The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

AR vs. Shotgun for home defense. Again. (2 of 2)

At RECOIL, we review every product fairly and without bias. Making a purchase through one of our links may earn us a small commission, and helps support independent gun reviews. Learn More

Yesterday we posted part one of AR vs. Shotgun for Home Defense. Again. Here's part 2. Part 1 engendered a lot of discussion yesterday, especially on social media. Unfortunately only a few of those commenting bothered to read the article. We hope you'll engage in discussion, but hope even more you'll do so by addressing the contents of the op-ed.

Anyway, we left off with the statement that There is no magic bullet. That is correct. Barring the introduction of a 30 x 173mm HEI round directly to the thoracic cavity or medulla oblongata, there are very few guarantees of a “one shot stop, all the time, every time.” Nor does the impact of a bullet itself make a person drop. So why do they fall?

People fall when they are shot because of fatal damage to the CNS, extreme blood loss (which takes time), psychological factors (because they realize they were shot and either go into shock or believe they should fall down) or damage to load bearing bones.  Psychological incapacitation is common but cannot be predicted.  Now, about all the “data” on this round or that round: incapacitation field results and lab testing are nothing more than a collection of individual results factored into a percentage. Handpicked favorable results are often used while unfavorable ones are discarded.  The reality is, there are simply too many factors involved in the shooting of a live threat to produce total-package reliable data.  Body size, health, clothing worn, heart rate, stimulants,  mental condition, barriers, mindset, all of these and more make it impossible to predict a rounds effectiveness based strictly on its caliber, grain, development technology and velocity.

Another larger and ever-present myth with the 5.56mm round is that of over-penetration.  For the layman, the difficulty involves nature of the target and the environment.  While testing can (and is) performed on ballistic gel and intermediate barriers in controlled settings, there is virtually no opportunity to test these rounds under scientific controls in the real world.  This results in mostly anecdotal data.   Over-penetration of the human target can and should be with expected with any round. This is due to the round's velocity and the relative density of the target compared to the bullet.  I say expected because no reliable round that will always remain in the body while providing desired incapacitation has yet been developed.

You should expect over-penetration, even if it does not occur (remember backdrop).  Beyond over-penetration issues vs. a human target, the largest concern with a self-defense round is the over-penetration of intermediate barriers like doors walls, appliances and furniture.   The 5.56mm round performs exceedingly well in this area (meaning it is not as likely to over penetrate), making it perhaps the best choice for home defense where over penetration is a concern (as it always should be).

Cowan-AR15 for home defense clearing a home -authors rifleAs evidence of this I offer data collected from the FBIs Weapon Selection Test, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department Structural Penetration Testing and the DEA's Constructed Materials Test.  Tested rounds included the .223 in 55 grain SP and 5.56mm bonded.  These rounds were tested against a 147 grain 9mm hollow point and a 165 grain .40 S&W.  Bare ballistic gel tests found that the average penetration of the .223 55 grain was 11” with an extreme of 13.5.”  The 5.56 62 grain’s average was 16” with an extreme of 17.”  The 9mm 147 grain’s average penetration was 12.5” with an extreme of 15.5.”  And for the .40 S&W, the average was 15.25” with an extreme of 19.”

While tests with bare gel were not particularly telling, the same rounds were then tested against barriers. That’s where things got interesting.

Nine walls were constructed and spaced 4 yards apart.  Walls 1-8 were constructed of 2 ½” sheets of drywall. Wall 9 was constructed of 1 ½” drywall, 1 sheet of 7/16 inch plywood, 3” of soft insulation, 9/16” hard insulation and 1/16 hard plastic siding.  The test was designed to replicate an average home.  When bullets started flying, the 147 Grain 9mm consistently penetrated all 9 walls.  The 165 grain .40 S&W consistently penetrated all 9 walls.  The 55 grain .223 has a maximum penetration of 8 walls (fired from an M16, M4A1 and a H&K G36) the 62 grain bonded 5.56 (fired from the same weapons) had a maximum penetration of 8 walls.

Now, this test can also be defined as anecdotal because it does not and cannot replicate every home in America. It does however show the obvious fact that the .223/5.56mm rounds consistently performed better when it comes to reduced over-penetration.

The rounds never left the house.

The venerable .45 ACP was not included in this test because it is not a service caliber of any of the participating agencies.  Obviously some would like to know how the .45 ACP performed; unfortunately this is one of those frustrating issues with ballistic testing.  There is a reason anecdotal is such a frequently used word.

Cowan-AR15 for home defense clearing a home 2

These tests did not include a shotgun; I offer this data solely to display the properties and performance of the Ar-15.  For a first-hand quote of shotgun performance on from someone who knows far more on the subject that I may ever know, I offer a direct quote from Dr. Gary Williams. Dr. Williams happens to be one of the leading experts in the testing of ammunition in real-world use.

“I am sorry your agency is not up to date on current wound ballistic facts. As noted before, given the widespread availability of this information for over a decade, I am shockingly surprised to still hear that some LE administrators don't want their personnel to have 5.56 mm patrol rifles because of the ‘over penetration' with ‘high powered assault rifles'. In this day and age anyone who is spouting this BS needs to be horsewhipped… Several respected organizations have done wall testing, including the FBI, CHP, and IWBA. In our IWBA and CHP testing, replicas of standard construction interior walls were fabricated using two pieces of 1/2” thick dry wall cut in 12” x 24” segments and mounted four inches apart using 2 x 4” fir studs and 1.5” dry wall screws. Five rounds of each load were first fired into bare gelatin to serve as controls. Then 5 shots of each load were shot through interior wall segments into gelatin blocks placed a set distance behind the intermediate barriers–various distances have been tested, typically ranging from 1 to 10 feet.

Generally, common service caliber JHP bullets failed to expand and had very deep, excessive penetration after passing through the interior wall, due to plugging of the hollow point. With the hollow point plugged, the bullets performed nearly identically to FMJ pistol bullets. The terminal performance of the 12 ga. 00 buckshot and slugs was not altered by passing through interior wall replicas, with penetration and deformation nearly identical with their performance in bare gelatin. Likewise, .308 rounds were not usually affected by the presence of an interior wall intermediate barrier.

With one exception, the majority of the 5.56 mm/.223 loads, including M855 62 gr “green-tip” FMJ (which were fired through interior walls) demonstrated either minimal changes in terminal performance compared with bare gelatin or reduced penetration. The major exception were 55 gr M193 style FMJ projectiles which exhibited minimal fragmentation and deformation after first passing through interior wall replicas and hence penetrated deeper than in bare gel. Since all of the 5.56 mm/.223 bullets fired through the interior wall had significantly less penetration than 9 mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and 12 ga. shotgun projectiles which were fired through an interior wall, stray 5.56 mm/.223 bullets seem to offer a reduced risk of injuring innocent bystanders and an inherent reduced risk of civil litigation in situations where bullets miss their intended target and enter or exit structures. As such, 5.56mm/.223 caliber weapons may be safer to use in CQB situations and crowded urban environments than service caliber handguns or 12 ga. weapons.

Obviously, it is important to keep in mind that purpose built barrier blind 5.56 mm/.223 projectiles, such as the 55 & 62 gr Federal Tactical JSP’s and the Nosler 60 gr Partition, will offer deeper penetration than fragmenting designs and may exit suspects.”

Without writing a small novel on this subject, I can’t offer enough ballistic data to change everyone’s mind (and even then I might be unsuccessful). However, as a final consideration I want to take a serious look what I have defined as the must haves for a home defense weapon.

Cowan-AR15 for home defense clearing a home 1

Setting aside the ballistic concerns of the shotgun, let’s look strictly at operation.  The most common is the pump-action; a manual action shotgun, with a smooth bore 18”-20” barrel and a 6-9 shot magazine tube to be more specific.  Rate of fire is slower than the AR-15, and the risk of “short-stroking” the weapon under stress (not fully cycling the pump to load a fresh round) is very, very high for those who DO NOT train with the weapon under induced stress.  Training is not defined as standing in a two/three-foot wide stall mindlessly banging rounds into a piece of paper hanging from a shuttle.

That’s target practice, not training.

Target practice has its place, but it is not preparation for home defense.  Now, a semi-auto shotgun is admittedly a slightly better option. However, I still have little faith in it as the low magazine capacity and (depending on the brand) there are concerns with temperamental operation. Those are significant drawbacks.

Next, we have 6-9 rounds of ammunition and a significantly slower reload time. Figure in the fact that reloading a shotgun under stress presents a real possibility of someone attempting to make shotgun shells go into the weapon in ways never originally intended. This of course guarantees that none of them will work.   If the low round count doesn’t bother you, try to consider the unknown.  The “I only need X amount of rounds” crowd is not a good group to hang out with – for the same reason you shouldn’t call psychic hotlines.

Finally we have the lauded “spread pattern” of the shotgun. This is often hailed as some kind of fantastic, incapacitating cone of lead that will cover six feet of the room.  Well, one, the average expansion of shot from a shotgun is one inch per meter…so to get six feet of spread, your bad guy needs to be 72 meters away and two, we only want to hit what we are aiming at, not the whole room.  A shotgun must be aimed as with any weapon. Point it in the general direction and you’ll hit ‘em, as I've heard from gun store salesman (and some of those who commented on Part 1 of this article yesterday, on Facebook), is patently false.

I cannot unequivocally say you should avoid the shotgun at all costs for home defense. I can say I do not see an advantage to the shotgun over the AR-15, whereas I can readily identify many the AR has over the shotgun.  Without turning this into a new M16 vs. AK debate I will just say this; train on it, practice with it, do your research and then make an informed decision.

As I said back at the beginning, there is no “best weapon” for every home owner; there are, however, some that are better choices than others.

Cowan-AR15 for home defense clearing a home -many configurations available

Enter Your E-Mail to Receieve a Free 50-Target Pack from RECOIL!

NEXT STEP: Download Your Free Target Pack from RECOIL

For years, RECOIL magazine has treated its readers to a full-size (sometimes full color!) shooting target tucked into each big issue. Now we've compiled over 50 of our most popular targets into this one digital PDF download. From handgun drills to AR-15 practice, these 50+ targets have you covered. Print off as many as you like (ammo not included).

Get your pack of 50 Print-at-Home targets when you subscribe to the RECOIL email newsletter. We'll send you weekly updates on guns, gear, industry news, and special offers from leading manufacturers - your guide to the firearms lifestyle.

You want this. Trust Us.

Add a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to the Free