Is a rifle or carbine a good choice for home defense? Here’s how to decide.

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I recently received an email asking about my thoughts on using a pistol-caliber carbine or a rifle for home defense. Sometimes it’s a viable idea, sometimes it’s not — and occasionally it’s only part of an overall solution. How can you know if it’s right for you?

Self defense inside the home (which is a very different thing than perimeter defense, which happens outside the house but on your property) is a task usually assigned to the handgun, and with pretty good reason. The properly chosen handgun is powerful enough to disable an attacker, easy to maneuver in tight spaces, easy to safely store and does dual duty: it can be carried outside the home as well.

There are situations, however, where a carbine or rifle is a better choice. (For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll use the term ‘rifle’ to refer to long guns chambered in traditional rifle cartridges, like the .223 Remington or .30-30 Winchester, and the term ‘carbine’ to refer to long guns chambered in cartridges usually thought of as pistol rounds, like the 9mm or .357 Magnum.)

Generally, we think of the long gun as offering three interrelated advantages over the pistol. First, having four points of contact with the shooter’s body (as opposed to a single point of contact for the handgun — yes, even if you’re using two hands they’re still hanging onto the gun at a single point) reduces shooter deviation, which means that bullets can be shot to a greater level of precision. Second, its increased power (most notably with rifle cartridges, though there are exceptions) means more reliable wounding capability and usually more reliable incapacitation. Finally, the rifle or carbine can deliver that precision and power at extended distances relative to the handgun, thanks largely to its better sighting systems and more stable handling.

Inside the home, where distances are shorter, these advantages are less dramatic than when shooting at distance. However, the rifle or carbine can make up for them by being a little easier to shoot for someone who is not a firearms enthusiast. A pistol takes significantly more experience and training to shoot well; a rifle or carbine has a shallower learning curve.

Are there downsides to choosing a rifle or carbine as a defensive tool inside the home? Yes.

The first concern is that the long gun is harder to maneuver than the pistol in close quarters; it’s slower to get into action and more difficult to carry around; and it’s easier to take away from someone who is not skilled in rifle retention. It’s also extremely difficult, without specialized training, to shoot one-handed. These attributes make it a poor choice if you need to move around the house, as you might if you were collecting family members to take to a safe room or if you were examining that “bump in the night” which woke you from your slumbers. It can also be a poor choice if you need to do something else, like comfort your children or call 9-1-1, while also being ready to engage the threat who bursts into your room.

The carbine or rifle excels in those circumstances where you’re in an ensconced position: barricaded in a safe room, family behind you, where you can take a position and sit there until the situation is resolved. Someone once referred to the long gun inside the home as “artillery”, and that’s not a bad analogy. You’re not going to be using it to search or for protection while you’re moving through the house; that’s the proper role for the handgun. It is, however, the gun you use when you can plan on where the fight is going to occur and set up the environment accordingly.

A rifle or carbine almost requires you to have a plan in place and to have arranged your home to provide for that safe room/ensconced position from which it can be used. If you haven’t done so (or can’t because your living situation doesn’t allow for it), a handgun is likely to be the more logical choice.

If the rifle or carbine is the correct choice for your circumstances, which should you choose?

The carbine, as I defined it at the beginning, shoots what we commonly think of as a pistol round. With only a few exceptions (the most notable being the .357 Magnum), there is only a small increase in ballistic performance out of the longer carbine barrel versus the handgun. The big advantages of the pistol caliber carbine are easier handling for the lesser-trained and the ability to deliver rapid, multiple shots on target faster and with less training/effort than can be done with a handgun. These are not advantages to be discounted, either!

Being able to deliver rounds to the threat rapidly is the best path to the threat’s incapacitation. It’s simple: the more holes, the faster the bad guy stops doing whatever it is which required your shooting in the first place! The carbine, being incredibly easy (and fun) to shoot, makes that outcome more certain regardless of the training level of the shooter. Compared to a handgun, the carbine can be shot to a greater level of precision much faster. If you have relatively untrained people in your household who might need to protect themselves against an intruder, a pistol-caliber carbine would be a good choice.

(One advantage is if you also have a pistol in that caliber; it makes the logistics of keeping the ammunition shelves stocked just a little easier!)

I mentioned the .357 Magnum as being an exception to the power equation. This cartridge is very schizophrenic: out of a handgun it has one level of performance, but out of a long gun it changes significantly. The .357 gains a lot of velocity from a longer barrel, to the extent that it almost becomes a different cartridge; it is closer to the performance of traditional rifle rounds than the pistol calibers, but without the former’s recoil and muzzle blast. This makes it very easy to shoot well, and the lever-action carbines in which it is almost exclusively chambered have a simple manual of arms for those who are not firearms enthusiasts. If the carbine is a viable choice, the .357 Magnum is an excellent candidate.

The .30 Carbine round occupies a similar niche. Loaded with the readily available 110 grain hollowpoint ammunition, the .30 Carbine is a superb performer but remains almost ridiculously easy to shoot. The little Carbine garnered a mediocre reputation from its days in World War II, but with today’s hollowpoints it has really come into its own. Experts like Eugene Wolberg, who was one of the country’s wound ballistics experts, picked it as his choice for home defense; Jim Cirillo, famous for his role in the New York Police Department’s Stakeout Squad, praised the performance of the hollowpoint-loaded carbine against numerous bad guys. I would have no hesitation recommending it as a viable alternative for defense inside the home.

The rifles deliver more power to the target, generally at the expensive of higher recoil, muzzle blast, and danger of over-penetration. The exception to two of those is the .223 (or 5.56mm) round used most commonly in the AR-15. It has very little recoil, and if loaded with proper ammunition it less of a tendency to penetrate house walls than does a 9mm handgun. The muzzle blast indoors, however, is extreme; even with hearing protection, shooting one on an indoor range is quite an adventure. The shorter the barrel, the worse it is! It’s intimidating for the uninitiated, and the AR-15 needs some familiarization before it can be effectively wielded. I consider it to be the enthusiast’s choice, having performance characteristics that require some skill and knowledge to utilize effectively.

When we get to the real rifle rounds, such as the .30-30, 7.62 Russian (as used in the AK-47), and .308, the issues of muzzle blast, recoil, and penetration become serious. These are not normally tools I’d recommend for household defense unless there is just no other alternative. They require experience to control and use, and are generally a poor choice for defense inside the home regardless of the size of the weapon in which they’re chambered. As perimeter defense tools they’re ideal, but that’s another topic for another day!

Is the carbine or rifle right for you? I hope the foregoing has given you some criteria by which you can make an informed decision — and don’t forget proper training for your choice, whatever it may be!

-=[ Grant ]=-

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About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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