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.