Which is best for home defense: pistol, rifle, or shotgun? It’s an age-old question, but why? Possibly because every 30 seconds a burglary takes place in the U.S. That is a lot of home invasions even when you consider the fact that not all burglaries are in the home. Also, if a home invasion is not for a burglary, then the situation is probably much more critical.

You should also be aware of your local laws for defending your home because they vary widely in today’s political climate, especially when it comes to using lethal force against an intruder.

As with any self-defense encounter, you must first use your most important weapon – your brain. You must decide what is best, flee or fight, and hopefully you will not freeze. The best home defense option is, of course, never having to defend your home in the first place. But if you do have to act in self-defense, which of these three guns is the most effective?

Primary Factors to Consider

There are some factors to consider before you select which firearm is best for you. A primary factor is your home. Does your home have large rooms with wide stairwells and hallways, or is it a smaller home with small rooms and tight stairwells and hallways? Also, what is your home’s construction like: plaster walls and brick exterior or sheet rock walls and vinyl siding? 

These are factors to consider when shooting a projectile at anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 fps at a distance of 5 to 10 feet. You must consider the ammunition you are using and the amount of penetration for each round. This applies to both the soft tissue of an attacker and the materials in your home. 

I am afraid that pretty much all the options will potentially penetrate sheet rock and even sheet rock, insulation, and vinyl siding outside of the home. There’s also the potential that you’ll neutralize the intruder, but the round will over penetrate and end up in another room altogether. 

Home defense guns by a fireplace
Your home is your castle, so you want to pick the right firearm to defend it for your needs. (Photo: Rutsen Eagle/Guns.com)

Plus, the size of the rooms, stairwells, and hallways are important factors when considering what gun to pick. This does not eliminate any of the three choices. It simply emphasizes the amount of training needed for each. 

So, which gun is best? Shotgun, rifle, or pistol.

Shotguns: Pros & Cons

At first glance, the shotgun is an obvious choice. I am not talking about your father’s double-barrel skeet gun at a length of 45 inches. I am talking about a tactical-style shotgun at a length of only about 26 inches. I also prefer a slide action over a semi-automatic shotgun due to the ease of manipulation.

Most tactical shotguns will hold around six rounds. This can be doubled with some type of a sidesaddle shell holder. Most have a Picatinny rail that enables mounting of an optic, even though in a home defense scenario this may not be needed. It is also preferable to have a good light attached.

I prefer a 12 gauge, but a 20 gauge is also an effective option. 

The next choice is what ammunition to use. My first thoughts go to 00 buckshot. This round usually has eight to 10 pellets, each with a diameter of .33 inches or about the diameter of a 9mm round. An extremely lethal round, especially at close range, it causes massive tissue damage. At the ranges we are looking at, there is not much spread. So at about 7 to 10 feet the 00 buckshot acts more like a very large slug round. There can be over penetration at close ranges, and the shot can penetrate sheet rock. 

I already mentioned the length of a tactical shotgun at 26 inches, which includes the required 18-inch length of the barrel. The shotgun, even at its relatively shorter length, still requires two-handed manipulation with a good deal of training for close-quarters movement.

Shotguns are fairly easy to shoot accurately at the ranges we are talking about. A rather significant negative is the relatively heavy recoil experienced with a shotgun, thereby increasing the need for training with it. Training is also a factor when considering slide manipulation, light actuation, and aiming.

A man uses a Remington 870 for home defense
Shotguns have great advantages at close range. (Photo: Rutsen Eagle/Guns.com)

Rifles: Pros & Cons

Next on the list is the rifle. This is my personal best choice for home defense. My rifle of choice is an AR-style rifle, probably chambered in 5.56, .223, or .300 Blackout. They are all very effective rounds with relatively little recoil. With a relatively long barrel, you would need to train for maneuvering in tight spaces, especially for going around corners or potentially clearing a room. 

An additional consideration is that you are firing one round at a time, even though follow-up shots can be very fast. This factor requires increased accuracy when firing on an intruder. The 5.56 or .223 round will easily penetrate sheet rock, so you must be situationally aware of where a round may end up – either inside your home or outside the home. You do not want to deal with neighborhood collateral damage.

One benefit to these rifle rounds is they tend to break up fairly quickly compared to shotgun or pistol rounds. Another major benefit to this style of rifle is the ability to accessorize it with lights, lasers, optics, and grip accessories.

You should have a mounted light and a good optic to help with accuracy. A good red dot is advisable. This aids in target acquisition, especially in low light scenarios. Use of these aids does require additional training. 

An AR-15 rifle sits on a window ledge
It's hard to beat an AR-style rifle for home defense. (Photo: Rutsen Eagle/Guns.com)

Pistol and Revolvers: Pros & Cons

Finally, we consider the pistol. I personally have a Glock 17 chambered in 9mm by my bed secured in a “fast-opening” safe. You can also consider a revolver. You should consider a caliber that is effective for self-defense and you can control. There are self-defense options for both revolvers and semi-autos. My preference for a striker-fired pistol is based on ease of manipulation without an excess of controls to be concerned about.

One of the obvious benefits of a handgun is the advantage of size, making it ideal for close-quarters maneuvering. With most choices at an overall length of 7 to 8 inches, they are easily handled in tight spaces, around corners, etc. In addition to their size, they are relatively light weight, around 2 pounds, compared to the shotgun, around 7 to 8 pounds, or rifle, at around 6 to 7 pounds.

Also, without the need for two-handed manipulation like with a shotgun or rifle, a handheld light can be utilized. I prefer a mounted light even with a handgun. It can be a challenge with a revolver, but you are able to manipulate a handheld light with either platform.

Modern striker-fired pistols can be accessorized with a quality optic to aid in accurate shot placement. Handguns do pose an even greater challenge to ensure accurate shot placement and follow-up shots. Training is the key to shot placement under stress and should be a routine event.

Magazine capacity is also an important consideration. Most modern striker-fired pistols have capacities around 10 to 20 rounds. That’s an additional negative for revolvers, which usually hold only five or six rounds.

Over penetration and wall penetration should also be a consideration with the handgun calibers, but this can be more easily mitigated by using self-defense ammunition such as hollow-point or even frangible bullets. This aids in preventing over penetration in soft tissue. However, frangible and even hollow-point ammunition can bind up in building materials and act more like FMJ ammunition.

One negative with the handgun is it is easier to miss your target, even at relatively close ranges. Also, most defensive caliber handguns have a fairly robust recoil. Training is a must, not only for shot placement under stress, but also to sharpen your ability to manipulate the slide, change magazines, or use a light.

A custom Glock 17 on stairs for home defense
Pistols are great for close quarters. (Photo: Rutsen Eagle/Guns.com)
A custom Glock 17 in a house for home defense
The small size also helps with safe storage. (Photo: Rutsen Eagle/Guns.com)


In conclusion, which is best? My answer is…it is a personal preference after you have considered all the factors that impact your personal mission to defend your home against intruders. Probably one of the most important factors is picking a firearm that you are likely to train with on a regular basis. The one you train with regularly and become proficient with is the system you should be using for home defense.

I have always been concerned with firing guns inside and how that would impact one’s hearing. There has been much said about auditory exclusion during a high-stress encounter. But there is no guaranty that this will occur, and this does not prevent damage to your hearing. Firing any gun indoors is much more devastating to hearing than shooting outdoors. The best protection for this is having your gun equipped with a suppressor. Today, all three of these firearms can be suppressed.

As a last comment, whatever you chose, please train regularly with that firearm. Then train some more!

Home defense guns in a house
Whatever you pick, make sure you train with it regularly. (Photo: Rutsen Eagle/Guns.com)
revolver barrel loading graphic