Before I get started, I want to disclose that, for those who may not know, I am the same Mike Chester who owns and operates Chet’s Firearms which is featured elsewhere on VT. I say this for two reasons: First, I am a bit biased as I want to sell you a gun, and second, I have a bit of experience in making these recommendations.
Having said that, I believe that not everyone should own a gun. I will explain this in more detail further along in this article.
There are many reasons that people want to own firearms. They can be grouped into four basic categories. Some people may fall into more than one or even all of them.
Collectors – These are people who are generally interested in the history of firearms or hope to make a profit later by buying unique or rare guns.
Hunters – People have been hunting since before recorded history as a necessary source of food for themselves and their families. In some places this is still the case. In the US, most hunters now hunt for sport rather than necessity but most still eat what they kill. Trophy hunting is very controversial and is a topic that is outside of the scope of this article.
With all of the talk about the tragic mass shootings lately, many people have suggested that AR platform rifles are only good for combat situations and are not used by hunters. This is not true at all. AR platform rifles are very often used by hunters as they offer many advantages.
They are relative light and can be inexpensive. They are accurate and since they use a modular construction, they can easily be configured to meet the requirements for a particular hunter or hunt. Various optics can be added or removed from the top rail. They are available in many calibers and you can swap out uppers to change calibers while keeping the same feel of the trigger by using one lower.
They are a relatively easy gun to shoot as the buffer system absorbs most of the recoil and modern ARs are very reliable. Many locales limit capacity for hunting so you are not permitted to use the high capacity magazines, but small capacity magazines are readily available. The most common round for the AR-15 is the .223/5.56. Before the military adopted this as the standard combat round it was used by varmint hunters. It still is.
Various shooting sports – This mostly involves various forms of target shooting and can be as simple as shooting a can off a fencepost or can involve competitions involving extreme accuracy and/or speed with one or more guns. Competitive shooters usually spend a lot of money to achieve the extreme accuracy needed for some of these events and to perfectly fit the gun to their hands. I can only dream about shooting like that but my brother is a nationally ranked bench rest shooter. He spent more on his scope than most people spend on a rack full of guns, but at his level if your groups are not less than ½ inch, you don’t qualify. He also has to replace his barrel about once a year to maintain the accuracy he needs at that level.
Most people don’t shoot at the elite level and don’t need to spend that kind of money to just go to the range on Saturday. A basic rifle or pistol with open sights or a basic scope is all that they need.
The number of people involved in shooting competitions is rapidly increasing and it is a good clean fun sport for men, women, and even sometimes young teens. A 13 year old girl has won more than one national 3 gun competition. She is a highly respected competitor. I shouldn’t need to say this, but I will anyway; guns are not toys and children should only operate them with proper training and under adult supervision.
Personal defense – This is the area where there is the most disagreement. Do you really need a gun to protect yourself and your family? If so, what kind of gun? This is a very personal decision and no one can make the decision but you. I can, however, give you some guidelines.
As I stated earlier, not everyone should own a gun. Having a gun in your hand gives you an enormous responsibility, that of deciding life and death. A lot of people make the mistake of believing that by simply showing that they have a gun, the bad guy will be scared off and they won’t need to actually use it. Sometimes that is true but you cannot count on it. Every year, many people are killed with their own gun when they are unwilling to shoot it to protect themselves and the bad guy takes it away and shoots them.
Basically, it comes down to this; You need to decide for yourself if you would be willing to kill another human being to save yourself or a loved one. While no one knows the answer to this until faced with the situation, you should have a pretty good idea that you could shoot. Otherwise you are safer without a gun.
There is a not so small legal detail I should cover. I am not a lawyer, but as it was explained to me, in a self defense situation, your intent should be to stop the attacker, not kill him or her. Now in stopping him or her they may die, but that should not be your “intent.” This may seem like a small detail, but as it was explained to me it may make the difference between a finding of justifiable homicide and going to prison.
One other detail, shooting scenes on TV and in the movies are fictional. In most cases, the person does not immediately fall dead when shot. A phrase is often used in training that says, “A person is easy to kill, but hard to stop.” What does this mean? Let’s say an attacker is coming toward you with a knife. You shoot him in the heart. He will die, but after the blood flow to his brain is cut off by the hole in his heart, the attacker will remain conscious for 10-20 seconds. This gives him more than enough time to inflict a fatal wound on you. It is beyond the scope of this article to get into the details of projectile weight and velocity and their effects but you may want to look at some of this information in determining a choice of weapon.
Many people have asked me what gun to buy for home defense or for carry purposes. Again, this is a personal choice and may be different for different people.
For home defense I usually recommend a handgun or a shotgun. Some experts recommend against a shotgun while others suggest one. I am with the second group. Load the shotgun with shells with small pellets like used for bird or rabbit hunting not double aught buckshot. This limits you to a relatively short range, but if you are inside your house, you will be close enough that it will be devastating.
Larger shot or using a rifle can cause the projectile to go through the attacker, through your outside wall, through your neighbor’s wall and into your neighbor’s child. Aside from not wanting to hurt your neighbor’s child there is also the legal ramifications. If that should happen, you would be guilty of manslaughter.
Legally you are responsible for whatever that bullet does, no matter your intent, even if the first person that the bullet passes through is determined to be justifiable. If you use a handgun, be sure to choose a defensive hollow point ammo. It will mushroom out upon impact with your intended target, do more internal damage and be less likely to pass through with enough energy to do further harm.
All states allow use of deadly force in protection of your life, but the criteria as to what constitutes a reasonable fear of death varies from state to state. Study your local laws. Many states have what is called the “castle doctrine” which in simple terms says that if someone has broken into your home, you can legally presume that your life is in danger. He does not actually have to attack you.
No state allows use of deadly force to protect property where life is not threatened. For example, if you see someone stealing your car, you cannot legally go outside and shoot at him.
If you decide that you want to have a gun for protection, I can’t advise this strongly enough, get professional training on handling it and get practice shooting it. You don’t want to touch your gun for the first time when you need to use it.
This brings me to how to select a handgun for carry or home protection which may be the same gun or two different ones. Choose a gun dealer that will let you handle many guns to find one that feels comfortable in your hand. If possible arrange to shoot several guns prior to purchasing one. Many gun ranges have a variety of guns you can rent while there and you can try various ones before deciding on one to buy.
The next two options you need to decide are caliber and frame size of the gun. In general larger frame guns are easier to handle, but less concealable and heavier to carry. You may need to find a compromise between the two for a carry gun. The laws of physics dictate that a lighter weight gun will have more recoil than a heavier one, other factors being equal. The longer barrels will result in more accuracy and velocity but since most defense situations are at very close range and are usually a “point and shoot” situation, those may not be major concerns.
For a gun used only for home defense, or as a “truck gun,” I recommend a full size service style handgun like you see on a policeman’s hip. They are easier to handle than a smaller gun and have lots of stopping power.
For carry, it gets a bit more complicated. You want to select a gun and holster combination (never carry a gun without a holster as that can be very dangerous) that you feel comfortable wearing all day. A gun won’t do you any good if it is left at home because it is too heavy or bulky to carry.
Most experts suggest a minimum caliber of 9mm though with some of the newer hotter loads, the .380 is now considered a viable option by many. Try guns of different calibers and buy the largest caliber that you feel comfortable with. Be sure to try the caliber and frame size combination that you will be carrying. Load it with high quality defensive ammunition. Expect to pay about $1.00 or more per round for this. That sounds like a lot but you won’t use this except in emergency situations so it does not amount to a large investment.
One quick note about that, most practice shooting at the range will be with low cost full metal jacket ammo, but you should shoot at least a few rounds of the expensive defensive ammo just so you know how it feels and performs. That knowledge is worth the cost.
For a carry gun, I suggest one with a fairly heavy trigger to prevent accidental discharge. This may sound counterintuitive, but I also suggest one without a safety. In an emergency situation, you don’t want to add an extra step that you have to remember. This is where the heavier trigger comes into play; you want a gun that will only shoot when you really want it to.
For this reason, I don’t suggest a single action style of gun such as the venerable 1911 platform that has to be cocked before firing. This advice is intended for newer shooters. Many experienced shooters carry and swear by their 1911s. They have to carry it one of two ways either un-cocked, or “cocked and locked.” (the gun is cocked, but the safety is on) These shooters train drawing, cocking the gun, or turning off the safety until it becomes a natural response that they don’t need to think about.
Revolver, or semi-automatic? Both can be a viable choice for a carry weapon. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Most policemen now carry semi-automatics as they often feature large capacities which may be needed in a firefight with bad guys. They are also much quicker to reload as you simply drop the empty magazine out and put in a loaded one and you can continue firing. Even with a speed loader, the revolver takes longer to reload.
For the civilian, if you are ever in a situation where you need more than 5-6 rounds, you are probably going to die anyway so that extra capacity is usually not going to help you very much.
Modern semi-automatics are very reliable but they have more moving parts and need more care and cleaning to function properly. A typical carry style revolver holds 5 or 6 rounds and has few moving parts so it is considered more reliable. Some people mistakenly believe that they are impossible to jam and will work even if caked with dirt. Though they are more tolerant of poor cleaning and harder to jam they still need proper care to function properly.
Some revolvers designed for carry also have a shrouded hammer so it won’t get caught on clothing. The semi-automatic has a slide that moves back over your hand each time it is fired and allowance must be made for this action. If you were to fire it while in a coat pocket, for example, you would get off one round but the slide would probably get caught up in the fabric and the gun would no longer function. A revolver would be more likely to remain useful.
A quality revolver usually will cost a bit more but, if properly cared for, will last for several generations. Semi-automatics will eventually need replacement of springs and ejectors. These are relative easy jobs so that is not much of a concern. The semi will have a bit less felt recoil when shooting than a revolver of the same size as in the semi, some of the energy goes into cycling the slide rather than being passed onto the shooter’s hand.
The other factor you may wish to consider is the action of the handgun. Both revolvers and semi-automatics come in three basic action configurations: single action only, double action only, and single/double action.
In the single action Only guns, (SAO) the hammer must be cocked before the gun can be fired. If you try pulling the trigger without cocking the gun, nothing happens. Other than those that carry 1911 style guns as I described above, these are not usually used for carry.
In double action Only guns, (DAO) the hammer cannot be cocked. Each trigger pull pulls the hammer all the way back until it reaches the point where it falls to fire the gun. This is a very good style of action for a carry gun as it requires a determined pull on the trigger to fire and for each shot, the pull is the same.
Single/double action guns: (SA/DA) This style of action combines both of the above. The gun can be fired with or without being cocked though in the cocked position, the trigger is much lighter and does not require as strong of a pull to fire.
Here, the revolver and the semi-automatic behave differently.
With a revolver, after a shot is fired, whether the gun is cocked or not, the hammer remains down and the next pull of the trigger is double action unless you cock it again.
The semi-automatic is just the opposite. When the gun is fired, the slide coming back cocks the hammer so subsequent shots are single action with it automatically cocking itself each time. Since the trigger is much lighter when it is cocked more care must be taken to prevent an accidental discharge. Some inexperienced shooters have been known to empty the gun when they are trying to only shoot one round as they don’t realize that with the recoil and the more sensitive trigger they keep pulling the trigger.
Many people carry this action handgun because it is more versatile. If you need a more precise shot and have the time, you can cock the gun, get a precise aim, and shoot more accurately with the lighter trigger pull, but it can still operate in double action if needed quickly. The major disadvantage is that you need to learn to shoot with two entirely different trigger pulls on the same gun.
There is also one other type of action used on some semi-automatic pistols, striker fired. This type of pistol does not have a hammer. Instead it has a rod called a striker that is fully contained within the slide. This striker has a spring around it that is under a partial tension all of the time trying to push the striker forward. The firing pin is the end of the striker rather than being a separate part as with a hammer fired pistol.
When the trigger is pulled, the striker and spring are pushed back until the spring reaches full tension where it releases firing the gun. This is considered a double action only gun though it feels different than a hammer fired DAO gun.
The trigger pull required is less than a hammer fired gun in DA but heavier than a hammer fired in SA mode. Every trigger pull is the same. Different components can be installed in this system to lighten or increase the trigger pull, though care should be taken to not lighten it too much in a carry gun. This can result in accidental discharges which can be disastrous.
Whatever style and caliber you choose, buy a quality gun. There are many well know name brands that can be trusted, but there are some lesser known companies that also build quality guns. Often these sell for less just to find a place in the market.
Before buying a brand that you are not familiar with do some research. There are many publications that test firearms and publish reviews. Some may be tainted by advertising revenue but usually they are fairly accurate. If you are dealing with a reputable dealer he or she can often make good recommendations, though, again, some less scrupulous dealers will try to sell you the model with the highest profit margin or up-sell you into a higher priced gun than you really need.
If reading reviews online don’t put too much faith into a single review. No matter how good or bad a product is there will always be a few who love or hate it for no apparent reason. (this actually applies to all online reviews of products, not just guns)
One other thing I need to mention concerns safe storage of a gun in your home. Guns used for any other purpose than home defense should be kept unloaded in a lockable gun safe or cabinet.
The home defense gun presents a bit of a dilemma. In order to be of use, it must be loaded and available, but a loaded gun just sitting around can pose a danger especially if children are present. I usually recommend a single gun safe that is locked and opens by sensing your fingerprint or entering a combination. The fingerprint system is faster and you don’t have to remember the combination while in a stressful situation, but fingerprint recognition is not perfect. The loaded gun is kept inside and the safe is located where you can easily access it.
I have only scratched the surface here, but I hope that this is helpful.
One somewhat related question I have recently been asked is about possible changes in the current gun laws. I don’t have a crystal ball, but experience tells me that there probably will be some small changes like Florida increasing the purchase age on so called “assault rifles,” but I don’t expect a whole class of guns to be banned. There is somewhat of a run on AR style guns now as some people fear a ban. Even if this were to happen and the US adopted the California and New York restrictions, we can still build rifles that are functionally identical but with a different appearance that are legal. I have one pictured in my current VT offerings. It looks odd at first but is actually quite pleasant to shoot.
So far, I am still able to easily get the more commonly used calibers and features, but some of the larger calibers and more unusual ones are in short supply. Want a bump stock? Forget it unless you have money to burn. All of my wholesalers sold out one day after the Las Vegas shooting.