If you have an aged grandmother living alone in an apartment, or perhaps know a young couple who had just moved next door, and they said to you, “I get worried about someone breaking in while I’m at home. I’m thinking about buying a firearm. Do you have a suggestion?” what answer would you give them? It’s not a unlikely scenario: firearm ownership has been increasing in the United States over the past couple of decades, particularly among first-time buyers. Overall crime rates may be down, but there are hot spots — and not always in large, urban areas — and flare-ups of civil unrest that make many people start giving serious thought about self-defense.
Of the millions of gun owners in the United States, self-defense is the major reason for many to keep a firearm in the home. That fact alone probably accounts for the continued support of most Americans for the Second Amendment, the belief that individuals have the right to defend their families, their property and their own lives. It’s clear to most citizens that, when seconds account, help is minutes away and that the right and the duty of self-defense is individual.
Given all that, what are the most useful models of firearms for personal self-defense? The answer could range from, “What do you have right to hand?” to “Think ahead and find the right one for you.” What we’ve tried to do is come up with a short list of suggestions that offer a variety of possibilities, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. The following is a subjective list, of course, and it is based on some assumptions and what might be called prejudices. It’s only fair to lay those out first:
Familiarity and Comfort With Firearms
This list is designed for individuals or families who may not be “gun people” and who may not be used to having firearms around, aren’t familiar with more than the basics of shooting and may be concerned about such issues as safety, ease of use and recoil. Training and practice are the obvious means to resolve that, of course, but even before a person goes to the range for the first time, he or she will have to feel comfortable enough with the choice of firearm to actually buy it.
Confidence and Intimidation
Any gun owner who is willing to take on the responsibility of self-defense should be confident in their ability to do so successfully. That confidence begins with the firearm itself: he or she should have a gun that can be held and aimed correctly. That means that the grips, the overall size, the weight, the action, the sights, everything should match the shooter’s needs. At the other end of the equation, any would-be assailant should be intimidated when faced by a steely-eyed 74-year-old grey-haired retired librarian with a gun — and don’t laugh, it happens! Yes, the firearm is not a prop — the owner has to be willing to fire, if necessary — but the most successful defense is when the bad guy stands down.
It’s entirely possible for a person to defend himself with a rifle or shotgun, but we’ll confine ourselves to handguns for this list. A long arm is just not as easy to reach and use effectively inside a structure — and we’re assuming home defense, here — as a handgun. Sorry, Mr. Vice President.
Choose .22 Rimfire
The .22LR is a perfectly good caliber for self-defense. With a little bit of training and practice (see above), even someone new to firearms can successfully use a rimfire handgun in a defense scenario. Admittedly, the first instinct for anyone even considering defending himself against an assailant is to want to have as much firepower as he can possibly get, but before we go all Hollywood on the problem, there are some practical considerations: people who have firearms just for self-defense will probably not get to the range as often as an active sports shooter, so when they do go, the ammunition should be inexpensive enough to allow them to get in a reasonable amount of practice. Also, the perceived recoil of a rimfire is going to be mild enough that the flinch factor shouldn’t be as much as a concern. All this adds up to self-confidence, which helps tremendously in a situation where someone has to face down a threat.
One last thing: numbered lists are fun, but don’t take the numbers themselves too much to heart. The firearm listed as number 10 shouldn’t be considered to be only one-tenth as good as the first firearm. For that matter, a firearm not being on the list at all doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be a successful self-defense firearm. These ten, however, all have something special going for them.
1. Ruger LCR
This 8-shot double action-only revolver with a 1⅞-inch barrel has several advantages as a self-defense firearm: it’s compact, light (13.5 ounces), simple to use and has a formed grip that makes it easy to aim. The fact that it is DAO is double-edged, however: although that means that there’s no hammer which can be snagged, it also means that the shooter has to use the trigger finger alone to fire it — no thumbing back the hammer. Best of all, it’s intimidating in appearance. Unless an intruder is really good at firearm identification, it looks just like it is the 5-round .357 variant.
2. Smith & Wesson Model 63
As one of S&W’s J-frame revolvers, this double/single action is compact (3″ barrel), relatively light (26 ounces) and the synthetic grip is easy for smaller hands to hold comfortably. The 8-round cylinder gives the owner a feeling of bringing enough ammo to the party and, of course, it looks like a no-nonsense handgun.
3. Ruger SR-22
Although this semi-automatic is a little larger than a compact (3.5” barrel, 17.5 ounces unloaded), it does come with two interchangeable rubberized grips so it can be fitted to a range of hand sizes. The ambidextrous safety/decocking lever and magazine release also make this very adaptable for both right-hand and left-hand shooters.
4. Taurus PT-22
Compact and light (2.75″ barrel, 12.3 ounces), this little .22LR semi-automatic is easy to hold on target. One of the drawbacks of semi-automatics for novices — racking the first round into the chamber — can be overcome by a simple mechanism that also acts as a safety feature: in this pistol the barrel tips up, exposing the breach, without having to cycle the slide. This means that the shooter can load the clip, tip up the barrel, manually insert a round, return the barrel to its in-battery position. The gun is now fully loaded, but with the hammer down. It also makes it easy to check the status of the gun: tip up the barrel and look. Inexpensive and nicely finished, too.
5. Smith & Wesson M&P
This full-frame DAO semi-auto with a polymer frame looks like it could be anything from a 9mm to a .40S&W (the other calibers in which it is also available). But the .22LR version offers an 8-round magazine and the full functionality as the other calibers. The advantages as a self-defense gun for the relatively uninitiated are that it comes with three interchangeable palmswell grip sizes and it’s striker fired. Those translate to a comfortable hold and a smooth, easy action, both of which are confidence-builders for novice shooters.
6. Taurus Model 94
A well-built, but relatively low-priced, double/single action revolver, the Model 94 is available in .22LR (9-shot) and .22 Mag (8-shot). It comes with barrels ranging from 2” up to 5” with a weight of 18.5 to 27.5 ounces. The rubber grips and prominent front sight blade make it an easy-to-aim firearm.
7. Ruger Mark III Series
This classic semi-auto traces its ancestry back to the first Ruger pistol in 1949; it is, and looks like, a shooter. We’ll just suggest the “series” in general, since there’s such a great choice of barrel lengths (4.5 to 6⅞ inches), barrel weights (bull, target, composition and hunter) and grips (composition checkered panels to cocobolo) that exactly the right combination can be “built” for any shooter. Once they’re dialed in, the ergonomic design and sights (fiber-optic front sights, if they want) make it almost impossible to miss. The confidence that brings, and the intimidation factor of the no-nonsense design, makes this a great choice for a self-defense handgun. Not a budget-breaker, either.
8. Kel-Tec PMR-30
Another full-size semi-automatic, the PMR-30 is 7.9″ overall, with a 4.3″ barrel, yet weighs only 13.6 ounces, unloaded. It has a very modern look, with Zytel (glass-reinforced nylon) grips and a squarish profile. The firing mechanism is a unique combination blowback/locked-breech system, with a Urethane recoil buffer and captive coaxial recoil springs. The perceived recoil of the .22 Magnum rounds it fires should therefore be fairly light — even for the full 30 rounds it holds in its special double-stack magazine. Intimidating in appearance? Check. Confidence-building for the owner? Check. A little extra training for novice shooters about the difference between self-defense and the “Die Hard” movies? Check, please.
9. Beretta Model 21 Bobcat
A nice compact (2.4″ barrel, 4.9″ overall), light (11.5 ounce) pistol, this Beretta is well made and not at all expensive. The best way to describe it is, “dependable” and “reassuring” to someone who just wants a self-defense firearm in the drawer of the bedside stand.
10. Walther P-22
The rimfire version of the Walther P-99, this handgun is available in full size (5” barrel, 7.83” overall and 20.3 ounces unloaded) and a smaller “carry” size (3.4” barrel, 6.26” overall, 19.6 ounces). It has a comfortable contoured, stippled polymer grip that comes with interchangeable backstrap inserts, so it can be adjusted to different hand sizes. It has an ambidextrous magazine release, but it also features a magazine safety: the pistol cannot be fired without the magazine in place.
Even restricting the above list to rimfire handguns, it is only the beginning of the possibilities. There are lots of firearms that should be considered, but it at least offers a few suggestions. We’ve tried to include a variety of actions, sizes and prices, to help provide some options to match particular situations. You’ll notice, however, what we did not include: single-action-only revolvers and derringers. Serious preparation for self-defense does not involve a re- creation of a Wild West drama (and people in our dear old home, Montana, will be glad to tell you that). The fun shooters that look like props from video games were also left out; they’re great for the range or the sand quarry, but not for serious self-defense. Instead, we tried to offer a range of actions, sizes and costs that would provide a selection from which people who are willing to take on the responsibility of self-defense could choose.
Now comes the fun part: What do you think? We can hear you sharpening your keyboards even as we type this. Let the rumble begin!