A handgun is not a shotgun. A handgun doesn’t fire as much lead as a shotgun. A handgun is harder to aim than a shotgun. Provided the shotgun in question is loaded with double ought buck and fired from a relatively close distance, the disparity in lethality is so great that many security experts pose the following question: what’s the main purpose of a home defense handgun? To fight your way to your shotgun. This much is true: if you’re trying to stop someone from killing yourself or your loved ones using a handgun, you’re going to need to pull the trigger more than once. So you’ll need more than one bullet. But how many?

Common wisdom says not many. In the course of investigating this article, I’ve been told time and time again that most gunfights follow the three-three-three rule. Three shots, three seconds, three yards.

Yes, well, that’s an average. For the police. Who have a fairly lengthy lead-in time before the bullets starts flying. The FBI’s most recent Officer Killed Summary reveals that just six out of 41 officers “feloniously killed” in 2008 were ambushed.

Remember: these FBI stats crunch unsuccessful gunfights. So, while 19 of the 41 officers killed were murdered within five feet of their attacker, there’s considerable evidence to suggest that successful gunfights occur over longer distances. At least for law enforcement.

Writing for handgunsmag.com, Dave Spaulding rogers that.

While the FBI statistics show [gunfighting] distances as being around ten feet, the [1992 Police Marksmen Association] study showed the average distance being more like twenty. This makes sense, as distance will favor the person with the most training. This relates directly back to awareness as the sooner you see trouble coming, the more time you have to prepare for war.

And that’s why most defensive shooting experts—including Mr. Spaulding—insist that shot placement is the most important variable.

The PMA study also shows that the hit ratio per encounter was closer to 62 percent instead of the often-reported 18 percent. The history of gun fighting for more than a century has shown that the person that lands the first solid hit will usually win the confrontation. Hitting is hard to do without preparation and relying on luck is an invitation to disaster.

On the face of it, duh. Sever the spinal cord and you shut down the brain. Shoot the brain and it’s game over. Destroy the heart muscle or sever a major artery and death comes galloping.

It’s easy to see why so many gun gurus say accuracy trumps caliber when discussing “stopping power.” By the same token, it’s easy to undertand why so many home defenders place so much emphasis on marksmanship.

But that doesn’t answer our question: how many shots does an average shooter need to achieve the shot placement necessary to stop a threat? How many bullets?

Obviously, that depends on the shooter and the situation. Let’s start with the situation.

In this case, we’re focusing on home defense. How many areas in your home are twenty feet across? What are the odds you’ll be at the far end of a twenty foot or more space during a home invasion? I’m thinking . . . low.

When push comes to shove in your castle, you’re going to have to shoot fast and shoot well. Only you won’t be able to shoot well because you’ll be shooting fast. And you’ll be shitting bricks.

It’s best to fire as much lead at the target as possible and hope—yes hope—you stop the threat. As for Mr. Suarez’ warning about relying on Lady Luck, I’ve found that the more bullets I fire, the luckier I get. To which my father would have added “It’s better to be lucky than smart.”

Again, no matter how lucky you are, if bad things go down, it’s best to shoot a lot of bullets. It increases the odds that one will do the job.

Lucky for you, shooting a lot of bullets is instinctive. Here’s gun guru Gabriel Suarez’s take on the subject, with lessons learned from simulated shooting:

Defenders will fire their weapons until the threat disappears. That means that until the role player falls down (simulating effective hits delivered), or runs away (removing the target), the good guy will keep firing. The concept of school solutions, controlled pairs, or otherwise artificially limiting the number of shots (as one does in a firing string on the range) does not hold up even in guys who’ve been extensively trained to do it.

It appears that the total number of available bullets is critical. Hey! Maybe you should carry an extra magazine. But that’s not the question posed by the headline of this post: how many bullets do you need IN your home defense handgun?

Suarez’s account reveals that the total number of bullets in the initial magazine is critical, thanks to reloading/stress issues.

When a training gun stops firing (due to running out of pellets), the shooter is still in the fight and still trying to shoot his enemy as well as trying to not be hit by him. We see them continue to try to work the trigger for one or two times before there is a realization that there has been a stoppage (malfunction or empty gun). This is followed by a visual examination of the gun, and only then is remedial action taken.

This can take upwards of a second and a half before anything is even attempted to fix the gun, and then the additional time needed to reload. Thus the idea that one can read the gun’s feel and immediately realize a need to speed load simply does not hold up. Running out of ammo is usually a fight ender if there has been a failure to stop, or there are multiple adversaries at hand.

Reloading is fraught with danger. You might not have a “spare” magazine. You might blow it: dropping the magazine, sticking it in the wrong way, not inserting it forcefully enough. You might lose situational awareness (i.e. look away from the threat). Etc.

All this while someone is shooting at you. When you’re not shooting at them. Long reload times—and seconds last an eternity in a gunfight—aren’t good. Tactically, ideally, you should end the gunfight before you need to reload.

Again, how likely is that?

“Multiple adversaries.” Now there’s a monkey wrench. It’s not just theory, either. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, three masked men invaded the home of NBA B-baller Stephen Jackson. Home burglaries usually involve at least two perps. It’s bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?

[NOTE: if there’d been a gun battle between the Mrs. Jackson and the invaders, and the deal had gone down in Massachusetts (or other jurisdictions where ten rounds mags are the legal limit), she would have had 3.3 bullets per perp before she had to reload.]

All the evidence points to the fact that you’ll shoot plenty of bullets in a battle. It follows that more bullets in your home defense handgun is mo’ better. Larger capacity magazines/handguns are more likely to be more effective for home defence than smaller capacity magazines/handguns.

While the inherent advantages of a large capacity home defense handgun are clear, if you can’t hit squat with a high-capacity 9mm or better Glock, SIG, Springfield, Smith or suchlike, disregard this advice. A revolver firing a half-dozen .38s could be a better option.

That doesn’t change the basic conclusion: if you’re a crack shot who’s fully prepared for a gun battle and cool under pressure, you’ll need less bullets than someone who isn’t. Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing how you’ll perform in combat.

In all cases, reloading practice and magazine placement (spares around the house?) increase the chances of success. As does moving to cover while shooting. It’ll help you conserve ammo, give you time to reload, and decrease your opponents’ accuracy.

If your initial handgun salvo doesn’t finish the job, if you’re in danger of being overwhelmed by adversaries or running out of ammo, plan B your butt to your home defense shotgun. An 12 or 20 gauge shotgun with size-appropriate shot shell is what I call a conversation stopper.

If there are two of you, one person could provide cover (i.e. shoot at the bad guys) and shepherd children (if needs be) with a handgun, while the other gets the shotgun.

But the answer to the headline is this: as many bullets as you can carry in a gun that you can shoot with as much accuracy as you can muster when mustering’s required. In the video above, David Kenik fires nineteen shots. It doesn’t seem like a lot, does it?

29 Responses to How Many Bullets Do You Need in Your Home Defense Handgun?

  1. This is an interesting topic and one I've been thinking about lately. My favorite saying about myself is that (with a pistol) I'm not a 10-ring shooter, but I can hit the 9-ring really fast! More importantly, I can hit the 9-ring really fast again and again. I'm confident enough in my skills that I do not worry about the 8+1 capacity of my SIG as a nightstand gun or a CCW piece. As a matter of fact, up until recently I used a Wilson 1911 with 7+1, so the SIG is an improvement! I have other options, including a high capacity, double-stack .40S&Ws (XDm 40).

    I guess I play the odds – I'm not a drug lord, user, or dealer, nor do I owe any "family members" a large sum of money. I don't have NRA or "Protected by Smith & Wesson" stickers on my house, windows, or car. I don’t brag much about the stuff I own and only discuss high-value items with a few well-trusted neighbors. The only item that would “stick out” to a potential thief is that I have a somewhat nicer car than most in my area. Other than that, my house looks pretty normal.

    We have security shades at every window. In order for someone to see in the house, they have to be right up to the window and it has to be fairly bright inside the house and fairly dark outside. I do have an 18" ADT Security sign on the front of the house and stickers at each window. When it finally cools down here in Phoenix, I will get around to installing our security doors, flood lights, window laminations, and surveillance system (a small 3 camera system with a monitor/telecom upstairs so we don't have to run downstairs all the time just to see the UPS guy pull away!). I’m a big fan and big believer of deterrence!

    Should someone be set on breaking in and entering, (as in your scenario) I do often wonder how they will be equipped. Will they come in with a knife, a pistol, or perhaps something bigger? Will there be more than one intruder (I have read that there often is)? If so, how will he or she be equipped? I think the Stephen Jackson home was targeted, and the perps probably anticipated that the home would be filled with high-end luxury items, electronics, jewelry, etc. While I love my big-screen and PS3, there are many homes in my area that also have the same “goods” inside. There are also many homes with the same goods inside, without all of the “hassles” outside (i.e. security system, flood lights, etc).

    For the past 9 months, I have had a .45ACP in a gun safe and a Mossberg 590A1 with a modern tactical sling. It is loaded with 4 rounds of #4 buckshot, followed by 4 rounds of #00 buckshot, and 6 rounds of 2-3/4” 1-oz slugs in a side-saddle. If the alarm were to go off (it has once already – we think the cats tripped the glass-break sensor), I immediately go for my SIG and flashlight in the nightstand safe (takes 3 seconds to get into it). I use this to work my way to the closet (about 10 feet away) and put the Mossberg over my shoulder. My wife goes for the cell phone as the security company will be calling.

    I have decided to keep a full mag (28 rounds) of 75-gr JHP .223 rounds handy. The AR-15 is in the safe, but quickly accessed by my wife. I do like your idea about putting small “mag pouches” around the house. I can easily hide them so they are inconspicuous to visitors and intruders alike. Should I work my way downstairs, I know there will be ammo available.

    One advantage I have is that in my house is that all the bedrooms and ammo are upstairs. In the middle of the night, I’m at a tactical advantage in that there is only one stairway upstairs. In a real middle-of-the-night break-in, I doubt I’ll be working my way downstairs. I’ll wait upstairs with the family tucked away in the bedroom(s) until I see the flashing red and blue lights outside. Then again, who’s to say that a break-in is going to be in the middle of the night?

    If we’re downstairs, I don’t know if I’ll have time to get everyone upstairs and get to my weapons. I need to reassess my “what if I’m stuck downstairs” scenario some more… Perhaps this is where my high-cap .40 caliber could come in handy. I need to look at “hidden but safe and super fast” options for pistol storage downstairs. With 16+1 capacity in an XDm, I could certainly “make time” for us to get upstairs.

    Time to think…

    • Time to think “always carry” in-home and out-&-about for both you and the little lady.
      .
      What happens if you come home from a party and find several perps ALREADY INSIDE YOUR HOUSE? WAITING FOR YOU JUST OUTSIDE THE DOOR?
      .

    • Our scumbag lawmakers be they local, state, federal and including the president are dangerously infringing our God given and “Bill of Rights given, ability to keep ourselves and our families alive. Because they are trying to gather votes with ridiculous gun laws. We need all the rounds we can get. If we had a 20 rounds in our gun and a threat to our life arises and we shoot all 20 and the threat still exists, then 20 rounds was not enough. You cannot predict what may happen while in the act of trying to save your life. Certainly, you want as many as you can get in your gun. Our lawmakers are surrounded by security people all armed with as many rounds as they can reasonably carry. They would be outraged if told they could only be protected by 7 rounds, but have no problem making laws against us having a high number of rounds. They believe that their lives are more important than ours. It is long past time to remove all the incumbent hypocrites and put our country back in the hands of “We The People”

  2. 20 in the gun (FN FiveseveN), 2 more 20 round magazines filled and ready.

    Because the wife won't let me have the shotgun or AR-15 in our bedroom, that's why.

    • FN57 is a cool gun, but what kind of lethality does it offer? I know it’s considered a c/f rifle round, but it’s also very narrow and doesn’t have the powder capacity of an actual rifle cartridge. Yeah, if they come in wearing anything less than Class 3 armor you’re in business, but what does it offer against the less well-equipped?

      • A 5.7 round in a pistol is not lethal. Studies of officer involved shootings showed poor terminal performance, and results of the 5.7 testing (terminal ballistics) showed performance to be similar to a .22 Magnum. In 2008, those studies/results were circulated to law enforcement agencies nationwide. Since then, most LE agencies have discontinued use of the “FN FiveseveN”. The short barreled pistol does generate enough velocity to cause the projectile to tumble after impacting the flesh of the attacker. Hence, a very narrow, non-lethal wound.

        Richard has bought what amounts to a nice target pistol, not a home defense handgun. Sad.

  3. Actually I have a many bullets in my gun as I have cartridges in it.

    Bullets are actually the things that come out of the muzzle of the gun and cartridges and what bullets are loaded into and are what is actually loaded into the gun. Terms and definitions are important as it allows someone to understand what is being spoken or written about. Don't use bullet when what is meant is cartridge, volatile when what is meant is flammable, or gas when what is trying to say or means is diesel.

    One last one: It is magazine NOT clip, Clips are what feeds or loads cartridges into magazines, the magazine is then inserted or Loaded into a firearm. Without the magazine the clip is useless except to keep the cartridges together.

    • LOL – then what the hell is a moon clip?

      I know what you mean; I tend to get frustrated when people mix these up. Then again, from the title of this article, one can assume that #bullets=#cartridges because he mentions "handgun". Unless you're touting a "Judge" or "Public Defender", these terms are usually synonymous in handguns.

      • Bullets and cartridges are not synonymous. A bullet (usually lead encased in a copper or brass jacket) is the projectile only. A cartridge is comprised of the shell casing, a centerfire primer, gunpowder and the bullet. The hangun’s firing pin strikes the primer at the base of the cartridge, which ignites the gunpowder that launches the bullet.

  4. How many rounds? As many as you need to deal with more than one person. Always assume there will be more than one because there usually is.

    >>> Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing how you’ll perform in combat. <<<

    Sorry but this is pure unadulterated bull poopoo. If you practice (police officers are notorious for not doing so) you will get VERY good at shot placement, and you will do it automatically when under stress. Maintaining you cool under fire is a matter of training and practice, which gives you precision, and confidence.

    Spray and pray does work by pure accident and fire volume but I will choose precision and practice every time, over this tactic because it produces dead BGs consistently. Which is why rehearsal and practice is so valued in military training and operations.

  5. How many cartridges do I need in my gun for home defense, one. If there are two perps, then two. Usually, at the first shot being fired, the bad guys run. If there are two and I fire, only one will be able to flee.

    • You are relying on Hollywood movies for your self defense education. If you are still alive, do some research of handgun stopping power. You will learn that a well placed shot that severs the spinal cord at or near the base of the head/neck, or a well placed head shot are the only one-shot stops. Good luck making either shot in a life or death situation. It’s obvious you are unaware of the adrenaline rush that occurs involuntarily in that situation.

      If you do some research, you will learn that the adrenaline rush will restrict the use of your outer extremities, which will affect the use of hands and fingers. Even aiming the handgun and pulling the trigger will be difficult without proper training and conditioning under stress. Ignoring this, you will be rudely awakened when several shots center mass (depending on caliber) fail to stop your attacker immediately.

  6. Er, where do you get an 18 gauge shotgun?

    "If your initial handgun salvo doesn’t finish the job, if you’re in danger of being overwhelmed by adversaries or running out of ammo, plan B your butt to your home defense shotgun. An 18 or 20 gauge shotgun with size-appropriate shot shell is what I call a conversation stopper."

  7. I don’t like the comment about “shooting as much as possible” as a home defense tactic. Bullet accountability is very important. How happy are you REALLY going to be after you successfully stopped the intruder and then realize you just dumped a whole magazine into a wall that is part of your kid’s room?

    ALWAYS know who you’re shooting and where you’re shooting.

  8. I think about the same thing, A LOT. I only own a long barrel shotgun right now, 28″, which is not good for a close quarters shootout, so I keep it locked in the safe. But I do sleep with a Glock 19 for myself, and if things hit the fan, the backup M&P Shield 9mm in the room for wife to protect the kids if I get dropped. Hopefully it never comes to that. But I do agree, shotgun is the best. I need to buy a shorter barreled shotgun, maybe 18″. I thought about using the using the AK for home defense, but not sure how the prosecutor would view me, a home defender or a over-killing Rambo gun nut who shot a bad guy 7 times with an AK 47. The shotgun is better, more politically correct.

  9. A 12 ga. w/ 9 “00” pellets may stop more conversations than you want – as in one of those 9mm-sized balls going through your neighbor’s wall. The expert of home defense is Massad Ayoob and he prefers #3 buck. 27 pellets with 1/3 less power. More pellets is like more bullets.

    But, let’s get real. Home invasions these days are done by trios of thugs, and 9 out of 10 times, if you hit one, the others will scatter like siblings when your in-laws come to visit. even if all three are armed, there’s a high probability, they are not going to play when you have the home field advantage.

  10. I tend to lean toward a 12 gauge slug for myself and 00 buckshot for the wife’s shotgun. We have an understanding that I am to act as the sword and her as the shield. Her primary goal is our daughter and mine is the threat. A slug is more appropriate at longer distances vs buckshot. Close or long distance we’re covered within our respective roles.

    • Truly amazing. You are using a shotgun slug because you want to be equipped for “longer distances” in your home??? You apparently don’t realize that a slug will penetrate several interior walls (even if the slug hits the perp), endangering innocent family members. A slug will also penetrate exterior walls, doors, windows, etc. and could injure persons outside your home, or in a nearby home. The 00 buckshot in your wife’s shotgun poses similar problems.

      You should have heeded Ron’s 12/26 post which was correct. He referred to Massad’s recommendation of #3 buck for home defense — which is more than adequate for line of sight shots within the home at realistic distances that are probably no more than 30-40 ft. — well within the lethal range of #3 buck.

      Put aside the macho attitude, get some educated training and use some common sense.

  11. “How Many Bullets Do You Need in Your Home Defense Handgun?”
    .
    I find the question rather curious, and the answer obvious:
    .
    AS MANY ROUNDS AS WILL FIT IN A REVOLVER OR SHOTGUN, AND A FULL MAGAZINE (PREFERABLY THE LARGEST MAGAZINE AVAILABLE) FOR YOUR SEMI-AUTO PISTOL OR RIFLE.
    .
    Did I cover it all?
    .

    • Wrong answer Dick G. Your clueless response only states the maximum # of rounds that you will have available to you, depending on the weapon of choice. Appears that you didn’t read the article.

      If you chose a revolver, you will have only 5-7 rounds depending on the type revolver. Suppose 3 perps break into your home, each having a semi-auto with 15 rounds, and they take immediate cover, either before or after you fire your 1st shot. They won’t stand there motionless like paper targets waiting for you to kill them.They will outflank you in moments and they will have at least 45 rounds to the 4-6 rounds you have left. 2 of them will pepper your position with shots while you duck, the 3rd will flank and overrun your position and kill you. That’s just one scenario that will get you and your family killed. Get some professional training.

  12. S&W Governor(6) – federal handgun .410 000 buck. then if needed transition to SW 5906(15), then if needed slug gun with 00 buck(5). then if needed to Mini-14.(20) then if needed AK w/ 75 round drum. (kidding) I think we’re safe.

    In my opnion the Governor is the best HD gun ever built. Holds six rounds of .410 or .45 acp or 45 Colt. Or you can even mix em up. 2-2-2. Loading whatever strikes your fancy. Not to mention the factory nightsight.

  13. My personal belief is a fully loaded magazine in the handgun and a fully loaded magazine right next to it as well. It’s better to have more and not need it than not enough and need it. There is always the chance for multiple attackers and a unicorn of a magazine failure at the worst time possible. My theory is that I will discover that unicorn at that time. So, why not have a second fully loaded mag?

  14. I used a very reliable S&W Mod. 28 and kept 2 speed loaders with it. However that stopped about 10 years ago when someone I knew had a home invasion and 4 armed thugs kicked in his door. He took out 2 with his retired service revolver in an exchange of fire and was also wounded. The other 2 thugs ran off and by the time the cops arrived he was in serious condition, but survived. I now keep a .40 S&W Glock 22 with 2 mags in my quick access storage box and a 12 ga semi auto (long story, but it works) 5 shot filled with 00 buck and 2 other pump SGs (Ithaca 37s)w/extended mags in special areas of the house. My home is also defended by 2 Weimaraner dogs who roam freely in the house. I spend about 3 to 4 days a month at the range keeping up with proficiency and also “roll my own” to save $$ and keep proficient. Bought snap caps and do dry fire practice at home as well. Looking 70 dead in the eyes but can still hold my own for another 4 or 5 years before I start passing on the guns to my grandsons!

  15. I have a Glock 17 with laser/ flashlight combo loaded with a super dependable 50 rounds drum mag……giving me 51 rounds of fire power before having to reload ! That should do the trick but most of the time I only keep it loaded with the factory 17 round mag plus one in the chamber ! . !? I have a multitude of other options . Shotgun; AK with 75 round drum mag or regular 30 rounds magazines . 45 acp carbine with 2 extra mags attached to the stock .VZ58 with 30 rounds mags . Several 1911s and several other Glocks and a Browning Highpower plus a bunch or revolvers and other rifles . All of them loaded ; ready to go in my safe ! I have my own shooting range in my backyard and often practice with all of those platforms . I conceal carry pretty much 24/7/365 unless I am in bed and my gun is resting on the night stand . I really believe that any of my full size high capacity Glocks either 9mm or 45 ACP will do the job in a home invasion scenario. ! HAVING A SAFE FULL OF OTHER OPTIONS IS COMFORTING BUT TOTALLY USELESS IF THE SHIT EVER HITS THE FAN AND A HOME INVASION OCCURS CAUSE THERE WON’T BE TIME TO ACCESS ANY OF THOSE EXTRA GUNS LOL . ONLY THE ONE OR 2 KEPT OUTSIDE OF THE SAFE WILL HAVE ANY BEARING ON THE SITUATION PERIOD ….! JUST KEEP ONE OR 2 GUNS OUT YOU KNOW YOU CAN HIT YOUR TARGET WITH AND STOP WORRYING ABOUT IT TILL IT ACTUALLY HAPPENS CAUSE THERE ARE NO WAYS TO PREDICT HOW ANY PARTICULAR SITUATION WILL END UP BRAKING OUT . LOL . JUST KEEP PRACTICING AND SHOOTING THOSE PISTOLS AS OFTEN AS YOU CAN TO BUILD MUSCLE MEMORY AND SHOOTING BECOMES A NATURAL THING FOR YOU TO DO UNDER MOST CIRCUMSTANCES AND YOU CAN PRETTY MUCH DO IT WITHOUT HAVING TO THINK ! MORE LIKE A REFLEX . THAT OUTLOOK SERVED ME WELL WHEN I WAS ATTACKED BY AN 80LBS PITBULL IN MY BARN AT WORK. HE CORNERED ME AND I WAS ABLE TO DRAW AND SHOOT WITHOUT THINKING MUCH ABOUT IT AT ALL……AS HE LEAPED AT ME ; ONE TO THE HEAD PUT AN END TO THE ATTACK.! HE LANDED DEAD VIRTUALLY ON MY FEET CAUSE I WAS BACKED UP AGAINST A WALL AND COULDN’T Retreat any further . I KNOW IT ISN’T THE SAME WHEN FACING HUMANS INSTEAD OF A DOG BUT YOUR TRAINING SHOULD KICK IN JUST THE SAME !

  16. How many does one need? All one can put in the gun, plus all that will go in all the extra magazines one has or can carry. In my case XD in 45ACP = 13+1. 3 extra mags = 39. Total = 53 and that is so I can reach my 12ga 1100 – 7+1. Stock shell holder (5) and sling (25), for a total of 38 12ga. Hopefully, local law enforcement will arrive before these two run dry. Just me.

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