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Selecting a Defensive Carbine

By Ron Avery

With the plethora of choices available for both the carbine and other equipment, it becomes confusing and, at times, frustrating, to make a good choice for a defensive carbine.

It is helpful to keep in mind the primary mission you envision using it for. It is also helpful to understand that no one arm will fulfill every type of situation you think you may encounter.

From a defensive standpoint you want a firearm that has the following attributes:

  • Reliable
  • Easy to manipulate, use and shoot
  • Easy to carry
  • Easy to maintain
  • Reasonably accurate
  • Decent stopping power
  • Ammunition readily available
  • Ammunition suitable to your environment
  • Decent trigger and iron sights
  • Reasonably affordable
  • Extra gear/accessories added or subtracted as needed

Let’s go through the above points one by one and address them.


Your weapon choice should be able to fire, at minimum, 300 rounds of decent quality ammunition without some sort of malfunction or need for lubrication. No screws should be coming loose and the action shouldn’t be sticky or gummy at the end of the session. It should be able to run with some dirt or dust in it as well. Firearms tuned for accuracy may suffer from reliability issues when subjected to extended firing. However this is not always the case and many will function for hundreds of rounds without fail.

Recently, piston systems vs. gas impingement systems have come up for discussion in AR style firearms. Both work just fine for what we do. Keep them correctly lubed and they will work! Don’t get sucked into hype!

 Easy to Manipulate, Use and Shoot

The firearm should be able to be put into firing condition and position very rapidly at a moment’s notice, especially if it is either unloaded or kept with an empty chamber and loaded magazine.  Ideally, it should have a safety that is easy to manipulate. The stock should be short enough to use with or without body armor, should you choose to wear it or your situation allows for a rapid donning of armor.  An adjustable stock is a plus here but not required.

It should be easy to reload as well without having to look at the firearm to do so.

The recoil should not be jarring your teeth loose with each shot and you should be able to get back on target rapidly and deliver repeated, fight stopping hits on demand.

Easy to Carry

Here is where the choices narrow. Many of the firearms available are geared towards the magical 1 MOA or less standard or 1” or less at 100 yards. However, this comes at a price tag of heavier barrels etc. When you have to manipulate it quickly or carry it for extended time periods, say 4-12 hours a day (if you are in extended, worst case societal breakdown situation) in addition to other gear, it gets heavy and wears one down. Light is right!

Easy to Maintain

The carbine should be easy to maintain with a minimum of tools. If you can’t take it down with basic tools in the field, skip it.

Reasonably Accurate

This is where pride of ownership and functionality butt heads. Everyone likes a carbine that will shoot itty bitty groups. Hardly anyone wants one that shoot 4” groups at 100 yards. Remembering that light is right, let’s not go overboard on accuracy standards. If it will shoot 1.5” – 3” at 100 yards, that is plenty for what we will most likely be doing with it. Most engagements will be under 50 yards.

Decent Stopping Power

I will not get drawn into endless debates here about calibers. Yes a .308 will typically outperform a .223. Yes, you can use a .50 Beowolf, .458 Socom,  6.8, 7.62 X 39 etc.

My question is going to be: Is it right for your environment or mission? Do you live in an apartment complex? Can you carry enough ammo with you without excessive weight penalty? How many rounds will your firearm hold? Will it over-penetrate or under-penetrate? Many times the best is the enemy of the good.

It is good to remember that civilian choices in ammo are better than military choices for ammo. The .223 with appropriate hollowpoint or soft point bullets, is adequate for what we will be doing for distances within 250 yards and there are a variety of loads available for it. Pistol caliber carbines such as 9mm, .40 S&W or .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum lever actions will also work. The .30/30 is a vastly underrated performer which is quite lethal within its range. Don’t get sucked into hype about stopping power. Plan on making multiple hits until your opponent is out of the fight.

Ammunition Readily Available

Here we have to look at what is available to us. It may make sense to have a few firearms or uppers that take different calibers so that we ensure we have a supply of ammo available for it.

For a while, .223 or 5.56 ammo was in critically short supply. In an emergency, having a pistol caliber or rifle carbine that you could load for makes a lot of sense.

Ammunition Suitable for your Environment

For home defense, penetration may be an issue. Generally the lighter bullets for caliber work well here, Even if velocity is higher, penetration is generally less. For .223, 55 gr. Hornady V-Max, Nosler .55 gr. Ballistic Tip and other soft points make sense. There are also other hollow point bullet available. Be careful on the 40 grain or other varmint bullets as they may be excessively frangible and not do their job properly.

For outdoor environments, 75 grain Hornady BTHP ammo is a good choice. Barnes all copper DPX rounds will penetrate a variety of substrates, from cars to heavy clothing etc. but are expensive. Some military units are using the Sierra 77 gr. Load but I would recommend sticking with the HP or Soft Point loads for stateside use.

For .308, you can use the new Barnes 110 and 130 grain bullets as well as the Nosler 125 grain Ballistic tip for lower penetration. You can step up to more traditional 155, 168 and 175 grain loads for more penetration.

In pistol rounds, lighter 180 grain .44 loads, 125 gr. .357 Magnum or 115 to 125 grain HP loads in 9mm or 135 gr. Nosler or 155 grain loads for .40 will work for home use or outdoor use.  There are also 125 grain loads available for .30/30 as well as more traditional loads.

Tune your loads to your environment. Beware of giving yourself too many choices. Run with one defensive load all of the time and have a second one for more penetration if needed.

 Decent Trigger and Iron Sights

No matter what you may put on the long gun later, having a good trigger will allow for better precision at speed. Avoid “match” triggers but don’t run away from a good quality trigger. 3-4 lbs. should be the minimum and a little creep and takeup is just fine.

As for iron sights, peep or open sights work just fine as do the buckhorn sights on lever actions. I generally don’t run the Express sights although some folks like them. Whatever they are, use them in a variety of light conditions and make sure you can see them. Don’t use small peeps! Big apertures are better!

You could put night sights on your firearm if desired. Make sure you try them out in low light so that you can shoot them reasonably well. Remember, if you are using the light, you may not need the night sights.

Reasonably affordable

Don’t get cheap on a firearm you may have to depend on to save your life or that of a loved one. Having said that, don’t get carried away either. Many manufacturers like to put on accessories that make money for them. Quad rails, match barrels, special stocks and triggers all add up. Get what you need and then STOP! You don’t need a $2500 dollar firearm for self defense. Don’t expect to get all of the features you need for $200 either.

Extra gear added or subtracted

It has been said that preparedness is a state of mind, not an abundance of supply. Buying all sorts of doodads to put on your firearm is a trap that adds both weight and complexity to what should be a simple system.

I like to use two types of optics. One is the red dot system and the other is a low powered, rugged optic for outdoor use. I like the Aimpoint Micro T-1 for its battery life and its ruggedness. Eotech and C-More also have good systems as far as red dots go but don’t have the battery life. I simply leave my Aimpoint T-1 on all of the time with the backup irons deployed in an upright position.

For distances beyond 35-50 yards or so, you will generally shoot better with a low powered scope; if you have the training to use it quickly. They do add weight and bulk but also add a dimension of capability as far as threat identification at a distance and the ability to resolve the target more effectively, especially it the bad guy is hiding behind some sort of concealment or cover. I am thinking about doing a 2 day course on just the use of low powered scopes on weapons because of their enhanced capabilities. Your feedback here is appreciated as to whether this would be a course you would like to see!

I like either the Nightforce 1-4 or the Meopta K-Dot scope with illuminated reticles for low light use. They are rugged, simple and dependable. I don’t like the magnifiers behind the red dots. Personal preference here.

Whatever optic you decide on, use some sort of quick detachable system that you can take off and on quickly without tools is necessary. If your optic gets coated by frost, mud, blood or dirt, you need to be able to remove them rapidly and go to a back up iron or red dot sight. I like LaRue Tactical mounts for my optics. Make sure you can see your iron sights through the red dot systems.

You will want some sort of sling system. I prefer two point systems myself and I prefer to carry my firearm in a low profile manner if operating in a civilian capacity without a uniform on. That way, you are less likely to get targeted by both the good guys and the bad guys at the same time if you are carrying in a public area!

I use a Surefire X300 pistol light and mount it on the rail of my AR. That way, I can use my spare X300 from my handgun if needed or use the one for both. Less gear equals less weight. You can also use a barrel mount around the barrel, (I’m not worried about MOA accuracy here, only weight and bulk) or put a section of picatinny rail on a lever action foreend.

For spare ammo, buy a simple fanny pack that you can throw around your waist at a moment’s notice. Yes, you can buy chest rigs and vests for extended situations but, you can’t throw them on quickly as well as you can immediately throw a fanny pack around your waist with some ammo or mags in it. I also use a Wilderness AR-15 pouch on my belt that I carry most of the time. You could have a Redi-Mag system with a spare mag on your carbine as well.

You are pretty much done here.

The basic M-4 style AR-15 with 16” barrel meets all of the criteria here. You don’t need the match barrel if it adds weight. Remember, light is right! If anything, pay more for a lighter barrel and lighter accessories.

For lights, you can use a simple Surefire barrel mount with rail and you don’t need to use the $300 quad rail system. You don’t need a bipod or vertical foregrip. You can also shave off a portion of the handguard and glue on a section of picatinny rail and attach a light that way if you are at all handy. There are other light mounts that attach to the front sight post.

Other firearms options that work include the various AK style actions, although their safeties are harder to manipulate quickly when compared to the AR-15. The various lever action carbines by Marlin etc. make rugged, low cost firearms but you will want to get training on how to manipulate the actions, hammers etc. and do rapid loading with them when doing defensive drills. They make handy car guns or to take camping etc. and don’t have the look of a military style firearm while losing none of the effective of a carbine. This is another course idea that would benefit from feedback from you.

.30 carbines and pistol caliber semi-autos like the Beretta Storm are also out there but I would personally get the AR-15 if I was going semi-auto. You can get a 9mm upper or Rock River Arms  is marketing a .40 caliber upper as well.

Obviously, there are many more choices out there as well as other equipment that could be used. Remember, we are talking defensive, not offensive, operations. You don’t need a mountain of gear for it to work very effectively. The more knowledge and skill you acquire with your firearm through training and actual practice, the less you will need in terms of equipment.

Keep it light and handy with a minimum of gear for your mission. Carry spare batteries for the lights and optics and some very simple tools for maintenance like the CATM4 tool and some basic cleaning equipment and supplies and you will be prepared to operate effectively for your mission!

As always, if you like this post, please pass it on! Thanks!

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