[A note from Ben: I originally posted this last September. Since much of it is still relevant, I decided to post it again this September. I hope you’ll indulge me.]
After a year replete with blizzards, tornadoes, and epic floods (2008), we Iowans now realize that disasters don’t just happen to those people on the coasts that we see on TV with their fancy earthquakes and hurricanes. So Iowans should sit up and take notice that September is “National Preparedness Month.”
The U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security’s (DHS) “Ready Campaign” recommends three things to prepare for disaster: 1.Get a Kit, 2.Make a Plan, 3.Be Informed. The “Be Ready Iowa!” website has a pretty similar list you can check out too.
Since you can read the details at the National Preparedness Month website, I won’t rehash what each of these entails. But I will spend some time on one vital survival tool that usually doesn’t make the government’s list: a modern firearm.
I won’t try to sell you on owning a gun if you don’t want one. I fully support your right to NOT own a gun. However, I’m convinced now more than ever that a firearm is an important part of an American’s readiness kit.
During Hurricane Katrina we saw massive destruction that stripped all credibility from the modern argument that you can just call 9-1-1 in an emergency. When the phones don’t work and the police themselves are looting, who do you call and how?
During the 1992 Los Angeles riots the California National Guard arrived on the scene without any ammunition and missing their riot gear. When the local cops and state militia can’t impose order, who do you call? Local Korean shopkeepers were more prepared and defended their businesses with semi-automatic rifles until the Marines showed up to quell the riots.
Even in less extreme circumstances, Americans use firearms in self-defense over 1 million times each year. (Some research puts that number at 2.5 million times per year.) Usually the defender doesn’t even have to fire a shot before the attacker runs off to look for easier prey. A gun is a useful defensive tool.
I’ve been a lifelong shooter, but I don’t consider myself an expert. I’m someone who wants a functional weapon for protection and recreation, but who doesn’t have the time or money to make a religion out of it. I write the following pointers for people who are considering buying a defensive arm. It should not be considered technical nor legal advice, nor anything else that will get me sued. If at all possible, take a gun safety class and certainly check to make sure you are complying with all state, local and federal laws and regulations. Chat with shooters in your area.
Guns that shoot .22 rimfire ammo are good for target practice and small game but are generally too underpowered for defensive purposes. Get the largest caliber that you can comfortably handle. Stick with common calibers so that ammunition will be relatively plentiful and cheap. If you live in close quarters with others, consider buying frangible ammo by MagSafe or Glaser. It breaks apart on impact rather than punching through the wall into your kids room or the neighbor’s sitting room. (Definitely not the way to get invited to the next apartment block-party.) Frangible ammo is costly so practice with cheap “ball” ammo and save the frangible stuff for defense.
The kind of gun you choose will depend on what you’re trying to defend.
Level One-Defending Yourself: Being lightweight and concealable, the handgun is the ideal weapon for defending your person. Here in Iowa you’ll need a special permit to buy one and another special permit if you intend to carry your pistol in public. Both are available from your county sheriff.
Semi-automatic pistols are the most popular, but are generally more complicated than revolvers. Glock (brand) pistols have a reputation of ease of use and reliability, but they are costly. The .45 caliber M1911 has proven reliable enough to still be popular almost 100 years after it was invented. Avoid the very cheap “no-name” autos, you get what you pay for. Common calibers for auto pistols are: .380 ACP, 9mm, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP.
Revolvers are rugged and reliable. There’s darned little that can go wrong with them. The down-side: They usually only hold six shots. Stick with “double-action,” as opposed to “single-action” revolvers. Common calibers are: .38 Special, .357 Magnum (revolvers chambered for .357 Magnum can also shoot .38 Special Ammo, but not vice versa), .44 Magnum and .45 Colt.
Level Two- Defending Your Home: Your pistol will make a fine home defense weapon, but since size and concealability won’t matter on your own property, you might want more gun. A shotgun or small-caliber carbine rifle would make a good home defense weapon. No special permit is required to buy long guns in Iowa, but the retailer will run a criminal background check on you at the point of purchase.
Shotguns fire a number of small metal balls rather than a single bullet. Contrary to popular belief, you still have to aim. “00 Buckshot” is the most powerful ammo but in close-quarters you may want 6 or 7-½ birdshot to avoid over-penetration. A pump-action shotgun should be reliable enough. Common calibers are: .410, 20-guage, and 12-guage.
There are numerous pistol-caliber carbines out there that work well if you need just a little extra “reach,” such as on a farm. The old M1 Carbine is also readily available. Again, consider frangible ammo if you have neighbors very close. Common calibers are the same as for handguns and .30 carbine ammo for the M1 Carbine.
Level Three- Defending Freedom: If you live in open country or for the real doomsday (and less likely) scenarios involving extended anarchy, invading armies or the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, you’ll need a rifle. You might want one anyway, because they’re fun to shoot. If you don’t already have a bolt-action or lever-action that you’re comfortable with, get a reliable semi-automatic.
A .223 caliber rifle should be your bare-minimum for defense. Common semi-automatic weapons in this caliber include the AR-15 (by many names, from many manufacturers including one made in Iowa), Ruger Mini-14, and the Kel-Tec SU-16 to name just a few. There are also many semi-autos chambered for the 7.62 X 39mm Russian round. These include the AK-47, SKS, and Ruger Mini-30.
If you can handle the extra kick, the .308 Winchester round gives better range and take-down power than the two previous calibers. The most common semi-autos in this caliber are the Springfield M1A, AR-10 clones from several manufacturers, FAL clones, H&K 91 and the Israeli Galil (also available in .223).
You may want to configure your rifle as a “scout rifle.” With a small, low-powered telescopic sight mounted far ahead on the weapon, it becomes much easier to quickly acquire and engage targets at normal combat distances. [Shameless plug: To inexpensively configure your weapon read “Poor Man’s Scout Rifle” by my brother Bob Cashner, who, unlike me, is an expert.]
Besides the three mentioned above, two other common rifle calibers are the .30-30, which is common in lever-action rifles, and the .30-06, which is fired through the semi-auto M1 Garand rifle as well as many bolt-actions.
There you have it, firearms for any scenario. If you get one, learn to shoot, maintain and store it safely. (For gun safety classes try here, here or here.) Remember that your gun will do you no good if you don’t have any ammo or if its rusted shut. Whatever weapon you can afford is better than no weapon at all.
In honor of National Preparedness Month: Be prepared. Be armed.