[Note: today's WSID topic has been a long time in coming. Firearms can be a sensitive subject, but worth considering for many when planning for food procurement or home/personal defense in a changing future. We sought an author who could provide an introduction to the subject in as conscientious, fact-oriented, and knowledgeable a manner as possible, and are grateful to community member Aaron Moyer for doing so. Aaron is a longtime active poster on this site, the founder of our Definitive Firearms thread, and an active-duty serviceman in the US armed forces. –Adam]
This is one of the more difficult pieces of writing I’ve done to date. There are various reasons why this topic is difficult to start; everyone has a different idea of what they need, their level of commitment, legal concerns, political pre-dispositions and so forth. It’s easy to talk about firearms as a ‘topic’ – you can comment on their particulars, weigh the advantages and disadvantages and wax philosophical about what would be the best choice for a given situation — but that’s not what this edition is about.
This piece is to help navigate the process that starts once you’ve decided you’d like to purchase a firearm, and leads to the ongoing process of establishing proficiency, maintaining safety and building skill.
Understanding the Options
The goal when procuring a firearm is to fit the model your purchase to your own specific set of needs and capabilities. What works for one person may very well not work for another.
For instance, it’s fairly common knowledge that I heavily favor the Glock 19, in 9mm. It fulfills all my ‘requirements’ from what I want from a sidearm. That said, this solution will not work for everyone. Some folks lack grip strength, and cannot retract the slide fully. For some, it may be too big to carry – which ideally everyone who reads this will commit themselves to doing, in addition to acquiring training.
For this reason, we’ll discuss a metric that will help us learn to make purchases based on solid logic, proven performance, and your projected needs.
A word of caution: there is no “perfect” solution. Any selection you make will be a compromise, but the key is to stick with your decision, learn and become effective with whatever tool you find yourself using.
At the most basic, firearms come in three basic types:
We break firearms down thusly, because of each type; all have qualities that are unique. As we analyze the types, we’ll break down and discuss some of the particularities within the sub-sets.
Before we do, it’s important to define some terms. As with many topics, there is a lingo, and understanding it will help you better describe your needs to anyone you speak to about the issue.
Grip/Frame – The portion of the firearm which is grasped during firing
Slide/Receiver – The portion of the firearm which houses the mechanism responsible for cycling the weapon.
Cylinder – the portion of a revolver which acts as a magazine for the cartridges and aligns them with the barrel.
Bore – The inside of the barrel.
Breech – The portion of the barrel where the bullet rests when it is chambered
Lands and Grooves – the rifling which causes handgun and rifle bullets to spin as they pass through the bore.
Firepower/Capacity – the amount of ammunition held in a single firearm. High capacity/firepower is generally
considered >10 rounds, while <10 rounds is “low capacity”. This is a very academic definition, however.
Stopping Power – The theoretical ability for a bullet to “stop” an aggressor. This entire concept is horribly flawed, as there is no ‘consistency’, especially amongst pistols/shotguns.
Magazine – A magazine is a firm bodied device in which ammunition is inserted. It is inserted into the bottom of the weapon.
Clip – A metal strip which creates a horizontal line of cartridges which are fed in through the top of the action of a rifle. Two types exist, internal, and ‘stripper’. Internal are inserted, and eject when the last round is fired. Stripper clips require the user to press the rounds into an internal magazine.
Safety – A mechanical device which if used properly and is in functional condition, will prevent a firearm from firing.
Jam/Stoppage – An occurrence in which a firearm is prevented from extracting or loading a fresh cartridge, but requires only remedial action.
Malfunction – A mechanical or component failure which causes the weapon to cease functioning properly until it is replaced.
Named for the revolving cylinder that rotates to align cartridges in the cylinder with the barrel at a point called the breech, revolvers are the longest serving type of handgun, dating back to 1597 with the ‘revolving arquebus’, an archaic contraption that bears little resemblance to its modern cousins, which use a very similar design to the 1836 Colt Revolver.
Revolvers are mechanically simple, involving little in the way of moving parts, are easy to carry and conceal, and range in size from something you could cover by making a fist, to something most people wouldn’t be comfortable shooting without a buttstock. Revolvers are commonly chambered in widely recognized calibers, such as .38 Special, .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum.
2. Strengths and Weaknesses
- The barrel is not (in most cases) in motion during firing – this gives greater consistency and accuracy during firing.
- The sights of a revolver sit right atop the barrel – this results in a very low “height over bore” – meaning that the point you're aiming at and the point that the bullet strikes will have very little deviation based on mechanics. Ballistics will be the primary influence. Accuracy is largely a measure of skill, but this is an inherent advantage of the revolver.
- Revolvers cylinders are significantly limited in capacity – most ‘major’ calibers (> .38spl) will only hold 6 rounds. While some models will carry 8-9 rounds, this comes at a significant addition in size.
- Required Dexterity – Revolvers require a great deal more precision to load than auto-loading (magazine fed) pistols. This, coupled with the low capacity means that more time will be spent keeping the weapon in the fight, than you will actually spend fighting.
- Mechanical Stoppages – Firearms in general are mechanical devices prone to failure. While revolvers cannot ‘jam’ in the way an autoloader can (failure of the action to eject a spent cartridge), they can have mechanical stoppages – which occur when dirt, debris or fouling compromise the revolvers ability to cycle. This is a very serious situation that can often lead to the weapon being useless until it is cleared properly.
3. Bottom Line
While certainly better than nothing, the revolver continues to be popular amongst gun owners, but has fallen out of favor with those who carry handguns professionally for the reasons highlighted above. Many persuasive articles have been written on the subject, but findings by end users have shown that the limited capacity and slow reload speed make the revolver less suited to out and out ‘gunfights’. That said, for use in personal defense, many fine options exist.
The autoloader became popular with Colt’s M1911, adopted by the U.S. Army that year, and found continued support through the Browning Hi-Power. The automatic pistol is characterized by an operation that uses gas pressure from the detonation of the cartridge to press the slide backwards, out of battery, and at the same time eject the spent casing and load a fresh cartridge. This process occurs ‘automatically’ until the magazine is expended. Therefore, once the pistol is loaded (Full magazine inserted, slide pulled fully to the rear and released) the weapon is capable of firing until the magazine is empty.
2. Strengths and Weakness:
- While generally more complex than revolvers, the automatic pistol can be operated more quickly (Ejecting a magazine and inserting a ‘fresh’ one can [practically] take around 2 seconds, whereas an ‘average’ for a revolver would be around 3 times that long, or 6 seconds).
- In addition to this, magazines can be carried which secure a great number more cartridges than do speed-loaders for revolvers, and require less fine motor skills (which is greatly important when stress is high)
- Because of their popularity, autoloaders have easily affordable and obtainable spare parts, replacement parts, accessories (such as magazines and holsters) and many more options in terms of accessories (such as flashlights, and sights).
- they do suffer from the drawback that because of the mechanism, empty shell casings can become ‘stuck’ if the slide cycles too quickly or without enough force. This causes a stoppage (Which can be discussed further), which requires remedial action.
- The great variety and gradient with regards to autoloader makes, models and quality requires that the prospective owner more carefully investigates what they’re buying.
- The more complicated design demands that the owner spend significantly more time learning to operate the pistol.
3. Bottom Line
The Autoloader is the more compelling choice for me, for a number of reasons, but it must be constantly re-enforced that it requires a great deal more practice to operate it accurately, effectively and safely.
Shotguns are loosely categorized into three categories, much like handguns:
- Break Action
Shotguns of all types suffer from a common inequity: a limited capacity. They also share several common assets. So instead of discussing the types at length, we’re going to highlight the shotgun's strengths and uses, rather than its mechanical operation.
Shotguns were the mechanical outflow from the blunderbuss – the firearm that Elmer Fudd used to hunt rabbits. The barrel opened like a trumpet, to allow the ‘shot’ to spread once fired. This differs from the single projectile which is stabilized by the lands and grooves of barreling as in handguns and rifles, and so shotgun projectiles suffer from lower velocity, less accuracy and a disperse shot pattern – which can be fairly inconsistent.
2. Strengths and Weakness:
It’s common to hear gun store cowboys talking about all sorts of firearm mythos. Common amongst shotguns is how you don’t have to “aim” a shotgun, and a shot will knock someone back a dozen feet or the like. None of this is true, but as with all myths, there is an element of embedded reality.
Pattern – Shotgun shells, with the exception of rifled slugs, create a pattern when fired. These patterns vary with the type of shot (lead or steel pellets used in shells) and gauge (Diameter of the shell). Because there are many projectiles, shotgun blasts create jagged wounds, but because they lack velocity, beyond 25-50 yards, they quickly become superficial, and in some cases, insufficient to stop an attacker. However, this does allow the shot to be less accurate, while giving multiple chances per shot to strike vital areas.
Energy transfer – Because shotguns create dramatic wounds, and use a large powder charge — up close they produce quite a lot of velocity and energy, creating significant trauma.
Commonality/Familiarity – shotguns are very common and familiar to many people. They are easy to reload shells for, and are forgiving with minor flaws in accuracy. They don’t draw much attention from people and are considered “politically correct”, if that enters into your thinking.
The shotgun has various issues going against it for any purpose apart from hunting or very limited applications during home defense.
- Slow to reload – limited capacity and slow reloads limit the shotgun’s use outside the home. While they can be used for hunting large game, they lack the velocity and range of a rifle, and the capacity of the handgun.
- Limited range – Because of the smooth bore barrel of the shotgun, range is typically limited to ~50 yards and less. This may not seem to be a disadvantage, and in a home defense situation it is not – but if you select a shotgun as a “do all” weapon, you’ll be handicapping yourself when it comes to other tasks.
- Pattern – While an asset in some situations, it must be considered that in a situation where you’re fighting for your life, such as a home invasion or if pressed to defend your community, a shotgun's patterning can lead to unintended injuries on hostages or friendly forces. Because of this, the same thing that is an advantage in certain situations can be a liability in others.
- Ammunition Bulk – 20 Shotshells takes up roughly the same amount of space as 60 rounds of 5.56 or 40 rounds of 7.62×51 (.308). This consideration is not important outside of war, but it is something that should be calculated in for “worst case” scenarios.
3. Bottom Line
Shotguns have unique liabilities and advantages that should be considered. The shotgun bridges a very narrow gap between the pistol and rifle – it’s more powerful than a pistol, but has the concealing properties of a rifle (that is to say – not concealable). It has the ‘range’ of a pistol, but within that range will produce results comparable to a rifle. For this reason, I spend very little time with the shotgun as a weapon, other than to familiarize myself in case I am forced to press one into service.
However, one very important consideration I suggest thinking about is this:
If society collapses, it’s very likely that shot-shells will be one of the most commonly available and reloadable types of ammunition. Because of their sturdiness, they will be more forgiving and longer lasting.
Manual rifles are often found as bolt, lever action or pump action. Unlike most Autoloading rifles, they’re chambered in “full power” cartridges – which are significantly more powerful than the cartridges found in rifles like the M4 or even AK rifles. They generally feature internal magazines, which hold very few rounds.
2. Strengths and Weakness:
- Full powered rounds which are very powerful. Excellent for hunting large game.
- Excellent range – most of these rifles are perfectly capable of producing hits out to 600m with practice.
- Mechanically simple and extremely reliable
- Robust and durable
- Heavier; these rifles commonly weigh 8-10 pounds
- Slower to load and manipulate
- Low magazine capacity – this is a negative to me, but may not be to you. However, since it is a “restrained” quality, I’m going to list it as a limitation.
- Often use bizarre, exotic or expensive cartridges which are produced in small quantities
Note: similar to the shotgun, the full powered cartridge can be an asset, but it can also be a terrible liability. In a home, the rifle round could easily travel through walls or even cars and strike objects or people behind them. This can be an asset in battle, but could be very troublesome as well.
3. Bottom Line
The rifle is the best “bang for the buck” so to speak. A good surplus rifle can be had for ~$150, will last a century, and will be useful for hunting and community defense. The rifle is to the community what the handgun is to the self, or the shotgun to the home.
Autoloading rifles were born from the conflict of WWII. After the war revealed the urban nature of warfare, the Russians perfected the autoloading rifle in the ubiquitous AK-47, and its variants. America designed several excellent rifles of its own, including the M14 and M4 carbine. Sharing many of the advantages of the Manual rifle, with a drastically increased capacity and a medium power round, the Autoloading rifle is analogous to the autoloading pistol. It is mechanically more complex, carries with it a greater need for training and discipline to be used effectively, but is far and away superior to the slower firing, loading and manipulating manual rifle cousins.
2. Strengths and Weakness:
- Fires medium powered cartridges which are very effective from 15m-300m with little or no trouble – longer ranges are perfectly realistic.
- Allows user to fight longer, faster and harder than any other firearm listed
- .30 caliber variants (M14, AK, etc) can be used to hunt.
- Rugged and durable – military pattern rifles are made to withstand rigors that hunting rifles or commercial products are not. A battle-proven design will last for decades, if not centuries.
- Stigma may attract unwanted attention or scorn
- Often very pricey
- Perhaps overpowered for home defense
- Many clones, knock-offs, or poorly made alternatives exist that will not be as durable or long lasting
- Requires magazines and ancillary equipment
- Lack of training and discipline make it easy to “spray and pray” rather than use effectively.
3. Bottom Line
Rifles are the best ‘all around’ choice when you look at the problem using the metric of “Accuracy”, “Simplicity” and “Terminal Ballistics”. In the case of Autoloading rifles, it continues this trend with “Capacity” and in the case of military pattern rifles, “Durability” as well.
However, these aren’t available to everyone, and aren’t practical to carry on your person. This is where we see the rise of the “Survival Arsenal” fallacy. Generally written by “gun people”, this myth holds that you’re “not ready” unless you have a pistol, a rifle and a shotgun at your disposal.
The reason this is wrong? Well… Let’s look at our criteria.
Criteria For Selecting A Firearm
Now that we’ve defined the types of firearms available, and looked at some of their strengths and weaknesses, but we haven’t really talked much about what we need. Let’s face it – we all have different needs. So, does a couple in downtown Boston need a pistol, a rifle and a shotgun? Playing the numbers, they’ll have none of the above. So how do they start?
How about a young guy or gal in rural Kentucky? Same needs?
The answer is there are no ‘magic bullets’ to determine what will suit you – but there are ways of minimizing the headache of selection, maintenance and use of the tool you may have to stake your life on.
First – buy quality, cry just once – and you will end up ahead of the game.
Second – Don’t waste your money on accessories until you’ve determined a need, not a want. Like the rest of America’s industries, the firearms industry wants to sell you lots of stuff you really don’t need. There are important accessories (magazines, holsters, and such), but most are poorly made, and don’t overcome any deficiency you couldn’t address on your own with more practice.
Third – don’t listen to the guy selling you the firearm. He’ll tell you lots and lots of things that sound ‘legit’, but are really pretty soft, from an intellectual standpoint. Do your own homework and research your selection.
So in a semi-prioritized fashion, here’s what to look for:
- Durability – In my opinion, having a weapon that is durable is more important than any single other influence. It simply has to work when you need it to. As a mechanical device, the quality of materials, craftsmanship and engineering will all impact how long the tool will last. If, like me, you’re buying this for the defense of your life, the most critical element is that it works under the worst conditions.
- Reliability – While this may seem the same as durability, it is not. While Durability vouches for the weapon's ability to take punishment, Reliability is a measure of how well it will work under those circumstances, and of course, after. The mechanical operation of the weapon must run as unimpeded as possible. That means, fewer parts break, fewer mechanical stoppages, and fewer full breakages. A reliable weapon that is durable will be handed down, through the generations, while a weapon that has only one quality will be hung above a mantle.
- Repair-ability – as a mechanical device, breakages are inevitable. When they do, you want the tool you’re using to be easy to fix and have replacement parts readily available. This speaks to anything from the magazines getting lost, or breaking an internal component to losing a spring, or breaking the stock. It must be easy to replace or salvage parts to keep your firearm in operational condition.
- Commonality – Commonality to me is a big one, and ultimately has helped me narrow down my selections to very specific tools. The areas I evaluate for commonality are:
- Is it being used by Police or a Military? If it is, there will be ammunition, magazines and parts produced en masse.
- Is it in a caliber that is common? Again, I try and stick to calibers currently in use by the military. That ensures that there will be ample ammunition produced, as well as brass and surplus for the “long haul”.
- Is it something I can/would buy a second copy of? For obvious reasons, having a great variety of firearms is a liability to anyone other than the collector, and it’s far more utilitarian to find one “pattern” and stick to it. This minimizes training, ammunition buying, magazine and spare parts selection and familiarity concerns.
- Capacity – does it hold enough ammunition that you will not be continually reloading, if your life depends on staying ‘in the fight’? When rounds are flying, exhausting your ammunition can (and often has been: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1986_FBI_Miami_shootout, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Hollywood_shootout) a serious liability, to both you, and anyone else you may be protecting or assisting. While this point has become contentious, it’s important to remember that the enemy will not limit his options based on what he perceives as being 'socially acceptable'.
Once you’ve weighed your prospective purchase against these criteria, you will then have to assess whether or not the price is practical and fits your budget. While this is a critical turning point for most people, it should be noted that spending more and buying a quality tool will allow you a lifetime of service, while making a poor decision may leave you searching for a compromise at a desperate time. Buying on a layaway plan, purchasing used firearms, and saving up are all preferable, in my opinion, to buying a less expensive firearm that will not perform when it is needed most.
Safety is an ongoing topic of concern for both pro and anti-gun folks. I won’t belabor the issue, but I firmly believe that safety is a byproduct of knowledge. You have to know what you’re looking at, how it functions and then how to apply the rules of gun safety.
At this time, I’d ask that readers take a look at the Definitive Firearms Thread and familiarize yourself with the safety strategies and practices discussed there. As we develop our base of knowledge, we can begin to develop both safe habits, and apply safe handling principles. I encourage this method, because as a component of your training at a later time, “dry practice” will become a part of how we develop our consistent trigger pull, reduce flinch and practice our malfunction drills and reloading procedures.
Let’s take a look at the three cardinal rules of firearms safety before we go any further:
- Handle every gun as if is loaded.
- Know what’s in front of your muzzle (barrel) at all times.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire.
There are more complicated sets of rules out there, but the great thing about these basic rules is this: If you break one, while following the other two, no harm will occur.
Anytime you receive a weapon – the first thing you should do is verify its status as “clear” – meaning there is no ammunition in it if you do not want there to be, and there is if you do.
To verify that the weapon is empty, the following steps should be followed:
- Remove the magazine, or open the cylinder. If it’s a manual rifle or shotgun, physically check to be sure the internal magazine has been emptied, or no shells are in the magazine tube.
- If the weapon is an autoloader, pull the bolt to the rear, and visually inspect the chamber. “Triple check”. It never hurts to be extra safe, and this is a good habit to get in to before you learn to dry practice.
- Separate the magazine or ammunition, and close the bolt, cylinder or release the slide.
I won’t belabor this point too heavily here, but I will touch on it in the upcoming addition to the WSID Series “Understanding Emergencies”.
With that said regardless of what you choose, you are the one ultimately responsible for the safe and effective use of a firearm. While many levels of training exist (far superior training, in fact, to what most Police or Military members receive) to match your level of commitment, it’s imperative that you at least understand the basic rules of safety, and become familiar with the weapon you decide to purchase.
If you can’t automatically identify several key features:
- Safety or de-cocker
- Magazine Release
- Cylinder/slide release button or lever
- Frame/Lower receiver/Stock
…You need to devote more time to knowing your firearm. You should further be able to identify if your weapon is:
- Single Action, Double Action or SA/DA
- Blowback, revolving, gas impingement, piston driven, pump, bolt or lever action or semi-automatic.
Knowing this will help you understand the strengths and weaknesses inherent to the different designs, so that when you use your own metric for what fits best for you, you will be “armed” with knowledge. Also consider attending a firearms training course, several of which are recommende