August 02, 2006

Violence Begets Violence Part Three: Power Tools

"One bleeding-heart type asked me in a recent interview if I did not agree that 'violence begets violence.' I told him that it is my earnest endeavor to see that it does. I would like very much to ensure — and in some cases I have — that any man who offers violence to his fellow citizen begets a whole lot more in return than he can enjoy." -Jeff Cooper, "Cooper vs. Terrorism", Guns & Ammo Annual, 1975

I used that quote in the first two posts of this series (which may be found here & here). If you haven't read them yet then by all means go take a glance.

Now let's discuss the tools to ensure that violence begets violence.

A firearm is simply a tool. It could be further categorized as a machine. & still further as a primitve internal combustion engine. The sole purpose of a firearm is to propel projectiles. It does this through the rapid expansion of gas.

In a modern firearm that uses self contained cartridges the process is rather simple. A cartridge is loaded into the chamber, or rearmost part of the barrel. A bolt or breech locks the cartridge tightly against the chamber. When the rigger is pulled it causes a piece of metal to strike an area at the cartridge's base which contains the primer. The primer produces a spark which causes the main charge of gunpowder inside the case to deflagrate. The gunpowder turns into a very hot gas which, because it's contained in the confines of the cartridge case (which is contained within the confines of the chamber) produces great pressure as it attempts to expand. The path of least resistance is the base of the projectile. The gas pushes the projectile very rapidly down the barrel until the projectile is launched & internal pressure subsides (as it's no longer a sealed space).

That's what a firearm does; pushes a projectile out of a tube via high pressured gas. We'll discuss what the projectile does in a moment. For now I must remind you that we cannot escape Newton, specifically his Third Law of Motion:

"For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction."

As the projectile is being pushed out of the barrel the breech or bolt of the firearm is having force exerted upon it. This in turn means that as the projectile is being pushed down the barrel the firearm itself is being pushed in the opposite direction. This is known as recoil & it can be a complex little thing to discuss. Because of recoil we have limits in practical firearms. It's technologically possible to design a handgun that launches a projectile capable of penetrating heavy tanks. It is entirely impossible to convince me to fire it as the recoil would do more harm to me than the projectile would to most folks inside the tank it hit. So we compromise a bit. We don't go for the most powerful firearm there is; we go for the most powerful firearm that will suit our needs & not be too painful to shoot.

Now projectiles get discussed. There are many different types but for our purposes we have expanding bullets such as hollow points & non-expanding bullets such as Full Metal Jackets. Shot (as used in a shotgun & some handgun loads) is generally made up of small lead balls. While not having any sort of air cavity soft lead tends to expand when it strikes an object. There are also several types of frangible projectiles which are designed to break into a few or many small pieces when they strike a solid object.

Non expanding bullets are used when penetration is the most important factor. With all other factors being equal a .40 caliber bullet that remains .40 caliber after it strikes an object will go deeper than one that expands to .50 caliber. Expanding bullets are used when penetration isn't that great of a concern but frontal diameter of the bullet is. Frangible ammo is used when you want to make sure that penetration doesn't exceed a certain amount. & let us not forget the controlled expansion bullets which try to provide the best of both worlds.

It really depends upon what task you wish to perform as to what type if bullet you use. If you're hiking in bear country a bullet with great penetration is the best choice (as bears have a lot of tough muscle to protect the vitals). If you're in a crowded public area then a frangible might be the best option. In general for protection against two legged predators most folks rely on a quality hollow point. The human body isn't that deep (usually) & most name brand hollow points provide enough penetration to reach the vital areas.

Keep in mind all of the above requires the projectile to be of a sufficient diameter & to be launched at a sufficient speed & retain sufficient mass to perform its task. This is where recoil comes back into play as well as penetration & a compromise must be made.

If I had my druthers anyone who broke into my house would be faced with a metal tube that you could put your fist inside that was mounted on a wheeled piece of wood & fired with a lanyard. But even if I hit my target I'd also stand a good chance of hitting things behind said target that I didn't want to hit, like the next 24 houses. Similarly hauling the thing around the house would be clumsy to say the least.

Generally in handguns we look at bullets with a diameter of .35 caliber up to about .50 caliber as ideal for self defense. The upper end of .50 is defined by federal law (despite constitutional provisions proscribing such restrictions) but those can be bypassed if you're willing to jump through a lot of paperwork & pay a "tax". Most people aren't so we'll limit our discussion to .50 caliber & below.

On the low end we have some disagreement. The .38 Special is usually seen as the minimum revolver chambering for serious defensive work. In autoloaders there is debate between which 9mm round is the absolute minimum. .380 ACP (9x17mm) is argued by some as sufficient. Others contend that the 9mm Makorov (9x18mm) is the lowest you should go. Still others insist that the 9mm NATO (9x19mm) is the bottom of the barrel for real defensive uses. You also have those that contend even the 9mm NATO round is too weak for any meaningful endeavors & they recommend you grab something that starts with .4. Chris Byrne did a wonderful post on the various handgun cartridges to select from for self defense. I'd recommend reading it in its entirety.

With rifles it stops becoming a question of having enough gun to one of having too much gun. At the low end you have the 5.56x45 NATO (or its commercial sibling the .223 Remington) which still may penetrate beyond your intended target. When you get into the .30 calibers (.30-06 Springfield, .30 Winchester Magnum, etc...) you can be sure they'll go through any couple of people lined up in its path even if they're in different rooms in different houses (& I only exaggerate slightly).

Shotguns have the same problems as rifles but you have greater flexibility with ammo selection. There are low powered &/or frangible rounds for rifles, but with shotguns the lower powered alternatives are greater in number & availability. If 00 buckshot would go through your target & your sheetrock & your siding then switching to No. 6 or No. 7 & 1/2 shot would be an easy & prudent thing to do. If it comes down to it Aguilla makes a mini-shell which contains less powder & less shot thereby greatly reducing the risk of over penetration.

Most folks will talk initially of firearm fit, ergonomics & other matters related to how you interact with the firearm. These are very important considerations & should not be negated. I started off with a discussion of projectiles because really that's how I look at things. Granted I'm a gun nut. I've been shooting for a few decades & have an idea of what I want & need in a firearm. But the first thing I think of isn't if the gun will fit me just right, but if I have the need for the cartridges it fires or can be made to fire.

So I would say that cartridge selection is the first thing to consider. But in that comes fit & feel. A firearm that fits you well will not be as unpleasant to shoot as a firearm that just has all the wrong angles for your body. Still you have to have a starting point & deciding which cartridge you wish to fire is a good one.

Typically here are the things to look at when deciding upon which firearm to acquire:

Purpose: The right tool for the right job & all that. You must decide if you wish something concealable on your person or the most powerful means of defending your home. By defining where you’re likely to employ the firearm you have a general idea of what will be best, or at least better suited to the task.

Chambering: This is the cartridge the firearm will shoot. Figure out which would serve your needs & you narrow things down from every type of firearm imaginable to a few types or even a few models within a type.

Type: These could be loosely defined as Rifles, Shotguns, Carbines, Short Barreled Rifles or Short Barreled Shotguns (which require federal paperwork & restrictions), Automatic Weapons (subject to the same paperwork but much more expensive due to a Federal distortion in the market), Handguns & Any Other Weapons (a legal term used to denote certain styles of firearms such as pen guns or cane guns or handguns that fire shotshells from a smooth bore. They’re subject to the same paperwork as the Short Barreled Rifles & Shotguns but a lesser “tax�).

Operating system: This is how the firearm functions. Do you want a manually operated repeater such as a pump action or would you be better suited by a semi-automatic or a single or double barrel that loads manually or a revolver?

Shootability: This encompasses all the things you should use to evaluate a particular gun. Make sure it’s comfortable to hold properly & the controls are manageable. Look to see if the recoil is reasonable as compared to other types of firearms chambered in the same or a similar cartridge. Check to see if the sights will be adequate for your needs (though some after purchase gunsmithing can address certain problems).

As far as handguns go anything in between .380 ACP & the .500 S&W Magnum should work fine. Your main concerns are getting the most powerful cartridge you can handle well but getting one that won't cause a risk of over penetration. The .500 S&W magnum is probably going to provide too much penetration if you live in a suburb or city. If your nearest neighbor can't throw a baseball to you & your house is brick then maybe it has merit - but it's a handful from all I've heard & a quick follow up shot is going to be a relative thing. & as the esteemed Col. Cooper said, 'Anything worth shooting once is worth shooting twice".

Handguns are compromises. They're not as potent as a long gun or as easy to use but they are definitely easier to carry. Clint Smith (president and director of Thunder Ranch) has been known to say that, "A pistol is something you use to fight your way back to your gun."

Many folks in the gun culture subscribe to the "trunk gun" theory. When out & about they have a handgun on their person but in the trunk of their car they have a rifle or carbine or shotgun. The idea is that they can use their handgun until they can reach their trunk where they can then wield their long gun. Make no mistake about it - the weakest long gun (chambered in a centerfire rifle cartridge that is) is more powerful than all but the most powerful handguns.

Again quoting Col. Cooper (from his book The Art of the Rifle)

"Personal weapons are what raised mankind out of the mud, and the rifle is the queen of personal weapons"

Ah, rifles. There really is no better general weapon. If it were legal & societally acceptable I would carry one everywhere I went, well except for that whole being heavy & awkward to tote thing. Hence most folks carry handguns outside the home.

There is also another option - the pistol caliber carbine. Usually it has a 16" to 20" barrel & is chambered for a pistol cartridge such as the 9mm NATO or the .44 Remington Magnum. The extra barrel length generally gives the projectile a little more velocity (hence increased power) & the sight radius (the distance from the front sight to the rear sight) is longer resulting in greater accuracy. They're generally heavy enough to make recoil a non issue but not so heavy as to tire you out just thinking about carrying it up a hill. The range is more limited than a rifle but usually (because of the steadier platform & better sight radius) a little better than a pistol chambered in the same cartridge.

If you’re willing to go through a lot of federal paperwork, pay an excessive “tax� & your state laws do not forbid it then firearms that fall under the National Firearms Act provide more options.

Any Other Weapons (again, it’s a legal definition not a pragmatic one) can be handy. These are either firearms that don’t look like firearms (such as a pen gun, which surprisingly enough looks like a pen) or firearms they just ran out of categories for, like short barreled shotguns that lack a buttstock. If you remember Miami Vice Tubbs sometimes used a short barreled shotgun (maybe 12 inches long total) with a pistol grip in the rear & a pistol grip on the pump.

Short Barreled Shotguns are shotguns with a barrel less than 18� long or an overall length of less than 26�. They’re the ideal choice for home defense (imho). Contrary to popular belief the short barrel does not make shot spread out to cover entire rooms. I once did the figuring but can’t recall exactly where I placed it. Speaking very roughly if a 28� barrel spreads shot to a 10� diameter at 25 yards then a 14� shotgun would spread the shot to about 16� at the same distance. In actuality they aren’t as powerful as their longer barreled brethren since there’s less barrel to build up pressure before the shot hits the air. But still they’re powerful enough (with adequate ammo) for any home defense situation with the added benefit of decreasing the risk of over penetration. Most importantly they’re compact enough that they don’t become too awkward to maneuver in tight spaces.

Short Barreled Rifles are rifles that have barrels less than 16� long or an overall length less than 26�.Their big advantage is that they have the same compactness as their smooth bore relatives. They’re just plain handy & easy to move with. Because of the shorter barrel they aren’t as powerful as a longer barreled model in the same cartridge but it’s generally not enough of a power loss to worry about.

Automatic weapons are designed to discharge projectiles as long as the trigger is pressed & the magazine has cartridges in it. I should note that it takes a bit more practice to become proficient with an automatic weapon than a semi-automatic weapon (which fires only once per trigger pull). There are machine guns which usually chamber rifle cartridges like the .30-06 Springfield or 7.62x51 NATO, assault rifles (not to be confused with the ‘assault weapons� of certain recent laws – those are semi-automatic) which fire intermediate cartridges, submachineguns which fire pistol cartridges & machine pistols which are simply pistols that fire until the trigger is released or the magazine runs dry. A belt fed machine gun may be a bit much for defending an apartment but I always thought a submachinegun or a machine pistol in .380 ACP would be just the thing for home defense for certain folks. The idea is that you fire short bursts (instead of holding the trigger down till you’re out of ammo) & hit your target multiple times rapidly. This in essence takes away many of the concerns about pistol cartridges that are considered on the low end of the power spectrum. Some folks may argue that one .380 bullet isn’t enough to dissuade an attack but those folks usually concede that three or four .380 bullets placed inches apart & delivered within the same second will probably take care of most aggressors. Another bright side is an automatic weapon can have features of the other NFA categories (such as a short barrel) without having to go through additional paperwork or “tax�. The downside is that since 1986 no new automatic weapons have been allowed to be registered that weren’t already registered in 1986. This has created a very fixed supply & increased prices dramatically.

So assuming you don’t have the time or desire to go through the paperwork involved with an NFA firearm here are some general choices for you:

Handguns: Great for carry outside the home as well as inside.

Pistol Caliber Carbines: A good compromise between the relatively low recoil of a handgun & the shootability of a rifle. Great for defense inside the home or as a trunk gun.

Rifles: Generally too powerful for inside the home defense in urban or suburban areas. But if the barbarians are 400 yards away & coming towards ya it's a fine choice. & generally they’re fine choices for trunk guns.

Shotguns: Probably the best tool for home defense. Powerful yet generally light & loads can be tailored to your situation with ease. Equally useful as a trunk gun, though you have a more limited range than with the other long guns.

Of those four choices I'd suggest a handgun if you wished to be armed outside the home. If you just want a firearm for the home then a pistol caliber carbine or shotgun would be better than a pistol. If you have several acres with clear fields of fire to defend then by all means grab a rifle.

Course I should point out that throwing a bayonet on a rifle will make it a very effective home defense weapon. There's no danger of the bayonet over penetrating in an undesirable way but using it will probably scare you as much as the person you're charging. :)

Figure out where you’re most likely to have need of a firearm, then decide which cartridge would suit your needs best. Determine what type of operating system would suit you best then look at firearms chambered for that or similar cartridges. Try out several & see which feels best to you. Don't be afraid to step down if the recoil proves too great for you. A hit with a .22 outscores a miss with a .50 any day of the week. Make sure you can hit with it at reasonable ranges (25 yards for handguns & shotguns, 50 yards for pistol caliber carbines & 100+ yards for rifles is a good general guide). Make sure the firearm & cartridge combination are comfortable enough for you. If you can't fire 50 rounds in one session without wondering if your HMO will cover the stop at the emergency room then either the firearm design isn't suited to you or you need to step down a notch in cartridge.

If you ever have to use your firearm odds are you'll fire no more than half a dozen rounds at most. But you must be able to practice with it regularly. There's no shame in being sensitive to recoil & you shouldn't let pride stick you with a firearm you're afraid to fire, or unable to fire much.

Here are a few links to check out. In this post I offer some advice on acquiring a well rounded battery of firearms.This is Wadcutter's firearms archive page which has a lot of good information on the physics & engineering of shooting. This is Chris Byrne's "best of" posts page which contains some really insightful explanations of things gun. & here are The Other Side Forum & The Nation of Riflemen Forum, both of which have sections just for beginners & those seeking advice on firearms purchase & use.

Next we'll deal with economy.

Posted by Publicola at August 2, 2006 05:59 AM | TrackBack