Monday, April 27, 2020

The personal defense rifle, part 2: reader's questions

Following last Friday's article about the personal defense rifle and what accessories might be useful, I received a number of questions and comments from readers.  I thought it might be useful to answer some of them publicly, to promote further discussion.  This article will deal with rifle-related questions and issues.  A third article tomorrow will discuss ammunition selection.

A relatively common question was why one needs a defensive rifle at all.  Respondents noted that they had a shotgun, or a handgun, and were good with it, so why bother with anything more?  To that I can only say, if you're happy with what you've got, and you think it's adequate for your needs, that's great.  However, there are several factors favoring a defensive rifle or carbine.
  1. An AR-15-style weapon typically uses 20- or 30-round magazines.  That's a lot more ammunition than the average shotgun or handgun can hold!  (If you're in a state that legally neuters standard magazine capacities, that may mitigate against a defensive rifle, but there are other factors.)
  2. A rifle typically hits much harder than a handgun, and has greater effective range than a shotgun.  Both are real advantages that are worth having on your side.
  3. Many people find the recoil of a shotgun difficult to handle.  An AR-15 or similar weapon has minimal recoil, making it much easier to control.  If other family members (particularly smaller and/or younger ones) may need to use your defensive weapons, that's a big advantage.
  4. Consider your personal circumstances and condition, and choose your defensive weapon(s) with them in mind.  Take me:  I'm in my sixties, I've had two heart attacks, and I'm permanently partially disabled as the result of a workplace injury.  I'm not going anywhere fast, and I'm not going far under my own steam - pain would immobilize me before long.  My injuries make it difficult for me to use a hard-recoiling weapon like a shotgun.  Therefore, I want the most effective defensive weapon I can handle, to keep potential enemies as far away from me as possible.  I don't want to have to wait until they're "up close and personal" before starting to deal with the problem, because the closer they are to me, the more likely they are to hurt or kill me before I can do anything about them.  This is a factor even if you first see them at very close range (e.g. they kick down the door of your house).  Even if they're only ten feet from me, I want them to stay that far away, and get no closer.  A rifle delivers enough power to help make sure they do that.  So does a shotgun, if you can manage its recoil.  A handgun . . . not necessarily.
  5. Remember that an attacker may be completely out of control, under the influence of drugs or other substances.  He won't be listening to reason, he won't be afraid of a gun, and he probably won't feel much pain.  He'll just keep coming.  If I have to use a gun to stop him, I want to have enough ammunition available to keep hitting him until he stops.  A rifle offers that.  (Even a MMA fighter may find it tough to stop a hopped-up assailant;  see here for one such account, and watch the video.  It's eye-opening.  In my condition, I'd never be able to fight off an attacker like that - but with a good defensive firearm, my chances are a lot better.)

Some readers said that they prefer different firearms.  Frankly, I have no bias either way.  Use whatever you like, and make the most of it.  I own several lever-action firearms, the same type widely used in the Old West, chambered for three different cartridges (.30-30, .44 Magnum and .45-70).  If push came to shove, I have no doubt I could make good use of any of them as a defensive weapon.  I could do the same with my .22 Magnum pump-action rifle, or my .308 Winchester bolt-action hunting rifle, or a shotgun.  Even so, the advantages of the AR-15 platform are:
  • It's very ergonomic and easy to handle;
  • It's simple to understand (and repair, if necessary);
  • It has a useful magazine capacity;
  • It has minimal recoil (in its original 5.56mm chambering) and is very controllable in rapid fire, but delivers a powerful punch with the right ammunition;
  • It can be upgraded and customized to whatever extent you wish;
  • It's ubiquitous - there are literally millions of them in private and public hands across America.
More than any other rifle, people are likely to know something about the AR-15, particularly anyone who's served in the US armed forces over the past fifty years or so.  Furthermore, you can get ammunition for it almost everywhere, whereas other, less popular cartridges may be in short supply.  That's why it's generally regarded as the (currently) quintessential American defensive rifle.

In my first article, I observed:

You have to get to know [the AR-15] 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.

Some readers wanted to know which spare parts they should keep on hand in case of need, and what level of knowledge they would need to replace them.  There's good news here:  the AR-15 is a remarkably easy rifle to understand.  You can literally assemble one at home, from scratch, from bare upper and lower receivers to a fully operational rifle, in an hour or so, given a few tools, the necessary components, and some instruction.  There are plenty of videos about it on YouTube.  Here are three of them, provided by vendor Midway USA (to whom our thanks for their excellent troubleshooting video guides), showing assembly from start to finish.

What spare parts should you keep on hand?  Broken parts are not common on modern rifles, because they're made to pretty high standards:  but defective parts can creep in, and mechanical failure is a fact of life with any machine.  Basically, be prepared to replace the parts that are most prone to breakage or loss.  For example, if the firing pin breaks, you want a spare on hand.  No firing pin = no functioning weapon!  Rather than mess around trying to disassemble the bolt to get at the firing pin, I keep an entire spare bolt carrier group (BCG) on hand, so that if the one in the rifle stops functioning for any reason, I can simply replace it, then identify and fix the problem with the original unit at my leisure.  It takes less than half a minute to swap them.  (However, do make sure to test-fire your backup BCG in your rifle before you trust it to fit and function!  I suggest putting at least a hundred trouble-free rounds through it.)  I also keep a supply of the more important springs, pins and detents on hand.  Several vendors offer field repair kits (like this one, for example).  That, plus the tools necessary to install the parts, should be part of your range kit.  (Also, don't forget spare batteries for accessories such as a red dot sight, weapon light, etc.  Some pistol grips or stocks offer storage compartments to hold them securely;  otherwise, keep them somewhere safe, but handy.)

Several people raised serious concerns about the cost of training, both instruction and ammunition.  Project Appleseed, which I strongly recommend for introductory training, isn't very expensive, and .22LR ammunition is still available at under 10c per round if you buy it by the case (although until recently some brands used to be 3-4c per round . . . yes, yes, I know, I don't like it either!)  If a case is more than you need right now, I'd still buy it, because regular practice will eat it up within a year or two.  If it's just too expensive, try asking your friends if they want to share the cost (and the case) with you.  (You can even use your AR-15 to shoot .22LR ammunition - I'll discuss that further below.)  There's also the NRA Basic Rifle Shooting course if you can't get to Appleseed, although the NRA course isn't nearly as much fun.

As for more advanced training at major shooting schools:  yes, that's expensive, what with course fees, travel, hotel accommodation, etc (not to mention the much higher cost of ammunition during the current ammo drought).  If you can't afford to attend such a course, look for instructors who travel to your part of the world to offer training.  That's often a lot cheaper, and you don't have to pay for hotels, etc.  There are many such teachers and schools out there;  do a Web search and ask local sources for recommendations.  It's not a bad idea to join a couple of firearms forums like (particularly its training forum) or The Firing Line.  There are many others, but those two are good.  Read users' posts about training courses and instructors, and ask questions.  You'll learn a lot.

You can also buy DVD's of training courses from the top shooting schools and instructors.  Short of going there, this is a great way to glean knowledge from them.  Try GunsiteThunder Ranch, and instructors like Pat RogersPaul Howe and many others.  Those I've named, both schools and individuals, are top-notch, and I recommend them unreservedly, but they're by no means the only ones out there.  (As I write these words, Gunsite is selling its DVD of the 223 Carbine course for only $10.  This is an absolute steal!  It's an excellent entry-level introduction to defensive carbine handling for those who aren't familiar with it.  I highly recommend it.)

As for long-term ongoing practice to keep your skills sharp, there are a couple of low-cost ways of doing it that are also a lot of fun.  To start, get a BB or Airsoft rifle (you'll recall I recommended such weapons for handgun training, too, some years ago).  Set up a practice course of fire in your back yard, or on any convenient stretch of open ground where it's legal and safe to do so.  As a backstop, stack up home-made sandbags or garden center packs of potting soil.  For targets, pick anything small and difficult to hit - wine bottle corks, screw-on caps from bottled water, milk bottle caps, and so on.  Fasten them to the backstop with pins or glue, or scatter them on the ground in front of it.  From short range (start at 5 yards) practice bringing your BB/Airsoft rifle to your shoulder, drawing a bead on a target and hitting it, then swinging rapidly to the next target, and so on.  (You can get a low-cost AR-15-style BB rifle to make practice more realistic.  There's even a full-auto version available!)  Move back to longer ranges as you get the hang of it.  It's surprisingly challenging, particularly because BB/Airsoft projectiles are easily blown around by the wind, making marksmanship more demanding.  As you improve, try having someone toss moving targets (e.g. tennis balls, ping-pong balls, etc.) in front of the backstop - see my earlier article for details.

There's also the sport of minisniping with airguns, which is very tricky.  It'll teach you precision marksmanship like nothing else.  The late Peter Capstick wrote an excellent article describing it, which I highly recommend you read.  (I knew him in South Africa, and he could wax eloquent on the subject.)  Get together with some friends and set up your own minisniping course of fire.  You'll have a lot of fun together.  If you get bored with airguns, try using .22LR rifles at longer ranges (out to 50-100 yards), using larger targets (like the above-mentioned wine bottle corks or ping-pong balls).  While an expensive precision air rifle is doubtless nice to have, I certainly can't afford one!  Cheaper models from manufacturers such as Beeman, Crosman and Gamo can be used to get into the sport, then you can upgrade as and when you can afford to.  If the cheaper air rifles aren't accurate enough to reliably hit tiny targets, use larger ones, as mentioned above.  A low cost sport, yet tricky as all get-out - what's not to like?

Two readers asked, in so many words, "How much and how often do I need to shoot to keep up my skills, once I have them?"  Well, you can use lower-cost weapons and ammunition to develop and maintain general shooting skills, but your rifle is - or should be - your primary defensive weapon.  As such, it requires sufficient time and attention to render you capable of using it on demand, to good effect.  "Dry fire" can substitute for some of that, if you practice it regularly;  but even with that, I believe you'll need to shoot at least 500 rounds per year from your primary defensive rifle to keep your skills sharp.  Double that or more would be better.  That amount of shooting keeps you accustomed to weapon handling, manipulating the controls, rapid changing of magazines, selecting and hitting targets in rapid succession, trigger and breathing control for longer-range accuracy, and so on.  I'd try to practice at least once per quarter:  monthly, if possible.  I don't think you can get away with less than that to maintain your skills.  Yes, that's an expensive proposition;  but that's also realistic.

There's a very useful product that can save you a lot of money over time:  CMMG's .22LR conversion kit for AR15's.  Here's a video review.

There are other conversion kits out there, but I'm familiar with the CMMG product, so that's the one I can recommend from personal experience.  It may take you a year or so to pay for it in ammunition cost savings, but after that it's all gravy.  This is a very worthwhile accessory, IMHO.  With it, you can reduce your full-power (and full-cost) 5.56mm ammo expenditure to one or two magazines per training session, plus many more (much cheaper) .22 rounds through the conversion kit.  Since you're still shooting your actual defensive rifle, all that practice and training will be a direct investment in your own security, even using a lower-powered round.

I guess that's answered most of the questions I received.  Tomorrow I'll address how to select ammunition for your defensive rifle, and what to consider in the process.



C. S. P. Schofield said...

There's an advantage to the AR-15 platform that you forgot to mention; it causes hairy-catfits and possible aneurisms in Progressive Left Nitwits.

MrGarabaldi said...

Hey Peter;

Thank you for the write up, I am glad that I bought my .22 adapter for my AR years ago because I don't like shooting up my 5.56 stuff, after getting caught during Sandy Hook I am afraid to let my stockpile drop. I have checked into an "appleseed" near my house but that will be several months away, Baking in the hot GA sun in June has certain drawbacks. I have found myself balancing ammo purchases, spare parts, I never thought about buying a complete BCG, although it makes good sense. I am looking forward to your ammo writeup.

Uncle Lar said...

I would remark that my first AR build starting with a stripped lower, parts kit, and complete upper took me half a day. My last build from a similar start took half an hour.
Suggest a good set of roll pin punches and a strong magnet be in your tool kit for a build. The magnet to recover small springs and detent pins that have a nasty habit of taking off with the slightest encouragement.
There is a school of thought that suggests you carry a handgun and pistol caliber carbine chambered for the same cartridge. In the carbine you get more power from the longer barrel, less felt recoil, and better accuracy. It does simplify your ammo considerations and with some configurations even your magazine choices, not with an AR carbine necessarily, but there are countless other options.

Master Guns said...

Good articles on the AR-15. I don't usually throw in my 2 cents on these kinds of articles. Then most such articles haven't been given this much thought and accuracy.

I view the AR-15 as a tool, specifically a wrench. I have more than one wrench in my tool box because having only one could inhibit my ability to solve the problem at hand. I have therefore several different AR's designed to solve different problems. These are setup to enable me to accomplish the task I anticipate using them for. I fully recognize that many of your readers may not have the funds for more than one rifle. With this idea in mind I would like to enter some points to ponder.

The number one problem of shooting in a defensive situation for most (in my opinion) concerns over penetration. View a few YouTube videos and you will find out several things:

1. 9 mm penetrates walls like a hot knife through plastic. It has the potential to shoot through your walls as well as your neighbors.

2. Same with double "0" buckshot.

3. The 55 grain FMJ that most will be shooting doesn't like drywall. It will start tumbling in the first wall loosing momentum and the ability to penetrate after the second wall or so.

Score one for the AR-15.

My next point is body armor. I think we will see more and more bad guys wearing the stuff. This again gives the edge to the 5.56 mm. Yes buckshot while not penetrating body armor can disable. Its disadvantages have been previously pointed out.

Now, let's get back to the task orientation setup. Studies during WWII found that most rifle combat took place within 200 yards. Read the "Straw Giant". The preponderance of that rifle fire took place within 100 yards. With this fact in mind we should setup our equipment accordingly. Most folks will not have to worry about shooting further that 100 yards. Me, I'm not sure I would shoot that far. Why? At some point I'm going to have to explain why I thought the person at that distance was a threat.

The bottom line here is that most who have to employ a rifle for protection will have to do so at close range. Getting shots off quickly and accurately becomes the task at hand. Your setup should enhance your ability to do so. For me, the setup is a dot sight with a foregrip that contains a light and laser. I suggest a foregrip because you may have to fight for control of your weapon and I want all the advantages of holding on to it I can get.

My wife and I also have Pistol Caliber Carbines (PCC) that we use to train with. The cost of ammo is almost half. Know how to operate your AR in low/no light. Find a night course. Most defensive situations occur in the dark.

My last comment: Wolves travel in packs. Arm accordingly.

Old NFO said...

Well done, Peter! And yes, Appleseed is well worth it!

rognuald said...

What 5.56/223 ammo do you like for self defense use?

Eck! said...

Because Massachusetts...

I shoot a lot of high power air rifles nitropiston sorts in .22.
I'd not want to be hit by that but also really good for mini sniping to 50 yards and more. My idea of doing my part is putting shots in the 1" square at 50yards. Since that the far on the property other
than diagonal I can go it has to do.

That DPMS/Crossman auto BB is seriously nasty. Only 430fps but 25 rounds full auto would hurt. However BB and smooth bore 15 yards
is about it for accurate.

One has to practice and the nitro break barrels are good enough at 1000-1300fps muzzle considering 18gr .22 is the nominal ammo.


Brad_in_IL said...

My defensive rifle of choice is the new Ruger PC Carbine. It eats every kind of ammo I feed it, I have a big pile of mags, it's lethally accurate easily past 50 yards, and I have a concern with the risk of over penetration from something like an AR platform. The PCC is also a Ruger, so it runs well wet or dry, clean or dirty, shares magazines with my SR9c pistol, and if I run empty, it is heavy enough to use a battering ram.

The Freeholder said...

Thanks for the pointer to the Gunsite videos. I got the carbine and pistol class ones. $29.95 shipped Priority Mail. Everyone ought to grab the pair.

.45ACP+P said...

If you are thinking of an Appleseed with a .22LR conversion kit, please think again. Appleseed standard of accuracy is 4 MOA. Most conversions will not hold anywhere near that and frustrate the heck out of a shooter. A full dedicated upper is quite capable of the accuracy. Conversion kits are fun and well within "minute of squirrel" so they have their place. You probably have a decent .22LR plinker auto-loader that will be fine for the Appleseed. The skills transfer easily to centerfire.

Peter said...

@.45ACP+P: Er . . . yes and no. If your .22LR conversion unit can't shoot inside 4 MOA, I agree you should pick a more accurate rifle for an Appleseed course. On the other hand, I've found that tailoring .22LR ammunition to the rifle can make a significant difference to its accuracy. For example, CCI Mini-Mags are usually pretty accurate in almost every rifle. Bulk pack cheap stuff such as Winchester 333 and 555, Federal (not Automatch, which is as good as CCI, but the cheaper stuff), Remington's Yellow Jacket, etc. are less so. I simply try several different rounds in a .22 firearm, find which is most accurate in it, and make sure I use that brand in that rifle from then on. The same applies to .22 conversion units. Mine likes CCI and Federal Automatch, consistently shooting both into 2-3 MOA if I do my part.