Throwback Thursday: The Best Handgun for Home Defense?

Today, we will take a look at the three most commonly recommended home defense handguns. These are the high-capacity 9mm, .357 Magnum revolver, and .45 ACP self-loading handgun. Each is a good choice for some, but there is a better choice for other individuals. I cannot pick the handgun for you anymore than I could pick your college or spouse, but I can lead you toward the right choice.

It’s Not All Hardware

Training is most important. After many years of study, I learned that quite a few cops and civilians alike cannot hold their mud in an emergency. Sometimes training puts you at odds with instincts. You must train and commit to muscle memory the tactics you will use.

three revolver with different barrel lengths
The Charter Arms Boxer (bottom) is a good carry gun. The 4-inch barrel Smith and Wesson (center) is a good carry and outdoors gun. The six-inch Taurus .357 Magnum (top) is an excellent home defender.

Many times, the attacker is someone who has been at war with their own psyche. Most often they self-destruct at some point in their life. Don’t let them take you with them. Whichever of the following handguns you choose, you cannot shortchange yourself on training time. Training overcomes fear.

Training in the basics is important. Learning the concealed carry draw, getting into a firing position, or taking cover is important. In home defense, quickly springing into action from sleep, or at the least a relaxed state, is difficult. You will be closed in. Movement will be restricted. If you live alone retreating to a corner is a good tactic, if you have a family you cannot afford to do that. (I won’t relate to you the number of ‘moms and dads’ that jumped out of a window and refused to confront an intruder, leaving small children to fend for themselves.)

Concealed carry and home defense are quite different. In concealed carry, certain compromises in size, weight, and caliber are made. You simply cannot carry a six-inch barrel revolver concealed. A Government Model 1911 .45 or longslide FN 9 may be a burden. More likely, you will carry a Commander .45, slim line 9, or three-inch barrel .38 concealed.

For home defense, no such restriction applies. No handgun is too large to fight with. Some shooters simply slide the daily carry gun into the home defense slot. And that isn’t a bad program, considering the familiarity you should have built into the type. However, if you carry a slim-line 9 during the day, there is no reason you cannot deploy something larger and easier to use well for dedicated home defense. (We will discuss long guns in a different installment.)

The home-ready handgun may be chosen over a carry gun for increased cartridge capacity, greater hit potential, greater wound potential, or all three. Let’s look at the three most recommended home defense handguns. Each has merit and that is our concentration — the advantages of the type. I would not feel badly armed with any of the three. Some acclimation in tactics is needed for each.

SIG P220 Legion with SIG combat light
The SIG P220 Legion and SIG combat light make a good choice for .45 ACP fans.

9mm Semi-Automatic Pistols

We have quite a different group of handguns in this category. The Smith and Wesson M&P and SIG P320 are similar. We have the double-action first-shot Beretta 92 or SIG P226, single-action Browning Hi-Power, CZ 75, and others. You may purchase a top-end 9mm or the capable and affordable Taurus G3C. The fine points of target accuracy are canceled inside your home. Practically any of these firearms will put the entire magazine into one ragged hole at 7 yards.

The advantage of the type is control, capacity, and availability. The 9mm is controllable and even pleasant to fire in handguns over 30 ounces. You will have to practice, but the pistol features a good balance of speed, control, and accuracy.

Some of the finest handguns in the world are 9mm pistols. Reliability in many examples is almost amazing. Most modern 9mm handguns will accommodate a combat light making for an excellent bedside fighting tool.

Bob Campbell aiming a pistol with a combat light for home defense
A 9mm self-loader makes home defense sense.

Capacity is perhaps the overwhelming advantage. A 9mm high-capacity pistol may hold 13–20 cartridges and there are reliable extended magazines. When you are forced awake and every second counts, you don’t have time to search for spare magazines. If the fight moves around the house, you will be out of touch with ammunition reserves.

A pistol that holds more than a dozen rounds of ammunition may be a comfort when there is more than one home invader. Night sights are more common as factory standard on 9mm service pistols than revolvers or 1911-type .45s. Not rare on the other types, but not as widespread as the 9mm.

Taurus G3 top, Springfield Hellcat bottom
Even relatively compact, lightweight 9mm carry guns have high capacity these days. The Taurus compact and Hellcat Pro are good all-around choices.

Wound potential with the 9mm is acceptable. The 9mm’s wound potential is the least of the three calibers covered in this report. No sugar coating — although quite a few writers dodge around the facts. FMJ non-expanding ammunition is a very poor 9mm choice for wound potential.

The 9mm is a different beast indeed with quality loads that demonstrate a good balance of expansion and penetration. Winchester 9mm 124-grain +P USA Ready, Federal 124-grain HST, Remington 124-grain Golden Saber, Speer 124-grain Gold Dot, Hornady 115 or 124-grain XTP, and the Hornady 135-grain FlexLock are good choices. They feature good performance and reliability.

Shot placement remains the key. When all is said and done, the high capacity 9mm is a top-notch choice for home defense. Capacity, ease of control, reliability, and affordability are among the advantages.

.357 Magnum Revolvers

Of the three, the revolver is the simplest to use. There is no slide to rack, no safety to disengage, and no chance of a misfeed. The revolver is seen as safer at home ready — although a double-action first-shot self-loader is comparable. However, if the handgun is grasped improperly and the grip isn’t perfect, the revolver will continue to function.

The revolver may be pressed into an opponent’s body and fired time and again without jamming. So many have been awoken by an intruder at the foot of (or in) the bed. This advantage cannot be overrated!

If you live alone without a dog or an alarm — and a dog is an alarm — then a revolver close by the hand is a reasonable choice. Of course, it is important to keep the firearm secured when not on your person or at home ready. Just the same, when the pistol is put on the frontline, I have seen revolvers tucked under a pillow or stuck between a mattress and box springs with the handle out at night. My grandparents did so. They had their head on straight and lived closer to the earth than most of us today.

revolver with the cylinder swung open
A primary drawback of the revolver is limited capacity. Better get it done in six shots.

The disadvantage of the revolver is its capacity. The best we will get is eight rounds and these are usually large bulky handguns — even for home defense. Six is the norm and there are many five shooters in service. The goal is one shot, and the opponent is stopped.

The .38 revolver is worthy of consideration. Many of the magnum revolvers being carried are loaded with .38 Special ammunition. The .38 Special is — more or less — in the 9mm class with some loads. Overall, the 9mm has an advantage over the 110 to 125-grain .38s. This is reversed with the .357 Magnum revolver.

The magnum may jolt a 125-grain JHP to 1,350 fps in a three-inch barrel and over 1,500 fps in a six-inch barrel. A full powder burn gets the magnum up to its advertised velocity. For many, the proven wound potential of the magnum makes the revolver desirable. The .357 magnum creates a serious wound and has the greatest probability of stopping an attack with one shot. Much depends on the skill of the user.

snub nose revolver with the grip removed to show the internal springs and firing mechanism
An advantage of the revolver is that no springs are compressed when the revolver is at rest.

The magnum has a tremendous blast and concussion in enclosed places that may result in permanent hearing loss. You may not be deaf, but you will lose certain tone sensitivity. Not that the non-magnum calibers are not potentially harmful to your hearing. Standard calibers may rate 145 DCB and the magnum 165 DCB — a big jump.

The revolver is seen as simple to operate. Many grew up with the type and are familiar with the revolver. The revolver may be stored for long periods and still be up for some shooting.

There are no stressed springs. All springs are at rest until the trigger is pressed. The revolver may be used with two power levels. The .38 Special for defense use, and the magnum for outdoors use — although that is beyond our scope. There are mid-range magnum loads specifically for defense use. While not perceived as the most modern type, the revolver is best suited to some scenarios.

.45 Automatic Pistols, 1911 and Others

The .45 ACP cartridge offers a full powder burn, and little muzzle flash and blast. The .45 offers excellent wound ballistics. The combination of a self-loading handgun and a big bore cartridge makes for a fine defensive handgun.

There are high-capacity variants, but few of us have the hand size to deal with them well. If your hands will wrap around a Glock 21 .45 ACP, you have a fine home defense handgun. Many of the home defense handguns in .45 are 1911 types.

Para Ordnance 1911 .45 ACP cocked and locked with a Les Baer 1911 with the hammer down
A 1911 .45 should be carried cocked and locked (left) while home ready should be hammer down on a loaded chamber.

The 1911 is carried cocked and locked. While at home ready, the recommended mode of readiness is hammer down. This requires cocking the hammer before you fire. This isn’t ideal.

The .45 requires more practice than the 9mm to control the pistol well. Ammunition is usually more expensive. For those who have mastered the type, hit probability is high. A rapid 1911 follow-up shot is among the fastest of any big bore handgun, far outstripping revolvers. The .45 handgun requires more training than the 9mm or .38. Once mastered, however, you cannot be better armed with a handgun.

Parting Thought

When you look at the three most often recommend handguns for home defense, each has pros and cons. The shooter must make the choice. If you have a long serving handgun that you trust, you have the main part of the equation.

9mm semi-automatic, revolver, or 1911, as far as handguns go, which would you choose for home defense? Share your answer and reasoning in the comment section.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in June of 2022. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.

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