Selecting and Setting Up the Best Rifle for Home Defense

AR-15 rifle on wooden table.

In this report, I am covering rifles for home defense. While the AR-15 type of rifle is easily the most likely type of rifle to be obtained and deployed for home defense, there are others. I will give these rifles a sub heading and concentrate on America’s rifle the AR-15.

I am a student of human behavior and criminology. I have taught at the University level. Yet. I find the role of criminals in society unchanging for many centuries. Those of us with a moral compass, or at least a respect for the law, find a home invasion an unexpected play, something that may surprise us. We must be prepared.

Bob Campbell aiming an AR-15 home defense rifle with a red dot sight
Be certain to practice with the red dot sight. It is a great accuracy magnifier.

A home invader is quite different from a burglar or thief. They are driven by desperation, impulse, and stupidity. These are terrible things to confront. Add a lack of moral center and you have a dangerous combination in a threat. The hate and aggression in some of these assailants is stupefying.

I have dealt with them and sometimes my bones sing about it. I have returned home — the key point — with bruises resembling Africa and Australia. Once, I sported a red welt of Channel Islands on my body. Bruises, detailing the point of impact, lend me perhaps a dubious qualifier as an authority, but these are among my bona fides. While I am satisfied with my education, it was all theoretical until my feet met the pavement.

A splintered door or the Canidae (dog) rustling from his bed are all warnings. Best be ready. You are under attack. While I keep a handgun at ready (usually the piece I have carried during the day), I also rely on long guns for personal defense. A good rifle increases your odds.

The difference in handling accuracy, and sometimes reliability in a rifle versus a handgun, is severe. If you have a problem getting hits with the handgun, consider a reliable rifle. You don’t have to spend a ton of money for a reliable rifle. As I learned firing the polymer frame AR, even that can indeed be trustworthy as well as affordable.

Quite a few with military experience are aware of the pitfalls of house-to-house fighting. Is it the same in a home invasion? Maybe. But they also tell me the armed individual who stays put and defends his or her ground is hard to shake out. That should be you.

HK .22 LR rifle with a Truglo red dot optic
This HK is just a .22 but set up well for practice. Note the TruGlo red dot sight.

AR-15 Rifles

We are all individuals, and fortunately the AR-15 rifle is user friendly. The rifle is easily adapted to your frame. With the modern six-position stock, you shouldn’t need to change the stock on most factory rifles. Some prefer a forward handle, some like a Hogue pistol grip. The AR is easily moldable.

I don’t like AR pistols and feel they are very overrated and seriously limited compared to the AR rifle. I was in at the beginning of the move to the AR in institutional use. An abstract I wrote was cataloged at the Federal training level. So, what do I know compared to the fanboys who push the AR pistol? A good quality AR rifle will shoot rings around a pistol and the ballistics very much compromised in a rifle caliber pistol.  

Which caliber AR? Most any centerfire rifle cartridge will give you an edge in home defense. I still feel the .223/5.56mm cartridge is the best choice. With a 55-grain JSP, the bullet will quickly fragment. Their effect upon animate targets is proven.

Six position AR stock for a home defense rifle
Most AR factory stocks work fine.

I don’t like 36- to 40-grain loads. They are great for varmints but lack penetration in a personal defense situation. Again, what the fanboys recommend doesn’t pan out in testing. The lightweight 36- to 40-grain bullet loads sometimes short cycle AR-type rifles, and certain buffers are not friendly to 40-grain loads.

There are purpose designed 55- to 69-grain loads that offer an ideal balance of penetration and expansion for personal defense. An expanding .223 penetrates less than the majority of 9mm, .38, and .45 ACP handgun loads. If you are concerned with over penetration, the answer is simple enough. Don’t miss and the bullet will stay in the attacker’s body. The .223 also has limited muzzle flash and modest recoil.

Home Defense Setup

To outfit the rifle properly, you must first understand the environment that you will be using it in. There are few range drills that prepare you for this type of work. The range is short, and if you are not certain of your manipulations, you may not make the piece ready in time to respond to a threat. If you are unaware of retention, and have not trained, then you may lose your firearm to a home invader. This has happened often — within the past few months.

Lever-action rifle with Picatinny rail and rifle scope mounted
If you go with a lever gun, then consider a good rail for optics and lights.

Retention is a separate subject, but the leverage of a long gun is an advantage — for those who train. The target isn’t an easy one. Don’t let anyone kid you. Quickly delivering a shot to center mass isn’t easy. Since we are moral people, the threat must be identified — this means illuminated. We need a light. Turning on outside lights to dissuade a prowler is good. However, once he is in the home, he is a burglar, and you should not destroy your night vision. And remember, if he is an easy target at close range… so are you.

Note, don’t be the scared moron in Florida who fired a volley of 30 rounds through his plate glass window at a late-arriving pool boy. This is not what Stand Your Ground is about (in my opinion). While this dummy wasn’t charged with a crime, he is certainly responsible (legally).

Be certain you are in control of your firearm. Panic and spray-and-pray firing a lot of ammunition — hoping you make a hit — is a poor idea and a serious liability. Panic leads to stupid decisions. Don’t be the fire chief who chased two youngsters turning around in his driveway and held them at gunpoint after they fled. While there seems to have been a cover up of sorts, there is now a lawsuit. He must foot the bill himself for his legal defense and it will not be cheap, however the cards fall.  

The more you have practiced, and the more confident you are of your ability and equipment, the less likely you are to panic. Keep your finger off the trigger until the moment you need to fire, and avoid unnecessary movement that may trip you up.

Every modification you attempt should enhance hit probability. Reliability is a given with most AR-15 rifles, so that isn’t a great concern. Keep the rifle clean and lubricated, and use quality ammunition and magazines. Using Magpul magazines will eliminate a lot of variables.

Practicing clearing a room in your home with a rifle
Practice firing from cover and around corners.

Quality ammunition, as we have often covered in these pages, will serve well. Few confrontations take place in true dark or a cavern-like absence of light. There is usually some ambient light. A set of night sights from XS is ideal for aiding in getting a good sight picture. I have used XS sights on several AR rifles with good-to-excellent results. When you practice the first shot is vital. That means good sights and practice.

For rapid target engagement, a red dot sight beats iron sights. The red dot allows the shooter to keep both eyes open. This makes for a greater field of view. Peripheral vision is an important part of combat ability. With the red dot properly set at its lowest setting, you have an advantage in rapid shot placement. There are several quality red dot sights. I use TruGlo, SIG, and Holosun primarily. Get a sturdy mount and plenty of practice behind the red dot.

A combat light is important. Illumination and identification are important. Many AR-15 rifles come with the older military-style forend. There are two types of attachment points Picatinny and M-Lok. Each has its adherents.

A TruGlo red dot and a mix of picatinny and M-Lok rails on a home defense rifle
The TruGlo, and a mix of picatinny and M-Lok, makes for a formidable home defender.

Picatinny rails are heavier and more likely to snag. Picatinny rails are rougher on the hand and often require a cover. Accessory mounting is important whichever mode you choose. The Picatinny rail is consistent and allows mounting a wide range of optics and lights. The .118-inch slot depth and .206-inch width work well in both ease of attachment and security.

The M-Lok is a slot type system. A rotating internal lever is tightened with a hex key. Not quite as simple, but versatile. When not in use, the M-Lok stock is smooth and doesn’t require covers. Snags are less, and the outside diameter is reduced with the M-Lok system.

I don’t find quick detach capabilities to be important in a home defense firearm, while a military operator may find this option sometimes desirable allowing quick accessory replacement. Solid mounting is what counts to me. Choosing the one best suited for your demands, requires some time. It is like choosing a Colt or a SIG rifle. Each is good; one is best for you.

Bob Campbell working a lever action with a combat light in the home
Marrying a light to a lever-action isn’t odd, it is smart!

Combat Lights

I have used quite a few combat lights, usually Surefire, Inforce, or another top maker. A decent combat light ranges from less than $100 to the earthquake-proof types at $300. These are necessary for target illumination. Practice and plan, and you will be on top of the game.


The lever-action rifle is intuitive to many who have walked with a hunting rifle. Light, easy handled, quick into action, and famously reliable, they have no magazine to snag on furniture. Load, rack the lever, aim, and fire. A good-quality lever-action rifle in .357 Magnum is a fine all around home defender.

The moral of the story… for home defense use, good ammunition and magazines, a red dot sight, and combat light is all you need.

What do you prefer for home defense — a rifle, pistol, or shotgun? Do you have a tip for setting up a home defense rifle? Share your answers in the Comment section.

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (37)

  1. Rick

    Excellent!!! I can think of no better advice or any better set up.

    The chances of a take over robbery are slim- but the possibility endless.


  2. Seems to be as many opinions as there are types of firearms. I have a couple AR platforms. As I live on a few acres in a rural setting, I consider them as a standoff defensive tool. One is in 7.62×39 loaded with subsonic ammo and equipped with a silencer. If would be attackers make it inside my home and past my dog, they would encounter a variety of firearms like a silenced 9mm or 00 buck shot from a couple strategically located pump 12 gauges. I feel its not necessarily what you use, but rather how good are you at using it. Unless the would be invader/invaders is well trained and disciplined, I feel a couple well placed rounds from a.22 would likely cause them to at least pause if not hightail in the opposite direction. Practice practice practice, JMO

  3. RKC: I have never liked that goofy and fragile charging handle on the AR15. The AR180 side charging style is much more intuitive and user friendly. Also, the AR180 like all ARs has the most excellent magazine and magazine well in the industry. I think the pistol caliber carbines which have recently become more popular and available are a much better choice for the average household than the AR15s. I need my AR15s because I am military trained. I do not recommend them in most circumstances. Stay safe.

  4. I hope this series- pistol rifle and shotgun set up=

    Are studied. If you are used to a shotgun- maybe stick with it- if you are familiar with the AR – maybe tick with it. When you elect to change currency be certain to understand the exchange rate.

  5. Jerry

    AR not ergonomic or user friendly???

    I am afraid that this isnt the case in military testing or most particularly in 3 gun competetion. No other self loader of any type is competitive with the AR in this environment.
    No problem at all with the Mini 14 for many uses- but you are in a very small percentage of opinion.
    A good friend, army guy, retired and bought a Ruger Mini 14. But added a pistol grip stock!

  6. Just an FYI: For Correct-Handed people, looking for a Pistol Caliber Carbine, the Ruger PC (9 mm), using upgraded Ambidextrous Safety (AR style), and Ambedextrous bolt hold open lever, from TandemKross, as well as adding a charging handle to the weak side, makes a Ruger PC (about the size of an M1 Carbine) VERY user friendly for either handed person who picks it up. That and the ability to use Glock double stack magazines all the way up to the 33 rounder, and change, or add, sights or optics of choice, checks off a lot of boxes when looking to buy. Heck, one can even Take-it-down, for a bug out bag. Pretty competitively priced too.

  7. My set up for home defense I believe this time it’s completed , and this is how it goes : AR-15 w/true glow optic and a 50 round drum , a welcoming .410 bore Judge and few traps on ( set on around the house) , trying always to keep a low profile meaning NOT letting everybody know what I purchase or what I upgrade on my household . Thanks for reading, Blessings to All , stay safe.-

  8. My set up for home defense I believe this time it’s completed , and this is how it goes : AR-15 w/true glow optic and a 50 round drum , a welcoming .410 bore Judge and few traps on ( set on around the house) , trying always to keep a low profile meaning NOT letting everybody know what I purchase or what I upgrade on my household . Thanks for reading, Blessings to All , stay safe.-

  9. RKC

    Another vote for the M1 Carbine. I bought an Auto Ordnance M1 Carbine about 12 years ago. Very accurate. Very easy to handle. I don’t care about optics for home defense. I purchased a case of ammo from the CMP, pre-Covid, and keep a few hundred rounds of reloads for the range. This caliber, as a straight-walled case is very easy and surprisingly inexpensive to reload. As a bonus, my wife finds it easy to handle and she likes the way the targets look when they’re reeled-in.

  10. I do not recommend the AR platform for most people. It is not ergonomic or user friendly. I use it extensively only because I was trained for it in the military. The Mini-14 or M1Carbine is much more easily trained for with obvious external controls that are intuitive. Also, the pump shotgun can be easily mastered and has been that by most sportsmen. Stick with what you know unless you are willing to retrain with intensity. Stay safe. They are coming unless they are stopped Be ready.

  11. Having hunted (dove,quail) for over 65 years with a Browning A5, I chose to mount a light and load #4 buckshot in my 12 ga with a 20″ slug barrel. Having trained point and shoot since 12 years old, I felt that my quickest 1st shot with accuracy was to shoot the gun that was like another arm to me (my 3rd A5).

  12. Obviously this guy has only written about self-defense. I can think of no weapon worse in home protection than a rifle unless you’re shooting them at 100 yards away from your home. Short shotguns like the shockwave or maverick in a gauge you can handle. I have a stack of 20 gauges around the house because I know that everybody in my family including my 110 pound wife can handle it. I really just hope the idiot school shooters. Don’t realize how much more deadly shotguns are then fake combat rifles. If you want to carry an AR carry an AR 12 not an AR 15.

    1. Eric,

      You could not be more wrong about the author. He took on an assignment. He never said a rifle was the best home defense weapon, however, there are several documented self-defense encounters every year with a rifle. The article was selecting and setting up… it is the first part in a series where the author with cover shotguns and handguns as well – stay tuned! ~Dave

  13. Obviously, this guy has only written about self-defense. I can think of no weapon worse in home protection than a rifle unless you’re shooting them at 100 yards away from your home. Short shotguns like the shockwave or maverick in a gauge you can handle. I have a stack of 20 gauges around the house because I know that everybody in my family including my 110 pound wife can handle it. I really just hope the idiot school shooters. Don’t realize how much more deadly shotguns are then fake combat rifles. If you want to carry an AR carry an AR 12 not an AR 15.

  14. Mossberg Shockwave with saddle laser. Put the laser on target and blast from the hip with #4 buckshot shorty shells (9 shells on board). Bandolier sling attached with 25 more shells provides retention and reloads. Light on the front for illumination and identification. Keep it cocked and locked by the bed. The indoor range I go to allows practice with it, but only using slugs which is fine. It makes a BIG hole where the laser points.

  15. I don”t care for AR’s; just a personal preference. High capacity shotguns are better, especially if loaded with combo shot/slug ammo. But there’s a new player on the market. The S&W M&P FPC.
    It comes in 9mm (more calibers to come), carries three magazines on the weapon with total capacity of 63 rounds and has an extra safety feature; it folds the barrel, sights and chamber laterally into a 16″ package. It’s a simple blow back action with very low recoil. Put a red dot and a green lazer on the barrel rail or hand guard and you have a very handy high capacity rifle carbine that doesn’t cost a fortune to run.

  16. SHOTGUN! (And of course your carry pistol within arms reach.) I keep a Mossburg .410 with green laser next to my bed, locked and loaded. My 110 lb lab/golden mix is a fur missile off the bed and 110 mph down the stairs at the sound of an intruder. If I’m upstairs I would let the scumbags come to me. They must enter a hallway from the top of the stairs where they enter the kill zone. As for a 12 gauge, I go with #4 Buck. Distance in most homes is 20′ or less. That’s an eviscerating load.

  17. A Black Aces 12-gauge semi-auto w/ a Stream-Light loaded with solid copper ‘gate keeper’ slugs for me, and a Mossberg .410 pump loaded with Hornady Critical Defense w/ Tacticon laser point for SWMBO.

    A workable safe room to shelter in could be created with metal or concrete board panels added inside a bedroom’s wall and door for relatively low cost..

  18. Desperation? How about Pure Evil? End of discussion…. Stop sugar coating criminal acts and criminal behavior. Stop laying down to liberal socialist perversion and word salad for crime, evil and felons. The Civil War is Coming and it will make the socialist conflict in Ukraine look like a bunch of kids playing with army men….

  19. Short Barrel Shot Gun with attached light. For home defense. Also strategically placed handguns throughout the property. Crime happens. Anytime and Anywhere.

  20. Grumpy

    The day of the M1 carbine is long over. Originals are well worn or terribly expensive and there is no modern copy of the same quality as the original. Try mounting a combat light or red dot without terrible expense. Ammunition is twice as expensive as .223. If you have a functional carbine thats fine but no one starting out seriously consider the .30 carbine. Who knows a fellow may wish to shoot 3Gun competetion or take a deer and the AR will certainly do so.

  21. As somebody who doesn’t like the Direct Gas system used by the AR15, and with so many liberal DAs who think that anyone using an AR15 is an evil Assault Rifle using NAZI, I would have to think twice about using an AR15. Often overlooked, the M1 Carbine can be considered the original PDW. With modern Hollow Point ammo, at distances measured in feet, not yards, The M1 Carbine is as potent as the 5.56/AR15. As M1 Carbine magazines are also widely available, keeping a loaded magazine or two is not unrealistic. Biggest issue instead is the price and availability of properly functioning M1 Carbines. As for the Lever Rifle option, I prefer the HENRY “X” model in 357. Add a simple LASER and maybe a Sling, a 357 Hollow Point in such a rifle is not to be underestimated. Better yet, those liberal DAs can’t cry “Assault Rifle NAZI” on somebody using Great Grandpa’s “Cowboy” rifle.

  22. Russ
    Thanks for reading!

    The only way to keep an AR in the home is unloaded in the gun safe when you are not in control.
    At night or when you are in control, then have the rifle chamber empty, say beside the bed stead.
    Bob Campbell

  23. Thanks for another relevant & timely article. Assuming an AR for home defense, what recommendations do you have for keeping it ready & accessible for the homeowner while also hiding it from home invaders & robbers?

  24. An AR-15 pistol starts to make a lot of sense when you add a suppressor to a 10.5″ barrel. Adding it to a AR rifle would be good too, IF that additional length didn’t make for an ungainly weapon in an inside building environment.

    The suppressed pistol length AR will still be loud, but not nearly as bad as an unsuppressed rifle. The suppressor will also get rid of most all the muzzle flash to help preserve night vision. Including a pistol brace, the combination is about carbine length, what’s not to like?

  25. Bob, other than their challenges in adding things like lights and other accessories, what are your thoughts on AK platform rifles? I recognize that they are likely (well, okay almost CERTAIN) to over penetrate, but the .223/5.56 can over penetrate as well. The AK is rather handy for a rifle. Just a thought, my bedside companions are a 12 gauge and a 1911.

  26. Building a safe room is a good idea, especially as there’s no telling what direction the bad guys will come from and how many, based on current border issues, rampant crime, etc but….a lot (maybe majority) of folks don’t have wherewithal to do that. Live in a 1-2 bedroom apartment, or home, in the city, it’ll take some work and $$. The comments have got me thinking about that tho. Weapons will be quick at hand, 38, 9mm, 12 ga semi w/8 rds, PCC 9mm with 33 rd mag. I pray not needed but ready if that day comes.

  27. I rely on my pistol (Glock 23/27) but my bcke-u0 is an AR in .458 SOCOM. A 300 grain ..45 caliber at 1900+ FPS fills me with confidence.

  28. My setups are a dedicated .22 LR AR with Federal Punch and/or CCI Stingers staggered in 25-round Black Dog/CMMMG magazines. Right underneath that, in my Hornady 2-rifle safe is an M4-configured .223/5.56 with 55-grain V-Max and/or soft-points in 20-round P-Mags. The 20-round length magazines are easier to manipulate in the rifles inside the house. Both carbines have red-dot sights with BUIS.

    My “get-to” (my rifles) gun is my SIG P228 loaded with Hornady Critical Defense & Duty with the same & Winchester Ranger in my 2+ spare mags. This is my EDC configuration. There are other defensive firearms within easy reach in each room, too.

    We have tactical lighting as well as remote-control indoor lighting that illuminates 75% of the house simultaneously.

  29. The only firearm for home defense is a couple of 1911’s, and a Sig P220. But I do have a M1A loaded model, which I think is a little big for inside home defense.

  30. Nice article, with good info. “I don’t like AR pistols”. To me, while pistol, and/or Revolver, caliber carbines make a lot of sense, as they handle well, and actually improve the ballistics over a respective pistol seem to be a good choice, while on the other hand, RIFLE caliber pistols, lose ballistic efficiency, and the EXTREME muzzle FLASH, and EXTEME BOOM, result in creating an absolutely miserable environment as soon as the trigger is pulled, may actually lead to a hesitation (close eyes and flinch) in doing what needs to be done in a timely manner. Kind of like when a fool hands a new shooter a Dirty Harry Magnum, and the first thing they develop is a FLINCH! To me the argument that rifle caliber pistols are needed because some people have limitations, I believe I would pick a Glock that will take one of the 33 round magazines, and not only have more ease of handling, but may even still retain my hearing and vision when the dust settles, AND still have three rounds left.

  31. what about a marlin camp carbine in a folding stock….uses same mags as a 1911 and also 20 round etended mag….itted with laser ?

  32. Good coverage of important topic, now more important than ever.
    Critical question: What percentage, even small percentage, of a very large number of illegals is dangerous if they turn out to be terrorists? Hint: that very large number is getting larger every day, and no one can tell you how many are from what country or political ideology that hates America.
    From military tactics, 25 years active service and 30 plus years *studying* home defense since retirement, the defender has an advantage if the defender is in some type protected position – – protected from whatever type weapon the attacker brings to the fight. The average home construction will not stop handgun fire, let alone rifle fire. Defender needs all family members in a safe room that will stop rifle fire, and then defender(s) need to have defensive position that will allow them to fire on attackers while still protected from incoming rifle fire. If defender does not have those conditions set up, what type/caliber home defense rifle is of little or no importance. Secure your family first (build a safe room), have a protected defensive position for defenders, then compare different defensive firearm options.
    Lieutenant Colonel, Infantry, US Army (Retired)

  33. I know shotguns are only slightly less ear-ringing than rifles, and anything used indoors without a suppressor or hearing protection is going to damage my hearing and leave me partially deaf for a bit. But given the choice, I would prefer to use a shotgun or pistol caliber carbine for indoor work and save the 5.56 AR for outdoor engagements.

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