contradiction but meant exactly what I said. The weapons safety rules were given as a general guideline and while they usually apply there are situations where one would not, this being one of them. I did not want to devolve Into a petty argument over which action is safest. In one sense, firearms are inherently unsafe I do not want my assailant to view my shotgun as a "safe" weapon right? Some weapons do not have a "safety" switch. The purpose of "hot standby" is to keep a round out of the chamber so the free floating firing pin on a shotgun doesn't shoot a hole through the roof of a patrol vehicle when crossing speed bumps. It also serves to remove fine motor skills from weapons manipulation during high stress. In practical use the pump sound would be the last thing your assailant heard before "boom" and his last opportunity to stop his action. When fractions of a second make the difference between life and death, the niceties of removing unnecessary safeties and calling someone else with a gun (I.e. Cops) could be just as deadly as inaction. This is basic home defense gunfighting 101.

    • profile image

      semper fi 

      4 years ago

      Those are the 4 weapon safety rules in the marine corps but he forgot to mention one that is unwritten and that's know your target and what lies beyond it. But to clarify "keep your weapon on safe until you intend to fire" he is saying that you have around already chambered so that when you intend to fire flip it to fire and then pull the trigger.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      This is an old post, but I think it's worth bringing up a contradiction in the content. The author says to keep a shotgun with "the magazine loaded, safety off, and with the firing pin home on an empty chamber."

      I don't disagree with this, but later the author says to "Keep your weapon on safe until you intend to fire." Safety off, or safety on? My opinion is safety is kept on until a threat is detected. You chamber a round (don't wait and "choose" when to do it because you don't know when you'll have to fire), flip the safety off, then engage. Of course barricading is the best possible strategy if available. Don't ever go looking for the bad guy. Get your family safe in one room or closet, barricade, have the cops on the phone the entire time, and wait. If he wants your TV, fine; no use risking your life if your family is safe. If he wants to harm your family... Well, that's not so fine.


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