I am not really into shooting but want a handgun for home protection. What do you suggest?

 

This is a question I frequently receive.  Rather than getting into other handguns' merits and shortcomings, I will go straight to my recommendation and explain why I believe it to be viable.  Keep in mind that folks reading these words may be anywhere in the handgun proficiency spectrum and that this is a suggestion for the man who said that he was "not really into shooting."

 

Cutting to the chase, it is my opinion that either an S&W K-frame with 3 or 4" barrel or Ruger GP100 with the same barrel lengths is the way to go.  (Between the two I personally prefer the S&W if it does not have the key lock on the side plate.  I would prefer a used but functional S&W without than a brand spanking new one having this device. There have not been many but there have been a few cases of the lock engaging during firing.) The K-frame S&W's can be found in .38 Special and .357 Magnum, the important thing being that they are capable of use with .38 Special. This is the caliber I recommend and in +P. 

 

Few will argue that the .38 Special is the most potent round on the block, but it is my observation that it seems to be the most powerful that is readily handled by newer shooters when fired from an all-steel K-frame revolver when using +P ammunition.  It is also my belief that the .38 Special +P ammunition of choice from the 3 to 4" barrel is definitely "old tech," the lead semi-wadcutter hollow point as loaded by Remington or Winchester.  (It is my understanding that Federal recently dropped this load.) Arguments that this bullet doesn't expand in 10% ballistic gelatin seems "true" only from the shorter barreled 1 7/8 and 2" guns. The load is the traditional bullet weight for the cartridge and fixed sight .38 Special revolvers usually have a POI that corresponds very closely to the POA.

 

Here is a Federal 90-gr. "Classic" JHP in .380 ACP (left) and the Remington .38 Special 158-gr. LSWCHP +P.  These two cartridges are frequently compared with the latter normally being fired from the small snub nose revolvers.  Some opine that the .380 can be as effective as the .38 Special.  It normally is easier to handle in standard size automatics than the .38 when the latter is fired in the lightweight revolvers. That does not mean that it is more effective in my observation. The all-steel K-frame or Ruger GP revolver tames the .38 Special +P significantly over the lightweight snubs, making it useable at speed for folks not "seasoned" to handgun recoil. To be sure, either can kill a human being but it is my belief that the 158-grain bullet will both expand and penetrate deeper than the 90-gr. JHP.  With frontal shots, either probably has enough penetration if expansion occurs, but with any intermediate target like an arm, maybe not for the .380 ACP.  It has not proven a problem for the .38 Special LSWCHP +P.  Factory loads are very similar in performance.  I prefer the Remington version to the Winchester because it has a slightly larger diameter hollow point and I get about 30 ft/sec more velocity. IF a person absolutely cannot handle the .38's modest recoil in an all-steel revolver as being discussed, only then might suggest the .380 ACP.  I like several of the .380 pistols but I do not trust the round for protection quite as much as the .38 Special. In the picture on the right is an expanded Remington 158-gr. LSWCHP +P recovered from super-saturated newsprint.  It was fired from a J-frame snub. These bullets are dead soft pure lead and might deform if expansion's retarded more readily than the .380's jacketed bullet.

 

Let's take a short look at some velocities from real guns rather than pressure barrels.

 

Chronograph Comparison of .380 ACP & .38 Special

 

Caliber

Handgun

Barrel Length (in.)

Load

Average Velocity (ft/sec)

.380 ACP

Bersa Thunder

3.5

Federal 90-gr. JHP

969

.380 ACP

Bersa Thunder

3.5

Win.RA380T  95-gr. JHP

896

.380 ACP

Bersa Thunder

3.5

Remington 102-gr. GSHP

855

.380 ACP

Bersa Thunder

3.5

Corbon 90-gr. JHP

1015

.38 Special

S&W Model 642

1 7/8

Corbon 115-gr. JHP +P+

1188

.38 Special

S&W Model 64

3

Corbon 115-gr. JHP +P+

1349

.38 Special

S&W Model 64

3

Corbon 110-gr. DPX

1118

.38 Special

S&W Model 64

3

Rem. 158-gr. LSWCHP +P

883

.38 Special

Ruger GP100

3

Rem. 158-gr. LSWCHP+P

894

.38 Special

S&W Model 10

4

Corbon 115-gr. JHP +P+

1412

.38 Special

S&W Model 10

4

Rem. 158-gr. LSWCHP +P

888

 

The table shows some interesting data if examined.  There is one (past) .38 Special load that can match 9mm performance in the snubs to the 4" .38 Special revolvers but I honestly believe that it is too much for the J-frame guns and its POI does not quite as closely match the POA in any of my revolvers.  The K-frames can certainly handle it but with the aggressively expanding Sierra 115-gr. JHP used, I have nagging concerns about adequate penetration when considering intermediate barriers.  It's probably a moot point as this load is no longer commercially available.

 

Let's take a look at Winchester's RA380T when fired from the 3.5" barrel of the Bersa.  This bullet will expand and is travelling at just under 900 ft/sec.  The 158-gr. LSWCHP +P from a 3" barrel is traveling 13 ft/sec slower to be sure, but there's often that much or more variation in shot-to-shot velocities.  I consider the velocities equivalent.  The .380 is throwing a bullet weighing about 60% less than the .38 Special at about the same speed.  In ballistic gelatin, the Remington Golden Saber and Winchester RA380T both penetrate in the 7.5" range while the 158-gr. LSWCHP usually gets about 5" more penetration.  This might very well be significant if firing at an oblique angle or having to punch an arm or shoulder in route to the vitals within the torso.

 

(For what it is worth, some suggest using a standard pressure wadcutter in .38 Special when using a snub.  I do not believe this to be a good idea.  The average velocity of Sellier & Bellot 148-gr. wadcutters from a 4" Model 10 is only 607 ft/sec. From a 1 7/8" Model 642, average speed drops to 541 ft/sec.)

 

With most loads tested over the chronograph there seem insignificant differences between 3 and 4" velocities in .38 Special, particularly if opting to go with the Remington LSWCHP +P. The primary difference between the 3 and 4" guns is a slightly greater sight radius on the latter.  There may be slightly less muzzle flip on the longer barrel but I cannot detect it when shooting compared to the 3".  I would pick the gun I personally preferred with regard to barrel length.

 

If one looks around and gets lucky, he might find a 3" barrel J-frame 5-shot revolver.  These are neat little things but I advise not buying it over the K-frame.  It is enough smaller that felt recoil will be greater and one shot is given up for no real reason. The double-action will usually be smoother on the K-frame due to the flat mainspring. The J-frame mainspring is coiled.  It has been my observation as a police firearm instructor for 11 years and a Texas concealed handgun instructor that most people find the K-frame to be very comfortable.  I suggest not going smaller than the all-steel 3" K-frame.  (There are two possible exceptions here: S&W Model 19 2 1/2" barrel Combat Magnum and the 3" Ruger SP101.  The latter is only a five-shooter but is heavy enough to dampen felt recoil for infrequent shooters.)

 

All-steel K-frame S&W revolvers (3 or 4" bbl's) capable of firing .38 Special ammunition include the S&W Model 10, 13, 15, 19, 64, 65, and 66. Several of these are chambered in .357 Magnum, but all can handle .38 Special.

 

In the picture on the left we see an older S&W Model 10.  It is a K-frame to be sure but I honestly think a better choice for home protection are the models having at least a 3" barrel as shown by the stainless steel Model 64 shown at the top in the picture on the right. The 5-shot, lightweight Model 638 is much harder to shoot accurately, kicks more, and holds one less shot between reloads. The 3 and 4" barrel revolvers have longer ejector rods than the J-frame 1 7/8" or K-frame 2" guns and will fully eject .38 Special cartridge casings.

 

This S&W Model 10 has the 4" barrel and being later production, a round butt. This one is fitted with a Tyler Grip Adapter. There are many different makers of K-frame grips and potential users have a wide selection in available stocks. This gun, either blue steel or stainless, would make a dandy house gun for the novice user.  More seasoned shooters could also do a lot worse in my opinion.

 

This 2 /12" barrel S&W Model 19 is about as short a barrel as I'd go in a house gun.  I prefer either the 3 or 4" barrel to this length. With full-house magnums, this gun can be a handful for the inexperienced and the smaller J-frame magnums on make the problem worse.  I suggest going with the .38 Special load mentioned previously.

 

For roughly 20 years total I have been a certified firearms instructor.  Part of this was with police and part of it with private citizens.  For non-shooters, it remains my belief that a quality 3 or 4" barrel .38 Special is the best choice.  I prefer the S&W but this is not to say that Colt, Ruger, and possibly Taurus might not do as well. 

 

Here are reasons why I believe this to be so:

 

1.        Quality can be had at a lower price than for an equivalent quality autoloader in most cases.

2.        Simplicity of operation: The double-action revolver has a simple manual of arms.

3.        Safety: The double-action revolver requires but pulling the trigger to fire yet the pull is long enough that mistakes are not as prone to happen. (This assumes that the gun is not cocked.) It is also easy to see if it is loaded and one cannot inadvertently leave a live round in the chamber as can happen with the self-loading pistol.

4.        At least adequate power potential is present in the .38 Special round in select loads and it has been my experience that this is about the upper limit that non-shooting enthusiasts can readily handle.

 

At this point some bring up the fact that these revolvers hold but 6 shots and that is true.  Keep in mind that we are not discussing handguns for those more familiar with the shooting sports or into VIP protection or SWAT officers.  The most tricked out 1911 in the world is of little use if its operator cannot remember how to get it into action in an instant or if they're afraid of the weapon.  It may be a more efficient defense gun in the hands of a trained shooter but with new and inexperienced folks, it can be a weapon that they are more likely to negligently discharge and harm themselves or other innocents.  Six rounds are not a lot, but it probably enough for a majority of private citizen/deadly force scenarios.  For those people not inclined to be shooters but in a very risky lifestyle, it might behoove them to become competent with not only the revolver but automatics as well.  For those who are just "average" folks and not going to become active shooters but want a handgun at the house, the .38 Special medium frame revolver remains a very good choice.  I think it is the best one overall.

 

I shoot.  I shoot quite a lot.  My first choice in defensive handguns is not the .38 Special, but neither is near the bottom of the list.  This tool has saved many lives over many decades and the guns are usually quite reliable.  With proper ammunition the .38 Special +P from a 3 or 4" barrel can deliver a not insignificant blow to a felonious aggressor.  It may not be the "best" ballistically…but it is not bad and with the characteristics of the weapon that shoots it weighed against the neophyte's abilities when terrorized, it may be the appropriate choice for many.

 

This is the S&W Model 65 "LadySmith" which is chambered for .357 Magnum. Shown are a Remington 158-gr. LSWCHP +P and a Winchester 145-gr. Silvertip .357 Magnum. The latter is more potent, but the shooter of this revolver cannot handle it.  That shooter is my wife and this is her personal revolver.  She finds the gun easy enough to handle with hot .38 Special ammunition and picked out the grips that she says best fit her hands. Is a more potent load that cannot be shot accurately better than a less powerful one that can?  I think not.  As I've suggested elsewhere, "Placement is power."  My wife can get decent enough hits with this revolver and .38 Special ammo.  She cannot with .357's.

 

Hopefully this answers most questions that folks might have in this question and frequent topic.  In the end it is the individual's decision on what to use as a protection piece…which is as it should be, but the material presented here has been validated by so many repeat stories and observations that I respectfully suggest giving it some thought.

 

Best.