I’ve read many magazine articles, blog posts and forum discussions on topics such as ‘What rifle for SHTF?’, ‘What rifle for home defense?’ or ‘What’s the best rifle for bug-out use?’ Many respondents focus on factors such as caliber/cartridge, ‘stopping power’ (about which we’ve spoken at length in previous articles), and so on. To my mind, such discussions miss the point. There are several very basic considerations that should be taken into account before any others. I’d like to offer a few here, and invite my readers to contribute others in Comments.
Let me begin by saying that a rifle may not be the best weapon for some defensive purposes. It’ll depend on your environment and your personal circumstances. If you want to defend only your own home, shooting across the width of your front lawn or down the hall, a rifle may be too long-ranged and over-penetrative for your purposes. Consider your options, read widely about the subject, and buy an appropriate weapon. (I wrote a three part article about that some time ago.)
However, if a rifle is what you want, let’s look at factors to take into account.
To put it as simply as possible, if you aren’t skilled in the use of any tool, let alone a firearm, you’re likely to be more of a danger to yourself and/or your loved ones when using it than to any potential opponent. Consider:
- If you’re a lousy driver, you’re likely to experience (or even cause) a crash;
- If you’ve never used power tools before, and try to operate a chainsaw without training and supervision, you might just cut off your own leg;
- If you’ve never been taught to cook, in the process of learning by trial and (a lot of) error you can burn perfectly good food to cinders without even trying. (How do I know this? Trust me. I know this.)
I strongly suggest that before you bother thinking about rifle technicalities, you first become proficient in the use of one. This can be surprisingly easy given the right training, and not very expensive if you do it right.
- My #1 recommendation for training, standing head and shoulders above all others, would be to sign up for an Appleseed clinic. They’re offered around the country, and provide a fine grounding in the basics of riflery. You can find out more at the Project Appleseed Web site.
- A second option would be to take the NRA Basic Rifle Shooting Course. It’s offered at ranges around the country by certified instructors. It’s nowhere near as detailed as the Appleseed clinic, but it’s still a good foundation on which to develop skills through further practice. Look for local courses and instructors here, or ask at your local shooting range.
- Finally, you can ask knowledgeable friends to teach you; but be warned – many people claim knowledge, experience or skill that they don’t, in fact, possess. You don’t want to absorb other people’s bad habits when you don’t know enough to recognize them as such, or have the skills to correct them. I strongly recommend formal training from a qualified instructor as a first step.
As for a training rifle, by all means buy one if possible. I think every shooter should have at least one .22LR rifle for training, plinking and all-around fun use. (I currently have six in my safe, and I’m a piker compared to some – one of my friends has an entire gun safe [one of several in his basement] filled with nothing but rimfire rifles!) However, if money’s an issue, I suggest asking a friend to borrow one of his or her rifles. If you don’t have friends who own such rifles, ask your Project Appleseed contact about ‘loaner’ guns. They, or one of those who support the Project, will sometimes be able to arrange for you to use one. 500 rounds of .22LR ammunition will cost you anywhere from $10-$50, depending on brand and quality. I suggest buying higher-quality ammo for your Appleseed course – it’s very frustrating to have misfires from poor ammo, or find your ‘group’ is more like a shotgun pattern because of variations in powder load. My personal top choices for higher-quality practice ammo are CCI Mini-Mag (solid or hollow-point) and Federal Automatch. Since rimfire ammo is hard to find at the time of writing, you’ll probably have to shop online to find them, or get some from your friends with adequate supplies.
As for the type of rifle to buy: your first rifle likely won’t be your last. In rimfire rifles you can select between removable-magazine-fed, tube-magazine-fed, buttstock-magazine-fed or single-shot weapons, utilizing semi-automatic, bolt-action, lever-action, pump- or slide-action or break-action mechanisms. New guns can be expensive, but used weapons aren’t much cheaper for quality models. At current prices you can expect to pay $200-$300 for a ‘starter’ rimfire training rifle. My general recommendations for the various action types are:
- Semi-automatic: The Ruger 10/22 is far and away the single most popular semi-auto rimfire rifle out there, and hence my primary recommendation (I have two of them myself). You can get parts to modify and customize it to your heart’s content. If you plan to buy an AR-15-type rifle as your defensive weapon, a better choice (albeit usually more expensive) would be a rimfire version of that platform such as the S&W M&P15-22 , Mossberg 715T or an equivalent rifle.
- Bolt-action: For quality, accuracy and ease of use (albeit at a higher price), I highly recommend CZ’s range of rimfire rifles. Pick one to suit your budget. For a more economical but still very good choice, I like the Savage Mark IIF, typically costing around $200-$250 (there are many more Mark II models, some much more expensive).
- Lever-action: For cost-effectiveness, nothing else comes close to the Henry basic model (although there are many more expensive models in the range). Marlin’s Model 39 is a classic lever-action, although more expensive. (I have both in my safe.)
- Pump- or slide-action: I don’t own a rifle of this type (although I own several pump-action shotguns). I therefore can’t make a recommendation out of personal experience.
Whatever your choice, for those with good eyesight I recommend buying a rifle already fitted with iron sights, as those without them are often hard to retrofit. I suggest replacing the manufacturer’s sights with a better aftermarket set, as the former are often not as good as one might wish. Those made by Tech Sights are excellent and reasonably priced (they’re recommended by Appleseed as well). If your vision isn’t so good, I strongly suggest installing a scope and adjusting it to suit your eyes. A simple low-cost rimfire scope (like these Simmons models, for example) isn’t very expensive, but a high-quality rimfire scope like these Leupold models can cost more than your rifle! My personal choice in terms of value for money is this Nikon scope. (A red-dot sight isn’t intended for match-grade accuracy, but for fast-moving snap shooting, so I don’t recommend it as a first choice for beginners.)
For those who’ve served in the armed forces, basic military training in the use of an M16 or M4 is just that – basic. Not everyone goes on to combat training, which is essential if you want to use the rifle effectively. For civilians, there are many training courses in the use of a rifle for defensive purposes. They’re offered by facilities such as Gunsite, Thunder Ranch, Shootrite, etc. I highly recommend them, but I emphasize that they’re advanced training courses, where you’re expected to know the basics before you arrive. If you show up with a rifle you’ve never fired before, and knowing nothing about zeroing your sights, hold, use of a sling, etc., you’re going to be way out of your depth. Learn the basics first, then look for more advanced training. If you can’t afford to take such courses, look for their instructional DVD’s (also available through the above links).
Remember, too, that shooting skills are like muscles: if they aren’t exercised, they atrophy. You need to shoot regularly, over a challenging course of fire, to remain proficient. That’s another good reason to own a rimfire rifle – it’s a lot cheaper to practice with it than to use a centerfire rifle. You can even use an air rifle, BB gun or Airsoft rifle if economy’s paramount, although these will limit you to close-range work.
2. WHO WILL USE YOUR RIFLE?
This may sound like a silly question, but it’s not. Far too many people buy a rifle for defensive or bug-out use on the assumption that they alone will use it. However, they may have to ask a family member to cover them while they attend to some urgent task (getting their vehicle out of a ditch, providing first-aid to injured members of their party, even changing diapers on a squalling baby). In a bug-out situation, they’re also going to have to sleep from time to time. While they’re resting, who’s going to stand guard – using their rifle?
This implies two things:
- Train the other members of your family in the accurate, effective use of your rifle before the need arises. It’s no good handing your weapon to someone who’s never fired it (or another rifle) before, and expecting them to be competent users. Consider putting the whole family through Appleseed training, if possible – the kids as they get old enough, of course. (This is another good reason to buy a low-cost, cheap-to-feed rimfire rifle as a practice weapon. Learning to shoot with ammo that costs 25c-$1.00 per round is a very expensive proposition!)
- Select a rifle that all the members of your family are capable of using. Its length-of-pull (i.e. stock length) should preferably be adjustable, so that different-sized people can set it to suit their frame. If it’s not adjustable, it should be short enough for the smaller members of your party to use. Bigger people can adjust to shorter stocks, but not vice versa. The rifle’s recoil should be manageable and controllable by all who’ll use it, which means selecting a cartridge compatible with that requirement. Finally, the weapon shouldn’t be too big and/or heavy to be used by the smaller members of your party.
It’s worth taking time over your selection of a defensive rifle to ensure that all those who are likely to use it can adjust it to fit themselves, and are comfortable with the location and operation of the controls. (Some people are less flexible than others, or have injuries that might prevent them operating, for example, the safety catch.) If a friend has an example of the gun you want, or a local range offers one for rent, an afternoon at the shooting range together will enable everyone to try it for themselves.
3. CHOOSING A RIFLE.
You’ve got to choose a rifle appropriate for its primary purpose. In this article we’re discussing defensive and emergency-use rifles. That means they must be suitable to defend you and your family (and perhaps your possessions) against intruders. Depending on where you live, it may also mean that you’ll hunt with the same rifle to obtain food. If so, the latter requirement may dictate a bigger or more powerful cartridge than the former.
In choosing a rifle, I suggest you consider the following factors.
- Reliability. If a rifle isn’t reliable, you can’t entrust your life to it, or the lives of your loved ones. It’s got to go bang! every time you want it to, without fail. Buying cheap can cost you dear. Be prepared to spend more than the minimum to buy something that’s earned a reputation for reliability. Military designs are usually more reliable under intensive use than civilian ones. Spare parts should be readily available, and it helps if you’re able to perform basic weapon maintenance and servicing yourself.
- Accuracy. This is overrated by most gun magazines, which go on about ‘1 minute of angle‘ or ‘2 MOA’ accuracy. One MOA is approximately 1″ at 100 yards. If your rifle can shoot into a 3″-4″ circle at that range, it’s more than adequate to defend yourself or take game at out to 300 yards range. Most hunting shots east of the Mississippi are taken at less than 100 yards range (see this discussion for examples). In an urban environment, the average police sniper shot is only about 50 yards! Don’t bother buying a primary weapon that’s guaranteed to hit a pie plate at 1,000 yards. It’s not what you need for defensive purposes.
- Rate of fire. This is largely a function of the user’s level of skill and the action type. A semi-automatic rifle in the hands of a skilled user is capable of one to three aimed shots per second (the latter at close range only). A lever-action or pump-action rifle will be not much slower. A bolt-action rifle will usually be considerably slower, but it can also be chambered for more powerful cartridges, if that’s what you need. (Magazine capacity is important for sustained rate of fire. Those who insist that the average person has no need for a 20- or 30-round magazine are being unrealistic – for example, ask the Korean shopkeepers of Los Angeles about the 1992 riots there.) You’ll have to choose your rifle based on your environment, the threats you face, and your competence to use it effectively.
- Caliber/cartridge. Forget those who claim that only ‘major calibers’ are acceptable, or provide enough ‘stopping power’ (a nebulous concept, as we saw in the first paragraph of this article). For primarily defensive use, choose a common caliber/cartridge that’s used by police and military forces – one to which they entrust their lives every day. Buy a rifle in that chambering. Learn to use it well, keeping in mind the strictures in Section 2 above. If you also need to hunt for food, find out whether the police/military cartridge will serve for that purpose (it may, given the right ammunition, or it may be too light). If it can be made to serve, well and good. If not, either change to a rifle in a heavier, more suitable caliber, or keep your defensive rifle and invest in a second weapon for hunting (my personal preference). YMMV.
- Size and portability. If you’ll need to carry this rifle for many miles of hiking, it’s not a good idea to buy a heavy weapon. If you may have to operate it from within a vehicle, a long, bulky rifle will be very awkward. Generally, I recommend the most compact, lightest weapon that fits your other requirements. Ammunition is also a factor: for example, you can carry almost twice as much ammo in 5.56x45mm. (.223) than you can in 7.62x51mm. (.308) for a given weight. The latter will hit harder, but as the old saying goes, “Quantity has a quality all its own”. When ammo is scarce (see point 4 below), every round is important.
4. WHAT ABOUT AMMUNITION?
The recent ammo drought should have driven home to most people that if an emergency arises and you need ammo, everyone else is likely to be in the same boat – and the existing stocks on store shelves will vanish like snow on a hotplate. It may be months before new supplies arrive.
You need to keep on hand a stock of ammo sufficient for a few months practice sessions, plus enough defensive ammunition to cater for an emergency. Only you can work out how much ammunition is enough for your specific situation. I’ve written about that previously. Once you’ve worked out your own minimum requirements, budget for them, and make sure that as you use some of your ‘stash’, you replace it.
Your supply should be sufficient that if the stores don’t have any for a while, you’ll have enough for your needs. I now budget to have enough ammo on hand to meet my regular training requirements for a minimum of two to three years, and also at least 200 rounds per weapon of premium defensive ammunition. I won’t drop below that for any reason, and usually manage to remain well above it.
Some say it’s best to select a weapon that uses a popular cartridge, as supplies will be more readily available. Unfortunately, the recent ammo drought demonstrated that this is a two-edged sword. Sure, common calibers were produced in larger quantities by the manufacturers; but they were also in much greater demand by shooters, with the result that fresh stock flew off the shelves almost before it had been unpacked. For months one couldn’t get .223, 5.56x45mm., 7.62x39mm., .30-30 or other common calibers for love or money. If you needed it for your rifle, you were out of luck unless you had adequate reserve supplies.
You’ll probably want to equip your rifle with a good sight (red-dot, scope, or whatever), a sling, and other accessories. However, these are secondary to the primary purpose of your weapon. I’ve seen some rifles that started out in the 6-7 pound weight range and ended up double that after all the bells and whistles had been added! We call such weapons ‘rooney guns‘ – like this one.
Don’t be that guy! Buy a good basic weapon and learn to use it in its basic form, while learning about accessories, trying out those on fellow shooters’ rifles, and deciding what you need and can afford. Don’t buy every flashy, shiny toy that’s hyped in shooting magazines or on YouTube until you know what you’re doing.
Buying a defensive rifle is like buying a suitable vehicle for everyday use.
- You don’t want an exotic sports car that’s capable of 150 mph when your commute involves a lot of stop-start driving in traffic and a top speed of about 40 mph.
- You don’t want a huge vehicle that’s hard to maneuver and park when you’ve got to drive around narrow urban streets thronged with other traffic.
- You don’t want a two-seat city runabout if your work on a farm involves rutted tracks, mud and cow dung, and the need to haul heavy loads of feed or tools.
You buy a vehicle suitable for your needs, one that will be reliable and trustworthy in service. You look after it, so that it, in turn, will look after you.
Buy your defensive rifle the same way. Don’t bother with too many fancy bells and whistles. Buy something that’s of reasonable quality, reliable, and easy to use. Learn to use it well, and keep in practice. Hopefully you’ll never need it . . . but if you do, it’ll be there.
In case you’re interested, my personal choices for defensive and emergency rifles are:
- Kel-Tec’s SU-16 carbine chambered for the 5.56x45mm. cartridge. It’s a relatively low-cost weapon that’s proven reliable in my hands and more than accurate enough for my needs. I particularly like its light weight – less than 6 pounds, including a loaded magazine.
- Smith & Wesson’s M&P15 AR-15 clone in the same chambering. It’s more expensive than the Kel-Tec and cheaper AR-15 clones, but it’s well made and has proven reliable in my hands.
Those are the rifles to which I’ll entrust my life if I have to, and the life of my loved ones and friends. I recently stocked up on a high-quality defensive round for them. I hope I’ll never need them the hard way . . . but if I do, they’re ready.
What about you, readers? What’s your go-to rifle for defensive and emergency purposes? Tell us more in Comments.