Friday, April 24, 2020

The personal defense rifle, part 1: a few thoughts

(EDITED TO ADD:  This article was intended as a stand-alone piece, but readers asked a lot of questions, so I added two follow-on articles.  The first deals with specific reader questions, and the second with ammunition selection.)

I mentioned a while back that I'm upgrading a few AR-15-type rifles for friends.  In the process, I've had the opportunity to ask them why they're upgrading various features, and what they want to do with the rifles.  Their answers have been illuminating.

All of them want to use the rifles as personal defense tools, in case of need;  they see the growing political and social tensions in this country as worrying, and foresee a time when they might have to defend themselves and their families against rioters invading their hitherto peaceful suburbs, or as a defensive tool if the family has to "bug out" to a safer location.  They want to take their standard entry-level AR-15's and equip them to be more suitable for that task.  However, to my mind, they're ignoring the most fundamental aspects of any defensive weapon.  Those can be summed up in two questions:

  1. How well can you shoot it?
  2. How well can you maintain it and keep it shooting?

The first question isn't as simple as it looks.  It's easy to say, "I can get rounds on target out to 500 yards" - but that's probably not true in all circumstances.  On a square range, on a calm, sunny day, with no interference or distractions, and a well-braced position, and using good optics, perhaps you can.  Now, take a wild, stormy, windy day, with you out of breath, panting and puffing, sweat running down your forehead and into your eyes (having just run a couple of blocks to get away from trouble, with "bad guys" in the offing who are after you, and your family bunched behind you with the kids screaming in fear because they don't know what's going on), and you with just "iron sights" or a red dot sight on your close-combat carbine, and no time to take up a settled, stable shooting position . . . now make that critical shot, at whatever range.  Go ahead.  It's only your life at stake, and your families' lives.

The second question requires more than just owning a rifle.  You have to get to know it and its parts, learning which may break and require replacement, and which are more robust and reliable.  In the military, you can rely on a unit armorer, but in the civilian world you have to rely on a gunsmith who may be a long way from you.  Furthermore, if trouble arises, you may not have time to get to him.  You should be able to detail-strip your piece, and keep a stock of basic spares on hand with which to repair any breakages.  This is basic stuff.  (What's more, if your need for a defensive rifle is likely to be more than theoretical, you should have at least two of them, so that if one breaks, you can send it to the gunsmith for repair without being left defenseless.)

The late, great Jeff Cooper wrote the superb book "The Art of the Rifle" (which every serious rifle shooter should own and study, IMHO).

In it, he said this:

The object of the practical rifleman is the achievement of first-round hits, on appropriate targets, at unknown ranges, from improvised firing positions, against the clock.

That's a pretty good definition of what it takes to be a rifleman, IMHO.  If you can do that, you're good to go.  If you can't . . . not so much.  Therefore, before worrying about what modifications to make to your rifle, and what gadgets and gizmos to hang on (or off) it, get the basic skills right first.  That means getting instruction from a qualified, competent source;  expending many rounds in training;  and developing your skills to the point where you can accomplish Cooper's requirements, if not on demand, at least some of the time.  By then, you'll know enough to be able to figure out what equipment will make your job as a rifleman easier and more practical (versus simply looking "cool" or "tactical" or whatever).

It takes a lot of effort to attain the status of "practical rifleman", as defined by Cooper.  For civilian shooters, it's even harder, because we don't have military instruction and taxpayer-subsidized ammunition.  I suggest one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to start is to attend a Project Appleseed course - if possible, more than one of them.  You'll learn something every time.  The .22 Long Rifle round they recommend for training is also very challenging at longer ranges or in stronger winds.  If you can master it, within its practical range, under most weather conditions, you'll be a better shooter for it.  Having mastered the Project Appleseed curriculum, if you can afford it, a rifle or carbine class (or more than one) at a major shooting school such as Gunsite, Thunder Ranch (where I've trained) or a similar institution is highly recommended.  After such instruction, it'll take time, effort and dedication to keep your skills honed (as well as a decent ammo budget, I'm afraid!).

Assuming you've received appropriate and adequate training, and have mastered "the art of the rifle", we can look at useful equipment to mount on your weapon for defensive use.  I have strong personal preferences in this regard, based on my own military and civilian combat experience on the African continent.  Others will have their own opinions, so don't take mine as gospel.  At any rate, here's what I consider important in an AR-15-style rifle or carbine.

  • Your basic, unadorned rifle should be able to shoot at least 2" groups at 100 yards from a firm, rested position.  That's the fundamental, mechanical, intrinsic accuracy you need.  Your rounds will impact within a circle up to 2" across, around your point of aim at that distance (i.e. within an inch to either side of it, or up or down from it).  That also means that at longer practical ranges, they'll hit within the span of the human torso;  for example, at 300 yards (which Jeff Cooper considered - and I agree - to be a maximum practical range for most civilian rifle shooters), your bullets will impact around your point of aim within a circle 6" across.  At 500 yards, the circle will be 10" across.
  • Equip your rifle with a stock, pistol grip and forward hand guard that fit your body and are comfortable to use.  Since everyone's different, you'll have to experiment to find which options you prefer.  I've standardized on Magpul for my needs, as have many in the shooting community, because they offer very ergonomic solutions.  YMMV, of course.
  • You'll need a sight suitable for the conditions in which you expect to use the rifle.  A red dot or prismatic sight has been proven effective in combat by many armed forces out to 200-300 yards (although it's not very useful beyond that range).  A telescopic sight, particularly with an illuminated reticle, can provide longer-range accuracy while substituting for the red dot sight at lower magnification settings at shorter ranges.  Choose the sight that will best suit your operating environment.  (I usually recommend a good-quality red dot sight, such as the Aimpoint Patrol Rifle Optic, as a general purpose solution.  If that's too expensive, the Primary Arms SLx red dot sight is basically a clone of the PRO at a rather lower price point.  There's an almost infinite selection of scopes out there if you prefer that option.)
  • You'll need backup iron sights in case your primary sight malfunctions or is rendered ineffective.  These can be mounted in line with your primary sight, and "co-witnessed" through its optics, or they can be offset to one side on canted mounts.  I regard them as essential, having had too many items of equipment fail at just the wrong moment.  Others say they aren't necessary.  You pays your money, and you takes your choice.  (I use Magpul's MBUS [plastic, lower cost] or, for preference, MBUS Pro [steel, more expensive] backup sights.  The MBUS Pro is also available in an angled offset version, or you can mount the standard sight on an angled offset base.  There are many alternatives out there.)  Remember, too, that you need to zero those backup sights!  They won't automatically be on target just by installing them.  I zero mine at 50 yards (which equates to a 200-yard zero as well from the AR-15 platform) as a good general-purpose setting.
  • A good trigger is important, but you don't have to spend an arm and a leg to get one.  In AR-15-style rifles and carbines, the single-stage ALG Advanced Combat Trigger ($69 - my personal choice) or, if you prefer a two-stage trigger, the Larue Tactical MBT-2S ($80) are all most shooters will ever need.  You can spend $200-$300 on bigger-name triggers, but I question whether they're worth their added cost.
  • A light of some kind is a very useful accessory if there's any likelihood of needing to use your rifle at night.  You shouldn't be shooting at a target you can't identify (unless that target is already shooting at you, of course!).  There are many weapon lights out there, and you should pick one that's of suitable power for your needs, at a price you can afford - but remember, you get what you pay for.  There's a reason why established brands such as Surefire, Streamlight and Olight have come to dominate the field, despite their relatively high cost.  They've earned their reputation the hard way.  Take note, and be willing to spend what it takes to get a good-quality light.
  • You may find a forward grip to be useful, particularly if your AR-15 has a slimline metal handguard that allows heat from the gas system to pass through to the area where you hold it.  You can buy covers for the handguard to protect your hand from the heat (my preference, because they're less bulky and heavy), or use a vertical or angled foregrip to remove your hand from the heat source altogether.  There are many such grips available from multiple vendors:  here, for example, is Magpul's selection.  Choose whichever suits you.

That's about it, as far as I'm concerned.  Add your choice of options in those categories, and you're good to go.  However, I'll add one word of caution.  If your rifle is too heavy, it'll become a burden rather than a useful companion.  Light weight is important.  I therefore select accessories with that in mind, and will almost always take a lighter option over a heavier one.  I suggest that your fully loaded and equipped AR-15 rifle or carbine need not weigh more than 8-9 pounds, and can weigh substantially less if you can do without some of the bells and whistles.  The Bushmaster Minimalist (sadly no longer available, but reviewed here) came in at an unadorned 6 pounds even, and one can build an equivalent weighing no more (or even less) than that by careful selection of components.

I hope this article has provided some food for thought.  If you'd like to contribute your suggestions, please do so in Comments.


(EDITED TO ADD:  I've had a number of questions via e-mail about this article that deserve an answer.  I'll write two follow-up articles next week, responding to reader questions and discussing ammunition selection.)


John in Philly said...

We went to an Appleseed, learned a bunch, met great people, and had a good time.
The compartment in the Magpul grip is perfect for spare batteries for the sight and light. (I don't know if every Magpul grip has a compartment with a lid)
Thank you for sharing your knowledge and your experience.

McChuck said...

Combat shooting over the previous two decades has reinforced a few truths. (Military snipers are a whole different topic, of course.)

Rifle fire beyond about 200 meters is generally ineffective except to suppress. Rifle fire fails to suppress beyond about 400 meters. (The Hajjis have learned this. That is why they kick off engagements at less than 50 meters, or over 500.)

Red dot sights are quite effective, especially in close combat. The first one to get the muzzle on the target and pull the trigger gets to live.

Magnified scopes are generally used for target identification, and greatly help with "shoot/don't shoot" scenarios. The suck for close combat, though. Overall, binoculars are more useful. (Again, military sniping is a different topic.) (Using your scoped rifle to identify a target is like using the flashlight on your pistol to see in the dark.)

Horatio Lust said...

Good article. I have one suggestion - Replace the AR-15 with an AR-10, and now we're talking

STxAR said...

When I competed in high power rifle and service rifle competitions, that 2 MOA really is obvious.

Snapping in is good way to learn to shoot your rifle. Spending time with it, my wife used to say fondling it, were valuable. There are tons of videos showing the function of your rifle on cutaways.

Don't rush all the steps together when learning to use it, everything takes time. Hurry makes for bad habits. So start practicing now.

Learn your positions until they are easy to assume. Almost every hasty position has elements of the main ones. Then do some pushups, jump rope, or side straddle hops to simulate running, and assume the position to see how a high heart rate impacts your aim. Get in shape now.

Run scenarios through your mind, and decide what you will and will not engage. Do the mental math now, before you have no choice, clank up and get overrun.

Get your family on board with the training. At the least get them to observe areas around and behind you as you engage so they can warn of additional threats. Practice that. Now.

Do the best you can with what you have. And start right now.

There is a wealth of info out there to help your family (small unit) work through a lot.

Tom in NC said...

Good advice all around - my only addition to your list would be a good quality sling, especially in the home/family defense role where you may need both hands free but don't want to separate yourself from your rifle. Just want to make sure that the sling doesn't get hung up on things while you are maneuvering around things.
And spending time on training using both iron sights and whatever optics you have is more valuable than a lot of gadgets hanging on the gun. I took the Thunder Ranch Urban Rifle course while Clint was still in Texas, and he wouldn't allow red dot sights in the class at that point (yep, it was that long ago!). He has a new edition of his book, Urban Rifle 2, that is a nice primer for anyone getting started with a rifle.
A couple other sources for good rifle training are John Farnam, who travels around the country, and the Sig Academy in NH.
Whatever your source for training, practice is key! Enough is needed so that manipulation of the weapon is automatic, freeing your brain to work on countering the threat you're facing.

Tsgt Joe said...

Palmetto State Armory sold an Enhanced Polished Trigger (EPT) for around $30-$40 which I put on an AR with a horrid trigger. It definitely seemed a lot better to me.
You mentioned shooting conditions, to demonstrate that once to my sons, after a short shooting session at the family farm, we went on a run over hill and dale ending back at the range. None of us could hit anything offhand and weren't much better from a rest. I can just imagine being scared spitless and trying to make good decisions let alone implement them.

Unknown said...

Eh, most of my formative experience was with shotguns, so I don't like pistol grips.
The easiest way to have natural point of aim, is (starting with a solid foundation and good stock weld) having your sight eye, dominant hand, and supporting hand all in one line pointing directly at the target.

I grant that there are sound mechanical biomechanical reasons for pistol grips to be common.
They simplify the design, shorten the weapon, help control recoil, make reloading much faster, and I'm sure several other good things.
But for quick target acquisition and first shot placement, I'd really rather not.

(I'd also argue that red dots and the like are an attempt to compensate for the high eye relief associated with pistol grip designs. If you're already looking straight down the top of the barrel through iron sights, close range optics are, IMO, a solution in search of a problem.)

waepnedmann said...

I agree on snap shooting with a pistol grip,
They are not as quick as a shot gun's straight stock.
Having learned snap shooting by picking out individual birds from an exploding covey of quail before they get to cover or out of range builds quick reflexes. Sometimes I could get three before they were gone by slam firing my Model 12 in 20 gauge.
Of course, Jerry Miculek, using an FAL, could shoot the heads off of the whole covey while in they were in flight and reload before the first one hit the ground,

Paul said...

I have a 30-06 bolt I can make clover leaves with at 100 yards.

I have at the range picked up strange rifles (M1, 30-06, savage 22, and others) and put holes in the bulls eye.

I have always been lucky killing things (deer, squirrels, rabbits, pheasant and turkey) so we can see how that will work if needed.

Need to get out more and try some of the ones I have just gotten, but I am sure I can get them on paper pretty quick.

Having never have been in combat who really knows what might happen but I like to think I am about as ready as I can be.

JackL said...

All excellent observations on individual marksmanship.

At what point do you think squad-level tactics become applicable?

(Serious question. I have zero infantry background; wrong service entirely.)

STxAR said...

Paul, read up on the jager corp that the German army fielded late in the war. Those 50 plus year old hunters were deadly dangerous. No buck fever, and very good shots. You probably are as ready as you care to be.

Peter said...

@JackL: If you want to survive in a nasty situation, squad tactics should be a primary consideration - if you have a squad available. I reckon a lone rifleman doesn't stand much of a chance against organized opponents. If the enemy is a bunch of urban gang-bangers, the odds improve, but don't forget that many of the larger gangs are deliberately instructing their younger members to enlist for a four-year term to get weapons training and combat experience, then bring that back to the 'hood with them. That's likely to make things rather more fraught if you run into such a gang. The cops already have, from time to time.

Sadly, for most of us, we don't know enough trained, equipped, competent people to form a worthwhile battle squad. In a disaster situation, those who survive will gain experience rapidly, but there won't be many of them left to form squads! The "sheep" will be winnowed by fire. It always happens - I've seen it on more than one occasion in Africa, and the same happens in South America. The hardest, toughest, most ruthless will make it. Those who try to be overly nice . . . won't.

Cincinnatus said...

I'm pretty find of low power variable scopes like the Vortex 1-6 Strike Eagle. At low power, it's reticle acts like a dot.

I don't suggest AR10 pattern rifles. In general I find them less reliable than AR 15 pattern rifles.

JackL said...

@Peter: Thank you for confirming my suspicions. Unfortunately they're pretty grim.

I'm actually pretty well armed, confident out to 200 yards and with a reasonable chance at 300 (assuming that performance in the real world is considerably worse than on the range). I know probably half a dozen other people whom I'd pretty much trust with high-powered small arms. Most of them were either from my former branch of service or a closely related one, or from the naval support contracts where I've spent most of my working life.

But note that none of this has anything to do with infantry. Just to sweeten the situation, I'm solidly middle-aged and half crippled. All of this suggests that my best hope of survival is to play to my strengths and find ways to make the military and related skills I do retain useful as force multipliers. Neither electromechanical engineering nor miscellaneous niche security skills are entirely useless.

So yeah, I'm putting most of my preparatory thought into concealment, misdirection, logistics, and defense in depth, because if it comes down to shooting it out with gangs, militias, or whatever, I'm screwed, and taking as many of them with me as possible is the closest thing to victory for which I can reasonably hope.

HMS Defiant said...

As with the gunners on the jeep carriers off Samar, my plan is to simply lure the bad guys into pistol range. I'll take them from there. I'm not planning on hunting ferrels or taking them on their ground. I don't expect to survive the molotov cocktails against the house but that's OK. Most of the throwers won't either.

J Van Stry said...

I sight my AR's at 50 yards, which is about where I expect to have to use them. Plus there's the 'aim 2 inches high at 100 years and 2 inches low at 25 yards' bit. But without glasses on, I have a hard time hitting 100 yard bullseyes these days.
These rifles have both red dots and iron sights.
I do have rifles that are sighted for 100 yards (one I was going to set up for 300, but no longer have access to that long of a range). But I haven't done any 'long range' type shooting in such a long time that I really have no skill for anything over a hundred yards.