Whether you’re hiking a trail in bear country, or simply resting at home, having a firearm for personal protection is something everyone should consider. There are many schools of thought as to what constitutes an appropriate home defense, concealed carry, or trail gun, and just as many options available for purchase.
Mom commented after firing the PMR-30 that “…this is the perfect gun for me. It makes little holes, but it can make 30 of them. And it doesn’t beat me up.”
Debates over the “perfect” handgun caliber have raged on for dozens of years. Is it better to have a caliber that begins with “.4” or is the 9mm “Euro-pellet” sufficient when topped with modern expanding hollowpoints? Many seek to find the perfect “man-stopper,” “bear medicine,” or basically any bullet capable of a “one-shot stop” but they’re more likely to find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow that’s been crapped out by a unicorn. Such a cartridge simply does not exist.
Still, millions of dollars have been spent on countless studies analyzing the effectiveness of various calibers. The result has been a few exotic cartridges, few of which have ever made it into large-scale production. In the past 30 years the 10mm, .40 S&W, and .357 Sig have been the only handgun cartridges that have reached any level of prominence and, of those three, the .40 S&W is the only caliber to come anywhere close towards becoming as common as the 9mm or .45 ACP.
As with handguns, thousands of words and millions of dollars have been spent determining the suitability of the 5.56/.223 caliber “poodle shooter” versus any number of larger rifle cartridges, and even more hybrid and wildcat rounds have been spawned by this debate than were ever conceived of by the 9mm and .45 brouhaha. Still, by virtue of its use by the US military, not to mention the performance of the round, the 5.56/.223 caliber remains one of the more common rifle chamberings, and thousands of hunters pursuing everything from varmints to white tailed deer have proven its efficacy in the field.
What is not often considered is the person who will be utilizing the firearm. Many people neglect the human element. Having a revolver that can drop a bear with a single well-placed shot is admirable, but can just anyone pick up a .44 Magnum, .454 Casull, or .500 S&W chambered revolver and be proficient with it? A 12 gauge may work well for home defense but how many people, with little or no training, can accurately fire multiple rounds of full-power 00 buck loads?
Perhaps the perfect example of the wrong solution being over-hyped is the ultra-lightweight .38 Special/.357 Magnum snub nosed revolver, which is often wrongly promoted as the perfect weapon for a small woman. It’s easily concealable, and the double-action is reliable, but accuracy is sub-par at best, and it kicks hard enough to make even the most ardent seekers of “recoil-therapy” reconsider firing off more than a couple dozen rounds at a stretch. I know very few women who will tolerate hard hitting firearms (with the notable exception of Jennifer, who is just, odd when it comes to recoil).
Put a hard hitting pistol or rifle in the hands of many women, and almost all new shooters, and you’ll find their taste for the shooting sports quickly sours. That’s no way to gain new shooters and, for someone seeking a gun for self-defense, is a great way to convince them that there are many other things they’d rather do instead of run a few hundred rounds through the firearm while training.
And then we come to my own mother. Mom is not someone who I would consider old, though I suppose she’s getting there, nor infirm, though she has a few problems here and there that have left her on disability. Mom never has spent as much time at the range as I do, has only owned a gun on a few occasions, and never carried one for self-defense. In addition, she has problems with her hands that make it difficult for her to manipulate a stiff double-action trigger, and intense recoil leaves her wrists or shoulder sore and her nerves frayed.
The FN Five-seveN, AMT Automag II, and Kel-Tec PMR-30 are all low recoil semi-automatic handguns that can function as trail guns or self-defense handguns.
When it came time to find Mom a suitable pistol, rifle, and shotgun, low recoil was an absolute priority. This meant that a number of standard firearms were immediately tossed out. The pump action 12 gauge, favored by many for home defense, was simply too much gun. Instead, a semi-automatic 20 gauge was more appropriate. When outfitting Mom for hunting season, we skipped the .30 caliber rifles completely and went straight to the 6.5×55 Swedish Mauser and .223 AR-15, both of which are more than capable of taking deer and feral hog alike.
And pistols? Pistols are, and always have been, a study in compromise. In reality, anything a pistol can do, a rifle or shotgun can do better. So why the big fuss over caliber when it comes to pistols?
It’s not uncommon for a rifle to fail to yield a “one shot stop” even with a well placed round. I’ve seen deer, hogs, elk, and all manner of medium and large game run for hundreds of yards, sometimes even miles, despite a fatal wound. Stories abound of bears and moose who charge and injure or even kill a hunter, only to later fall dead from a lung or heart shot.
Can we really expect a pistol to reliably stop a determined attacker, no matter what the caliber? Of course not.
At the end of the day it is far more important to have a gun, any gun really, and preferably one that you can use accurately, and that you have trained with extensively. When I took Mom to the range, I didn’t give her a snub-nosed .357 Magnum, nor did I give her a semi-automatic .40, .45 ACP, 9mm, or even a .38 Special. Instead, we started out with .22 Long Rifle and worked our way up, next to the .22 Magnum and eventually to the 5.7×28.
Mom fires a 5.56mm AR-15, another low recoil firearm suitable for both hunting and self-defense.
Both the .22 Magnum and 5.7×28 were easy shooting cartridges that Mom, despite her aversion to recoil, could shoot all day long. And on top of that, she was deadly accurate with them. No flinches, no jerking of the trigger, just round after round put on target in a tight little group at distances up to 25 yards away. In the case of the PMR-30, that meant she had 30 rounds in a tight group about the size of a softball right in the center-of-mass.
Caliber isn’t everything. My friend Caleb proved that a cup of Starbucks’ brew and a .25 ACP Jetfire pistol can be exactly what is needed to dissuade a goblin. It’s been said that a .25 ACP may be great to carry when you don’t have a gun, but in this case it did the trick.
Even if you are forced to rely upon the ballistic performance of a particular firearm, when avoiding the conflict doesn’t work and merely the threat of force fails, whether it be against a criminal assault or a bruin who thinks you’re in their territory, small caliber firearms can work, especially when you can put more rounds down range faster. FBI statistics even show that more firearm-related deaths are caused by the lowly .22 LR than by any other caliber. That’s primarily due to the prevalence of guns chambered for the round, but it goes to show how effective it can be.
Dave Sevigny once told me to “just get the biggest caliber you can hit with or the one you’re most comfortable with,” and I think that’s key. For some people, that means a magnum rifle cartridge and a 10mm handgun. For Mom, that means a Five-seveN or .22 Magnum pistol for self-defense, and a .223 or 6.5×55 rifle for hunting.