Thursday, March 30, 2006

Buying Your First Gun

Now that you’ve been on a Plinkers outing or have at least been keeping up with the quizzes and other communications, you may be toying around with the idea of acquiring a gun yourself (if you don't already own one). So what should you buy?

The Short Answer: If you’re new to shooting and can only buy one gun, go buy a .22LR rifle for $200. If you know the fundamentals, have some experience shooting and want an inexpensive multi-purpose gun, go buy a pump shotgun for $200-300 in 12 or 20 gauge.

The Long Answer: If you’re thinking of buying a gun and want a more involved recommendation, read on. There are many things to consider—the law, your purpose, your budget, the availability of parts and add-ons, where you can shoot your gun, and, in some cases, your spouse.

The law where you live will greatly impact the selection of firearms available to you. In much of Illinois, handguns are legal, but you may not carry them concealed on your person. In Chicago, handguns are illegal, even in your own home. If you live in Chicago and most of its suburbs, you will be limited to rifles and shotguns. Even within these categories, there are restrictions on barrel length, magazine capacity and other features. Generally speaking, you must be 18 or over, observe a waiting period of at least 24 hours, possess a valid FOID card and pass a brief background check. In Chicago, you're also required to register your firearms and pay an annual fee. Check your local laws for specifics if you’re unsure.

[A brief aside regarding gun laws: It might be wise to consider the political trends where you live. It would be a shame to buy a gun that you have to turn around and hand over to the police a year or two later. Semi-auto firearms of all sorts are often in the crosshairs here in Chicago. If you’re concerned at all, .22s are generally safe bets, and pump, bolt and lever action rifles or shotguns are less likely to be banned than semi-autos. Beyond that, join a gun rights organization and lobby your legislators.]

Within the choices allowed by the law—some type of shotgun or rifle—you have to decide exactly what you want to do with it. Do you want something strictly for home defense? Paper targets or pop cans? Clay pigeons? Hunting? Many firearms will multi-task to some extent, but it would be dangerous to use a rifle on airborne clay pigeons and using a shotgun on paper targets is simply not challenging. For our purposes, I’m going to look primarily at training and defensive weapons.

If you’re new to shooting, a gun for training purposes is a good idea. This may not be ideal for home defense or other purposes but will allow you to gain mastery of shooting fundamentals before moving on to other, more powerful and expensive guns. For training purposes, you want something that you can shoot often and cheaply. Something that doesn’t kick much and isn’t too loud is preferable, too, so you don’t develop a nasty flinch reflex. A .22LR rifle fits the bill perfectly. It also has the advantage of being allowed at indoor ranges where most long guns are forbidden to allow for more practice opportunities. Semi-auto .22s are fun; the Ruger 10/22 is a semi-auto and the best-selling by far. It is very reliable and endlessly customizable. Bolt-action rifles are more accurate and even more reliable, though I’ve never had a problem with my 10/22. Remington and Marlin both make excellent, reasonably-priced bolt-actions. Pump- and lever-action .22s are available too but not as popular. Good .22 ammo costs less than a nickel a round.

Another option for a training gun would be a pistol-caliber carbine. These are what they sound like—short rifles that shoot rounds intended for handguns. Though more expensive to purchase and shoot than your basic .22, they have the added benefit of being effective defensive weapons. The added barrel length maximizes velocities of pistol rounds, and there is a good selection of ammunition available. Some of the larger calibers may also be used for hunting small to medium game. Semi-auto carbines come in 9mm, .40S&W and .45ACP, while lever-action models can be had in .357Mag/.38Sp and .44Mag/.44Sp. More obscure rounds are also available, but stick with one of these. The cost per round will range anywhere from twelve cents per round for bulk 9mm up to a dollar per round for some .44Mags. Some firearms in this category are popular to ban, generally those that have magazine wells within the pistol grip (Uzi-style) instead of forward of the trigger guard. The Ruger Police Carbine and discontinued Marlin Camp Carbine are both semi-autos that are legal to own in Chicago. In lever-action, the Marlin 1894C and Winchester Model 94 Trapper and Ranger are good choices. These will range in price from $300 for used models up to $700+.

Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals of handling and shooting a rifle, you may decide that a defensive weapon is appropriate. While any gun is better than no gun in a pinch, handguns and shotguns are best for home defense unless you live on some land and foresee having to engage boogeymen at longer ranges. Since handguns aren’t legal in Chicago, we’re limited to shotguns and the aforementioned pistol-caliber carbines. Though each has its place, a shotgun can be a safer yet more powerful option.

In many ways, a shotgun is the most versatile weapon you can buy. Within its range limits, it can be used to hunt everything from ducks to deer to bears. You can shoot clay pigeons with it or defend your home. For defensive purposes, I would recommend a pump shotgun in either 12 or 20 gauge with a barrel from 18 to 20 inches. Semi-auto shotguns are nearly as reliable but tend to be much more expensive than pumps. Break-action single and double-barrel shotguns are utterly reliable, but the small capacity is a weakness. A good pump will give you anywhere from 4 to 8 rounds in the tube magazine and, loaded with buckshot or birdshot, improve your odds of hitting your target while being less likely than rifle rounds to penetrate walls and hurt bystanders. Recommended models include the Mossberg 500 (cheapest), Remington 870 (smoothest) and the Winchester 1300 (fastest). The Mossberg and Remington offer far more after-market options (barrels, stocks, sights, etc.) than the Winchester, but all are good guns and can be had for between $200-400 for basic models. The choice between 12 and 20 gauge is up to you. The 12 gauge is far more popular and allows for more shell options, but recoil can be quite significant. The 20 gauge offers about a third less recoil with about a third less power.

I don’t know your budget, but buying a good gun does not need to bankrupt you. Generally speaking, a good .22 can be had for around $200, a good pump shotgun for around $300 and pistol-caliber and hunting rifles from $400-700. You can spend a whole lot more in any of these categories, but these are good ballpark figures. (Any accessories would be extra.) There are some truly cheap guns out there, but spending a little extra for something that will last your lifetime is worthwhile.

One nice thing about guns is that they don’t lose much of their value if you maintain them properly. Some actually increase in value. To find a good deal, online auctions (like can be a good place to find discontinued or unusual models at a good discount. You still have to get them transferred to a local FFL (Federal Firearms License) holder, which involves a fee, but you might save quite a bit. Wal-Marts with FFLs (not all of them) also have good prices on guns, but their in-store stock is generally small and some folks have issues with Wal-Mart for a whole host of reasons. Sporting goods stores like Dick’s and Cabela’s offer a bigger selection but are usually a little pricier. If you can do it, buying through a (responsible) local gun shop is the best way to go. Their prices may not be the best on new guns, but they often carry a selection of used guns, unlike the big box stores, and tend to be much more knowledgeable and willing to negotiate. They also benefit the most from your support. You may buy directly from their stock or, in some cases, you might buy through a place like Gallery of Guns where you place a deposit online and the gun is shipped to a local shop. The local shop gets a cut this way but doesn’t have to front the cost of keeping such a large stock.

Although it doesn’t need to be a primary factor in choosing a gun, the availability of parts and accessories is something to consider. Even if you don’t have parts that break, you may decide that you want different sights, a more comfortable stock, a stronger firing pin for harder primers, etc. Picking a popular gun model will give you broader options for customizing and will increase the odds that you’ll have replacement parts for as long as you need them.

One thing that’s often not considered, because most locales are more gun-friendly than ours, is where you can shoot your gun. Shotguns and higher-powered rifles can’t be used at most indoor ranges, though they will allow handguns, rimfire (.22 &.17) and pistol-caliber rifles. There are some places around where you can shoot more powerful guns, but you’ll have to go out a bit further into the suburbs, at least as far as I can tell. If you have family or friends that live in more rural areas and will allow you to shoot while you’re with them on holiday or whatever, take advantage of it. Just make sure that whatever you’re thinking about buying, you’ll have opportunities to learn and enjoy it.

Last, but definitely not least, if you’re married, you must consider the thoughts and feelings of your spouse. If she (or he, if you’re one of our future female Plinkers) grew up around guns, it’s probably going to be a non-issue. If not, you may have a tough row to hoe. If your spouse is resistant to the idea, encourage dialogue. Allow her to express exactly what it is about gun ownership that bothers her and acknowledge that it is not something you take lightly. If you have not been on a Plinkers outing, go on one, then tell her about it. Then go on three or four more. Share your experience and offer to take her with you or to have her go in your place (if finances are tight or you’re just really bold). Let her read this blog. Express your desire to protect your family and your home and the need to have the tools and ability to do that. Demonstrate that you know proper gun safety (when you do) and plan to observe it always. If you enjoy shooting, let her know. It may take some time to win her over, and it may be a matter of compromise (“You can have one gun, but that’s it”), but if you are sincere and respectful in your approach, you improve your chances.

I hope you have found this to be helpful. I’d be glad to field questions about brands, models, whatever, and will even answer your spouse’s questions, if: a) you have one and b) you feel that that would be beneficial. Researching a gun purchase can be a great deal of fun. I hope that you enjoy the process as much as the purchase.

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