Guide to Gun Ownership

A guide to gun ownership, including how to safely load, clean and practice with a firearm, including choosing shells, gun alternatives, suggested shot sizes for hunting.


[1] The only way to learn to "shoot where it's gonna be" is to practice. [2] A sling will free your hands. [3] Most anyone can learn to load a shotgun rapidly. [4] Clay pigeons, thrown by an assistant, provide good "moving targets" for practice. [5] Wear earmuffs and glasses when shooting. [6] In some situations, a rifle can do a job that a shotgun can't. [7] If you're careful to keep your firearm oiled. [8] Cleaned, the gun should last long enough for you to pass it on to your grandchildren.


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Reprinted from MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 67  

"The Homestead Firearm "first appeared in the January/February 1981 issue of THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS, prefaced with an editor's note saying, in part, that " . . . this has always been a magazine devoted to presenting alternatives rather than to preaching. That's why we can run articles praising vegetarian living and stories describing how to raise meat animals in the same issue . . . . If you are confirmed in your choice never to own a firearm, be assured that MOTHER EARTH NEWS respects your decision. On the other hand, if you think you should own a gun, we respect that decision too . . . and suggest you read what Gary Kent — experienced shooter and regular contributor to outdoor and firearm-enthusiast publications — has to say about gun ownership."  

Today — five years later — our feelings are exactly the same. 

Guide to Gun Ownership

When a family moves from the city or suburbs to the country, its members will quickly recognize the need to buy, swap for, or otherwise acquire tools that they aren't necessarily familiar with. Some of the items are simple . . . others are complicated, powerful, and perhaps intimidating. In either case, the family must first choose which tools are truly necessary, and then learn to use them safely. Many country dwellers soon find that one such necessary implement is a firearm.

Tools, of course, are devices that help men and women do work. And a gun is a tool that's uniquely suited to three specific jobs: protecting people, protecting crops and livestock, and putting food on the table.

Gun Ownership In the Home

The decision to keep a gun for home protection should not be made lightly. Before making up your mind, you'll have to face squarely the idea that — if you do keep a gun for self-defense — you might someday (although the likelihood is very small) actually have to shoot someone. And if you think the matter through and come to the conclusion that you couldn't fire at another human being, even if he or she were threatening your life or the lives of your family, then don't keep a gun for protection. Bluffing with an unloaded firearm, or with one you don't intend to use, could very well cause a tragedy where one might not otherwise have occurred.

If you do decide to keep a gun for defense, however, it's critical that you select the right kind of weapon and that you know how to use it well and safely. Such a gun must meet several criteria. It must be simple to operate, easy to shoot with accuracy, and powerful enough to stop an attacker instantly. Equally important, it must be safe to keep in a house where children live, but also must be capable of being brought into action quickly. Finally, the weapon shouldn't have enough muzzle velocity (the speed at which the projectile leaves the gun) to shoot through walls and perhaps endanger your family or neighbors.

Firearms: The Versatile Shotgun

There is, to my knowledge, only one type of gun that satisfies all of these criteria: a double-barreled shotgun. A rifle — which sends out only a single bullet at a time — can be difficult to shoot accurately when you're in a hurry, and a shell from a high-powered rifle will carry through most internal wall material with killing force. A handgun is difficult to master . . . and particularly difficult to keep ready and — at the same time — safe around curious children. (In the hands of an expert, a handgun can be an excellent defense gun. However, if you're an expert, you don't need my advice.)

As it works out, the double-barreled shotgun is ideal for protecting your family, your livestock, and your crops . . . and for putting food in the freezer. "Scatterguns" are that versatile simply because there's a wide range of ammunition available for them. There are loads suited for putting a rabbit in the pot, and other loads that will stop an attacking grizzly bear!

The "double" is — to my way of thinking — the safest practical gun that a family with small children can own. You can keep the weapon unloaded, yet it's always ready: After only a few trial runs, almost any adult can load a double-barrel in less than five seconds. Simply keep the gun over the mantel or in a closet — out of the way but readily accessible — and store a couple of shells nearby but out of the reach of curious youngsters.

In purchasing such a gun, your best bet is to choose a 12- gauge shotgun with a single trigger. Some doubles have two triggers, but you might pull both simultaneously when you're excited . . . and perhaps be knocked flat on your back from the kick and left with an empty firearm. (If you already have a 16- or a 20-gauge gun, it'll do the job, but don't rely on the underpowered .410 size.)

The make of the firearm needn't be of any concern to folks buying the weapon for the purposes outlined in this article. (I own a Savage, which is a solid, reliable, and relatively inexpensive tool.) And remember, when looking for a shotgun, that list prices are meaningless in the gun market. To find the best buys, wait for sales at discount houses.

When you begin to shop around, you'll discover that guns have various barrel lengths and "chokes." The latter term refers to the amount of constriction at the end of the barrel (the difference between one choke and another, would be too small for you to see) that regulates the size of the shot pattern.

A tight choke throws a small pattern that holds together for a relatively long distance . . . while an open choke throws a large pattern that is not effective at long range. Of course, it's easier to hit what you're shooting at with a large pattern, so get relatively short barrels (26 inches or so), which tend to cause the shot to spread out more quickly than it would when fired from a longer barrel ... and choose either improved-cylinder or modified chokes. As long as you don't get a gun with two full-choke barrels, you'll be OK.

I like to have a sling on my shotgun, because it allows me to carry the tool when my hands are full or when I'm climbing. You can have a gunsmith put on detachable swivels — which will let you take off the sling when you don't need it — for about $20, including the cost of the hardware. It's best to get an inexpensive sling that's nothing more than a narrow (one inch or less) strip of leather.

Once you've bought and equipped your gun, study — carefully — any and all instructions that came with it. Next, clean the gun thoroughly with an inexpensive shotgun cleaning kit (see the accompanying sidebar on gun care).

There are many rules for safe firearm handling, but I'll give you only one. Obey it always, and you won't ever have a tragic gun accident: NEVER ALLOW A GUN TO POINT AT ANYTHING YOU DON'T INTEND TO SHOOT. Not with the safety on. Not when the gun is unloaded. Not for the briefest fraction of a second. Never.  

(I ought to explain my reservations about safeties, the little levers that prevent the weapons from firing. Such devices are merely mechanical . . . even when clean and new, they can malfunction. And, like all mechanical devices, they can break. Use the safety on your gun, but don't depend on it. Always assume it isn't working properly, and conduct your gun handling accordingly.)

Loading a double-barreled shotgun is a very simple task. Just push the lever on top of the gun — it's right behind the barrels — to the right. The barrels will then swing down (you may have to push them), and you can drop two shotshells into place. Finally, holding the grip of the stock with one hand and the barrels with the other, close the action gently but firmly.

Choosing Shells

The key to getting the most out of a shotgun is knowing which ammunition to use for each situation. Using the wrong ammo can cause you to miss what you're shooting at, or to fail to kill what you hit.

For home defense, don't use buckshot . . . despite what you may have heard on TV or what some local "experts" will tell you. Buckshot can penetrate the walls of a house and could hurt a family member in another room. Instead, use shotshells loaded with No. 6 or 7-1/2 shot . . . the same size you'd use for rabbits, squirrels, or pheasants. At close range, this size is as deadly as any shotgun load, but it will have little power left if it should manage to go through a wall. (Because you wouldn't shoot a gun in the house at all except in self-defense, long-range impact isn't important.)

If you live in an area where you might be faced with a bear problem, however, it would probably be best to use a shotshell containing 00 buckshot in one barrel and a single "rifled slug" in the other. At bear attack range — inside of ten yards — this will stop even most grizzlies.

Should coyotes threaten your livestock, you can try to get rid of the animals by firing a few warning shots over their heads. But if the predations persist, No. 1 buckshot will stop the carnivores for good.

Many folks feel that home protection is an important reason for having a gun, but your firearm will probably be used primarily — if it is used for anything other than target practice — to put meat on the table. For a real feeling of independence, you can't beat passing by the grocery's meat counter without stopping! (Now I realize that many people are strongly against hunting. When such a feeling stems from a sincere belief in vegetarianism, I can respect it. I have a harder time, however, understanding such objections from people who raise and butcher livestock animals . . . and an even more difficult time accepting the anti-hunting stance of folks whose only source of meat is the supermarket. Still, I would never try to impose my views on others by telling them they're wrong not to hunt, and I expect the same courtesy from those who don't believe as I do.)

And just what game can you put in the freezer with the aid of your shotgun? For starters there are dove, quail, pheasant, duck, goose, grouse, woodcock, snipe, rail, rabbit, squirrel, deer, and bear. (Of course, you shouldn't expect to be able to use the same ammunition for such diverse animals as dove and deer. Check the chart accompanying this article for suggestions.) In addition, if you're not afraid to try something new, you can eat woodchuck (groundhog), raccoon, beaver, and possum. I will personally attest to the fact that the first three are quite delicious and that possum isn't bad at all. (Naturally, before going hunting, you will have to check the regulations in your state to see which species may be hunted and when their respective seasons are open. And do be sure to buy a license.)

The meat from game animals is superior to beef in several ways. It has more protein, less fat, and fewer calories . . . most folks think it tastes better . . . and it won't have been fed, injected, or sprayed with chemical additives. If you've eaten game that had a heavy and objectionable "gamy" flavor, you were probably consuming meat that was partially spoiled. You wouldn't purchase a package of hamburger, hang it out in the backyard in mild temperatures for days, show it off to the neighbors, and then expect it to taste good. Don't do that with your game, either. Instead, clean it quickly, wash the meat, wrap it in double layers of good freezer paper, and freeze it as soon as you can. Game that's been handled in this manner should taste different from beef or chicken — usually a little sweeter — but it shouldn't taste bad. Use simple recipes, cook with plenty of moisture, and don't overcook . . . and you'll serve delicious wild-meat dishes every time.

Firearm Alternatives: Rifles

As much as I feel a scattergun is the choice for those buying only one firearm, there are some jobs that a shotgun shouldn't be asked to handle. If you plan to hunt antelope, mule deer, elk, or moose-or if your livestock is threatened frequently by coyotes — you may need a rifle.

The simplest, strongest, and most reliable type of rifle is a bolt action. For antelope or coyotes, an excellent choice is a rifle that shoots a .243 caliber cartridge. If you plan on going after mule deer, elk, or moose — or if you'll be carrying your rifle for protection from bears — consider something in the range of a .30/06 or .308.

There are hundreds of books about hunting and shooting. If you intend to do much of either, I suggest you study a couple of the how-to manuals. But to get the most out of your gun, you must know how to shoot well . . . and the only way to become a good shot is to practice. Besides working with your shotgun or rifle, you can get in a lot of good practice, in a small area and for little expense, by using an air rifle. Just suspend a tin can from a tree limb with a length of string (make sure nothing behind it will be in danger). Have someone start it swinging and, after that person gets out of the way, try to hit the container.

Owning a gun is a serious responsibility. If treated carelessly, a firearm can be as dangerous as household poisons or stored gasoline. However, if you're careful, and if you handle it well, your gun will give you years of service. It can provide fresh, healthful food for your family . . . and if you have one occasion to use it for self-defense (even if you don't have to fire it), it will be the most valuable tool you've ever owned.

Gun Care: Simple But Essential

Basic gun care is so simple that there is really no excuse for neglecting the chore. (Of course, if a part on your firearm breaks, you'll most likely have to entrust the repair job to a competent gunsmith . . . but, generally, routine maintenance will be up to you.)

The two factors that most often cause a gun to wear excessively are rust and abnormal use. You can easily prevent oxidation by wiping the device's metal parts with a cloth dampened with a few drops of commercial gun lubricant. Wipe your gun thoroughly, but don't soak it in the lubricant, because any oil that accumulates in cracks will attract grime.

You should apply a commercial powder solvent — followed by a very light coating of lubricant — to the inside surfaces of the barrels . . . with a cleaning rod and a wire bristle brush of the same gauge as the weapon. (Such tools can be purchased from sporting goods stores and gun dealers.) Finally, for getting dirt out of crevices in the tool's action, nothing beats an old toothbrush! (If you live in a humid climate, you'll probably need to clean and oil your firearm once a month . . . but less frequent attention is required in arid locations.)

Repeated use shouldn't damage a gun, as long as the correct size of ammunition is fired and any obstructions are removed from the barrels before the weapon is discharged. However, slamming the action shut will cause undue wear, so you should close it gently . . . giving your firearm the same respect you'd have for any hand-fitted piece of precision machinery. It's also important to clean the gun after each practice session . . . and to wipe down the metal whenever you've handled the firearm, to remove the acidic body oils that may cause rust.

If you care for it properly, a gun that you buy today should be working perfectly when your grandchildren are old enough to shoot it!