Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Firearm recommendations for home defense, Part 1

Following my post yesterday about the dangers of relying on calling 911 for assistance, I've had a few e-mails asking me to suggest a suitable firearm for home defense. (I might add that the famous Fred has a new column up, reinforcing what I said yesterday. It's worth reading.)

Let me give you a little background about me first. I've taught basic firearms use and safety procedures to many people over more than twenty-five years, first in a foreign country, then here in the USA. I work mainly with disabled and/or handicapped shooters, because they have very specific needs and circumstances that aren't well understood by many instructors - it's a specialized field. Suffice it to say that I think I know my stuff, and I offer these suggestions from that background.

I don't propose to go into the whole field of how to select a firearm. Everyone's choice will be affected by whether or not they want to carry the firearm around with them (in which case a handgun is far more concealable than a long gun); the amount of training they're willing to put in; their capacity to master the firearm in question; etc. A really superb resource discussing this may be found at The Cornered Cat (it's also listed in my sidebar). Kathy and her friends have done a magnificent job in covering the basic issues, and I see no reason to try to improve on their efforts (largely because I can't!). See the section on Choosing Firearms and read the articles provided. You'll learn a lot, and it's all good advice. (Take the time to read the rest of the site, while you're at it. It's a fount of good ideas and information.)

For the purposes of this article, I want to concentrate on something that's suitable for home defense, and that satisfies three issues:

  • LOW COST. Many of those inquiring have emphasized that they can't afford to spend very much money. I know that economically, times are tough for many people. I'm therefore going to recommend a solution that won't cost you an arm and a leg, but which is nevertheless a completely trustworthy instrument to defend your life and your loved ones.
  • RELIABLE. There are many cheap guns out there that I wouldn't trust as a boat-anchor! If you're trusting your life to a firearm, it had better be reliable and completely bug-free. There's nothing worse than hearing a 'click!' or a 'sproinnng!' when you really, really need to hear a bang!
  • SIMPLE TO OPERATE. People want a firearm that's simple to load, shoot and make safe. Many of them won't have time or opportunity for regular or extended practice sessions. In this respect, a handgun is perhaps the most demanding self-defense weapon: it takes training and constant practice to use one well. I'll therefore recommend something that's as simple as possible.

My recommended home defense weapon for a complete beginner is a twenty-gauge (20ga.) shotgun. The 20ga. has considerably less recoil than the more common twelve-gauge (12ga.) shotgun, and is very controllable even in novice hands: but it nevertheless packs a considerable 'punch', more than sufficient for defensive use. I invite those who scoff at the 20ga. to consider the following table. It compares the 20ga. buckshot and slug rounds to the 12ga., and to common handgun and rifle law enforcement rounds. The energy comparison in the last column might surprise you!

All figures for bullet weight, velocity, etc. are taken from the respective manufacturers' Web sites. You'll note that the standard 20ga. buckshot load has three times or more muzzle energy than any of the handgun calibers, and quite a bit more than even the .223 (5.56mm.) rifle round, which is the standard issue of our Armed Forces in their M16 rifles. It's not far behind the bigger and heavier-recoiling 12ga. rounds, either. It's got more than enough punch to do the job, provided that you put the rounds where they need to go. Those who say that the 20ga. isn't big enough or powerful enough for defensive use simply don't know what they're talking about - and you can tell 'em I said so!

I further recommend a pump-action shotgun (also referred to as a slide-action), rather than a semi-auto weapon. This is because a pump-action is very easy to manipulate, simple to learn, and isn't affected by lower-powered ammunition. A semi-auto shotgun has to be kept very clean and properly lubricated, and doesn't like being neglected: and lower-power practice ammo (which can be purchased cheaply - an important consideration) may not cycle its action properly. Those concerns simply disappear when a pump-action is used.

I also recommend buying the Youth model of a shotgun, rather than the full-size version. The Youth model is shorter than the standard models, and easier for people of short stature and/or lighter body weight to manipulate. This is important! A big, strapping male may be able to handle a full-size shotgun very easily: but what if his wife, or girlfriend, or teenage child, has to take the shotgun and use it to defend themselves - or him? They won't be able to handle it so easily. A smaller shotgun, on the other hand, can be used by anybody and everybody. Large men can easily adjust to its size, and smaller-statured persons won't have the same problems with it as they will with a full-size gun. If both men and women will shoot this shotgun, or may do so in future, then a Youth model is definitely the way to go.

As for a specific make and model: I recommend the Mossberg 500 Bantam to most people. There are no less than 17 models listed on Mossberg's Web site, but the specific model I recommend most is the 54132 (third from the top at the link). It's pictured below.

There are a number of reasons why I recommend this particular shotgun:

  • The Mossberg is significantly lower in price than its main competition, the Remington 870 Express in Youth or Express Jr. models. At the time of writing, Remington's suggested retail price is $373 or $445 respectively: Mossberg's is $338. While the Remington is an excellent shotgun, I'm not sure it's worth that much more. Street prices are typically lower than the manufacturers' recommendations. For example, at the time of writing, Academy Sports lists the Mossberg Model 54132 at $209.99, and the Remington 870 Express Youth at $279.99. Your local gunshop will usually be higher-priced than this, but probably not more than twenty to thirty percent above these figures.
  • The quality of manufacture of the Mossberg is equal, in my experience, to the Remington or any other shotgun.
  • The Mossberg holds six rounds (five in the magazine plus one in the chamber), whereas the Remington holds five (four plus one). That extra round might come in very useful!
  • The Mossberg comes with three screw-in chokes. Briefly, for non-experts, these tighten or loosen the pattern of the shot you fire, to cover a narrower or wider circle at a given range. Since three are supplied with the gun, you can 'tune' your shotgun to shoot well at a given distance with your load of choice. The Remington comes with only one screw-in choke, and you have to pay plus-or-minus $20-$25 apiece to buy more - an expenditure you won't incur with the Mossberg.
  • The Mossberg's safety-catch is on the top rear of the receiver, making it easily accessible for both right- and left-handed shooters. The Remington's is on the trigger-guard, and is less convenient and easy to manipulate for left-handed shooters. This may not be a factor for you: but if you have family members (or visitors) who are differently-handed than yourself, it can make their lives much easier.
  • There are a huge number of after-market accessories available for both the Mossberg and the Remington, including receiver-mounted ammunition holders, extra barrels, sight systems, and so on. You can customize either one to your heart's content (although I don't recommend doing so - the basic shotgun is just fine for most people).

Finally, I recommend buying a new shotgun rather than a used one. There are three reasons for this:

  • A used shotgun won't be that much cheaper than a new one. The cheapest used Mossberg or Remington shotguns I've seen (in gun stores and pawn shops), that were in good condition, have ranged in price from $175-$250. As you can see from the prices I've quoted above, this isn't much of a saving - if any - over the price of a new Mossberg.
  • If you don't know what to look for, you won't be able to evaluate the condition of a used shotgun in the proper way. I can do so, and others who have enough experience can do so, but I'm assuming you don't yet have that experience. Don't trust a 'friend' to 'choose a good one for you' unless he has the credentials to back up his claims!
  • If you buy a new shotgun, you get the benefit of the manufacturer's warranty in case anything goes wrong. This isn't likely - but you never know.

There's a lot more to say about suitable defensive ammunition, initial and ongoing practice, etc. I'll address those topics tomorrow night. Meanwhile, I hope this has given you some food for thought.



Diamond Mair said...

I'm SO GLAD to see you recommend the Mossberg - when my spousal unit was working in Europe, and our daughter & I were out on 5 acres, alone with our cats, I went to the local Academy & got our "Ms. Mossberg" - D. & I went to the local range for familiarization {she didn't like it, said she would turn it around & use it as a club - she's now working on her concealed carry ;-) }; thank God, we've never had to use it, but knowing it's here should I need it {hubby works 2nd shift, doesn't get home before 2300} is ......................... comforting .....................

Semper Fi'

Anonymous said...


I am in the market for a 20 ga, but had settled on the 57110, giving up the extra shell for a 3 1/4" reduction in length, to make doorway clearings easier.

What are your thoughts on that trade off?


Peter said...

Steve, you're giving up 2" in barrel length and 1" in LOP. I'm not sure that a 3" change is going to make that much difference in going through doorways. 6" or more, sure, but the difference in this case is far less.

Another factor is that the weight drops from 6½ pounds to 5¼. This makes it lighter and handier, but a 20% reduction in weight translates to about a 15%-20% increase in recoil. You'll notice this particularly with buckshot and slug loads. It'll make the 20ga. recoil feel about the same as a full-house 12ga. Can you live with this?

Other than that, sure, your choice is a good one. Enjoy!

Unknown said...

Be sure to save these posts somewhere for easy access. Lots of good info.

I'll be getting a 12 gauge myself at some point, mainly because I won a case of ammo and targets at a raffle. But I can certainly see why you recommend the 20 gauge.

phlegmfatale said...

Peter - thank you so much for this series. I can personally attest to the wisdom of the youth-model Mossberg for short-of-stature folks. With the benefit of some superb instruction (THANKS, Peter & Lawdog!), I found the handling and firing of this shotgun much more comfortable in practice than I'd feared it might be. What you've written here is a great source of information for folks trying to make the best choices for home defense.

Gun Trash said...

Ten yrs ago I walked into my local Dick's Sporting Goods store and found a returned (but practically new) Mossberg 500 Persuader 12 ga with 26" bbl on sale for $159. I snapped it up and then got myself a 16" Hecho in Mexico barrel off the Internet for $29 plus $5 UPS delivery. It's been under the bed since except for its yearly visit to the range.

I go to sleep every night in peace knowing that firearm is within arms reach.

Xavier said...

Excellent post Peter!

FWIW, I find Mossberg 500s up her in pawn shops for $125 with regularity. True, they are not pretty, but they are functional. These particular shotguns usually have a full wooden stock and a non-ribbed barrel with a 5 round magazine.

If you need a couple, let me know.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest that you replace the ammo at least once a year.

Take the old out and practice.

Shotgun ammo seems to weakin quicker than fun brass ammo.

Please note that ammo kept in an airconditioned and heated home will last for years. But.....

You never want to pull the triger and hear a pop in stead of a boom.

Donald Sensing said...

Another reason to use a shotgun for in-home defense is the old saying that you really use a handgun just to fight your way to your shotgun.

My local sheriff (former Marine and retired federal officer) told me years ago that a .410 with double-oh or a slug was the best choice. Practically no recoil to consider, one hit he said would be as effective as at least six hits with a 9,mm pistol, and no significant danger of a missed shot continuing to the other end of the house, striking someone there.

They make pump .410 shotguns, too. Mossberg is an excellent choice for this use; they used to have the contract for the armed forces.

Peter said...

@Rev. Sensing: I agree, with the caveat that a .410 is a very light load, and not nearly as effective as a 20ga. or 12ga. For example, you can buy revolvers such as the Taurus Judge, which fire either .410 shotgun rounds or .45 Colt cartridges. The latter delivers more energy and effect on target than does the former! For that reason, I suggest the .410 only to those who really can't handle the recoil of a 20ga.

Nicholas Darkwater said...

Another key advantage of a pump shotgun is the unmistakable sound of chambering a shell.

My mother discovered this many years ago when home alone at night with small children (Dad was off doing World War II). She heard sounds of someone outside checking the windows, so she pulled the 20-gauge from under the bed (Dad was sure that she knew all about it, & those were different times anyway). Once she jacked the pump back & forward to chamber a shell, all she heard was someone beating feet out of there. She called the base police & all they found were large men's footprints around a couple of windows.

Nothing else in the world makes a sound like that. But with all the drugs so freely available today, it's best to know that you will need to be prepared to follow through with a well-aimed shot to center-of-mass.

MattB said...

Appalachian Gun Trash-- Don't you mean a 18" Hecho in Mexico barrel? Cause legal minimum length in US is 18".

Luke H said...

Thanks for a great article.

In Aus pump-action and semi-auto are not an option sadly, so given the alternatives (lever, bolt, double etc) what would you recommend?

On a similar vein: http://www.chuckhawks.com/savage_slug_gun.htm

Never heard of slug guns before, and can they fire shot?

Thanks in advance


Peter said...

Luan, a slug gun has a rifled barrel, so it won't pattern well with birdshot or buckshot. Great for firing slugs at longer ranges, of course.

There's nothing wrong with a good double-barrel shotgun. Their only deficiency in relation to pumps and semi-autos is limited ammo capacity before you have to reload; and for home defense, if you train yourself to put your rounds where they need to go, and have a couple of reloads between the fingers of your support hand, you can take care of a lot of business if you have to.

I've never used a lever-action or bolt-action shotgun, so I can't comment from personal experience. I know the early Winchester lever-action shotgun was well thought of in the late 19th century, and modern Chinese-made replicas of it are available.

(I thought defensive use of firearms was pretty much a no-no in Australia? Don't your police and courts frown on it?)

Jeff C. in NC said...

I was wondering if 20 gauge slugs will go through the different choke tube without damage to the barrel. The wife has an O/U she really likes.

Peter said...

@jeff campbell: Generally, yes, they will; but it'll put excessive strain on the barrel and choke threads if your choke is any tighter than Modified. For slug use, I typically use an Improved Cylinder choke, and never greater than Modified.