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Rifles in an Age of Unrest

Rifles in an Age of Unrest

In the aftermath of Kyle Rittenhouse’s “not guilty” verdict, I think it might be appropriate to make some observations about the incident, specifically as it pertains to how Americans might protect themselves in the future.

In the last year, Americans have purchased firearms at incredibly high rates. 2020 saw something like an 8 to 10 million gun sale increase over 2019, and sales didn’t slow down in 2021. Many of these purchasers are new firearm owners, and are foreign to the world of firearms… or perhaps are veteran gun-owners, but learned about guns and self-defense in a different world.

There is still wisdom in owning a handgun for self-defense, against muggers, car-jackers, rapists, etc. But by and large, those aren’t what Americans are concerned about.

The face of America has changed, as has the nature of warfare and self-defense. In an age of spasmodic civil unrest and rioting mobs, Americans are less interested in trusty revolvers, and more interested in rifles.

Rittenhouse and the related (but less lethal) case of the McCloskeys demonstrate the modern value of the rifle in these kinds of situations, as does the older case of the “roof-Koreans” of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. A rifle provides more range, accuracy, capacity, and lethality than a handgun. Hitting a target at 10-15 feet can be challenging with a handgun, even with practice, but a complete firearm novice, taught the most basic of fundamentals, can shoot accurately at 50 or even a hundred yards.

In a world where more and more Americans — law-abiding and criminals — carry guns, the difference between a rifle and a handgun is often going to be the difference between winning and losing, if the chaotic hurricanes of political turmoil happen to sweep through your neighborhood.

And now we have highly-public court precedent: it is legally legitimate to use rifles for defense.

But what kind of rifle should a new buyer actually purchase? What features are most important on a budget?

I think that we can look at the cases of Kyle Rittenhouse, the McCloskeys, and the Roof Koreans to identify what sorts things to look for when purchasing your own rifle.

From these cases and other recent incidents, we can begin to paint a broad-stroke picture of the average scenario in which a rifle is needed. It looks something like this:

  • The citizen is facing a medium-sized mob of ambiguous disposition, at very close range.
  • The citizen is probably not very wealthy.
  • The citizen is likely in or around vehicles.
  • The citizen is probably being filmed, and will be judged by appearance.

From these general factors, we can construct an unofficial “Caffeine-Build” — a low-cost AR-pistol that can accurately and effectively engage threats at close range, but will look like (and be) the responsible purchase of a concerned citizen, and not a hunting tool of a psychopath. This should fulfill most American citizen’s needs in a combat rifle.

For my purposes, I will call this the “Caffeine-Build.” There will be links to all of the components at the end.

For full disclosure, I am not a firearms training expert. In fact, I am not even that proficient of a shooter — a casual hunter with some basic training. Hopefully, nothing I say here will contradict what most experts will have to say. But some non-shooting-related factors related to our culture might dictate how you set up your gun. These are factors not directly related to shooting as an activity, and are things that a non-gun-expert can observe as readily and as credibly as even the most experienced firearm instructor.

1. PRICE

Kyle Rittenhouse carried an M&P-15 Sport, among the cheaper commercially-available rifles. Mark McCloskey carried what looked like some sort of full-length Colt (though it’s admittedly hard to tell), a pricier weapon. Is there a difference? To the average American, not really. The roof-Koreans of 1992 had an amalgamation of hunting rifles, shotguns, and pistols. Having something is more important than what you have, which means that spending $4,000 on a tricked-out high-performance rifle is probably not necessary for self defense.

For people on a limited budget, it is better to get an okay rifle that works than it is to save up for years for a professional-grade piece of equipment that — in all likelihood — you will never have to use for its intended purpose. Because to the ordinary American, the difference in one use between a top-tier firearm and a lower-end gun is marginal, if there is one at all.

And for appearances sake, spending exorbitant amounts on military grade equipment is likely to indicate bad intent, whereas skating closer to the minimum looks more like an insurance policy — which is what a rifle is supposed to be.

On a budget, it doesn’t make sense to spend more than $600 on the base platform (the rifle) itself.

2. CALIBER

There are really three good rifle calibers with widely-available ammunition:

  1. 5.56/.223
  2. 7.62×39
  3. 300AAC (“300 Blackout”)

5.56 and .223 are subtly different versions of essentially the same round. It is a small, fast round that does tremendous damage by virtue of its speed. It is what the US military and law enforcement generally uses, and the standard ammunition of AR-15 style rifles.

Because of the nature of the round, 5.56 guns generally need longer barrels, and because of the construction of an AR-15, collapsing stocks are not readily available (more on this later).

7.62×39 is a slightly slower, heavier round, traditionally fired by an AK-47. It has better penetration of light-cover (cars, drywall, etc), but tends to be less accurate at range.

300AAC is slower and heavier still — in fact, it isn’t particularly effective past 400 yards, and isn’t really ideal past 200 yards. However, judging by the Rittenhouse and McCloskey cases and the roof-Korean precedent, most rifle engagements in situations of civil unrest take place at less than 50 yards, so the distance shortcomings of a 300AAC are negligible. And due to their low velocity, many indoor shooting ranges which only permit pistols will also permit 300AAC rifles, which can sometimes make training easier.

As Lucas Botkin has observed, the problem with 7.62×39 is the AK-47. As a weapon, the AK-47 is a tried-and-true tool. However, in American culture, the AK-47 is generally associated with Russia, Africa, and the Middle East — enemy forces, especially among our veterans and law-enforcement agents.

Justice (and injustice) is largely driven by what is presently culturally-acceptable.

Lucas Botkin

Where appearance is concerned, it is probably better to avoid the AK platform, in favor of the American AR.

Between 5.56 and 300AAC, the 300 is objectively superior for the average home-defense and civil-unrest needs of an American citizen. However, in a world where both function perfectly well (and in which silencers are off the table — where 300AAC truly shines), it is worth noting that 5.56 rifles and ammunition are significantly cheaper.

Again — in a world where both options function perfectly, and in which the rifle is an insurance and hedge against a highly unlikely circumstance, there is no reason not to go with the 5.56.

3. SIZE

Rifle sizes are determined by barrel length. Effective 5.56 barrels range from 10.5″ all the way up to 22″. Below 10.5″, the 5.56 bullet really loses its lethality, even at close range. An 18″ or 20″ barrel can effectively and accurately engage targets at 600 or 700 yards, but we are not looking at those kinds of ranges. The average American citizen would be looking at using his rifle within 50 yards, possibly upwards of 75 yards. Everything beyond that is unlikely to be an imminent threat, and becomes a legal liability.

What is more important is compactness, especially in and around vehicles.

Kyle was carrying a 16″ barrel, but at his ranges, a 10.5″ or 11.5″ would have performed just as well.

For the average American citizen, a 10.5″ or 11.5″ barrel will be a superior tool, just as the 10.3″ barreled Mk-18 was considered a superior tool for soldiers in Iraq who were operating in urban environments, often out of vehicles.

Whenever you drop below a 16″ barrel, the firearm ceases to be a “rifle.” According to the ATF, it can fall under one of three categories: “short-barreled rifle” (SBR), “pistol,” or “other firearm.”

An SBR is a normal rifle with a barrel under 16″.

A pistol is less than 26″ overall, and does not have standard rifle fittings such as a “stock” (they have “braces” instead) or a “vertical foregrip.”

An “other firearm” has a barrel less than 16″ (usually 14.5″), but an overall length greater than 26″. It can have some rifle features — such as a vertical foregrip — but not others: an other firearm cannot have a stock.

Most Americans haven’t filed their $400 tax stamp with the ATF to legally own an SBR. The advantage of a 14.5″ other firearm is that it negotiates the compactness of a pistol with the distance of a full-length rifle. But if we aren’t concerned about distances beyond 100 yards (in all likelihood, beyond 30 yards), then there’s no reason not to emulate the military’s Mk-18 and opt for the pistol option.

We can further increase our “pistol”/rifle compactness by adding a folding stock/brace adapter.

4. SIGHTS

There are five kinds of sights a rifle can have: iron sights, red dot, holographic, prism, and low-power variable optic (LPVO).

Given the assumed distance we’re working within, it doesn’t make sense to worry about magnification beyond 1x power. LPVOs are great (I currently have a 1-4x Vortex mounted on my AR pistol), but you can get lighter, less bulky, and cheaper sights in the other styles.

There is nothing wrong with iron sights. Aside from being the cheapest option, they tend to also be the most durable, as well as the best for training proper form. However, sights are one case where we need to look to function beyond what’s nicest on the budget. In close quarters, fractions of a second can mean the difference between getting off accurate shots and being shot. The downside of iron sights is that compared to electronic or prism sights, they are slower. It is faster and more intuitive to put a red dot over a target than it is to properly align the front and rear sights, even with practice.

For most Americans, a reliable red dot is going to be the best sight.

For people with eye problems or astigmatisms, red dots can sometimes cause issues. For those people, a 1x prism optic — where the reticle is etched into the glass, rather than projected onto it — might be better.

Holographic sights are also excellent, but tend to be more expensive than equivalent red dots. Higher-tier instructors often say that the difference often comes down to personal preference — some CQB soldiers run red dots like the Aimpoint Micro, others run holographic sights like the Eotech EXPS.

For most Americans, a Sig Romeo5 or PA Cyclops will serve just fine.

5. ADDITIONS

Most firearms instructors will say that the two most important additions to a rifle are a sling and a weapon-light.

When Kyle Rittenhouse was running away from the BLM mob, his rifle was grabbed. Were it not for his sling, he most likely would have been disarmed, perhaps even shot with his own weapon. In close quarters, a sling might be the single most important addition to your rifle.

As with many burglaries and home invasions, most of the civil unrest and rioting of the past couple of years have taken place at night. While passive city lights tend to keep the surroundings fairly well illuminated, the possibility of low-light situations are still high, especially in the context of a pursuit (perhaps away from the more well-lit areas). As a rule, you can’t hit what you can’t see; as a principle, you should never shoot at what you can’t positively identify. In low-light situations, a weapon light solves both of these needs.

In extreme circumstances, a piece or rope and a Maglite duct taped to the handguard will work. It’s better than nothing. I was once instructed by a green Beret to electrical-tape a household flashlight to my weapon, until I felt like upgrading.

Raw functionality notwithstanding, basic durability concerns mean that it is worth investing a few dollars in more quality equipment, especially where the light is concerned.

And finally, let me revisit the folding brace adapter.

Coupled with a 10.5″ barrel, a folding adapter permits you to stow an AR in a small duffle bag, or even some backpacks. It will fit on the floor of a vehicle. For accessibility and mobility, the folding adaptor for the AR is an immensely practical investment.

THE CAFFEINE BUILD

Palmetto State 10.5″ 5.56 Pistol ($520)

Sig Romeo5 Red Dot ($110)

Sylvan Arms Folding Adapter ($200)

Magpul Rifleman Sling ($20)

Streamlight 1000 lumens Rifle Light ($105)

Total cost: $955.

Not including magazines, ammunition, and training, of course. But a complete and well-fitted weapon for under $1,000, built specificallaround the needs of average American citizens in a time of civil unrest and legal ambiguity.

My own AR is similar, albeit with some unnecessary additions. I have a serviceable but inferior light, an LPVO, a slightly nicer sling, a hand-stop-style foregrip, and I’ve swapped out the brace, charging handle, pistol grip, and muzzle device with nicer upgrades. I also painted mine, which — for purposes of perception — was almost certainly a minor mistake. But it is essentially the same weapon, built around the same purpose — cheap, compact, and effective at close range.

For the average American citizen looking to buy a rifle for defense against civil unrest, the “Caffeine” set-up or a similar cheap folding pistol with sling, light, and red-dot will serve well. As a low investment, it does not appear like one is motivated by violent intent, as we (the public) imagine that one who dwells on thoughts of carnage would invest more in a more powerful and expensive weapon. A cheaper firearm also means it would be less catastrophic if it gets stolen, damaged, or — more likely — is never used.

But the listed parts make a system that will be reliable, accessible, and transportable when needed. It’s a firearm that perfectly fits the real-world context of the riots and unrest of today, and which fits unobtrusively even in the intensely video-captured and democratically-judged legal landscape of digital-age America.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. I agree with your thought process, but ultimately disagree slightly with where you ended up. I have a very similar weapon but it is a PCC. For all the reasons you listed but it doesn’t “clip the wings” of a rifle cartridge, but rather uses something that was designed ballistically for the ranges in which you have planned for.

    1. PCCs are great. My only issue with those is cost… however, if cost isn’t an issue, I have had a hard time finding a case for a sub-gun over a 300 AAC, especially something like a Sig Rattler or an MCX in 300. They just seem superior in every way to a 9mm or 45… though the latter are still probably better than a 5.56 (though of course, they all serve the role).

  2. Chris, you hit most of the points home, with a few exceptions. Having coached and taught many classes with Greg H. at Insights, I really wouldn’t recommend a barrel length <16" for a starting carbine. SBRs are harder to shoot, less reliable, and easier to point at yourself (number of N.D. incidents into the leg went up dramatically after PDs started adopting SBRs). The 5" addition barrel length doesn't matter all that much in self defense situations. If you really want a SBR, start at 11.5" for improved reliability.

    Good call on the folding adapter, though integrated folding lowers are coming onto the scene and IMO a much better option (https://aimsurplus.com/17-designs-iflr-integrated-folding-lower-receiver-gen-2/). Also, the PSA upper come with a plain handguard w/o rail sections to mount the stream light, you'll probably want something like the GG&G Slic Thing mount (https://www.gggaz.com/slic-thing-sling-and-light-combo-mount.html) for the light. And since the price difference btw the PSA free float M-Lok rail upper and tradition upper is only $20, you might as well go with the free floating rail.

    Assuming you still go with 10.5" pistol, I suggest a slightly modified list:
    PSA 11.5" Nitride upper w/ BCG & CH ($300)
    17Design IFLR integrated folding lower ($200)
    Aero precision M4E1 MOE SL Lower parts kit ($65)
    KAK Shockwave buffer tube and stock kit ($70)
    Streamlight 1000 ($105)
    Sig Romeo5 RDS ($110)
    Troy M4 style folding rear sight ($75)
    GG&G Slic thing sling & light combo mount ($40)
    Frank Proctor sling ($45)
    Total = $1,000

    Most buffer kits come with carbine weight buffers, which are inadequate for SBR. You can get replacement Tungsten weights from Amazon for $25 and tune the buffer to your hearts content for reliable extraction.

    1. Anyone who reads this, defer to the above comment

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