A Survival Firearms Primer

For those with little or no experience with firearms, let’s look at the basic categories of weapons and some nomenclature.  Here is a brief primer that discusses standard weapons and ammunitions and does not get to esoteric.  (If you already know all about guns, you can skim through this part.)

Simply put, a piece of ammunition (often referred to as a cartridge or bullet) is loaded into the chamber of a gun, either directly or from a magazine.  (The chamber aligns with the barrel and holds a cartridge while it is fired.  A magazine is an ammunition feeding device that holds multiple cartridges.)

The weapon is aimed and the trigger pulled, causing the bullet to shoot out the bore or muzzle, as we have all seen on the TV and in movies.  In most weapons, the next bullet is automatically loaded into the chamber and the gun is ready to fire, so the trigger can be pulled again and again until the gun runs out of bullets. But how does that actually work?  Let’s explore this further:

A piece of ammunition is usually a brass cartridge that is filled with gunpowder and crimped tightly to a bullet on one end.  The other end is closed off to a flat surface that has a primer in it.  When the gun’s firing pin is released by pulling the trigger, the pin hits the primer with sufficient force that the chemical compound in the primer explodes, sending a spark into the gunpowder and igniting it.  The gun powder burns furiously, creating gas which propels the bullet out the open end of the chamber, usually at a speed in excess of 1,000 feet per second.  (Gun powder does not explode, it just burns really, really fast.  Also, it does not need oxygen to burn as it creates its own during combustion.)  In the old days of flint locks, there was a bit of a delay between the time one pulled the trigger and a bullet shot forth, but these days it happens so fast someone with a good trigger finger can fire several aimed shots a second.

Bullets are almost always made of lead and are often  covered with a layer of copper.  Many have either flat noses or pointed noses, and some of the most destructive have hollow points, a design that is intended to make a bullet expand in size when it hits flesh, thereby creating a wider and more destructive wound channel.  While both a hollow point and a full metal jacket (solid) bullet may kill an attacker, a hollow point bullet is designed to incapacitate them faster, thereby ending the fight and saving your life.  If you are mortally wounded, the fact that your attacker dies a few days later from an infection caused by your bullet it is a Pyrrhic victory at best.  In hunting scenarios, expanding bullets bring down an animal more quickly so that you don’t have to track it and risk it getting away.

Different guns use different kinds and sizes of ammunition.  These are differentiated by caliber.  In the U.S. we use inches, so a .45 caliber gun fires bullets that are 45/100ths of an inch in diameter.  This is twice as wide as a .22 caliber bullet.  In Europe, where they use the metric system, the diameter of bullets is measured in millimeters, such as the ubiquitous 9mm.  To further complicate matters, shotguns use gauges, which is an old measurement based on how many spheres of a particular diameter could be made from a pound of lead. (You don’t have to remember this, just know that a 12 gauge shotgun is bigger than a 20 gauge.)

To complicate things further, one kind of cartridge usually comes with different bullet weights, usually measure in grains.  (There are 7000 grains in a pound or approximately 437 per ounce.)  For example, the ..45 ACP cartridge often comes with 180 grain bullets and 230 grain bullets.  (Both are the same diameter, of course, but different lengths and shapes due to the different weights.)  Because of physics, a 180 grain bullet will be faster than a 230 grain bullet.  In a .223 rifle, 55 grain and 62 grain bullets are very common, with some heavier bullets such as 77 grain projectiles gaining in popularity.  In shotgun shells, the charge of powder and the size of shot will vary.  The thing to remember is that the smaller the number, the bigger the shot.  So a #8 shot is much smaller than #4 shot.

While we do not have enough room to go into all the varieties and the difference performance of each size of bullet or shot, the key message is to match your gun and choice of ammunition to the job at hand.  Just as a good carpenter has different saws and the saws may have different blades, a gunman will have different guns and different bullets for each.

In general, when all else is equal, larger bullets do a better job of stopping game or a person intent on doing you harm, but bullet design and speed also plays an important factor.  (This is why rifles that shoot small bullets at 2700 feet per second are more deadly than pistols that shoot bigger, slower bullets.)  However, the biggest, best-designed bullet does no good if it misses, so you really need to train and practice with your weapon or weapons of choice.   The old saw about a hit with a .22 being better than a miss with a .45 is right on target.

There are many types and sizes of ammunition, but the key is to make sure you buy the correct kind of ammunition for your gun.  A .45 ACP cartridge is different than a .45 Colt cartridge.  A .308, a .30-06 and a .30-30 all may use the same .30 caliber projectile, but they are different rounds with different sized cartridges  and you must match the ammunition to the gun.  DO NOT SHOOT a bullet in a gun it is not designed for.  All modern weapons are engraved or stamped with their caliber.  Make sure you are using the correct ammunition or your survival situation will be worsened when your gun blows up in your hands and face.

Types of Firearms

Here is a rundown on some common types of firearms and their strengths and weaknesses.  Please note that we are avoiding things like derringers, machine guns, and other weapons that you are unlikely to run across early in your gun buying career.

Pistols are small, concealable firearms that usually come in two kinds: revolvers and semi-automatics.  Many feel that revolvers are easier for the uninitiated to use, but semi-autos (often mistakenly referred to simply as automatics) usually hold more bullets.  The benefit of a pistol is that they are small and can be carried on you at all times, so they can be handy should violence break out unexpectedly.  Their weakness is that a pistol bullet is relatively small and weak compared to a rifle bullet or a shotgun blast.  So your best bet is to carry your pistol and use it to fight your way to your long gun, which should be near by.

Pistols usually shoot solid projectiles, although you can buy shot shells for them.  (Generally, shot shells for pistols is a waste of money unless you live in snake country and need a blast of shot to kill a snake.)  Captain Dave’s advise is to avoid weird ammunition – just buy standard hollow points for serious use and sold full metal jackets for training.

Shotguns are designed to shoot multiple pellets or shot out in a single blast.  This starts as a dense cluster of shot that disperses over distance, making it easier to hit a flying bird or a running rabbit.  They are the weapon of choice for shooting waterfowl, pheasants or similar game.  #7 or 8 shot is very small, while #1 or 4 shot is much larger.  Captain Dave recommends any buckshot with a number smaller than #4 for man-sized targets, and prefers what is known as 00 buckshot.  At less than 25 yards, 00 buckshot is a very potent man stopper.  Because the shot disperses, shotguns loose their effectiveness at longer ranges.  Because of this, you can buy shotgun slugs, which are solid projectiles.  These are better than shot at longer ranges and useful out to about 75 yards, but beyond 30 or 40 yards, a shotgun is a poor second choice to a rifle.

Shotguns are long and heavy, especially compared to a pistol, and usually hold between 2 and 8 rounds.  They can be semi automatic or manual pump.  In a pump shotgun, you have to rack the slide between shots, casting out the empty and loading a new cartridge from the tubular magazine.  Semi-automatics do that for you, but in return they are more complicated and require more cleaning and maintenance.

A shotgun shell is many times larger than a pistol bullet and most rifle bullets.  They are usually made from plastic hulls but have a brass bottom that holds the primer.  Inside the shell is a plastic cup that holds the shot.  They work the same way as brass cartridges in that the firing pin strikes the primer which sets off the primer and ignites the powder charge.  The powder burns rapidly, causing gas to expand, propelling the contents of the cartridge out of the shotgun barrel.  The shot usually rides in a plastic cup, which serves to keep it together until it leaves the barrel.  Due to physics, the shot continues to outpace the plastic cup, which falls to the ground while the shot continues to hopefully reach the intended target.  In a semi-automatic shotgun, the power of this expanding gas is also used to cycle the action, loading the next round into the chamber.

Please note that shotguns have a reputation for spreading their shot so much that you do not have to aim.  This is simply not true.  Aiming is required and pointing and shooting works only at very close ranges.

Rifles are also long guns.  They shoot solid projectiles that are usually intended for targets within a few hundred yards, but that can travel miles.  There are many types of rifles.  Short, light rifles are known as carbines and were originally issued to cavalry.  They are designed for shorter range engagements than battle rifles.  Hunting or sniper rifles are equipped with telescopic optics and are designed for engaging targets hundreds of yards away.

Note that some carbines shoot calibers originally designed for pistols.  While cowboys once found it convenient to load their rifle or pistol from the same ammunition belt, this is not recommended for a modern survivalist.  There are tasks you may need your rifle for that most pistol calibers are not adequate for.  Don’t spend your money on a pistol-caliber carbine until you have the rest of your arsenal sewn up.

Like shotguns, rifles are heavy and are difficult or impossible to carry concealed.  Carrying them long distances often requires the use of a sling.  They offer heavy firepower at long range.  While there are semi-automatics rifles that can hold 30 or more rounds of ammunition, there are also bolt action rifles that hold only three to five rounds and require manual manipulation to load the next round into the chamber.  While different types of guns are best utilized in different situations, a skilled rifleman with a slow bolt action rifle is, in Captain Dave’s opinion, far more dangerous than an inexperienced rifleman who will simply spray bullets and pray one hits his target.

Standardize for Logistical Simplicity

From a survival situation, Captain Dave recommends standardizing on a few major calibers.  For example, the military and many law enforcement agencies currently use .223 or 5.56 caliber ammunition int heir rifles are carbines.  As a result, there is a lot of it around, as well as a lot of magazines and gun parts and accessories for the most common .223 gun, which is the M4, it’s forefather the M-16, and their civilian version, the AR-15.  While the 6.8mm rifle round may have better performance, if you outfit yourself with a 6.8 caliber rifle, you cannot count on finding or scrounging extra ammo in a post-TEOTWAWKI environment.

If you have several pistols, it may make sense from a logistical situation to have them all the same caliber.  For example, it is preferable to stock all 9mm or .40 caliber ammo than to stock both.  This way if one gun stops functioning or is lost, you don’t have some “useless” ammunition sitting around.

In fact, having multiple guns by the same manufacturer that share parts and magazines is an even better idea.  For example, you could have a Glock 19 and a Glock 17 and simply buy magazines for the Glock 17, knowing that they will fit the Glock 19, if necessary.

Captain Dave also recommends having LOTS of ammo.  At least 1,000 rounds per weapon, preferably more.  While you cannot eat it ammunition, it’s more effective than throwing #10 cans at the enemy.  So stock up on food and water first, but don’t scrimp on ammunition.  Ammunition feeding devices, known as magazines, are also important. Without a magazine, your high capacity wonder gun is now a single shot.  So buy a dozen magazines for each gun, and put some in your cache.  One thing Captain Dave does is to store extra magazines with his ammunition.  So if you grab an ammo can marked .223, there will be two or three magazines in side it.  These days, 1,000 rounds of .233 ammo costs upwards of $350.  Three good quality AR-15 magazines cost $18 or less.  It’s worth the investment.

Once you have a gun or guns, ammunition and magazines, consider getting other accessories, like cleaning supplies and holsters or slings.  A good holster will carry your pistol safely and securely as well as comfortably.  Sticking a loaded pistol in your pants without a holster is a good way to shoot off an important part of your anatomy.  And in a TEOTWAWKI situation where there is no trauma center, this will probably kill you.

For rifles and shotguns, slings are also useful devices that make carrying your gun easier and leave your hands free for other tasks.  A good sling can also be as shooting aid, increasing your accuracy.

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