28 February 2012

Considerations for selecting the right type and size of firearm

Listen to just about any group of people talking about guns and you'll quickly find that people have extremely strong opinions about which type and size of firearm is best. In reality, picking one "best" firearm is limiting, and could even end up being a recipe for disaster.

As I noted in my previous post on beginning gun buyer resources, I do not consider myself "expert" on firearms. That said, my opinions do result from considering the opinions of firearms professionals.

Massad Ayoob is one of my favorite experts, one who has written extensively on all aspects of firearms, including considerations in selecting them. Below are my opinions on firearm selection that are shaped by the linked considerations and viewpoints from Ayoob.

There is no one "right" firearm

When you're painting a room, you'll need different types of tools to apply paint. Perhaps you'll use a roller for the open expanse of the walls, a paint pad to "cut in" around the edges, and a trim brush to paint any molding. The one thing you're unlikely to do is use one tool for the entire paint job.

Choosing a firearm is much the same. You need to consider how you might use a gun and select accordingly. To that end, I agree with Ayoob that a good, basic, and economical battery of guns for the self-reliant household or homestead consists of the following:
  • .22 caliber rifle (or perhaps a handgun)
  • shotgun
  • high-power rifle
  • defensive handgun

Consider buying used firearms, especially at first

Of course, "economical" is a subjective thing. However, Ayoob conveniently has an article on buying an adequate gun (and ammo, and accessories) with a $500 price limit. Similar to cars, Ayoob suggests that buying a used firearm will often give you a reliable firearm and plenty of ammunition with which to practice.

Just as one might ask a friend who's a mechanic to look at a used car, he also recommends getting advice when looking at used guns:
A new driver who doesn't know a thing about automobiles can wind up getting taken for a ride at a used car lot, in a way that goes beyond the test drive. So, what would you or I advise that first-time buyer of a second-hand car to do? Why, reach out to a friend who does know that sort of thing intimately! [...]
This is exactly what the new shooter/inexperienced gun owner needs to do with a gun-savvy friend! The best thing is for the friend to come with the newbie to examine the used firearm in question. He or she will be able to tell right there if it fits the intended user's hand and body properly. They'll also know what to look for to make sure the sear isn't too worn, and that there isn't any unnoticed rust in the barrel, inside the magazine, or hidden in other nooks and crannies.
Getting a reliable gun will allow you to get proficient with it. Later, you can trade up to a fancier, or newer, model if you find the need to do so.

Bigger is not always better

One of the most controversial topics within the world of guns seems to be the caliber of the weapon. At the most basic level, there are some who insist that the largest caliber is always the best (less shots to stop the target). Arguments against this viewpoint commonly involve cost of ammunition (cheaper ammunition equals more practice) and accuracy (less powerful guns are easier to control, making the shooter more accurate).

I'm not a guy who likes the extremes; I tend to find something that balances the various considerations. For instance, I prefer a .357 magnum, rather than a .22- or a .45-caliber handgun. Ayoob also has an excellent article on moderate power firearms, which advises against using "too much gun":
The trick is finding for each shooter the necessary balance of power and controllability. "Use enough gun," indeed. But remember that using too much gun for the given task will quickly take you to the point of diminishing returns.
In this article, Ayoob suggests considering the following "moderate power firearms" that offer enough power, but are controllable for a wider range of people:
  • .22 caliber rifle (or handgun): Ayoob names this the "ubiquitous rural home working gun," and continues, "the cheapest firearm to shoot with factory ammunition, with mild muzzle blast and almost non-existent recoil, the .22 is one of our 'funnest' guns and, for many things, among the most useful. However, it is sadly lacking in power when any aggressive living thing of any substantial size has to be neutralized by gunfire."
  • Shotgun: According to Ayoob, a 20-gauge firing a single round of #3 buckshot (20 .25" diameter pellets) will have nearly identical effects to a 12-gauge firing a single round of #4 buckshot (27 .23'' diameter pellets).
  • Rifle: Ayoob recommends a classic old .30-30 carbine (with "not at all bad" recoil) or the .243 Winchester (with "extremely mild" recoil).
  • Handguns: Here, Ayoob admits that the purpose (i.e., the threats you'll face) defines much of the caliber choice. Still, he mentions .38 special, .357 magnum, and 9mm calibers at the "lower end."

As you can see, there is a place for even the "lowly" .22 caliber in your self-reliant homestead (or your preparedness plans, for that matter). The main point is that most professionals train with, and prefer, larger caliber weapons because they more effective.

So, wait — the biggest gun is the best after all? Well, not exactly. Check out this short clip from Ayoob:

In my opinion, his last two "rules" at the end of the video are the key:
  1. Use the most powerful weapon you can control and accurately rapid-fire on multiple targets.
  2. Keep shooting until the subject is down and incapable of harming you.

Another way of saying the first point is the common saying "a hit with a .22 is better than a miss with a .44."

What's more, it's not a given that a hit from a large caliber will automatically stop the subject. Take a look at this Stopping Power article, which discusses how "big guns" don't always stop the target. This wisdom is summed up in its last line: "forget about 'one shot stops;' fire until your opponent falls — and if he gets back up, resume firing."


  1. Well said, I don't have the .22 yet, I have a 5.56 pistol & rifle, an M1-Cabine & a 12guage, the Mosin Nagant is waiting to be picked up at the FFL, I did find a cheaper way to shoot this, http://www.sportsmansguide.com/net/cb/762x54r-to-32-cal-multi-chamber-insert.aspx?a=587989 good for teaching a new shooter without the recoil also.
    For my future purchases, I am looking to get a .45LC revolver & lever action rifle to go with my Bond Arms Snake Slayer, I like the idea of having pistols & long-guns in the same caliber.

    1. Thanks for the comment, and for including the link! I also agree on having multiple guns with the same caliber. There are many ways to do that, and if you standardize on a fairly common ammunition, all the better.