It’s not news to anyone that the American political system is unstable. One of the symptoms of this is that whenever it reaches a critical point (eg, every Presidential election), there’s a whiff of danger in the air. No one is quite certain if the guy who promised to disarm the kulaks by nuking Montana and New Hampshire, or the woman who promised to send death squads to the doors of any recalcitrant population, are going to follow through with it. No one is quite sure if there will be an Incident and maybe the whole thing is called off (or worse, goes forward under a haze of illegitimacy). Everyone thinks it’s fairly plausible it could be the Last Election, or at least the last contested one. This is not good for the national psyche. It is very good for gun prices.
There was a massive 2016 Hillary hangover in the firearms market that brought prices to rock bottom after 8 years of intermittent panic buying. By “rock bottom”, I mean “reliably N% above the cost of raw materials”, barely enough to keep the lights on unless you’re doing serious volume or targeting a price-insensitive niche market. This circumstance is unlikely to continue based purely on inventory depletion, especially now that someone has invoked the mkultra put to start the Reasonable Commonsense Discussion on why we’ve let prices get this low.
What this means for you, regrettably unarmed reader (if you’re never caught lackin, feel free to skip this), is that it’s not exactly time to “panic buy” (that has the connotation of overpaying), but it is a prudent time to invest (“it’s an investment honey”) in a durable good that almost certainly maintains value above some floor, and might come in very handy. This is oriented to people on a budget getting something serviceable for general usage that they might upgrade from later.
Buy a handgun
The nice thing about handguns is 1) they fit in one hand, and 2) you can conceal them. This makes them ideal for walking through areas of intermittent danger where it’s prudent to not appear to be armed, and for situations where you’d like to have a hand free for manipulating doorknobs and driving wheels and such. That is why you get it first, before the rifle.
You want a 9mm striker fired semiautomatic double-stack compact. At the gun store this basically means “something Glock 19 sized”. Many people find it surprising that Glock is actually a premium brand in this segment, mostly on the strength of brand recognition and reputation rather than objective features. Find a reasonably stocked local gun store and compare some combination of a Glock 19, Smith & Wesson M&P 2.0 Compact 4″ 9mm, Walther PPQ M2 4″ 9mm, and a CZ P10c. This is the “midsized sedan” segment of the gun market, it is crowded and there are very few bad options that survive (aside from the Springfield brand, for mechanical reasons I will not elaborate on). Glock 19 should be your default here unless something else feels great and saves you a decent amount of money – its popularity means it retains value if you ever want to switch, and you can find accessories (holsters, magazines, springs, etc) everywhere. Don’t be afraid to get a used or police trade-in version, the durability works in your favor.
The gun will feel huge and conspicuous at first. You will be tempted to downsize. Resist the urge. Experience shows you should be able to conceal something this size if you need to with appropriate holster and clothing, to the point where you’re not going to get SWAT’d at Whole Foods. People downsize for comfort and wardrobe compatibility – in other words, luxury. In contrast there are many practical situations where you would want 15 rounds versus the 8 or so you get with smaller options.
Then buy a rifle
Rifles are the concrete targets of the bullshit currently iterating through Congress and the White House, not because they are macro-scale deadly (more people are kicked to death than are killed by long guns of all kinds), but because they are politically significant in that they allow organized groups to hold territory (not so much seize it, but that’s another discussion). The effective standard rifle of the Western world is the AR-15 platform. This description is underspecified – the platform covers dozens of manufacturers and assemblers, at prices from $350 to $3500, in a variety of calibers, for a variety of uses.
What we’re looking for is something relatively lightweight, cost effective, and useful for torso-silhouette sized targets out to about 300 yards. Many people will advise you to build your rifle, because you save a little bit of money, can set it up how you want it, and learn about the platform. I will say the opposite – buy off the rack. You don’t know how you want it set up yet, having not used one; saving money requires searching for fluctuating deals on parts; and you need a few relatively specialized tools to assemble (which are not expensive, but blow away the savings on your first one). Complete off-the-rack rifles retain value better than parts builds, so it is easy enough to sell it and build something later. In the mean time, you have a useful & supported rifle. Here are some decent options, evenly spaced from about 500 to 700 bucks (as of right now):
- Ruger AR-556. This is a good option in the “budget” segment that includes Palmetto State Armory’s various offerings, Smith & Wesson M&P Sport II, etc. It regularly goes on sale, and I see it more frequently on shelves than any competitor. The barrel is somewhat nicer than the alternative options at the same price point, and it’s well regarded as a baseline option. It does come with sights already installed, which is good if your budget doesn’t presently support getting an optic. Every rifle in this segment makes some idiosyncratic compromises versus the way the US Army determined was ideal for their usage – in the case of the AR-556, the barrel is not coated on the inside with anything in particular, and is made from a slightly cheaper alloy of steel. It is however made via a process, cold-hammer forging, that increases durability. This all doesn’t matter that much; other examples of this sort of barrel only deteriorate around 10K rounds of heavy usage, which is about 5x the cost of the rifle in ammunition, and accuracy is on par with competitors.
- Ruger MPR. This is an upgraded version of the above that has much nicer ergonomics, barrel (treated with a nitride process that increases durability to effectively indefinite), and better expected accuracy (nothing is touching the barrel, meaning pressure on it doesn’t change from shot to shot) for about a hundred bucks more. The barrel is 2 inches longer, which doesn’t sound like much, unless you find yourself using it indoors.
- Sig M400 Tread. For whatever reason, these are cheapish at a lot of online retailers right now compared to what you get, which includes a very accurate stainless steel barrel, some very nice ambidextrous controls, and comfy furniture.
In terms of sights and optics, we’re optimizing for < 300 yards because in many areas it is difficult to practice over that distance. Short-range optics are faster up close and don’t need to be calibrated as much as optics that try to do everything. If you live in the rural West and are trying to nail coyotes from over the horizon, or are shooting for groups as opposed to hits anywhere on a silhouette, your setup should differ.
Ignoring those scenarios, you really only have two options.
- Magpul polymer backup sights plus a red dot (or just a red dot if your rifle already came with sights). Red dot can be Primary Arms with a riser to bring it up to the right height (if you have a fixed front sight, go with the “1/3 cowitness” model, otherwise the “absolute cowitness” one, but it doesn’t really matter). Alternatively you can often find a nice bundle or discount on the Sig Romeo 5. These red dots last for literally about 5 years on a battery, and are very fast to work with. The backup sights are for when the electronics die or the battery itself suffers a failure. The major problem is if you wear scratched glasses or have astigmatism – the “dot” can be blurry or starbursted and unusable.
- 1x prism scope, from Primary Arms or Vortex (older version of the Vortex with different battery setup is cheap right now when you can find them on clearance). These operate very similarly in practical terms to a red dot, accommodate astigmatism and scratched glasses, and are usable without a battery (in daylight at least). The lack of dependence on electronics means I’m comfortable running these without backup sights; the lower battery life means if you plan on using it in a hurry in the dark you need to regularly change batteries.
Some people will advise you instead to get a 1-4x or 1-6x low power variable scope, or a fixed magnification prism scope. That 3x prism scope in particular is very nice for 300ish bucks, and magnification does help for accuracy and target identification. The complications that arise are the extra weight, bulk, and expense; less flexible eye boxes and mounting options (eg, you need to have more consistent eye placement to use them correctly), and some reticles are not to everyone’s taste. Essentially, when you expand the portfolio of options, there are more tradeoffs to consider, so for a first general usage rifle I recommend something as simple as possible.
Don’t forget mags and ammo
Get a 10-pack of 30 round mags (either Magpul or Okay), however many pistol magazines it takes to get you to 3, and a thousand rounds of bulk FMJ for each. For 5.56 rifle ammunition, Wolf Gold (the “gold” is important), Federal, or IMI will do the trick. For 9mm, something like Federal, Sellier & Bellot, or Fiocchi. Use ammoseek to find the best prices. Factor in shipping.
FMJ in a rifle is adequate though not ideal for defensive purposes. Because the potential for distance and accuracy is greater, in my estimation I’d rather shoot what I have the rifle zeroed for regardless of circumstance. In a pistol, FMJ sucks for defensive purposes, and the expected distances are short enough that using different ammunition for training versus defense doesn’t matter, as long as you verify everything works in your gun. Get 200 or so hollow points, from Hornady, Federal, or Speer’s defensive lines. Use the FMJ to practice with.
A word on pricing
When I say “gun prices are low”, I’m talking about at discount retailers (often online), not Bass Pro. Use sites like gun.deals, Gun Genie and GrabAGun to comparison shop; see if something has popped up on reddit gundeals. Online gun retailers ship to local gun shops, who handle the background check and actual transfer for a fee. Find a local gun shop that’s decently stocked and does internet transfers (call and ask, most do), go and take a look at their pistols, and do the rifle transfer through them. Chat them up about their business, where’s a good place to shoot, what holster they like, etc.
The consumerism at that point ends, and you’re into practice and training, which is a whole other discussion.
I’m really poor right now lol
OK, just the handgun then. Ruger Security 9 is about the cheapest you can go on a new double-stack without sacrificing reliability. You can also go smaller with a M&P Shield. Used and police trade-in pistols in 40S&W (particularly the M&P series and Glock 23’s) are comparatively cheap; the ammo is slightly more expensive and capacity slightly lower in that larger caliber.
If you still have 200 bucks left over, get a cheap semiauto magazine fed rimfire rifle (the Rossi RS22 is the economy choice, the cheapest Ruger 10/22 variant you can find is more able to be modified later), and a couple bricks of ammo (the 22LR round is so small, it’s often sold in 500-packs). This lets you practice rifle marksmanship. Look into Appleseed (this actually applies to everyone, Appleseed rocks).
I live in a hellhole lol
If you live in California, New York, or other restrictive jurisdictions, you will end up paying more. That’s just how it goes. They all have their own weird rules on pistols which I cannot speak to. For rifles, there are varying configurations of compliant AR’s, which are often by boutique shops I’m not familiar with – other than that the Ruger AR-556 does exist in a configuration that’s something like 48-state legal. Building off of a stripped receiver becomes much more attractive as a result of the limited selection & increased prices. Other than the AR platform, far as I can tell, the Mini 14 is legal basically everywhere that anything is legal, and also tends to be on shelves. If semiautos are off the table entirely, there isn’t a gun shop in America (especially ones catering to “sportsmen” that would sooner commit sepuku than sell one of those new-fangled “assault rifles”) that doesn’t have some inexpensive used 30-30 lever action on the shelf (eg).
If only The American Sun got affiliate bucks.