Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Defensive Firearms: How many magazines and how much ammunition should you have?

For those who haven't yet accepted the unfortunate reality of our current political situation as it relates to firearms, here it is in a nutshell: 

President Obama broke his campaign pledge to respect the second amendment of our constitution as soon as he was elected, before he even took office. He has publicly announced his intention to ban "assault weapons". I put that phrase in quotation marks because true assault weapons aren't what he really means. What he really means are "semi-automatic firearms that may resemble assault weapons and/or hold more than ten rounds". He's also very eager to put onerous restrictions on handguns, whether or not they are limited to ten rounds. This despite the fact that criminals will be unlikely to obey any new laws because, like, well, criminals don't obey laws. 

The ultimate irony is that violent crime isn't a personal problem for president Obama, or any of the major players in the anti-gun pantheon. They all have 24/7 armed protection. Having encouraged violent crime with their weakness and folly, they need it. They obviously believe they have a right to self defense. They just don't believe we do. 

Perhaps their lives are more valuable than ours. But I digress. The question at hand is "How many magazines should you have for your defensive firearms, and how much ammunition?"

Magazines are the component of a firearm most likely to malfunction. I've broken the feedlips on one and the baseplates on a couple. I dented one, with no idea how. I'm proud to say I've even worn some out. Magazines are also the most likely part of a firearm to become lost. One of mine is somewhere on the Alaskan tundra, and another is at the bottom of Lake Winnipesaukee. I left a couple at a range, and they were gone when I went back for them. I left one in a friend's car, and the unconscionable swine still hasn't returned it. (Greg, if you're reading this, I'm talking about you.) I've managed to lose a couple more with no idea where.

Without a magazine, your firearm is a single-shot. If your pistol has a magazine safety (that is, if it's designed to not fire without a magazine in it), then it's an expensive rock.

I think its a good idea to have a set of "duty" magazines that are tested for function but not routinely used; a set of "range" mags for practice; and at least a couple spares. For example, I usually carry two spare mags with my defensive handguns, for a total of three. So, a minimum of eight per pistol makes me feel warm and fuzzy. Three duty, three range, and a couple spares.

When I was a young Marine (lean, hard and good-looking as well as young, by the way), Uncle Sam issued me seven magazines with my rifle. I don't know how he settled on that number, but a lot of taxpayer dollars were undoubtedly involved in the study. I'm willing to take his word for how many are suitable for that sort of rifle. We weren't issued spares, but could get replacements through the supply system if we lost or damaged any. And we did. So for each AR15 or M14 clone or the like, think about keeping seven "duty" mags, seven "range" mags, and a few spares. Twenty if you like round numbers.

Some bolt-action rifles are magazine-fed, but they're an exception to my rule-of-thumb. They aren't really intended for fast reloads and don't often hit the dirt and concrete of ranges during practice. Even battle rifles like the famous Enfield were only issued with one, and it wasn't removed except for cleaning. Besides, they aren't the object of any attempted bans yet. If you have a SMLE, one is sufficient. If you have something like a Steyr tactical, maybe three.

Don't be tempted to buy cheap aftermarket mags. They're worse than useless. When in doubt, stick with the those made by the manufacturer of the firearm or issued by Uncle Sam. Buy quality and only cry once.

On to ammunition: Once again I'll differentiate between "duty" and "practice". 

For practice, I'm going to go waaay out on a limb here and say that 300 rounds per year for each type of firearm is a reasonable minimum for maintaining competence. That's 300 for your pistols, 300 for your bolt-action rifles, and so on for revolvers, auto-loading rifles, pump-action shotguns, over/unders, etc. Really serious shooters will laugh at that - they burn through more in one Saturday at the skeet range. But then really serious shooters don't need any advice from me. Of course more is better. 

I'll go further out on the limb and say that firing 25 rounds per month is better than firing, say, 150 per half. Shooting is a perishable skill, and if you haven't practiced in 3 months, you're guaranteed to be getting rusty. Dry firing should already constitute a large part of your training regimen, and it may have to constitute more. 

As an example of "duty" ammo, I hunt deer with very expensive ammunition assembled with bonded-core bullets. I make sure it's accurate and reliable in my rifle, but then I don't shoot it except for actual hunting and to occasionally check the zero. Maybe 5 rounds per year. I have 150 rounds of this "duty" ammo for my favorite deer rifle, and there should be some left over for my son.

So let's say 5 rounds per year of "duty" ammo for each of my bolt-action hunting rifles, and 300 rounds per year of practice ammo for all of them combined. 
How many years of duty and practice ammo should you anticipate? How old are you? Store it in a cool, dry place without too many temperature swings. It won't go bad before you do. 

For defensive handguns and home-defense rifles and shotguns, again figure 300 rounds per year of practice ammo for each type, plus enough "duty" ammo as it takes to make sure it's reliable in your weapon (I'm going to suggest 200 rounds), plus as much as you think you'll need in any reasonably foreseeable emergency. What sort of emergency I'll leave up to you and your particular situation. It may be anything from a fox in the henhouse to Katrina-style riots or worse. 

If you had the foresight to stock up a year or two ago, congratulations. You made a good investment. If you didn't, be prepared to pay dearly. Anticipation of bans has driven prices  up dramatically. It would take quite an optimistic attitude, though, to wait and hope that things will get better instead of worse. An "assault weapon" ban is just the beginning. I'll be surprised if "sniper rifles" (anything with optical sights) and "cop-killer bullets" (anything with enough power to be an effective hunting cartridge) aren't the objects of onerous restrictions and huge taxes in the not-too-distant future. If you missed the boat with semi-auto's and hi-capacity magazines, don't miss it with scoped bolt-action rifles and center-fire ammunition.

If you're going to be spending that much money on practice ammo, make sure you're practicing the correct things by getting some professional training. Not from your "uncle who was in the Army", or your "friend who knows all about guns". Take at least a weekend course from a reputable instructor so you'll have a solid foundation upon which to build. Otherwise all your practice will be only reinforcing bad habits. 

And it never hurts to review the cardinal rules of safety popularized by the late, great Jeff Cooper:

  • All guns are always loaded. Even if you're sure they're not, treat them as if they are.
  • Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. (For those who insist that this particular gun is unloaded, see Rule 1, above.)
  • Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target. This is the Golden Rule. Its violation is directly responsible for most inadvertent discharges. Keep your booger-hook off the bang-button.
  • Identify your target, and what is behind it. A tiny lawyer is attached to every projectile that you launch.

  • A small, easily-concealable defensive handgun, for which I carry one spare magazine. I own another pair of mags for range use, and two spares. Notice that two are extended, i.e., they hold one more round than the others. 

    Another, larger handgun, which I carry with two additional magazines. Three range mags and a couple spares makes eight.

    A supply of twenty 20-round USGI magazines should last as long as the rifle does. The two 5-rounders are for hunting. This M14 clone has accounted for a moose, among other things.

    There's something to be said for defensive firearms without detachable magazines - nothing extra to buy, nothing to lose, and they're perhaps the only option in some of our more politically-correct states.


    Anonymous said...

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    Ryan said...

    Great Post, Interestingly enough a lot of my thoughts are very similar. As you noted mags get lost or misplaced and can in fact wear out. For me temporary misplacement has been the main culprit. I don't loose them but there were regularly a couple in the glove box or a backpack or somewhere else. In any case I would not have had them if I needed them in 10 minutes. I have gotten better about this but it is still a caution to me.

    For pistols I figure 10 mags is a nice number. If I am 'loaded for bear' I carry 2 spares which is 3 total. Figure 3 more to replace those 3 if they are lost or whatever, and a few in case the world ends, my buddy needs some or whatever. Admittedly part of it is that 10 is a nice round number.

    For rifles I like 20 or 20+.

    On ammo I have a more conservative perspective. No point in buying an expensive rifle with a bunch of mags and an expensive pistol with a bunch of mags to skimp on buying ammo and only keep a couple hundred rounds for each. I honestly think you should panic like crazy until you've got at least a case of ammo for the primary rifle and a half a case for the primary pistol and shotgun. Personally somewhere in the neighborhood of 3k for a rifle and 1k for pistol/ shotgun is my happy number. Admittedly I do not have any great reasoning for those numbers but they are where I can be happy knowing I can feed my defensive weapons.

    As a final thought I would emphasize that it is essential to factor in the cost of ammunition (and mags too;) when considering the purchase of a firearm. If you can't afford at least a case of ammo for a rifle and half of one for a pistol (pretty darn quick) then you can't afford that rifle or pistol.

    Sunfighter said...

    I have at least 300 rounds for each of my handguns. I also have 300 rounds for each of my Mosins. 1200 for my M70. 120 00 Buck for my Mossberg 500 (plus plenty of other shot). And 2000 for my strictly small game 22LR.

    I figure a min. of 300 is a good number for most weapons. More for the shotgun and battle weapon. That works for me. But I don't mind exceeding that number either.

    Anonymous said...

    Nice shotgun. I love the barrel length and rifle sights. I think that would be an ideal first defensive firearm because it's inexpensive, not many accessories to buy, and it can pull double duty (hunting big/small game and defense)
    Also, improvised shotgun ammo is rather easily assembled.