The Best Home Defense Guns: Shotgun vs. AR-15

The days when a 12-gauge shotgun in the corner was considered the pinnacle of home defense are long gone. Today it’s the AR-15 that tends to lead the pack when people consider long guns for home defense purposes. That doesn’t mean shotguns aren’t useful. They certainly are. Regardless, it’s important to remember there are pros and cons to both platforms. The question of whether shotguns or AR-15s are better for home defense is a common one, and we’re going to try to answer it today.

wilson combat protector
AR-15s can be fantastic for home defense. (Photo: Wilson Combat)

Do shotguns or AR-15s over-penetrate more often?

Overpenetration is one of those issues that gets brought up a lot, and it’s also one that gets answered incorrectly rather often. The factors that come into play with overpenetration are myriad and include things like caliber, bullet, and the construction of the wall or door in question. In reality, every caliber can and will over-penetrate in the right (or wrong) circumstances. And while using frangible or hollow-point ammunition might be appealing, it’s also not a 100% guarantee against overpenetration (frangible bullets must impact an object harder than themselves to powder, and the success of powdering depends on the specific brand and design of the bullet).

The way to answer this is two-fold. First, you always need to follow the four golden rules of gun safety, even when it’s a home defense situation. That means you’ll hopefully be aware of the location of family members or other innocent people and also know where the weak points are in your house as far as walls and doors. If you’re going to use a gun for home defense, you should take the time to get to know your home’s layout, including those nooks and crannies.

Second, the best way to familiarize yourself with the gun’s performance is to run it using the specific defensive ammo you’ve chosen. Not only can this teach you about point of aim versus point of impact at different distances but it can teach you about penetration. It’s well worth spending training time with your defensive gun.

So, do shotguns or AR-15s over-penetrate more? It depends on the specific gun and ammunition, as well as the barrier in question. While that might not be a satisfying answer, it’s reality.

12 gauge ammo
If you’re going to use a shotgun for home defense, make sure you select the correct ammunition. (Photo: Federal Ammunition)

Are shotguns or AR-15s easier to shoot?

This question depends heavily on which platform you’re more familiar with, as well as the size and design of the gun. Training on whatever gun you’re using is always vital to ensure you have the skills necessary to wield it well. This is especially true in high-stress situations where you’re going to be forced to rely on habit and experience rather than blind luck.

A few specific features make it easier to run any gun for home defense. For example, shorter barrels are easier to maneuver in a home, so you’re better off with a 16-inch carbine than with a 22-inch precision rifle. The same goes for shotguns: keeping the overall length down makes it a lot simpler to use the gun in a home defense situation. Excessively heavy long guns are also more difficult to handle in close-quarters scenarios. In short, you’ll want to use a gun that fits you well and is already set up to your personal preferences.

Is buckshot better than a rifle cartridge?

Many shotgun fans often claim that buckshot is far less likely to over-penetrate than a bullet. Something many people don’t realize about shotguns is that a shotshell loaded with buckshot doesn’t instantly open to release a broad pattern of pellets. Instead, it takes some distance for the buckshot to spread out, meaning it acts more like a slug at close ranges. This is why anyone using a shotgun for home defense needs to take the time to pattern their shotgun with their chosen defensive loads to ensure they understand how it’s going to perform on target.

Buckshot isn’t better than a rifle cartridge. Generally speaking, a bullet from a rifle is going to be more immediately effective at stopping a threat than buckshot from a shotgun. That isn’t always the case, but it often is. And if you’re loading your shotgun with birdshot, it’s going to be significantly less effective than a rifle cartridge.

shotgun rifle
There are AR-15-style shotguns on the market. (Photo: Kat Stevens)

Are shotguns better than AR-15s for home defense?

Tactically speaking, the AR-15 tends to be a better and easier-to-operate firearm than the shotgun for home defense use. That doesn’t mean shotguns aren’t useful. They are. Shotguns can be run quickly and reloaded with surprising speed, but it does take a lot of practice. AR-15s are usually a bit simpler to get the hang of, not to mention the capacity of their magazines.

On the other hand, shotguns are straightforward platforms that can fire slugs at high velocities. They’re user-friendly and often seen as easier to aim and shoot than an AR-15. With practice, you can run the trigger of a shotgun very fast. The simplicity of shotguns is a plus—it’s the limited capacity that’s a downside for many situations. Of course, there are box magazine-fed shotguns that hold more ammunition than tube-fed models.

When it comes right down to it, it’s your choice whether you use a shotgun or AR-15 for home defense. Personal preference and skill level play key roles. It’s wise to consider the size of the home as well because a truly large property won’t be ideal for shotgun use. There are cases where a shotgun would certainly hold an advantage over the AR-15. So, how do you choose?

Selecting a long gun for home defense means getting the gun you’re familiar with or willing to train with until you’re skilled with it. It also means considering what’s best suited for your space and what ammunition is ideal as well. One pitfall of shotguns is that there are people who believe they can get a shotgun for home defense, load it, never shoot it, and simply leave it ready for use in case they’re attacked in their house. That’s never a good idea regardless of the gun being used. Training and knowledge matter. If you want to increase the odds of your surviving an attack, get the training necessary and spend time practicing with your gun, whether that’s a shotgun or AR-15.

Kat Ainsworth Stevens is a long-time outdoor writer, official OGC (Original Gun Cognoscenti), and author of Handgun Hunting: a Comprehensive Guide to Choosing and Using the Right Firearms for Big and Small Game. Der Teufel Katze has written for a number of industry publications (print and online) and edited some of the others, so chances are you've seen or read her work before, somewhere. A woman of eclectic background and habits, Kat has been carrying concealed for over two decades, used to be a farrier, and worked for a long time in emergency veterinary medicine. She prefers big bores, enjoys K9 Search & Rescue, and has a Master's Degree in Pitiless Snarkastic Delivery.

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