Firearms and ammunition for personal protection

In the light of the Dallas shootings and today’s potential ‘Day of Rage’ protests, I’ve again been getting e-mails from readers asking what weapons and ammunition they should keep on hand for personal and family protection.  I’ve already discussed the subject in numerous articles, but for their benefit, here’s a quick summary.

The short and simple answer is that I can’t predict your specific needs, in your particular location, given your family’s size, activities, movements, etc.  However, I can offer a basic, overall guideline that will serve as a starting-point for further development;  so here goes.  I begin with the assumption that you don’t have much firearms knowledge, training or experience.  If you do, the information here will probably be too basic for your needs.

First off, a handgun is the least desirable defensive firearm.  Its main benefit is that it’s more accessible than a long gun.  You can carry it, particularly concealed, where you couldn’t take a rifle or shotgun.  However, it’s more difficult to learn to shoot accurately, and it requires more routine practice to keep those skills fresh.  It’s also generally much less powerful than a rifle or shotgun.  For that reason, if you don’t need or are not legally able to carry a firearm outside the home, I suggest a long gun for home defense.  See my three part series on the subject for more information.

If you are able to legally carry a firearm, or want one in your vehicle, then a handgun’s definitely on the agenda.  A few considerations:

  • Buy one chambered for an adequate defensive cartridge.  This is generally considered to be .38 Special in revolvers, or 9mm. Parabellum in pistols.  This is not to say that a less powerful cartridge might not serve – even the lowly .22LR can be used for defensive purposes – but on balance, they’re less effective than a so-called ‘service caliber’.  Police and security forces are generally required to use .38 or 9mm. as their minimum service cartridge.
  • Buy a weapon that fits your hand and that you can control in aimed, reasonably rapid fire.  In general, the bigger and more powerful the cartridge, the heavier the recoil it will generate, and the more training and routine practice you’ll need to control it.  Remember, too, that for any given caliber or cartridge, a small, light handgun will usually be harder to shoot well than a larger, heavier one.  A so-called ‘pocket pistol‘ or snubnosed revolver is among the most difficult handguns to master.  It’s definitely not a beginner’s weapon!
  • If you’re considering family defense, buy a handgun that others in your family can also use.  It’s no good buying a gun that’s too big and powerful to be used or controlled by other members of your group.  Rather pick something that all the adults in your family can master.  If they’re to be armed as well, buy multiple examples of it.  That provides a degree of redundancy and familiarity that may be very valuable in an emergency situation.  Only if no ‘common gun’ can be identified or agreed upon should everyone have different weapons.

Remember that training is essential.  Too many shooters have been taught by family members who passed on their own errors, mistakes and shortcomings, along with some good points.  The NRA’s basic pistol, rifle or shotgun courses are a good starting point, and are offered at many shooting ranges around the country.  More advanced training is highly recommended, as is ongoing practice once you’ve been trained.  Firearms skills are like muscles.  They atrophy unless they’re used!  Plan to shoot at least 50 rounds per month with your defensive firearm to maintain basic proficiency, and regard that as a minimum.  More would be better.  If you’re on a tight budget, consider the training regime I developed for disabled shooters using a BB or Airsoft gun (which are available in the form of handguns and long guns).  It’s vastly cheaper, but maintains basic skills.  You’ll still need to shoot your primary defensive firearm from time to time, of course, to make sure you’re still used to its operation and its recoil.

As for how many magazines to keep on hand, this is up to each individual and family to determine for themselves.  As a general rule of thumb, I recommend that every defensive pistol should have at least 5 good, serviceable magazines.  One will be in the weapon;  one or two will be backups for immediate reloading if necessary;  and one or two will be spare units.  For a rifle, I recommend the military ‘basic load’ as a suitable minimum for civilians.  The US Army typically issues seven 30-round magazines for its M4 carbine;  one in the weapon, plus six in webbing pouches.  I’d say that’s a good guideline for civilian equivalents such as the very popular AR-15, Mini-14 or similar rifles.  (I highly recommend stocking more than these minimum quantities, but that will depend on whether you can afford them, and the space you have available to store them.  That’s your call.)

What about ammunition?  I’ve spoken about this before.  My own rule of thumb is that I want to store at least two years’ needs (both defensive and training ammunition) for every weapon I own.  For a typical semi-auto pistol or rifle, that equates to at least 500 rounds, of which 150-200 will be defensive ammo and the remainder for training (i.e. loaded with cheaper ‘ball’ or round-nosed bullets).  For a typical shotgun, I’ll keep at least 100 rounds, 25 defensive and 75 training.  I’ll also stock .22LR, BB and Airsoft ammo in bulk, using it for general, non-specific training purposes to save money.  As I use up ammo in training, I’ll replace it, making sure I never drop below one years’ supply for each primary weapon.  If you can afford to keep larger stocks than that, I recommend it.  (The recent ‘ammo drought‘ taught all of us that lesson!)

I hope this brief summary helps.  See the list of articles in the sidebar on firearms and self-defense for more information.



  1. I'm guessing (hoping) that last night's attack in Nice will discourage people from participating in today's 'Day of Rage' hijinks. Given the death tool from the terror attack, I don't think LEOs will be taking chances with anyone causing problems – the protesters will get a spanking pretty quickly.

    Curious that the White House has been so silent on this Paris attack.

  2. And if you become a serious shooter you may want to consider getting into the hobby of reloading your own ammunition.
    The dirty little secret about reloading is that contrary to what reloaders tell their significant others, reloading does not save you money. What it does is let you shoot a heck of a lot more. And as you learn and mature in the craft you can begin to create custom ammunition designed precisely for the one and only firearm you will be shooting it in. All high end target shooters either reload themselves or have someone who does it for them.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *