Reliable, trustworthy, steadfast — traits we want in a firearm that we may reasonably bet our life on. Reliable function is defined as a high propensity to fire with each pull of the trigger and to continue to fire normally. The firearm should also be reliable in stopping the threat which is a function of power and practical accuracy.
Accuracy is defined as repeatability with the firearm delivering consistent accuracy, to the level of accuracy the firearm is capable of. The trigger action is consistent, and the average grouping, point of aim, and point of impact relationship are calculable. Man’s inhumanity and hostility toward his fellow man has given me a considerable stake in proving reliability in firearms.
Dangerous individuals have made a terrible impression on my mind and body. As an example, as a young child, I was impressed by a fellow who came into Dad’s business. This man had a knife scar across his cheek leading into the corner of his mouth. It was a disfigurement that gave the man a permanent snarl.
When the man left the shop, I told Dad, ‘That man scared me.’ Dad replied, ‘Don’t be afraid of him. Be afraid of the man that did that to him.’ Less than 12 years later, I picked up a scar of my own while actively chasing down and imprisoning dangerous men. Some were pitiful, others were warped, but all were dangerous men.
There are guns that other writers and the average citizen trust, but I have no faith in. Some are too cheap, some unproven, some proven unreliable. I suppose we went to a different church.
It isn’t debatable that an inconstant firearm may cost you your life. In my young adulthood, the AR-15 was not held in the high regard it is today. The M16’s story could fill volumes. The M16 was forced-fed ammunition that was different than what it was designed to handle.
The result was not only poor function but a different cycle rate. The gun quickly got dirty and did not cycle properly. It was only after the correction of this error that the rifle again became reliable firearm Stoner designed.
Much the same situation exists today with folks adding aftermarket parts of dubious quality that often are neither needed nor beneficial. The AR is a machine of irreducible complexity. If a single part breaks, the rifle is often out of business.
Modern AR rifles are superior in fit and finish. The durable coatings we now enjoy add a degree of lubricity to the rifle’s moving parts. With good quality ammunition and magazines, there is nothing more reliable than a quality AR-15. That begins with Springfield, Colt, or Ruger in my opinion.
I have never experienced an unqualified malfunction with my AR-15 rifles. A cheap trigger set came apart in a build and was replaced. Parts guns are problematic. A quality AR is not. I avoid cheap magazines and dirty ammunition. I don’t accept a dodgy firearm, and neither should you.
I have owned a much smaller number of AK types than the AR. I have not enjoyed the vaunted reliability promised with the AK, save for a few good quality examples. Many are made cheaply and were simply made to sell. They tie up and fail from time to time.
AK reliability depends on quality parts and ammunition choice. When you cheapen a machine, and the Russian AK-47 was a very reliable rifle, you make it more likely to fail. While many AK clones have the look of the AK in appearance, they do not resemble the original in performance. Many of the malfunctions are traced to problems in loading and unloading the rifle. A good quality rifle is one type, the other guns are for recreational use only.
Many regard semi-automatic shotguns as less reliable than pump-action shotguns. This hasn’t been true since the introduction of the Remington 1100 and later the Benelli M4. The Remington 1100 is among the most reliable shotguns ever made.
The narrow receiver and near perfect balance, lead to good hits in the field. The placement of the hands with one in front of the other on the forend and stock lead to optimum coordination and fast, sure handling. The piston assembly encompasses the magazine, and in some ways resembles the M1 Garand in function.
Remington later introduced the even more reliable 11-87. This shotgun with its self-metering pressure valve is reliable with a wider range of shells than most any shotgun. Then the Benelli M4 earned an enviable reputation for reliability.
When we consider the fast handling of these shotguns and advantages such as a 1 5/8-inch drop at the comb, we have a reliable shotgun that handles quickly and provides hits like a real shotgun — by feel. The difficult to obtain Remington Versa Max Tactical is more of the same.
Several modern shooters purchase AR and AK-styled self-loading shotguns. They no longer have a natural point. They must be aimed like a rifle. Reliability is not impressive in my experience. Many of the problems stem from operator error.
Pump-action shotguns are touted as more reliable than semi-automatic shotguns. When you consider the wide range of shells that may be stuffed into the pump-action shotgun and manually operated, then this is correct. However, the pump-action suffers from operator error.
If not cycled vigorously, a short cycle may occur. This happens when the bolt isn’t racked all the way to the rear. During a short cycle, the bolt is brought forward and catches a shell before it is aligned with the chamber. The result is a nasty jam that requires some exertion to clear. Remington modified the shell carrier of the Remington 870 with a slot in the carrier body that allows a blade to be inserted to help clear a short-cycled shell. However, it is better to operate the pump-action properly and to avoid malfunction clearance.
Manually-operated rifles include single-shot, lever-action, and bolt-actions. The lever-action is regarded as a model of reliability. If the cartridge elevator becomes worn, it is common for a cartridge to tie the action up. The cartridge will be lodged in the feedway between the magazine and bolt. This is difficult to clear. The lever-action rifle must be operated by running the lever forward not down.
Recently, I was working with an 1886 clone that would not feed from the magazine when the lever was worked slowly. A sharp movement was always reliable. The lever-action is a reliable type but not foolproof.
While a lever gun is reliable, a Springfield M1A is probably more reliable in sustained fire and all conditions. The most reliable rifle action of all time is the Mauser controlled-feed bolt-action. With a non-rotating extractor collared to the machined bolt, a Mauser action (of the original design) controls the cartridge through every step of the feed and extraction process. The Ruger M77 is among the best choices for all-around reliability today.
Semi-automatic pistols are less reliable across the board than semi-automatic rifles in my operation. One reason is that rifles are grasped and fired in a three-point lockup when in use. A pistol may be fired with a weak wrist and improper hold. Errors in a shooter’s form may certainly result in a malfunction, and far too many will later blame the gun.
Pistols need cleaning and lubrication. My most trusted firearms are quality 1911 handguns, CZ 75 pistols, and the Browning Hi-Power. Good magazines, good lubrication, and good quality ammunition are essential — even implicit — in the recipe for good function.
Among the most proven pistols in the world are the SIG P series, including the P226. There are no pistols as proven in institutional testing as the P226. The Beretta 92 enjoys a similar service history. The Glock is a baseline for reliability proven in many tests.
While I prefer the 1911 handgun, I would never trust my life to a cheap 1911. There have been too many concessions in the race to the bottom concerning price with cheap parts and finish. Kimber, Ruger, Springfield, and Dan Wesson are good starting points. While I prefer the speed to an accurate first shot of a good 1911, a cheap 1911 is inferior to the Glock in reliability. This isn’t a good trade-off.
I cannot stress enough the importance of reliability. Handling, natural heft, a good point, and handfit — not to mention accuracy and power — are important, but reliability has the most impact on your survival. Therefore, among the most useful handguns for defense is a revolver.
Even inexpensive revolvers are reliable in the usual course of things, although the action may be rough. The revolver has a high likelihood of firing with every pull of the trigger. If a cartridge fails to fire, another pull of the trigger brings a fresh cartridge up and under the hammer. The revolver will function — even if jammed into an adversary’s body and fired repeatedly. The revolver barrel may be braced on a door jamb or wall and the revolver may be fired accurately. When reliability is the overwhelming concern, manually-operated firearms may be at the top of the list.