I received a lot of inquiries from soon to be first time gun owners in 2020. The overwhelming majority inquired what they should pick up for personal protection. Having previously written a beginner’s guide to the first firearm almost two years ago, I pointed them in that direction. However, deeper discussion about their needs I found that more often than not personal protection was about home defense given rising concerns about civil unrest, riots, and protests. After re-reading my two year old guide with the home defense concern in mind, I realized there was value in revisiting that topic and writing an updated guide that focused specifically on the home defense firearm. So here we are.
I believe there is still a lot of value and good information in that beginner’s guide. At the same time, I’ve received a lot more instruction pertaining to armed self defense since it was written and have developed some strong opinions on the topic of home defense that are different from what I shared in that guide. I’m going to start this guide by describing my ideal home defense weapon and then break down the considerations and offer some alternative options for this endeavor. I think it’s important to note that I don’t actually own what I consider to be the ideal home defense weapon. Rather, it’s what I would get now knowing what I know now.
So what do I think is the ideal home defense weapon? Simple, a short barreled lightweight AR-15 chambered for 5.56x45mm NATO accessorized with a M-LOK handguard, a red dot sight, a weapon mounted light, a two-point sling, and a suppressor. Easy, right? Okay, I admit it. It’s a rather tall order. Let’s break it down and explore this.
Update: A fellow reader pointed out this set up might not be ideal for a brand new gun owner, I agree. This setup has a higher learning curve in terms of maintenance and regulatory compliance (explained below), but I do think it’s an ideal set up worth the extra effort.
Let’s start with the obvious change in opinion. In the beginner’s guide, I suggested either a pistol or shotgun for personal protection. I still think a pistol is a great option for everyday carry both in the home and outside of the home. However, the pistol has some drawbacks. First, developing strong pistol marksmanship and defensive pistol skills is several orders of magnitude more difficult than that it is to accomplish with a rifle. Trust me on this, I’ve spent way more time practicing, training, and competing with a pistol than I have with a rifle and I’m still much better with a rifle. The next reason is that pistol cartridges just aren’t as effective at stopping threats as rifle cartridges are. I suspect some folks are going to be wondering about, or perhaps arguing about, over penetration concerns in densely populated environments. The truth is that concern is and should be present with all defensive firearms. The solution to the over penetration concern lies with appropriate ammunition selection and adequate marksmanship skills.
What about the shotgun? A home defense shotgun is still a good and viable option. However, it comes with its own set of drawbacks and also with a lot of myths. The most common myth I come across is the idea that you only have to point and shoot a shotgun. The fact is at the home defense encounter ranges one still has to aim the shotgun. Another fact is that we still have to worry about over penetration. Perhaps the biggest drawback to the shotgun is how difficult it is to accessorize it compared to an AR-15 which is something I would still like to do. While it is possible to similarly accessorize a shotgun the accessory options are a lot more limited. Bottom line, as far as I am concerned, I would only select a shotgun over an AR-15 when forced to do so due to local jurisdictional restrictions.
What about other types of rifles? Truth is I don’t have much experience with any other types of rifles with the exception of bolt action rifles. The primary issue, in my opinion, with bolt action rifles for home defense is their overall length which makes them difficult to maneuver around doorways and hallways. They also have the same challenge shotguns have in terms of accessory selection. Last, but not least, is that bolt action just isn’t as easy to operate as the semi automatic action of the AR-15. On the other hand, maintaining an AR-15 is more involved than other types of rifles.
Back to the AR-15, which I was very specific about. Let’s break it down.
Why an SBR? SBR stands for short barreled rifle. An SBR is a specific firearm classification by the National Firearms Act of 1934 and regulated by the ATF. This means one can’t simply walk into a gun store, buy one, pass a background check, and take it home (after any waiting period required in one’s local jurisdiction). Instead, the acquisition is much more involved and rigorous process identical to the process of procuring a silencer, which involves more forms, finger prints, a $200 tax stamp, and a long approval process before taking possession of the firearm. The additional regulation also imposes some additional requirements in order to stay legal with it and can make travel across state lines with the firearm much more cumbersome. Not to mention local jurisdictions may make possession of an SBR impossible.
Right about now I expect some readers to be wondering why I’m suggesting an SBR instead of an AR-pistol. For those who don’t know, an AR-pistol is pretty much what it sounds like – a shorter barreled AR-pattern firearm without a stock (usually accompanied by an arm brace) that meets the NFA’s definition of a pistol and is therefore not subject to the additional ATF regulations. While I have nothing against AR-pistols, it’s important to note that an owner can accessorize it or configure it in such a way that it puts the pistol in SBR territory without much effort (and therefore making it an illegal weapon). While I’m not a lawyer (and I’m not offering legal advice), I suspect that an AR-pistol could be heavily scrutinized after a defensive altercation and potentially introduce additional legal challenges for the defense team. It’s pure speculation on my part, but I’d personally rather go the SBR route and deal with the additional regulatory hurdles up front and avoid the configuration limits that need to be observed to keep an AR-pistol legal.
The key thing about SBR is the ability to have a shorter overall length (and lighter) rifle to better maneuver around the angles found in the home. Given everything I’ve read and discussions I’ve had with folks who know way more about this than I do, a barrel length of 11.5″ is as short as I would go to ensure the 5.56 NATO cartridge retains enough ballistic performance to do what it needs to do defensively. If an SBR is out of the question, then I would personally fall back to a 16″ AR-15 carbine with similar specifications (rather than the AR-pistol based on the reasons mentioned above).
I’m specifically calling out an M-LOK hand guard for a couple of reasons. First M-LOK handguards are lighter than the quad Picatinny rail. M-LOK is also currently the most widely supported accessory attachment standard supported in the market and it’s beat out its competition in terms of attachment strength and reliability. This will provide a platform on which to attach a weapon mounted light (WML).
A WML is an essential accessory in my opinion. I’ve said it many times: “We are responsible for every bang, and accountable for every hit.” In the context of home defense, the possibility exists of an encounter in low light or no light conditions. While a WML isn’t a replacement for a non-weapon mounted source, it provides a light source that will ensure positive target identification in those conditions when both hands are on the shouldered rifle.
Red dot sights (RDS) are life for defensive weapons. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of low powered variable optics (LPVO) on AR-15s. Heck, I’ve even suggested running both an LVPO and an RDS on a general purpose AR-15 (and I’m still a huge fan of that configuration). However, a home defense SBR has a single purpose and because of that I want a single optic suited to that application to minimize weight and maximize effectiveness. A RDS ticks off all the boxes for this application in my opinion. The main features I care about on a durable and rugged RDS is an always on feature and a long battery life. This ensures I don’t have to fiddle with turning anything on to get it running when it’s needed and I don’t have to worry about the battery dying (assuming it’s replaced regularly). Why not a holographic sight? First, I don’t have any experience with them. Second, I’ve yet to find one that has both an always on feature and a battery life that remotely compares the battery life found on RDSs.
A sling is to a rifle as a holster is to a pistol. At least, I’ve heard that parroted enough times that it’s often the first thing that pops into my mind when somebody asks me why they should have a sling. In the context of home defense (or really any defensive situation), a sling offers additional retention to reduce the chances of the weapon being taken from them. Keeping attached to the rifle provides us with the opportunity to use it given an opportunity to sling the rifle.
Last, but not least, is the suppressor (or silencer). Like an SBR, the procurement process is lengthy and imposes additional regulatory requirements since it is an item also governed by the NFA. As such, this may not be an option for some folks depending on the laws of their local jurisdiction. However, if it is available I highly recommend it for a number of different reasons. First reason is that it provides instant hearing protection for everyone (including the pets) in the home. Rifles are loud. Instant hearing damage loud. Rifles in doors will seem louder (due to the acoustics of the home). With a suppressor, the rifle will still be loud just not instant hearing damage loud (hearing damage can still occur with sustained exposure). The next reason is flash suppression. This isn’t so much as to hide your position as much as it is to avoid being disoriented by the flash of the muzzle in low light or no light conditions. Not a lot of folks have spent time shooting in low light (I’ve only done a little bit of it myself) and are not aware (or don’t expect) the bright flash from the muzzle. The flash will be bright enough that it will cause the pupils of the eyes to adjust to the bright flash and then readjust to the low light conditions. This makes follow up shots slower since we have to maintain positive target identification. A WML will mitigate the effects of the flash on the eyes, but it can be mitigated further with a suppressor.