Firearms Guide for the Versatile & Responsible Homesteader
Firearms come in a very wide variety. Beyond personal preference and cosmetic factors, they are designed to fulfill a variety of roles, in much the same way a set of tool facilitates home repairs. For the individual who is already comfortable with firearms and versed in firearm safety, identifying the jobs you need to perform is the first step in selecting which firearms you require. While you CAN drive a nail with a heavy wrench, obviously a hammer is a much better choice. With that in mind there are four types of firearms that apply to the homestead or backwoods setting; Light Rifle, Shotgun, Defensive Handgun, and a High-Powered Rifle.
The aim of this article is not the advocacy of firearm ownership, but to provide a general overview the types of firearms appropriate in the given scenario to those individuals that have decided that firearm ownership is the solution for their needs. Please observe all legal, courtesy and safety precautions applicable to your area when purchasing, owning and using firearms. We assume no responsibility for the inappropriate, illegal or unsafe ownership or use of firearms.
Reading is good, but training is better. My advice to the people new to guns would be to take a firearms safety course before buying their first firearm. It’ll give them a better idea of what they want, what they need, and what will suit them in terms of the size, the power, and the mechanics of the many, many firearms they have the option of buying. Your local office of the state Fish and Wildlife Department will be able to steer you toward hunter safety and firearms safety courses. As adult education goes, these courses are extremely affordable. If self-defense is your primary concern, your local gun shop or police department can direct you to armed citizen training programs. Most of these are geared toward folks about to apply for concealed carry permits, but the advice encompassed in their curricula are essential even for those only concerned with defending the home against violent intrusion.
The .22 Long Rifle cartridge is the most popular in the United States. It has mild blast and mild recoil. Above all, it is cheap. With careful shopping, at this writing you can buy 500 cartridges for under $20. Because it is a low-pressure cartridge, the manufacturers don’t have to wrap a lot of super-strong metallurgy around it, and .22s tend to be cheaper than more powerful guns of similar quality.
Let me say it here and now: because it is so mild and inexpensive to shoot, the .22’s single biggest advantage for the new shooter is that it lets them shoot enough to grow accustomed to shooting, and to become good at it!
As to shooting needs on a rural property, the .22 Long Rifle is a small game cartridge. It’s suitable for rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, groundhogs, and the like. It’s good for crows. It’s a good choice for feral cats. It can certainly kill feral dogs, or foxes and coyotes, but frankly it’s a little on the light side for animals that size. Remember, even if the animal must die so your livestock may live, you owe it a quick and humane death.
The .22 is a traditional gun for slaughtering livestock. In that situation, however, the animal must be penned under control, and the person performing the slaughter must take their time to put the bullet exactly through the skull in the right spot to reach the brain for an instant, painless death.
In most cases, the .22 is a rifle. Whether it has traditional “iron sights” or a telescopic sight, the two-hand grasp and the brace of the butt against your shoulder maximizes accuracy. If you get really good with it, a target grade handgun will get the job done at a typical “house to barn distance” of, say, 25 to 50 yards.
The .22 is available in many formats. There is the single-shot, the traditional “young hunter’s starter gun” of yesteryear. Today, the scaled down Chipmunk or Henry bolt action single shot is the right size for grade-school age kids, and a great choice for getting a good start in firearms safety. There are Western style lever actions, and pump-action .22s like the ones we geezers can remember from the live-fire shooting arcades on the boardwalks of our youth. The bolt-action repeating rifle makes a lot of sense for the user who won’t be able to keep the working gun as clean and pristine as they’d like. In a humid, rust-inducing atmospheres the bolt-action .22 excels in reliability. Its mechanism operates like a turnbolt lock, and allows main physical force to operate it should it stick due to rust or crud in its neglected mechanism.
The semiautomatic .22 rifle would be my personal choice. Even under ideal shooting conditions, one shot may not be enough. You’ll want a follow-up shot, and maybe another and another and another. The semiautomatic will fire as fast as you can hold on target and you don’t have to think about anything but holding your aim and pressing the trigger. You will, however, have to keep it cleaned and lubricated.
Cost-effective choices: Mossberg Plinkster. It’s great for “plinking” tin cans off the back fence, as its name implies, but Master competitive shooter Steve Sager tells me his will put five shots in one hole at 25 paces…and never seems to jam. The Plinkster and similar models can be found in big-box stores in many areas.. The Ruger 10/22 and the Marlin Model 60 will cost somewhat more, but are longer-established, time-proven choices as splendidly reliable and surprisingly accurate semiautomatic .22 “utility rifles.” In an accurate .22 pistol, I’ve seen the polymer-framed Ruger 22/45 and the Smith & Wesson Model 22A and the Browning Buckmark is another cost-effective choice. The shooter more comfortable with the simple mechanism of a revolver can get a Taurus .22.
Designed primarily to put a large spray of multiple pellets called “shot” in the air with each pull of the trigger, the shotgun is the logical choice for flying birds and is a top choice of small game hunters for shooting running rabbits and squirrels for the same reason. Loaded with the small pellets of birdshot for the feathered stuff and the small furred stuff, and with buckshot for close-range larger targets. The shotgun can also fire a single slug. Slug loads are fine for deer out to plus/minus 100 yards (assuming good rifle-type sights and a steady hand on the trigger), and many Alaskan guides think a short, fast-handling shotgun loaded with slugs is just the ticket for huge, angry wounded bears in the thickets. Because its “shells” can carry so many different types of projectiles, the shotgun is the most versatile of backwoods home utility firearms.
The giant 10-gauge shotgun is a long-range duck and turkey hunter’s weapon, and the tiny .410 shotgun is strictly for close range on small targets. Your all-around shotgun should be somewhere between 12- and 20-gauge. The less powerful 20 tends to have lighter recoil but, at close range, will probably do all you need done. The 12 is more versatile because it can carry more of its leaden payload, but you pay the price in notoriously hard recoil, or “kick.”
Shotguns can be had in economy bolt-action formats, but they tend to be cheaply made and I never saw one that didn’t kick mercilessly for a gun of its size with the shells it was chambered for. The single-shot break-open design has been a staple of American farms since the 19th century because it’s relatively cheap to manufacture, but it’s light for its power, kicks like hell, and doesn’t offer a follow-up shot if the first one hasn’t solved the problem. The double barrel is better, but a magazine-type shotgun such as the slide-action or the semiautomatic tends to be more practical for workaday rural needs. The semiautomatic is faster to shoot, nothing to do but pull the trigger, and in a gas-operated model will kick less since much of the recoil is absorbed in operating its cycling mechanism. However, as with .22 rifles, the “auto” demands more maintenance than it often gets. The rugged, manually operated slide-action, or “pump gun,” may be the better choice, and will certainly be cheaper.
Cost effective choices: In either 12- or 20-gauge, the Mossberg 500 and the Remington 870 Express models are quality pump shotguns commonly available at affordable prices. I’d give the Mossberg the point for ergonomics (ambidextrous safety right under the thumb, easy loading without pushing shells past a spring-loaded magazine gate), and the Remington the point for smoothness of action and trigger pull.
The High-Powered Rifle
If you’re located where the meat-bearing game are bigger (northern moose, western mule deer), or farther (plains antelope, let’s say), you want a higher velocity, more accurate rifle, and you’ll definitely want a telescopic sight. We’re talking a bolt action in the .270, .308, .30-06 etc. caliber range. Bolt action is the overwhelming choice here: its more rigid receiver, or frame, enhances precision. As with other firearm types, the bolt action high power rifle gives the shooter manual leverage that helps when the mechanism is gunked up by mud, bad weather, or owner neglect.
If you’re in bad bear country, you might want to ratchet the power level up a notch. A .338 Winchester Magnum or 7mm Remington Magnum is more in line here. The bear attacks I’ve studied have happened very, very fast, and the big guys have soaked up a lot of firepower and kept fanging and clawing. Follow-up rounds of the hefty .338 persuasion as fast as you can pull the trigger would make huge sense here.
The “high power rifle” title also encompasses smaller bullets going faster: rounds like the ubiquitous .223 Remington or the super-fast .22/250. Great for long-range shots on the woodchucks that are tearing up your crops and are WAY out there, but not quite generating the smack and penetration you need for deer size game.
If you’re not planning on hunting and don’t have problems with either very large, mean animals or very distant ones, the high powered rifle—the “deer rifle,” if you will—is probably the one gun in the battery you can most easily do without.
Cost effective choice: You’re looking at the several hundred dollar range for a generic, bolt action Remington Model 700, Ruger Model 77, etc.; the Savage bolt action is often found new at “best buy” prices. I’m comfortable with any of them. A lower price is featured on Remington’s economy-grade Model 770.
The Defensive Handgun
Folks move to the boonies to get away from the sort of lifestyle that makes you feel more comfortable carrying a gun 24/7. Hate to be the one to break it to you, but wherever you are, the need to defend yourself from man or beast tends to arise suddenly, without time to run to the gun cabinet.
A .22 pistol is handy for pot meat from ptarmigan to squirrels, and while it can certainly kill a large, aggressive creature, it won’t necessarily stop it in its tracks. A .44 Magnum double action revolver would be my choice if I had big brown bears in my backyard. Most of us south of Alaska don’t have to deal with that, though, and a more moderately powerful sidearm that you can wear whenever you’re dressed makes a lot of sense. If being visibly armed is not part of your vision of ambient rural living, I understand; however, compact .38 Special or .357 Magnum revolvers are available in a discreet pocket size, and can be with you constantly.
If your defensive needs are middle of the road, the 9mm is a widely available firearm of choice. It’s large enough to get the job done, the ammunition choices are broad, widely available and its power is significant enough to get the job done without causing alarm or concern from less tolerant individuals.
Cost effective choice: For a small .38 Special or .357 Magnum revolver with a short barrel that lives in your pants pocket, a Ruger, Taurus, or Smith & Wesson will do nicely. In a holster-size semiautomatic pistol in a caliber with authority (9mm, .40, .45, or .357 SIG) you’re looking at Glock, Ruger, SIG, Smith & Wesson and Taurus.