Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Firearm recommendations for home defense, Part 2

Yesterday, in the first of a three-part series on firearms for home defense, I recommended a 20ga. youth shotgun as a particularly suitable tool for novice users. Tonight I'd like to focus on the threat confronting a home defender, how to target it, and the ammunition needed to do the job. Tomorrow I'll consider training to acquire basic competence with the weapon, and other issues.

First, let's consider the threat environment. You want to defend your home against burglary, invasion, etc. The shotgun - or any firearm - is your last, repeat, LAST line of defense - not your first! You should have some form of perimeter security in place: not necessarily an electrified fence equipped with land-mines, but something that will keep casual intruders out. A regular fence will do this. If your home is open to the street, with no barriers, that's an invitation to the wrong kind of people. You should also take steps to light the exterior of your property at night. This needn't be football-stadium floodlighting, of course: a few lights here and there, plus the reflected light from street lamps, will provide enough illumination to make it easier to spot an intruder.

Also, you shouldn't provide cover for intruders. I suggest you read newspaper reports about attacks at home. There are many stories about a husband or wife arriving home, getting out of the car, and being attacked by someone jumping out from behind a bush or an outbuilding. Try to eliminate such cover for intruders. Leave yourself some open space to get into and out of your vehicle, and to and from your home, so that you have time to react. If necessary, rearrange your garden to make that possible.

As for your home itself, try to make it as intruder-proof as possible. Don't use thin, hollow-core exterior doors: go for something thicker and stronger. A burly man can kick through an average light door with ease, but not a solid door mounted securely to a heavy door-frame. That's right - check the frames as well. I've seen a few homes with a metal security door, fastened to a flimsy 2x4 framework. Any strong intruder could kick the door right out of the frame! The same consideration applies to windows. Try to select ones that latch securely, and can't be easily opened by someone smashing a pane of glass and reaching inside. If you live in a high-crime area, and can't move, consider burglar bars on your windows and an external metal security gate or grille over each door. It's also a good idea to use strong locks and deadbolts on your exterior doors, and perhaps a door brace as well (here's an example).

(Important note: make sure that whilst you make it as difficult as possible to get in, you can nevertheless get out in a hurry if you need to. There's no sense in being burned to death in a house fire because your security precautions prevented you from evacuating!)

You should also, if possible, have some sort of audible warning of intruders. A burglar alarm is a good thing, as are movement alarms on your doors similar to those sold for use in hotels (here's one example, or you can get one built into a door brace, like this one). Dogs are just as good, if not better, because they won't only sound a warning, but will bite (at least, some of them will!). It's not a good idea to leave your dogs outside in the grounds. They can be fed poisoned meat, or otherwise disposed of. An indoor dog will do his or her part to protect the family - and provide good company to boot. Their barking may also scare off an intruder without the need for more drastic measures.

OK, you've taken all those precautions, and Joe Scumbag has nevertheless decided that he wants what you have and is determined to get it. You confront him (hopefully having been warned of his entry by noise, or your dogs, or an alarm), and you're armed with your trusty shotgun. What next?

First, bear in mind that the range inside your house will likely be short, and consequently your reaction time is going to be severely limited. The famous Tueller Drill has demonstrated time and time again that a fit person can cover a distance of 7 yards (21 feet) in less than two seconds from a standing start. Shorter distances will take even less time. You won't have time for fancy Hollywood stunts like shooting for the legs, or trying to shoot the knife or club out of his hand. You shoot for the center of mass, the largest part of the body (which also happens to contain the most vital organs).

Also, keep shooting until he stops his attack. Remember that. You don't shoot once, then stop and wait for him to say, "Oh, dearie me," and sink gracefully to the floor. If he's hopped-up on something, the odds are pretty good that he'll keep coming: so you keep shooting until he's no longer a threat.

Another thing. If he attacks you, even if he doesn't have a weapon visible in his hands, he can still disable or kill you with his bare hands! Remember the article I linked to, two days ago. One blow - one single blow - did this:

The Brisbane security guard seriously assaulted at a Fortitude Valley nightclub over the weekend says he didn't really believe that one punch could kill until he was attacked.

Steve Hendry, 22, sustained a fractured skull after being elbowed by a patron at the Empire Hotel on Brunswick Street in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Mr Hendry, a security guard at the nightclub, was trying to break up a fight between a group of patrons, and had been restraining a man who had attacked a smaller man.

He was elbowed in the head by another man, who then left the nightclub.

"I remember feeling (the hit) and I dropped the guy and I dropped to the ground," he said.

Mr Hendry said a police officer who attended the scene, and who also happened to be one of a his friends, had told him he needed an ambulance.

He suffered two seizures and was taken to the Royal Brisbane Hospital, where he spent about eight hours on life support and 30 in intensive care.

"I was very lucky," he said.

"(Doctors) said that for a while they didn't know if I was going to make it through or not. It could have been the end of me."

That could be you, dear reader. If an intruder gets to you, you could be just as badly hurt by a single blow. Also, if he gets his hands on your weapon, he'll have something with which he can kill you, and/or your loved ones, and/or anyone else who gets in his way in future. Don't hesitate. By all means command an intruder, "Stop! Don't move!" However, if he moves after that (except to run away - in which case let him go, and let the police catch him), don't hesitate. Shoot him, and keep on shooting him until he stops his attack.

Take a look at the two diagrams below. One shows the layout of the internal organs of the body: the other shows the skeleton of the torso. (Click it to enlarge the view.)

You can see that the vital organs - heart, lungs, and the circulatory system that runs between them - are all protected by the ribcage. You need to have a weapon and ammunition that can shoot through the protective bone around them, penetrate deep enough in flesh to reach them, and damage them sufficiently to interrupt circulation. It's a bonus if your ammunition is powerful enough to reach the spine and break the spinal cord. The latter is a guaranteed instant stop: the former will produce a stop, but it may take a while. A fit, strong man (particularly if hopped-up on some or other narcotic, or in the grip of violent rage) may take as long as thirty seconds or more before the loss of blood to the brain stops him.

Remember, we're not shooting to kill: we're shooting to stop. Unfortunately for Joe Scumbag, stopping a human being can often inflict enough damage to kill him, but that's not our intention. We only want to stop the illegal and illegitimate attack on our persons. Once that's been done, Joe can get medical attention. If he's beyond help, remember, it was his choice to commit a crime, and the responsibility for his injuries and/or death rests upon him - not you. You are absolutely entitled, legally and morally, to defend your life and the lives of your loved ones. If you have to do so, and succeed, don't go on a guilt trip.

There's another aspect to stopping an attack - pain. If your shots hurt the intruder sufficiently, he may stop whatever he's doing at once, without your having to wait for the interruption of his circulation to affect his brain. However, this can't be relied upon. Someone who's high on drugs won't feel the pain too badly, and some people have a higher tolerance for pain than others. Fortunately, in your shotgun you have a weapon that will cause enough damage to inflict a fair amount of pain on the victim. This may be useful.

So, you need to interrupt the intruder's circulatory system and/or shut down his nervous system in order to stop him. That narrows down your choice of targets significantly. Take a look at the diagram below, the organs of the human torso, with a cross-hair and two circles superimposed on them.

Your point of aim - the place on the intruder's body where you put the bead sight of your shotgun - is the intersection of the horizontal line running from armpit to armpit, and the vertical line running down the spine. Your buckshot will spread to fill a circle roughly as illustrated on the diagram. At close range (5 to 10 yards) it'll fill the smaller circle. At longer range (15 to 20 yards) it'll fill the larger circle. Either way, some of it will impact the heart, the lungs, and perhaps the blood vessels running between them: and some of the buckshot pellets (or the slug) have a chance to make it through all of the tissue and hit the spine.

If the intruder isn't facing you squarely, you have to adjust your point of aim. The horizontal line remains the same, at armpit level: but the vertical line will move to the center line of his torso as he stands before you. If he's turned partly to one side, take the centerline of the torso as you see it, and use that as your vertical "cross-hair". If he's turned 90 degrees to one side, take the mid-point of his shoulder as your vertical line. Remember that in the latter case, his arm adds tissue and bone between you and the vital organs in his chest, and buckshot may not make it through that extra tissue to hit them. Personally, under such circumstances I'll raise my point of aim and shoot at the head: but I'm good enough with a shotgun that I'm willing to shoot at the smaller target. As a beginner, until you're comfortable with your shotgun and how it shoots, stick with the larger target of the torso.

You need to select your ammunition with a view to penetrating deep enough in the human torso to reach those vital organs and nerve centers. This also, unfortunately, means that your ammunition may penetrate through interior - even exterior - walls, posing a risk to others. There's no easy way out of this dilemma. You need to use effective ammunition, and hit your target. If you do so, even if some of that ammunition exits the body of your target, it will have expended much of its energy in passing through him, and be much less likely to hurt others. The ultimate answer to the problem of over-penetration is accuracy: making sure that your ammunition hits its intended target, and not something else.

There are three types of shotgun ammunition.

  • Birdshot is intended for birds - hence the name. It's tiny, almost lead dust in the smaller sizes, and typically won't penetrate very deeply in large targets. I don't regard it as suitable for defensive use.
  • Buckshot is, again, what its name suggests - designed for use against deer. If it'll take out a 150- to 250-pound deer, the odds are pretty good that it'll do the same to a human being of similar weight. It's a good choice for defensive ammo.
  • Slugs are a single projectile, rather than multiple smaller projectiles, and were originally also intended for hunting. They're an excellent choice for defense, but will penetrate more than buckshot, so they pose a greater risk of over-penetration. Also, because they don't spread out like buckshot at longer ranges, accuracy is crucial. There are two types of slugs, those intended for smoothbore barrels and those intended for rifled barrels. Make sure you buy slugs that will work in your barrel. Typically, any slug described as 'saboted' is designed for a rifled barrel, and won't be accurate in a smoothbore barrel.

The Firearms Tactical Institute (FTI) did a study on shotgun home defense ammunition back in 1998. Please go to that link and read it, as it covers a lot of background that I don't have space or time for here. Suffice it to say that in a 20ga. shotgun, I endorse their recommendation of a 3" Magnum #2 buckshot round as the top choice, followed by the 2¾" shell with #3 buckshot as a (very good) second choice for those who find the recoil of the 3" Magnum shell a bit too much for comfort. The major US shotgun ammo manufacturers (Federal, Remington and Winchester) produce multiple variations of these loads, and they all tend to be pretty good. The higher-priced "premium" loads are usually made with more accurately cast shot, and more buffer material to cushion the pellets during firing, making for a tighter pattern. I think they're worth their higher price.

However, FTI believes that slugs are a poor home defense ammo choice because of the over-penetration problem. I respectfully disagree. If someone's heavy-set or obese, or wearing thick winter clothing, buckshot may not penetrate deep enough to reach vital organs or nerve centers: so I personally recommend slugs as a very viable choice, provided that you can be accurate with them. (We'll deal with training and practice tomorrow). I'm prepared to live with the risk of over-penetration in the interests of winning the fight, which to me is a higher priority. The three manufacturers mentioned above all produce 20ga. slug loads: but my personal preference in shotgun slugs for defensive use, in any gauge, is the Brenneke KO range. These are superbly accurate and hit very hard. At the time of writing, their new supply of 20ga. slugs hasn't arrived from Germany, but as soon as they get to this country (probably in August or September) I'm going to lay in a couple of cases.

My preferred load in a 20ga. shotgun, and the one I recommend to my students once they're trained to an acceptable level of competence and accuracy, is to alternate a round of buckshot with a round of slug. I keep my Mossberg loaded with an empty chamber and four rounds in the magazine (one less than full capacity, so as not to strain the spring too much). I load them into the magazine as slug-buckshot-slug-buckshot. That way, when I cycle the action, the first round into the chamber is buckshot, the second slug, and then the pattern is repeated. I intend to use two rounds per target. If the buckshot doesn't get through, the slug will. I can then either repeat that on the same target, if necessary, or transition to a second target (if there is one).

I know a number of shooters who prefer to follow FTI's recommendation and use all buckshot in their "ready load", with slugs available for a quick reload if necessary. That's also a perfectly viable choice, and I don't think they'll have any problem in dealing with Joe Scumbag if they have to. You'll have to make your own selection once you've learned to use your shotgun and gained experience.

You may find it difficult to buy premium defensive loads in 20ga. from local gunshops. Many of them don't keep much stock in that gauge. I suggest you ask them to order some for you, or order it yourself from online retailers. There are many of them, stocking a wide range of products. Try, for example, Midway USA, Cheaper Than Dirt, or Cabelas. There are many others - a quick Internet search will find them. Compare prices between them, choose the supplier you prefer, and they'll deliver your ammo right to your door. For cheaper loads (particularly birdshot for practice), Wal-Mart is as good as anyplace, and they're low-cost.

Tomorrow we'll discuss firearms safety, initial training, storage, and other issues. I hope this series is proving helpful to you so far.



JPG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JPG said...

Whoops - - previous comment contained an unfortunate misspelling.
Interesting series, Peter. On the whole, I agree with you in your conclusions and advice. I’ve never fired a shotgun at any human being. Never had to. On at least three occasions --twice in line of duty, once intensely personal -- I’ve presented the muzzle for inspection and it was never found wanting.

Understand, as my targets understood: I was never bluffing. A bluff is when you’re either unwilling or unable to make good a threat. If one is prepared to take action instantly and without consideration, it is NOT a bluff. The decision is already taken to destroy the adversary; HE is the one who causes the hammer to fall.

If one is not ALREADY reconciled to taking the needful action, one should reconsider one’s plan.

In an indoor home defense scenario, if buckshot is an option, I believe it should be the primary option, backed up by slugs. I personally don’t believe in alternating ammunition types. I prefer two to three buckshot being fired first, with two or three slugs going last -- loading the slugs first, and then the buck. This is pattern loading, and has some tactical basis. Buckshot allows some small margin for error, plus is less likely to over penetrate. Remember, no. 3 buckshot is only .25” in diameter, and weighs under 30 grains. Multiple buckshot hits are needed to be effective. Otherwise, a single hit is less effective than a strike from a 29-grain .22 short bullet. A 20 ga. slug (over 1/2 ounce,) though, is effective at a far greater range.

While at it, I’ll say I believe the danger of over penetration is usually overstated. Home defense is NOT firing blindly into a crowded schoolroom. A blunt, soft lead slug is NOT very apt to do a lot of penetration past the target. If a slug passes through a bad guy without meeting large bone, goes through a wall not hitting structural members, and then taps some hapless passerby (in the deed, dark, dead of night?) then someone’s just having a bad day. If you consider all the wide open space, vice the few possible unlucky non-participants, this is NOT reason enough to sacrifice the use of effective ammunition.

Sorry to be so long winded, but your entry is quite thought provoking.

Peter said...

Thanks for the feedback, Johnny. You've "been there and done that", in the line of duty and personally, plenty of times, so your views carry the seal of authority as far as I'm concerned.

We'll have to respectfully disagree about alternating buck and slug rounds, but I do take your point. I prefer to have both options "on tap" at once, but I've been known to use all slug loads when I could be sure of no overpenetration problems - I'm accurate enough to be able to put them where I want them. I don't know that I'd be happy with an all-buckshot load, as I want the option to clobber Joe Scumbag with something big and heavy at a moment's notice.

See you soon.

phlegmfatale said...

Thanks so much, Peter. This is a great source of information.