Choosing a Gun
The handgun is easily the most effective self defense tool in the world, and we encourage mature adults to think about carrying. However, it is not the right choice for all people or all situations. It isn't appropriate for less intense conflicts, and it might not stop an aggressive attacker. In many cases and for many people less lethal weapons are a better choice, and might even be more effective. There are several issues that you need to work through before making the decision to purchase and carry a gun for self defense.
- Is your lifestyle compatible with carrying, or are you willing to change it so that it is? There isn't any point in spending hundreds of dollars on the gun, training, safes, etc., if it just ends up stowed away. It is only useful if it is on you when needed.
- Are you willing to accept the responsibility? The chances of accidentally killing someone with a gun are extremely small, but it does happen (you are actually about 100 times as likely to kill someone with your car). If you don't have or carry a gun, then you eliminate that possibility from your life. If you like shooting but don't have the right lifestyle for carrying, then maybe recreational target shooting or hunting would be more appropriate.
- Do you have "what it takes" to kill someone? Don't answer that too quickly. Under what conditions would you actually point a gun at someone and pull the trigger? You'd better have a very clear answer before you make the purchase. For me, it would be if the lives of my wife or children were at risk. That includes burglaries, home invasions, adult assaults, assaults with a weapon, kidnapping, and the like. But taking a person's life, even a very evil person's, is no small thing. It is an action that, if you have a healthy psychology, would rightly haunt you for the rest of your life.
- Are you willing to go to jail for a very long time, perhaps the rest of your life, if you use the gun in self defense? This happens sometimes. If you can't accept that, then don't carry a gun. The famous cliche that "I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six" sounds brave and obvious, but may be a lot harder to live with than you think.
- Are you willing to go through the work and expense that will be necessary to keep it secure in your home? There are many stories about tragic accidental shooting in the home, often involving children. The truth is that many times more people die each year from doctors' accidents, but either way, you need to keep the gun secure at all times, and that takes work.
- Do you suffer from depression, irrational behavior or extreme mood swings? Have you considered or attempted suicide? Then don't get a gun, especially if you are a male.
All that being said, the other side of the argument is pretty straightforward: "When seconds count, the police are only minutes away." If the kinds of emergencies for which self defense guns are needed could wait minutes, then there'd be no need for guns. You could just call the police. Many people jump immediately to buying the gun once they realize its necessity for self defense, but you really should first consider how far you want to go with this decision. It is our belief that, if you are going to "go gun" that you should go all the way. That is, if you are getting a gun for self defense, that means it is on your person or within reach (in your control), loaded and ready to fire at all times. Emergencies can develop in seconds, and you usually will not have time to leave the scene, go to a safe, dial in the combination, extract the gun, load it, and return to the scene. Many people have been assaulted, raped or killed while their gun lay just a few feet out of reach in a drawer or unloaded in closet, safe, or even in the car. When you really need a self defense gun, you need it now, this very second, not two minutes from now, and not in the next room. This is the fundamental reason that we recommend a small handgun over a shotgun -- you can keep a small handgun on you at all times.
All adults in your household should be trained in its use, and any children should be properly exposed to it and instructed not to touch it, but to go get an adult if they see a gun. When they are the right age and maturity, then mom or dad can teach them how to use the gun safely; target shooting and hunting are enjoyable activities for many families with children.
Choosing to get a gun for self defense is an expensive, lifestyle-changing decision. The gun, itself, is often the least expensive part of the adventure. In many ways it is like choosing to purchase a poisonous snake or dangerous guard dog. The responsibilities and costs go way beyond just going to the store, dropping a few hundred dollars and getting the animal. You are choosing to purchase a machine that can easily injure or kill you or someone else on accident if it is mishandled or left out. If you aren't willing to embrace this level of responsibility, then a self defense gun is not the right choice for you.
Following are some terms that newcomers sometimes find confusing.
Barrel is the metal tube down which the bullet travels when it is fired. Most barrels have spiral grooves in them that cause the bullet to spin.
Bullet is the piece of metal that is fired from a gun.
Caliber refers primarily to the diameter of the bullet.
Cartridge is the unit that comprises of the bullet, gun powder and primer held together by a metallic case. A cartridge can also be referred to as a round, ammo or ammunition (the latter two usually being plural). You don't load bullets into a gun; you load cartridges, rounds, ammo or ammunition.
Chamber is the reinforced area that holds the cartridge to be fired. In a revolver, the revolving cylinder is a set of chambers -- one for each round.
Magazine is the device used in semi-automatic pistols to hold the cartridges. It is not a "clip."
- Choose the frame size to carry. For concealed carry this is usually a subcompact or smaller.
- Choose the most powerful round you are willing to practice with in that frame size.
- Find the manufacturers and models that are available meeting the above criteria.
- Select the one with the best options for you.
- Get trained and legal.
- Get complementary equipment like holsters, tactical lights and safes.
The following paragraphs expand on these considerations
Guns come in many different sizes, by which I mean the size of the gun's frame -- not the size of the bullets it fires. The frame is the main structure of the gun; it houses the gun's moving parts. The size of the frame you choose will depend on your size, hand/arm strength, and desired use of the gun. Larger people tend to prefer larger guns, usually referred to as tactical or just standard size frames. But if you are buying it for concealed carry, then you will want a smaller frame size; these usually go by the term compact or subcompact. For example, my 9mm is available in a large variety of sizes. I carry the subcompact, which has only a 3 1/2 inch barrel. It is available in versions that are twice this size and several steps in between.
Frame size can impact the caliber that you are comfortable shooting. The larger the grip area and the heavier the gun, the easier it is to shoot large caliber and high power rounds. For example, a full size 357 with magnum (high power) rounds can be a handfull. If the same rounds are placed in a lightweight, compact frame, it will be downright unpleasant to shoot and very hard to control (I've seen guns actually flip out of people's hands when fired). For this reason, it may be best to first decide on the frame size and kind of gun -- revolver or semi-auto -- before deciding on the caliber.
If you like target shooting, larger guns are generally easier to shoot accurately, too. The longer the barrel, the easier it is to line up and hit a target using the sights.
Revolver or Semi-Automatic
Revolvers have a cylinder that stores the cartridges. As the trigger is pulled and each shot is fired, the cylinder revolves, bringing the next cartridge in line with the barrel and hammer. It is a very reliable, proven design. You can put six rounds in a revolver, put it in a drawer, leave it there for 50 years, and odds are very good that if you have to pull it out and shoot all six rounds will go boom. It is also a little more bulky, and generally carries fewer rounds per pound.
Revolvers come in two general "actions"; single or double. A single action revolver must be manually cocked before each shot; pulling the trigger then releases the hammer and the shot is fired. In a double action revolver pulling the trigger both cocks the hammer and then causes it to drop (most double action revolvers can be manually cocked and then fired like a single action gun).
Modern semi-automatics are excellent machines, too. They are loaded by placing the rounds in a "magazine" that slides up into the handle. The magazine is spring-loaded. As each bullet is fired, the gun ejects the empty cartridge out the side of the gun and pushes the next bullet out of the magazine and into firing position. Semi-autos are usually flatter than a revolver and therefore easier to carry, yet also hold more rounds. My 9mm subcompact carries 17 rounds, whereas my larger 357 revolver carries only six (of course, the 357 is substantially more powerful, but the bullets are roughly the same diameter). The only thing "wrong" with semi-automatics is that they are more complicated. There is more "stuff" that can go wrong. It very rarely does, but it can. If you get a semi-automatic, you must take extra care to learn its operation inside and out.
Some semi-autos have hammers like revolvers, usually external. Others have a mechanism with a similar function but a different name: Striker. Some have a "decocker" that allows the hammer/striker to fall without firing the round in the chamber. Some semi-automatics are double-action for the first shot. Others require that you cycle them for the first shot. In practical use the difference is not very important.
Neither is perfect in the sense that it is impervious to failure, but revolvers have a well-earned reputation for simplicity and reliability. However, some semi-autos have proven records too; they've been run over, left in mud, frozen, etc., and still fired.
Single Stack versus Double Stack
In addition to caliber, semi-automatics are available in single-stack and double-stack versions. This refers to how the cartridges load into the magazine. A single-stack magazine carries fewer bullets -- sometimes only half as many as a double-stack -- but is much thinner, allowing a single stack gun to be roughly 25-30% thinner than a double-stack, and much thinner than a revolver of similar caliber. For example, many single stack 9mm guns carry about 8 shots, but are an inch or less thick. My double-stack subcompact 9mm is roughly the same length and height, carries 14 rounds, but is about 1.2 inches thick.
If concealment is a critical factor, or if you intend to carry on the ankle or in an unconventional position, then a subcompact single-stack semi-automatic is a great choice. Also, single stacks are often easier to hold for people with smaller hands.
A "safety" is a mechanism intended to prevent unintentional discharge of the gun. A few obvious principles will practically eliminate the possibility of an accidental firing from your life: A gun is a simple machine; you, the operator, are the most important safety. Don't handle the gun when you have been drinking or your judgment is clouded. Don't handle the gun unless it is time to shoot something, and keep your finger the !%&@ off of the trigger until the gun is on target and it is time to shoot! When cleaning the gun or practicing (dry), remove all ammunition from the gun and the immediate area. Never trust your memory about whether the gun is clear; always double check.
Different kinds of guns have different kinds of safeties.
Revolvers generally have no external safeties. They fire when the hammer falls, either striking a pin which then hits the primer, or striking the primer directly. The internal safety mechanism is usually a bar that prevents the hammer from falling unless the trigger is depressed. In addition, revolvers generally have substantially more "trigger pull" -- the spring resistance of the trigger -- and greater travel -- the distance that the trigger must be pulled to raise and release the hammer.
Semi-autos have a variety of safeties, internal and external. Internal safeties, like on the revolver, are intended to keep the gun from firing unless the trigger is actually pulled. There are three common external safeties; a trigger safety, backstrap or grip safety, and thumb safety. Most semi-automatics have at least one of these:
- The trigger safety is a small lever built into the trigger. The intention is to prevent the trigger from activating by kinetic energy such as might be experienced if the gun is dropped. This safety was popularized on the Glock semi-automatics and is now found on many models and makes.
- The backstrap safety is a lever built into the back of the handle. It is depressed by the palm of the hand when the gun is held firmly. This safety is popular on 1911-style semi-automatics, and on the XD series of guns from Springfield Armory.
- The thumb safety is a lever within reach of the thumb when the gun is held properly in the hand. The thumb can activate or deactivate the safety. This safety is popular on 1911-style semi-automatics and those that have an external hammer. Newcomers often confuse a decocker and the thumb safety. The thumb safety is on the frame. Decockers are on the slide. Sigs have a hammer-drop lever that is on the frame.
Some guns have additional safety measures. For example, some will not fire if there is not a magazine inserted. It isn't really a safety, but some newer semi-automatics include indicators that show external signs if there is a round in the chamber or the gun is cocked and ready to fire.
For your own safety, you should always assume that the safeties could fail at any time and assume that there is a round in the chamber unless you can see that there clearly isn't. Never, ever point a gun at someone assuming that the safety will prevent it from firing (a more assertive way to say this is that you should simply never point a gun at someone unless you would be justified in shooting and killing them at that very moment).
The smaller the gun, the fewer safety mechanisms it usually has.
I know of no instance of a gun firing while held securely in a properly-fitted holster. There are plenty of reports of accidental firing while drawing -- finger slipped onto trigger -- while holstering -- finger or another object jammed against trigger -- and while just handling the gun sloppily.
See our student manual for drills to develop good habits for gun handling and avoiding accidental firing.
If you are going to carry, once you've selected the frame size and type of gun, select the largest caliber that you are willing to practice with regularly and can shoot with decent accuracy. ('Caliber' refers primarily to the diameter of the bullet. All other things being equal, larger calibers guns have more power, do more damage, and require more strength to control.) Being a good shot makes a difference, but you don't have to be a sharpshooter. Most self defense shootings take place at unpleasantly-close range. Being able to hit a bullseye at 25 yards is irrelevant. The question is can you draw rapidly, under stress, and hit a piece of paper a few yards in front of you with 2-3 shots in just a couple seconds?
People argue passionately about which calibers are most effective, but caliber is only one of many factors. The critical factors are:
- Its intimidation factor -- any gun is more intimidating than no gun, but some are more intimidating than others
- Your skill at hitting the intended target when under stress
- The type of ammunition
- The number of rounds it carries
- The caliber
- The gun's reliability and simplicity
But caliber is an important consideration. The smaller the caliber, the more rounds you can usually pack into a particular gun, and the easier the gun will be to handle, but the less powerful each shot will be. Given a specific size frame, it might hold six 45 ACP rounds, eight 40S&W rounds, or ten 9mm rounds. A typical 45ACP bullet delivers kinetic energy almost equivalent to a 9mm (yes, really). Assuming effective hollow point rounds that stop the bullet in the body, this means that a 45 is not a better choice than a 9mm for the simple reason that you have more ammo in a 9mm gun of the same size. A 40S&W, however, has substantially more kinetic power -- around 25% more -- and may be a better overall choice. The drawback is that, with the additional power, it will also be more difficult to control. You might consider the net power that could potentially be delivered. The following chart compares possible total energy transferred from guns of similar frame size (Glock subcompact models with total height of approximately 4 3/4 inches including magazine, listed in order of difficulty to handle due to individual shot power, assuming a 3" barrel):
|Energy per Round|
|Momentum per Round|
(kg x m/s)
|- Semi-Automatics -|
|- Revolvers -|
|22 Long Rifle||8||40||1000||7.5||60||0.04||0.16|
|- Long Guns -|
|- Other -|
* My Springfield XD 9mm subcompact will carry 14 rounds using the compact magazine -- 13 in the magazine and one in the chamber. It can also carry 17 using a larger magazine, or even more with the next one up. However, some people will find it, the Glocks and other double-stacks a little thick for comfortable concealed carry.
The 10mm was included by request. I don't know of any 10mm guns that are intended for concealed carry or that could be handled by the average person. The bars are left off of some items because they would be too big for the graph.
What does the table mean? You can think of energy as the total potential damage that can be done to the target. If the bullet passes through and continues on, only part of the energy is absorbed by the target. The goal with modern ammunition is to have the bullet expand upon contact with the target and come to a complete stop, depositing all of the energy into the target. (This isn't precisely correct, as a lot of energy will be used in the deformation of the bullet, but it is close enough for our purposes.)
Assuming semi-automatic guns of approximately the same size, larger calibers usually -- but not always -- have higher energy. However, smaller calibers carry more rounds. When you multiply the two and get total energy per magazine, the whole cadre of guns from 32 ACP through 45 aren't really far apart in terms of total energy available per magazine!
Momentum is related, but different than energy. You can think of it as the force that you feel when you fire the gun, and also the force that the recipient feels when hit by the bullet. If the bullet is propelled forward with a given amount of momentum, then the gun, itself, is propelled backwards into your hand with a similar amount. Your hand, arm and body must apply force to the gun to stop it. Assuming that all of the guns had identical weight, you can see that the 44 jumps back with about four times the force of the 32. Obviously, guns don't have identical weight. Guns that fire larger rounds generally weigh more, and the weight of the gun helps diminish the felt force of the shot. Momentum is also proportional to what the receiver of the shot feels. Note that getting hit by a 45 will feel similar to getting hit by a hardball thrown at 50mph. But also note that a fast punch thrown by someone who knows how to put his weight into it (80 lbs) has about 10 times the energy and 100 times the momentum of an average bullet.
The 357 and 44 (full-size revolvers) are included for comparison purposes only. Target practice can be expensive, so I've included the relative cost of equivalent target ammunition (self defense rounds are much more expensive). I recognize that energy can vary widely depending on the cartridge type. In any event, you can see that given a gun of a particular frame size, the 9mm carries and can deliver substantially more total power than a 45ACP of similar size. If you can handle more power per shot, then the 40 or 10mm are the next logical choices. If you need a gun with less kick than the 9mm, then the 380 auto of the same size carries the same number of rounds, but has much less kick.
In terms of available power to transfer per magazine of equal total size, the 9mm beats out the 45ACP and comes close to the 40. It also costs about half as much to shoot, and will be easier to shoot. To me this makes it a superior choice, but it is a matter of opinion. Of course, in a single-stack configuration the available ammunition will be roughly half, but the ratios will remain the same. Personally, I'd select a single-stack 9mm for highly-concealed carry, and perhaps a full-size one for target shooting or open carry. Unlike larger guns, a 9mm can also be fired without hearing protection in an emergency with little chance of permanent hearing loss in most cases (as opposed to a 357 or similar).
On the cost per round: 40 and 45ACP are fairly easy to reload, which can bring the cost down to 9mm range if you have the equipment and desire to get into reloading.
Obviously, all of this talk about energy and momentum is secondary to the actual point of contact. A hit to the brain will be disabling or immediately-if-not-quickly fatal. The effects of hits elsewhere will depend much more on the total destructive energy of the round and the particular structures that are hit. In other words, even the little 22 can be quite deadly, and it doesn't matter how big the caliber is if you can't hit the intended target.
The ammunition caliber is determined by the gun. But for any caliber, there are many different types of ammunition. The two most common divisions are full metal jacket and hollow point.
For target shooting the common choice is inexpensive "full metal jacket" bullets. These have a lead core and are coated with copper to prevent the grooves in your gun's barrel from getting clogged with soft lead. They tend to penetrate and pass completely through bodies. They are relatively inexpensive.
For self defense the generic choice is a "hollow point" bullet. This looks like the FMJ bullet but with the tip hollowed out. There are many variations. The goal is for the bullet to expand as it travels through the target to cause the maximum amount of damage and prevent it from going through the target and hitting someone else.
One of the ongoing controversies in the neverending "which gun is best" debate is an incorrect comparison of 45ACP to 9mm. Even a FMJ 45ACP round will often not fully penetrate a human body. It therefore has full power transfer and can cause an incredible amount of damage. However, a FMJ 9mm travels at a higher velocity, is a smaller bullet, and often will pass completely through the body. Consequently, there is only partial energy transfer to the person, and he is more likely to be able to function even after being shot multiple times. But this is true for full metal jacket bullets, not quality hollow points that are designed for the express purpose of expansion and complete energy transfer. With expanding hollow points that stop in the body, you'll have full energy transfer with either round, and as you can see from the chart, the average energies are pretty close.
Cartridge Power/Type and Bullet Weight
In addition to the choice of caliber and bullet type -- full metal jacket or hollow point -- some rounds are marked 'NATO', '+P' or '+P+'. These refer to higher pressure rounds. Do not fire higher pressure rounds in your gun unless the manual expressly states that it is allowed! You can literally blow up the gun, resulting in not only a dead gun, but possible injury to yourself. Either way, +P and +P+ rounds will cause your gun to wear out faster.
Ammunition also specifies the bullet weight in grains. For example, 115 and 124 grains are common weights for 9mm ammunition. The heavier the bullet, the slower it will go, while lightweight bullets tend to travel faster. This doesn't make a great deal of difference for self defense application. However, many self defense rounds are heavy, expanding bullets and high power (+P or +P+) loads. If you are choosing the gun expressly for self defense, make sure that it can handle the ammunition you intend to feed it.
This is really important. No one wants to get shot by any gun, but a 45 is quite a bit more scary to look down than a two-shot 22. An accurate shot from either is deadly, but you have a bit more leeway with the 45. In any event, just making it clear that you have a gun is enough to drive away all except the most brazen of attackers.
There are four different factors that can drop someone who has been shot:
- Loss of blood pressure
- Destruction of a critical nerve structure (or the brain)
- Destruction of a critical joint or bone (like a femur or hip)
- Psychological response to being shot
It is a plain fact that, in an emergency, most shots miss completely. The chances of hitting an attacker in such a way as to immediately force him to drop are quite slim. Your chances of accomplishing this are actually much better with something like pepper spray or a taser. In other words, someone can continue to attack, sometimes for several minutes, even after being shot... repeatedly... mortally. You can't count on the gun alone and need to have complementary skills.
With the advent of special ammunition, the caliber size is becoming less important. There is special ammunition that makes smaller rounds like 38 and 9mm nearly as destructive as a 45, so if you don't like a 45, don't feel bad or "less safe" if you go with something smaller. Just pick the largest boom that you can still control and are willing to carry and practice with.
There are many excellent gun manufacturers. It is really hard to go wrong as long as you stay with a gun that is made by a manufacturer that has been around for decades and stands behind its products. You can look up reviews of various makers and specific gun models easily on the Internet. But be aware that individuals get quite passionate about these issues, and aren't always rational -- it is sometimes like preferences for a certain car maker or even model of car. Some people love Ford and hate Chevy for little or no reason, and vice-versa.
For target shooting or hunting, sights (or scopes) are a concern. You won't be using them for 99% of self defense events. Simple, low profile fixed sights that won't catch on something are fine.
New or Used
A properly maintained gun that doesn't get abused can last decades. There is nothing wrong with buying a used gun, but be sure to have someone who really knows guns -- like a gunsmith -- take a look at it before committing a large amount of cash.
A few hundred people are killed each year by gun accidents. This is a very small number relative to the total number of deaths due to other causes. However, getting injured or killed by a gun isn't really our idea of a good time. Here are a few simple principles to keep in mind to decrease the chances of getting your name added to that list (we purposefully vary slightly from the NRA's articulation of these principles because our focus is self defense -- not hunting or sport):
- Always keep the gun pointed in the proper direction.
- Always keep your finger off of the trigger until it is time to fire.
- Always keep it unloaded when not in use.
The "proper" direction varies depending on the situation. This might mean at someone. Most of the time, it will mean in your hip holster, pointing down, concealed from view. Reveal the gun -- show that you have it on your hip -- only when necessary to draw it or in order to frighten away an attacker (posture). Draw it into the ready position (pointed down at roughly 45 degrees) only when you feel an immanent danger. Never, ever let the barrel point at or "sweep" unintended targets. Point it at someone only if you have positively identified that person as a serious threat. Avoid drawing the gun if the person is already on you; you will need to make some distance so you can safely draw.
Most modern, well-designed guns simply will not fire unless you depress the trigger. If your finger isn't on the trigger, the chances of an accidental discharge go to just about zero.
For a self defense gun, keeping it unloaded when not in use means keeping it loaded at all times except when cleaning. It is safest to just treat it as if it is loaded, even when you are confident that it isn't.
Don't worry right now about how the gun feels in your hands. It is nice if it fits right from day one, but you can (almost) always change grips to fit a larger or smaller hand, especially on revolvers. On semi-autos you can usually build the grip up, but can't thin it down. What does vary substantially and is less easy to change is the angle of the grips.
You will need two holsters; an inside the waistband (ITWB) one or similar for more concealment, and an outside the waistband one (OTWB) for less. The latter is much more comfortable (and about the only way that I carry). "Why doesn't he ever tuck in his shirts?" Yes, that is why.
Don't be stingy with the holsters. The purpose of the holster is to secure the gun and prevent the trigger from being accidentally depressed. The ITWB holster is typically a high-quality leather that has been press-formed to your gun. Some are made specifically so you can still tuck in your shirt. The OTWB holster I prefer is the Blackhawk or similar model with active retention systems, but each person has to make his own choice.
You'll need a safe for ammunition and, if you have children, a rapid-entry safe for gun storage at night. It is critical that you keep you gun in a safe when it is not on your person so as to prevent accidents and theft. Bolt the safe to the floor. The GunVault safe is a good product. I have a large safe for rifles and ammunition, and a small gunvault safe for overnight storage of handguns.
Consult your local laws regarding what kind of training you need to get a permit to carry. The requirements vary from state to state and country to country. The best states are those that don't require any permit to carry concealed, followed closely by the "shall issue" states that always issue a permit as long as you pass a criminal check. There isn't any effective, practical difference between these two stances; criminals are going to carry whether they have a permit or not. The only question is whether responsible citizens will be arrested by law enforcement for carrying. All that the permit system does, effectively, is establish a readily-available database of citizens who probably have guns. It doesn't protect anyone.
Anyway, if your state is stingy about permits or what or where you can carry, what it is really saying is that it doesn't believe you should be able to protect yourself from violence; move to another state.
Where to Buy
Whenever possible we recommend buying from a trusted private seller. Though we encourage buying from and therefore supporting your local gun store, sometimes the prices are uncompetitive, to put it mildly. You can find good gun deals on the Internet, but they generally have to be transferred through a licensed dealer; they can't ship the gun directly to you, but have to ship it to a local licensed dealer, where you can then go pick it up. The dealer typically charges $20-$50 to handle the transaction, record-keeping and background check. Gun shows can also be great places to make a purchase as long as you know what you are looking for and how to inspect a gun for flaws.
What about Shotguns and Rifles?
Shotguns and rifles are generically refered to as long guns. Most gun enthusiasts argue that a shotgun is superior to a handgun for home defense. It is accurate to say that a shotgun is superior to a handgun in several important ways, but it is incorrect to say that it is better for self (or home) defense for the simple reason that in a real defense emergency there isn't time to go to wherever the shotgun is stored, load it (if it isn't already loaded), and then return to the emergency. Many people have been assaulted, raped or killed simply because their gun was out of reach. For self defense, the best weapon is the most effective one that you have on you when the Bad Stuff happens. For this simple reason, despite shrill cries to the contrary, neither a rifle nor a shotgun is the preferred weapon for self defense. To all you religious-zealot shotgun promoters: Get over it.
The humble shotgun is the most versatile of guns. There can be no argument on that point. Common shotguns can fire rounds with vastly different power levels, shot patterns and shot size, all from the same gun. It makes an excellent all-purpose weapon for close range game and bird hunting, some kinds of target shooting (skeet), and as a secondary self defense tool. The ammunition is easy to acquire and can be reloaded. It has much more destructive power than most handguns, it is highly intimidating, and the shot generally will not penetrate multiple walls and kill your neighbor or someone several rooms away. It is so effective that it is generally illegal to adapt it in such a way as to be concealable or useful for immediate self defense.
If there is an emergency in your home and you have time to do so, grabbing your shotgun is a good idea. However, the handgun on your hip will be a better service to you than the shotgun in the closet, safe, under the bed, or elsewhere. If self defense is your priority, and you can only afford one gun, get a handgun. Not a shotgun. If you do decide to get a shotgun, there are many excellent ones available. For self defense purposes I like the Saiga line due to reliability, speed of fire and speed of reloading (among other reasons).
Rifles are ideal for mid- and long-range hunting. They are not ideal for self defense for a variety of reasons. If you want to get a single gun that is good for home defense, longer range hunting and target shooting, then a smaller carbine semi-automatic rifle may be a good choice. You can do a lot of that with a pistol, but will be confined to a much shorter hunting range.
X indicates a good match. - indicates something that can be used in that way, but isn't an ideal fit.
|Gun||Self Defense||Home Defense||Small Game Close Range||Small Game Long Range||Large Game Close Range||Large Game Long Range||Target Shooting||Skeet Shooting
|Small Caliber Handgun||-||-||X||X|
|Large Caliber Handgun||X||X||X||X|
|Small Caliber Rifle||-||-||X||X|
|Large Caliber Rifle
If you go with the double stack magazines (resulting in a fatter gun) you can end up in a nice situation in the Springfield XD and Glock lines, and perhaps others. For example, you can purchase the XD 9mm subcompact with the 13 round magazine, and as a second gun the XD Tactical 9mm with 16 round and larger magazines. The latter is fun for target shooting, and good for open carry or home protection; the former for concealed carry. The nice thing is that the larger magazines can fit the subcompact (with the addition of a sleeve). The same is true for many Glock guns in the same caliber (or so I'm told).
These are some common choices if you are looking for something that is easy to conceal well (most in 9mm and 45ACP). Being single-stacks, these all carry only a few rounds and are roughly one inch thick -- some a little less. For more capacity you need to go to a double-stack. For a thinner gun you have to go to a much-less powerful round like a 32 (has about half the energy of an average 9mm). These are listed roughly in order of price and perceived quality, from lowest to highest.
If you just want to throw 9mm bullets using a gun that is easily hidden, it is hard to beat the Keltec. You can purchase at least two Keltecs for the same cost as one of any of the others (except for the Taurus). It is also among the thinnest, and can still fire +P ammo (though "not continuously"). But remember, the smaller and lighter they are, the more they sting the hand. If you like the size, but don't like the sting, each company also has models that fire the 38 round. It is roughly the same size as the 9mm, but has about 2/3rds the power. Many people consider the Kahr more the Cadillac of the single stack subcompact 9mm line -- and it is priced accordingly.
Glock, Springfield, Sig, S&W and other makers have a large variety of excellent guns available in double-stack configuration; these are usually about one quarter inch thicker (or more), but have roughly twice the ammo capacity with the same height and length dimensions. Their magazines are often interchangable with the larger guns of the same caliber, too. I personally prefer the Springfield XD line -- I own the XD 9mm subcompact -- but there are many excellent choices available, and it is a subjective decision.
About the only thing more I can recommend is to get two. One for you, and one as a backup or for your spouse. For example, you might carry a small 9mm like one of the above, then have a full size 9mm for home, open carry or target shooting. I purchased a long barrel 22 specifically for target shooting, training the kids, and small game hunting. The larger guns also fire with more power (the bullet leaves a 5" barrel with about 10% more power than a 3" barrel), which might make a difference; you want to have every statistical edge you can get in an emergency. (For those who are wondering, maximum velocity is typically found around a 14" long barrel for most common calibers. But that would be a little hard to conceal.)
Get good training specific to concealed carry and defensive use. This is much different from common pistol classes, which place more emphasis on target shooting skills. Go through a comprehensive training program with your new gun(s) and refresh that training every 2-3 months. At the very least, this will keep your skills fresh, and cycle your ammunition and magazines. We model our "qualification" program after various FBI and police certification drills, but do not place as much emphasis on holstering skills, as these are much less an issue for concealed carry.