In the Clear: Are Handguns Really the Best?

If you’re a regular reader of my column in the USCCA’s weekly digital newsletter The Concealed Carry Report, you may have picked up on the fact that when I discuss AR-15s or other defensive rifles, it is always in the context that a rifle, even a short-barreled rifle (SBR), is best utilized as an exterior property defense gun or perimeter weapon. That is because, in the vast majority of average homes, condos, trailers and apartments, a handgun is the best weapon to control and clear interior spaces.

I say this based upon my personal experience as a law enforcement officer. I have worked — and continue to work — street patrol for 36 of my 38 years on the job. I also spent eight months of those 38 years working as an undercover Ohio Department of Liquor Control investigator and almost two years as an undercover narcotics detective at the Licking County (Ohio) Sheriff’s Office. I also spent 14 of those 38 years as a SWAT team member at the Union County (Ohio) Sheriff’s Office, serving eventually as assistant team leader and sniper.

I’ve done a lot of building searches in my career — day and night, illuminated, and in pitch-black conditions except for the light I brought with me. The reasons for conducting searches have ranged from finding unlocked or open doors to responding to burglary or robbery alarms to searching homes for suspects with warrants for their arrests to serving warrants on armed suspects with histories of violence and drug use to even rescuing hostages. For the vast majority of these searches, my fellow officers and I — particularly our patrol officers — conducted them with duty handguns and hand-held flashlights.

Hands-On

Back in the dark ages of policing, which means prior to the early 2000s, the handgun was the only practical option for cops to use when clearing interior spaces. If by some chance the area was well-lit, then a Remington 870 pump shotgun could be brought into play, but even under ideal lighting conditions, using a shotgun during a two-officer search limited what the officer carrying it could do with his hands since no tactical slings were available at the time.

If you found a suspect during the search and your partner had to physically fight him to subdue him, you had to find a safe place to stash the shotgun so you could help. This meant that at least three officers had to go in if a shotgun were to be involved — two to physically control the suspect if needed and one to run the shotgun.

If you found a suspect during the search and your partner had to physically fight him to subdue him, you had to find a safe place to stash the shotgun so you could help.

Also, it wasn’t until LED bulbs developed adequate power that workable tactical lights could be mounted on shotguns; recoil tore up the older incandescent bulbs. For these two reasons, shotguns were left in cruisers for roughly 99 percent of calls requiring a building search.

When I joined the Union County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team in 1997, I was one of the few officers who had an AR-15 of any sort. Mine was a DPMS M4-type carbine that lacked an adjustable stock, flash hider and bayonet lug due to the misguided and useless Clinton “Assault Weapons Ban,” but it still shot well and served its purpose. I took it along on at least one drug raid but was positioned outside to cover the perimeter.

After the Assault Weapons Ban sunsetted in 2004, I purchased an M4 with an adjustable stock and flash hider — an ultralight Bushmaster Carbon 15, which sadly appears to no longer be in production. The reinforced upper and lower receivers were made of carbon fiber, which made the M4 a joy to carry at 4.5 pounds. I added a laser/light combo, an Aimpoint optic and a single-point sling. I started taking it on missions and used it on entries and searches; I had to since all the other kids were doing it too. Until one night…

Our team had just cleared a drug warrant we worked with our detectives and had turned the scene and the suspect over to them. I was halfway home in my personal car and was requested back at the scene on an “officer needs assistance” emergency callout.

When I arrived back, I found that the suspect had escaped the detectives’ confinement in his home (he had been sitting under guard at his kitchen table when I left) and was now holding himself hostage with a cocked 9mm pistol to his temple. Members of the team who’d been closest to the scene had set up an interior and exterior confinement perimeter by the time I made it back.

I was initially put on perimeter with my rifle, but after about 20 minutes I was called inside. A detective had been acting as negotiator and was behind a body bunker for cover since he was in the line of fire about 15 feet away. I covered the suspect, who was standing in his bedroom doorway.

Remember how light I said the rifle was? Well, it got pretty darn heavy as the night wore on. After about an hour, I began thinking: “From my position about 20 feet from the suspect, I have a very clear shot.” At that time, our department issued the Glock 31 .357 SIG with factory night sights. That’s a controllable powerhouse of a round, and it’s more than capable of a one-shot stop.

If I were responding to an active-shooter incident at a school or large business, the Bushmaster would be my primary weapon going in.

Atop that, I was also the top pistol shot on our team and confident in my abilities; I knew I could and would be able to drop the suspect should he take his gun away from his head. I secured the carbine and began covering the suspect with the Glock 31.

The standoff lasted a total of five hours and was ultimately resolved peacefully and without injury. I was able to keep the suspect covered during negotiations without fatigue for the last couple of hours of the standoff using the Glock 31, and after that mission, I left my carbine in the car for home and small business entries and searches. However, if I were responding to an active-shooter incident at a school or large business, the Bushmaster would be my primary weapon going in.

My reasoning for not carrying the AR during entries or building searches wasn’t just about the weight, even though that is what initiated my change in tactical thinking. It also had to do with maneuverability in tight spaces. Even an M4 carbine with a 16-inch barrel is a lot to handle in a confined area, and it’s especially difficult to maneuver around furniture and other items in the home. Plus, the same issues that cause problems for taking shotguns in on building searches also apply to AR-15s.

You can also give challenges to the intruder from behind cover; shout repeatedly, “Get out, I have a gun and I will shoot you if you come in!”

You can also give challenges to the intruder from behind cover; shout repeatedly, “Get out, I have a gun and I will shoot you if you come in!”

Back In-Country

If you’re not willing to take my word for it that the handgun is by far the best interior-search tool, consider the “Tunnel Rats” of the Vietnam War. If you are not familiar with their story, the Tunnel Rats, as they called themselves, were the bravest of the brave: They were the soldiers who volunteered to search and clear the tunnels that the Viet Cong employed to live undetected, store equipment and supplies, and commit attacks against our personnel.

These tunnels were extensive and deep — and not easily destroyed. The Tunnel Rats were ultimately tasked with gathering intel concerning future Viet Cong operations, killing or capturing any occupants, and seizing and destroying enemy materiel. Clearing these tunnels was done in very close confinement under the worst of lighting conditions, all while watching for booby traps and enemy soldiers.

Our soldiers quickly found out that these confines were no place for an M16 rifle or even an M1 carbine. The Tunnel Rats went into those deathtraps armed with handguns.

Space in the tunnels was limited to say the least. Remember that the average North Vietnamese combatant of the day was much smaller than the average U.S. soldier, and the tunnels were sized accordingly. Our soldiers quickly found out that these confines were no place for an M16 rifle or even an M1 carbine. The Tunnel Rats went into those deathtraps armed with handguns.

Pictures abound of Tunnel Rats entering tunnels armed with venerable Colt 1911A1s, whose large .45-caliber projectiles would excel at stopping threats at the distances encountered inside. I have also seen — quite surprisingly I might add, though word is that they preferred the softer report — pictures of Tunnel Rats entering tunnels using Victory Model Smith & Wesson six-shot .38s. Bear in mind, this would have been without the benefit of modern speedloaders; that’s nerve.

Atop everything else, there was no such thing as a “tactical light” back then. The Tunnel Rats entered with old military “L”-head two-cell flashlights, whose illumination abilities were very limited. Yet the Tunnel Rats accomplished their missions time and again.

Even in extreme situations, where confines were tight and the danger level almost indescribable, the Tunnel Rats, by choice or lack of choice, used handguns for their operations. If it worked for them…

Close Game

The average home or apartment is not that large in terms of interior distances. There is not a lot of maneuvering room available, whether in a hallway or in the average bedroom. Unless you live in a mansion, you are not likely to exceed 60 feet of uncluttered distance upstairs, with perhaps greater distances found in the basement. A rifle isn’t needed to control and dominate those distances, but you should still make sure your range time includes shooting at your target from “home-threat” distances. If you haven’t been doing that, you need to start.

One of the primary advantages of a handgun when clearing or checking your home is that you can very easily remain ready to engage — barrel pointed straight in front of you but tucked in to prevent a gun-grab attempt — while doing something with your other hand. With a rifle (even an SBR), the barrel is leading the way ahead of you.

To minimize barrel exposure and not give away your position, you spend a lot of time raising an AR from low-ready to high-ready (rather than being continually ready to confront a direct threat if it appears in front of you) as you search for threats while moving through the house. As part of your home-threat training, you need to practice shooting from a “hip-tuck” or “high-tuck” position.

It is also important to never forget that, unless you have loved ones to round up and defend, clearing your home after it’s been invaded is often not in your best interest. For the sake of discussion, let’s look at the “standard” home-invasion scenario: You’re asleep in your bed, and something goes “bump” in the night. Let’s also assume that you live alone or, if you don’t, that the only other person in your home is in the same bedroom as you and that there are no children or anyone else who needs to be defended.

You can keep your phone in your support hand and talk while you hold your handgun in your strong hand and prepare to shoot if the intruder decides to come in.

The best thing for you to do may be to lock yourself in your bedroom (especially if you don’t live in a “stand your ground” state) and take a position behind your bed, using it for cover and concealment while you point your handgun at the door and call 911. You can keep your phone in your support hand and talk while you hold your handgun in your strong hand and prepare to shoot if the intruder decides to come in.

You can also give challenges to the intruder from behind cover; shout repeatedly, “Get out, I have a gun and I will shoot you if you come in!” or something similar. Advise the 911 dispatcher that you have armed yourself, and ask him or her to let you know when officers arrive. As a cop, I don’t mind you being armed; in fact, I encourage it. I just don’t want to end up on either side of a mistake.

The situation changes when you have children in your home or if you are caring for an elderly or ill relative. While you still don’t have to clear your entire house, you do have to move to protect those who can’t protect themselves, which will end up being more of a partial clearing.

I have already planned with my wife that, if we hear an entry in our home after bedtime, I will take the lead and get a position in the hall with my handgun while she grabs the .38 I have hidden away for her. She will move under my cover into our son’s bedroom and take a position behind his bed with him, covering the doorway. If I remain behind the protection of the doorway, I still have a commanding position of control of our hallway should the intruder make the mistake of coming down it. By this time, my wife will be on the phone to 911.

If this is a scenario that you are preparing for in your home, you don’t want a rifle or shotgun involved unless that is the only weapon you have. There is simply too much maneuvering involved.

Note that the 911 call comes after establishing a protective barrier around our son. After that barrier is established, I can slowly and carefully clear the house if that seems like the best option at the moment. If this is a scenario that you are preparing for in your home, you don’t want a rifle or shotgun involved unless that is the only weapon you have. There is simply too much maneuvering involved.

One In The Hand

Use a handgun for your interior home defense. Develop confidence in your handgun and in your ability to use it, and upgrade your handgun if need be so that you can dominate a situation within your residence. You can add a laser sight from Crimson Trace, a laser/light combo from Streamlight and/or a set of improved combat sights from XS so that you can “own the night” within the confines of your home.

You don’t need the power of a rifle or a shotgun inside your home to stop a home invasion. A modern handgun chambering the most powerful defensive — not hunting — cartridge you can accurately control will do the job as long as you have the will to use it. Save the rifle for perimeter defense or vehicle use on a ranch or farm. Make a handgun your gun of choice for indoor defense, and don’t feel outgunned.

Sources

Crimson Trace: CrimsonTrace.com
Streamlight: Streamlight.com
XS Sights: XSSights.com

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