Guns And Reliability

When Failure is Simply Not an Option
; .

Whether the threat walks on two legs or four, having a reliable defensive firearm equalizes the equation.

Alaskan apex predators can be the size of Volkswagens. When the threat is bent on
having you for dinner, reliability of your defensive weapons becomes critical.

The apex predators in the Alaskan wilds are the size of Volkswagens. Every year a few people run afoul of these massive creatures and inevitably fare poorly as a result. For such times as these when more rides on a gun’s dependability than simple convenience, we thought it might be an interesting exercise to ponder various types of firearms from the perspective of basic reliability. While factors such as weight, accuracy, ammunition availability and cost all factor into the selection of a defensive firearm, reliability is always a prime consideration.


The classic AR rifle has undergone a great many evolutionary changes
since the first copy sprang from the fertile mind of Eugene Stoner back in 1956.
Tuned-up Information Age versions are markedly more reliable than the originals.

The Modern Sporting Rifle

Eugene Stoner and some others birthed the original AR15 back in 1956 and the most remarkable transformations have been visited upon this most versatile of weapons. Caliber options, multitudinous barrel lengths, disparate operating systems and a bewildering number of accessory choices all conspire to make America’s Rifle most anything for anybody. However, the common denominator is moving parts aplenty. In these details we find lurking the devil himself.

Information Age surface treatments offer unprecedented lubricity, wear resistance and resilience in the face of corrosion. Little things like O-ring extractor boosters are now de rigueur. Paired redundant ejectors can be found as well if you have deep pockets and affection for overkill. The end result is a level of reliability in the platform for which we might only have dreamt back in the day.

The greatest improvement has likely been in the magazines. If I had a dime for every time I have had an AR rifle bolt override the top round in its magazine, I’d have a lot of dimes. Modern no-tilt followers and meticulous attention to mag body geometry have improved the situation immensely. Tubb Precision 17-7 stainless steel flatwire springs represent the absolute state of the art. However, even well-designed and superbly executed rifles can still fail.


The classic Kalashnikov rifle sets the world’s established standard for
reliability among autoloading long guns. This tricked out SBR from
Century has all the bells and whistles.

The Accepted Standard

Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov was the 17th of 19 children and his eponymous rifle sets the universal standard for reliability for autoloading firearms. The AK embodies all it means to be Russian. The Kalashnikov rifle is bulky, awkward and grossly over-engineered. The ergonomics are marginal and the sights are yesterday’s news. However, the AK is also the most reliable autoloading gun the planet has ever seen.

The big two-lugged bolt rides in a fairly course cam slot and a massive full-length bolt carrier packs immense momentum once it gets started. Where an AR is all finesse and elegance, the AK is built like a hammer or a tire iron. For all its mechanical attributes, however, the Kalashnikov yet remains a reciprocating machine.

I have had several failures in AK rifles over the years. I have seen a few that got sufficiently cruddy through either inattention or sloth to bind up the action. Take the gun through muddy, sandy places long enough and you can pack enough foreign material into the action to gum up the works. More commonly operator error makes it tough to seat the magazine, or getting in a rush causes the shooter to short-cycle the bolt on reloads. These are indeed stupid mistakes when you use the gun for real exogenous circumstances which are, by definition, distracting. When you are cowering behind an automobile tire in the midst of a real-world lesson on the stark differences between cover and concealment, it can be tough to think clearly.


Will used this .35-caliber Marlin lever action to bag his whitetail
deer but in the heat of the moment, he short-shucked the action
and failed to chamber a follow-on round.

A little paperwork for BATF combined with a spot of patience and a check for
$200 allows you to legally transform a Russian side-by-side 12-gauge coach
gun into something markedly sexier — and deadly on water moccasins!

Manual Options

Slide-action shotguns and lever-action rifles both had their genesis in the mid- to late 19th century. John Moses Browning originally designed the majority of the free world’s firearms and his genius is imprinted upon both of these classic systems. Each gun derives its power from the operator rather than the cartridge and subsequently becomes somewhat more mechanically reliable as a result. However, the fact human beings are involved means it will never be perfect.

I’ve seen pump shotguns jam horribly. Eccentricities in ammunition and environmental contaminants can conspire to make a slide-action shotgun positively finicky at times. Additionally, at a certain point in the operating cycle the shell is bouncing about uncontrolled in the nether-space between the tubular magazine and the breech. A strategic bump at that critical moment can literally turn the round sideways. Operator experience can minimize the risk but if the threat carries its own gun, it can be tough to attend to details.

I killed my second deer with a lever-action Marlin .35. The classic rifle seemed as reliable as an old friend. However, in the heat of the moment a distracted kid smitten with a terminal case of buck fever can get in such a rush he fails to run the action all the way open. Under such circumstances as these, the hammer will cock and the bolt will close on an empty chamber. The subsequent soft click when the trigger is pulled can be more deafening than even the manliest belted magnum cartridge. A lever-action is mechanically reliable but sometimes the operator is not.


The Chiappa M6 is modeled on the original U.S. military-issue M6 folding
survival rifle. It’s available in either 12- or 20-gauge versions paired with a .22 LR barrel.

XCAL chamber inserts from Chiappa convert either 12- or 20-gauge break
open shotguns to fire most any commonly available handgun cartridges.

Just About Stupid Proof

All this leads us to the most reliable guns around. A proper double-action revolver is just about fail-safe. A simple break-action single- or double-barrel long gun doesn’t have much to break either. The trigger/hammer mechanisms could theoretically burp, but they remain fully enclosed within the frame or receiver. So long as the ammunition is up to scratch, there is just very little left to fail. There are options aplenty in these platforms, and pricing spans the spectrum from surprisingly cheap to ludicrous.

Chiappa offers a nifty set of barrel inserts allowing you to run most any centerfire pistol cartridge through a break-action shotgun. They offer the most remarkable break-open triple barrel mega-gun as well, though it is a bit portly as a result. Dedicated single barrel weapons from Thompson Center can be had with barrels running literally anything. For the shooter on a budget who is seeking the ultimate in reliability, however, it is hard to beat Century International Arms.


Century imports Chinese-made side-by-side shotguns in .410, 20-gauge and 12-gauge.
Quality is superb and each of these guns includes sling swivels and dual triggers.

Century offers basic side-by-side Chinese-made coach guns in .410, 20- and 12-gauge chamberings. Apparently availability is driven by what shows up on the boat so it varies by chambering. The furniture is an odd sort of blonde Chinese hardwood. However, the workmanship is excellent and the fit and finish well beyond adequate. Hammers are exposed and rebounding for added safety, meaning they will not contact the firing pins unless the triggers are pulled. The guns also sport sling swivels, an underappreciated necessity for a utility gun that will actually be used in the field.

Variegated loads mean exceptional versatility. Cheap birdshot will fill your pot with ptarmigan, plated sabot slugs will bring peace of mind in bear country and buckshot, despite the lexicography of the term, is proper proof against two-legged predators of any stripe. These guns are lightweight and fast handling. With a little practice, the exposed hammer drill is intuitive. I even did a BATF Form 1 on one of my side-by-sides and cut it down into a thermonuclear 12-gauge pistol to ride comfortably in a holster. More than two dozen dead water moccasins later, this is my hands-down favorite counter-snake gun.


The classic single-action Colt revolver is a totally reliable tool. The hammer must
be manually cocked for each round but this is a natural operation with a little practice.


I have entrusted my life to the mechanical reliability of an M16 rifle. I also freely admit confounding a properly executed AK requires the most egregious neglect. This deep into the 21st Century, advances in metallurgy, materials science and basic engineering have conspired to offer the American shooter reciprocating firearms with unprecedented reliability. At risk of being labeled a heretic, even tried and true designs like the venerable M1 Garand pale in reliability alongside state of the art modern offerings.

I once sat shivering with a friend at 3 a.m. in the wilds of Alaska clutching my cut-down Remington 870 12-gauge stoked with five Federal sabot slugs. The mama moose and her child who had so violently interrupted our slumber charged out of a nearby slough and past our flimsy tent close enough to shower it like a deluge. The prospects of facing whatever had been chasing them so enthusiastically ensured we were awake and alert for the rest of the night.

Despite our brace of 12-bore scatterguns stoked with the best, most powerful counter-bear ammo money could buy, we both felt mightily undergunned. The only thing separating us from a hungry half-ton grizzly bear was a paper-thin sheet of green nylon tent material. Fire superiority is always relative.

If the circumstances are such that you just cannot tolerate mechanical failure, an argument can be made older is actually better. A side-by-side 10-gauge helped Doc Holliday put paid to the Clanton miscreants during that fateful 30-second gunfight in October of 1881 at the O.K. Corral. Revolvers from the likes of Colt and Smith & Wesson armed all involved. That same level of supreme reliability can keep you comfortable in dangerous spaces even today.

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