Budget Self Defense Choices

The other day I was at a local gunstore with a friend and he asked me an interesting question: If somebody came to you with a very small budget for home defense or self defense and they had to buy what’s sitting on the store shelf right now, what would you set them up with? It’s a trickier question than it may seem on the surface. We need selections that are cheap, reliable, and effective. As the old joke goes, you can typically pick any two items from that list.

Looking around the store briefly I came to a recommendation for a handgun suitable for home defense and/or concealed carry, and a long gun suitable for home defense.

The Handgun:

If you shop carefully you can sometimes find a real bargain on used handguns, but in the typical gunstore they’re often priced higher than my buy-it-now threshold. Guns are durable goods that tend to hold their value pretty well, assuming they aren’t rusted or obviously worn out. The used section of the shelf is where I look first when I go into a store just in case there’s a deal to be had. Every now and then you get lucky. Last year I found a pristine 6″ S&W model 28 for under $500 and I snatched it right up. That’s an atypical result, at least for me. Some stores put guns up on consignment based on what the individual selling the gun is trying to get from it. Sometimes the store takes in trades which, if done correctly, can net the store a nice margin on the total deal. Since everybody thinks their gun is worth top dollar and gun stores often operate on pretty thin margins anyway, the negotiating room for used guns can be narrow to non-existent. While I’d love to suggest buying used as a means of buying a serviceable firearm on a budget, it’s not something you can absolutely depend on. If you can find a bargain, by all means take advantage…just don’t go into things expecting a miracle.

The budget semi-auto in S&W's lineup seems like the best bet in its pricerange...
The budget semi-auto in S&W’s lineup seems like the best bet in its pricerange…

As a result, for the hypothetical choice I recommended a new gun: The S&W SD9 VE. No, it’s not the sexiest handgun on the shelf and yes, it is a descendent of the S&W Sigma, but it has benefitted from considerable improvement and refinement over the Sigma. The specimens I’ve encountered worked well enough and could be used to hit a reasonable target by just about anyone with a little bit of practice. Generally speaking S&W’s customer service is good, (just in case there’s a problem with a pistol) and at the time I was looking in the store the SD9 VE was one of the least expensive guns on the shelf, selling for a little over $300.00. At that price point they’re tough to beat. I’d buy one in a heartbeat over anything offered by, say, Taurus.

Close second would be the Ruger SP101 I saw on the shelf for just a bit over $400. Limited capacity, certainly, but a very good revolver that you could count on to work.

I would also add that if somebody could only afford one gun, I’d stick with a handgun because it can work for home defense and for daily carry. Being able to defend against home invasions is certainly useful, but bad guys have been known to accost innocent people outside the home too…so having something you can keep on your person is crucial if you’re stuck with only one firearm in total.

The Long Gun:

This is where I get a little controversial: Given the mission of home defense for a long gun and trying to effectively accomplish that mission for as little money as possible, I’d suggest a Ruger 10/22. A .22 rimfire is not an ideal weapon to use against bad guys. It exhibits rather poor terminal ballistics even from a rifle…but when fired from a rifle you can be incredibly precise with one at typical home defense distances. Ruger now makes a reliable 25 round magazine for their rifles and every Ruger 25 round magazine I’ve bought or encountered in the wild has worked. The 10/22 doesn’t seem to be picky about feeding ammunition, and the aftermarket for the rifle is so huge that one should be able to very cheaply add necessary add-ons like a light, sling, and a red dot scope without breaking the bank. Assuming you can find .22LR ammo, it’s something you can practice with on the cheap.

Adding accessories and doing some practice on the range won’t magically transform the .22LR round. It’s still a .22…but somebody who knows how to put those little rounds on target effectively and who has another couple of dozen of them on tap before they need to reload is going to be a bigger problem than most bad guys can handle. It wouldn’t be my first choice for home defense, but if I had to rely on my Ruger 10/22 exclusively for home defense tomorrow I wouldn’t lose any sleep. I’m not the world’s greatest rifle shot, but I’m good enough with my 10/22 to put those little bullets inside the head box of an IDPA target pretty quickly at home defense ranges.

I know, I know…the default recommendation is a 12 gauge shotgun, preferably a pump-action one. Because shotgun, because they’re so powerful they’ll actually vaporize a bad guy in his tracks…maybe even travelling through time and killing that guy’s ancestors so that he’s never born in the first place, and because merely working the action of the shotgun is so terrifying that anyone within a 3 mile radius of the event will immediately lose control of their bowels.

It’s certainly a more effective weapon from a terminal ballistics perspective, but they also kick like a mule, tend to be pretty heavy, and people don’t tend to practice with them. A person who trains with a 10/22 (because they’re so easy to use and fun to shoot) is going to be far better off than a person who doesn’t practice with the 870 they’ve got sitting in a closet. I’m not arguing that the 10/22 is a better weapon against bad guys, merely that the cash-strapped person interested in a long gun that’s good enough for their purposes is probably better off with a gun they’ll train with and can use well than one they don’t train with.

Those are my budget suggestions for self defense. Yours may be different…if so, let me know what you’d suggest in the comments below.


  1. Spot on IMHO.

    I have recommended 10-22s to a number of folks. They also make a great dual purpose home defence/varmint gun for folks who live outside of town. Add a light and maybe a low end optic and they are a formidable weapon, especially when the 25 round mag is added.

    In my experience and observation .22lr solids launched from a rifle are a different animal than .22 rounds launched from a handgun. High speed HPs, such as CCI Mini mags make a good compromise for the dual role .22 rifle, works well on varmints, will suffice for defensive use.

  2. Don’t discount the 20 gauge shotgun. Lighter, handier, and easier to work than a 12ga, you’ll still be hard pressed to ever be considered under-gunned with one, and you can find a used youth-model 870, 500/Maverick, or even a 1400 super cheap, put a stock on it and be seriously Good to Go. And if I ever wanted a pistol grip or AOW shotgun for home defense, the first place I’d look would be 20 gauge.

    1. The youth 870 is a great gun and my wife has one, however most of Tim’s points still apply to it. Its recoil is not inconsiderable to a non-seasoned shotgunner and even the youth is still awfully long for some people (like my 5 foot nothing wife) making aiming more difficult and reliable and fast cycling harder.

      I would not discount it, but it still has a slightly lesser degree of the same drawbacks as the 12 gauge shotguns.

  3. Instead of the Ruger, you could do a S&W M&P 15-22. Similar price point, excellent reliability, easy to add cheap accessories, and same manual of arms as a real AR if you end up able to buy one down the line.

    Added bonus of looking like the scary center fire big brother of itself, but I don’t consider this a practical benefit as much as others might… As in, bad guy probably won’t be like Oh no! It’s a AR15!

    1. The S&W M&P 15-22 is a darn fine rifle. But, you can get a new 10/22 for less than a used S&W M&P 15-22.

  4. I think I’d go for a Mossberg 20 or 410 gauge pump with 18 1/2″ barrel, oh yeah, I already have; both have pistol grips, a Hogue Tamer on the 20, they don’t make them for the 410. Easy to handle and lightweight, especially the 410, even when fully loaded with 3″ shells. Get the variety pack, 12, 20 & 410 . . . . too bad they don’t sell one of those. Nice thing about the 410, you can always pick up a Judge, Governor or Bond Derringer that shoots same.

  5. I work at a gunshop and often recommend the SD9 to people who want something good for not a lot of money. I’ve sold dozens of them. I’ve shot a bunch of them working as a range officer and see them on the range all the time and I consider them reasonably reliable. The trigger is garbage and the sights suck, but there is an APEX kit and plenty of aftermarket sights for them to fix that. However, nobody who buys a $300 gun also buys upgraded triggers or night sights for it.

    I’d say it’s easily the best handgun in the price range. No more, no less.

  6. The best option for a cheap gun, in my experience, is “ask your gun nut friend”.
    Lots of folks just might have a safe queen or something bought on a whim that doesn’t really get used a lot.
    Often times one can get the gun at below gunshop used prices, plus all the accessories (holsters, mags, ammo) for free.

  7. Pistol? Used Ruger P95 or popo Glock. The SD9 is an OK choice, I just didn’t like it. Of course I’m a snob… Long gun? 870 or 500, doesn’t matter, might even go with one of the Pardner thingies.

  8. Excuse the heresy, but are HiPoints really that bad? It’s my understanding that they’re clunky and awkward, but pretty consistent. I (thankfully) have no personal experience, however.

    Also, what are SKSs going for these days?

    1. To answer your query…yes and no, HiPoint pistols are that bad. The carbines are actually OK. I think the last SKS I saw was going for 400ish…probably better in the long run to just buy a cheap AK.

      I’d probably scour the market for the old police trade in .38 revolvers, but I am also highly intrigued by the Sig P250. If they worked the bugs out of that particular design, you have a gun that can be other guns fairly cheap…

      Long guns, I’d probably go for the HiPoint carbine, or a 20 gauge shotgun with reduced recoil buckshot loads. Get the 18″ barrel and go shoot skeet. Not only is it a hell of a lot of fun, it might make you more confident with your gun.

  9. All good suggestions. I would add the Makarov–if you can find one. They used to be a fantastic bargain.

  10. Even a .410 shotgun hits harder than a .44 Magnum pistol – so a pump .410 is a VERY viable home defence choice. Not _my_ choice, sure — but the recoil is VERY manageable.

    My eight year old daughter can fire one, even though she doesn’t like the recoil.

    Ammo (even at the height of the panic drought that continues) that is suitable for home defence was still available and reasonable (and remember, with a shotgun, you’ll be doing most of your practice with birdshot anyway), and it’s a light enough recoil and low enough price they are FUN to plink with, even those of us who like big guns and DON’T like shotguns.

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