I've been working as a firearms and ammo salesman (and thusly, a consultant) in a storefront gun shop in northwestern Montana for the past few years now. My firearms experience far predates my time there in other gun-related industries. However, I have had the benefit of learning a great bit more (and still am) regarding firearms, ammo and the unique perspectives and applications of the end users. The day I stop learning is the day I stop breathing.
I get asked all the time, “What's better, an AK or AR?” or “Mossberg 500 or Remington 870?” or currently the most common, “Glock or XD?” My answers vary, but usually begin with my own personal preferences but I go to on ask their unique requirements and mindset. Most are not expecting my answers, as I base my responses after asking a few questions of my own. A few include but are not limited to: “What would you primarily be using it for?”; “What is your level of firearms experience?”, or “What is your budget?”
There has been endless debates about firearms and calibers ever since the Internet was born, and long before that. I'm not going to get into such arguments, as I find both sides to any of them totally myopic at best. Let us look outside of the box of such constrained paradigms and use a simple analogy: firearms are tools. How you set up your toolbox simply relates to the number of jobs you can tackle in as many different ways. You can't approach every task with just a hammer in your toolbox and expect top-notch results every time.
Let's start with handguns. Other than reliability and accuracy, one of the most important selection criteria for any given user would be how it feels in the hand. If it's not comfortable in your hand, it's already not a good fit. Whichever pistol feels like it was made for your hand (and points naturally when extending your shooting hand) should be a finalist in your selection. This should help narrow the field greatly. While one might do lots of product research online or in books, you really must handle them in person to feel their ergonomics, balance and ease of operating the manual of arms. Keep in mind that many new pistol models come with multiple backstraps for differing grip-size options.
A handgun is akin to a longsword of old. As a sidearm, its purpose was two-fold: as a secondary backup weapon to a longarm, and as personal carry weapon in more commonplace settings throughout daily life. It should fit the shooter in both ergonomics and function as defined by that user, and it will fill both roles nicely. A few makes/models I'd suggest starting with worth looking into are Glock, Smith&Wesson M&P, FN FNS (very recently introduced) and Springfield XDM. There are more, but those four are all good pistols to start looking at.
Longarms, on the other hand, are more specific in their roles. While there are many designs that can be considered multi-role, I would only consider this if you could only own one longarm. For some, financial constraints prevent them from filling out their toolbox with tools for all perceivable roles. I shall elaborate further, as I find longarms really do need a bit more in-depth coverage.
Whether it be a truck-rifle, ranch-rifle, home-defense rifle, personal-defense rifle, battle rifle or hunting rifle, if you can only own one firearm, it is my opinion that it should be a rifle. But if you can own more than one, then I'll outline my personal take on the best for each task. I'll now break down each of the most common rifles available in the United States, and the roles in which they shine (and potentially why you should consider one of each).
1.) AR family of rifles chambered in 5.56mm NATO. Specifically, the carbines. I'm not a big fan of the 20" rifles unless scoped, as if you're going to carry a 9 pound weapon, you might as well carry a battle rifle and double your power.
Why you should have one: They are ubiquitous. Parts, parts and more parts. Modularity and uniformity of parts make this weapon unparalleled in user-customized rifles. There are so many factory and aftermarket parts for them, it's hard to keep track. Other than a few variables such as front-sight-block height or carbine-buffer-tube exterior diameter (Military vs. Commercial), they are pretty much plug-and-play. Having multiple uppers for a single lower (the actual firearm) makes it for a versatile weapon to begin your battery with. Ergonomics of this weapon are excellent. Also, they are a lot more reliable and robust than many keyboard commandos would have you think.
They are (the carbines) lightweight. Very, very lightweight. Unloaded, my 14.5” barrel (with a +2” permanently pinned/welded Phantom II Flash-Hider to make it of legal 16"+ overall barrel length) A1 configuration AR carbine weighs in at around 6.5 lbs, unloaded (including a sling and a TA44SG-10 Compact ACOG 1.5x16mm optic). Having a weapon this small, maneuverable and lightweight makes it my favorite for filling the role of a Personal Defense Weapon (PDW). The ammo is also very lightweight and one could carry many more rounds per pound than most other offerings. Also, they are inherently very accurate, even with standard aperture sights.
Where I would use it: Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP), any long-duration traveling on foot, or potential CQB scenarios inside or around buildings. Point being, if I wanted to stay alive (but not stand my ground and fight, or assault a fortified location), to survive and break contact, this is the weapon I want. Lots of rounds can be put on target, accurately, with minimal recoil, in a very short period of time. Even if I just had to keep a threat's head down long enough for me to get away alive, it's perfect for it.
Drawbacks: Limited effective range. While the 5.56mm can hit targets accurately out to 700 meters, I would not rely on this cartridge to cause any reliable, consistent results on a live target past 500 meters (450 meters in a 14.5”to 16” carbine barrel.) Its pronounced wounding properties on soft-tissue usually expires past 200 meters, if not closer. Also, while it has great potential in steel penetration and intermediate to closer ranges, it lacks in penetrating thick cover (such as bricks, cinder-blocks, jersey barriers or trees) or plowing through things like branches or shrubs, as it is easily thrown off trajectory by the littlest contact. Also, ARs can often times be ammo-sensitive. Don't shoot lacquered steel-cased ammo through them. Don't do it. Test a box of the polymer-coated steel-cased ammo first before you buy a case of it, to make sure your AR can digest it.
Must-Haves: The McFarland 1-piece gas ring. In my opinion, this $4 part corrects the weakest link in the traditional design, the flimsy, easily worn-out 3-piece gas rings. If you are using a quality, in-spec bolt and carrier, it's a no-brainer. I put one on every AR I build/customize if I can. I have yet heard of any negative feedback from anyone I've personally dealt with who uses this product. I'm absolutely smitten with mine.
Also, the Bravo Company Gunfighter charging handle
is very important, as it removes the weak part (the standard USGI charging handle) if manipulating it in a left-hand side-grasp technique (fastest and most economical motion in AR operation), and replaces it with a part specifically designed to withstand the torque and loads applied when repeatedly using the side-grasp charging technique.
The Magpul B.A.D. Lever. Try one out if you can, you'll cut your reload time in half, and the same goes for clearing stoppages.
2.) AK-47 / AKM family of rifles chambered in 7.62x39. The 5.45x39 variants, while great and accurate rifles, are simply not available enough (especially the ammo).
Why you should have one: Tough as nails. While not jam-proof (most stoppages are attributed to bad/dented steel magazines, underpowered ammo or roughly machined bolt-carrier reset hump shoulders from factory reject parts--which is easily correctable), most of the time they are boringly reliable. They really don't have anything on them that will wear out, except for maybe the barrel way down the road. And if you're using a good rifle with an as-new hammer-forged, chrome-lined ComBloc or Chinese barrel, your barrel-life will see 30,000-to-40,000 rounds before your groups start to open up. If built with proper parts, headspaced correctly and/or assembled by a competent smith (such as T. Mark Graham of Arizona Response Systems, one of the best), they are more than reasonably accurate too if you feed it with good ammo (like Golden Tiger).
While not as light as the AR carbines, these carbines balance well and are usually found to weigh between 7-8 pounds unloaded (depending on furniture and magazine composition). They are the jack-of-all-trades carbine. While they are only really best as a super-reliable "all weather rifle" (by "all weather", I mean the '-40C frozen with ice inside the action and still goes bang' kind of "all weather"), they don't excel in any one area. But they can do everything pretty darn well (except for long-range sniping).
The 7.62x39 cartridge has a high case-taper to it, so feeding and extracting issues are almost nonexistent. The round is powerful, significantly more powerful than the 5.56mm round and can regularly shatter cinder-blocks or punch through 8" trees or brick walls (turning cover for your target into mere concealment). Shooting through branches or brush does not alter the bullet's trajectory very much. Though not as flat-shooting as the AR carbines in 5.56mm, the user can easily adjust the elevation of the sights and reach maximum effective range with reasonable accuracy, if you're using quality ammo. It has an effective range of about 500 meters if you have good glass on it, or you have really good eyesight with the less-than stellar irons.
If I were being randomly dropped into somewhere on planet earth at random, and I didn't know where, and I could take only one weapon, I'd pick an AKM.
Where I would use it: Anywhere and everywhere. Ideally, if I expected I might run into a potential firefight, I'd want it. While it can serve quite well as a PDW, it's better used in that role in intermediate to short-range foot-travel. It serves well as a convoy or truck rifle (especially the AKMS models with folding stocks). It's a great rifle for taking ground as it's light enough to be carried while moving fast, and still packs plenty of wallop for fighting your way to the objective. Its sights lend itself well to CQB use, though the weapon being slightly heavier than an AR, it's not quite as fast handling. Even if used as a defensive position weapon or suppressive-fire weapon, it would be more than adequate if the user knew how to employ it as such. Ergonomics of this weapon are fair, so long as you realize it's not an AR and don't try to operate it like one. It is also an effective hunting rifle, with ballistics similar to the venerable .30-30 (but with better range).
Drawbacks: While the iron sights can have their elevation adjusted out to 1,000 meters, anything beyond 500 meters is leaning more towards area-targeting than point-targeting. The sights were originally made to be fast-acquisition, and they excel in this role, however, they lack the precision to reach the weapon's own accuracy potential of firing at max-effective range. Feed an AK with good boat-tail ammo and use a good sighting system and you'll see the tales of their inaccuracy to be mostly exaggerated. The ergonomics do take a little bit of retraining for most Americans to get used to. Also, recoil is more pronounced (as comes with higher energy) than ARs. Ammo is very available and inexpensive, but the quality varies greatly. While all will likely go "bang" with much regularity, the variance in accuracy and power between brands is very eye-opening. The ammo is a bit heavier than 5.56mm so carrying the standard combat load of 210 rounds is going to weigh a pound or two more than as with fully-loaded 30 round AR mags.
Must-Haves: Bulgarian Circle-10 Magazines. There are no better AK mags. Period. They can be expensive, but they are worth it. They wont dent, they are lightweight, constructed in an eloquent amalgam of a steel cage in a polymer body, and fit and function flawlessly. Oh, did I mention they are tough as nails too?
If you want to update your sights, I suggest either Tech-Sights (for dedicated iron sights) or Texas Weapon Systems Dog-Leg scope rail (with optional rear peep included). The irons of either will almost double your sight radius and will likely cut your group sizes in half. Also, the addition of the Dog-Leg scope will allow for many optics options.
If you want to keep your existing sights but want to add a fast-acquisition forward sighting system, I'd start with the Ultimak AK rail which replaces your factory gas-tube.
Good Ammo. I say again: Good Ammo. Wolf/TulAmmo/Bear will work just fine for most general training purposes (close-range type training), but I suggest Golden Tiger (Vympel) for your standard all-purpose load. It's consistently loaded (and loaded a bit warmer than the others--about as warm as it should be), accurate (using boat-tail bullets is a plus), sealed from moisture and lacquered for long-term storage. Unless you can find some surplus, brass-cased Finnish Lapua or Portuguese 7.62x39, then buy some Golden Tiger.
3.) A 7.62mm NATO Battle Rifle. Any that fits you, your budget and your shooting style best. Whether it be an FN/ FAL, M1A, HK91 or AR-10 format, all are good, accurate and reliable rifles if built by reputable companies. They all fulfill their roles as battle rifles very well.
Why you should have one: Accuracy. Range. Power. Lots and lots of power. The ultimate hold-the-line weapon. If you have your back up against a wall, and you need to dig in and defend your home from the worst of worst-case-scenarios (gang of armed marauders or worse), they'll do the trick. If you aren't bothered by their weight or bulk, the fact that they all seem to balance fairly well (with maybe with the exception of the HK91, though that is largely personal opinion and will vary) lends to their role.
They will punch through most of what would be considered cover for the other two aforementioned calibers. A 7.62mm NATO round will likely split an engine block with a single hit. It has twice the energy of a 5.56mm at the muzzle and roughly five times the energy of a 5.56mm at 600 meters. There is a reason these are referred to as "battle rifles". If you are behind cover or laying prone and need to lay down some hard-hitting, longer-range firepower, accept no substitutes.
Where will I use it: LP/OP or guard duty, road or gate sentry duty. Holding the line. Garrison use. Stopping threats in a vehicle, or the vehicle itself (most conventional vehicles, anyway). It's a great for hunting too. Scoped and accurized, they make great designated marksmen rifles or counter-sniper rifles.
Drawbacks: They are heavy, significantly heavier than the other two mentioned carbines, weighing in at around 9-9.5lbs unloaded and 10-11lbs loaded. The ammo is heavy too, so one wouldn't be able to carry as much ammo as with either of the other two unless one could handle an extra 5+ lbs. They also have quite the muzzle blast, so I would avoid shooting them indoors, under an overhang or against a wall without double hearing protection. Also, they have significant recoil. Not unmanageable, but still, it's there.
Must-Haves: Magazines. Lots and lots of Magazines. Good, serviceable, quality magazines. Good quality ammo that is accurate in your rifle. A good sling. Beyond that, it's up to you.
Before closing, let me talk a little on calibers. Pistol calibers to be more specific. Selecting a pistol caliber is less important as it once was twenty years ago. Ammunition brand selection is far more critical now than caliber selection. Cartridge development (mostly powders and projectiles) have come a very long way in a very short time.
The most used pistol cartridges are 9x19mm Luger, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. Again, these have been the hot subject of many an Internet debate. I hate to break it to you, but they're all equally good. If you select the right weapon that can handle the most powerful loads offered for each caliber (+P and +P+), you'll wind up with three calibers that can pump out approximately the same net muzzle energy and that open up to roughly the same diameter (~.75-.80") within the first few inches of soft-tissue. I've spoken with many an EMT, Paramedic and medical examiner (several of whom are friends of mine) and they tell me the wounds all look the same, and that the caliber can only really be determined when the bullet is extracted (if any) and the base diameter is measured.
9x19mm is still the cheapest to buy, so training makes it the most accessible for those who don't have time to handload. With bulk 9mm NATO ammo readily available (with comparable energy to most +P defense loads), one can easily mimic the recoil characteristics, point of aim and energy on target as their favorite defense loads without burning up $1 per round (or more) as seen in the premium defense ammunition.
Whatever caliber you decide on for your handgun of choice, get lots of ammo, train hard, and make your shots count. Shot-placement is far more critical with handguns than with centerfire rifles. I hear the cliché phrase "stopping-power" used so much, it makes me cringe. Let me dispel that term a bit. It takes less than 3ft/lbs of energy penetrating into the cerebellum to kill a person instantly. How is that for having enough power to "stop" someone? Physically, the only way to stop any threat instantly is a central-nervous system shot. The rest deals with shock-trauma or differing psychological responses to being shot, followed by the potential of bleeding out and/or some kind of bodily incapacitation.
If two loads, say a .45 ACP and a 9mm Luger both expand to roughly the same diameter (~.78"), and both penetrate roughly 12" in soft-tissue, and subsequently both having roughly 365ft/lbs of energy each (which they do, if we're talking about your average-power loads), the bad guy isn't going to be able to tell a difference, because the same energy is transferred across the same medium over the same distance (thus energy transference is the same).
There are too many variables to take into account, one cannot simply paint this sort of thing with a broad brush. I'm merely trying to illustrate that when it comes to power, penetration, energy deposition and expansion, the three main pistol calibers found in the U.S. now overlap each other in performance much more than they used to (I could make a Venn Diagram but really, it's not necessary). The FBI has done well over 30 years of testing, and surprise surprise, all three calibers (in the right loads/manufacturers) meet their requirements and then some.
When selecting a type of defense load, you'll want something that will carry as much of its energy into the target as possible, without passing through with any remainder. Point being: a round that will not pass through the target will release all of its remaining energy into said target. For handgun defense ammo, I have a few favorites that would all serve you well: Speer Gold Dot +P (185 grain for .45, 165 grain for .40 and 124 grain for 9mm), Winchester Bonded PDX1 (basically an updated Black Talon), Cor-Bon DPX or anything from DoubleTap. For those who want super-efficient, reliable-feeding projectiles in loads that are more conducive to the recoil-sensitive (or if shooting from sub-compact pistols), I suggest Hornady FTX Critical Defense. It's one heck of a cartridge, and surprisingly affordable.
In the end, if you, your family or your survival group all already have a ton of one specific handgun caliber, I'd suggest getting a handgun that fits your hand in that caliber and buying tons of ammo for it. Be choosy in the brand and load for your caliber, but don't get too caught up in "picking the right caliber" when it comes to handguns. Whichever caliber you already have the most access to, that's the one I'd focus on.
For more detailed information regarding handgun caliber load data, check out Ballistics101.com, it's a great resource.
Again, this is all merely my take on this subject. I'm simply one guy who's livelihood depends upon it. I'm not asking anyone to take me at my word. Do your own experimenting, chronographing, ballistics testing, penetration testing, torture testing, etc. and come to your own conclusions. I've spent a lot of time and money doing the above (initially simply for myself and my own restless curiosity) and maybe you can benefit from it and save a little in your firearms/ammo purchases so you can use the money you saved for other critical preparations (like food, first-aid, cutlery, clothing, logistical gear, training, etc.)
And remember: keep an ear to the ground, and eye to the sky, your hatchet sharp and your powder dry.