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Which gun is best: a pistol, a shotgun, a rifle or an AR-15?

You can ask this question of five different people and get five answers. Depending where you ask the question could determine a different answer as much as who you ask. If you were to ask a salesperson, they may say “the one that you can conceal the best.” A physical trainer may say the gun that is the lightest to carry is the best choice. Talk to an instructor at a gun range and that person is likely to tell you the one that best fits your hand and is the most comfortable to shoot is what you should buy.

If you ask me which gun is best, I’ll ask you what’s the target? In other words, our world has become a world of choices. For the gun enthusiasts, it’s like walking into a candy store with 50 choices. However, for a person who doesn’t know a Colt from a Kimber it can be overwhelming. Below we’ll break down the four most common types of guns and discuss their pros and cons.

Pistol

The most common reason a person buys a gun is for home protection. A pistol is nice because it can easily fit in a small drawer of a nightstand, under a mattress or in a holster hanging from the headboard. But… in all of these cases, the gun isn’t locked up. Do you have children in the house? If so, none of those should be options of where to store a pistol. Be responsible and get a safe and use a trigger lock.

Many pistols are sold as kits. You may get a small case and two magazines are part of the purchase price.

This model 21 Glock is the first generation, which is more square than new generation four models. The tiny squares acted as extra gripping which was state of the art in the 1980s. Current models have molded finger grooves and more of the tiny squares on the side of the grip for added traction.

A full-size pistol may be great for a person who has large hands. Big pistols don’t work well for concealment either. Something as big as a Glock 21 is more for those who don’t intend on hiding it.

Revolver Vs. Auto

Now, what type of pistol, a revolver or an automatic?

Either can be bought new for under $400 depending on the caliber. Most revolvers will limit you to six shots and you will feel more of the kick. An automatic can hold as many as 17 shots in a full size frame. Accuracy isn’t the selling point of a pistol. How it feels in your hand and does its work when you need it to means more than if you can hit a target at 100 yards. Most law enforcement officers who use their pistols do so at a distance of 15-20 feet or less. A pistol is ideal for close range but should have sufficient stopping power.

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A semiautomatic pistol is nice because it can carry more rounds of ammo at a time. The design of the action also helps reduce its recoil. A hollow point bullet increases the chances of stopping the threat.

Early versions of Glock’s were wider than a typical 1911. Many pistol enthusiasts didn’t like that because it felt too bulky and square compared to what they were used to. Part of this design comes from being able to double-stack the .45 ACP bullets, which allows you to hold 13 rounds of superior firepower.

What Caliber?

Calibers are like horsepower… there’s no replacement for displacement and horsepower comes at a cost of mileage, noise and size. A 9mm is a very common caliber and one with respectable ballistics. It’s easy to find on most ammo shelves and isn’t the most expensive choice. A double tap in the chest of most bad guys will keep you alive and them wishing they would have stayed home.

For those of you looking for the 4×4 of pistols, there are several options. Stopping power is available from several calibers. The most popular are .357 magnum, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. Keep in mind these choices will be on a bigger frame that is more often heavier and will pack a punch on both ends of the bang. I wouldn’t suggest these to a person who makes a living riding a race horse or dancing on a four-inch beam that is four feet off the ground.

Left to Right; .22LR, 380 auto, .38 special, 9mm Luger, .40 Smith & Wesson, .45 ACP and .44 Magnum. They each have strong and weak points. Cost is a factor, as is availability.

These are all 300 Win Mag, but some are 180 grain and others are 200 grain. Why label them? If you’re shooting heavier bullets than what you zeroed your scope at… there will be significant more drop at a further distance. You’ll need to calculate for that.

“If you ask me which gun is best, I’ll ask you what’s the target?”

Rent Before You Buy

Before buying one or the other a smart move would be to visit a gun range that rents a few choices of calibers and designs. Better to spend a hundred dollars or more figuring out the one that will best suit you now and in years to come, than to pick the one that looks cool but shoots like a fat guy on a moped trying to climb a steep hill. You need to remember why you bought the gun. It is to defend you and your family, not to show off to the neighbors who don’t care that it is a limited edition.

AR-15

If you spent any time looking through gun magazines within the last several years, you will have seen many choices of what is often called an AR-15 or “sport rifle”. These are a legal version of what was once called the M-16 our military used for a few decades. They have many good points and only a few bad. First off, they don’t offer “automatic fire” like a machine gun. For the most part, they are lightweight, easy to operate and are capable of hitting small targets at far distances, way past 100 yards.

You may have seen some ARs advertised at an incredibly cheap price. It could be because they are lacking a forward assist or dust cover like seen here.

5.56/.223

The most common caliber for this style of gun is 5.56mm (or .223). It was explained to me this caliber wasn’t originally designed as a “killer” round, rather a “to wound” bullet. However, you can walk into just about any gun store in the country and be in an argument within 30 seconds about what this caliber of bullet can and can’t do at distances up to 600 yards.

What was at first a not-so-good weapon used by U.S. ground forces in the early 60s has now become one of the most diverse designs. The most popular cartridge is a 5.56mm round, but other calibers ranging from .22lr to .308 have become very common.

Accessorize

One of the best things about this style of gun are the accessories. You can dress them up fast and easily. Most people will start with a scope or laser dot of some kind. A front grip is another popular item that is pretty handy and a laser pointer is also a nice feature that doesn’t add much weight but goes a long way on the “cool” scale. Another popular feature for this gun is how many rounds they are capable of carrying. A 30-round magazine is almost the standard, but some aftermarket companies are making 60 magazines and 100-round drums. Of course, this packs on some extra weight, but if a few dozen zombies are knocking down your front door it may come in handy to have that much ammo available at one time.

An estimated 70 percent of AR gun owners will put on a small scope or laser sight of some kind. The idea is the red dot will naturally be put on the target as you scan the room. A magnifier (normally x3 or x5) mounts behind the red dot in order to better see down range.

“For those of you looking for the 4×4 of pistols, there are several options. The most popular are .357 magnum, .40 S&W and .45 ACP.”

Because of the popularity of the AR-style platform, manufacturers have expanded the calibers that you can buy one in. Choices range from the tiny .22LR to the rather large 300 Win Mag. and just about everything in between. Before buying one of the less popular calibers, you may want to check availability of the magazines and ammo. It may be capable of hitting a toaster at 500 yards, but if the ammo is hard to find and costs twice as much as other calibers, and magazines are more often on back order rather than in stock, just make sure it’s worth it.

Front grips are one of the most popular accessories to mount on the hand guard of an AR-style rifle. Some like this one have retractable legs that work as a bipod for quick stabilization on long shots.

One of the best accessories for a sniper is a bipod to stabilize the front of the rifle.

Shotgun

The shotgun is arguably the most common gun used for self-defense at home. Why? Two big reasons. You don’t have to be the most accurate shot to hit a target and the “bullets” don’t travel that far. That second part is important if you live in an apartment building where the walls are thin and neighbors could be on two sides.

Shell Sizes

Unlike a pistol or rifle bullet, a shotgun shoots what is called a shell. Instead of a single bullet, the shells are loaded with various-sized bb’s. Looking at a box of 12 or 20 gauge shells, you could see it say #4 #6, #7 shot. The bigger the number, the smaller the shot. A #7 is good for shooting small game (quail or pheasant) and skeet. And when you see 00 or 000 it is double or triple buck shot. This is intended for bigger, heavier game like deer. There are many gauges (calibers) of shotguns, but the most popular are from smallest to largest, .410, 20 and 12.

Have you ever wondered what was inside the various shotgun shells? Left to Right; A 20-gauge shell with small steel shot that is typically used for pheasant or qual. The 00 Buck is much bigger is size, but fewer in quantity. It’s designed for bigger game or padlocks or door locks. The solid slug is a one-ounce piece of lead, (hollow) that will take out some fairly big game. If you look closely you can see the spiraling on the sides of the slug. This is for barrels that have rifling… to improve the accuracy and distance of the slug.

Shotguns also come in a few different designs. Older styles are single shot, and sometimes have two barrels. They could be next to each other or on top of one another. These are called “side by side” or “over-under”. The most common shotgun would be the pump action. In most cases it will hold five shells and you pull the handle backwards (in a pumping action) ejecting the spent shell and loading the next. A semiautomatic style is also available from many manufacturers, but they are also the most expensive of all the choices. Anyone who enjoys shooting skeet will appreciate a light-weight, long-barreled semiautomatic shotgun.

One of the most popular shotguns, the Remington 870. Only this one has a tactical kit, giving it a few advantages for those who appreciate them. The pump has picatinny rails on three sides for accessories, a pistol grip and collapsible stock… similar to an AR-style rifle.

Many gun enthusiasts will agree that a shotgun makes a great home-defense weapon. It has limited range, so it won’t go through your wall and into the neighbor’s house. Yet you don’t have to be a great shot to hit your target.

“A good rifle with well-made barrel is capable of very accurate shooting. Depending on the caliber, it’s possible to aim and hit a target the size of a microwave oven at over 1,200 yards away.”

Because the shot from the shell spreads out as it leaves the barrel, a shotgun is a popular choice for home defense. Many stories have been told by people with shotguns saying all they will have to do is aim down the hallway at an intruder and if they are any close than 20 to 30 feet away they will be hit. There is some truth to that, but if you only hit them in the hand they could still be a threat. Using a shotgun still requires good aim, but it allows for some tolerance.

Rifle

The rifle is what won the west… that’s what the folks at Winchester will tell you. They’ll refer you to the model 1873, a lever action rifle that came in several calibers and was part of at least five wars in the late 1800s. It was produced from 1873 till 1919.

Bolt, Lever, Auto

Modern day rifles come in several actions, including bolt, lever and auto loading. With advancements made in bullets and barrels it is now possible to put several bullets through the same hole at distances of 100 yards and further. Of course to do that you need custom work on the barrel and trigger. And paying for that accuracy is about as much fun as that first ticket you got when you were 16. A custom bench-rest rifle that can shoot five rounds within the size of a dime at 200-300 yards can easily cost $4,000 to $6,000.

A bolt action rifle may be the slowest, but it’s arguably the most accurate. They are obviously less expensive than a semiautomatic and often weigh less as well. A good scope is like having a good knife.

Rifles are more often used for hunting and not intended for fast fire. Some manufacturers will include a scope with a rifle. It’s possible to spend as much or more on a great scope than what you paid for the rifle. The list of calibers start at .17HMR and go all the way up to a 50 BMG. To make it easier, picture bullets speeding through the air that range in size from a fly to a clothes pin.

A bolt action rifle on a shooter’s mat could be a very common setup for a prepper. The bag or soft case allows to hold about 100 rounds of ammo along with a small notebook to use as a sniper’s log book. You can even have them sprayed to help keep dry and repel water.

A good rifle with a well-made barrel is capable of very accurate shooting. Depending on the caliber, it’s possible to aim and hit a target the size of a microwave oven at over 1,200 yards away and in some special cases… even further. In order to reach these kinds of distances you’ll need to start looking at calibers of 6.5mm and up. Keep in mind the bigger the cartridge, the more kick it will have.

Gun Manufactures engrave a lot of information into the barrel. Some more than others. If you’re looking at various rifles and need to know the caliber, it should be stamped or engraved into the barrel. In some cases it will also have the rifle twist of the barrel.

Most hunting style rifles have built-in magazines that will hold up to five rounds. If it’s a caliber larger than .308 it may only hold three rounds. The point is it wouldn’t be a good idea to carry a hunting rifle as a primary weapon due to the lack of ammo it holds and the amount of time it takes to load each round. But if you’re looking at taking out your target at 300 to 500 yards away, this is the one you’ll want.

Which One is Best?

That’s the tough question and there is no right or wrong answer. Each has their strong and weak points. But the thing to figure out is which will work best for you… in the way you need it to work. Having one of each isn’t a bad thing either. No matter which one(s) you get there is one thing you’ll need to do: practice. Shooting once a month is good, but doing it three to four times a month is better. If you expect to have a tight pattern at any distance it will take practice.

A muzzle brake reduces some of the recoil which can be nice if you need to put two shots close to each other.

If you’re on a tight budget, one thing to consider is how much is the ammo for the particular gun you’re looking into and is it readily available?

Use your sources if you have any doubts. Ask questions at more than one gun shop and don’t always think the biggest store has the best answers. Don’t believe everything you read online on the forums. Find a gun store/range and rent a few guns to see what you like best. Some small gun shops may have the best experience and advice. If they’ve been around for a long time, it’s a safe assumption they’ve been doing something right. Good luck.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Duke Montana has spent more days/nights off grid in trailers or RVs in desert camps than most. He bought his first Glock on his 21st birthday. He is useful with weapons, solar and wind energy and tries to be diverse in his preps. He believes you have strength in numbers, but a good sniper is handy, too.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the June 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.