The allure of cheap guns is hardly new. Sometimes you want a junker for a toolbox or truck gun. Perhaps you just don’t see the justification in spending several hundred or even a thousand dollars or more on a firearm when a cheap one will launch the same chunk of lead the same way. Maybe you are even squeezed pretty tight financially and think you cannot spring for a nicer gun.
Cheapo guns are nothing new and have only proliferated with the rise of the Age of Industry and further refinements of the same. On the surface, there might seem to be justifications for buying a bargain basement priced gun, even one intended for self-defense, but in reality those justifications are largely false economy, and may cost you more than the few extra c-notes a better gun would have.
In this article, I will make a case for avoiding the cheapest of cheap guns entirely, and hopefully save you from future disaster or misery.
Quality When it Counts
If you knew, for a fact, that you were going to experience an attack that would endanger your life, what gun would you choose? Don’t go too silly on me; I’d like a plasma rifle, phaser or AC-130 gunship orbiting overhead, too, but let’s keep this hypothetical in the realm of reality, for now.
I’ll bet you would probably choose a pistol from a big name manufacturer known for supplying serious quantities of high-grade guns to professional users of all stripes.
That is what we call a clue as to what you should choose now. You won’t find American police, military and serious professional security forces using bottom-of-the-bin no-name guns. They use the good stuff. Why? That’s easy: the good stuff works better, and works longer, under all conditions but especially the conditions that are more likely to occur in a fight.
You might be thinking, “But I’m none of those things, Charles. I’m just a guy/gal who wants have the means to protect myself if I am attacked.” Right you are, reader.
But what you might not be considering is the raw, unbridled fact that you will be risking just as much as any professional. And more lives than your own will be affected should you fail. What will happen to your family? Will they be able to go on without you? Who will take care of them, and who could replace you?
A quality gun is one less thing to go wrong in a situation where you will already be behind the power curve, already be disadvantaged and already in deep, deep shit. A good gun offers a certain amount of certainty. The runts of the litter offer almost none.
This is doubly true if you are thinking of purchasing a gun for serious real-deal SHTF survival. That is one situation where the “typical” criminal attack scenario might be turned on its head in the worst way: you may not be dealing with a short, sharp incident where the round count is very low.
You might instead be dealing with an incident that lasts days, weeks, even months, one where your firearm must stand ready and able to do its job, no babying, no excuses. It may have to deal with inclement weather, abuse, neglect, harsh firing schedules or all of the above.
Don’t trust your outcome to anything less than a decent firearm. Now, your definition of decent may vary from mine and the next guy’s, but I can promise you that whatever your definition is, it does not include the cheapest of the cheap sub-$100 guns that sometimes crop up.
I am also specifically not referring to the great, even crazy deals that pop up from time to time on used, trade-in or other secondary market quality guns that you might find. If you can get a Smith & Wesson, Glock, or SIG for under a Benjamin, by all means be my guest!
How Much Gun Will $100 Get You?
Sold new? Not much, except an amalgam of parts that look like they were whittled from melted Crisco can stock by an untrained conscript with an angle grinder before being spot welded together with monkey using a blowtorch.
A crude effigy of a real pistol hardly fit to be called as much. Without exception, guns in this category are made from highly questionable materials (zinc, inferior steel, crappy plastics) and assembled with the most slapdash and rudimentary methods in the industry.
Guns of this type, of which such derided names as Bryco, Jimenez and Jennings pistols of “Saturday Night Special” infamy among others like Phoenix Arms and Cobra Arms.
Retailing for a little more, you can move up to a Hi-Point, which while a definite step up from the former category is nowhere close to what I would call acceptably reliable for serious defensive use.
No matter the make, model and caliber, there is a price point below which true quality becomes impossible. Designs will be cumbersome and unrefined. Controls will be janky, stiff or mushy.
The actions of these guns are invariably rough and difficult to operate and this roughness, along with the overall lack of quality will contribute mightily to seriously impaired reliability. They leave much to be desired all on their own, and finding quality support gear to carry and employ them effectively will likely be a non-starter.
All the guns I mentioned and many others I did not name, among those a score of cheap, two-shot derringers and other variations of the above named guns abounded over the years and thousands and thousands of them are still floating around gun shops and gun shows. All are equally subpar.
Whatever their other faults, by far the biggest failing of guns in this class is their propensity to break and malfunction. Of course you should not expect a cheap gun to last for tens of thousands of rounds with no issues, but many of these guns I mentioned have lifespans measured in mere hundreds of rounds before they break, and often cannot be counted on to even fire a dozen rounds before they malfunction.
Do you care to take your chances with such a gun in your gravest extreme?
Rationalizations, Justifications and Fallacies
In all my years in the gun industry, sales, training, consulting, the works, I have heard all kinds of what could charitably be called reasons for purchasing guns at the lowest level of the price spectrum.
Some folks’ rationale, while painful to hear, is at least rooted in their reality. Others, no so much; some folks it seems are just so ill-informed or so trollish that they would call up down, black white and day night.
Below are some of the most common reasons for espousing or accepting a bargain-basement gun, and my rebuttals.
“I cannot afford anything better!”
This reason is the one that hits closest to home for most people, and is the one with the most teeth, as it were. All but a few of us have to live on a budget, and for some of us that budget might be hard-capped at the nearest dollar with no room for fudging till payday.
If that describes you, I would ask you only to consider the following: the fact that you are able to devote any money at all to a firearm, even if you are only saving a bit at a time, means you can in fact save. The difference in quality that even an additional $200 makes is enormous, and another $100 over that gets you into an entirely new sphere of quality.
You don’t have to spend $800, $900 or $1500-plus dollars on a pistol like the crazy gun people do (like me, ahem) to get a good quality dependable handgun. There are entirely serviceable handguns that can be had for just under $400, and even a few closer to $300.
This does not even take into account the wide and wonderful world of the previously mentioned used market and police or agency trade in guns!
You may be able to snag a great pistol like a Glock, SIG or even an older but still high-quality and serviceable Smith & Wesson revolver for dimes on the dollar if you shop and ask around at dealers. Some states even sell off confiscated guns that various law enforcement agencies relive from offenders and every once in a while you’ll get a gem in the mix for a steal.
In short, I am of the opinion that there are so many good, decent to high quality guns on the market at what I frankly consider to be bargain prices that choosing a lesser gun is totally foolish. If you are strapped for cash, badly, and have a pressing, urgent need for a defensive gun, then all you can do is what you do.
“My Hi-Point/Lorcin/Whatever is Just as Good!”
This is the war cry of the reprobate spendthrift and inveterate pennymiser. Let me clue you in on something, and this comes from someone who does not make one single cent off of any affiliation with any manufacturer or earn a living working for one: when it comes to guns, you by and large get what you pay for. The End.
Sure, you can bet that “prestige” companies trade on their name. Of course they do! That’s called capitalism, but believing that quantifiably superior guns turned out by known-quality makers are priced what they are because of brand name alone is the precipice of arrogance, ignorance or both.
Better guns come from better designers. They are made from higher quality steels and polymers. They are produced from better machines and tools, run by higher skilled, more experienced and better trained craftsmen.
The end products are subjected to more frequent, more thorough and more intricate quality control and quality assurance processes. They are lab and field tested in greater numbers to degree unknown to cheapo Shur-Fine guns. Expert consultants will be paid and brought in to further refine these guns.
And then, finally, they will be released to the public. Not as a beta test, not as good enough, but as a gun that can be expected to work under all conditions and at all times, within the limitations of any artifact made by man. Sure, companies will turn out duds.
Of course, leadership changes or squabbles might see them occasionally go off half-cocked and release a likewise half-baked product. This does nothing to change the fact that they are consistently better guns and consistently higher performance than the C-list offerings some espouse.
“I don’t need a super gun; I am not going to war.”
A fair observation. No, you will likely not be involved in a days-long running gunbattle on the streets of some 3rd World hellhole or lost in a claustrophobic and suffocating jungle. Nonetheless, your personal requirements for a reliable gun are no less serious or pressing than those of a professional gunslinger in either of those two climes.
A cheapo, sub-$100 gun might work fine for as long as you need it to work in your fight. But how will you be able to tell? People that choose guns of this nature as a rule, in my experience, do not test them thoroughly, assuming they can afford the ammo and access the range to do so. True, you need to test high-quality guns also, but if you are going to gamble on one working untried and untested which will you wager your life on? A Beretta or a Bryco?
Part of this complaint pops up from the psyches of “non-gun” people, those folks who want, even need a gun, but don’t recognize themselves as “in to guns” and so not a person who rates, needs or deserves a high-quality and commensurately expensive one. Understandable, but misguided.
A better tool is always a better tool, whether you are amateur or master. A better tool is one that will make the work easier, and make your job doing it easier. No two ways about it.
If you want to give yourself a leg up on your journey from novice to seasoned gunhand, start out with the best gun you can afford. Buying a tool that cannot even do the thing you set out to have it do is the worst false economy.
“My friend/relative/whoever said theirs works great!”
I didn’t want to be the one to break this to you, but it seems I must. The huge majority of gun owners shoot their guns very, very little. Their guns live in drawers, gloveboxes, or holsters and that’s all.
They don’t ever get run hard, they don’t get put through classes and they barely get shot at all: your average pistol owner (especially an owner of the very cheapest guns) will have likely not put more than a one or two hundred rounds through their pistol, ever, and that is in no way a fair shakedown of a pistol as a model or an individual sample.
When they say theirs “works fine” and they have “shot it for years” what it means is they really like it and they have owned it a while. It makes them feel good, and so they endorse it.
If you start asking them hard specific questions like “how many rounds do you have through it?” and “how many classes have you taken with it?” and “how many and what kind of problems have you encountered?”
They’ll start getting really dodgy, really fast. It is because they have done hardly a damn thing with it and simply want to be seen as an authority and/or helpful.
I am not saying they are bad people or they are trying to actively mislead you, but I am saying they don’t know what they are talking about. Seek advice from someone who sees enough guns in the wild, as the saying goes, to know what’s what. At any rate, I promise they don’t see any of the cheapest guns except rarely.
“You are just an elitist gun-snob, Charles!”
Far from it. I do like and prefer high-end, top quality guns because my work experience not to mention personal preferences have shown me that they are the things that make my life easy.
I certainly recommend brands like H&K, Nighthawk, Surgeon and others to those who want and can afford them, but far more often I recommend tried, true, tested and mature middle-of-the-road models by Glock, S&W and many other well-known mass market makers.
Unlike H&K’s thoughts on the matter, I don’t think you suck and I don’t hate you because you don’t want or cannot justify a crazy-expensive gun on a whim. I only care that you get the tools that help you succeed.
I have no personal gratification from steering someone into my preference of handgun. This isn’t the Cult of Yor (though that is pretty catchy…) and my own worth is not associated with getting someone dancing to my tune.
A better question is why you think I (or any expert) is not dealing in reality, and is instead dealing in egomania. Guns are not created equal. This retort is one of the classic defense mechanisms of the person who cares very much about being emotionally stroked for their behavior and choices
Unlike these souls, people like me and my associates really, really enjoy dealing in facts. Cold, hard, agnostic math, at least when it comes to ascertaining the suitability of any piece of kit, plan, tactic or technique.
Lots of testing, networking and man-hours of labor goes into that and we want to share our findings with those who would make use of it. Unfortunately some people are more interested in being right than in having better tools and better info.
Know Your Purpose, Know Your Priorities
This topic is always one that rustles jimmies big time, and in an effort to curb the worst of the shrieking in the comments section before it starts (like that ever works) I would like to clarify my intent for writing this article.
This article is intended to help a prospective gun buyer looking for a gun for self-defense make a good choice. It is not intended to insult your “dog,” make you feel inferior or belittle.
An odd quirk of human nature is that rationalizations of subpar or inferior choices/decision making come complete with a certain amount of emotional baggage. Let me explain: we buy a thing that we like.
The cold, hard reality of how that thing stacks up to competing things is not so important to most as feeling good about the thing that we bought. Rationalizations follow.
Then looking for opinions, no matter how disparate, no matter how far on the fringes of acceptability or believability, to reinforce our conclusion. Confirmation bias takes hold.
Any intruding info or opinion that clashes with the “desired end state” of our thing makes us angry, hostile. We lash out. We argue. We belittle and mock and question statements from experts and those with more experience alike.
In short, we take it personally and hard because we have our identity wrapped up in that purchase to a greater or lesser degree. I see this happen all the time on the internet and in person, and five will get you ten that you do also.
Why does this happen? I don’t know and the answer is at any rate the subject of some other article. We are here to talk about choosing a tool that will save your ass on the worst conceivable day of your life.
Self-defense is two short words that encompass a vastly complex topic, and a fraction of that comprises firearm selection, itself a topic that has seen more exposition in ink and electron that any other facet of shooting.
Cutting to the chase, whatever other preferences you have when it comes to your personal defense firearm, whether you like big bore, small bore or something in the middle, semi-auto or revolver, whatever gun you choose had damn well better work when it is time to clear leather for real. It has to work or it might be the last let-down you’ll experience on the mortal plane. That’s it. The stakes are simply too high to accept anything less than maximal reliability.
If you are buying a gun for hobby shooting, collecting, hunting or some other activity that is not life-threatening (and, no, your local Action Pistol match does not count, no matter how big the bet is between you and your buddies) then go nuts.
I don’t care what you buy or shoot, and though I might roll my eyes at you for your unwashed ways you shouldn’t care about that. Live your life. Fly, fly, and be free.
But if you are buying for the Great Game, the one that decides who lives to see another day and who bleeds out on the pavement, or who limps off leaking all over the place, then I care very much, and so should you.
In this era of high-performance and budget priced pistols, there is no real reason to purchase a sub-$100 gun of known terrible quality. The risks are simply too great and you can be assured of wasting money.
Unless you need a pistol yesterday and are living in near abject poverty, keep saving your pennies and buy a better gun when funds allow, one that will serve you with distinction and last for a lifetime.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.