By Scott E. Mayer
Handguns are typically the tool of choice for defense in the home. Depending on your home design — single-family, apartment/condo, duplex/townhouse, etc. — shotguns can also be deployed. Some will choose carbine rifles or even lever rifles chambered in pistol rounds (9mm, .44 Mag., .45 ACP), but few opt for rifles chambered for rifle rounds, the prevailing concern being overpenetration.
Reducing the Risks to Others
Over-penetration is something everyone using a firearm in self-defense must consider. What happens if you miss — and sometimes even when you don’t? Where does that projectile go? Just as you have to be conscious of bystanders in a self-defense scenario that takes place outdoors, that same concern translates to the home, where there are possibly loved ones, pets and neighbors on the other side of a wall.
Several years ago, while filming an episode for a TV show on personal defense, I was enlightened to the benefits of the modern sporting rifle (MSR) as a home-defense tool. We were at Gunsite Acadmy, one of the most well-regarded firearms training schools in the country, and instructor Ed Head had constructed a series of panels that replicated the walls one finds in a typical home or apartment. Some walls were sheetrock and 2x4s as you’d find in interior walls, while others had sheetrock, insulation and various exterior treatments such as clapboard simulated exterior walls.
The walls were placed much closer to each other than you’d find in an actual home, thusly arranged to ensure that any bullet passing through a first wall wouldn’t deflect and miss a subsequent wall or walls. The walls were also movable to accommodate a variety of scenarios, including one in which we shot with gallon water jugs in front of the walls to roughly simulate the results after a bullet passes through a soft target.
We fired on those walls (with and without the water jugs) and with various defensive loads including 9mm and 45 ACP from handguns, birdshot, buckshot and slugs from a short-barreled 12-gauge and both 55-grain full metal jacketed and soft-point 5.56mm loads from an MSR.
We were considering what happens with the bullet if you miss or after it passes through a soft target. Some of our results were as expected. A birdshot miss on target typically exited an interior wall but did not penetrate the next, and what passed through a water jug didn’t penetrate a single wall. Slugs passed through our modular shoot “house” and kept going until they exited and landed in the safety berm.
The unexpected results came from the handguns and MSRs. A handgun round miss typically penetrated several interior walls — but the 5.56 rounds did not. In fact, the 55-grain soft point rarely exited the second wall. (Buckshot was less consistent.).
There was much to consider with these discoveries. Given the fact we were looking for a defensive solution that had reliable stopping power while also reducing the risks to others, the modern sporting rifle with soft-point ammunition was a front-runner, a sound choice ballistically. From the functional, ergonomic and tactical perspectives, though, MSRs also have a lot going for them when it comes to home defense.
Home Defense Training
Quality MSRs from reputable manufacturers are some of the most reliable guns on the market. They have been refined to be as close to functional perfection as I think we’re going to get, and if there’s a hiccup to deal with, remedial action drills have likewise been perfected. Any reputable training school can teach you what to practice and how to transition to and from a handgun. (Note: If you do make the decision that an MSR is right for your home-defense setup, absolutely make sure you get training from such a school to understand how to move with it, shoot with it in a defensive situation, how it performs in penetration testing and, above all, be safe with it in a home-defense scenario you might encounter.) Another benefit: While semi-auto handguns can malfunction if they’re “limp-wristed” and recoil-operated shotguns fail if they’re not shouldered solidly, gas-operated MSRs are subject to fewer operator-induced failures.
MSRs are lighter than shotguns, often easier to shoot than shotguns or handguns, and if someone grabs the muzzle in an attempt to disarm you, an MSR is easier for you to retain, especially if you have a sling. If you have a collapsible stock, you can even reduce the overall length to lessen any chance of broadcasting your position or so that you can maneuver better in close quarters.
Accessory rails on MSRs make it possible for their owners to easily equip them with such things as lights, lasers and optics, though for a purely defensive gun, I’d keep such things to a minimum since each adds weight and they’re all one more thing that can malfunction or cause a distraction. The two accessories I’d definitely acquiesce to, though, are a reflex sight and sling.
With a reflex sight, there’s minimal added weight and nothing to align: Simply put the dot on the target. Since home defense is a very close-range proposition, however, you’ll have to either train for or otherwise contend with “offset,” the distance between the center of the bore and the center of the sight, regardless whether it’s a reflex, iron, red dot or optic. Because of offset, very close shots hit low at a distance comparable the offset amount.
You need a sling to help if someone tries to disarm you and, if you need both hands for something, with a sling you can simply drop the MSR and let it hang from your neck and shoulders and deal with whatever it is instead of actually putting down the rifle.
There will be times when you want more or less penetration and, much like a saddle-mount shell holder lets you quickly and easily swap out buckshot and slugs with a shotgun, having different magazines for your MSR loaded with different ammunition make it quick and easy to swap out between loads that break up in sheetrock to ones that can penetrate a piece of furniture an attacker could be using as cover. And because MSR magazines tend to have greater capacity than shotgun magazines, you’re less likely to run out of ammunition.
If there’s a drawback to MSRs, it’s that the typical muzzle brakes, flash hiders and compensators are loud and can create blindingly bright muzzle flash. Many ammunition manufacturers have addressed the flash by using low-flash powder in defensive loads, and a suppressor (in states where they are legal) eliminates much of the blast and flash.
When it comes to home defense and firearms, you have many options. Consider the MSR to be one of those options. It has a lot more going for it than against it.
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