Some folks collect guns and never shoot them. Some people acquire guns for the sake of owning them, showing them off to others, and generally babying them. It was due to these people that the term “safe queen” was coined. There is nothing wrong with collecting things. And with guns in particular, all you have to do is buy one to find out that it is hard to be satisfied with just one gun. But some of us don’t have the money, time, or interest to indiscriminately accumulate a collection of firearms as an end unto itself. We want to assemble an array of firearms qua tools, suitable for the variety of applications for which we anticipate needing that sort of tool. Each person’s lot in life is different, so no single list of “must have” guns can be truly authoritative.
Possible uses for firearms
Guns are useful for lots of different things: hunting, home defense, personal protection outside the home, paramilitary operations, and target shooting. These different applications present their own unique demands, and the firearm that is best suited for one is often ill-suited for the others.
A hunter in the swamps of lower Alabama will never have the opportunity to take a thousand yard shot in that area because the ground cover is too dense and elevations don’t provide a vantage point from which to make such a long shot on game in that region. A rifle that is capable of accurately throwing a bullet that far can be a fun hobby gun for such an individual, provided he has access to a long-distance shooting range, but the extra weight of a bull barrel, adjustable stock, large optics, and other accouterments reduce mobility. Likewise, a varminter in “big sky country” might find a .22 pistol utterly useless for shooting critters to which he never gets closer than seventy-five yards. We can look at the different classes of firearms and determine which of these fits into our lives and what qualities we should look for in a specimen from each relevant class.
Some guns are designed to perform very well in a limited, specific role. For example, the rifle carried by a modern biathelete is a creature of the competition context and the sport’s rules: .22 caliber, at least 7.5 pounds in weight, highly adjustable stock, short lock time, and capability to operate reliably in cold, snowy conditions. While these specifications may make such a rifle a good rabbit gun and an excellent target gun, a shorter, lighter gun with fewer frills can be had for far less money and still serve well in those roles.
Weapon engagement zones
A weapon engagement zone (WEZ) is a space of defined dimensions within which a particular weapon is to bear primarily responsibility for engaging targets. The best way to think about this is the “sweet spot” for each weapon – the range for which the weapon is optimized. Working our way out from CQB distances to long-range, a variety of different firearms present themselves as most suited for each zone: concealable handgun, full-frame handgun, shotgun, assault rifle, battle rifle, precision rifle, and heavy precision rifle.
The outer zones beyond 800 yards are likely not of concern to individuals primarily occupied with home defense preparations. My suggestion is to prepare for the innermost zones – mousegun, full-size handgun, and shotgun – first and then work through to the outer zones as needed given your particular geographical and socio-political contexts and whatever shooting or hunting sports you enjoy.
(NB: Firearms of each class are capable of sending rounds well past their optimal WEZ – sometimes several miles farther – so always be sure of your target and what is beyond it.)
Handguns are lightest and smallest, and they are the firearms best suited for close-in confrontations and personal protection while outside of one’s home. Handguns are also near the top of the list for home defense, since they can typically be fired with one hand, meaning that your other hand is free to manipulate doorknobs and light switches or to fend off an attacker as you bring the muzzle to bear. And of course, they are easier to carry on your person or in your car than would be even the smallest shotguns or rifles.
The most easily concealable handguns are small and light for convenient everyday carry, an important consideration, but their diminutive size limits their firepower in terms of ammunition type and ammunition capacity. Compared to full-size pistols, affordable mouseguns like the Kel-Tec P3AT and Ruger LCP are tougher to shoot, with sights that are harder to see, heavier trigger pulls, and less gun to hold onto. Casual shooters will find it very difficult to reliably connect using these pocket pistols at ranges greater than ten yards. Full-size handguns, like the SIG Sauer P226 or Glock 17, are much easier to shoot well, with the novice shooter likely maxing out at around thirty or forty yards. Many handguns, especially larger models chambered in major calibers, are also useful for hunting a variety of game.
I offered more substantial advice for first-time handgun buyers in a previous article.
Shotguns are versatile weapons that may be used for hunting, sport shooting, or defensive purposes within forty or fifty yards. They are very different from rifles and handguns in that their barrels aren’t usually “rifled” – grooved so as to impart a stabilizing spin to a projectile – they are capable of projecting a pattern of pellets rather than a single projectile, and they operate at much lower chamber pressures. A shotgun may be loaded with many different types of ammunition: smaller, more numerous shot pellets for smaller game, larger “buckshot” pellets or slugs for larger quarry, and a variety of specialty rounds including less lethal options, breaching loads, and others. Shotgun rounds that fire multiple projectiles in a pattern make it much, much easier to shoot moving targets like birds and squirrels.
Shotgun projectiles are propelled at a relatively slow velocity. Although they are capable of imparting more energy into a target at close range than are pistol rounds, this energy dissipates with smaller shot sizes that make for a vastly greater surface area for the same total mass. As a result, a shotgun may be a good choice where over-penetration is a concern, such as in a home defense scenario. Be advised thought that, like pistol and rifle bullets, shotgun slugs and buckshot are capable of penetrating multiple interior walls and still retaining enough energy to injure or kill. According to one writer’s tests we can expect the following penetration characteristics:
Equivalent interior walls penetrated
12 gauge shotgun, 2 ” birdshot
12 gauge shotgun, 2 ” #4 buck
12 gauge shotgun, 2 ” #1 buck
12 gauge shotgun, 2 ” 00 buck
12 gauge shotgun, 2 ” 1 oz rifled slug
.22 LR pistol
.45 ACP pistol
5.56 x 45mm rifle
Additionally, the pattern of shot thrown by a shotgun gives the shooter a greater chance of scoring a hit within the weapon’s effective range, with the pattern spreading out to three to six feet in diameter at forty yards, depending on the choke used and other variables. Rifled slugs greatly improve a shotgun’s potential for accuracy at longer ranges and make the gun more useful for taking large game. An advantage of the common pump shotgun models – the Remington 870 and Mossberg 500 – besides the multitude of readily available accessories, is that the barrels are easily swapped out, and additional barrels are readily available in local gun stores or for purchase from internet vendors. This means that budget-minded individuals can buy a sporting shotgun with a longer barrel more useful for hunting and later, for a modest sum, purchase a shorter barrel more suited to defensive applications.
From fifty yards to two hundred fifty yards, no weapon is better suited for quick, accurate defensive shooting than the assault rifle or its semi-automatic civilian equivalent, the modern sporting rifle. Firing intermediate power rifle cartridges like the 5.56 x 45mm and 7.62 x 39mm, rifles of this type – first developed in the early twentieth century – don’t quite have the power of a traditional hunting rifle. However, these cartridges are much shorter and lighter than their full powered counterparts, meaning that it is easier to carry more of them, a very good thing if you are expecting a gun fight. The lower recoil from these intermediate power cartridges also means that the user can send follow up shots downrange more rapidly than a full power rifle’s recoil impulse would allow.
Full power rifle rounds are accurate out to distances of 800 yards or more, but the trajectories of bullets fired from AR and AK-type rifles drop quickly after a couple of hundred yards. Even so, assault rifles are far more accurate than pistols. They are much more powerful, too, with the 5.56 x 45mm round from an AR capable of transferring three to four times as much energy into a target as the 9 x 19mm round. These rifles are also capable of bringing down game as large as a deer, though the conventional wisdom is that the 5.56 x 45mm round is undersized for humanely harvesting deer.
There are many options available to American buyers, with the AR and AK designs being the most popular – and most controversial – exemplars of this class. Because of their popularity, magazines and accessories for these models are readily available. Other options include Ruger’s venerable Mini-14 and Mini Thirty rifles, the featherweight Kel-Tec SU-16, and the ultra-affordable SKS, the standard version of which has a fixed magazine which must be reloaded one round at a time or with stripper clips.
Battle rifles are easily differentiated from assault rifles by comparing the potency of the rounds they fire, ammunition capacity, and weight. Rather than firing an intermediate cartridge like the assault rifles, battle rifles fire full-powered cartridges like the .30-06 Springfield, 7.62 x 51mm, or the Russian 7.62 x 54mmR. Although these cartridges are heavier than the intermediate cartridges, they are far more powerful and capable of reliably bringing down targets at greater ranges. The 7.62 x 51mm cartridge, for example, is capable of communicating twice as much energy into a target as the 5.56 x 45mm. Penetration through cover is far superior as well, and the effective range of the 7.62 x 51mm is 800 yards or greater. Battle rifles are capable of reaching and neutralizing tougher and more distant targets than assault rifles, but this comes at the cost of higher recoil, smaller magazine capacities, and heavier, more expensive ammunition.
These rifles are not as abundant on the American market as AK and AR rifles, but many options are available. Some shooters, particularly those who enjoy an AR-15, swear by rifles patterned off of Eugene Stoner‘s AR-10 design. Others are convinced that the Springfield M1A is the best battle rifle to be had. The Heckler & Koch G3 and Fabrique Nationale FAL have their own factions of devotees as well. The Spanish CETME rifle is an affordable option that shouldn’t be overlooked, especially since many of the parts are interchangeable with G3 components, both guns having been developed in a collaboration between H&K designer Ludwig Vorgrimler and the Spanish government small arms establishment. The new, hard-to-find Kel-Tec RFB from George Kellgren employs an ambidextrous bullpup design and molded polymer components for a shorter, lighter battle rifle suitable for urban environments. It is worth noting, however, that some folks argue that all bullpup designs are fundamentally flawed.
An excellent bargain still readily available on the surplus market due to miscalculation by twentieth century communist central-planners is the Soviet Mosin-Nagant rifle. This bolt-action rifle been in continuous service in one part of the world or another since 1891. It has a much lower rate of fire than the semi-automatic battle rifles listed above, but it can be had at a price that is nearly an order of magnitude cheaper: about $100. Surplus 7.62 x 54mmR ammunition is relatively inexpensive and widely available, just be warned that you will experience variations in quality and performance.
Precision rifles are rifles mechanically capable of shooting groups that are one minute of angle or better within the rifle’s intended engagement zone. Such a rifle will, in the hands of a proficient marksman, post shot groups smaller than one inch at a hundred yards. If chambered for a full power cartridge, like 7.62 x 51mm, and fitted with adequate optics, these sorts of rifles can reliably hit man-sized targets out to 800 yards and beyond. Since the 7.62 x 51mm cartridge (called “.308 Winchester” on the adoring commercial market) is a NATO standard round, it is widely available, as are ballistics tables and other information on the many different .308 loads. Modern battle rifles are typically chambered for this ammunition type, so the same ammunition will fire in both sorts of rifles. Be advised, though, that ammunition specifically intended for use in a precision rifle will be manufactured to tighter tolerances and is much more expensive than military surplus rounds that are just fine for a battle rifle.
Many modern bolt-action deer rifles would serve well in this role, as has been proven by the military track records of the Remington Model 700 and the Winchester Model 70, the former of which was the basis for the United States Army’s M24 and the United States Marine Corps’ M40, and the latter of which was used for a number of years by U.S. Army and Marine snipers, including the legendary Carlos Hathcock. An excellent choice in class is the Savage Model 10FP, which boasts an extremely strong action and features an adjustable trigger assembly, free-floated barrel, and other accuracy enhancing features.
Hathcock’s 1967 record-setting 2500-yard single-shot kill with his Browning M2 machine gun and Unertl scope inspired gun-makers to create a new class of heavy precision rifle based around the .50 BMG cartridge. The cartridge was originally designed by John Browning for anti-aircraft use at the end of the first world war, but as a scaled-up version of the successful .30-06 Springfield cartridge it had the potential for excellent accuracy at previously inconceivable ranges. Barrett Firearms Manufacturing is far and away the best known maker of fifty caliber rifles. These extreme long-range capabilities come at a price, both in terms of weight – 25–30 pounds to lug around – and price – $3500–$8000 before you’ve even bought the requisite optics or the $3/round ammunition. The size of the .50 BMG round also means that there is a tremendous recoil impulse to deal with, something that Barrett and other designers tackle with gargantuan muzzle brakes. While the Barrett brake is very effective in taming the recoil generated by the .50 BMG, it does so by directing a substantial amount of pressure and noise back towards the shooter, kicking up a sizable dust cloud, and making serious (perhaps even redundant) ear and eye protection absolutely mandatory for safe shooting.
A more portable and more cost-effective substitute for the .50 BMG rifles can be had in rifles chambered for the .338 Lapua Magnum cartridge. The .338 was conceived of in 1989 specifically for use in long-range sniper rifles, and since its inception it has proven effective in that role, with the longest .338 Lapua Magnum kill logged at 2707 yards by a British sniper in 2009. The Savage 110 BA is a nicely equipped .338. With a sticker price of nearly $2000 it represents the lower end of what one might expect to spend on a precision rifle built around this special purpose round.
All precision rifles, no matter how finely tuned, depend on the skill of the shooters employing them. Mastering the fundamentals of rifle marksmanship can guarantee that a shooter connects with his targets within a few hundred yards, but at longer ranges an assortment of factors affect the trajectory of a bullet, including wind, temperature, and humidity. At extreme ranges, gyroscopic drift and even the rotation of the Earth may have to be accounted for in plotting a point of aim. While the ticket price for these rifles is substantial, accumulating the knowledge and experience necessary to take full advantage of their capabilities is even more daunting.
Before tying up a substantial sum in a precision rifle with all the bells and whistles, it is worthwhile to establish good shooting habits through lots of practice. A .22 LR rifle can be had for a very modest sum and fires a low-recoil, inexpensive, and ubiquitous ammunition type that is perfect for getting lots of practice. Although the extremely successful Ruger 10/22 semi-automatic rifle is more versatile for applications like small game hunting, as an old Boy Scout I prefer the bolt-action rifles with which I learned basic marksmanship. The process of opening the breach, manually loading each round, sliding the bolt forward, and locking the bolt down before firing incentivizes the shooter to make each shot count. This works to counteract the urge that a frustrated or excited shooter might have to just start banging away without really concentrating on trigger control, breath control, and sight picture.