In the vast majority of cases, personal-defense firearms are limited by the fact that they need to be either hidden or at least discreet. Sure, there are some exceptions to the rule, such as uniformed law enforcement or military personnel, but the vast majority of folks aren’t walking around with a Glock 34 in a Safariland ALS.
Before we get into the specifics of the pistol, let’s talk about the most common home-defense threats and then apply appropriate solutions as well as an honest look at the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the pistol in a home-defense scenario. First, if you’ve done everything right — including layering your home defense, as well as obeying my golden rule of not doing stupid things, associating with stupid people and not going to stupid places, your odds of never needing to use a firearm in a home-defense situation are pretty favorable. That being said, stuff happens. Fire extinguishers, home-defense guns and anti-diarrhea medicine are all things that we hope we never need but are extremely grateful for if we ever do.
A pistol’s strength is portability, not effectiveness. When it comes to engaging a threat, the pistol will be more difficult to get shots on target than a long gun, and its projectiles will have less terminal effect. The main culprit here is that there is inherently less stability. To shoot a pistol well, the shooter needs a stable technique. Gunfights tend to happen in such a manner that getting a solid stance isn’t always possible. As far as less effective, that’s just science. The vast majority of projectiles moving at under 1,000 feet per second (fps) are not going to be as effective as projectiles moving at 2,000 fps or even 1,500 fps. It’s something to be mindful of when you’re making your firearm selection.
Don’t be angry with me, pistoleros! The pistol does have good things going for it in a home-defense scenario. Its portability is of great benefit when moving in the tight confines of a small dwelling. Likewise, its ability to be used one-handed is great when opening doors, moving children to safety or utilizing a handheld light in the support hand. While a weapon-mounted light is invaluable for moving towards a known threat, the option to have a handheld light not attached to a weapon is great for when you don’t know if there’s a threat. Many new shooters are also less intimidated by shooting pistols, so taking the kids or the wife to the range to practice with a pistol is not an onerous task. Pistol ammunition is also much more economical to train with, meaning that attaining a meaningful level of training won’t cost as much as some of the other possible selections.
Now that we have an idea of the limitations and advantages of a pistol, let’s talk about setting one up for home defense. The first thing to discuss is the need for an actual fighting caliber. I’m not going to dip my toe in the whole 9mm vs. .45 ACP battle here, but the statistics I saw while at my department have convinced me that there is no meaningful difference in effectiveness between all of the fighting calibers. Shot placement is king; all else is secondary. A 9mm is cheaper to practice with, and I get more rounds on board, so that’s the way I go. If you’re married to the .45, great, just make sure that you practice. A caliber’s reputation doesn’t stop fights — good hits do.
Next thing to look at is a really good sighting system. If you have the resources, a pistol-mounted optic provides advantages that other systems will not. I realize that they can be expensive and that change can be trying, but they truly are game-changing. A pistol-mounted red-dot sight (RDS) allows you to focus on the threat, meaning that if the threat is moving or in low or varied light, it is going to be easier to track. It also allows you to take in more information, and more information leads to better decisions. Lastly, the RDS allows a much faster or more coarse sight picture, meaning that the shooter’s ability to get off a good shot fast is much improved over traditional sights. Of course, there is a learning curve, and it’s not cheap, but in my opinion, the benefits far outweigh the negatives.
If the RDS just isn’t for you, then make sure that you invest in a solid set of steel sights that allow a generous amount of light on each side of your front sight post. I’m slowly moving from night sights to fiber-optic sights because it’s been my experience that between ambient light, pistol-mounted light, and handheld weapon light, the tritium dot is becoming less and less of an advantage in low light, and the fiber optic is much faster for me across a wide spectrum.
One thing that the home-defense pistol must have in common with an everyday-carry (EDC) pistol is a great trigger. There is no reason to have a crappy trigger on a gun that might be used to defend yourself or a loved one. Even stock components can be cleaned up. Just make sure you don’t go crazy lightweight. The decision to shoot may last longer than it takes to press a trigger, and there’s at least two people walking around today because they stopped what they were doing by the time my trigger finger went from 1 to 3 pounds.
Lastly, let’s talk about the size of the gun. A larger gun is easier to control in recoil and manipulate under stress. It may also be heavier, so there’s going to be a sweet spot for each shooter. I prefer full-size guns in the home-defense role, but I certainly can’t argue with shooters that use a midsize offering. My advice is to avoid subcompact pistols in this role, as they prioritize portability over effectiveness.
Don’t forget to give some thought to how you’re going to carry the pistol. I’ve seen shooters use battle belts and even plate carriers with holsters attached. As long as you can safely and effectively holster and unholster the pistol and can carry an extra magazine, a flashlight and maybe some handcuffs or some flex-cuffs, it will work. There are a multitude of good ideas out there. Just make sure you choose what’s right for you and that you practice with it often.