I agree wholeheartedly with your recommendation to seek affordable training through the Appleseed program. My wife and I were privileged to participate in the Appleseed event presented at the NRA Whittington Center a couple of years ago, and found it to be excellent marksmanship and safety training as well as a wonderful historical learning experience. At the end of the program, the range master told the story of a “dangerous old man” in the Revolution, and presented Rifleman patches to me and another “seasoned citizen”. One of the many Boy Scouts in attendance blurted out: “Wow, look, two dangerous old men!”
I also agree with the recommendation to consider a WWII era bolt action military rifle as a cost-effective Main Battle Rifle. However, such weapons, while powerful, are also heavy, bulky and may be difficult for a new shooter to master. I’d like to propose some other ideas:
For a primary learning, small game hunting and “survival” tool, I’d propose a semi-automatic Ruger 10/22 rifle. I’d look for a used rifle in good condition, which should be available for under $200. A used rifle may be found with a scope already mounted for little additional expense, although a scope is not really a necessity. A simple nylon strap sling is an important accessory, as are extra magazines. I’d recommend sticking with original Ruger factory magazines rather than after-market, for best reliability. The 10/22 will function fine with inexpensive “bulk box” Federal or Remington .22LR ammo available at Wal-Mart and other discount outlets. I’ve had better luck with the Federal brand, personally. A 10/22 is easily customized if desired, but is perfectly capable in it’s standard format. My wife used a 10/22 with an upgraded trigger and Tech Sights (http://www.tech-sights.com/ruger3.htm) military style aperture sights at Appleseed. While a .22 caliber rifle is not ideal for self defense, it is light, easy to carry, accurate and puts out 10-25 rounds (depending on magazine capacity) very quickly. In a self-defense scenario, just remember to aim carefully and shoot till the threat is stopped, which is good advice whatever the weapon used. I personally believe that this is the first weapon any new shooter should acquire.
Next, for personal defense, I would recommend a handgun in a caliber of at least .38 Special. While a semi-automatic Glock or similar weapon in 9mm, .40 S&W or .45 ACP might be ideal, they are still in the $450+ range, and can be somewhat complicated for new shooters to learn to operate. In this case, I would keep an eye out at pawn shops, gun shops and gun shows for a used but not abused Ruger Security Six, Service Six or Speed Six 4″ barreled revolver in .38 Special or .357 Magnum (the .357’s will also chamber and fire .38 Special ammo, which is less powerful, lower recoil and less expensive for training ammo). Smith and Wesson .38 Special or .357 Magnum revolvers can also be found at fairly reasonable prices, particularly “police trade in” Models 64, 65, 10 or 13, as well as the Ruger GP100 in .357. I’d recommend the medium framed, six shot, 4″ barreled service weapons over a smaller five shot “pocket” type revolver. I wouldn’t overlook a good deal on a six shot Ruger or S&W with a 2.75″ or 3″ barrel, although they usually command a premium over 4″ models. I found a dirty but very functional Ruger Service Six stainless steel 4″ .38 Special at a gun show for $225. Once it was cleaned and polished, it looks and functions like new, is very accurate and is one of our primary “house guns”. Service size revolvers like these were the main sidearm of law enforcement and security officers for many years, and still provide a simple, durable, reliable and inexpensive personal defense weapon for a new shooter. The heft and barrel length are sufficient to dampen recoil to a manageable level, while providing the accuracy necessary to learn to shoot well. Ammunition cost can be moderated by using the most inexpensive .38 Special lead or full metal jacketed ammo for training, and buying more powerful .38 Special +P (or .357) hollow points for self defense use. A wide variety of ammunition is available in either caliber and such revolvers are generally reliable with all types of ammunition of the proper caliber. A 4″ barreled service revolver can still be carried concealed in a well made “pancake” or “belt-slide” high ride belt holster, and rapid reloads can be facilitated using HKS or Safariland Speedloaders or Bianchi or Tuff Products “speed strips”. Again, it’s important to remember that handguns are low powered weapons and “one-shot stops” are basically a myth, so accurate shot placement and multiple shots must be expected to stop a threat. For a definitive primer on shooting a double action revolver, see this excellent new book by Grant Cunningham: Gun Digest Book of the Revolver.
For hunting and self-defense, another inexpensive and versatile weapon to consider is the 12 gauge shotgun. Available ammunition ranges from relatively light recoiling “bird shot” loads up to heavier recoiling buckshot loads for self defense to very stout recoiling rifled slug loads for deer, bear or other large animal hunting. Do not use bird shot loads for self defense, as the small, light pellets simply don’t penetrate reliably enough to reach vital organs. I recommend the “tactical” 2-1/2″ eight-pellet 00 buckshot loads as best for self defense, while reserving bird shot loads for practice and bird hunting. Used Remington and Mossberg pump action shotguns (generally with a capacity of three to five rounds) should be available for under $200. An even less expensive and simpler alternative is a single shot, break open shotgun such as one made by H&R. These should be available used for around $100. Be aware that either version, but particularly the lighter single shot, will exhibit fierce recoil with the heavier self defense loads. For survival use, a simple sling is a useful accessory, along with a butt stock mounted “ammo cuff” or a receiver mounted (pump version only) “side saddle” ammo carrier to hold extra ammunition. Barrel length should be no shorter than 18.1″ to remain legal in the U.S. Many pump action models have replaceable barrels, allowing the user to switch between a longer barrel for bird hunting and a shorter barrel for self defense. Consider the “youth models” also, which generally have a barrel length of 20-22″ and a shorter butt stock, which make them light and handy to carry and use, as well as being a better fit for smaller statured shooters. My son, now a grown man, grew up shooting a single shot H&R youth model shotgun, and can still make amazing wing shots with that little gun! See the YouTube video of Clint Smith for his ideas on using a simple, inexpensive shotgun for self-defense. I highly recommend Clint Smith’s series of videos as training tools for a new shooter interested in self defense.
Finally, in lieu of a bolt action or semi-automatic battle rifle, I’d suggest that a new shooter consider looking for a good used lever action .30-30, either a Marlin 336 or Winchester 94 model. You can sometimes find old “house brand” versions of the Marlin, such as the Montgomery Ward “Western Field” at very inexpensive prices. I personally prefer the Marlin 336. These rifles are smaller, lighter, quicker into action and easier to carry than a WWII bolt action rifle. The .30-30 cartridge is superior ballistically to the 7.62x39mm AK-47 round while exhibiting lower recoil than the larger WWII rounds such as the 7.62x54R, and is available virtually anywhere rifle ammo is sold. The lever action rifle can be a very viable personal defense tool as well as a big game hunting tool, and has the advantage of not being a “military” weapon that might bring undue attention from authorities. As with the shotgun, a buttstock mounted ammo cuff and a simple sling are useful accessories. For personal defense, I don’t recommend mounting a scope, although scope mounting is simple on the Marlin version. See Clint Smith’s video on “Learn to Use the Gun You Have”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DzXR24J1wgE.
There are many different opinions on this subject, and you’ve just read some of mine. I’d like to emphasize that it is not a question of what is the “best” weapon, but what weapons can you afford to purchase and provide with adequate ammunition in order to learn to shoot them well enough to defend yourself if necessary. Don’t obsess over the “power” of the particular ammunition or how many rounds of ammunition your weapon can spew out. Concentrate on learning to operate your weapon reliably while placing however many rounds available on target accurately and consistently. These suggestions will allow you to achieve this goal without spending too much money, and provide you with a lot of fun in the bargain! – S.M.O.