matt | December 8, 2015
So, a fellow blogger posted a suggestion that we limit the types of guns available to the public based on features or mode of operation. To his credit, he laid out the three major uses for firearms, that is:
- Personal defense
This is refreshing because I find that many of these conversations start with people immediately assuming that hunting is the only “valid” purpose for owning a firearm.
Anyway, I challenged him to describe what features or mode of operation would make a gun “suitable”, because I don’t really see a way to do that. He said that he didn’t know enough about the specifics of how people use firearms in all of those markets to be able to offer guidelines. Hence, I wrote the following, which I hope other people may find useful:
For really small game, you’re generally going to use a rifle in .22 or .223. .223 is good for stuff about coyote sized. There’s probably an even split between semi-auto and non-semi auto rifles in this market. If you’re talking some markets, like folks who shoot prairie dogs, long range ARs in .223 pretty much rule this market segment.
For the next size up, you’re talking your more medium-sized game, including deer, antelope, and maybe even caribou, and you’re starting at stuff around the various .270 calibers, and probably topping out at your various .30 caliber cartridges. In common use here are: .30-30, .308, .30-06, and various .300 Magnum calibers. Bolt action rifles tend to dominate here, because they’re light and good value for the money. Less common are lever action rifles and semi autos, including the AR-10, essentially an AR-15 chambered in .308. I used to use a semi-auto rifle (AR-15 pattern in .30 Remington AR, which is somewhere between .30-30 and .308 in power level) due to superior ergonomics. The new ban forced me to change it to make it very uncomfortable to shoot in order to remain legal, so I bought a cheap .30-06 bolt action rifle. It’s not as comfortable to shoot as the original configuration of the .30 RAR, but it’s more comfortable than the current configuration. It’s also about 50% more powerful.
The next size up is for your big stuff, like your elk, buffalo, etc. For that, you’re talking really heavy stuff – .30 caliber and bigger, and generally a magnum. So, .30-06 is about the floor here. .300 Winchester Mag and .300 Weatherby Mag are probably the most common, and then there’s more esoteric stuff. Here, boltguns pretty much rule, because there are very few semi-autos which can handle these power levels without being ungodly heavy for the field.
There are also odd specialty cases. For example, Liz had been hunting deer in NY with a 7mm-08 (.308 necked down to .270) with good success, but when she went hunting Dahl’s sheep above the arctic circle, she had to buy a .270 Weatherby Magnum. Essentially, the same bullet, travelling twice as fast. The reason is that your shots in NY are about 300 yards max, but you’re talking 1000 yards when hunting various mountain sheep.
Now, all of the above is for the stuff we consider to be not dangerous. As a general case, they’re far away from you, and are extremely unlikely to charge you. You need power projected at a distance. Dangerous game is generally the opposite. Note that they don’t necessarily need to be carnivorous – just dangerous. There are a lot of territorial herbivores which are likely to charge you if you make them angry (I’m looking at you, Cape Buffalo).
In these markets, double rifles used to rule. It’s like a double-barrelled shotgun, except the barrels are rifled. You got two shots, and if that didn’t drop it, you were likely dead. Risk was somewhat mitigated by hunting in a group, and/or having gun bearers to give you another gun. Key points here were low powered or no scopes and VERY powerful cartridges. Fast target acquisition, with about 100 yards maximum range.
In more modern times, the doubles have ceded ground to large-bore semiautos. They’re accurate enough out to 100 yards and are fast-handling. A common setup for hunting the various feral hog varieties which inflict significant crop damage in the south is an AR in something like .450 Bushmaster with a day/night scope because they often hunt at night and need night vision gear. If the hog charges, you need to shoot it repeatedly until it stops, else it will lay you open with its tusks. Carrying a backup (a 1911 in .45ACP is traditional) with a flashlight which you can transition to in the case of a stoppage or a series of misses is a common practice (where legal to do so – some jurisdictions let you only carry one firearm).
Aside: There are calibers commonly used in Africa that are not commonly by used by Americans even when in Africa, because they we seriously restricted (effectively banned) by the 1934 National Firearms Act.
Aaand, shoguns. If you take it from waterfowl hunting (typically ducks), volume is more important than precision. What I mean by this is that, instead of one well-placed shot dropping a deer, you’re looking at several reasonably well-placed shots (less well-placed because the shot spreads) attempting to drop several ducks. In this market, whatever shoots the fastest has always been king. Double guns, pump guns, and now semi-autos pretty much rule. Semi-autos with pistol grips are increasingly common because of how much more easily they handle and how comfortable they are to shoot.
Aside: Semi-auto rifles and shotguns with pistol grips are banned in NY state. Remove the pistol grip and they’re totally legal.
Now, when you go from ducks to turkeys, you don’t need to shoot that fast, but rather than buy two guns, you’re likely to use the same gun for turkeys as for ducks. As a general case, you might change the barrel, but only if your duck gun barrel is excessively long.
Some folks hunt deer with shotguns with rifled slug barrels, mainly because hunting deer with rifles is banned in their locality.
Oh, almost universally, hunting regulations limit the number of rounds your magazine can hold, typically 4. I think an exception is made when hunting with revolvers (as they can hold 6, and limiting them to 4 is not practical), but can’t say for certain.
For this, I’m going to include all shooting sports, because you may not be familiar with them.
For general plinking, anything goes. You use whatever you feel like.
IDPA/IPSCC are shooting games designed around handgunnery. IDPA is based off production guns (like weekend car races where you race your daily driver) and IPSCC is based off the same thing.. kind of like NASCAR is. They guns bear a vague resemblance to something factory, but are otherwise super optimized and slicked up. Anyway, these are pretty well dominated by semi-autos in 9mm and .45 ACP., typically with as large magazines as can be fitted.
3-Gun is typically a pistol/rifle/shotgun competition. Pistols are as per IDPA, shotguns are generally semiautos (like the duck guns), but with extended magazines (so you need to reload less) or AK pattern SAIGA shotguns. Rifles are almost exclusively ARs. You could try to use a non-semi-auto, but you’d never even place because it’s a timed event.
Cowboy action shooting are like 3-Gun but based off cowboy guns. Revolvers, lever action rifles, and pump or lever actions shotguns. No semi-autos because they hadn’t been in common use yet (Magnificent Seven notwithstanding).
Long range shooting – here you’re talking heavy calibers (.338 Lapua and .50 BMG) at 1000 – 1500m. No particular action of rifle rules here, just caliber, quality, and accuracy.
When you’re not at home, your best strategy is to carry the most powerful gun, holding the most ammo, that you can. Pragmatism rules here, because it depends on what you’re worried about. In someplace like Alaska, you want a very heavy revolver (we’re talking about twice as powerful as Dirty Harry) because, you know, bears. In someplace a bit more civilized, a 9mm, .38Spl, or .45 ACP will work just fine. These are all over the place. I’d say semi-autos have a pretty hefty majority these days, and some folks carry lighter calibers than mentioned above, and a few carry heavier. I have a revolver in .38 Spl and a semi-auto in .45 ACP, but my license is restricted, so I basically am only allowed only carry to and from the range (lest someone try to jump me and take my firearms which are locked up in a box in the car, so I can’t stop them from doing so).
When at home, and portability isn’t really a problem, then it becomes an exercise in engineering tradeoffs. Firstly, handguns and handgun ammo sucks. A common axiom is that “handgun bullets are like aspirin – it takes several to do the job and they take awhile to work”. An overwhelming majority of people shot with handguns survive because, aside from the aforementioned nutty Dirty Harry calibers, they’re all pretty anemic.
Now, that said, irrespective of all laws, what I would say would be the best home defense gun pattern was a pistol-caliber short-barreled rifle. Think the old Tommy Gun, but semi-auto only (I’ll have notes on machineguns below). The issue with this is that the barrel is too short and therefore that one has been heavily controlled since the 1934 National Firearms Act. So, they had to extend the barrel by like 6″, which makes it not as handy for close combat.
The reason for choosing pistol ammo for home defense is because, as I said, it’s pretty weak. If you get hollow point or, even better, frangible rounds, it’s less likely to go through walls if you miss. You need lots of ammo because, when you have bag guys, you need to shoot them a lot. It’s more controllable and easier to shoot well than a pistol.
The next best thing is likely a shotgun, either pump or semi-auto. This is still less likely to penetrate (like pistol ammo), but is more powerful, and therefore a little harder to control. You also will get very few shots as compared to a pistol caliber carbine or rifle, unless you’re talking something exotic (and likely unreliable).
The final thing, which is actually the best thing if you don’t have any neighbors, but the most likely to send rounds sailing through all your walls and off into the night, is a semi-automatic rifle (aka an “assault rifle”). It’s rifle caliber, and therefore powerful, and you can generally get a lot of rounds in the magazine. A short-barreled version would be best, but, again, they’re heavily restricted after 1934.
For what it’s worth, my primary home defense gun is an AR-15 in .300 Blackout, which is better out of a 16″ gun than .223, and hits harder at sub 100m (and if you need longer range than that, it’s not really a home defense gun). But, then again, I don’t have neighbors nearby.
I should also note that pretty much all of the above, but especially home defense guns, are better off suppressed, because otherwise you’re going to have a hell of a ringing in your ears, and no one will be able to hear you. Rifle discharges in an enclosed space are no fun. Of course, suppressors are, you guessed it, restricted by the 1934 National Firearms Act.
These aren’t really super useful. Oh, they’re a load of fun, but even the military has been moving away from fully-automatic modes on general infantry rifles, because they waste ammo and you are sending more shots less accurately down range. Semi-auto rifles are emerging as the best balance, and automatic fire modes are being saved for dedicated squad automatic weapons and submachine guns. Personally, I have no issue with machine guns, or even with people owning machine guns (also heavily regulated by the 1934 National Firearms Act), but you’re only good with the guns with which you train, and I can’t afford the ammo bill of training with machine guns. So, a semi-auto gun is really the best balance, I think.
So, that’s the state of all the “market segments” (for lack of a better term) at the moment. I look forward to learning what of the above designs you would approve and what of them you would deny.
Oh, and as an aside, for all the “high powered” rifle talk on the news, they’re not. They’re actually about the LEAST powerful centerfire rifle cartridge in common use. The real heavy stuff is used for hunting.