One sure way to liven up a day at the range is to ask a group of shooters what they think is the best weapon for home defense. For years that argument was divided into two camps: the pistol crowd and the shotgun crowd. Proponents of the pistol argue its compactness and maneuverability; the shotgunners argue stopping power and “fudge factor” when aiming, as it’s a little harder to miss, even when stressed, when you’re sending a cloud of projectiles downrange out of a long gun. In the past few years, however, a third school of thought has steadily been growing—that of the rifle as the best home-defense weapon. Specifically, the AR15 platform and the .223/5.56mm cartridge.
At a recent Winchester event, I found out about a new NSSF survey revealing that more than 12 percent of the respondents said they had purchased rifle ammunition in the past year for self-defense. The results shouldn’t have surprised me as much as they did. I was reminded that the NSSF did a survey of over 12,000 respondents in 2010, and home defense was the No. 2 reason (behind recreational shooting, before hunting) for owning a “Modern Sporting Rifle,” NSSF’s term for ARs.
While careers have been made arguing over the effectiveness of the FMJ rounds our troops have been required to use in their M16s and M4s, civilians interested in using an AR-style rifle for personal defense don’t have those same limitations on their choice of projectiles. In the last few years, manufacturers have really made a concerted effort to produce ammunition designed for self-defense—not hunting or plinking or target shooting, but rounds specifically created for defense against two-legged predators.
The new .223 PDX1 loads from Winchester, with their split-core technology (SCT), are the latest example of these types of rifle rounds that have benefitted from modern manufacturing technology. Winchester performs exhaustive testing of the terminal performance of all of their defensive products, in ballistic gelatin and through the types of barriers likely to be encountered (as a result of the FBI test protocols established over 20 years ago).
But before we get to the bullet specifics, let’s talk about why the concept of using a rifle for home defense is seeing a surge.
Military-style rifles have always been popular in this country, but since September 11, 2001, the sales of the AR15 and its clones have skyrocketed—just look at how many companies are making them now. There are a number of factors behind this—increased exposure to the weapon system via media, fears of terrorism and the realization of just how fun the darn things are to shoot. Fully 30 percent of the respondents in the NSSF survey purchased their “MSR” in just the last two years.
The Overpenetration Question
Overpenetration has always been a concern when discussing the use of firearms in a dwelling, so the knee-jerk reaction has been to immediately eliminate a rifle as a suitable option. However, in the last several decades there have been exhaustive studies about what pistol and shotgun projectiles do when fired indoors, and those results are very interesting (and not in a good way).
Proponents of the pistol for home defense like to think that because it’s “just” a pistol round, overpenetration really won’t be an issue. Such is not the case. Drywall sheets and hollow-core doors (which are what you’ll find in the majority of homes and apartments in this country) offer almost no resistance to bullets. Unless brick or cinderblock was used somewhere in your construction, any pistol cartridge powerful enough to be thought of as suitable for self-defense is likely to fly completely through every wall in your abode. In fact, hollowpoint pistol bullets tend to plug up as they go through drywall, turning them—in effect—into round-nose bullets. Round buckshot pellets are just as bad, and shotgun slugs are worse.
These same concerns about overpenetration are what kept people away from considering the rifle for home defense. For years many people just assumed they knew what would happen to a rifle bullet fired indoors—it would go through every wall available and then exit the building. While armor-piercing and FMJ ammunition is specifically designed to do this, extensive testing has shown that light, extremely fast-moving .223 projectiles (including FMJs) often fragment when they hit a barrier as soft as thin plywood.