Q&A: What’s the Best Tactical Rifle Available to U.S. Citizens?

The Colt LESOCOM is the closest thing to the military M4A1 a civilian can purchase.
The Colt LESOCOM is the closest thing to the military M4A1 a civilian can purchase.

Question from Gun Digest reader Thomas H.:

“With the extensive knowledge of your experienced staff, I would like to ask your opinion. Which tactical rifle (in the U.S.) on the market is the best? Also, the same question as to semi-auto handgun in the 9mm caliber? Top three to five would be great if no consensus can be found on one.”

Editor Kevin Michalowski responds:

“Wow… Tommy, tough question.

“The question you pose is very subjective and comes with the caveat of ‘it depends.'

“What do you require your modern sporting rifle to do? The AR-15 platform has served the longest and has the most options available. Any rifle from a reputable maker will serve you very well. The options are endless.

“Colt now even offers a rifle that will allow you change from 5.56 to 7.62 simply and easily. There is a boatload of information available on the care and feeding of the AR rifle. It is the big dog and everyone follows it.

“The AK-47 variants have their drawbacks, but reliability is not one of them. Also, an ever-growing line of accessories means the venerable Russian rifle will now fit American shooters and shooting styles. The ammo is ubiquitous and cheap. Today you can mount optics, get a stock that is the right length and find magazines of all types for every shooting need.

“The Springfield M-1A or M-14 clones are well know for stopping power and accuracy. They, too, now have available all the aftermarket parts you might need to make the rifle of your dreams.

“Newer styles like the SCAR and P-90 from FNH are solid weapons with excellent records, even if they have fewer followers and aftermarket add-ons.

“Just to keep this short, I will close the rifle portion with a suggestion that you look at some surplus rifles, too. The CETME, STG-58 and any of the clones of the FN-FAL were carried in combat around the globe. While they might not be the most accurate rifles on the market, they are tough as nails, simple to use and maintain and they fire readily available ammunition.

“On the handgun side,  I would tell you to choose by feel. Any of the top makers like Glock, Kimber, Smith & Wesson, FNH, H&K, Kahr, Ruger and several others whose names escape me now, make fine 9mm service pistols. Find the one that fits your hand and feels best to you while you shoot.

“If you go shopping for a pistol, somewhere along the line, you will pick up a pistol and say, ‘That feels right.' That is the pistol you should choose. Then you should shoot it often under the training of a reputable combat instructor.”

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  1. Springfield M1A is definitely a nice piece of equipment. Available in 3 sizes, Scout Squad was my preferred and what I chose. I’ve kept it stock except for the addition of a bi-pod.
    Another popular build out choice is the revamped Ruger Mini-14. They are said to be much better than the original models; more reliable and accurate. I haven’t experienced any troubles with either of these firearms. Both are in use by police officers in the USA among other great choices out there. One thing I consider when buying is where the weapon is made. The majority of what I own (handguns) are made in the USA; S&W, Kahr and I will say they have proven to be great reliable and accurate choices. If you want something a little less pricey, check out CZ for 9’s and 40’s and Rock Island for 45’s. Both those brands have been around the block. They are not Kimber’s, Wilson’s or Sig’s, they are still reliable and will get the job done.

  2. Very few of us are so well off financially that we can afford to buy different brands of rifle and take our time to test them and determine which is best for our needs. Such is the life of a firearms reviewer who is given firearms to review and not the average “Joe” in the real world. Trying them out as rentals at the local range is fine but that’s a short amount of time to determine which you prefer and be stuck with for many years to come. My advice to Thomas H. is go buy a basic optics ready carbine of the caliber you prefer: 5.56mm or 7.62mm.
    If you prefer an M14 variant, go for the Springfield SOCOM M14 in 7.62mm.

    This is what I did and I’ve not looked back on my decision:
    I bought a basic Optics Ready Carbine and over time started adding options and/or assemblies that I could not initially afford if I had ordered it all at once. The AR rifle I have now is probably valued at over $3,000 but I spent $700 on it when I bought it way back before the rifle panic of 2008 (re: the general election November 2008).

    It’s endless what you can do to make a good “Tactical” rifle. And that’s an important point: MAKE your own rifle.
    You can get all the bells and whistles NOW for $3,000 and up, or, over time, you can add enhancements yourself. Amortizing these little extras over a couple years allows you to spread out the overall cost of making a multi-thousand dollar rifle in a more wallet-friendly way. All good things come in time, or, you can be a “want it now” guy and pay through the nose, its up to you.

    As I said earlier, I’d stick with .45 caliber as your secondary, pick a pistol that fits you best and has good reliability reports. Old guys like me like steel over polymer, but combat tupperware has been around a long time and have had good reviews (re: Glock).


  3. If I were buying an AR type weapon today, I would check out the LMT line up. They have both types of systems in 5.56 and also offer a 6.8 & 7.62 model. Made in the USA and chosen by the British Army as their AR of choice; Lewis Machine & Tool (LMT). If you are looking to go lower cost and want better than expected for the money spent; Smith & Wesson’s line is well regarded and a wide price range. If I were only looking into a 9mm caliber handgun I would try out a Kahr K9 (compact steel), Kahr MK9 (very compact steel), Kahr P9 or PM9 (polymer versions). I have a Kahr K9 and MK40, both are very reliable and accurate. S&W M&P 9 in both compact and full size are certainly worth a look, as is one of the highly regarded law enforcement brands, CZ. The CZ75B (steel) is a workhorse, reliable and very accurate. Now available in polymer and compact versions as well. Never shot a CZ that I didn’t like. They are also quite reasonably priced compared to some other guns out there.

  4. ARs are nice but finiki, I bought a Saiga in 223 which is a sporterized AK47. I have a Hawke 3to9 scope and a green lazer on it. It is very accurate and has not failed once in 5 years of shooting it with 30 round mags. It is a heck of a lot cheaper then an AR. I carry either a charter arms bulldog in 44 special or a star pd in 45acp. I like most people cant afford the high priced name brand guns. I have 5 Rugers that are virtually indestructable and much more reasonably priced then the others.

  5. OK so a gas piston AR never ever needs the piston assembly cleaned? No, it does. Pick your poison clean the piston or clean the bolt. If you take care of your weapon it will take care of you. Personally I have always enjoyed the smell of Hopee’s no.9 in the morning, evening or whenever. I can be counted on to have a clean gun, really is it that much trouble? Piston or bolt just keep it clean and you will be rewarded your gun will take care of you, I promise.
    I can really see where the piston gun is a winner when you are talking SBR, M4, M-16 full auto etc. and firing several hundred rounds or more in a ten to twenty minute period as far as heat is concerned, but for the average shooter that is only going to shoot a few mags once a month and maybe not that much there is not that much benefit in a piston gun.
    Yes piston guns are better in some instances but DI rifles are likewise. DI rifles are inherrently (potentially anyway) more accurate due to the lack of piston slap that a gas gun has. So Tit for Tat in my opinion. For the untrained, or less well trained shooter the DI rifle may actually be a better choice to help you hit your intended target and they are generally quite a bit cheaper. I agree that if money isn’t an object and you like the piston rifle’s more then go for it. I just keep hearing that “a piston gun doesn’t need cleaning and is more reliable” etc. but I fail to see it for casual use. I haven’t had one failure of a DI rifle, and I am a more than casual shooter that own’s several DI AR’s in both 5.56 and 7.62 due to them being a DI gun. Not saying that I shoot 1000 rounds at a time though (who can afford that anymore?) and not to say also that I don’t drool over those beautiful Sig 516’s when I go to the toy store either.
    How many of us are ever going to be “in theater” or work as a contractor and need the benefits that a piston gun presents? If that is what you are looking for then by all means buy the best piston rifle you can afford in fact go in debt and spend more than you can afford if you know your life is going to depend on it daily!
    In a possible survival situation, yes I would love to have a bunker, a couple of million rounds, a Lewis M6-IC, Barret REC-7 etc. and lots of things that I’m not sure that I can afford to buy just in case but I will fight with what I have and pray that I am not shooting 1500 rounds at a time. If I am shooting that much ammo then I am in deep do-do and a terrible shot to boot.
    I pray that my time on this planet will end before it comes to a senario like that but if things don’t change for the better in our country we might all be in that deep do-do before long, especially if the current administration has their way.
    My feelings are that any quality AR manufactuer, no matter what type gas system it uses, will do the job if you learn how to use it properly. Don’t discount a DI rifle remember they have worked for 40+ years now and done a pretty good job. Just keep it maintained and clean no matter what OP system it has and it will work for you.
    To all of you reading this that have served our great nation THANK YOU, AND MAY GOD BLESS YOU AND YOUR FAMILIES.

  6. I’ve had a little experience with FN/Fal rifles–if they become too powder fouled, they sometimes will not go into battery–the bolt carrier seems to hang up. The problem with this is that the charging handle doesn’t serve as a forward-assist. You’ve got to clean the bore and gas system out before it returns to a state of reliability. Stick with the M1-A.

  7. Define “tactical?” If you are a lone rifleman who is familiar with concealment, the “best” might be a fear multiplier such as a suppressed bolt action 7.62X51. As this thread didn’t really cover what this means, and since most of us are not training with like armed friends in fun houses, it’s not likely we’re going to be doing “run and gun” or house clearing? Highly unlikely.

    The selection truly depends on one’s environment and scenario. How hard the use is the piece going to be subjected to, what sorts of engagement ranges.

    This is why there are so many choices, though with the legal CCW market being so prevalent now, these are the instruments most of us are going to be able to wield if “something happens,” and we choose to engage or disengage as training and circumstance dictates.

    I really believe that the mindset of the bearer, his or her level of skill and commitment are what is gong to carry the day, not the tool.

  8. Most discussions on caliber and weapon types follow the same format. I believe Kevin did a wonderful job helping readers to determine what is the best choice. Go out and look at a variety of weapons in the format(s) you are interested in. Ask the dealers about them, see what they know. Others at the counter may very well offer experiences of their own as well (I do if I have on hands experience with an item someone is looking at). Find a range that rents weapons so you can go try the one(s) you are interested in before buying. If the weapon is for use by more than one person, it has to be comfortable for all parties. Not only is your reason and use of the weapon important, but the ease of maintaining it in proper working order is as well. One of my favorite lines often read in discussions about (handgun) caliber: A gun of any caliber you will carry, is better than one you won’t due to it’s size. Lightweight weapons are nice, but they also transfer more energy to the shooter. Rubber grips, grip sleeves, or shooting gloves help with that a lot. A small polymer .380 can seem worse than an all steel .45. Shoot a variety of calibers in both steel and polymer, try shooting gloves and see how it feels. A sleeve or rubber grip is an easy low cost addition and shooting gloves will simulate a similar feeling. If you plan to carry year round, you have to decide where you are going to carry and how easy is the access if needed. This will also play a role in the size of weapon you select. As for tactical style rifles/shotguns, there are many brands to fit a variety of uses. I’d apply the same rules, except you are not carry concealing them. For home defense, a shotgun is a great choice in any caliber. Shot placement and reliability of the weapon is paramount. Make sure all parties that might need to use it, can handle it. Personally, I like a 410 or 20 with pistol grip ready for action; loaded with #6 shot alternating with #4 buck. There’s also a handgun (usually a .40) as well. Finally, make sure you can handle the weapon safely and fully understand the responsibility of gun ownership. It is after all, a life and death matter in an instant.

  9. Thomas H., though what Kevin D. Michalowski had to say in response to your question, I’d have to disagree with some of what he said. Gas impingement AR’s, be they 5.56mm or 7.62mm, are inherently problematic in that hot gases and gunpowder residue are sent back to the rifle’s chamber, thus potentially causing FTF malfunctions and in a tactical situation where many rounds are fired, a round in the chamber has been known to cook-off on its own… negligent discharge. I didn’t say gas impingement was not reliable, I only said that it can cause rifle malfunctions and ND’s. This is why so many AR manufacturers have gone to the gas piston system, as was stated by Kevin in regards to the FN SCAR but he neglected to mention the gas piston replacement for the gas impingement. This may sound like a little thing not to worry about but if you’re deep in the merde (French for sh*t), having your gas impingement rifle fail is not a good thing, and it won’t be a question of “if” that happens, trust me, it will happen at some point.

    Caliber is important and yes it all depends on what you want to do with it… hunt, defend, attack (in a self defense situation that is). You can take out a 300 pound assailant with a claw hammer or a nicely placed .22 round, but in a life or death situation, would the average citizen have the ability to carefully line up a .22 Henry survival rifle and take out a 300 pound assailant at let’s say, 3 to 7 feet? Not many could. 5.56mm hollow points are devastating to both humans and deer. 7.62mm rounds are far more devastating, but, how much weight is it to carry 1,500 rounds of 5.56mm compared to 7.62mm, in a survival situation?

    Take into consideration availability of ammo, parts, gunsmiths, shade tree gunsmiths, in a survival situation. What are the chances they’ll have AK parts from Russia or Poland or China as compared to AR parts from the USA?

    Pistol type/caliber. If your primary fails, you secondary IS your life, if it fails, you die.
    9mm is what everyone uses now, it doesn’t have the kick of a .40 or .45, makes for quick follow up shots that will be more on-target than a larger caliber… and therein lies the “rub”, follow up shots. That’s why I prefer .45 cal. You can get a pistol in .45 cal from most manufacturers now, find one that fits your hand and needs and buy it.

    When Kevin brought up the AKs and their reliability, he neglected to clarify a few things. The AK uses the gas piston system, the AK’s bolt/carrier is off-center and recoil is atrocious. The M-14, M-1A are great rifles, just be aware that shooting 7.62 in semi-auto mode, rapid fire, your rifle can become an anti-aircraft gun in no time flat. The 5.56mm AR system’s bolt recoils straight backwards, making semi-auto/full auto shots on-target whereas doing the same with a 7.62 rifle is pretty much impossible.

    I’d suggest you look at Barrett, Patriot Ordnance Factory, LWRC, HK416, La Rue Tactical, and my fave the Bushmaster ACR, which was not mentioned here. Whereas the FN SCAR is manufactured by Fabrique Nationale, a Belgian company (but made in America), the Bushmaster is made in North Carolina now (was in Maine previously) but more importantly, the ACR has a built-in tool for removing its barrel in the field whereas the FN SCAR requires you keep on your person a special tool to remove its barrel. Why is this important? Because the Bushmaster ACR allows you to convert, in the field, your rifle from a 5.56mm to a 7.62mm without a gunsmith. The SCAR, if you lose that little tool, your SOL. The ACR is easily broken down where the SCAR is not so much so. Why the US Marine Expeditionary went with the SCAR is beyond my comprehension, they should’ve gone with the Bushmaster ACR, a far superior rifle.

    Pistol wise, Wilson Combat is what I would consider the best.

    Hope this helps a little.
    No offense intended Kevin.



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