Answering Some Well-Asked Questions About Personal Defense

Posted: July 29th, 2010 by FreeWestRadio

by Massad Ayoob, Backwoods Home

Jeff Yago, Backwoods Home’s energy writer, recently completed a couple of concealed carry handgun courses. The classes apparently left some questions hanging in the air, and Jeff passed along a request through Dave Duffy for those questions to be addressed in this space. Here goes.

Question 1: “What are the basic differences in handguns to help determine which is better for home defense, ease of operation (single versus double action), male or female, caliber, number of cartridges?”

The question covers a lot of ground, so the answer has to be a bit basic.

A double action revolver with swing-out cylinder is easier in terms of administrative handling (loading, unloading, checking, cleaning) than any semiautomatic pistol. This is a decisive advantage for new shooters, or those who don’t spend much time maintaining their handgun skills. Many of today’s auto pistols are extraordinarily reliable, but if you compare all revolvers with all “automatics,” the revolvers win out in terms of certainty of firing without malfunction. Revolvers are also less maintenance intensive: they don’t need constant lubrication because they don’t have the long bearing surfaces that are at work within an autoloader’s mechanism as it is operated.

The downside of the revolver is less firepower: in the calibers you’d want for self-defense, cartridge capacity is somewhere between five and eight. Even with a speedloader, a revolver is slower to load and reload than is the semiautomatic, with its fast-inserting cartridge magazine. Under stress, you want to shoot the revolver double action, which means a long, heavy trigger pull for every shot. Most auto pistols are “self-cocking,” so at least after the first shot, and with some designs even with that first round, you have a shorter, lighter trigger pull that is easier for most people to manage when trying to shoot accurately at speed.

The semiautomatic generally holds more cartridges and is faster to reload, and can be had in models with a manual safety catch feature. This device can slow down an unauthorized person who doesn’t know that particular gun, gets his hands on it, and tries to shoot it. Many cops, and some armed citizens, are alive today because the homicidal felon who got their gun away from them and tried to shoot them with it didn’t know how to release the thumb safety.

Male or female? It’s less about gender than about hand size and shooting experience. A home defense gun is a “pool weapon,” like the shotgun in a police patrol car that’s on the road for three shifts a day: multiple individuals may be resorting to the same weapon. This means that the gun’s size and power have to be tailored to the smallest, least physically capable shooter who is authorized to use it. A large man can easily shoot his wife’s short-stocked 20-gauge shotgun or her slim-gripped SIG P239 9mm, but she will be awkward, clumsy, and poorly prepared to defend herself with his long-stocked 12 gauge, or his fat-handled .50 caliber Desert Eagle, which also requires a long finger to properly reach the trigger.

How many cartridges? I personally like a high capacity semiautomatic for home defense, because when you grab a gun in the middle of the night there isn’t always time to grab spare ammo. However, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of home defense applications of a gun are over in less than five or six shots. The revolver has a good history in defending home and hearth.

I would recommend the .38 Special (revolver) or 9mm Luger (auto) as minimum caliber in a defensive handgun. The smaller the caliber and the heavier the gun, the lighter the recoil; the more powerful the cartridge and the lighter the gun, the harder it will “kick.” The rule of thumb is that you should choose the most powerful gun that can be controlled in accurate rapid fire by the least physically capable person who is authorized to use it. The .40 and .45 caliber semiautomatic pistols aren’t hard to control with proper techniques and a good level of familiarity. Larger caliber revolvers kick more and require more training and practice to control and hit with at high speed.

Question 2: “(Please discuss) basic types and calibers of ammunition, and which is better for home defense, target practice, varmints, etc.”

Home defense rounds should be hollow points (HP), for the same reason that this type of ammo is universal among American police. The HP is designed to expand into a mushroom shape as it passes through flesh. This slows it down and reduces its penetration, making it unlikely that the projectile will pass through the felon’s torso and go on to strike a bystander who was blocked from the shooter’s position by the bulk of the criminal he shot.

Shaped like a cookie cutter at its nose, the hollow point is less likely to ricochet at a dangerous and unpredictable angle because where a round nose bullet might glance, the HP tends to bite into the surface and buries itself safely there. The expanding bullet also creates a wider wound channel that imparts more force to the intended target, helping to ensure a more rapid cessation of hostile activity. This is why HPs are better “man-stoppers” than standard ammunition.

There are some exotic cartridges sold for defense, such as ultra-light projectiles designed to break up on impact at extremely high velocity. The trouble with these is that they don’t always work in semiautomatic pistols, having a different pressure curve than the standard ammunition that the weapon’s slide mass and spring compression ratio were developed for at the factory. They are also very expensive, and it can cost up to $600 to run the requisite 200 rounds of the “carry ammo” through the gun to be certain that it will work reliably. For this writer, that factor alone lets out the exotic self-defense loads.

For practice or training, once you know your pistol will work 100% with your chosen defense load, it’s much more economical to buy generic full metal jacket ammo. The more “trigger time” you deposit in the “long term muscle memory” bank, the more swift and skillful you’ll be if you have to fire an accurate rescue shot in the course of an emergency.

Reloading your own ammo is a fun hobby, and fits perfectly in the self-reliance mode that runs through the whole backwoods home ethos. At the same time, generic factory produced cartridges are so cheap these days, particularly in 9mm and .38 Special, that when you figure in what your time is worth, it’s often more cost effective to buy your practice ammo in bulk instead of making your own ammunition.

Consider special needs. In bear country, you want deeper penetrating bullets, and probably more powerful cartridges, than what you’d want for defense against a 200-pound erect biped. If there are poisonous snakes on the property, a revolver loaded with snake-shot cartridges for at least the first couple of chambers makes a lot of sense. There are many semiautomatic pistols that won’t cycle with snake-shot loads, which tend to have too light a recoil impulse to cycle a semiautomatic pistol’s slide. If the first shot at the cottonmouth misses, it’s a lousy time for your handgun to jam.

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Comments (2)


  1. This gal sure needed all the firepower she could get her hands on!,8599,2007269,00.html

    Wouldn’t give a penny to the welfare warfare complex but would always work to put sidearms and longarms into the hands of rebels anywhere and everywhere on the planet!

    Who will the religious wackos mutilate when religious wackos are all that are left to mutilate?

    Starving The Monkeys and Ending The Looterfest,
    John and Dagny Galt
    Atlas Shrugged, Owners Manual For The Universe!(tm)


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