Pistol-Caliber Carbines for Home Defense

Gray-haired man in blue jacket with red ear protection shoots a pistol carbine into the woods.

I am always interested in different opinions about home-defense firearms. The three-gun trifecta—handgun, shotgun and rifle—is often commented on, with recommendations given. Many times the recommended rifle is more useful for an Israeli police action than home defense. Comments range from “the .223 has a lot of blast indoors” to “the system is very expensive, but you must have one” all the way to “buck it up, lay down the credit card and get with the program.”

Black Kel-Tec Carbine facing left on a white background.
The Kel-Tec is a modern minimalist design that gets the job done.

The reality is that among the most useful and effective of all home-defense guns is the pistol-caliber carbine.

Sure, if I were still in uniform, I would keep a .30-30 WCF, an SKS or an AR-15 in the cruiser. On the other hand, something better than the handgun is something better than the handgun. Let’s put things in perspective.

A good pistol-caliber carbine:

  • Is easier to learn to use well than a full-power rifle.
  • Is less expensive.
  • Has less muzzle blast.
  • Is easier to handle.

While the pistol-caliber carbine may not be as powerful as a .223, rifle power is relative.

The pistol-caliber carbine hits harder than a handgun based on two factors. The longer barrel burns powder more completely, resulting in higher velocity, and the carbine is easier to use well enough to deliver accurate fire. There are multiple classes of pistol-caliber carbines, including the converted submachine guns and AR-15 platform pistol-caliber carbines.

Converted Submachine Guns (SMGs)

One type is the converted submachine gun (SMG). There are SMGs fitted with legal-length 16-inch barrels and converted to the semi-auto-only mode of fire. The various Uzi carbines are one example. I find these the least useful for home defense. They are heavy, often inaccurate compared to more modern designs (the HK is an exception) and expensive.

Other Pistol-Caliber Carbines

Another type is the pistol-caliber carbine on the AR-15 platform. Those are OK as far as they go, and the most useful are the purpose-designed models. They have no fully automatic counterpart and do not resemble the AR-15.

Black Kel-Tec carbine, folded, on a white background.
The Kel-Tec carbine neatly folds for easy storage.

The Kel-Tec Sub 2000 9mm and the Beretta Storm are among those. The 9mm is by far more popular than the .40 or .45, which is based on ammunition availability, low recoil and high-capacity magazines. With most engagements in the home inside of 7 yards and outside incidents at 25 yards at best , the pistol-caliber carbine has little real disadvantage compared to a .223 rifle.

Benefits of the Carbine

Focus on the front sight of the Kel-Tec carbine with wood planks in the background
The front sight of the Kel-Tec carbine features a red insert that aids in rapid-fire hit probability.

The carbine is easy to manage, meaning less experienced shooters will get good hits quickly, with practice. The carbine has three points of contact—the cheek weld, shoulder and supporting hand—and is more stable than any handgun. The sight radius is longer, which allows excellent accuracy potential. Muzzle signature and muzzle blast are much less than a handgun firing the same cartridge. Plus, you may usually fire the pistol-caliber carbine at firing ranges that prohibit the .223 rifle.

The carbine is so much easier to use well that you should consider it as a prime home-defense piece over any handgun. A mediocre carbine shot is far more accurate than a fair handgun shooter. And there are carbines to fit every budget. The Kel-Tec carbines are the lightest of the breed, usually reliable, and accurate enough for home defense. They will put every bullet in the same hole at 10 yards. They lack a slide lock to hold the bolt open on the last shot, and the under-the-stock cocking lever takes some getting used to, but it is quite a weapon in close quarters.

Focus on the rear sight of the Kel-Tec carbine, barrel pointed away from you
The rear sight of the Kel-Tec is an excellent combat sight that comes to the target quickly.

The Kel-Tec carbines accept the Glock’s 33-round magazine in 9mm, and there is also a .40-caliber version. The 9mm hits pretty hard from a 16-inch barrel, so overall the 9mm is the best choice. As an example, the Fiocchi 115-grain XTP loading breaks 1,300 fps from the 9mm carbine, a useful advantage over the pistol. Commonality of caliber and magazines is not a bad idea, although if you own a revolver, the 9mm carbine is still a good idea for home defense. Like the home-defense shotgun, keep the carbine chamber empty and rack the bolt if trouble is imminent.

The useful advantages are many. The shotgun frightens female shooters and, truth be told, many police recruits. While the shotgun is a great problem solver at close-to-medium range, the pistol-caliber carbine is more versatile. The carbine may take on predators and pests to 100 yards or so. However, the primary reason for owning the pistol-caliber carbine is personal defense.

The Ballistic Advantages

Let’s consider some of the ballistic advantages of the pistol-caliber carbine. In 9mm Luger caliber, the 9mm is supercharged from a 9mm to a .357 Magnum, ballistics-wise. The 16-inch barrel gives the cartridge a serious increase in velocity. At the same time, the carbine is more accurate and controllable. In the .40-caliber Smith and Wesson, the .40 is jolted into 10mm category, and the useful level of power is dead on the .44-40 WCF level—a good place to be. With the .40-caliber carbine and the right loads, the pistol-caliber carbine moves into the deer and hog hunting categories at moderate range. Whatever the 10mm pistol will do, the .40-caliber carbine will do.

There is a caution in load selection for carbines; a load designed to fragment or expand quickly from a pistol barrel may expand too quickly from a carbine-length barrel (a 100 to 300 fps supercharge does funny things to a bullet).

A bullet designed to provide a balance of penetration and expansion is the only viable choice for use in the carbine. In 9mm Luger caliber, among the best choices is the 124-grain JHP.

There are several reasons I recommend this loading. Quality of manufacture is one. A good clean powder burn is another. While 115-grain loads are often good performers in handguns, I like the heavier bullet in carbines. The bullet will expand well, but the 124-grain is not as likely to under-penetrate. Also, since these carbines have blow-back actions, function seems more positive with the 124-grain loading.

The Safety and Bolt Lock for the Storm Carbine
The safety and bolt lock of the Storm carbine are well located and ergonomically sound designs.

A solid choice for mostly the same reasons in the .40-caliber carbine is the Black Hills 180-grain JHP. That load offers excellent accuracy and penetration, and expansion cannot be faulted. I would not fault the Black Hills 155-grain JHP either, but simply prefer the 180-grain load in this caliber. These loads give the carbines good predicted performance. There are other loadings that also give good results; I simply have the most experience with these. Among the single most accurate loadings I have used in .40 caliber is the Fiocchi 170-grain FMJ. I have a small supply I have used sparingly when firing at long range, and the results are impressive. Fiocchi also offers a modern line of plated bullets in this caliber that are a bargain for the shooter. Accuracy at a fair price is always good.

The Beretta Storm is a solid choice in a pistol-caliber carbine. After firing the Storm extensively, the ergonomics and solid handling are impressive. The sights are excellent examples of combat sights, offering real precision. The safety is well located, and the Storm has an ultra-modern look that grows on you the more you use it. The Storm uses Beretta 96 .40-caliber pistol magazines, which are readily available.

Based on function, accuracy and style the Beretta Storm is a great carbine.
Based on function, accuracy and style, the Beretta Storm is a great carbine.

The Storm has a bolt lock—a feature I like very much. It offers good accuracy and excellent reliability. Several police agencies adopted the Storm. While the full-power .223 carbine may seem a better choice, a carbine in hand in a dark alley is far better than a handgun and less intimidating to the user than a shotgun. The Storm is well made of good material, with a space-age look and feel that many will appreciate. The Storm’s excellent handling qualities are much of what sold me on the carbine doctrine. The Storm also may use a red dot sight, such as the Bushnell First Strike. The ability to mount a scope marks the Storm as superior to the Kel-Tec.

Commonality of Firearms?

Gray-haired man in blue jacket with red ear protection shoots a pistol carbine into the woods.
The author found the Beretta Storm handles quickly and offers excellent hit potential.

It is nice to have a Glock 17 9mm and a Kel-Tec 9mm that use the same magazines. That is not a tactical necessity, after all our soldiers field the 9mm handgun and .223 rifle. It is, however, a convenience. Having only one type of ammunition to stock up is good utility. The Beretta 96 .40 and the Storm go together, or the Storm 9mm and 9mm Storm carbine. If you want to plan ahead, and both spouses deploy the same handgun and keep a pistol-caliber carbine at home ready, there are far worse choices you could make.

The pistol-caliber carbine is also a good recreational firearm, and I have enjoyed firing and using my mine. Accounting for drop with the pistol-caliber carbine at longer ranges is not always easy and builds marksmanship. Learning the trigger press and cadence of fire is demanded of any personal defense firearm, and the pistol-caliber carbine is easier than most.

When all is said and done, the pistol-caliber carbine is a practical and tactical firearm that may be the best fit for your personal scenario.

Do you have a pistol-caliber carbine in your arsenal? If not, do you plan to add one? Share your thoughts on pistol-caliber carbines it in the comments section.


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Comments (109)

  1. I used an MP5 A2 on duty and that is really where I opened my eyes to the real life usefulness of a PCC compared to the AR15 for residential/urban type distances. So around 2008,I bought a CX4 9mm and I noticed that it handled more smoothly than the MP5. The sights were a little different to get used to but after I got myself used to them, the CX4 was a gun that simply always shot very well. My pals and I were out shooting outdoors and of course the 5.56 versus 9mm discussion occurred. My peers were all tactical guys. We tried a drill where three AR15’s and my CX4 were all laid pointing downrange exactly 50 feet from us. On go we all ran down, grabbed our guns and aimed at our 20 yard Shoot abs See targets to fire 10 rounds. Everybody used some type of optic. Mine was a 75.00 Tru Glo Tru Brite. I got on target far quicker and engaged my target well before my fellow Tackleberries. My shots were all inside a 2 inch center and I was done in time to watch my friends “superior” weapons deliver their last two or three shots. Their shots were slightly more accurate but they took a lot longer to deliver all 10 rounds. I watched the video later and saw that while the CX4 was off the ground and up in battery in one fast motion, the AR guys took a lot longer to shoulder and aim their guns. In my opinion, it was easily enough time for a bad guy to shoot you. I own AR rifles too and I think they are great but I can’t deny the fact that residential or urban gunfights are won by who can deliver good hits first and not by how powerful your rifle is. Once that 9mm or 40 cal or 45 ACP bullet hits someone center mass or in the face or the abdomen or the groin or the thigh, the bigger bullet they didn’t have time to deliver doesn’t matter

  2. Given today’s recent alternatives, I would prefer a rifle-caliber-pistol or even a non-NFA 12ga or 20ga “firearm” over a pistol-caliber-carbine for most home defense scenarios, but the Marlin Camp Carbine (especially the .45ACP version, which I have) was a great choice in its day and is still a very effective choice for certain scenarios.

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