What Caliber Revolver for Home Defense?


So, you think a revolver is your best choice for home defense?  We’re not going to second guess you; rather, we’d like to compliment you on getting to the point of having answered this huge big question which so many people get so hung up on.

But, when it comes to huge big questions which so many people get hung up on, there’s another one that is possibly even bigger.  What caliber should your home defense gun be?

There’s a bit of good news in this – by selecting a gun for home defense rather than for concealed carry outside the home, you have eliminated one of the difficult compromise points – the balance between a gun that is sufficiently powerful on the one hand and a gun that is sufficiently small and lightweight on the other hand.  Your home defense gun can be as big and bulky as you wish, because you don’t need to carry it concealed somehow upon your person for eight or more hours a day.

Which brings us to the ‘official’ answer to the caliber question.  You should choose the largest caliber you can comfortably shoot.  How do you do that?  Easy.

Test Revolver Calibers at Your Local Gun Range

Go to a gun range and try out the different revolvers they have as rental guns, in the different calibers they are available in.

Now – here are two important things to do when doing this trial.

First, start off with a small underpowered caliber, and work your way up.  Don’t start off with the biggest nastiest caliber there is and work backwards.

By starting small and working up, you’ll not immediately start off with a nasty unpleasant shooting experience that will almost certainly create a ‘flinch’ response in your shooting, and probably also hurt your wrist, arm, elbow, and shoulder.  If you start off with some sort of ‘pocket cannon’ then all the smaller guns will seem nasty too.  This is the same as being at a restaurant and trying different numbers of stars for their spiciness.  Start off with one star and work up; don’t start off with maximum stars and work down, because your mouth will be on fire from the first sample and you’ll be unable to fairly evaluate the lesser starred samples.

Second, choose the biggest heaviest revolvers the gun range has to test shoot with.  The bigger and heavier the gun, the less the recoil will be, and the longer the barrel, the less the muzzle blast and flash will be.  This will make your shooting experience much more pleasant.

(An optional third suggestion – if you’re not an experienced shooter, consider ‘double plugging’ your ears as well.  Put ear bud type blockers in your ears then wear a set of ear muffs over your ears too.  This will mean you won’t be surprised by the sound of the gun when it fires, and will help you keep cool, calm and collected while shooting.

When you’re doing these experiments, don’t worry too much about accuracy.  You can learn how to accurately shoot the gun later on if you wish.  Put a big target maybe three or five yards in front of you, and just try to hit the paper by aiming at the middle of the target.  That’s pretty much what would happen in a home defense situation anyway.

Your objective is simply to choose the biggest caliber that you can comfortably shoot without it being painful or unpleasant.

Now, what are your caliber choices?  There are lots of different revolver calibers, but we suggest you limit yourself to three.  And – here’s an interesting thing.  Two of the calibers can be shot out of the same gun, some of the time.  Both .38 special and .357 magnum rounds have the same diameter bullet; the main difference is that the .357 magnum round has a longer cartridge casing.

So the first rental gun you want to try should be a large-sized heavy revolver chambered for .357 magnum ammunition.  Get the minimum quantity of both .38 SPL and .357 magnum ammo you need to buy with the gun rental (probably you’ll have to buy a box of 50 rounds of each) and first shoot some .38 rounds through the gun to get a feel for the experience.

Don’t shoot the entire box of 50.  That’s overkill.  Maybe shoot six rounds.

Then reload with .357 magnum rounds and shoot a few rounds of that.  You’ll almost certainly feel a harder ‘kick’ in the recoil.  Is that too much kick for you to accept, or can you live with that?

Swap back and forwards between the two ammunition types.  But don’t fire too many rounds.  If you’re not used to shooting, you’ll be using new muscles that will quickly get tired.

Remember, in a real gunfight, you’re not going to have to be able to fire hundreds of carefully aimed rounds.  More likely, you’ll simply fire the six rounds in your revolver at the bad guy(s) as quickly as you can, and only semi-aiming at their ‘center of mass’.

If you feel the .357 magnum is too uncomfortable to shoot, then you’ve established that the .38 special is the round for you.  Well done.  You’ve answered this complex question.

The Importance of the Gun’s Grips

Some revolvers have wooden grips.  Others might have a type of rubber material – sometimes made by Hogue or Pachmayr.  These semi-hard rubber grips are excellent at reducing the felt recoil, because some of it is soaked up in the rubber of the grip rather than directly passed through the solid unyielding wood and into your hand/arm.

Keep this in mind when comparing pistols and calibers.  It is not a valid comparison to compare the recoil and controllability of one pistol that has wooden grips with another pistol that has rubber grips.  A rubber gripped pistol will invariably feel better than the same pistol with wooden grips.

This poses a problem.  If you can’t quite get comfortable with the recoil on a wooden gripped revolver, you really need to know how much more controllable the same gun would be with rubber grips.  Maybe that will mean you have to visit a second range with a different selection of pistols to try.

The Most Powerful Calibers

If you are comfortable with the .357 magnum, maybe you’d like to try a more powerful caliber as well, just so you understand the upper limits of cartridge power and controllability.

There is a .41 magnum revolver round, but it is not very common.  We suggest you try a .44 magnum, and if you do this, you should absolutely make sure you rent the biggest heaviest .44 magnum revolver they have, and only buy the minimum amount of ammo you can.

The .44 magnum has a very powerful kick, doesn’t it!  Chances are you’ll quite happily return that revolver to the range and switch back to a .357 or .38!  But at least you now know the ‘upper limit’ of revolver calibers.

Actually, there are even more powerful rounds.  Many ranges offer a .500 S&W magnum round that is almost ‘off the scale’ in terms of its power.  Happily, they usually allow you to buy just a handful of bullets when renting that gun, because most people simply want to say they’ve shot such a gun once or twice, and then are pleased to stop shooting.  It truly isn’t a pleasant gun to shoot.

Less Powerful than .38 special

Maybe you find even the .38 special is too much power for you to be comfortable with.  That’s okay – you’re far from alone in that determination.

While we’d urge you to consider some training to become more comfortable with the .38 caliber, and we’d also ask you to check that you truly do have a full frame long barrel revolver that you’re shooting it through, if you just don’t want to come to terms with the .38, what do you do?

There are less powerful calibers available.  In terms of revolvers, the other common choice is .22 LR.  This is massively less powerful, and if you’re going to choose a .22 LR revolver, be sure to choose one which has more than a six rounds capacity.  Smith & Wesson make a lovely heavy .22 LR pistol that holds 10 rounds, and from which you’ll feel almost no recoil at all.

There’s one more thing to consider in such a case.  There are other calibers of pistol that are mid way in power between a .22 LR and a .38 special, but these are in semi-auto rather than revolver configurations.  Maybe you need to revisit your decision to prefer a revolver over a semi-auto if you don’t feel comfortable with the .38 round.

Test Barrel Lengths Too at the Range

When you’ve settled on a suitable caliber – presumably shooting out of a 4 – 6″ barreled revolver, you could also try shooting the same caliber out of a smaller revolver that weighs less and has a shorter barrel.

You’ll only want to fire a very few rounds through this small revolver, and we suggest you do it only so that you know, from personal experience, the different feel to shooting a small lightweight gun compared to a larger heavier gun, even when you’re shooting the identical rounds through each.  It is a big difference, isn’t it!

Your Choice Is?

So,  which caliber have you chosen?  The chances are you’ll have selected either .38 special or .357 magnum.

One last thought.  If you decide that a .38 special is enough power for you, consider buying a revolver that can accept the .357 rounds as well.  Maybe, as you get more confident, you might end upgrading the power of your rounds, and if you get a .357 chambered revolver to start with, all you need to do is to change your ammo, not change your gun as well.

You’re doing well.  You’ve almost identified the revolver that is best for you.

Please now move on to the page ‘Buying a Revolver for Home Defense Summary’.  Or, if you’d like to return to the first page of this guide to choosing a pistol, please click the link in this sentence.

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