Last Updated: Friday, 12 August, 2000 03:44

Defending Your Home


Several people have mentioned that there are few sites on the web that tell gun owners, especially the novice gun owner, what to do in the event of someone entering their home. Equally important are those things you should not do. Since many people buy a gun for self-defense it would seem logical to discuss some of the issues surrounding self-defense, especially in your home. Whether you have a firearm that you think you'll use for home defense or you're contemplating buying one you should read this page.


The information offered on this page is not legal advice, nor is there any guarantee
that by using the information provided here that you will either prevail in an emergency
or that you will not be prosecuted for some offense. There are too many variables, too
many situations to cover without some form of quality training. The purpose of this page
is to give you something to think about before you end up facing someone inside your
home. If you are a novice, I urge you to locate and undertake a suitable beginner's
course in the defensive use of your firearm in a class that also covers the legal, moral
and ethical use of lethal force.

Table of Contents
Inside the Home
Outside the Home
About Trigger or Gun Locks
Using Your Firearm
What Firearm To Use?
A Word About 22 Rimfires
Keep It Clean
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Inside the Home

The typical scenario most people worry about is the night-time break-in while we are all snug in our beds. While we are fortunate it is somewhat rare, it does happen. So when you awaken to the sound of breaking glass or your spouse shaking you awake to tell you someone is in the house, what steps should you take? These steps are not necessarily limited to night-time entries but can be used for basic principles.

  1. Identify your target as "friend or foe" before you fire. We've all heard the stories about someone shooting a "burglar" in the dark only to find out it's a family member. Rule #1 is make sure of your target. You might consider a high quality small flashlight like the ones from Sure-Fire

  3. Where are all your household members and guests? This works with rule #1 above to locate and identify other family members and any guest(s) to ensure they aren't the ones moving around the house. More importantly, it prevents you from being surprised by a "friendly" coming out of the bathroom. Check on the kids' rooms, check your guest's location and be sure you know where they are.

  5. Don't go looking for trouble. If at all possible, don't go downstairs or into the front of the house to investigate. Most homes offer a hallway to the bedrooms and that's easily defended, versus having to "cover" all the hiding places in your living room, den, kitchen (with all those knives), etc. Besides which, you've probably just woke up, your eyes are bleary or maybe you have a tendency to cough or sniffle a lot. In any case, getting up and moving about will probably alert any intruder(s).

  7. Move family to a safe room. If you have children you may elect to move them to the room that is your safest room of the house. This is usually the master bedroom where you have your firearm, telephone and a last-ditch escape route out of the house. Remember the risk of trying to move elderly relatives and small children who may cry upon sudden awakening.

  9. Call Police as soon as possible. If possible, have your spouse or another family member call the police as soon as you can. Ideally this will be after you have secured everyone in one safe room of the house. Depending on your circumstances, you might consider keeping a cell phone in the bedroom. If your phone lines have been cut (common if you appear to have an alarm system) you'll still be able to summon help.

  11. Be sure your family is behind you, out of the line of fire. If you moved everyone to a safe room, you should be the closest to the door so you have a clear line of fire. If you can't move everyone into one room, you may have to take a position in a hallway where they are behind you. The last thing you want is to be squeezing the trigger on Danny Dirtbag at the end of the hallway when your child sleepily steps into the hallway!

  13. Never block an intruder's escape route. If you can avoid it, never put yourself between an intruder and his most likely escape route. Doing so can put you in danger if he's surprised and bolts for the exit towards you. It's better to let them flee than find out he's faster, stronger or more determined that you are.

  15. If your intruder discovers that you are awake or present and shows himself to you, in a firm voice (as firm and controlled as you can muster at the moment) give them the command "Don't Move!". Assuming you see no weapons in his hands, follow this immediately with the command "Get face down on the ground, now!". If the person turns and flees, fine and dandy. If you can see that he has a knife or gun use your best judgment. If you feel the situation cannot be controlled verbally or he is moving towards you, remember to put your front sight on your target. At most household ranges elevation doesn't matter too much. If you see the front sight sticking up in the middle that's probably "close enough". You should cease firing when the person stops being a threat.

    Regardless of whether the intruder has fled, been wounded or killed, be sure to wait for the police to come check the house to be sure he -- or a companion you didn't know about -- is not hiding somewhere. If you hear or see him fleeing outside, turn on all lights, including exterior lights until the police arrive, but always be alert for a second, unseen intruder! If the person refuses your commands be very careful. He may pretend he doesn't understand English. Or do nothing. If he makes any movement towards you, he isn't being deterred by your firearm and is an immediate threat to your safety. A key point: watch his hands! If he seems to ignore your commands watch his hands carefully. If you can't see both hands you don't know if he has a weapon!

    A note about "machismo". For those who think they are tough-guys, remember that
    you will have just awakened. Perhaps your eyesight will be bleary, or you cough after
    standing up. Perhaps you'll find your arm is totally asleep and as useful as an anchor.
    The intruder has the advantage in most cases; he's dressed, pumped on drugs or
    adrenaline, his eyes are used to the dark and he may be armed. No matter how "macho"
    you think you are, your voice may crack like an adolescent's, your hands will shake and
    your heart will be pounding in your ears. Don't ever count on being ready! Think ahead!

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Outside the Home

You will need to check your local and state laws regarding people who are outside your home and what poses a "credible threat". In most cases you'll find that many jurisdictions don't allow you to shoot someone who is outside your home. In some cases, even if the person is battering your door with a fire axe you may not be allowed to shoot them. Here are some suggestions for the possible intruder who is outside your home.
  • Identify your target as "friend or foe" before you fire. Visually make sure it's not a family member, neighbor, gardener or utility worker. Sometimes youngsters will "cut through" a person's yard and hop their back fence to reach a friend's house. Don't open a window to challenge the person as that could give them a way inside. If a window is already open you can, of course, ask them why they're there. But never show yourself in the window to avoid a direct attack. Stand to the side of the window to avoid any objects thrown and/or flying glass.

  • Call police as soon as possible. If in doubt, call the police and tell them what's going on. Not only does this get the police to arrive sooner, it shows that you were concerned enough to call for help if there is any doubt about your actions.

  • Keep track of the threat. Keep a visual track of the threat if possible. If the person moves around the sides or rear of the house, try to keep visual track of them. Be aware of how many people you're dealing with too. Don't focus exclusively on one person. This will prevent a "decoy" from going to the rear of the house while another enters the front or other side. In the event of multiple threats that spread out, get into your safe room and take a defensive position there.

    If you are on the phone to 911, they want to keep you on the line to get constant information. But if you feel the need to move to your safest defense location and can't take the phone with you, tell the operator and then do it. Keep the phone line open even if you can't reach it. You can yell to them and they can listen in. Consider putting in an extension phone in your safest room or a longer phone cord.

  • Keep back from doors and windows. Except to lock doors and windows before an attempt is made on them, stay back from them. If objects are thrown through windows you don't want to be showered with glass or hit by the object. Likewise, if a door is kicked in you don't want to be hit by the door or pinned by their entry through the door.

  • Move family away from the threat. Presuming a single person threat, move family members to a room away from any threatened room or area. The master bedroom may be the safe room unless it's the one threatened. Be sure that whatever room you use, you too can "fall back" to that room and the person isn't likely to get between you and your family.

  • Make obstacles against entry. While this isn't very "macho", if you put a chair or other piece of furniture near the expected entry point, this will delay the person's entry if they get the door open. That delay gives you a last chance to get family to safety and a place the intruder may pause to move the obstacle allowing you a stationary target. Hooking a chair under the door knob slows things a little. Adding something like another chair or two, even a child's tricycle to keep them off balance helps. Just be sure the door doesn't sweep them out of the way when it opens.

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You must be able to unlock your gun in the dark in about three seconds.

About Trigger or Gun Locks

If you use a trigger lock, gun lock, safe, lock box or some similar security arrangement for your home defense gun you must be able to get the firearm into action quickly in the dark. Allow yourself no more than about three (3) seconds to get the firearm ready-to-use. Practice it in the dark. Have your spouse practice it too. If that cannot be done then unlock the gun and load it before going to sleep. Remember that most combination locks require light to see and read the numbers (and perhaps your glasses too!) while key-locks require you to fumble about to find the key in the dark and operate the lock. Given the number of times I have left my car keys in the den or kitchen, keeping a couple of spare keys in the bedroom isn't a bad idea either. A lock box that can be unlocked with the gun available inside may be the best solution if you have small children. Just remember to lock it every morning! As soon as they are old enough, teach your children the basics of firearm safety and even take them shooting once or twice to remove the "mystery" of it. (By the way, taking a young child shooting may be a good motivational reward for good habits or good grades.) Follow this link to read the page Trigger Locks - A False Solution.

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Using Your Firearm

Needless to say, actually squeezing the trigger against a human being is a very tough thing to do. If you have been through appropriate firearm instruction you're taught never to point a gun at anyone and to keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot. Exactly when to shoot or not to shoot is always going to be debated. Expect that everyone from the cops and prosecutors to your best friends and family members will have different opinions of when you should or shouldn't have fired. But if you've done everything you can to avoid it, you now need to worry about several other factors when firing.
  • No "warning" shots. The problem with a "warning" shot is that you have now fired a bullet somewhere which may injure another innocent person. Shooting in the air means the bullet has to come down somewhere. Some firearms will easily penetrate the roof of your home.  Firing into the ground may cause a bullet to fragment and "splatter" you in the ankle with bullet fragments or ricochet dangerously. Bullets can ricochet off hard surfaces, a fireplace for instance, and out a window or still get through a wall. Best to avoid "warning" shots altogether.

  • Penetration of walls. Most homes today have walls that are a wooden frame covered with gypsum sheet-rock. Even with fiberglass insulation between them, these walls will seldom stop a bullet or shotgun blast from penetrating both sides with enough energy to injure or kill someone in another room. The same applies to windows and interior ("hollow-core") doors.

  • Proximity of other homes. In modern cities and suburbs, apartments, condominiums and town homes are clustered close together. A bullet fired into a wall may enter a neighbor's residence with enough energy to injure or kill. Be sure of what is beyond the walls behind or near your target.

  • Wounded Intruders may be even more dangerous. Think through what happens if you fire and wound the intruder. He might still remain in the house at some unknown threat level or he may be dying in your den. Do not attempt to "find" him if he has left your sight. Do advise the police on the phone that there has been a shooting and that an ambulance is needed along with any information regarding the whereabouts of the intruder. If you can still see him, do not approach him as he may still be dangerous. If he's alert enough to ask for help, tell him to put direct pressure on the wound until police and paramedics arrive (that's about all you could do anyway). If help will not arrive quickly, it's your judgment call as to whether or not to render first aid. As much as I might want to render aid, the safety of myself and my family come first. If you decide to render aid, have someone who is capable "cover" him from an angle where you aren't in the line of fire, while you secure his hands and feet before rendering aid.

  • Protect and preserve evidence until the police arrive. If the intruder has a weapon, be sure to know exactly where it is and/or where it was put (if moved) until the police arrive. Never try to plant a weapon or evidence or remove evidence. We've all heard someone say to "drag the body inside" but you should never do so because it will make you look like you were trying to "cover up" something. If you do have to move evidence or the intruder, be sure to indicate that to the police along with a justification, such as "he fell there with his hand in the fireplace but we moved him to keep him from being burned". Or "his weapon fell about here and I kicked it under that chair over there to keep it out of his reach." Usually, the earlier you mention this the better off you are as it explains facts before the police uncover them, such as why your fingerprints might be on the blade of the intruder's knife

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What Firearm To Use?

One of the most common questions I get from people is what is the best home defense gun to buy? This is kind of like recommending "the best" automobile or restaurant. No one answer will fit every person's needs or circumstances. There is no single, always-best firearm for every purpose. With that said, the best firearm is the one you are comfortable and accurate with. Remember that a hit with a .22 rimfire beats a miss with a .44 magnum.

But let's look at some of the more commonly used home-defense firearms. 


The handgun is probably the most popular home defense firearm simply because it's easily kept nearby, easy to deploy quickly, allows the use of your other hand, easier to maneuver with in tight quarters, usually has manageable recoil and is easily stored in the home.

Handguns fall into two categories: Revolvers and semi-automatic pistols. Revolvers hold anywhere from 5 to 8 shots, depending on the specimen and can be had in a wide variety of calibers. Minimum caliber to consider is generally the .38 Special. Inside of homes, Magnum loads (.357, .41 and .44 Magnum) may over-penetrate walls and doors. The large caliber "non-magnum" cartridges may be better, such as .45 Colt, .45 ACP, and .44 Special although some people may find the recoil objectionable. At indoor ranges the length of the barrel won't matter too much with regard to energy or "power".  Usually the longer the barrel the easier it is to control the recoil. But longer barrels can also be grabbed by an opponent in close quarters to wrest the gun from your hand. Short barrels (2-3 inches) may produce bright muzzle flashes from unburned powders and may be harder to aim for some people.  The most common barrel length is 4 inches (as shown) and is suitable for most people. If your gun has ports -- holes drilled or cut near the end of the barrel -- to reduce recoil, remember that firing from the hip will vent gasses upwards towards your face.

In semi-automatic pistols, the minimum caliber to consider is generally the .380 ACP (or 9mm short/korto/kurz). Many people use a 9 millimeter (9mm) although this cartridge is fairly high-speed and may penetrate doors and walls easily. The .40 S&W cartridge is somewhat slower but will still penetrate doors and walls. The .45 ACP cartridge is slower, less prone to over-penetration but some people have trouble with it's recoil. Semi-automatic pistols are easier to reload than revolvers but may be "complicated" by safety levers and other mechanisms which take a bit more practice. Some people may have trouble operating the slide of these guns to chamber the first round. Be sure that whoever will use it can operate the slide. New semi-automatics are limited by law to 10 shots so their advantage over a six shot revolver has been reduced. Older guns may have magazines of 13 to 17 rounds.

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The shotgun is probably the second most used home defense firearm because it fires a group of projectiles all at once instead of a single bullet. These projectiles "fan out" to cover an area with a "pattern" of projectiles raising the likelihood of a hit. But at the close ranges inside a home, you can still miss with a shotgun. However a solid hit with a shotgun is devastating and quite often fatal. Even if not fatal, the number of projectiles usually incapacitates a person.

There are four (4) types of shotgun actions. Single shot, double-barrel (2 shot), pump-action and semi-automatic. The single shot and double-barrel shotguns are normally of a "break-open" design, much like the stagecoach shotguns in westerns. Their limited number of shots is a handicap, as is their reloading speed. But these can be useful if you are searching for an inexpensive firearm.

Pump-action shotguns are similar to the police shotguns,   where the forestock (the portion under the barrel you grip with your other hand) is "pumped" back towards the trigger and then forward again to chamber a new round. This makes a very distinctive schlack-klack sound. For home defense, an 18" to 20" barrel is recommended. Avoid the long barreled hunting shotguns with 24" to 28" or longer barrels as these are both harder to maneuver with and offer a "handle" for someone to wrest it from your hands.

Semi-automatic shotguns replace the pump action units with a self-feeding mechanism. Pull the trigger once for each shot. For someone with little training, the semi-auto is preferred over the pump-action gun. Again, a short 18" to 22" barrel is recommended.

Shotguns are sized by gauge instead of caliber. The smaller the gauge size, the bigger the barrel diameter is. Thus a 28 gauge is smaller than a 20 gauge, which is smaller than a 12 gauge. 410 is the smallest size. Selecting ammunition is important too. The projectiles or shot are different sizes for different purposes. For self-defense inside the home, any birdshot size from number 8 (smallest) to number 4 will do fine. I recommend you avoid "buckshot" which contains fewer but larger projectiles as these can easily penetrate walls and doors. If you insist, get number 4 buckshot. A shotgun of any gauge loaded with a medium birdshot, such as number 6, provides power, reduced penetration of walls and doors (except up close) and enough projectiles to increase the chances of a hit.

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Rifles can be used for home defense although the power of many rifle cartridges increases the danger of over-penetration through walls, sometimes even masonry walls. Rifles calibers range in size from the .22 caliber rimfire (22 long rifle) to guns suitable for stopping a charging Rhino, like the mighty .460 Weatherby Magnum. Rifles are sometimes chambered for pistol cartridges, reducing their power when compared to true rifle cartridges. Because rifles are generally more accurate and powerful than handguns they excel at ranges of 50 yards or more. But a rifle at close range is very powerful and more likely to stop someone with a single hit.

Semi-automatic rifles range from hunting guns to more military-style firearms and their prices can range from a few hundred dollars up to over $2000 dollars! These can be fine guns for home defense if you don't have neighbors close by or you live alone in individual housing.

  Bolt-action rifles are the most commonly seen hunting rifles. They usually hold between 3 and 5 rounds and each shot must be followed with a lift-pull-push-close action of the bolt to chamber and fire another shot. With practice, this can be done quickly. Bolt action guns range from just under $200 to well over $1000.

The last category are the "lever-action" guns like the famous Winchester repeating rifle seen in countless westerns. These are usually between $250 and $700 depending on model and caliber, with the most common being the .30-30 Winchester which will bring down large deer.

Which ever caliber or action you use, temper your selection by recognizing the danger of the bullet penetrating through walls and doors (in some calibers this can happen after passing through your intended target!). The use of hollow-point or soft-point hunting ammunition may reduce only somewhat the tendency to penetrate walls.

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A Word About .22 Rimfires
Many people will tell you that a .22 rimfire cartridge (the .22 Long Rifle cartridge) isn't a good choice for self-defense.  In terms of it's ability to stop a determined aggressor with  a single shot, this is probably true. But the diminutive .22 has some positive features going for it as well. There relatively inexpensive firearms chambered for this cartridge, there is little recoil produced and the ammunition costs about 1/10th that of larger calibers.  The low cost can permit you to practice until you are quite competent with the gun.  The mild recoil allows fast follow-up shots too.  As was said earlier in this article, a hit with a .22 beats a miss with a .44 Magnum!

In terms of power and penetration, the little .22 LR has a pretty good record, better than that of the .25 ACP caliber "purse guns" and often surpassing the penetration of the larger .32 ACP cartridge. Much has been written about the ability of one caliber or another to "stop" an attacker and the .22 rimfire is usually overlooked.  Consider that in the vast majority of incidents when a citizen produces a firearm the criminal generally flees or submits to capture.  Less than 10% of incidents involve firing a shot of any kind ("warning" shots, misses, and woundings).  The down side is that if you must fire, using a .22 rimfire, a determined attacker will probably absorb multiple shots before stopping. If I were going to rely upon the little .22, a small handy semi-automatic rifle would be my choice.

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Keep it clean
Whatever firearm you chose to use, keep the firearm clean. This means learning how to properly clean and oil your firearm after shooting it at the firing range. Very little oil is necessary or desireable since oil will pick up dirt and dust.  Keeping the gun clean means it will be less prone to functional problems when you need it the most and it will maintain your investment for many years.  Also, inspect your firearm at least twice a year.  I recommend you do so near Independence Day (the 4th of July) and again just after the new year.  To prevent accidents, never allow any ammunition near where you are cleaning a gun. If you feel you must check the function of a firearm, use "snap-caps" -- plastic dummy cartridges meant for dry-firing -- instead!

If you use a rifle or shotgun, keeping the barrel free of dirt, dust and other debris can be a problem.  The barrels collect dust, dirt and occasionally insect nests. You can sometimes find plastic "caps" to fit over the muzzle but some soliders will tell you that a plain, unlubricated condom and a rubber band work just as well. And the gun can be fired with it in place without damage to the gun (though the condom will be destroyed).

If you have children in the house letting them join you to clean the firearm is a good way to introduce them to safe handling procedures and also take away the "mystery" of the gun. You can offer them a chance to accompany you to the firing range in exchange for good grades and good behavior. This is also a good time to discuss with a child ways of settling disputes appropriately and the very limited role a firearm plays.

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