April 20, 2023
For over 40 years, I have been asked by people about what gun to buy, usually when an “issue” came up. What follows are my thoughts on the matter for the first time buyer. For a person who resides and travels mostly in the city or suburbs that can only purchase one firearm, I would recommend a handgun. The reasons are numerous and include the fact that one will want concealability. Many first-time gun buyers make the comment, “I don’t want to carry it, I just want something at home for protection.” There seems to be a fear or embarrassment about carrying a gun – don’t be that person. If your life is threatened when you are walking back to your car from the grocery store, the gun left in your bedroom will do you absolutely no good.
As far as buying your firearm, if you obtain your first (or second) gun at a licensed dealer, it will require a federal background check. Some states even require a separate state background check. Reasons for being disqualified from federal or state approval usually include felonies (crimes with a maximum penalty of more than one year in prison) and misdemeanor convictions for crimes with a maximum penalty of over two years in prison. Some misdemeanors, like domestic violence, will disqualify you from buying a firearm, regardless of what the penalty is for your state, as will being on probation for a DUI. If you are unsure of your legal status, consult an attorney. The other requirement for purchasing a gun is filling out a federal form, known as the 4473, which asks you legal questions and will be filled in with information about the gun you are purchasing (serial number, make, model, etc.).
Another option is to buy via private purchase, if it is legal in your state. In most states, guns can be purchased privately, but if you go this route, be sure that you take down all of the seller’s information from their driver’s license and keep it for your records – this is a good thing for you, the buyer, and for the seller. If the seller does not want to cooperate, it's probably best not to buy the firearm.
In conclusion, I recommend one of each of all five types of firearms in every home: handgun, .22 LR rifle, MSR, high-powered rifle, and pump shotgun. These firearms, which can be obtained for as low as $1,400 total for the five types, will give you the ability to handle almost any survival situation for defense as well as obtaining food.
The Double-Action Revolver
If you are only concerned about protection in the home, shopping, traveling, and if you are not really interested in becoming a firearms hobbyist, I would recommend the double-action revolver. A revolver has a revolving cylinder that rotates with every pull of the trigger. Due to this cylinder design, the revolver is very easy to load, very easy to determine if it is loaded, and in most cases does not have a manual safety. Don’t be alarmed that it has no manual safety, as the “double-action” actually incorporates one of the safest characteristics for carrying a loaded firearm. The term “double action” means that the trigger is pulled rearward for a significant distance, and as it is pulled rearward, the hammer begins to move rearward until the trigger reaches the back of what is known as the trigger guard, at which time the hammer drops forward (firing the gun). Unless a revolver is “double-action only” it can also be fired in single-action mode, by manually cocking the hammer back. This will enable you to fire more accurately because of the much shorter trigger travel.
There is another safety feature that prevents the hammer, when it is in the forward position, from striking the firing pin (which will fire the ammunition): the design of the revolver prevents the hammer from striking the firing pin even when the gun is dropped on the hammer. Not having a manually operated safety helps prevent a novice user from fumbling with around, which could cost someone his or her life when seconds count. Revolvers come in many calibers and have different barrel lengths. The different barrel lengths can contribute to the ammunition being fired more accurately as well as with more power – the longer the better, but the longer, the less concealable.
The most common revolver for concealed carry is the “snub-nosed” revolver, which fires the .38 Special cartridge. My wife carries a lightweight Taurus model 85 that I bought her 20 years ago, and she is very good with it. The snub-nosed revolver is one I recommend, especially if you fit into one of these categories: (a) I don’t want to practice shooting more than once per year, (b) I don’t want to become a gun enthusiast, (c) I only want one gun, or (d) some combination of a, b and c. Is the .38 Special enough? Well, that depends. The .38 Special was “king” as a backup gun and as an off-duty cop handgun for at least six decades – it's still popular today and is a great performer, especially with specialty ammunition loads.
Is the .38 Special a good choice if you live in northern Idaho and you like to pick raspberries? I would say a big “no” on that. Why? Well, it would be fine if you were attacked by a human while picking raspberries, but if you have a black bear problem, well, it's better than hitting the bear with a golf club. If you live in areas where bears can be an issue, then you need to look at other, larger calibers, and most experienced outdoorsmen and hunters in these areas only recommend a .44 Magnum cartridge or larger for the wilderness.
If you are willing to spend time at the range, or if becoming a firearms enthusiast looks interesting to you, then maybe the semi-auto pistol is the right direction for your first or second firearm. Although the term “semi-auto” is used in a derogatory fashion by today’s media, as if it is some new type of death ray that can take out as many people as a nuclear bomb, it simply refers to the function of the firearm as being self-loading during firing, and the technology for semi-auto firing was developed well over 130 years ago.
If you come against multiple attackers, a five- six-, or even eight-shot revolver will run out in a hurry and can be slow to reload each round of ammunition into each chamber in the cylinder (even with the aid of a device called a speed loader, reloads can be fumbled and slow). Remember, when someone tells you that six rounds is enough, what they never mention is that there is no guarantee that you will hit the target(s) every time. Even the most proficient experts miss under stress.
A semi-auto pistol can give you those extra rounds you may need, and many semi-auto pistols hold 10, 15, 20, and even more rounds, depending on the size of the magazines. Some states do not adhere to the 2nd Amendment and have limited magazine capacity to 10 or 15 rounds; the draconian state of New York limits you to only seven rounds for self-defense purposes. (Your local gun shop can advise you on regulations which will affect you.) The good news in any case is that semi-auto pistols can be reloaded quickly (with practice) no matter what the capacity is.
Caliber, Size and Weight
As far as caliber, 9mm is the most common and a great round for self-defense – the ammunition options for self-defense are almost limitless. Want something more powerful? Millions of people have chosen .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and even 10mm if they live in bear country, and there are many other options including “exotic” calibers, but keep in mind that in a survival situation, the most common caliber will be the most available.
As far as what size handgun to get, it depends on what you want it for. If it is strictly for concealed carry, then a small compact 9mm may work, but keep in mind that almost any handgun can be carried comfortably with the right holster, so, you may not want to sacrifice magazine capacity by purchasing a small carry pistol. Smaller calibers like .380 ACP are also an option. (SCCY makes a great and inexpensive 10-shot .380 ACP pistol called the CPX-4.
Why should go out and buy a rifle if you’ve already made up your mind that the “snubby” .38 revolver is going to be your pocket buddy for self-defense? Well, I will paraphrase something I heard a long time ago, which apparently came from an old cowboy out west: “A handgun is something you use to fight back to where a rifle is.” Rifles are for shooting long distance, and although I have been writing about self-defense, there are other reasons to own a firearm, one of which being food. I will set aside the self-defense purposes of a rifle for a moment.
There was a lot of talk in the media about food shortages due to COVID-19. Meat processing plants were being shut down at an alarming rate as workers became infected. But you’re a vegetarian, so who cares, right? Wrong. Even if you plan to grow the biggest garden to feed your family, what will you do when groundhogs, deer, wild hogs, and other animals begin to decimate it? You will waste a lot of .38 ammunition through that snub nose at 50 yards trying to dispatch the vermin which will destroy your garden in hours. Don’t like the idea of killing animals? How about the idea of your family starving because there is no food?
.22 LR Caliber Rifle
A .22 Long Rifle (LR) is the most common of the smallest calibers one can buy. This rifle is great for squirrel and rabbit hunting and can take down a groundhog with the right ammunition. The distance for accurate shooting is usually about 100 yards, but shooting at any game much past this distance will greatly reduce your chance of bagging dinner. There are also options for low-noise .22 ammunition, which only utilizes the primer charge and does not contain powder. This gives you the option of firing your .22 LR rifle without the loud report of standard .22 LR ammunition; your rifle sounds about as loud as a pellet gun, and this is great for small garden pests like chipmunks. Can a deer be killed with a .22 LR? Yes, but that would require a head shot in most cases. Can it be used for self-defense? Yes, but then again, a standard .22 LR rifle is not really the correct caliber for this purpose. Different configurations of actions are available like manually operated pump, lever, and bolt actions, and many semi-auto configurations (like in the photo of the Ruger 10/22 accompanying this article) can be purchased.
These rifles can be purchased in many manually operated configurations like lever action and pump action, but the most common is the bolt-action design, which are usually the least expensive. There are also many semi-auto designs in traditional hunting configurations, as well as MSR configurations, but for the money, and for taking down large game, the bolt-action is the way to go, especially for your first big rifle. Stores like Walmart have sales on Remington Model 770 bolt-action rifles for as low as $220! And that includes an adjustable scope that magnifies up to nine times! These rifles are chambered in .270, .308, .30-06, and any one of those will take a deer at 400 yards. All of those calibers are common, and this rifle is legal in every part of the U.S.A. Most of the deer my son and I have shot have yielded anywhere from 26 to 50 pounds of meat for small- to medium-sized deer – that’s a lot of meat and it's all organic. The rifle can also be used as a defensive rifle if you are being shot at from a great distance.
Modern Sporting Rifle
The Modern Sporting Rifle (MSR) is basically a semi-automatic rifle that fires medium- to large-caliber ammunition and feeds from magazines that have capacities from five to 100+ rounds. The most common magazine capacity for 5.56mm chambered rifles is 30 rounds. Again, as with pistols, some states have unconstitutionally limited citizens to 10 or 15 rounds, and many models of MSRs are not permitted in standard configurations in some states. MSRs have modern features which enhance shooting and transporting capabilities such as pistol grips, folding and retractable stocks, ventilated handguards, mounting options for lights and optics, a second forward grip, etc., and many of these features are the result of military advancements in firearms.
MSRs are built to withstand harsh weather conditions, are modular to totally customize for the user’s needs, and are designed to engage multiple targets quickly. Although MSRs can be the perfect hunting firearm for many types of game like deer, moose, and bear for putting dinner on the table, and they can also dispatch harmful predators like mountain lions or those that carry rabies, like wolves and coyotes. These rifles are also the best choice when your life is in danger from multiple armed attackers. In fact, the rifles look so intimidating that you may not have to fire a shot! There are dozens of types of MSR available, and the most popular are those derived from the AR-15 design.
This is a lightweight MSR that fires pistol-caliber rounds which were developed for semi-automatic handguns. These have a few advantages over rifle-caliber MSRs, depending on your circumstances. First, since these fire pistol ammunition, you can choose to have one in the same caliber as your semi-auto pistol. Like 9mm? No problem getting an MSR in that caliber, and this aids you in buying bulk ammo and keeping things simple. Other popular calibers are .40, .45 ACP, and 10mm. Second, some models will also use the same magazine design as your pistol, so if your handgun runs dry, you can use your rifle magazine in your pistol and vice versa. The third benefit is lack of over-penetration. If you are firing a pistol-caliber carbine in your house at an attacker, the chances of a stray round going through a wall and hitting an innocent bystander, either in your house or in your neighbor’s house, is much less than if you are shooting a high-powered rifle cartridge.
Shotguns are firearms which can fire multiple projectiles with each cartridge fired. The advantage to these for self-defense is that they are really intimidating, as the bores are very large when they are aimed. The other big advantage is that the multiple projectiles, called shot, spread out to cover a large area, so missing with a shotgun is a lot harder to do than with a rifle, although entirely possible. An armed attacker getting hit with 00 Buckshot is really getting hit with nine .33-diameter lead balls at once – this is devastating.
Shotguns can also shoot slugs, which are basically very large bullets, and these can be used for hunting big game, although the range is drastically shorter than with a high-powered rifle – usually about 100 yards. Shotguns also come in many operating modes like semiauto, bolt action, and lever action, but the most popular repeating design is pump action. Although one can purchase a single shot-, double barreled-, or over/under-designed shotgun, I would recommend sticking to pump action, as follow-up shots can be made easily, and there is very little chance of the gun jamming and malfunctioning when using shotgun shells of different sizes and powers – something which can be a concern with a semi-auto shotgun.
There are hundreds of pump-action models available, even some that are magazine-fed, but I would recommend that you choose a model which utilizes interchangeable barrels, and this recommendation is more hunting-related than self-defense-related. Since shotguns can be used to obtain “winged food from the sky,” in the form of ducks, geese, pheasant, grouse, different barrel lengths are needed for different types of hunting. For instance, if you want to use the shotgun to hunt deer, then a 24-inch rifled barrel designed for shooting slugs would be appropriate. Want to hunt geese? Then a 30-inch barrel can be ideal. If it's ducks you’re going after, then a 26-inch may be a good length. Then, when you are finished hunting, install an 18-inch barrel, and now you have a self-defense shotgun. It's like having multiple guns in one, and the Mossberg 500 and Remington 870 are two models that will do all of the above.
After The Purchase
Once you get a firearm, be sure to obtain a safe or lockable gun box to keep it out of reach of those you do not want to have access to it. Many options for handgun safes start as low as $30 and small long-gun safes can be purchased for as low as $140.
I would recommend that after buying your first firearm, you get instruction toward obtaining a concealed carry license. Some states have what is called “open carry,” and this does not require a license, but each state has different restrictions and may prohibit carrying openly in your car. Some states like Arizona, Alaska, West Virginia, and others have what is called 2nd Amendment carry, which means that no permit is required to carry concealed. In any case, you will need to get instruction and practice. I cannot count how many times I have heard that someone purchased a gun for self-protection and either only fired one box of ammunition, or never fired at all, just to leave it in the box, never to touch it again. Being familiar with your firearm, being proficient with it, and having it with you, is the only way this tool (a gun is a tool) can save your life.
This article was originally published in Be Ready! You can find the original magazine on the OSG Newsstand. If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.