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Guns of the COVID-19 pandemic: What to look for in your first rifle

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Things are looking a bit grim. You've never considered buying a firearm for self-defense, home-defense, or even sporting use, but now's the time. You head to the local gun shop and find things pretty well picked over and the guy behind the counter is doing his best to give you good advice, but he's got a limited inventory and he's been working 12 hour days for a week.

So, what should you consider when shopping for your first firearm when inventories are limited?

As with anything else in life, focus on the mission. Your needs, your goals, your situation; in other words what you need to accomplish with the firearm. Why do you need this particular firearm and how will it help you complete your mission?


FNH full sized AR on top and SBR below.

In a perfect world we might suggest a rimfire rifle as a beginner's piece, but things are not exactly perfect at this moment in time.

For our purposes here, most shooters would do well to find a mid-tier AR, also known as a modern sporting rifle, as a do-all platform for home defense. An off-the-shelf, 16-inch carbine will be fine, but an SBR, or short barrel rifle, is an ideal HD gun. (The problem with an SBR is that you need to file paperwork, pay $200, and wait for months before you can take possession of it. We'll talk a little more about that below.) To round out the carbine's capability, add a red dot sight, a few 30-round magazines and maybe a weapon light.

A shotgun can work wonders as a home-defense or survival weapon, but with their limitations, learning curve and the amount of misinformation about them; we will detail that in a separate post.

One drawback to most ARs is that they typically ship without sights. This allows shooters to customize the rifle to their own needs. A set of iron sights is probably the cheapest route, but a better option might be an electronic red-dot or holosight. Electronic sights such as these can also aid shooters that have eyesight problems and they work well in low-light situations. That is also the time of day when things tend to go sideways with regard to home defense. It's also why you may want to add a flashlight to your rifle.

Once you've got the ideal home-defense long gun setup, you might consider picking up a modern striker fired pistol in 9mm as a more concealable firearm to carry when you're away from home, if that's an option in your locale. For now, let's talk rifles.

Rifles for home defense

The rifle or carbine tends to be our go-to rifle for defensive purposes. They are generally the easiest firearms to shoot accurately and at greater ranges than a handgun or shotgun. The heavier weight and stability afforded by a proper butt stock will make them more accurate. This goes hand in glove with the longer barrels that mean more velocity, which generally means greater range.

If this is all semi new to you, you may wonder what is the difference between a rifle and a carbine. In general usage a carbine is a shortened version of a rifle.

This goes back to the 19th century when most general issue rifles had longer barrels than we typically see today. Firearm designers would often develop a shortened version of say a 24″ or 26″ barreled rifle that was between 16″ to 20″ for use by specialized troops such as cavalry. As firearms, ammunition and the nature of warfare developed the rifles got shorter and so did the carbines. A good example is the M16 series of rifles. Originally the rifles were equipped with a 20″ barrel, but troops such as paratroopers or Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRP) needed something shorter to save on weight or length. Early carbine versions of the M16 used barrels between 10.5″ and 16″ in length. This required a shorter gas system in most cases and for those of us looking at an AR type of weapon the distinction is important because some accessories such as hand guards and gas tubes are available in a specific length.

This carbine was considered state-of-the-art around the time Meatloaf topped radio charts with “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).” If that doesn’t make you feel old …

Rifles have a few disadvantages as well. They are not easily concealed on the person and if you don't have a sling, they're usually going to need two hands to transport it. HINT, you'll see this information again and keep it in your head for when some bozo tells you that you don't need a sling on your long gun.

There are misconceptions about penetration or more correctly, over penetration, when firing a rifle indoors. The truth is that some handgun calibers are worse when it comes to this than a rifle round such as 5.56 NATO. A counter to this argument is that if a round will not penetrate standard drywall, how effective will that be on a human attacker?

The biggest problem with firing a rifle, particularly if it's a full-size hunting caliber in 308 Winchester, 30-06 or the Magnum rifle calibers is that it will destroy your hearing indoors without a suppressor or hearing protection of some kind. Even the intermediate calibers such as 5.56 or 7.62 X 39 will do the same, so if you do not have a suppressor, it's not a bad idea to have some sort of hearing protection close by.


AR/M4: The semi-auto carbine or rifle is probably the ideal firearm to protect your homestead. The AR is the most popular example and it gives you the ability cover an area from arm's length to 500 yards, and beyond. It's magazine-fed and endlessly customizable for any role.

We all know them when we see them. The AR has been America’s fighting rifle since the 1960s. Ergonomic, accurate and user friendly; these rifles have set the standard. There are a plethora of manufacturers each producing dozens of models that are indistinguishable from one another by someone new to firearms. A quality rifle will not be cheap and a cheap rifle will not have the quality you deserve. By quality, we mean reliability, durability, and accuracy.

Avoid parts-kit-guns assembled from lower tier manufacturers. If you are buying a used one, look for signs of abuse or poor-fitting parts.


AK series: As iconic as the AR/M4 rifles are, the AK series may be even more so internationally. These rifles are known for their reliability, dependability and effectiveness. They rely on a different type of gas system to dampen recoil and increase reliability. Prices have climbed steadily over the years, but for the most part, the ammunition remains on the cheaper side.

SKS with detachable magazine

Similar to the AK series of rifles are the SKS rifles. With a fixed magazine, folding bayonet, no pistol grip and a reputation for rugged reliability, these were the go-to guns of peppers and survivalists in the 1980s and 1990s. They were a lot cheaper then (we saw them for as low as $69 out the door circa 1990) but for the prices they command these days, they are still a bargain in our book.

The biggest advantage to the AK and SKS series is that they most often ship with a highly usable set of iron sights.

One of SureFire’s early products, a Mini-14 with a laser aiming device. The helium/neon lasers weren’t exactly small, were they?

Ruger Mini-14: We have a love/hate relationship with this rifle. At one time they were an economical choice, but they cost as much or more than a mid-tier AR these days. Newer models have better accuracy and the only reliable magazines we have found are the OEM mags from Ruger. The reason we are mentioning them is because they may be one of the few available options during this time of slim pickings.

CZ Scorpion with pistol brace

PCC (Pistol Caliber Carbines): These are rifles chambered in a pistol caliber. Although not the author’s first choice for a fighting gun, they can fill that void if needed. Compared to pistols in the same caliber, there is less felt recoil, improved accuracy due to the stock, slightly better range and velocity over a handgun due to the increased barrel length. In addition to ARs, AKs and the Ruger PC carbine there are other options from CZ, Beretta, KRISS, B&T and several others.

Another rifle to add to this list would be the M1 Carbine. The 30 Carbine round is essentially a pistol cartridge designed to work in a rifle. They are pricier these days and a cheap one would be a sign of poor manufacturing standards.

A customized Marlin 1895 in 45-70. Lever guns are a great carbine alternative if semi-autos are not an option.

Lever-action rifles: If semiautomatic rifles are unavailable due to increased demand, or if you can't own one in your locale, the lever-action rifle is a worthy alternative. Henry Arms, Marlin, Winchester, Uberti and Rossi are the players here. Your ancestors may have used one to protect the home or for hunting purposes.

Before you dismiss them for not being in an intermediate military caliber, always keep in mind that if a rifle and caliber is designed and used for taking deer-sized game or larger; it is capable of stopping a human attacker as well.

You can find hunting calibers such as 30-30 Winchester, 38-55 Winchester, 35 Remington and 45-70 as well as Magnum handgun chamberings in 357 Magnum, 44 Magnum and 45 Colt. The weakest link with a lever-action is capacity as you are limited to magazine tubes that run the length of the barrel. 45-70 chambered rifles produce stout recoil. If this is your first time at a gun counter and someone suggests a 45-70, we suggest politely asking if they have anything in a more forgiving caliber.

Ruger bolt action 762

Bolt-action rifles: When your local shop is cleaned out of all of the above, they'll probably have bolt action rifles, mostly used for hunting or long range work or competition. Ammunition for long guns varies wildly and outside of a handful of very popular calibers, can be hard to find. 308 Winchester, 6.5 Creedmoor, and 300 Winchester Magnum are the three most well-supported calibers in bolt actions at the moment, and you won't go wrong with them if you're looking for a hunting gun, but bolt-action rifles aren't well-suited for home defense . For the most part, magazine capacity is lower than a lever gun, and so is the rate of fire. Bolt guns offer long range capability and excellent accuracy when combined with a good optic. Just be prepared to spend as much, or more, on your optic to get the most from the rifle.

On another note, if you are left with a bolt-action rifle for home defense in a full-sized rifle caliber, you will probably want to look for hollow-point, soft point or some kind of controlled expansion round to reduce the problem of over penetration. This ammo will be a bit pricier, but the good news is that it will be available.

It's always about the ammo

A note about the NFA

A rifle silencer.

There are two categories of firearms we are talking about here that fall under the purview of the National Firearms Act (NFA). Specifically this means short barreled rifles (SBR) and silencers. A short barreled rifle is a firearm equipped with a shoulder stock, designed to be fired from the shoulder with a rifled barrel less than 16″. A silencer or suppressor is a device that fits on the end of a firearm's barrel and reduces the sound signature.

While these attributes are highly desirable with regard to shooting a firearm indoors, there is a $200 tax imposed on their transfer by the federal government and a waiting period that can extend to over a year. You may not be able to lay hands on one or the other this time out, but keep them in mind for future reference.

The braced pistol

While technically not a rifle, some firearms have similar characteristics in outward appearance and in caliber. These firearms are built as pistols and rather then using a stock, they rely on an arm brace to stabilize the weapon so that it can be fired like a rifle. If you are brand new to the firearm scene this may seem stupid or confusing, but such is the nature of many of the laws that govern the ownership and use of arms.

Ammunition once again

The key to buying a firearm for the first time during a crisis is to obtain one with a decent supply of ammunition. If you can procure a Heckler & Koch VP-9, 4 magazines and a Colt 6920 with 6 Magpul P-Mags ready to go, that’s great. They are both useless without ammunition, though.

Even supplies of reloading components eventually feel the effects of a run on ammo. It’s just a matter of time.

If you find yourself in desperate times and need to arm yourself, you may need to source the ammunition first, but do so with a firearm in mind for that caliber. During a previous ammunition shortage when hoarding and gouging were far worse than it is during the COVID-19 rush we're seeing now, the only ammunition available in my area at a decent price in any quantity was 5.45 X 39.

Unfortunately we had no firearms chambered in that caliber and for a week or two we were considering picking up an AK-74, just to have a rifle with a decent ammo supply on hand for training. By the third week, the supply chain was in full effect again and  if it taught us anything it was to ensure we always had enough ammunition on hand.


AR carbine in 5.56

For your first defensive rifle we recommend sticking with intermediate calibers like 5.56/223 Remington, 7.62 x 39, 5,45 x 39 and 300 Blackout. Do be careful if you run 5.56 and 300 Blackout as 300 Blackout cases are formed from 5.56 brass. A 300 Blackout case can fit in the chamber of a 5.56 rifle. If it is fired it can result in destruction of the rifle and injury or death to the shooter.

Hollow point ammunition.

For military use, our troops need a round that maximizes penetration in order to penetrate cover and soft armor. In our case for home defense, this is less of an issue. Ammunition designed for hunting such as soft point or hollow point allows for expansion within the target which translates into creating a larger wound channel. The other positive to this is that it lowers the risk of over penetration should you miss your target and the round goes into a wall.

In pistol caliber carbines the minimum is 9mm, but the Magnum calibers such as a lever-action in 357 Magnum and 44 Magnum are downright controllable and are fun to shoot.

PROOF Research Glacier TI in 6.5 PRC, Nightforce ATACR 7-35×56 F1, CkyePod bipod, SilencerCo Omega suppressor.

If you have to go bigger due to availability, 308 Winchester or 7.62 NATO is not a bad choice with the main disadvantage being that the rifles will be heavier, and so is the ammunition. There is also the risk of over penetration within an apartment building or suburban home. Really hold off on these unless you are defending a ranch or rural property and may be engaging attackers at extended distances. The same goes for old military surplus rifles that may be available. Enfield, Mausers and Mosin-Nagants are fine rifles for what they are, but very unwieldy indoors and the ammunition may be hard to come by in these times. They do meet our criteria far as their capability, but only buy one for an incident like this if that's all that's left and if you can get at least 200 rounds to go with it.

Lastly, with any firearm that you are willing to stake your life on, you must train with it. This may be difficult for some right now with most indoor shooting ranges closed down and many outdoor ranges or tracts of BLM land being made inaccessible to prevent gatherings of 10 or more people but there are opportunities out there. You may just need to put in a little more effort to find them. Then you will need to put the effort into your training so that you can hit your target consistently. Only the hits matter in a gunfight.

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