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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 AR15.com (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 Gunsite, Thunder Ranch, and instructors like Pat Rogers, Paul 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.