AR-15s

Firearm Reliability for Home and Self-Defense

Overhead view of Bob Campbell shooting the Remington Versa Max shotgun

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.

Blue silhouette target with multiple bullet holes center mass and a Devil Dog 1911 pistol
Shot-to-shot accuracy and handling are constants that must be demanded from a personal defense handgun.

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.

Semi-Auto Rifles

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.

Springfield Saint AR-15 rifle, right profile
Modern AR-15 and AR-10 rifles are models of reliability.

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.

Three magnum revolvers with barrels of varying lengths
These magnum revolvers are very reliable and more accurate than most shooters can hold.

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.

Shotguns

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.

Bob Campbell operating the bolt on a WWII vintage rifle
Any rifle serving in two world wars, and many other fights large and small, must be given respect.

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.

Modern Remington 870 follower design to limit the effect of short cycling
This is the most modern Remington 870 follower. It is designed to limit the effect of short cycling.

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

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.

short throw lever on the Henry .45 Colt rifle
Note the short lever throw of this Henry rifle in .45 Colt. Operate the action vigorously as intended.

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.

Handguns

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.

Browning Hi-Power cocked and locked and a Beretta 92 pistol
Long-term reliability is a strong suit of the Hi-Power and Beretta 92 type pistols.

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.

Lever action rifle and pump-action shotgun
Not only are manually-operated firearms reliable, they are often affordable — a win-win situation.

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.

In the end, it is your life and the lives of your loved ones that hang in the balance of your firearm’s reliability, so pick wisely. Which firearms do you trust to have the reliability necessary for personal and home defense? Share your answers in the comment section.

  • Bob Campbell shooting a shotgun from hip with a spent hull in the air
  • Mauser 98 (CZ version) with leather sling, left, profile
  • Revolver with speed loaders and loose rounds
  • Lever action rifle and pump-action shotgun
  • Browning Hi-Power cocked and locked and a Beretta 92 pistol
  • Bob Campbell operating the bolt on a WWII vintage rifle
  • Wilson Combat Remington 870 12 gauge shotgun with combat light forend
  • Lee Enfield Jungle Carbine with leather sling
  • short throw lever on the Henry .45 Colt rifle
  • Henry .30-30 lever action rifle with wood stock and forend
  • Overhead view of Bob Campbell shooting the Remington Versa Max shotgun
  • Bob Campbell shooting the Black Aces 12 gauge shotgun from the hip at an outdoor range
  • Modern Remington 870 follower design to limit the effect of short cycling
  • mossberg 590 12 gauge pump action shotgun, right profile
  • Glock 19 pistol and Shadow Systems Glock model
  • Three magnum revolvers with barrels of varying lengths
  • Revolver with the gips removed and gunsmith tools on a mat
  • Blue silhouette target with multiple bullet holes center mass and a Devil Dog 1911 pistol
  • Field stripped Ruger 1911 handgun
  • Bob campbell shooting a handgun at an outdoor range
  • Winchester Defender 7.62x39 ammunition box with three loose cartridges
  • Springfield Saint AR-15 rifle field stripped
  • AR-15 rifle with the lower receiver open and the bolt removed for maintenance
  • Springfield Saint AR-15 rifle, right profile

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.


Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Handloader
Rifle Magazine
Handguns
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns



Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (12)

  1. Retired Law Enforcement Firearm Instructor, I have in the house, S&W mod. 60 short barrel 357, a ( wife’s gun) S&W Model 60, 38 special, a Remington Model 31, 12 Ga. OO Buck and a AR15 Ruger .556. I feel good that I have protection in my home. I’ve done my job. I thank the NRA for protecting my right to protect my family.

  2. Good article – just buy the best firearms you can afford is my advice and all people should own 5 firearms, a shotgun, a 22lr pistol/revolver, a 22lr rifle, a center fire pistol/revolver, and a center fire precision rifle – just buy the best ones you can afford for reliability!

  3. As an “older shooter”, with a number of LEOs family members, I can understand the issue of “proper” Caliber. No less than Col. Cooper pushed the MOZAMBIQUE Drill if one had to use a handgun for self defense. A good 12 gauge, with OO buckshot, will beat any handgun, but how many folks can handle a shotgun inside the average home??? As to expense, note that when one buys a quality firearm, chances are that the grandkids will also being using it. After 40 – 50 years of use, with proper care, my firearms are in better shape than I am. My only comment is: When you purchase a firearm, be sure to also purchase the proper clean/care kit. Then learn to disassemble/reassemble your firearm. But, I use SLIDE Pin (White Lithium) Lube #46011T as this is a much better grade lube than most over the counter gun lubes. This is an industrial grade high wear/high temperature lube, Only downsize is I have to buy in bulk over the internet (www.ppe.com) or from the local FASTENAL.

  4. Many people buy guns that they can afford. I have bought quality guns but in retirement I have to maintain a budget if I buy a new gun..I have found that Turkish made guns are cheap and yet reliable…I bought a Tisas Turkish 1911 U.S. Army .45 clone mainly because I liked the feel and quality of it and I have found it quite reliable..I watched Hickok45 shoot the Tisas and he was amazed at the quality for the price..I did replace the factory mag with Wilson Combat mags and have had no problems..I have had problems with my Sig P365 FTE…I think there are some good cheap guns out there if you’re careful about the construction quality..

  5. As someone said above, each round you fire brings you closer to the failure point. My EDC is a Sig P365XL. Over the past year I’ve put 2,500 or more rounds thru it. The manual call for a new recoil spring which I had ready to go. Just before I replaced the recoil spring, the trigger bar spring broke! I was stunned at this failure because this is my EDC and I was not expecting that spring to break. Long story short, every round fired brings you closer to the failure point.

  6. Charles, it is funny you mentioned the Hi Point 45. My brother is a criminal attorney in MS. A few years back he had to defend a chap accused of shooting his wife with one. In the course of the case he purchased a Hi Point 45 to test some theories about its reliability. He was surprised that it functioned well from every position he tried firing it. It is a homely beast, but its simple blow-back design may be the reason it worked. The most dramatic example I am aware of is the time a Grizzly attempted to break into a man’s home in Sterling, Alaska and he dispatched it with seven rounds from his Hi Point 45 after all other attempts to drive the animal away had failed. This should not be construed as my endorsement of this firearm; it is simply a retelling of two anecdotal examples that may or may not reflect the general reliability of the Hi Point. This is why the gun that is never fired until needed will always be of unknown effectiveness, just like its owner.

  7. Good article on many levels. I do have a comment in response to your comment to Colonel K when you said, “Lots of folks rely on firearms I would not give shelf room to”.

    I could not agree more, but I would go a step further. I do not understand how people will rely on sub-par calibers and reject out of hand any possibility that those calibers are not just unreliable and totally inadequate for self-defense, but may be more dangerous to the shooter than the shootee. In a recent article on TSL “Rock Island AL3.0 .357 Magnum”, there was someone who commented that “The .38 RNL is not called Widow Maker due to its effect on target but due to the many dozens of attackers who took 6 to 12 hits with the .38 RNL load went on to kill the cop that shot them.” It would appear that commenter (it was not me who said that, BTW) did not believe it was a load with a record of being a reliable deterrent in a crisis.

    I agree with that and have received no small amount of condemnation for making similar statements about what I consider unreliable calibers, calibers where I personally have seen many failures to provide even a semblance of self-defense, in that the shooter was killed by the shootee after the shooter shot the shootee. I find it ironic that most of the condemnation I have received was from those who have never engaged someone else with a gun, let alone, seen, or treated anyone who had been shot with ANY gun, but yet, they felt that my experiences 50 years ago as a medic in the Army overseas, carrying real weapons and ammo, and the subsequent thirty plus years in busy metro ERs, seeing several hundred GSW victims was of no relevance.

    Sometime back, I saw a video where rather well-known proponent of concealed carry stated that whatever the person could handle would be best, as he held up a 7 shot .22 LR pistol. He then went on to say that bad guys didn’t look at the business end of a pistol when it was presented and they would flee the scene. I have seen well into the hundreds of dead victims who carried unreliable and inadequate calibers and died because people who have never been there said that (those) gun(s) would work. I know the people who said that had never been there, because they promoted various rounds with a known reputation for being more dangerous to the shooter, at least to a lot of cops and ER personnel in more than one metro area that I know of.

    There are still plenty of people who support the idea that if you can handle the gun, it is what you should carry, without taking into consideration the physical and mental dynamics involved in engaging another person with a weapon. People who choose a caliber should choose one based on recent history of what that caliber has done, not what it was alleged to have done decades past. If they cannot find any data, that would indicate it probably fails to rise to meet the threshold of reliability and worthy of placing one’s life under that aegis.

    I think the bottom line is the reliability of the weapon is of paramount importance. Part of that is the reliability of the load that is in that gun. They are both links in the chain of personal protection. No chain is stronger than its weakest link. Inadequate and unreliable calibers are just as bad as a weapon that cannot be counted on to go bang when the hammer is dropped. As the expression goes, the loudest sound ever heard is a hammer dropping and going “click.” Now, imagine being in fear for your life, shooting someone only to realize that you have just pissed them off and they may die, but not before they kill you. Seen and heard that story too many times to count.

  8. The best semi-auto shotgun I have ever fired is the Ted Williams 12 Ga. made by Sears. Never a problem and great power with factory or reloaded ammo. One of the best pistols I have fired it the .45 HI Point semi. Never had a feed problem like my S&W has. Cheap gun that works.

  9. Carefully inspect your carry ammo as you load each round in the magazine. I’ve experience one fail to feed with a Sig P229. The gun was clean and properly lubed. The ammo, Hornady Critical Defense (with the red polymer tip). The cartridge feed stopped half way up the feed ramp. On closer inspection, I saw the plastic tip was slightly protruding from the bullet just a little more than the others, but enough to act as a pencil eraser stopping the nose of the cartridge. I polished the feed ramp and switched to Federal HST after that incident.

  10. Several 1100s were demonstrated to run over 6,000 shells in shooting clay birds.

    You are right Colonel only by shooting.

    Lots of folks rely on firearms I would not give shelf room to

  11. Your luck with Remington 1100s has been better than mine. The only way to determine if your firearm is reliable is to shoot it. The more you shoot it, the closer it comes to its failure point. It is impossible to know where that point is on each firearm. And it may not even be the firearm that fails you. It could be the ammo or your own marksmanship. The law of probability is always in play.

  12. For several years I carried a “cheap 1911 style auto 380. I went out to do some target shooting with it. First shot-fine, Second shot-it jammed. That was it. I headed to the nearest outdoor store and purchased a concealed carry revolver. Better 5 shots than one and a jam. I gave the pistol to my brother.

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