AR-15 rifle with Aimpoint
Igor at work / Public domain
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AR-15 rifle with aimpoint red dot
Igor at work / Public domain

While in many respects, a shotgun is indeed a great (the best?) choice if you can only own one gun…but an AR-15 is also a darn good option.

In fact, an AR pattern rifle is a better choice in certain regards, though not as much in others. Shotguns are a little more ubiquitous, it’s true, but America’s favorite rifle, the AR-15 comes darn close.

For starters, the AR-15 is one of the easiest weapon systems to learn. Since it’s a rifle, it is – like a shotgun – easier to be reliably accurate with for most shooters than a handgun, so long as the sighting system (be it iron sights, a red dot, or magnified optic) is zeroed.

Insert magazine, pull back the charging handle, and place it on safe. In case of bad guy, take safety off, aim and fire. Pretty darned simple.

Also, an AR-15 is far easier for most women to handle, which is one area where a shotgun (particularly the most popular 12 gauge variety) falls short. The length of pull on many smoothbores is frequently too long and a woman who isn’t used to the recoil of a 12-gauge (or even some 20 gauges for that matter) may be hesitant with one.

woman shooting ar-15 rifle
Mitch Barrie / CC BY-SA

An AR-15, on the other hand, depending on configuration, can be easily adjusted (if it has an adjustable stock and most of them do) so length of pull can be accounted for.

As for recoil, an AR-15 produces far less kick than a shotgun unless the rifle is chambered in .458 SOCOM or something along those lines. Even .300 Blackout is tame by rifle standards. Typical loads of that caliber produce less recoil energy than even .243. So they’re generally far, far easier on the shooter than a shotgun blast is.

Side note: have you ever done that thing guys sometimes do, where you put a 3-inch turkey shell in the shotgun after a light target shell, and then handed it to your wife/girlfriend/sister? You’re an ass if you have. Funny to watch, sure, but it’s a jerk move and can be dangerous.

AR pattern parts are incredibly widely available. Customization is ridiculously easy. It’s like owning a GLOCK; the world is your customization oyster when it comes to spec’ing the thing out.

As to efficacy, the AR-15 is nothing to sneer at.

AR-15 rifle suppressed
Airman 1st Class Jelani Gibson, U.S. Air Force / Public domain

While the classic chambering of .223 Remington/5.56mm NATO is rather paltry compared to heavy 00 or 000 buck loads — or for that matter heavy lead slugs (so is .300 BLK, which is just a .30-30 wearing tactical gear) — a .223 round produces similar muzzle energy to full-house loads of .44 Magnum, with the added benefit of actually traveling fast enough to produce hydrostatic shock.

This is the point where someone typically brings up the over-penetration issue, to which there are three easy rebuttals.

First, over-penetration rarely doesn’t also result in a dead attacker, but under penetration can get a good guy killed, which is exactly what the FBI discovered in the 1986 Miami shootout.

Second, if you think handgun and shotgun rounds won’t go through drywall, you have another thing coming.

Third, that’s why – just as with ANY gun – ammunition selection and marksmanship still matter. A lot. I believe Jeff Cooper said something like the best backstop is the body of the bad guy or at least something to that effect.

There have bee a lot of battlefield enemies and domestic bad guys downed with .223/5.56mm. The efficacy is therefore not in doubt. If you want bigger, you can get bigger by getting an upper in a larger chambering. Again, .300 Blackout is very popular for this purpose.

But the area where the AR-15 is outshone by the humble shotgun is in regards to hunting. While an AR-10 is actually darn good choice as a hunting rifle – you can hunt all across the world with a .308 or 6.5mm Creedmoor (though not always with a semi-automatic) – the AR-15 is a little more limited in its applicability. Obviously, bird and small-game hunting is out.

AR-15-specific calibers aren’t great for longer-range hunting applications, as most tend to fall below the 1,000 ft-lb threshold well within 300 yards, and many inside 200 yards. However, most of the deer hunters here in the US don’t take shots at 300-plus yards, so how much that matters depends a lot on where you live.

This may change, however, with the advent of SIG SAUER’s new .277 SIG Fury cartridge, which promises full-bore rifle ballistics from a cartridge that fits in a mini (.223) rifle action…but I wouldn’t hold my breath. The .277 SIG Fury produces 80,000 psi of chamber pressure, which likely means it will be some time before any uppers or AR-pattern rifles offered in that chambering.

In short, given the availability, the ubiquity, the efficacy and practicality of an AR-15 rifle platform…it’s a darn good choice if you can only own one gun.

But what do you think? Sound off in the comments.

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95 COMMENTS

        • Why the hell would anyone be limited to “one gun”?

          If it was a matter of money, I still wouldn’t limit myself to one gun.

          A bare bones AR15 was about $400, two weeks ago. Throw in 5 Pmags for $10 each (again two weeks ago price). That is a bare minimum of $450.

          For that price one could buy a G2C 9mm ($200 w 2 mags), a used Mossberg Maverick 88 (about $150), and a used Marlin 60 (about $100).

          Two weeks ago

          Of if you are worried about longer range shooting, maybe the G2C ($200) and a used budget scoped hunting rifle (about $250), like a Savage Axis in .223,.243,.270,30-06.

          My .270 hits harder, and shoots more accurately than my AR.

    • Agreed, the one gun should be a concealed carry centerfire handgun. Fortunately, POTG generally own a lot more than one. My one rifle would likely be my 18″ AR15 in 6.5 Grendel. Not much that gun/caliber combination can’t do.

      • Ummm only if that is all I had.

        For CQB/Home defense an AR is better in ever way, except over penetration and loudness. Neither matter much to me.

        When you hold your rifle you have four points of contact with your body (2 hands, shoulder/cheek). It is more stable, harder to take away and since I live in a free state my standard magazine capacity is 30 rounds. Add a sling and a good white light and you are good to go. Maybe a Red Dot but in my house the front A2 sight post works just fine at any distance I might need to use it.

        • 9 mm penetrates through sheet rock more than 5.56 mm. This has been proven time and time again. The AR-15 is simply the best personal defense weapon. Period. I suggest Black Hills 50 grain TSX as your defensive round. It is perfect.

    • Agree 100%. No long gun is good as an only gun because you can carry it around with you.

      My candidate for only gun is a compact 6.75 – 7″/12-15 round capacity range

    • Came here to see you made my comment for me.

      If you have two guns, you want a rifle. If you can only have one, most people in the US would benefit from it being a pistol. Unless you’re in a rural area and largely off the grid. But if you are, you’re probably not a person who has the “you can only have one gun” problem.

      • Pistol first only if you are out and about. If you are at home and choose a pistol over a long gun then you are fucking retarded. Pistols SUCK. We carry them because they are convenient, not because they are effective. If the world every goes to hell and there is no rule of law, I’m not going to be walking around with a fucking pistol as my primary.

    • Sure you can; you just need an “appropriate” physique.

      Stay inside and do nothing but eat nachos and cheese wiz for the next three months. Front, back, side, nobody’ll notice that bad boy under your shirt.

      (Side note, I actually did meet someone who had a drop-leg holster for an AR pistol. He worked in a very bad part of town.)

    • Some guys make M4s look like toys, you can get an AR pistol even smaller and hide it fine with a one point and maybe some magnetic keepers.

      My one gun would be an AR10, I like the extra effective distance.

  1. The AR-15 is the modern utility rifle.

    If I had to pick one gun though, it would either be a 410 lever/pump gun or 357mag revolver. Utility, I believe, should be higher priority than defense alone if I could only choose one gun.

  2. 6.5 Grendel. I just picked up a complete upper before Coronappocalypse struck, but haven’t scoped or shot it yet. .243 like ballistics.

    • I am sure the rounds are easy to find and priced good as well. In a SHTF situation you will find that kind ammo all over the place as well!

      • Ha! I’m just saying that plus my 300 Blackout, plus the mandatory 5.56 really rounds out “1 gun”. Don’t lose any sleep about my ammo supply, I’m golden.

      • I just bought a thousand rounds of Grendel for $710 delivered. High performance rounds command a high performance price. By comparison, my steel cased Barnaul AK stuff was 23 cents a pop.

      • Well, first, unlike more common ammo on AmmoSeek (and even some less common types like 5.7x28mm), 6.5 Grendel is still showing as available at a number of places, and around $0.33/round for steel-case stuff (although that will probably go first). The brass-cased “good stuff” is running around $0.65 – $0.70. Not cheap, but most definitely available.

        Second, in case you’re scrounging, just grab a spare upper and magazines from wherever you happen to find any good old 5.56×45 lying around; find the one, you’ve probably found the others. (Unfortunately, 6.5G mags are a little different from 5.56.)

        • No one is correct. I bought a dozen mags from ACS before my upper parts were ever delivered to me.

    • well, that’s debatable. Purpose driven vs. simply owning is not exactly the end all of the conversation.

      I get your point, but most people should own something they can carry every day.

  3. Since the lower receiver is the ONLY part of the AR-15 that is considered a firearm it is the best choice as you can run uppers in .22lr, .223/5.56, 300blk, 7.62×39, .458 Socom, 9mm, .450 Bushmaster, 6.5 Grendel etc.. With barrel lengths from 6.5 inches to 24 inches, mounting for a wide variety of sights and optics. It is a universal weapon that (as noted) is simple to operate for just about anyone, easy to repair with parts and kits available just about anywhere, it is the small block Chevy of guns… If it needs killing you can get an upper in the size you need to kill it…..

      • Perhaps you are too young to recall (in the days before the 350) when the running joke was that small block chevy engines and parts were so common, plentiful and interchangeable that you could pick up a camshaft for one at your local barber shop while you got a haircut, the AR type rifle enjoys much the same status today (what’s that saying? If I have to explain it you probably won’t understand)…. Of course you would have to know more about a car than which key turns the ignition on…..

    • Your 2 cents are wrong!!!

      Everyone also needs a .22 rifle (10/22 or Marlin 60/795).

      Bare bones 5 guns
      Defensive carbine
      Real rifle
      Shotgun
      Pistol
      .22 rifle

      But 10 guns would be far preferable

    • I’ll dispute that as well.

      1. AR in 6.5 Grendel
      2. Glock 30S – 11 rounds of concealable .45
      3. Semiauto .22LR rifle of your choice.

      Don’t not need nothing else.

      • I like both of these lists. My .22 Marlin and Mossberg pump are just for fun, but they could be used for other purposes.

        I’ve been looking for a reasonably priced, decent quality 16″ 6.5 Grendel upper. 18″ & 20″ barrels seem to be easier to find. Any ideas? Right now it looks like PSA is the best bet if they’re ever in stock.

        • The 18 will get you additional velocity, range, and accuracy over the 16. At 20 things start to get unwieldy for home defense tile cqb. I build my own so I can’t comment on brands of complete uppers.

    • And .22LR

      You always need .22LR. I just popped an intrusive ground squirrel yesterday that had been wreaking havoc on my back hill and eating decorative plants. Not too sure I could get away with using the AR-15 for that in my neighborhood.

  4. Ditto on an AR. I love to shoot mine. That translates to confidence and familiarity. Not so with my shotgun.I don’t hunt or compete. I hated to shoot it. Also 30+1(or 29,28)beats the hell out of 7+1(or 5). My one gun is an AR15. And my handguns. After that a beater shotgun…if I had $ to burn I’d get a high-end semi-automatic shottie.

  5. “.223 round produces similar muzzle energy to full-house loads of .44 Magnum”

    I say this as a 5.56/AR fan, but that statement is misleading. Just because a round, any round for that matter, produces as much muzzle energy as a different round, doesn’t mean those rounds cause the same amount of damage. Point blank/short range, a .44 mag is going to do a great deal of more damage then 5.56. The size and weight of the .44 assure that. That doesn’t mean 5.56 is nothing to sneeze at, at close range it too is devastating, especially XM193.

  6. The issue in the 1986 FBI Miami shootout was NOT under penetration. Most of it was piss poor strategy and tactics followed up by poor marksmanship, and capped off by barrel of monkeys crap.

    1)The FBI got made
    2)by lining up 8 rather obvious cars of agents behind
    3)2 known to be violent
    4)and well armed bank and armored car robbers
    5)with military experience and training.
    6)They ran the bad guys off the road,
    7)getting 2 FBI cars pinned.
    8)Those who had body armor had it in the trunk or back seat. No agents were wearing it.
    9)Several shotguns flew off of back seats in the wreck or were in trunks and were not available for the fight.
    10)at least 1 agent lost his handgun in the wreck
    11)The guy who was supposedly the best pistol marksman in the entire FBI at the time lost his glasses in the crash and couldn’t hit shit.
    12)in fact all of the agents mostly missed,
    13)which gave the bad guy (singular, as the other bad guy was knocked unconscious early on and only fired one shot which also missed everyone) plenty of time to walk around and shoot agents with his mini 14
    13)while he was bleeding out from a 9mm limb arterial through and through
    14)They were mostly carrying .357 revolvers loaded with .38 specials.

    There is more but I don’t have time for a comprehensive list. Afterward the FBI were not men enough to admit that they screwed the pooch and instead blamed the Winchester silver tip of OVER PENETRATING, not under penetrating.

    Paul Harrel has a great video on it on youtube, and the interviews of and panels with the surviving agents who were involved are on youtube as well.

    • That’s a really good rundown. Also want to add to the recommendation of Paul Harrell’s video, it’s an excellent ~30 minute breakdown with demonstrations of what the agents were facing:

    • If you want to see the importants of firepower. Simply look to the North Hollywood bank robbery. Several years ago. Lots of video out there. Police had to break into either a pawn shop or gun store to get long guns. They also had no body armor. While the bad guys were sporting AK’s and full body armor. Hundreds of rounds fired by both sides. One perp was shot and bled out. The other took a head shot.

      • They didn’t break in.
        ” Police “came in a panic because their weapons weren’t good enough to fight these people,” said the store’s president, who would identify himself only as Bob. “These people had body armor and they needed something that would break body armor,” he said. “We supplied them with slugs that would at least break bones on someone wearing body armor.”
        -http://www.cnn.com/US/9702/28/shootout.update/

      • The po-po didn’t break into the gun store – they drove up and walked inside to ask for some better guns. This was B&B Gun Sales. They’re closed now, as I remember.

        This gun store, BTW, was the very same one where I bought my Glock 19 in 1988.

        Yes, I own two Glocks. No, I don’t think they’re ‘perfection.’

    • It’s also funny how the FBI blamed the 9mm Parabellum, which they had recently adopted to replace the stalwart .45ACP, as lacking performance. They couldn’t go back to the .45ACP as this would admit to making a mistake, so they adopted the 10mm. But 10mm was too much for many agents so the load was lightened. Then someone realized the 10mm FBI could be put into a shorter case resulting in .40S&W.

    • The fact that so much about law enforcement firearms was changed based on one ‘what if’ ballistic question from one shootout is kind of insane.

      • one .223 bolt- action rifle with a telescopic sight…tucked away in the trunk of a squad car…would have made a lot of difference…two head shots at about 100 yds would have ended it quickly…now they’ve opted for AR’s…which means lead flying all over the place…

  7. Whether or not an AR-15 is the best choice if you can only own a single firearm depends on which scenarios you want to consider.

    Assuming that we are talking about:
    (1) male and female operators
    (2) most ages (perhaps age 10 through 90 years old)
    (3) recreation
    (4) self-defense
    (5) hunting
    (6) good times AND societal collapse

    Then I am going to have to disagree. The best overall firearm to satisfy all those requirements is a semi-automatic rifle with a 16-inch barrel chambered in .22 LR with the longest possible tube magazine under the barrel.

    Young children and senior citizens with limited strength — and everyone in between both male and female — can handle a rifle with a 16-inch barrel chambered in .22 LR.

    A rifle with 16-inch barrel chambered in .22 LR is also an excellent recreational platform and small game hunting platform. And while it is lacking for medium game hunting, it will do the job reliably if the shooter can make headshots on medium game, as poachers have demonstrated for 100 years. Obviously, that platform cannot take birds in flight. While shotguns are the only platform for hunting birds in flight, I dare say that about 2/3rds of the population between the ages of 10 and 90 cannot handle a shotgun.

    In terms of self-defense, while .22 LR is definitely sub-optimal, a semi-automatic rifle will do the job effectively in probably 97% or more of scenarios. (A single .22 caliber, 40 grain bullet isn’t a great fight stopper — several .22 caliber, 40 grain bullets fired rapidly are a pretty good fight stopper. Hence the qualifier that this single firearm is a semi-automatic rifle.)

    Last but not least, I see this semi-automatic rifle chambered in .22 LR being an excellent choice in both good times and during societal collapse.

    That fact that about 2/3rds of people cannot handle a shotgun disqualifies shotguns. The fact that AR-15s are overpowered for harvesting small game, underpowered for medium-game, and too much to handle for younger children and elderly adults disqualifies AR-15s as well. That is why I claim that a semi-automatic rifle chambered in .22 LR with a tube magazine is the best single firearm for all possible applications and scenarios.

    • I think you make a pretty good argument for 22lr with the exception of the tube mag. I’ve had a Marlin 60 for 30 years and I’d toss it for a decent 10/22 in a heartbeat. Reloading a tube mag under fire would be a bad scene. Better yet would be an AR in 5.56 plus a 22lr upper.

      • My preferred 22 is a Smith m&p 15-22 – a 25 round mag fed AR. Tons of fun, kids love it because it looks military and scary, in a cool way!

  8. In a city suburb neighborhood where the houses are practically on top of each other, and for in home self defense I have a 12ga with a light on it ready to go as well as a pistol with light/laser sighted at 25 feet zero. This makes the pistol a point and shoot where the dot is. While I have an AR I don’t use it for this purpose. But with the question of “only one gun” and if that were the only gun I’d have the rest of my life I’d probably take the AR or handgun (with it’s 17rd magazines). A tuned up 92A1 or Colt M4 would be just fine with me.

  9. There’s no winning a post that begins with, “If can only own one gun….” but it’s always fun to watch the action. 🙂

    • This is what we gun folks love to do, argue about gear! Many fun hours and beers spent doing just that. Ultimately nobody’s right or wrong but it’s still a great exercise. Btw, I’ve never nor will I ever own a shotgun. Never felt as if I needed one.

  10. I don’t really understand the worry about sights on a rifle in a house. Just line up the barrel. Unless I suppose you have some 100 ft square ballroom. The longest sight line in my house is probably 30 feet, maybe 40 from corner to corner.

    A handgun is an entirely different matter.

  11. No such thing as only one firearm. Maybe one of each type. Rifle I’d be hard pressed to choose between my HK-91 or my Scout Rifle. Depend on circumstances. Like to have both. Anyway .308. Handgun? 1911. A quality bolt .22 LR. Maybe a Marlin 39. Shotgun? Take it or leave it.

      • Never heard of a 12 gauge deer slug? 2000 fps and 2684 ft lbs at the muzzle, 1640 fps and 1800 ft lbs at 100 yds…. Not my choice, but better than throwing rocks and sticks would not underestimate it…

        • Maxx, of course I’ve heard of rifled slugs. Mostly shot Breneke. What’s the hold over in feet at 150 yards?

        • The hold-over for a Brenneke slug at 150 yards, assuming the gun is zero’ed for 75 yards, is about 15 to 18″.

          The simple rule for slugs goes like this: Zero for 75 yards. Aim for the chin – you’ll hit him somewhere between his eyes and his nuts from 0 to 200 yards.

        • Dyspeptic, I would rather hold on hair at least to 300 yards. Maybe that’s just me. Rifle.

  12. I find articles like this to be a tad ridiculous. Everyone has an opinion and like butts, some don’t wipe good enough😂😂
    Even if you only start with one gun, you’ll soon own two, and from there, you’re only limited by your budget as to how many guns you’ll end up with (really it’s dependent upon how many ramen noodle lunches and dinners you can subsist on). The Gun Bug, once it bites you, is never satisfied with ”one gun.”

  13. AR, AR, AR, yada, yada, yada. You pic ONE AR but its going to have LIMITATIONS. Pick a AR rifle or carbine length is great in the open but handicapped in a vehicle transitioning side to side to front to back. It is also handicapped in real close quarters of structures, you will wollow that barrel around instead of getting on the threat.

    You can go with a AR Pistol but that still requires a buffer tube which most folks cover with a brace while you give up velicoty and longer range accuracy with that short barrel and still only cut a few inches in OAL.

    A hybrid AR with a folding buffer/stock doesn’t fire folded so your still not very compact while operational. Hybrid rifle or pistol folders still have the above limitations too.

    What does work, folded or not is a rifle/pistol with a true Gas Piston System that doesn’t have cycling mechanisms outside the rear of the receiver. Examples are AKs and Sig 556/ P556 (uses AR Mags), 556R (uses AK mags). True Gas Pistons run cleaner, cooler and won’t burn off your lube like an AR either.

    One gun? Gas Piston but for those who have barked up the wrong tree, it’s too late.

  14. If you only own one, it should be an everyday carry. Not too small usually, something that is comfortable and holds at least 10 rounds. Plus an extra mag to carry as well.

  15. If you can only afford to own seven or eight or so long guns ….

    Ruger 10/22, a big pile of 10 and 25 round mags, 10,000 or more rounds of various .22LR ammo on hand.

    AR-15, .223/5.56, so darned many magazines you quit buying them on sale because you’ve loaded up more than you can carry in a backpack and still have some packages unopened. Similar ammo supply to the Ruger above.

    Another AR-15 at least, because you bought it first and later saw a more interesting deal.

    AR-10, 7.62 NATO. I admit it, I want one, ain’t got one. Have to get by with my .30-06 bolt guns (a 1938 Remington for one, plus a very much newer Ruger), of which I’ve a couple.

    Mossberg 500 or 590A1 12ga pump, plus a stack of boxes of shells way more than you have ever put thru shotguns anyhow. Plus, the bayonet for the 590A1, just because …. but hell I’ve both Mossbergs so that one’s kinda’ well covered.

    A .22WMR bolt gun from Ruger, because it just looked like so dang much fun.

    Then there’s the Garcia Bronco .22S/L/LR Bicycle gun, a very old FIE import. Paid $5 for it as a boy, never letting that crazy thing go!

    Then there’s all them hand guns. Sheesh!

    So there’s the trouble. If you can afford more than one gun, trying to come up with a real convincing answer to “If you can only own one” is nigh on to impossible.

    Couldit be “If you can only afford one closet full” instead?

    Some folks would be hard pressed to cut down to just one closet full!

  16. AR-15s are lightweight, decent ones are affordable. The ammo is super lightweight and also affordable. It’s really a brilliant design. It’s an absolutely well balanced set of trade-offs.

    Unlike, for example, a 1911 .45, which i own and love to shoot. 1911’s are low capacity, heavy, relatively expensive, and the ammo is heavy for it’s capability. Fun, but not practical in a hypothetical “one gun universe” scenario.

    BUT…why the artificial limit to one gun? Why not an AR-15 with 30 or even 60 round p-mags and a P320 with 21-round mags? Gee, if some one had only thought about the combo of an AR platform mated with a M17, er P320 backup weapon…

  17. The recent downturn has made me evaluate my firearm hierarchy in the event that I must start divesting. First go the “fun guns,” then the 870, then on down the line of misery.

    I think a AR and a G19 will be the last standing members of my collection. Hopefully it never comes to that.

  18. No doubt the gun of choice for ammosexuals,chicks and killers of 2nd grade children is the AR-15 Rambo edition. Just don’t forget the jungle Uts and cartridge belt

      • newbie gun buyers could care less about all this…they just want something that shoots and can scare the bad guys away…a cheap pistol will do in town…a shotgun or AR out in the country…they’ll probably opt for whatever they can get their hands on quickly…….

  19. Joe No! Sez:
    Pair firearms in the same caliber,
    S&W 686 in .357mag & lever action .357mag/.38sp.
    Or
    A 0.9mm pistol & carbine 0.9mm

  20. The beauty of the AR platform is that it can handle any caliber round. I have a wall full of ARs in 15 and 10, they cover calibers from .22lr all the way up to a .50bmg, and that’s on a AR15 lower. There’s more options coming out all the time. I’m on the waiting list at Big horn armory for their new AR500 super max. We’re talking about a .50 caliber bullet on a case the length of a .308

  21. Sam, PLEASE get an editor! Your grammar is atrocious for someone who is writing online articles and touting firearms ownership. We don’t need people speaking for us who can’t put a sentence together, it only gives fuel to the idea that firearms owners are a bunch of morons. Don’t fill the stereotype, use an editor!

  22. I only have one gun. A single shot .22 lr bolt action. All the others fell out of the canoe on the way to the lake house last year.

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