Shooting on a Shoestring, by John M.

Finding great self-defense weapons on a tight budget can be a challenge. There are tons of tactical weapons out there, but if you’re like a lot of us, the trick is finding something that you can afford.  If you’re one of those folks – this guide is for you.

Finding Your Gear

The used market is the place to look – prices are usually lower than retail.  Some states restrict advertising of certain kinds of used guns.  That makes it tougher, but not impossible to find stuff. 

Word of mouth and asking around (“know anybody that’s looking to sell something?”) can turn up leads.  Make friends in gun stores and get to know people. They’re often buying/selling/trading.

If advertising guns is unrestricted in your state, then pick up a local “shopper” advertising paper and/or check out the classifieds in the local newspapers.  Be persistent, be patient and when you find something you’re interested in, you can get on the ‘Net and check out the reviews.  An easy way to do that is to Google search the firearm you’ve got your eye on. [JWR Adds: I have found,, and to be excellent sources. The new page might also prove useful. To keep your gun buying both legal and private, at some of these web sites you can use an “Advanced Search” feature to limit your searches by State, and to only private seller listings. I strongly recommend that you buy only from private parties if that is legal in your locality. Of course consult your state and local laws first!]

If you’re not concerned about the paperwork involved with buying a firearm in a retail gun store, you’ll find that pawn shops and sporting goods outlets often stock used or consigned weapons at reasonable prices.  Some shops will let you try before you buy, or you can go to a commercial shooting range and rent guns that you’re interested in, before you lay down your cash.

A couple of thoughts about “paperwork” – the forms you fill out and the info you give whenever you buy a gun at a gun store. First, the government tells us that the info you give to get their permission to buy the gun (the instant criminal background check) is required by law to be destroyed.  Maybe they do, maybe they don’t – either way, you give them the info, fill out the Form 4473 and register yourself. The 4473 has to be surrendered to BATFE on demand, or when the store goes out of business.

Second, every gun that is sold retail for the first time, along with the buyer’s name, address, etc., is entered into BATFE’s E-trace system; and that is made available to any LEO or police department that subscribes to it.  In other words, you’re registered with your new gun. If that’s okay with you,then happy shopping!

Cheap Shotguns:

Shotguns are the definitive fight stopper. Devastating out to about 25 yards or so, there’s something inspiring about the sound of a 12 gauge racking a round into the chamber. The good news is, for $200 to $300 can find you a very serviceable gun. Tactical models, special finishes, stocks, and slings all raise the price quickly.

What you don’t want

Double barrels, single shots, and anything other than 12 or 20 gauge.  Double barrels look cool but they are slow to reload and only have (surprise!) two shots.  Singles go bang half as much and suffer from the same slow reload drawback.  Experts like Clint Smith of Thunder Ranch can make a single run almost like a semi-auto. But you ain’t Clint Smith.

What you do want

Late model guns from Remington, Mossberg, and Winchester are probably your best bet – The Remington 870, Mossberg 500 and Winchester 1300 all have their fans. The 870s I own have been completely reliable. Ditto my 1300.
Pump shotguns are plentiful on the used market.  They are relatively cheap, easy to use, reliable and have a stout kick.  When you shoot one – keep that in mind – it kicks.
Pumps are generally less expensive and finicky than semi-automatics. What to feed them? Another good debate topic (and oh, how gunnies love to argue!). To keep it simple, buy plenty of double ought buck for social work and bird shot (# 7 or 8) for practice. Bird shot is currently going for about 20 cents a round.
Shotgun shells in 12 or 20 gauge are common now and will likely be easier to find than any other gauge when the stuff hits the fan. I know .410s are popular, especially among the Taurus Judge 5 shooter crowd and the derringer community.  To me, it’s still a boutique round. But, you pays your money and takes your choice.  I’ll take a 12 or a 20, thanks.


A rifle, effectively used, is usually the best thing to take to a gun fight. For our purposes, we are only looking for a semi-automatic military type rifle. Why?
Good ones can still be had for cheap and they offer a level of durability and reliability far beyond their low price. Military weapons are built tough for a tough job – warfare. That translates into a tough dependable weapon in any situation – always an advantage.
Bolt actions are less desirable because of a lower rate of fire compared to a semi-automatic. Should you get into a firefight, you want to have all the firepower you can muster.
On the other hand, bolt actions like the Russian Mosin Nagant can be found for less than $200, and they fire a potent 7.62×54 round.  They also may have an accuracy advantage.
There are few affordable semi-auto military rifles on the open market for less than $400.  Except the venerable SKS.  The SKS come with a WWII-style wood stock (no “fancy-smancy” black plastic stuff on these), a crude (but effective) safety that blocks the trigger, usually some kind of canvas olive drab sling and a 10-shot magazine. If you were only going to own one rifle, this one is worth serious consideration. Developed in Russia in 1944, it enjoyed a short life as a front line battle rifle and was replaced three years late

r with the AK-47.  SKSes were then used by nearly all the old Soviet bloc countries, other communist countries like China, and client states like Vietnam and Cuba.  It is still used in insurgencies around the world. Capable of firing 10 rounds of 7.62×39 ammunition (roughly the same ballistics as a 30-30 round), they are loaded by inexpensive stripper clips or one at a time.  It is reliable as a quartz watch, virtually unbreakable, cheap to feed, easy to maintain (it can be, like most army guns, disassembled without tools), reasonably accurate and common on the market.

The AK-47 beats the SKS in firepower (30+ rounds versus 10).  It is lighter, faster to reload (mags versus stripper clips), and in military guise, has full auto capability. It is renowned as one of the most reliable (read, unbreakable) rifles in the world. The good news is that both are commercially available in the US (the AK being a semi-automatic only here). But the AK is a good deal more expensive – $600 and up. In contrast, I was recently able to find a couple Chinese SKS’s for $175 each.
The 7.62×39 round has been used to harvest deer and other medium game. SKSes are sufficiently accurate with standard sights to take game out to about 150 – 200 yards. At this writing it is runs about 27 cents a round. Cheap enough to practice with.
The stripper clip can be a very fast way to reload the rifle, assuming you practice and have a strong thumb. 
In short, if you’re looking for a powerful, multi-use, affordable, tough rifle, the SKS is the one to beat.

Beyond the SKS, prices go north. Next in line, price wise, might be an AK copy – variants sell under different designations. For example, a desirable used Mak 90 (a 1990s Chinese AK, stamped receiver, sporter AK with an awful looking thumbhole stock) can be had for $500 – $600. If you can afford one, go for it.
AR-15 clones, M1s, M-14s, FALs, FNs, etc., will cost you more. There are better rifles, but there are none at a better price point than an SKS.  At the end of the day – all of them go bang when you pull the trigger.  Nobody I know wants to stand in front of one!


Loved and hated, the Ruger Mini-14 has been around since the 1970s and it is a durable semi-auto that has controls like Garand type rifles of yore (the M1 and the M14), [but uses a short-stroke gas piston like an M1 Carbine]. It shoots the ubiquitous .223 round and it is worthy of consideration to anyone wanting a .223 fighting gun. They can be found around $500 on the used market.

Older Mini-14s (serial number 180,XXX and up) are known for their reliability and their fair to poor accuracy – 7 inch groups at 100 yards aren’t uncommon. On the other hand, that level of accuracy in a combat gun is acceptable and not much worse than the SKS or the vaunted AK-47s. Later models have had mixed reviews and are reported to be more finicky about magazines. A common fix is to use factory Ruger magazines exclusively.
Newer models (with serial numbers above 581,XXX) are claimed to be more accurate and reliable.
Mine run consistently and hit with acceptable accuracy – even though they’re 30 years old. An advantage I’ve found with mine is that they shoot steel case Russian .223 happily.  A lot AR-15s don’t.  In a survival situation, it would be an advantage to have a rifle that will digest whatever ammo you have or acquire. Finally, Mini-14s are low maintenance and easy to field strip – without tools. That’s a plus in unpredictable circumstances.

A final thought on rifles: When the curtain goes down on the good times, 7.69×39 and .223 ammo will then, as now, probably be around in quantity.


Handguns are easily concealed and easily used in a self-defense situation. Most gunfights take place at close range and this is where handguns do their best work.
I am a Glock shooter.  I love ‘em.  I also love 1911s (usually Colts – older models), and good Smith & Wesson revolvers (.44 Magnums are still “the most powerful [widely produced] handgun in the world” for this Dirty Harry fan!).  Why do I love Glocks?  I bought my first one in the late 1980s and it’s never let me down. Recently I completed an intense three-day shooting school – over a thousand rounds down range and not a single failure, not one, nada – that from my old Glock 17, the one I got in the 1980s.  They are ugly, they run, and they are accurate. They are also light, easy to conceal, clean, maintain, and nearly rust-proof. What’s not to love?
Used ones turn up in the paper at around $500. 

If you are one an even tighter budget, the how about a used P85 or P90 series Ruger 9mm?  $375.  Mine has been running since around 1985.  Sure it’s big.  Sure it’s ugly.  But it’s accurate and reliable.

Used Beretta 92s (civilian version of the Army’s official M9 sidearm) are around for $400.  Does it run? Yes.  Accurate?  Yes. Easy to maintain?  Absolutely. Remember that that 9mm ammo is relatively inexpensive and ubiquitous.

Before you turn your nose up at 9 millimeter pistols, remember we’re doing this on a budget.  Are there better calibers?  Probably.  But none cheaper to practice with.  There are excellent self-defense 9mm bullets available as well, which make the 9mm a serious combat gun. For the money, they are hard to beat.

Final Thoughts

The most important thing you can do after you get your gun is learn how to run it well – that includes safe handling and good marksmanship.  Good training will help you hone both. If you can’t afford training, consider one of the excellent training books by masters like John Farnam, Jeff Cooper, or Massad Ayoob.  There are some great training DVDs available for rent at Smartflix.  The advantage to DVDs is you get to see the tactics and techniques in action. [JWR Adds: Also take advantage of low cost training at the Appleseed Shoots.]

Weapons don’t make you a master.  You have to master your weapon.  While you might not have the latest tacticool gun, experts say that marksmanship is largely a matter of practice and good trigger control – regardless of your equipment.  As Clint Smith says, “Use what you got!” – J.M.