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AR vs. Shotgun for home defense. Again. (1 of 2)

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Another surge of articles promoting the use of shotgun vs. AR vs. handgun vs. shotgun vs. etc. is making the rounds. One here on RECOILweb recently specifically espoused the shotgun over the AR for ‘home defense', citing concerns with overpenetration. I respectfully disagree.

When it comes to the topic of “Best Weapon for Home Defense,” no firearm has the amalgamation of features and performance that would make it serve perfectly in every single home.  The reason for this is explicit; the vast majorities of homes are not identical, do not share identical (or even similar) floor plans, and are constructed of different materials, by different methods.  Homes vary in location; from wilderness to rural to suburban to inner city, etc..  The word “home” can mean an estate, mansion, single family dwelling, condo, apartment or something that doesn't easily categorize. Because of the differences between the residence of a reader in Georgia to another in California, there can be no “Best Weapon for Home Defense.”

There is one weapon that best fills the role due to versatility, effectiveness and availability of enhancements:  the AR-15.

I’m sure that gets a gasp or two, perhaps come shaking of heads and I’m sure that more than one person said aloud “No, it’s the shotgun.”

No, it isn’t the shotgun, but we will get to that.

Why the shock, disagreement or even outrage?  Because some many people have been lead to believe many incorrect, misspoken, misquoted or outright fabricated ‘facts' about the AR-15 and its round.  Furthermore, many have been fed equally inaccurate “facts” on other weapons  (like the shotgun) that leads them to believe that it’s exactly what they need.  Now, for disambiguation, when I speak of the AR-15 I am speaking about any weapon system based on the Stoner design, known popularly as the M-16/M-4 family of weapon systems, with the AR-15 as the civilian counterpart, chambered in caliber .223/5.56mm.

Before I get into dispelling the myths regarding the .223/5.56mm round versus others and the advantages and merits of the AR-15 as a home defense weapon, let’s first look at what we want in a home defense weapon.Cowan-AR15 for home defense clearing a home 1

•  Simple functionality

At all times, simpler is better.  The less complex a mechanical or electronic system, the less steps there will be to employ it and the easier it will be to gain comfort and proficiency. Simplicity fosters reliable operation under stress, which is sort important when it comes to self-defense.  You need a weapon you can reach for as you are woken from a dead sleep with a heart rate going from homeostasis to 170-200 BPM and be able to unconsciously bring the weapon into service without delay.

• Reliability

A weapon trusted to work as designed for as long as you need it to work. A proven service record of use in self-defense roles if at all possible.  Preferably that can be depended upon to function without immediate or remedial malfunction action needed after storage for extended periods.

•  Versatility

The best tool is almost always the one that fits as many roles as possible.  For home defense, ithould be capable of night and day use with the ability to maneuver the home floor plan if necessary.

•  High hit probability

Because of the nature of home defense, the strong possibility of encountering or being engaged by a threat in close quarters is very real.  The compression of actionable time in close quarters may not grant you the luxury of setting up your shot to be perfect, or for multiple uncontested shots.  A weapon with a longer barrel, equipped with a shoulder stock and efficient precision sights is going to have both increased stability and increased accuracy over hand fired weapons.

•   Magazine capacity

Lacking a crystal ball to tell what you will need, avoid limiting yourself to 10-15 rounds (as your local laws allow). Gunfights are won by penetrating a bad guy with bullets delivered with sound tactics and judicious marksmanship.  The stress likely in a lethal force encounter will almost always lead to an accuracy deficiency.  The more ammunition you have before reloading, the better.

•  Semi-automatic operation

For every press of the trigger we want one loud bang telling us a round has departed the barrell.  In other words, we do not want to pump, rack, work, or in any way have to manipulate any sort of manual loading device to chamber the next round.  Semi-automatic means more rounds in the fight sooner.

•  Limited over penetration

This is obviously a two part concern.  1) the weapon’s chambered caliber, and 2) the specific type of chosen round within that caliber.  The chosen caliber must be one of proven performance against live threats, and also of a type that has been shown to limit over penetration through the intermediate barriers commonly found in homes (dry wall, pine stud, stucco, insulation, vinyl siding, etc.)  Because of the possibility of thrown (missed) shots, we must select a weapon that has decreased probability of penetrating multiple walls (which risks hitting an unintended target).  After the caliber is selected, exhaustive research into a specific round will allow you to choose the best ammunition for performance and limited overpenetration.  Do not, under any circumstances, take the advice from a second-third-hand-my-buddy-knows-a-SEAL-DELTA-Ranger-OMGWTFSPETZNATZ-Operator-said expert without verification and due diligence.  This is how myths propagate and survive.


Now we have the minimum requirements for a home defense weapon established. Let’s talk about the various myths, mistruths, lies, opinions and opinions sold as fact.

The 5.56mm round began its service life in the early 1960s. It has had a long and sometimes controversial existence.  The 5.56 has been hailed as the greatest intermediate combat round in history and demonized as a bullet that just can’t do its job.  The truth is somewhere in between and is much more complicated.  The round's accuracy has never been in serious question, nor has its reliability (in the sense of going bang when required). Rather the “stopping power” of the 5.56 has been a recurrent dead horse,  resurrected in order to flog back to death.

In common, bullet weights are from 36 grain to 77 grain. Muzzle velocities are from 2500 feet per second to 3700 feet per second. There are a number of modern rounds in 5.56 suitable for general purpose and self-defense. So how is its actual performance against a human target?

This has been one of the largest issues with the .223/5.56mm round, right?  To keep things succinct I will suggest looking into Dr. Martin Fackler's research on the 5.56, as well as that  Dr. Williams. I will say that the problems of terminal ballistics with the SS109 ‘green tip' have been more than corrected by other rounds. My personal favorite is the 77 grain Black Hills.

Now we get to that most misunderstood and odious of terms, stopping power.  What you must first realize is that “stopping power” is a non-quantifiable term.  We aren’t talking about mechanical braking distance here.  We're speaking of the supposed ability to predict how well and how often a round is able to incapacitate/knockdown a threat based  solely on its caliber, grain and/or muzzle velocity, or on anecdotal (and often cherry picked) data from actual shootings.

It is such a popular way of thinking that many accept it as scientific study, when in actuality science largely proves it wrong (and has been doing so since the 17th century).  It persists because of shady writers or pundits, self-serving ammunition manufacturers and the meme of “trusted friends” information.  Because a true analysis of stopping power would require a controlled study of the terminal ballistics of a round impacting the same point at the same distance under the same conditions in comparison to other rounds measured precisely the same way, we cant have a full scientific study.  We must be satisfied with the anecdotal and comprehensive study of all data available and make an educated decision based on that.

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

There was once a dude in a wig named Isaac. he later became a Knight, which is why you may know him as Sir Isaac.  He came up with some laws, which is part of the reason he was knighted. There are certainly no of him ever winning a bar fight.  Those laws shed light on the governance on the behavior of firearms and the bullets they fire.

There is no magic bullet. The impact of a bullet on the body is no more than the recoil of the weapon.  This is law.  Small arms fire cannot knock a man down based solely on its impact.  Men fall to the ground when shot for other reasons.  Physiological factors such as “energy transfer,” “transfer of momentum” and the size of a temporary wound cavity are irrelevant and incorrectly applied to this theory.  Another dude named Benjamin Robins actually proved this through the ballistic pendulum. You can look into that as well while you're brushing up on your Newton.

So, to be clear, barring the use of something like a 65mm or larger weapon, there is no guarantee that any round or weapon will produce instant incapacitation based on its caliber.  Instant incapacitation with small arms occurs in just one instance; destruction or permanent disruption of the Central Nervous System (CNS).  That’s it.  There is no magic bullet.

Come back to Part 2 tomorrow and we will discuss why some people fall, why some do not and the truth about overpenetration. We will also discuss why we blanket statements about the “best weapon” should be avoided and the reality that some are generally better than others.

Cowan-AR15 for home defense clearing a home 2

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