When it comes to safeguarding your home and loved ones, the debate between shotguns and handguns often takes center stage. There are myriad factors to choosing a firearm for self-defense and home protection. There are upsides and downsides for each. Let’s delve into the intricacies of shotguns vs. handguns for home defense to help you make an informed decision.

Shotgun for Home Defense

The double-barreled shotgun is hailed as a powerful and reliable defensive weapon. With its simplicity of operation and wide availability of ammunition, the shotgun offers a formidable option for home-defense scenarios. The spread of the shot pattern, while often exaggerated in movies, typically remains relatively tight, requiring accurate aiming like any other firearm. 

With any defensive shotgun, the shot pattern starts out less than an inch in diameter at the muzzle end of the barrel. A general rule when defining pattern diameter of the shot charge — from exiting the muzzle to impacting the target — is 1 inch of increase for every yard traveled between the muzzle and the target. Take into consideration that an average room is 12 feet across, which equates to 4 yards. In turn, using the above formula means that the diameter of the shot pattern is only 4 to 5 inches at best. This underscores the importance of training and proficiency in handling shotguns effectively, especially in high-stress situations such as surviving a home invasion.

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Loaded with buckshot, shotguns deliver a potent payload effective at close range, making them formidable deterrents against intruders. Additionally, shotguns can be loaded with slugs for increased range and penetration. However, for home-defense purposes, the effective range typically remains within 20 yards. It’s crucial to choose appropriate ammunition, as lighter loads like birdshot may lack the stopping power needed in life-threatening situations.

A target shows the effective range of a shotgun test.

Shotguns are impressive, but the pattern of shot falls apart rapidly at longer ranges.

While shotguns offer undeniable firepower, they also present certain challenges. The manual operation of pump-action shotguns requires familiarity and practice to ensure smooth and efficient functioning, particularly under duress. Moreover, the size and weight of shotguns may limit mobility and maneuverability in dynamic confrontations, emphasizing the importance of proper training and handling techniques.

Handgun for Home Defense

Handguns provide a compact and convenient option for home defense, favored for their portability and ease of access. With the right training and proficiency, handguns offer effective self-defense capabilities, capable of delivering accurate shots with proper aim. Revolvers and semi-automatic pistols offer varying magazine capacities and reloading mechanisms, allowing users to tailor their firearm choice to their preferences and needs.

Revolvers are easier to load and unload than semi-automatics in that they have fewer buttons and levers to contend with in those processes. The average revolver holds six rounds of ammunition where semi-automatics hold 10 rounds or more on average. Semi-automatics and revolvers are similar in accuracy and effectiveness with the right ammunition selections and can be operated with one hand as well as two. Handgun ammunition consists of only one bullet per shot and has only a portion of the power generated by the shotgun ammunition. This, in turn, might mean that multiple shots are required on the target to stop the aggression.

However, handguns also come with their own set of considerations. While handguns offer greater maneuverability and ease of handling compared to shotguns, they require meticulous attention to safety protocols and marksmanship. The shorter sight radius and increased susceptibility to user error make handgun accuracy more dependent on the shooter’s skill and experience. Additionally, handguns vary in caliber and stopping power, so it’s crucial to carefully select the right ammunition for defensive purposes.

Effective Range

When choosing between a handgun and shotgun for home protection, one should keep in mind the effective range of any firearm. Effective range is the distance at which the shooter can place shots in a location likely to stop the threat and end the fight. Now we’ll explore the effective range of shotguns and handguns.


As it turns out, gauging a shotgun’s effective range is easier than gauging that of a handgun. With handguns, variables such as shooter experience and training as well as firearm model can be more of a factor than with a shotgun. A shotgun is more consistent across the spectrum.

Most shotguns chosen for home defense are manually operated repeaters. The pump-action — sometimes called the slide-action shotgun — is reliable and simple to operate. But pistol grip shotguns are a terrible idea for control.

Shotguns should be loaded with buckshot. Buckshot is offered in several sizes with a payload of 8 to 27 pellets. For home defense, No. 1 or No. 4 buck is effective, but 00 delivers a tighter pattern. Some have recommended birdshot or other light loads as a home-defense load. Birdshot is made to kill a bird you could hold in your hand. It doesn’t weigh more than a few grains, and penetrates in gelatin a only few inches. These loads are ineffective.

The shotgun’s maximum effective range can be easily figured. Simply put a clean target up at the range and fire your shotgun at increasing distances until the target is no longer covered by more than 50 percent of the shot.

Inside of 7 yards, the shotgun must be aimed as carefully as a rifle. The pattern has not begun to spread yet, and the load must be centered to be effective. As range increases, the pattern spreads. The longest effective range for most loads is 20 yards. This is the range at which the pattern has spread to the extent that it is no longer an aid in engaging moving targets.

After 20 yards, the pattern has spread to the point that more than half of the buckshot may not strike the target. This varies with the load. As an example: Federal Flite Wad buckshot may maintain a tight pattern as far as 30 yards in some shoguns. In general, the best shotgun pattern is delivered with eight pellet 00 buckshot.

However, you can load solid shot. A slug weighs about an ounce. This is a solid projectile used in hunting deer and boar as well as for personal defense. A slug increases the shotgun’s effective range as far as you can keep the shots on target. For some shotguns, this is 100 yards, but for most, it is 50 yards. However, for home defense, the shotgun’s effective range is still 20 yards. As far as maximum range, these round balls do not buck the air very well. The loads are calculated to drop 4 feet or more at 300 yards.

A 5-inch circle is an excellent gauge of effective range.


Calculating the handgun’s effective range is more complex. The shotgun locks up tight against the two arms and the cheek — a three-point weld. The handgun is held by one or both hands. The sight radius (distance between the sights) is shorter than on a long gun. This invites greater error.

There are various means of testing a handgun’s accuracy potential. One is to fire the pistol at benchrest. But this is the most unrealistic test of handgun effectiveness. At 7 yards or so, a handgun will place all its shots into one hole if properly handled. Much of effective range depends on the size, weight and recoil of the handgun and the shooter’s skill.

Effective Range Drill

Begin this drill standing at the range, facing a target set up at 10 yards. The handgun should be loaded in the normal ready mode and resting on the shooting bench before you begin. Make the handgun ready by taking the safety off, racking the slide or simply pulling the trigger depending on how it is kept at ready in the home. Aim carefully and fire. As the pistol recoils control the movement, realign the sights and fire again. Fire a five-round group, reload and fire again.

The final group of 10 shots should be no larger than 5 inches. If the group is smaller than 4 inches, you are firing too slow. Larger than 5 inches means you are firing too quickly. The maximum effective range of the handgun and shooter combination is the range at which you consistently keep your shots in a 5-inch group. If you run this drill a few times, you will have a much better understanding of your ability with the handgun. (You will also understand how much more effective the shotgun is in most hands.)

Handgun vs. Shotgun for Home Defense?

Regardless of the firearm you choose, proper training and adherence to safety protocols are essential. Invest in training from qualified instructors and practice regularly with your chosen firearm to build confidence in handling potential threats effectively. By making an informed decision and prioritizing safety, you can confidently defend your home against potential threats while minimizing risks and liabilities.

This article is a compilation of previous blog posts authored by George Harris, Scott W. Wagner and Bob Campbell.