When it comes to home defense, two of the primary firearm platforms that instinctively come to mind for many Americans are shotguns and handguns. While certainly viable options for defending your castle, there’s a legitimate case to be made that the most- versatile platform of all is the AR rifle or pistol.
Not only is the AR capable of carrying higher round capacities at a fraction of the weight of a shotgun, it also affords greater accuracy than a handgun—especially as distances increase—and is available in a variety of compact lengths best suited to maneuvering in the close confines of a home. Likewise, the AR is available in various gas-tube lengths, from rifle to pistol, and can be easily adapted and accessorized for any body type and situational need. The easy addition of lights, lasers and various close-quarters optics make defending your home as effective as ever.
What’s often overlooked when evaluating firearms platforms for home defense, however, is the type of ammunition selected. For instance, it’s a commonly held, but mistaken, notion that 00 buckshot is a better option for in-home use than a rifle round like the 5.56 NATO/.223 Rem. As Federal Premium’s FBI testing data demonstrates, nine pellet 00 Tactical Buckshot will penetrate through 20 inches of wallboard, whereas the 55-grain Sierra BTHP penetrates just 12.5 inches. As a point of comparison, the 9 mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP HST rounds all penetrate between 10-12.25 inches in wallboard. While all those rounds are certainly lethal, the 00 buck presents a serious overpenetration problem in homes with multiple occupants or in apartment complexes with paper-thin walls.
The question then remains: Which ballistic characteristics and bullet designs make for a suitable home-defense round for an AR chambered in 5.56 NATO/.223 Rem.?
As mentioned above, the first and most-serious consideration for most home-defense situations is overpenetration. As a result, the ideal bullet will create massive wound trauma in the vitals of an intruder without passing through walls and endangering occupants in other rooms. A good example is Federal Premium’s 55-grain Sierra BTHP, which penetrates roughly 11 inches through heavy clothing or 12 inches in drywall, thus limiting the threat to other innocent home occupants.
In terms of ideal bullet weight, this means a bullet generally weighing between 55 and 75 grains. Not surprisingly, that’s the range for most ammunition marketed for defense—whether civilian or law enforcement—like Hornady’s Critical Defense rifle load, which is available in 55- or 73-grain variants. Penetration beyond 12 inches and through barriers is less than optimal, so an ideal bullet will expand or fragment fairly quickly upon entering the target, while still reaching vitals and dumping its energy into the threat.
Neal Emery, senior communications manager at Hornady, reminds us to recognize the trade-offs of a load specifically designed for home defense.
“It’s important to keep in mind that we didn’t design the Critical Defense FTX bullet to be barrier blind. It’s not meant to pass through car doors, automotive glass or wall- board,” Emery explained. “The bullet is designed for home defense, which means it enters the target and expands rapidly, dumping energy immediately and limiting overall penetration.”
Effective bullet construction varies and results in differing levels of blindness to barriers and penetration depths through heavy clothing, wallboard and bare gelatin. Hornady’s FTX is a non-bonded hollow point that expands rapidly at close range while limiting overpenetration, while Black Hills’ 50-grain TSX delivers greater penetration from a solid-copper design and is ideally suited for shorter barrels, making it a favorite among police officers. Yet, Federal Premium’s LE Tactical load utilizes the 55-grain Sierra GameKing BTHP, while Speer relies on a 55- or 75-grain Gold Dot soft-point, bonded-core bullet. Every home-defense situation is different, so it’s important to take your specific surroundings into consideration when choosing the right load for your needs. If your greatest concern is overpenetration, in general you’ll want to stick with a rapidly expanding, non-bonded bullet. If your context requires some level of barrier blindness—or if you’re living in the middle of nowhere with no one else in your house—go with a solid-copper TSX or bonded-core bullet that’s proven itself in the FBI test protocol, but penetrates less than 12 inches in wallboard.
Likewise, many defense-specific loads feature nickel-plated cases for reliable feeding and better visibility in low-light situations, making chamber checks and ammo management easier. Further, these loads often feature propellants that limit muzzle flash and keep from blinding you when shots are fired with minimal lighting.
Finally, the AR platform has expanded in recent years to include pistol calibers, which allows home defenders the ability to choose from a wide variety of proven ammunition selections in 9 mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP and 10 mm. Not only does it allow for complimentary use with handguns and magazines you may employ for home defense, it opens the door to trusted loads like the Federal HST, Hornady Critical Duty, SIG Sauer V-Crown and Winchester PDX-1 Defender, each of which excels in the FBI test protocol, but penetrates less than 12 inches in wallboard.
Black Hills 50-grain TSX
A joint project between Black Hills and Barnes to create a barrier-blind 5.56 NATO round suitable for law-enforcement application resulted in the 50-grain TSX. Uniquely designed to function in rifle-length as well as shorter-barreled ARs, and every twist rate from 1:7 to 1:12 inches, the 50-grain TSX has a proven track record of penetrating barriers like auto glass and wallboard while still giving excellent penetration and expansion on target. While terminal performance drops off at 100 yards, that’s not typically an issue with home-defense scenarios and encounters of the close-quarter kind. Because it is so ruggedly constructed, the bullet maintains performance across a range of barriers and excels at FBI gelatin-test protocols. At the same time, the bullet opens to full expansion almost immediately upon impact with the target, regardless of barrier, then continues to penetrate approximately 14 inches. As tough as it is, the bullet doesn’t overpenetrate, making it an ideal choice for home or personal defense. Black Hills, Remington and Barnes each offer factory loads featuring a 62-grain TSX, as well.
Federal Premium LE Tactical TRU 55-grain Sierra GameKing BTHP
Designed especially for use in the AR-type rifle, Federal’s Tactical TRU ammunition features several bullet variants, including the 55-grain Hi-Shok SP and Nosler Ballistic Tip. Particularly well-suited for home defense, the 55-grain Sierra GameKing BTHP (boattail hollow-point) carries a velocity of 2,815 fps and a penetration depth of 11.25 inches in bare gelatin of 11 inches through heavy clothing. Excelling in the FBI testing protocol, the BTHP penetrates 12.5 inches in wallboard, which is significantly less than other bonded soft points that may travel up to 18 inches. The BTHP is designed for rapid expansion and fragmentation, causing massive wound trauma on target without overpenetration. As a result, this cartridge is a great round for home or personal defense in highly populated urban settings.
Hornady Critical Defense FTX
Available in 55- and 73-grain variants, Hornady’s Critical Defense load utilizes the FTX bullet with FlexTip. The patented tip design prevents the nose cavity from clogging, allowing it to pass through heavy clothing before rapidly expanding on target and leaving a massive wound channel. Likewise, the bullet is designed to expand at low velocities and close ranges, an ideal feature for use in home-defense scenarios. The load features nickel-plated cases for high visibility in low-light environments, as well as reliable feeding when your life depends on it. Low-flash propellants keep the disruption to your vision at a minimum. The 55-grain bullet leaves the muzzle at 3,240 fps versus 2,790 fps in the larger projectile, but if you’re looking for more penetration and greater energy on target at 100 yards, the 73-grain load is the way to go.
Hornady TAP Urban
Designed for law enforcement, Hornady’s Tactical Application Police (TAP) Urban load features either a 55- or 60-grain bullet and is designed to limit overpenetration through barriers when collateral risk is a serious concern. The bullet construction features a polymer tip and cannelure, and is intended to fragment, creating massive wound trauma. The load is not intended for barrier penetration, which makes it ideal for various home-defense applications, especially in high-occupancy homes or apartment buildings. In case you’re wondering, it’s essentially a V-Max bullet designed for use in 1:7- and 1:12-inch twist barrels. While Hornady offers other TAP variants for barrier applications, like the GMX TAP Patrol, the Urban load is ideal when there’s concern for innocent lives beyond the walls of a home.
Hornady V-Max or Nosler Ballistic Tip
If you want to start a fight in an online AR forum, all you have to do is suggest that any type of varmint ammunition is a suitable option for home defense. Incredulous mockery will no doubt ensue, with air-tight arguments such as these: “Intruders aren’t varmints! They’re people!” Since most of us have zero real-world data to go from, the conversation quickly devolves into pure conjecture.
While it’s true that either the V-Max or Ballistic Tip bullets won’t penetrate through barriers, that’s exactly the desired effect when trying to limit collateral damage in heavily populated residences or urban areas. Not surprisingly, Hornady and Federal offer a V-Max equivalent or Nosler Ballistic Tip in 55-grain variants in the TAP Urban and Tactical TRU lines, both of which are marketed to law enforcement. Neither load passes FBI protocol, so there’s not much public data about terminal ballistics, though it means these loads are explicitly not barrier blind.
Another serious consideration is availability. A quick series of phone calls to a dozen local gun stores and larger retailers revealed that only one carried a defense-specific AR load, Hornady’s Critical Defense FTX ammunition. Every single one of them, however, had either the V-Max or Nosler Ballistic Tip. In a pinch, it would certainly be an option.
Speer LE 55-Grain Gold Dot
Speer Gold Dot has long been a proven name in defensive bullets, both in the handgun and rifle variants. Featuring a bonded-core design, the Gold Dot rifle bullet is available in 55- and 75-grain versions. The 55-grain projectile, which carries a muzzle velocity of 3,013 fps, has a penetration depth of 14.75 inches in heavy clothing, while the 75-grain, at 2,502 fps, travels 16.75 inches. Both create devastating wound channels and massive trauma, while providing excellent accuracy from a wide variety of barrel and gas lengths.
Unlike some of the other bullet designs on this list, both Gold Dot bullets retain virtually 100 percent of their weight in heavy clothing, which is ideal for those concerned with the limited penetration of a fragmenting bullet design. When it comes to wallboard, the 55- and 75-grain bullets penetrate 14 and 16 inches, respectively, which should be a concern for many homeowners or apartment dwellers. It means that errant shots, especially in the 75-grain variant, could travel through multiple walls at close range, thus endangering non-threatening occupants or loved ones.