Handgun Vs. Long Gun For Home Defense By: Jim Davis


The debate between long guns and handguns for home defense has raged on for about as long as the 9mm vs. .45 debate has. Never mind all of that, though. We all know the right answer to the question of which is better, a handgun or a long gun, for home defense, don’t we?

Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to follow and signup for notifications!

If you do, let me try to muddy the waters for you. Or who knows—maybe we already agree.

Pistols for Home Defense

What strengths does a handgun offer for home defense?


Handguns weigh less than rifles, obviously. It takes less energy to get them moving and to stop them to get them on target. Consequently, pistols are generally faster in action at close range. Less mass and weight means it’s easier to maneuver.

Glock 19X and Fenix light/laser.
For defending the home with a pistol, my first choice is the Glock 19X. Capable of holding 20 rounds (up to 33 rounds, actually), it is among the higher-capacity pistols. And it has good accuracy and easily mounts lights/lasers.

For close range, speed really is a prominent factor to take into consideration.

Weapons Retention

Pistols, being shorter than rifles, make it harder for an attacker to exert leverage in a disarming attempt. It’s much easier for an attacker to tie us up and get into a struggle over a rifle because the rifle, being longer, is easier to leverage. That equates to a bad day at the office.

Author with Glock 19X.
The High Position, as used in Center Axis Relock, offers excellent weapons retention while still being accurate for close-range work. This is a huge advantage of the pistol. (Photo: Rebecca Davis)

Even if an attacker is attempting to disarm us and we have a pistol, we can usually get shots off into the attacker. With the rifle, this is seldom the case, and it can devolve into a wrestling match.

That said, there are methods that we can employ to help keep that rifle out of the bad guys’ hands. However, the pistol still has the advantage in this department.

Working In Tight Spaces

Buildings, structures, and homes all have their fair share of tight spaces—those irritatingly tight spots where you have to twist to get the angle to cover a hallway, room, or door. Sometimes a rifle is just too dang long and awkward. Pistols handle these places in a far more efficient manner than rifles.

Author aiming pistol around corner in home-defense
Handguns make so much sense when quarters are tight!

For such spaces, a pistol just makes sense. Even if you’re armed with a long gun, you may elect to sling it and draw your pistol to negotiate difficult places, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Go with the right tool for the job.

Jim Davis making entry with the Glock 19X in the Combat High Position.
Slicing the pie and making entry with the Glock 19X in the Combat High Position.


We can have a pistol holstered on our belt basically wherever we happen to be. Sitting on the sofa watching TV, driving, walking the dog…you name it, we can have a pistol with us. That’s important from a few viewpoints.

Smith & Wesson 642 .38 Special
Handguns just aren’t generally great at stopping people who are attacking. Snub-nosed revolvers, such as this S&W 642 in .38 Special, are popular on the street.

First, if we are at home and a home invasion occurs, we can address it in an armed fashion, which is preferable to being unarmed. And that’s one of the pistol’s biggest advantages—it can always be immediately available to us.

Secondly, we can also have it on our belt even if we are deployed with a rifle. That allows us to transition to the pistol even if we are using a rifle. For certain conditions, that flexibility is essential to have.


As mentioned above, pistols are lighter weight than long guns, so we can hold one on target for a longer period of time than a long gun in most cases. Plus the pistol’s light weight makes it easier to tote around.

Glock 43X
The Glock 43X is slim and lightweight, yet it is accurate and carries a respectable payload—10 rounds.

What are the disadvantages of using a handgun in home defense?

Poor Effectiveness

While pistols are convenient to have and do some things well, they are not as good at stopping hostilities as many people think. To put it bluntly, they suck. This is due to the low velocity of their projectiles. Sure, some pistols fire rounds that are faster than others, but compared to rifles, they are still very slow. And the faster pistol rounds are typically lighter in weight, which can also be detrimental to their stopping power.

Yes, at times pistols will immediately stop a threat, be it human or otherwise. But often, they won’t. Throughout my career, I’ve known a very large number of people who have been shot with a plethora of calibers—everything ranging from .22 up through 12 gauge. The people who were shot with pistols were far less affected than those shot with long guns. I’ve personally known at least one person who absorbed 12 rounds of 9mm and was still quite alive.

A close friend of mine (he was a cop) related an incident in which a suspect absorbed a ridiculous amount of shots from pistols and was still conducting hostilities. My friend had to shoot him with four rounds of 12-gauge buckshot before the man ceased trying to kill him. This isn’t to make the case that 12-gauge is ineffective, but rather that humans can sometimes absorb more damage than we can even begin to imagine. Bear that in mind when you’re overly confident about your weapon selection.

The only way a pistol will stop an attacker with any degree of certainty is with a CNS (Central Nervous System) hit. Read that as a brain or spine hit.

A hit to any other part of the body (even the heart) can take anywhere from several seconds to stop a person, to…never. Consider that, even with the heart blown out, a person can still operate for up to 30 seconds or so. Typically, they do not, but it all depends upon the mental state of the person who is hit. If they’re hopped up on adrenaline (and possibly other chemicals), the brain still has enough oxygen to function for that very-long half a minute.

If you do a search, you can uncover a lot of documentation proving that people can continue functioning after they’ve been shot, especially with handguns (hint: YouTube is your friend).

S&W CSX 9mm pistol
Pistols are light and convenient to carry. This new micro-9mm, the Smith & Wesson CSX, carries wonderfully. Pistols, however, are not great at stopping bad people.

Again, this drives home the point of why we use pistols: because they are convenient for certain things.

Arex Delta X 9mm pistol
The Arex Delta X 9mm pistol carries a high payload, making it a contender for home defense.

When using a pistol, shot placement is going to be even more paramount than with a rifle/carbine because of the less effective ballistics that we’re dealing with.


For building such as apartments, we want less penetration. Bullets can go through walls and kill family members or neighbors. For home defense, there is a misconception that pistol calibers will penetrate less than rifles. This isn’t necessarily the case. A typical .223/5.56 round (excepting armor piercing rounds) will often penetrate typical building materials less than a pistol round such as the 9mm. Usually, the 5.56mm rounds will break up due to fragmentation. Again, there are lots of studies out there on this, just do a quick search and prepare to be surprised. And forgive me for giving you “homework.”

Special Pistols

These days, there is a “new” category of pistols apart from those we’ve historically known. With the advent of AR and AK-type pistols (along with other similar types) using braces, pistols have come into a new light. Though technically we group them with “pistols”, their performance is more like short-barreled rifles. At least, those that are rifle caliber. Even with their very short barrels, the rifle calibers exhibit velocities that are much higher than most pistols.

AR-15 carbine and pistol.
Seen here with an AR-15 carbine, the AR pistol (bottom) features a brace and is very compact, which makes it excellent for maneuvering in tight spaces. And it’s a rifle caliber, so it packs a punch at close range.

One downside of them is that they are LOUD. Those short barrels unleash one hell of a report when they are fired. If you ever have visions of using one inside, do don hearing protection.

The maneuverability that these little guys offer over carbines/rifles is a real boon that you may want to consider.

Author with AR pistol.
AR pistols are extremely compact and light. But beware—they are loud! (Photo: Rebecca Davis)

Long Guns for Home Defense

These are grouped into two basic categories: shotguns and rifles/carbines.


Full-sized shotguns are normally longer than rifles/carbines because they have to have a barrel length of 18 inches. This obviously makes them a bit more unwieldy than carbines, and consequently, even more difficult to maneuver inside a home or other structure—not to mention inside a vehicle.

Female home defender with shotgun, long gun for home defense
Shotguns are not very maneuverable inside homes. (Photo: HomeDefShotguns)

Shotguns are extremely powerful, and it’s undeniable that they will make a mess out of an attacker. The price you’ll pay for that power is in the form of recoil, which is substantial.

On the other hand, buckshot from a shotgun will not travel as far as a rifle round in most cases. With that said, don’t make the mistake of thinking buckshot won’t go through a wall and into the next room.

These days, there are also smaller shotguns that are closer to the pistol size. Some have pistol grips and short barrels, making them well suited for room distances. Because they have no shoulder stock, though, they are more difficult to aim and their recoil is…well, try one out and see.

Outside, the shotgun’s range is very limited compared to the other weapons mentioned here. For inside the house, it doesn’t matter, though.

And yes, you have to actually aim a shotgun. That old adage that you just have to point it in the general direction of the invading goblin and the spread of buckshot will get them is pure, unadulterated BS. At inside-the-house distances, the spread of shot will be extremely small.


Carbines really shine these days as far as being a good compromise between usefulness and power. They’re shorter and lighter than rifles and more maneuverable.

Flagging with an AR carbine, long gun for home defense
Carbines are generally a decent choice for indoors. However, one must take care not to “flag” when approaching doors (fatal funnels).

I’m a huge carbine guy, and will almost always choose the shorter and lighter weapon in this category.


Rifles are obviously chambered in rifle calibers. Those carbines that are chambered in rifle calibers will see slightly less velocity than rifles, but their terminal ballistics (their effect on the target) will be similar to that of a rifle. The velocity loss of going from, say, a 20-inch barrel to one that is 16 inches is fairly minimal, especially at CQB ranges.

Most people who go the semi-auto route will choose either 5.56mm, 7.62×39, or 7.62×51. The .30 caliber choices might not be the best for inside the house, given their propensity to penetrate.

A few common calibers found around many homes: 9mm, .38 Special, 7.62x39, 5.56x45, 7.62x51
A few common calibers found around many homes: 9mm, .38 Special, 7.62×39, 5.56×45, 7.62×51. There are many more than this small sampling.

Some folks are also using lever action carbines in various calibers, including the venerable .30-30 Winchester, as well as the .357 and .44 Magnums. Lever guns have always been popular and appear less threatening than the “black rifles”, which can be an advantage these days, given the political climate.

Marlin .30-30 lever action carbine, long gun for home defense
Don’t write off that old lever gun just yet. It’s served well since the 1800s and will continue to do so for a while to come. This one is a Marlin .30-30.

If you’re living in a rural area, the heavier calibers might make more sense if you have no close neighbors to worry about hitting. Another factor in rural areas is that police response can often take a little while to arrive, and you could find yourself to be on your own for a period of time.

M-1A Scout Squad rifle - long gun for self defense
Want to stop a bad guy? A rifle is one of your best bets!
AK-47 underfolder, long gun for home defense
The AK-47 platform can be a viable option. This under folder stores quite compactly, yet carries .30 caliber power.

Rural folks sometimes have a need for a heavier rifle caliber too because of wildlife concerns. I know people who contend with mountain lions and bears on their property. We can’t lose sight that home defense occasionally means outside of the home as well as inside. They may have to fend off predators that are attacking their livestock (as well as people).

Red barn and outbuildings of a ranch with foothills in the background
Ranchers and farmers have long been known to use rifles, and for good reason. Not all threats are two-legged. (Photo: Pexels)


Rifles and carbines have this category in the bag. They can easily reach out several hundred yards with far more accuracy than the other weapons. Now, some people will say you’ll never have to do such a thing for home defense, and maybe they’re right. Maybe. But we’re living in strange times.

Author with M-1A long gun for self defense
Although many rifles are long (even this Scout Squad rifle), there are ways to maximize their effectiveness. Here, the stock is pulled back. Notice that the muzzle does not extend out any farther than if I had a pistol extended at arm’s length. (Photo: Rebecca Davis)

Again, I’ll mention the rural folks here. Those living on a farm or ranch might find a need to have to reach out at times.

Author aims M-1A long gun
Although they can be awkward, rifles can fill the role of defending the castle. Just be sure not to flag yourself when going around corners and doorways. Sometimes transitioning to a pistol is preferable. (Photo: Rebecca Davis)

And for a moment, I’ll allow myself to indulge in an apocalyptic scenario (or even widespread rioting). Let’s say you live in an urban setting and society melts down. We know that could never happen, but just bear with me, okay?

Having a rifle or carbine could really be a comfort. It would be for me, I can tell you! Forget the shotgun, I want to be able to launch one projectile with precision for a distance if necessary. And the fact that carbines can have good magazine capacity doesn’t hurt.

Drawbacks of the Rifle/Carbine in Home Defense

They’re super loud indoors. And they can be heavy—maybe not at the range or to carry for a few minutes, but suppose you have to cover a hostile person for a while until law enforcement arrives. In such an instance, a pistol would have the advantage of being lighter weight.

Rifles can be cumbersome and difficult to maneuver in tight spaces and they are two-handed weapons. You will not really have a free hand to do other things as you would with a pistol. Well, you can use them one-handed, but not for very long at all.

Also, the heavier calibers can penetrate a lot, which could be good or bad. If you live in an apartment, you’ll likely not want to use a 7.62mm weapon.

The Key

Hopefully, by now you’ve figured out that each platform has advantages and disadvantages. Exploit these to your needs.

Pistols are maneuverable and lightweight, but suck at stopping bad guys. They’re not as loud as rifles indoors.

Author aims Glock 19X
Although they’re more compact than rifles, a pistol extended at full arm’s length goes out about as far as a carbine barrel.
Jim Davis aims AR-15 long gun
Here is an AR carbine barrel, compared to the pistol at full extension above. Not much difference in length. (Photo: Rebecca Davis)

Shotguns positively shred bad guys, but mainly at close range. Also, they offer less maneuverability unless you’re using one of the very short-barreled versions (which can be difficult to aim and have considerable recoil). Because of the general recoil of the 12 gauge, many people do not like practicing and training with the shotgun.

Semi-auto “pistol” carbines with braces—we’re talking the AR and AK-type carbines, mostly—offer some real advantages, including maneuverability and the increased stopping power of rifle calibers.

Finally, rifles/carbines, the old standby, are still good choices for certain settings. You just have to be cognizant that they can penetrate, so they’re not good for every environment. But if accuracy, range, and power are what you’re after, go for it.

Whichever firearms you choose for home defense, train with them until you are competent!