May 11, 2020
By James Tarr
At a recent media event, I was made aware of a survey done by the National Shooting Sports Foundation on ammunition purchases. More than 12 percent of the respondents said they had purchased rifle ammunition in the past year for the purpose of self-defense. Not ammunition, rifle ammunition.
The results shouldn't have surprised me as much as they did. I was reminded that the NSSF did a survey of over 12,000 respondents in 2010, and home defense was the No. 2 reason (behind recreational shooting and before hunting) for owning a "Modern Sporting Rifle," the NSSF's term for AR-15-style rifles.
Keep in mind, 2010 was before the post-Sandy Hook gun sales explosion and before the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks.
One sure way to liven up a day at the range is to ask a group of shooters what they think is the best weapon for home defense. For years, that argument was divided into two camps: the pistol crowd and the shotgun crowd.
Proponents of the pistol for home defense argue its compactness and maneuverability, whereas the shotgunners argue stopping power and "fudge factor" when aiming, as it's a little harder to miss, even when stressed, when you're sending a cloud of projectiles downrange out of a long gun.
In the past few years, however, a third point of view has steadily been growing in popularity — that of the rifle as the best home defense firearm. Specifically, we're talking about the AR-15 platform and the .223/5.56mm cartridge.
Before we talk about how to best set up a rifle for home defense, let's talk about using a rifle indoors. Overpenetration has always been a concern when discussing the use of firearms in a dwelling, so the knee-jerk reaction has been to not even consider a rifle as being suitable.
However, in the last several decades, there have been exhaustive studies about what pistol and shotgun projectiles do when fired indoors, and those results are very interesting (and not in a good way).
Proponents of the pistol for home defense like to think that because it's "just" a pistol round, overpenetration won't be an issue. That's not the case.
First off, drywall sheets and hollow-core doors, which are what you'll find in the majority of homes and apartments in this country, offer almost no resistance to bullets. Unless brick or cinderblock was used somewhere in your construction, any pistol cartridge powerful enough to be thought of as suitable for self-defense is likely to fly completely through every wall in your abode.
In fact, the hollowpoints of pistol bullets tend to plug up as they go through drywall, turning them in effect into round-nose bullets. Round buckshot pellets are just as bad, and shotgun slugs are worse.
These same concerns about overpenetration are what kept people away from considering the rifle for home defense. For years, many people just assumed they knew what would happen to a rifle bullet fired indoors — it would go through every wall available and then exit the building.
While armor-piercing and full metal jacket ammunition is specifically designed to do this, extensive testing has shown that light, extremely fast moving .223 projectiles (including FMJs) often fragment when they hit a barrier as soft as thin plywood. Projectiles specifically designed to expand almost always fragment even when going through just one or two layers of drywall.
This means that while you should always be aware of Firearms Safety Rule No. 4 — Know Your Target and What's Behind It — sending rifle bullets through bad guys and into your neighbor's house is much less an issue than most people might think.
Let's talk about the AR-15 itself. The argument could be made that the AR should stand for America's Rifle due to their popularity.
They are short, light, handy, accurate, have very little recoil and (where legal) accept magazines that hold 30 or more rounds. They are also quick and easy to reload.
The MSR for Home Defense
While it may not be as maneuverable indoors as a pistol, the length of the rifle will make it point much more naturally, increasing the chances of hitting the target. The main disadvantage you have with a rifle is the noise and concussion — firing a rifle indoors without hearing protection will be amazingly loud and might permanently damage your hearing.
Of course, the same could be said for firing a pistol or shotgun indoors. Minor hearing loss might be the lesser of two evils when talking about fending off an armed intruder, though.
Another great advantage of the AR-15 design is how easy it is to personalize the rifle. By that, I mean that it is possible to completely take apart and replace any part on the rifle with simple hand tools. Many AR owners do just that, over and over and over as their tastes change. AR-15s have been described as LEGOS for men, and that's not a bad description. The trick comes in knowing what accessories you need and which you don't when setting up a rifle for home defense.
First, slings. While there are a number of fabulous slings on the market, personally I think they're a bad idea on a rifle meant for home defense. You won't be hiking up and down hills for hours, the rifle growing ever heavier in your hands. Plus, indoors, there are just too many things for a sling to hook on.
In the past few years, I've come to appreciate the utility of short forward vertical grips, but not as vertical grips. I think vertical grips shine when used as hand stops and portable shooting braces.
Press the front of the vertical grip up against a hard surface (such as a windowsill) and you can virtually eliminate recoil while increasing steadiness to shoot more accurately. I don't know how often one of those might come in handy in a short-range dynamic home defense situation, but they don't take up much space or add much weight. As the man said, better to have it and not need it.
Any serious rifle meant for home defense should mount a dedicated light. Most tactical LED flashlights these days have 1-inch bodies, and most flashlight mounts are designed to clamp around the body of the flashlight and then attach to the handguard/forend of the rifle.
Quad rail handguards have fallen out of fashion for more streamlined models, but when it comes to attaching accessories, what do people attach to those handguards? Sections of rail. So a simple clamp mount for a flashlight which fits on a rail and positions the light where you can reach the controls is all you need.
I'm a big subscriber to the "anything that can go wrong will go wrong" school of thinking. So while all my ARs are topped with optics (non-magnified red dots for those rifles meant for home defense), they also all have iron sights.
Iron sights never lose their zero and never have dead batteries. Or perhaps to keep things simple on a home defense rifle that will most likely be used at pistol ranges, you might only want iron sights. These days your options are vast, and you have your choice between fixed and folding sights of all types.
That being said, red dots sights are so much quicker and easier to use than iron sights, especially in a close-range dynamic defensive situation, and any and every rifle meant for home defense should have one.
Unlike iron sights, non-magnified red dot sights are designed to be used with both eyes open (keeping your peripheral vision unimpaired) and can be seen even in complete darkness.
However you have your rifle set up, make sure you've taken it to the range and zeroed it and proved to your own satisfaction that it is reliable before you consider it "ready" for defensive use.
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