What Handguns do you personally Use for Home Defense?
I am asked this on a fairly regular basis via personal messaging on the forums or by email. Some just assume that I always use a Hi Power and go from there, but the truth is that over the years I’ve used different handgun types, each presenting its own positive…and not-so-positive characteristics. I am not wed to any specific handgun make or model as long as it:
1. is reliable and,
2. of sufficient quality to remain reliable and last through frequent practice sessions,
3. is at least .38 Special +P or 9x19mm,
4. possesses sufficient mechanical and practical accuracy for practiced shooters to shoot well, and
5. is not too powerful for the shooter to use effectively at his or her particular skill-level.
In decades past, I’ve used both revolvers and autoloaders for my “house guns” and have no strong preference either way. Before retiring from police service, my usual house guns were whatever my duty sidearm and backup happened to be. For decades, my duty pistol and primary house handgun was indeed a 9mm Hi Power and to a lesser degree, a 1911-pattern pistol in .45 ACP. Before being allowed to carry a semiautomatic, they were a 4” S&W .38 Special or .357 Magnum K-Frame and usually a Model 37 Airweight .38 Special.
For several years, this Browning Mk III with Novak sights, Spegel delrin stocks and Cylinder & Slide’s abbreviated Type I ring hammer (and sear) served for both police duty and as my primary pistol for home defense. During this time, my secondary “house handgun” was either an S&W Model 042, Kahr K9 or Glock 26. (A Remington 12-ga. 870 with an 18 ½” barrel was also (very) readily accessible.) My Hi Power remained in Condition One at home just as it rode in my holster. Unless, being shot or cleaned, it was fully-loaded.
After retirement, if I bought a new handgun that met the criteria listed above and was “testing” long-term, it might take on the role of “house gun” for a few months, but only after I knew it was reliable.
When “learning” a particular handgun, besides repeated range sessions and (lawful) concealed carry if practical, it would sometimes see “house duty” during the same time-frame (several months to a year on average), but not until its operational protocol was second-nature. The SIG-Sauer P220 .45 (DAK) and 9mm Glock 17 have each been used as “house guns”.
These days my “defensive handgun lineup” often consists of Smith & Wesson .38 Special double-action revolvers. Some reading these words may agree with this choice but others vehemently will not…and in my opinion, neither side is necessarily wrong. Defenders of the revolver will likely cite their (assumed) near infallible reliability and simplicity while the autoloading faithful will speak to “firepower” or capacity, multiple intruders and quicker reloading. Each side makes valid points but as seems to be the case with “paper ballistics”, “paper facts” just may not hold as true as we might hope. I will eventually get around to this seemingly endless debate but right now I just want to explain why I am currently opting for the S&W medium-frame .38 Special for home protection.
Either of these S&W Model 10’s has proven an extremely popular .38 Special double-action revolver for more than a few decades and with several design changes along the way. Offered in other barrel lengths besides the 2” snub and 4” heavy barrel (shown), this model was also available in round butt form and usually with spur-equipped hammers for easy cocking for single-action shooting. Some law enforcement agencies such as NYPD specified factory-supplied Model 10’s without single-action capability. S&W obliged, providing revolvers that were DAO. The ones that I’ve seen were equipped with hammer spurs removed at the factory though my understanding is that this is not necessarily true for each and every example of these special-order revolvers.(NYPD revolvers set up in this manner became known as “New York One” revolvers (“NY-1”).
Both of the above revolvers were bought used. Both had bobbed hammer spurs but neither had been in service with NYPD. Had their hammer spurs not already been removed, I would have done so as well as rendering them incapable of being cocked. Others prefer having single-action capability. Arguments can be made both for and against DAO and/or removing the hammer spur.
Everything that I could find in print as well as actual statements from survivors of deadly force incidents in which they used a wheelgun, double-action was the mode of fire. Though the number of victorious revolver-using survivors I was able to personally visit with was “statistically meaningless”, their accounts (six) had some common points even though the specific incidents were years apart:
1. All but one occurred at very close range.
2. Each “sensed” that the situation was either rapidly disintegrating or was already deadly.
3. Each had already drawn or was in the process of drawing their revolver when attacked.
4. Each fired one to three quick shots double-action.
5. Each remembered seeing the front sight.
6. The gunshots fired sounded far away and they recalled no felt-recoil.
7. All but one remembered the shooting episode as being in slow motion.
The one exception occurred at a distance of about 50 to 60 yards and the good guy emptied his six-shot S&W K-Frame .357 Magnum before striking his M1Carbine-armed lone assailant center chest with his last round. He didn’t recall any slow motion perception but did report not noticing the blasts from his magnum-loaded revolver. None were sure of the time. Three of the rest faced a single armed opponent and the remaining two faced two assailants each. Each survivor shot until each opponent was decked. As best I can remember, the greatest number of shots fired in these close-in fights was five…and this was against a single opponent, who received four of the five (125-gr. JHP’s; don’t recall the brand or if +P) in the chest. One shot was a complete miss. In the other shootings, the number of shots fired by the good guys ranged from two to four per incident. In one instance, one of the good guy shooters fired four rounds at two armed aggressors at about ten feet. He missed twice and struck each center-chest once each. It seems like there was a miss or two in the rest but one shooter was able to stop each of his attackers with one shot each.
Much of this is from years past and involved officers I met at various in-service police schools and in my opinion, the main point was not necessarily the relatively low number of shots fired but something a couple of these survivors seemed quite sure of: Had the bad guys either not missed or been firing at the same time, neither officer thought he would have survived, at least not without taking at least one gunshot!
This was when I began considering the notion that we might very well run out of time before ammunition. Years passed and I was able to obtain a few more first-hand accounts of surviving unlawful deadly aggression which continued to reinforce this idea of making each shot count but doing so as quickly as we accurately could. Might not the old saying that, “Speed is fine but accuracy is final,” (often attributed to Wyatt Earp) be true?
Make no mistake; I emphatically am not declaring a handgun’s ammunition-capacity meaningless or of low-importance, but I do suggest that there are other pertinent handgun characteristics that we might be wise to carefully consider in the human predator vs. prey dynamic.
When I began policing in the early 1970’s, the usual duty sidearm was a double-action revolver and from what I saw, the lion’s share of police holsters were filled with S&W K-Frame revolvers. A few Colts were the exceptions to the rule along with the state troopers’ issued N-Frame Model 28’s. Everything related to police handgun use pretty much focused on DA revolvers and six-shot capacity was the norm.
Now fast-forward thirty-years: The high-capacity autoloader is firmly entrenched as a police service pistol and 12, 13, 14 or 15 shots (and up) is standard. For the most part, reliability really is realistically not the concern it was in previous decades and today’s “young lions” may have considerable range-time in with a Glock but none with a DA-revolver. From their frame of reference, the six-shot wheelgun may seem archaic. They see its (relatively) low-capacity in the same light as loading their SIG-Sauer P226’s 15-shot magazine with only 6 rounds! Why would anyone do that?
I suggest because our initial shot or shots are going to be more important than the fifteenth regardless of handgun type. If we believe that the handgun is the defensive arm we have close to hand for the unexpected, it follows that its employment will be quick, close-in and of short-duration. In other words, we will need to “solve our problem” quickly…or be beyond caring. Time will be in short supply and we may very well run out of it before cartridge-capacity (or lack thereof) even factors into the equation!
Perhaps the long way round, but maybe it helps explain why I just am not traumatized by the idea of “only” six rounds total capacity.
I also subscribe to the idea that any handgun considered for home defense should be “understood” by all members of that household and controllable in their hands. I am a shooter. My wife is not and there’s just no way around that. The double-action-only revolver is a point-and-pull firearm. She understands how to make it fire. In a 30.5 ounce steel K-Frame Model 64, recoil from the Remington 158-gr. LHP +P is not excessive for her, but does approach her upper tolerance level. This .38 Special +P load has a good “street reputation” for its “stopping” capability. With my revolvers having DAO actions, in a moment of terror she cannot inadvertently cock the hammer and perhaps set the stage for a negligent discharge.
At about this point someone will suggest going to a Glock. After all, you get a DAO action not to mention a 17+1 ammunition-capacity which is three times that of the .38 Special revolver! Once again the “problem” is that she is not a shooter. Like so many other non-shooters, if panicked, she just does not have the ingrained discipline to keep her finger off the trigger until on target and ready to shoot. (Could this not be true with many of us?) With a Glock’s short 5 ½-lb trigger-pull, the potential for a negligent discharge tragedy is just too much present. The longer and smoother 11.5-lb trigger-pull on my Model 10 4” Heavy Barrel is a little more tolerant of finger-on-the-trigger safety violations. Though a negligent discharge is still possible, I don’t believe it quite as likely with the DAO revolver. (I agree completely with those suggesting that this is a training issue rather than one gun being “safer” than another. In theory, such matters are solved through training, but the reality is that unless a person is actually wants to, these training sessions are just not going to happen, or they will be so infrequent that their lessons will not become second nature and safety violations may still occur under stressful conditions.)
Both the Glock 19 and DAO S&W Model 10 HB shown here are usually reliable in the extreme and both are point-and-pull handguns. The Glock offers greater magazine capacity and a standard trigger-pull of approximately 5 ½-lbs. This Model 10 has a very smooth action and its trigger-pull measures 11 ½-lbs. Had I left it single-action capable, its trigger-pull in that mode would be approximately 2 to 2 ½-lbs. I believe that a panicked non-shooter is less likely to suffer an unintended discharge with the DAO revolver than the DAO Glock. (In trained, disciplined hands, I consider the Glock line of handguns to be very capable performers.)
Though S&W discontinued production of most of their once numerous medium-frame revolver models, they remain extremely popular not only in .38 Special but .357 Magnum and still illicit comments on how “right” they feel when being handled by shooters for the first time. There is still a healthy selection of K-Frame grips (stocks) available from the compact service stocks as shown above to oversized ones for folks with larger hands or for whom concealed carry is not a consideration.
Roughly 30 years ago, I recall a gun magazine article in which the writer allowed new police recruits to try several different handguns and report which they found easiest to shoot well (point and aimed fire) and most comfortable. The winners were the Browning Hi Power and a K-Frame S&W. (I think the exact revolver model was a 19, but may be wrong, but only on the model, not the frame size.) With the plethora of semiautomatics today, this same “test” might result in a different automatic winning the top spot but I bet a K-Frame would win again in the wheelgun category. In my opinion, they are that comfortable and they do point very well. On this last statement some may disagree, but based on long-term observations, a larger number will not.
Getting down to “brass tacks”, here are my particular K-Frame .38 Special choices for self-protection.
This Model 64 snub has been fitted with a spurless hammer rendered that way and w/o full-cock capability from the factory. I altered this snub but this same configuration was an option chosen by some law enforcement agencies a couple of decades ago. This particular revolver is one I’ve chosen for permanent “house duty” and it sometimes rides (lawfully) concealed on my person when out and about.
This snub is both larger and heavier than the currently-produced and extremely popular J-Frame 5-shooters! Some insist that a .38 Special this size makes no sense and should be a .357 Magnum; I disagree. It is my long-term observation that an S&W K-Frame in .38 Special can take an incredible amount of shooting over decades using either standard or +P ammunition. If the gun is “new” enough to have a model number (with or without a dash), it is good to go with +P. I can shoot this snub a lot without concern for its untimely demise. Its heavier weight, larger grip, longer sight radius and smooth double-action allow it to be used both quicker and with more precision than initially expected…at least for those not familiar with this genre of handgun.
Using two-hands, I have been able to repeatedly pass instructor Jim Higginbotham’s “Standard Handgun Controllability Test”. It is a simple drill in which the shooter starts with the handgun at a “low ready” and at the buzzer, fires five shots in no more than two seconds at a target 5 yards downrange. The target measures 5 ½” wide x 8 ½”tall, i.e.; a folded piece of paper. It is a pass/fail exercise and all five shots must be on the paper.
The “bullseye” on this target has a 4-inch diameter. Drawing (from concealment) and firing one shot resulted in the above target. Time per shot was usually between 1.5 and 2 seconds using a two-hand hold after the initial draw.
Shooting slow-fire standing at 12-yards resulted in this approximately 2” 18-shot group. These three cylinders-full were fired using a two-hand hold. I suggest that this K-Frame snub .38 is mechanically capable of far better accuracy than the vast majority of us can muster up in a panic situation. I submit that its mechanical accuracy is very fine and beyond most of our skill-levels…but it is just comforting to know that it is there.
Some folks opine against using a snubnose as a house gun because the shorter barrel requires a shorter ejector rod which will not provide full-length case extraction unless briskly depressed which can require holding the gun in one hand and smacking the ejection rod with the other. (Beginning at the 3” barrel length, K-Frames offer full-length ejector rods. Holding the revolver and ejecting fired cases then becomes a one-hand affair, freeing up the other to simultaneously be retrieving extra ammunition if necessary.)
I agree that the 2” Model 64 (and similar models) bring this shortcoming with them but this one counters that somewhat for me by riding perfectly sans holster in my hip pants pocket. This sure makes it convenient to answer that unexpected knock at the door or inconspicuously have on one’s person should circumstances warrant. In my case, the snub remains upright with only the but and rear of the trigger guard visible and a shirttail easily covers it. There are other handguns that I believe are safe for this sort of holsterless carry…but there are some I strongly feel are not. Though I normally have a pocket hostered J-Frame Airweight on my person, the heavier K-Frame is normally not…thought is is (very) close to hand much of the time. I find that for my situation, it is most convenient to be able to quickly pick it up, tuck it in the rear pocket and cover with a shirttail (if still daylight) if answering the door…day or night.
A Model 10 snub offers the very same attributes as the Model 64 and I esthetically prefer the dark gun, but the practicality of the stainless one’s corrosion-resistant qualities finally won me over. Another K-Frame revolver that is always loaded is the previously-shown heavy barrel 4” Model 10. I bought it used at very reasonable price and it turns out that the finish was a corrosion-resistant finish called “Z Coat”. Weather permitting, it sometimes accompanies me via a belt holster under a jacket on walks, particularly at night, but is quite accessible at home.
This older Model 10 might have some interesting tales to tell if it could talk and continues to serve as a defensive arm to this day. I think it has found a permanent home with me. This one has a very smooth 11-lb double-action trigger pull. (For those who might be interested in a more detailed account of this revolver, look here:
Each of these revolvers has proven themselves extremely reliable and both shoot to the sights at about 25 yards using both standard pressure and +P-rated 158-gr. ammunition. For me, the longer barreled gun points better, both either points well…at least for me; maybe I’m just used to them?
I opted for the Model 10/64 fixed-sight revolvers for a couple of reasons:
1. The sights were well-regulated from the factory and,
2. I wanted these revolvers as snag-free as possible. To me, it made better sense to go with the fixed sight guns for this reason, especially after bobbing the hammers. It may be more theoretical than real, but the rear sight blade on adjustable sighted revolvers seems a little more likely to snag if being drawn from beneath clothing in an emergency. (I must admit that the only time I have actually seen any sort (hammer spur) was when the snub was being quickly drawn from the pocket. I have never seen it from either an IWB or OWB presentation from beneath an outer garment. Still….)
Some suggest that while the K-Frame is satisfactory as a defensive arm but only if in the magnum chambering. I disagree. While I have no doubt that the .357 Magnum is more powerful, I find select .38 Special loads to be respectably potent with considerably less blast and recoil in full-power loads. I would have no opposition to using a K-Frame .357 such as the Model 13 or 65 if loading it with a mid-power magnum. For those interested in this approach, here is a more detailed look at these loads:
I personally prefer a practice regimen with defensive handguns that includes one-hand shooting with both strong and off hand rather than just the usual two-hand hold. Using full-power magnums results in slower split-times for me than when using +P .38 Specials and I have not witnessed any “flame-cutting”. They just do not cause K-Frame forcing cones to sometimes crack as can some of the hotter .357 loads. Since S&W no longer offers any .357 Magnum K-frame revolvers, this could be a pretty big deal. Replacement barrels are already rare and getting rarer for the medium-frame magnum. In my opinion, this is not an issue with the .38 Special K-Frames. (When it made its debut, the .357 Magnum was fired from Smith & Wesson’s N-Frame, which was the largest they made at the time. When police agencies began using magnums for practice as well as duty ammunition, S&W introduced the L-Frame revolvers such as the 686. These were beefed up a bit from the K’s and were better able to withstand a constant diet of full-power magnums. Based on what I’ve seen over the years, I remain convinced that the K-Frame is very long-lived with .38 Specials or mid-power .357’s and personally opt to use full-power .357 Magnums in either L or N-Frame revolvers.)
For me, the K-frame revolver/.38 Special +P combination offers a nice-sized package that is reliable, accurate and controllable even if only one hand can be used. With selected loads, it can be a capable performer, offering both expansion and penetration in line with widely-accepted FBI protcols for handgun performance. It is not a formidable arm to learn and not as likely to “overwhelm” a new shooter with either harsh recoil or a more complex manual-of-arms. (That said, competent instruction is necessary for effective use of any firearm in my opinion.)
Though not the issue some appear to fear it may be, compressed springs just don’t come into the picture with the double-action revolver. Any springs it has are compressed the same whether the revolver is loaded or empty. So long as not allowed to corrode, the things will usually work just fine after being left loaded for years.
I continue to believe that the K-Frame .38 Special remains a capable defender and will for years to come. My own handgun collection consists of various action-types and calibers but I keep coming “home” to S&W’s medium-frame sixgun for home defense. It seems that I’ve come full circle.
There must be a reason for that.