Rumor has it that “may you live in interesting times” is an old Chinese curse, and these are definitely interesting times. Between the civil unrest currently happening in various parts of the United States, the pandemic-inspired economic problems, and political polarization he likes we have never seen in this country, there’s more reason than ever to make sure that your are able to protect yourself and your family.
That’s why more than five million people have become first-time gun owners. I have lost count of the number of people who have reached out to me recently asking about buying their first firearm, and rather than copy and pasting the same thing over and over again I figured this might be a useful guide for those who are still in the market.
First and foremost…
You Are a Little Late to the Game
Let’s acknowledge something up front: if you are looking to buy a firearm right now, you probably aren’t going to be able to get exactly what you want. Or pay a reasonable amount of money to get it.
I was talking with TTAG alum Tyler Kee this week, and we were marveling that this is the second or third time in our lives we’ve gone through a massive panic buying spree followed by widespread shortages. And as such, I think we have a pretty good idea of what’s happening and how things are going to play out in the short term in terms of firearms.
In a normal world any one of the number of crises that have happened this year would have disrupted the firearms market, but it seems like, in 2020, they just keep coming, one after another, compounding an already dire situation.
When the pandemic kicked off in earnest back in late February, things had been generally OK. Being an election year there was already a naturally increased level of firearms purchasing going on, but we didn’t really expect that to peak until later in the year.
When nationwide lockdowns were announced and the true extent of the pandemic was realized, there was a small run on ammunition and firearms that started to empty out the distribution channels that feed the gun stores in the country.
It was about that time that I placed my final few orders that I had been holding off on to finish off my “SHTF rifle” that is the lead image in this article. I checked my ammunition stocks, made sure I was comfortable not needing to buy more ammo through the end of the election season, and settled in to hunker down and hold on to what I have.
And then the George Floyd protests started, and quickly turned violent in some parts of the country. The already strained distribution channels were completely emptied thanks to panic buying associated with the violence Americans were seeing. I remember walking into a rather large gun range here in Austin back in June. The shelves were already bare, not a single AR-15 was to be found, and there was hardly any 5.56 ammunition to feed them.
Things haven’t gotten much better since then. Pretty much every week some new crisis comes along that pushes more people towards the decision to buy a gun, and as a result literally the second new stock becomes available it is pretty much instantly snatched up by extremely motivated buyers.
The problem is there’s no slack in the system right now. Gun companies are months behind in orders which have already bought and paid for. Buying a gun is no longer a selection process. In many cases, you are jumping on the first thing that you can find that kind of meets your requirements. The “right time” to buy a gun was January. It’s now too late for rational pricing and you need to come to terms with the financial impact that will have on what you buy.
What Gun Do You Need?
Let’s skip past the “do you really need a gun?” question. If you are reading this, you have already made that decision. The question now is what kind of gun you need.
I’ve seen a number of recommendations that a pump action shotgun is rally what you need. Heck, even ol’ Joe Biden is on board that train. But there’s a problem.
At one time I was a nationally ranked 3-gun competitor, a sport that uses multiple kinds of firearms in high stress environments. Just about everyone will tell you that the shotgun sections of those competitions are the hardest parts. The challenge there isn’t necessarily hitting the target, it’s keeping the gun loaded.
Shotguns have a notoriously low capacity for ammunition. Even the bigger guns with extended magazines can only load 8 to 10 rounds at a time, meaning that an engagement of any reasonable length will require some reloading.
Typically you have only five rounds on hand at a time. That might be OK if you need to dissuade a single home invader, but can quickly become insufficient for looters or in other civil unrest situations. And reloading that firearm under stress is a real challenge for a newer firearm owner.
Beyond that factor, just using them effectively can be a challenge. Pump action shotguns are usually the first recommendation you hear, which makes sense as they’re cheap and plentiful. But they require some skill to use practically.
The shooter needs to manually pump the shotgun after every round to chamber a new one, and there’s a legitimate risk of “short-stroking” the shotgun. That’s when the shooter doesn’t completely cycle the pump and a live round won’t be loaded.
I consider myself a reasonably competent shooter (see: previous article where I wiped the floor with every other journalist on the scene) and I’ve short-stroked pump shotguns from time to time. If I can’t do it right every time, a new shooter in a high stress environment is probably going to have trouble.
Finally, let’s talk about accuracy really quickly. Buckshot is the typical recommendation for personal defense. That gives you multiple projectiles that are roughly the equivalent of a handful of 9mm rounds. Assuming you hit your target square-on and every round strikes the target, that will cause a devastating amount of damage instantly.
But what if you miss? Or what if not all of your pellets hit the target? That’s a lot of lead that is now flying around toward potential unintended targets; family members, bystanders, you name it. And remember, walls don’t necessarily stop bullets or OO buck. They can travel for quite some distance, putting even your neighbors at risk.
So, shotguns are off the table. Next up on the list is usually a handgun of some sort.
This is less of a bad idea. Handguns are concealable and powerful (enough), meaning that they are super useful in close quarters environments or situations where you don’t necessarily want to advertise that you’re armed. But while they are definitely formidable weapons, they take some skill to use, too.
Hours on the range and more hours of dry fire practice are required to be accurate with a handgun. That’s not something that is easy (or still legal in some jurisdictions, depending on COVID-19 restrictions) to accomplish in the middle of a pandemic. Especially with the current lack of handgun ammunition for people to practice with.
Which leaves us with rifles.
Bottom Line: Get an AR-15
There’s a damn good reason why the AR-15 is the most popular firearm in the United States. Endlessly configurable, easy to maintain, reliable, and accurate, it’s the perfect modern weapon. And even if you can’t get your hands on the “perfect” AR-15, you can always start with whatever is available and upgrade it, piece by piece, as things come back in stock. Which they are nearly guaranteed to do — with so many of these guns in public hands, there’s no doubt that people will be cranking out compatible parts for decades to come.
In terms of usability, it also provides the perfect balance. An AR is enough that you can comfortably wield it with two hands (making it naturally more accurate), but short enough to be somewhat concealable and nimble. It’s powerful enough to stop most threats while having a light enough recoil that even new shooters can easily control it.
There are two other reasons why this makes the most sense, and both have to do with availability. But in very different contexts.
First, because there are so many ARs out there, it’s reasonable to think that you can find at least one available for sale, new or used. And once you have one, keeping it maintained will be much easier than if you buy a more niche firearm. Standard parts and cleaning kits, which are widely available, make this much easier.
Ammunition is a challenge, but should be relatively easier to find. Most AR-15 rifles use .223 Remington, 5.56 NATO or some compatible variant thereof. That stuff is cranked out in such astounding numbers every year that you can probably expect to find some at some point in the future. Keep your eye open online. You will have to pay more now, but it is available.
That’s the best case scenario, and we aren’t in a best case scenario. Things are trending somewhat downward these days, and the AR-15 provides some opportunities there as well.
Having a firearm that’s part of such a widely-owned platform means that you’ll be able to share parts, ammo, expertise between a small group of like-minded individuals. From magazines to ammunition, parts and accessories, if you standardize on one platform (one that happens to be the most popular platform in the United States) there’s a better chance of being able to help each other out.
Even if you are on your own, then it’s much more likely that if the S really H’s the F then you’ll be more likely to scavenge and scrounge things that fit your weapon platform. Most police forces in the United States, as well as the military, use AR-15 compatible weapons. To Sergeant Major Basil Plumley’s point in the movie We Were Soldiers, if things get bad there will be plenty of them lying around to use.
OK, an AR-15…But How?
I started off saying that people looking to buy a new firearm are late to the party, and that’s not wrong. Options are limited. But there are still options out there.
Gun stores are probably going to be your least likely place to actually find any guns, especially in large urban areas. The distribution channels are completely dry, and since gun stores are the last link in that chain, new stock will only come in dribs and drabs. Most guns are spoken for before they arrive at most retailers.
If you really want a bolt action hunting rifle in an obscure caliber now is the time, but otherwise you are probably out of luck.
That said, there are some online retailers that still have complete rifles in stock. I’m not going to play any favorites in this article, but I’m sure that there will be plenty of suggestions in the comments. They come and they go in terms of availability, so keeping an eye out and checking back regularly will make sure that you are able to find one when it becomes available.
Keep in mind that buying guns online means that you will need to have it shipped to a local gun store for the requisite paperwork and background check, so be aware of that requirement and scout out a friendly local gun shop before you order. You will need to pay them for the background check as well.
For complete firearms, your last resort should be online auction sites and local trade/swap sites. I’ve seen some horrendously overpriced rusted out pipes for sale on these sites recently, with decent AR-15 rifles going for thee times the pre-panic rate.
You will be gouged, you will get into a bidding war, and you may be frustrated with the process. If you get to the point where you are considering that course of action, you might want to try one thing first.
Last Option: Build Your Own
While complete rifles have mostly been sold out for months, parts kits are still somewhat available (though again, you’re going to have to spend some time looking). I’ve seen them at reasonable prices. Complete kits are available for as little as $500 online.
The AR-15 rifle is somewhat unique in that it can be assembled from parts with a couple of simple tools in your garage, provided that you have a lower receiver available. The “lower receiver” is the serialized part of the firearm, which is the part that actually needs to be transferred by a gun store.
Everything else can be shipped straight to your door. There are some good tutorials online for how to do that, and if you are concerned you can probably phone a friend to help you finish it out.
That said, even AR-15 lower receivers are in short supply and sometimes go for absurd prices. I’ve seen lowers that once retailed for $70 being advertised for $200 recently. But all in, you are still talking about an investment of $700 for a functioning rifle instead of potentially spending $1,500 on a piece of junk that barely works.
What Did My Friends Do?
I mentioned up top that I’ve had people asking me for help in this area. And in every single case we discussed their situation, their specific concern, and what course of action makes sense for them.
In some cases they lucked out and found an AR-15 that met their needs. In other cases they were able to get their hands on the parts. In some cases I had some parts available to help them out, and we were able to get together and build a rifle to match their needs. But every single one eventually purchased or built an AR-15.
I’m guessing that, despite their history to the contrary, none of them will be big supporters of gun control in the future.
You Aren’t Finished Yet
You now have an AR-15 rifle. Great! But a gunfight isn’t a “pay to win” game. Plenty of insurgents with little more than a cheap AK-47 have held their ground against incredibly well provisioned forces. Having the most expensive guns and gear on the battlefield or the city block doesn’t guarantee success.
BARE MINIMUM you need to actually get out to the range. Zero your optic, understand how your firearm works, and ensure that it functions properly. You can’t just buy a firearm and treat it like a magic insurance policy. You need to actually practice with it. If at all possible, get out into a shooting bay instead of just a traditional rifle line and practice how to safely move and shoot with your firearm.
Something that can be a little more challenging these days is attending a firearm course. Getting together in larger groups isn’t necessarily the most COVID-friendly thing to do, so that might be out of the question right now. But there is a plethora of good training videos available, whether online or on DVDs. While they aren’t a replacement for real, in-person training, they are far better than nothing.
Last, but certainly not least, have a plan. Know the local laws in your area for the use of deadly force, and specifically when it is legally permitted. If things get significantly hairy, that might not be a major concern, and the old adage “better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6” applies here, but in the meantime knowing the law is important if you want to keep yourself out of jail.
But even beyond the strict legal definitions, have a personal plan of action. Think through some likely scenarios and what the tipping point is in those instances for you specifically to use deadly force. Know your personal “red line” before things start to pop off or else you’ll be trying to figure it out in the heat of the moment and you might not like the results. Think things through in the calm, cold light of day instead of the heat of the moment.
And good luck.