Guns and Self Defense: General Issues

by Julian Freeman

In the late 1800’s, when Annie Oakely recommended that all women to carry concealed guns and began teaching classes for women in firearms, the decision about whether to carry a gun, and which one to use was much simpler than now. Social customs and laws were far simpler than today on when a gun could be used in self-defense. The choice among available guns was much more limited.

Everything is more complex now: Whether to carry a gun, when it can be used, and which gun (if any) is best.

No simple recommendation or answer on these questions is possible, due to the complexity of the issues, and the wide range of individual needs. The ideas that follow are just ideas for anyone to consider, who things they want to purchase or use a gun for personal self defense. They are not “guidelines” or “suggestions” but are just thoughts about what might be a good question to ask, before acting.

What follows is limited to the technical question of which gun, for what purpose. However, before reaching that point, a gun owner must keep in mind that guns do cause injury. The overall frequency and severity are not much or as often as with automobiles or power tools, but unintentional injury still results. Therefore, before even reaching the point of choosing a gun, a person should ask, of himself:

Will a gun solve the safety problem at issue, or will it be too little, or too much “force” to be useful?

Do you understand the ethical and legal requirements for use of a gun for self-defense, in the local area where it might be used?

Can you prevent the gun from being used improperly by “unauthorized” individuals?

In thinking about these questions, remember that there are situations where a gun, or several of them, will not be enough defensive force to be useful, and will make the situation worse. There are others where the “display” of that much force or destructive power will be harmful overall. Legal and ethical limitations on how and when a gun can be used were simple in the 1890s, but are very complex now and vary widely by region, even within a given state or city. A gun user really should be aware of these requirements, and limitations. Keeping the weapon safe involved children, but many others. It would be a serious mistake to think having a gun “safe” for storage or a locked chest will keep a gun out of the wrong or undesirable hands.

Once these questions have been “resolved” as best they can be, the next one is which gun. While some current lawmakers and others recommend shotguns for self-defense, Annie did not, even though that was her main weapon of use in her exhibitions and performances. The reasons are accuracy, and collateral damage.

Options among firearms: the full gamut

When a gun is used for self-defense, it has two sequential effects. The first is “threat”. The second is stopping the potential assailant or perpetrator, when threat is not sufficient. For some “assailants” a shotgun is more of a threat than a handgun, perhaps less or equal to that of a semi-automatic rifle. For others, it all is equal, and only a grenade is a greater threat than thing else. Eva Peron opted for that last option (the grenade in her handbag), but most prefer the firearm.

The basic problem is that while the shotgun may (and only may) be a greater threat, if it needs to be used, the accuracy is poor, and collateral damage to other people or property is high. Also, if the perpetrator survives, the cost of later medical care will be very high compared to a handgun or rifle injury, and may be at the expense of the shooter. Many or most “self defense” situations actually are hostage situations where there are other bystanders, or co-hostages. A shotgun in those situations is very difficult to use, due to accuracy problems. Using slugs rather than buckshot, or a tight choke pattern can help, but accuracy still is limited.

Another problem with the shotgun is where it can be used effectively. Size and weight limit legal shotguns to use “in the field” or in the home. As a field gun, size often is not a problem. In the home or in a building, it is very difficult to maneuver with a long barreled gun, and avoid colliding with furniture, walls, or other people. While shorter barreled “bull-pup” shotguns or rifles can be used and some may be legal, the standard shotgun creates a real size problem inside a building.

In the field, the problem becomes one of range. The greater range of a rifle creates a major advantage for it, for self defense outside of the home, if concealment is not required.

Is a rifle a self-defense option? It depends on the situation. If the adversary is a pack of coyotes, or a grizzly bear, it often is the best option. In the home, the degree of bullet penetration from most rifles is a major disadvantage. Except for the 22 rimfire and a few others, the bullets travel through the target, through most walls, and on for quite a distance beyond. As a result, injury to other objects or people often occurs, can be severe, and usually are the responsibility of the person who fired the gun. Plastic rifle ammunition (sometimes available for 7.62×39 and .308) limits this problem, but that ammunition is not widely available. The same is true for rubber bullets.

Can a single shot rifle, shotgun, or pistol be used for self-defense? Going back to the threat issue, these can be about as effective as a multi-shot gun. The problem is reload time, if that is required. Most find about 8 seconds are required for the reload and re-aim process. A few can be faster than that, and do it within 3-5 seconds. In the end, this can work well for a pack of coyotes who will not attack after the first animal is shot, or for their parallel, the average city gang who will run after the first attacker falls. However, it isn’t universal, and a multi-shot gun often is an option to consider. Keep in mind, however, that the guns Annie Oakley was recommending often were single or two-shot guns.

The handgun: choosing the cartridge

If one chooses a handgun, the first question in the decision is the same as in the optimal design of a firearm for military or police use: what bullet and cartridge are optimal?

In general, the small caliber bullets like the .22 offer good to superior accuracy out to 100 yards (occasionally 200), low collateral injury due to penetration through walls, metal, or multiple people, and enough energy to disable or kill a small to medium sized animal or human. The problem with it, is that the aim must be precise, to be effective. There are some exceptions, such as the PSM 5.45×18 and the FN 5.7×28, which were designed for high penetration and extensive internal damage to the first target, with relatively poor accuracy.

In the 1880s to 1900, a variety of .30, 32 and .38 cartridges were developed, primarily for police and self-defense use, to provide a more accurate cartridge that transferred a significant amount of energy to the target for “knockdown”. All were relatively successful for police use and self defense and in their modern versions, are capable of good accuracy and moderate levels of injury to bystanders due to penetration or missed targets. The .45, and later, .40 caliber cartridges were developed to increase the energy transfer to the target person or object, but unfortunately are significantly lower in accuracy, especially in .45 caliber. A wide range of variations in caliber has been developed. A few were for very specific military purposes, such as underwater use, or use with silencers. However, in general the selection of cartridges might be summarized as:

.22s very effective at close range, low penetration, low noise, low ricochet, precise targeting required.
22lr capable of extreme accuracy, low penetration, precise targeting required.
.30 (Tokarev) very high penetration, good accuracy, semi-auto use only.
.32 semiauto acceptable to very high accuracy, low penetration, good energy transfer, 50 yd maximum distance
.38 S&W semiauto as with .32, lower penetration, better energy transfer
.32 and .38 revolver: higher energy than the semi-auto and higher penetration, less accuracy.

.380 auto (9mm short): moderate energy and penetration, low accuracy, short range only.

9mm and .38 Super: Moderate penetration, moderately high energy transfer, poor to good accuracy depending on gun, shot
shells available

.357 magnum- Moderately high energy, moderately high penetration, poor to average accuracy.

.40 Moderate penetration but less than 9mm, moderate energy transfer, more than 9mm, low to moderate accuracy depending on the gun

.44, .45, .50 High energy, relatively low velocity, usually low to moderate penetration, poor to average accuracy unless very
low velocity ammunition is used, with low energy transfer and very low penetration.

There are other calibers, and other names for the same cartridges. As a result, the specific details can change, when it comes time to select the gun. The classification of cartridges does not always match the true caliber of the gun. Hopefully, this won’t be too confusing in the above list.

To summarize the caliber issue, this has become very complicated due to minor changes in caliber at first, and later, the “commercial” appeal of a new caliber. Overall, the .22lr (or in some groups, the .22s) is preferred for defense due to high accuracy and low collateral damage, so long as high penetration is not needed. When high penetration with good accuracy is needed, the .30 Tokarev is the best by a large margin. The .32 and .38 calibers are excellent when somewhat more impact is needed, but high accuracy still is desired. The 9mm Luger and .38 Super are excellent when higher penetration is needed, and higher collateral damage is a risk worth taking. The other calibers, .357 magnum through .500, add higher energy and impact, but significantly lower accuracy and higher collateral damage.

Type of Handgun: Revolver, Semi-Auto, or other?

The next question is single or several shot, revolver, or semi-automatic.

In part, the answer to this depends on whether the gun will be concealed, and if concealed, how that will be done. If the intent is to keep the gun in a pocket or holster and fire it without removing it, the 1-4 shot guns that do not have moving parts for reloading, and do not have exposed hammers can be useful because they do not jam in firing or ejection. Some revolvers also can be used in that way, especially if they have a hammer shroud or cover. The problem with these is that they are very short-range weapons, and usually of low power. Even those in .45 or .410 caliber generate only a fraction of the usual bullet energy due to the short barrel, and the muzzle flame is intense. There are a number of long-range single shot handguns, but these are far from small or concealable.

As a result, while these can be useful or even necessary in some situations, they are not usually the ideal option even though they may have been the best choice for women in the 1890s.

Some prefer the revolver due to the simpler mechanism and lower risk of jamming in use. The size of available revolvers ranges from really tiny in .22, to huge. The largest capacity is about 18 rounds, but most are in the 5-9 round range. The biggest problems are that their accuracy generally is less than that of a semi-automatic, the rate of fire is slower unless “fanned”, and for most of them, the risk of accidental discharge when dropped is higher. Most have no “secondary” or manual safety, although whether that device even is useful, is a matter of dispute. The range of calibers available also is somewhat limited, and reloading is slower than a semi-automatic. Finally, except for the tiny ones, they can be difficult to conceal due to the bulge from the cylinder.

Overall the revolver remains a favorite of those who are concerned about mechanical malfunction or do not want to leave cartridge casings behind, who specifically want a revolver caliber, and where the size of the cylinder and lower accuracy are not a problem. Some of the new revolver designs with a very low barrel, overcome the accuracy issue somewhat, but this is only a partial improvement. If fired from within the pocket or holster, there still is the potential problem of something blocking the hammer, or preventing the cylinder from turning.

Among the individual revolvers, in addition to caliber, the main differences are whether the hammer is shrouded or not, the accuracy of the gun, the risk of firing if dropped or not to fire at all, weight of the gun, capacity of the cylinder, and whether a “firing pin block” or transfer bar safety is desired. Also remember that for many revolvers, depending on how and where it is carried, an empty cylinder should be opposite the hammer, reducing the effective cartridge capacity by one round.

Among the semi-automatics, there is a very wide range of size, consealability, and accuracy.

If the decision is to take that route, keep in mind that the short-barreled guns all are significantly less accurate when the barrel length drops below 5″, and the bullet energy drops off quickly below 6″. At a 4″ or less barrel length, there are very few accurate guns, and they are very expensive. At 3″, accuracy drops further, as does bullet energy for any caliber. The only exception to this is the .22s, where the 3.5″ barrel semiautos can be about as accurate as the others, with about the same bullet energy.

The other factors to consider are single or double action, and with or without a safety. A single action gun is much easier to shoot accurately. Some semi-autos can be used either single or double action, others are one or the other, but not both. A few semi-autos do not have safeties. Whether this is a problem or not is a matter of opinion. The European view has been that safeties are an American fantasy, do not make the gun “safer”, and no semi-auto can be made safe by adding a device like that. The American view is the opposite. The statistical data on gun accidents favor the European view. In any event, one should not count on a safety to render the gun safe. Also, keep in mind that some smaller pocket guns use strikers with no hammer. If that design is used, a bullet never can be kept safely in the chamber with the gun cocked.

Center of Mass, or Central Error?

Another issue to keep in mind is that many self-defense approaches to firearm use teach it is best to fire at the “center of mass”.

The center of mass idea comes from astronomy and physics. It refers to the fact that in physics and engineering, many properties of an object, such as gravitational pull or inertia, behave as if they were focused at the center of mass of the object. That is true for the physical properties of an object. However, for self-defense, the areas of importance are comparable to the pressure points in karate, or the single base errors in genetics: the outcome depends on a precise hit at a critical point. As a result, when using a firearm for self-defense, the crucial factor is hitting a critical point.

Guns designed for military combat usually are based on a different concept: that many rounds must be fired to disable or kill an enemy, and individual soldier accuracy matters little. This both is the effect of the lack of change in the bullet per injury statistics since 1850 to now, and that only about a third of the battlefield injuries are due to small arms fire in any military action.

When handguns are used for defense, there are two options. One is the usual outcome in police vs. perpetrator or suspect shootings in large cities, where 50-100 rounds are fired, the subject may be hit once or twice, and 20-40 bystanders are wounded, usually by police bullets, plus additional property damage. For civilian self-defense, that is not the desirable approach or outcome.

General Summary:

As a general overview:

Within these broad ideas, there are a number of potentially useful semi-autos that can be useful for defense in addition to the revolvers and “non-reloading” guns mentioned above. Most non-reloading guns are either 1 or 2 shot guns, the others tend to be 3-4 rounds, a few reach 6. Generally above 2 rounds, either a revolver or semi-auto needs to be considered.

For any personal defense situation, usually the “ideal” gun, if there is one, has high accuracy, can avoid attack without firing a shot, or if a shot is fired, it is limited to only one per attacker with no injury to bystanders or structures. For most purposes, a .22lr handgun is optimal for that, but a .32 or .38 can be useful as well. When the need to penetrate objects of very heavy clothing is anticipated, a 9mm handgun tends to be better. The .380 (9×17 or 9×18) can be considered, but these are short range weapons, with less accuracy. For other situations, other calibers may be optimal.

The current trend in military and police guns is to larger capacities, with either 9×19 or .40 caliber cartridges. For military use, accuracy never was a consideration and the main purpose of the handgun is close quarters combat, or a “feeling of security” on the part of the soldier, even though that feeling might have no basis. For police use, the basic idea is to have enough ammunition in a firefight.

That approach, in police use, has not worked well. In cities with extensive gang violence or heavily armed criminals, the large capacity semi-automatics have given the police officers no advantage, and may have contributed to increased bystander injury when such firefights occur. In scenarios such as the various school and college campus shootings, the ideal gun for a police officer or intervening private citizen may well have been a very high accuracy .22 handgun, even single shot versions. For personal defense, accuracy with the gun and preciseness of thought tend to be far more important than how many rounds are in the magazine, unless one anticipates attacks by more than 5 individuals at one time.

For self-defense against large animals, the .44 Magnum or .50 caliber handguns usually are not enough to counter a large bear or angry moose effectively, due to the low penetration and poor accuracy. The mass of a large bear is too high to be stopped by “center of mass” impact alone from those cartridges. The .30 Tokarev pistols tend to be more effective, due to the extremely high bullet penetration and accuracy.

Value for the Dollar:

Finally, there is the question of quality, and cost versus quality.

This is a very contentious area, strongly influenced by commercial interests and advertising. The continued use of old names, like Colt, Smith and Wesson, High Standard, Heckler and Koch, SIG, SIG-Sauer, Walther, Hammerli, and a host of others long after the original company has gone out of business does not help.

The only simple advice that can be given, is that some old guns remain superb, some are junk, and some are in-between. Some new guns are excellent designs and excellent workmanship, some are good designs and junk material or workmanship, some are junk from the start. Make your inquiries, if possible thoroughly test the gun first or ask advice from skilled individuals who have tested them, and be careful.

Grandmas S&W revolver, Granddad’s Colt or Walther automatic, or a cousin’s Hammeri target gun all may be ideal for your need. Or, one of those new-fangled guns may be better.

And of course, remember, everything you read on the internet is true. You read that on the internet.