By Sam Hoober
Let’s assume for a moment that there’s a new assault weapons ban or that you live in a state that is dead-set on keeping AR-15s and other semi-automatic rifles out of civilian hands.
What are some viable options for a fightin’ rifle for defending yourself in case you can’t get an AR or you’re otherwise in a non-permissive environment?
As it happens, the lack of a modern semi-auto rifle is not necessarily the handicap a person might think it is. The truth is most home defense shootings are very brief affairs, rather than “John Wick”-style shootouts, so 30-round+ capacity isn’t the biggest priority.
In fact, with practice, you’d be surprised just how effective older guns can actually be.
There are a lot of other types of long guns that are perfectly viable for personal defense, including lightweight handy carbines, that are innocuous, available in all states, and more than potent enough to stop a threat to your life.
This isn’t to argue for an assault weapons ban. This is to point out the merits of some allegedly lesser alternatives. Lest we forget, it’s not the knife or the pots and pans that creates a sumptuous dish, but the chef who uses them.
First and foremost, there is the humble shotgun. The queen of personal defense weapons, a shotgun is devastating at home defense distances. If you get the right one a 12- or 20-gauge shotgun can in fact serve as an ersatz rifle to longer distances than you’d think.
Range, of course, is the handicap. The shot dispersion gets larger and larger every few feet, so there’s a limit to how far you can expect a shotgun to be truly effective. 00 and 000 buckshot pellets are fairly small; if only one or two are penetrating vital structures due to the spread at distance, you’ve exceeded the optimal range for the weapon.
However, you can alter the equation so to speak by getting a rifled slug shotgun or a rifled barrel for your shotgun and swapping it. It’s perfectly safe to fire shot shells through a rifled barrel, but the rifling affects the pattern; the rule is smooth for shot, rifled for slugs.
It’s also totally fine to shoot slugs through a smooth barrel, but you will lose accuracy a lot sooner.
A rifled slug barrel with judicious choice of slug can be effective to perhaps 150 yards, but 200 would be seriously pushing it according to Field and Stream’s shotguns editor Phil Bourjaily. Since a pump shotgun or even standard sporting semi-auto would never be sneered at, that makes the humble shotgun an always viable choice.
Lever-action and bolt-action rifles both make fine choices of fightin’ iron, as both were used in that role. However, if you’re buying one for defensive purposes in non-permissive environments, take care to make a prudent choice in regards to caliber.
Shooting a rifle chambered in .338 Winchester Magnum once or twice at a deer or elk or black bear while hunting is totally manageable, but you wouldn’t want to run one in your house. The same applies for a lever-action rifle chambered in .45-70 Gov’t.
If you look at the ballistics, or at least the energy, velocity and trajectory of .300 Blackout, one can’t help but notice that it’s incredibly similar to .30-30. It therefore follows that if .300 Blackout is a good choice for a fighting rifle for the urban or suburban environment so is .30-30.
Pistol-caliber lever action rifles are also obvious choices, as it will extend the range of .357 Magnum, .45 Colt or .44 Magnum. However, they are known to be picky with ammunition, so make sure you choose a loading that agrees with your rifle.
For bolt-action rifles, a mini-action (such as one chambered in .223 Remington) or a short-action rifle (meaning the .308 family of cartridges) with a short barrel is a very viable choice as well if paired with a good set of iron sets or a judicious choice of optic.
Opt for low-power variables or a red dot. They work well on ARs, they’ll work well on other kinds of rifles as well. However, be careful in selecting an LPVO as you will typically get what you pay for.
That said, make sure to make an appropriate choice of ammunition. If you were going to press a lever gun or bolt action into service as a fighting rifle, one of the best possible choices for defensive ammunition is the classic soft point hunting loads.
Remington CoreLokt and Federal PowerShok soft point loads are both great choices here. Before things went to heck in a handbasket, they were both plentiful and cheap. Hunting ammunition, by and large, is designed to do the same things as defensive ammunition.
Another choice of covert fighting rifle is the older sporting semi-autos.
Your most ardent NPR listener is going to absolutely blanche at anyone owning an AR-15 or AK-47, but will think nothing of someone owning a Browning BAR (not the one from the world wars, of course) or a Remington 7400.
Be aware, though, that the most common examples you’re going to find are typically chambered in .270 Winchester or .30-06. Other calibers are available, but those are going to be the ones you find for sale most often.
With an aftermarket 10-round magazine (if you can get one) a 7400 or BAR in .30-06 becomes something of a surreptitious M1 Garand. That said, they are both unwieldy and overpowered for a home defense role.
However, this comes with a laundry list of “buts” and caveats.
First is that any manually-operated firearm requires a lot of practice to be able to run it effectively under stress.
If you were to choose a gun of this type as your long gun of choice for personal defense, or as a backup in case an AR-15 had to be hidden away, surrendered or tragically lost in a boating accident, you must put in the time to master use of the weapon.
Those folks in Cowboy Action Shooting can run a single-action revolver like nobody’s business, but they put in a lot of trigger time to get there. Whatever your choice of tool is, you have to learn the craft of using it.
Believe it or not, people were able to defend themselves with guns before semi-auto pistols or rifles were a thing. If it becomes even more unfashionable to have one at some point, it may be a good idea to contemplate how to stay effectively armed without one.
Sam Hoober is a hunter and shooter based in the Inland Northwest.