Not all guns are created equal. For every category-defining model there will be a handful of true competitors and a few abysmal also-rans. Guns that, if bought without knowing better, you’ll wind up regretting ever clapping hands on in the gun shop. These are the kind you don’t tell your friends about. The kind you’ll quietly sell and deny ever owning.
These lesser guns may suffer from poor manufacture and quality, or perhaps their design suffers from lackluster human engineering. They might be unreliable, prone to breakage, or just flat-out hard to shoot well. Some guns are so baffling in their intended purpose you can only wonder at what must have been postulated at the meeting conceiving of it. And a few lonely models don’t have anything particularly wrong with them, save that they are not as effective, accurate or refined as their more popular competition.
In today’s gun market, so many excellent choices abound in nearly any price range that deliberately choosing a lesser make is close to lunacy. Whatever type of gun you are looking for, and for whatever reason, there are some models you’d do well to avoid. Some are popular, others are obsolete, or obscure, but they all share a common bond of suckitude. Below I’ll list some of the worst offenders I have encountered in my career and why they are poor choices for discerning shooters.
A Word on Firearm Selection
Before we get to the fun part of the article, I believe it will be helpful to explain my thought process on what criteria I consider when separating good guns from bad. A gun, like any tool, is intended to serve a purpose. The purpose dictates the choice of tool, and not all tools are viable for certain purposes. Obviously certain tools are completely inappropriate for some tasks; for instance, you wouldn’t use a knife to drive nails, and so we don’t use handguns to shoot down geese. You would not fault a pistol for being a wholly terrible gun for the hunting of waterfowl; failing at something it was never designed to do.
Examples like that are elementary comparisons, but you take my meaning. What I am concerned with is how guns that are appropriate to the task compare against each other, and which ones offer the most advantages to the shooter.
I have been accused of being everything when it comes to my appraisal of the suitability of guns for particular tasks. Some would argue that different guns may suit certain shooters better than others, or the unique features of one may make it just the most perfect gun imaginable for a very specific task.
That may be true, but my concern is only this: what is better, what is optimal, and what is lacking. You may like or own a gun that has much sentimental value attached to it that is unabashedly awful in every respect. That does not diminish or invalidate your affection for it, but I am not inclined to see someone profess their terrible pet gun or brand as a “great choice.”
Quality and performance speak, and care little for opinion. If you want a gun just because it is fun or cool, go crazy, but don’t let your affection for it cloud your reasons for owning it. The list below represents a few of my most hated designs, but is far from complete or comprehensive. I have deliberately omitted perennial failures among the lowest of low quality manufacturers- Hi-Point, Jennings, I.O. Inc, , etc., in order to discuss some specific guns and designs that may escape casual notice. Rest assured I could go on but this would be a very long article indeed.
Once, a long time ago, Derringers were viable choices for low profile defensive or backup pistols. Their twin barreled action is usually reliable if made well, and in days long past would give a rambler, gambler or cowboy a chance at two more shots to save his life. The popular image of a sly cardsharp or sultry femme fatale producing a small Derringer seemingly from nowhere before dispatching the subject of their ire with nary a word is iconic and endemic to American folklore.
Sadly, as awesome as it looks in old movies, Derringers have no place at the table today except as conversation pieces or novelties. Many examples are very poorly made, and even high-quality ones suffer from the shortcomings characteristic of this type of gun. Namely, manually cocked single-action operation, meager capacity, lacking or awkward safeties, terrible ergonomics and questionable utility.
As a backup or pocket piece, they are totally outclassed in every way by subcompact semi-autos or snubbie revolvers. Their staunchest adherents rally around the .410 shotshell firing versions, attributing to them some monstrous effectiveness for self-defense. This is of course total bunk, as a .410 with shot or slug is not renowned as a particularly effective shotshell when fired from an actual shotgun, but is now, mysteriously, a flame-throwing, man-killing cannon when crammed into a tiny, archaic pistol, with all the terrible patterning and loss of velocity it entails.
Some folks think the shotshell-firing versions are ideal snake killing guns. Why? Because a proper shotshell can fire a spray of appropriately sized shot compared to a tiny rat-shot cartridge? Fair enough, but why not just use some other handgun with regular loads to shoot the snake instead? If you are close enough to ensure a kill with a .410 from a very short barrel, a well-placed bullet from a revolver or semi-auto should be a simple affair.
Don’t be fooled. Leave these vintage pistols where they belong: In the past.
Subcompact “Officer” 1911s
Love it or not, the 1911 is the most popular and enduring pistol to ever spring from the prodigious mind of John M. Browning. The sheer number of manufacturers and variants, past and present, is huge and further testament to this venerable design.
While slim, accurate, easy to shoot and potent, the classic 5” Government model 1911 is still a lot of hog leg to tote around for most, and since the middle of the 20th century manufacturers and custom ‘smiths alike set about shortening and lightening the 1911 while keeping its essential design characteristics and controls. The smaller 4 ¼ inch Commander size was first to be codified, and remains popular today. When well made, they are reliable and good shooters. Sometime after that, though, in the endless quest to make guns smaller and more concealable, the tiny, 3 inch or so Officers size was developed. Sadly, it has been here ever since.
The tiny Officers 1911, endlessly pushed in a hundred variations by Kimber, among others, is a great example of an OK idea taken too far: the greatly abbreviated cycle of operations necessitates several deviations from standard 1911 barrel and feed ramp geometry. Ammunition selection for maximum reliability is essential for these little guns to run at all. Recoil when chambering the .45 ACP is very sharp, and any error or weakness in grip will commonly result in a failure to feed or eject. Some custom makers may make models that run well within close tolerances, but they are very expensive.
Their mechanical fickleness, poor handling characteristics and typically high cost means the juice from these tiny 1911’s is simply not worth the squeeze. If you want to pack America’s pistol, choose a Commander size or larger.
Attribution: Harvey Henkelman
Taurus Judge and Variants
One of my most hated guns. Ever. If there was ever a more popular gun that has no real redeeming qualities, I don’t know what it is. This ungainly beast lumbered onto the scene around 2006, and has multiplied in ever greater numbers and variations since. The typical versions chamber the .45 Colt, an old, expensive but trusty big-bore performer and .410 shotshells, with whatever filling you prefer. Some versions like the Raging Judge (sigh) chamber the mighty .454 Casull as well as the .45 Colt and .410.
These guns are overwhelmingly popular with people that seemingly know the least about guns for defense. The concept isn’t even new: Taurus was not the first to engineer such a revolver, as is commonly said. Way back in the early 1990’s there was a company called MIL. They made one product: the Thunder-5, a short barreled, double-action revolver chambering, yessir, the .45 Colt/.410 shotshell same as the Judge here. They didn’t make too many, and the company didn’t even survive into the 2000’s. The concept was “niche” even back then, if you are being kind: .410 shotshells suck in handguns, thus ends the sermon.
Taurus succeeded where MIL failed by good, old-fashioned slick marketing. Selling this abomination as an ideal close-in and counter-carjack defense gun, they proceeded to vaunt it as a can’t-miss pistol that could fire bullets or shot in any combination the wielder desired. Yes! Brilliant! You can load the first chamber with birdshot to give your assailant a warning, kinda, then a pair of .45’s in case they keep coming, then the last two as buckshot, cause by then they’ll be right on top of you and you’ll need to shrap ‘em good.
This is all as dumb as it sounds. Videos popped up of silhouette targets getting plastered with tiny birdshot and various kinds of melons meeting grisly ends at the muzzle of this lame handgun, and the crowd went wild. They flew off the shelves. Little did these unsuspecting owners know they were now in possession of a revolver with a hideous trigger that was prone to breakage despite its produce-killing potential. This was thanks to being typical Taurus quality, meaning not very good. Nevertheless, it is the company’s best seller.
However you try to find a use for this thing it comes up short: as a .45 revolver, it is overly big, very heavy, has a crappy trigger and is prone to breakage. As a .410 shotshell revolver, (once again worshipped as cannon since it is stuffed into a revolver) it suffers from terrible patterning and attendant liability, has mediocre effectiveness against humans and is prone to breakage. Some diehard fans that aren’t complete fruit-loops claim it has merit as a backpacking or survival gun thanks to its two chamberings, one for large game or self-defense and the other for small game and birds, but in light of all the other failings you can lay at this gun’s chair, especially its poor build quality, I’d recommend a hard pass.
Regrettably, Smith and Wesson, not content to let this part of the market slip away uncontested, no matter how misguided the residents of it may be, introduced their own take on the concept, the Governor, and while it is made to a higher standard of care than the Taurus, even they cannot overcome the inherent limitations of this design. Don’t buy that one either.
Here I must bundle many manufacturers together because never before have so many made them so poorly. If the 1911 is America’s handgun the AR-15 and all its variants are certainly America’s rifles. While quality AR’s are more available and affordable than ever before, the design is one that does not lend itself to substandard materials, manufacturing and assembly procedures. There is a price point at which quality becomes impossible.
The line of demarcation for this is subject to debate, but generally good, reliable guns start at around $1,000 and go up from there. Here you can get one of several Colt models like the 6920, nicely equipped from the factory, which will serve you well in most roles. But even in that price range there are several manufacturers that are sketchy. Going lower to $800 we get slim pickings, indeed, with only a handful of manufacturers offering rifles that you could stake your life or match on. Foremost among these is, surprisingly the Smith & Wesson Sport II.
But, even farther down the road into $600 and even, gasp, sub-$600 rifles is where things really get wooly. Makers like Anderson, DPMS, PSA and a multitude of others pump out guns made with questionable components, poor or improper assembly, and lacking in quality control. Heck, even Colt has jumped in the bargain-basement AR world with the Expanse models, which though marked Colt, have very few Colt parts inside them.
My rage over these guns stems from consumers lack of education on what makes for a quality AR. Contrary to endlessly repeated drivel like “All AR’s are the same parts, the marks are just different,” and “AR’s are like Legos, anyone can put them together,” the quality of both the components, attention to detail and adherence to best practices in assembly and rejection rate of non-satisfactory parts all add up to superior rifles.
Items of concern on cheaper rifles in particular is the quality of the bolt, improper or absent staking of the gas key screws and castle nut, out of spec gas port sizes (typically way over-gassed to “ensure reliability”), and improperly sized chambers. Consumers drastically underestimate the importance of quality control and quality assurance protocols in turning out a good AR. Also, last time I looked, you don’t need punches, vises, mallets, wrenches, receiver fixtures and anti-seize compound to put Legos together. Tolerance stacking is a thing. Factories are equipped to deal with such occurrences. Amateur builders are not.
“Welp, my Brand X budget gun is just as good as BCM/Daniel Defense/ Knight/Colt.” No, no it isn’t, and if it was it would be marked accordingly. Suffice to say that the purchasers of very cheap AR’s either do not know better or are operating under the assumption that their arbitrary budget is immutable, and don’t understand that merely being patient and saving up will net them an heirloom-quality rifle, where these bottom-of-the-barrel blunderbusses will likely go belly up within a few hundred rounds.
I am not unsympathetic to those with limited means and the desire to own an AR, any AR, but I have myself shot, sold and serviced far too many of these pitiful toasters to give them any mercy. Fans of a given cheapo brand will tout that their gun has been flawlessly reliable and can shoot a flea off a peach without disturbing the fuzz. With scarce exception, few of them have more than a couple hundred rounds through the rifle, and these almost always fired in casual plinking.
I on the other hand have seen countless dreams dashed and savings squandered over a difference of a few hundred dollars. I have seen students fuming with impotent rage trying vainly to get their cheap carbine running in the middle of an expensive class before sheepishly accepting a loaner gun from the teacher or fellow student.
It does not have to be life or death at stake to make for real regret: Your time and money are both valuable. Don’t waste either piddling around with a cheap rifle.
Pistol Caliber Carbines, or PCCs
Another highly popular type of firearm, and one that is available in a variety of designs from a host of manufacturers. If you are unfamiliar with the name these are simply rifles that fire pistol cartridges: 9mm Para., .45 ACP, .357 or .44 Magnum, whatever. There is nothing inherently wrong with pistol caliber carbines, whatever their make, although some designs have more merit than others. My biggest gripe about them is that they simply don’t make much sense from a performance standpoint.
Think it through: you are committing to the length and bulk of a rifle, and often times comparable weight as well, but won’t be getting rifle performance. Not range, and not power. The velocity increase gained from a longer barrel is insufficient to bump a pistol round up into that realm. Not even close. They do offer increased hit probability over a pistol, all things considered, and can share ammo with your sidearm if chambered in the same cartridge, but those are the only perks this class of rifle brings to the table.
Proponents argue that those two attributes are enough to recommend them, and that further for a home defense gun they present less risk of over penetration concerns than a rifle. That is not necessarily true: many modern handgun loads have significant penetration through typical home construction materials, enough that they present a significant downrange hazard in the event of a miss.
Fans will also point to the long and successful track records of various submachine guns in military and police service. Fine, but please note that these are not submachine guns: automatic fire getting poured on a foe at close range helps to make up for the lack of performance of comparatively meek pistol bullets. Furthermore, times have moved on, and the submachine gun is in its twilight. Compact rifles, firing rifle cartridges, offer all of their advantages with few disadvantages except for very specific circumstances.
They are undoubtedly fun and nice guns to shoot, but for serious purposes if you are going to choose a rifle make sure you are getting rifle capability from it.
Winchester’s best days are behind them as a manufacturer of guns, but many of their designs persist today, being produced now by other makers or made in such vast numbers that they will be around for the foreseeable future. While their 1300 series pump-actions have something of a cult following among scattergun enthusiasts, their 1400 model was an ill-advised attempt at making an entry-level semi-auto shotgun.
Like a lot of other things in life, quality becomes impossible at too low a price. The 1400 series Winchesters suffered from poor durability and middling to poor reliability. This was due to the cheap materials used as well as questionable design choices. These guns are known for ammunition sensitivity and plenty of owners report consistent failures to feed and eject.
In a market crowded with cheap and relatively unknown semi-auto shotguns, a less seasoned shopper may reach for a nice used 1400 thinking that the legendary Winchester livery assures them a quality gun. Sadly, this is not the case, and many examples of this shotgun give nothing but constant headache.
Don’t be lured in by the name on this one.
Oh, boy. Where to even begin on this thing. This pump-action, twin-magazine tube bullpup shotgun is a commercial competitor to Kel-Tec’s KSG, a similarly configured shotgun. Bullpup firearms as a concept are far from new, but their merits have primarily revolved around rifles and submachine guns. If executed well, the idea of a compact shotgun that holds a bunch of shotshells is a sure winner. Regrettably, no design today has truly cracked the code to make this concept stick, though Kel-Tec has perhaps come the closest.
The UTS-15 is much admired for its undeniably menacing and chunky sci-fi appearance, high capacity, and its inclusion in all kinds of media, but its problems are far more than skin deep. The design is complex, and it suffers from a clunky manual of arms. Loading is a process best viewed on video, consisting of opening the receiver cover to reveal loading ports and then snapping the followers of each magazine tube forward ahead of the shells prior to sliding them home in the tubes. A switch on top of the receiver controls blockage of one magazine or the other for controlled feeding, though manipulation of this switch is very rough without the slide at the rear. Once both tubes are full, the gun can be topped off by inserting the final 15th shell into the chamber before closing the action.
Speaking of action, the action on the UTS-15 is fairly rough, and reliability spotty: even with full-force manipulation of the slide failures to feed and eject are common, even after design revisions from the manufacturer.
While a fairly innovative design, the UTS-15 is simply not ready for prime time, and not even close to the quality bar that its price tag should command. If you must have a bullpup shotgun, the Kel-Tec KSG is the only tentative choice on the market, and I’d further recommend you stick with a more mature shotgun like a Remington 870 or Mossberg 500 or 590.
The gun world has seen its fair share of lemons come and go. Some burned out quickly, recognized for what they were. Others persist, even grow, thanks to the misguided appreciation of the unknowing. It is my hope that after reading this missive you’ll be just a little better prepared to avoid these junkers and others like them.
Do you have any experience with the guns on this list? What is the gun you regret buying most? Sound off in the comments!
Chad Nabors specializes in firearms, with a strong focus on concealed carry and pistols. His background is in commercial sales and training, and armor development and testing. He has trained many citizens on the pistol from basic to advanced skills. He is a vociferous proponent of the 2nd Amendment, and believes that defense of self and family is a moral obligation. He can be reached at grimgunner (AT) gmail.com.