Guns are important tools for preppers, since they serve as a portable and effective means of personal security, one with range, and also can help put food on the table during long-term grid-down crises. As it turns out and I know this is no surprise at all to some, guns are one of those things that seem to dominate conversations revolving around readiness both in person and online.
Everyone has an opinion on what guns are best and why, and plenty to say about what your priorities should be according to their fiat: which caliber is best, which action or type will work longest, should you be optimizing for long or close range, and so and so forth. People can talk guns till they are blue in the face!
One of the most adamant parts of the conversation usually comes up when discussing price and brand, as the two are closely linked in the gun sphere.
Considering the seriousness inherent to any defensive use of a gun, some well-intentioned folks will vehemently espouse only the highest quality gun that one can afford.
Some don’t see what all the fuss is about when it comes to name brand anything and will happily recommend a relatively unknown gun if it saves a few bucks. Most just want something that works.
Each of these advocates has a piece of the puzzle: a defensive or disaster readiness gun must be sturdy and reliable, but most of us are constrained by our budgets, like it or not.
Luckily, it is possible to have a good gun without spending an absolute fortune, and in this article I will give you some food for thought and recommendations to make sure you wind up with the best budget blaster possible.
Getting Priorities Straight
Before you settle in to your search for the best possible budget gun, it helps to clearly define what we need our gun to do for us, as well as what constitutes a “budget gun.” After all, one person’s conceptions and needs may be vastly different than yours or mine.
A budget gun is one that is priced at the lower end of its category, e.g. double action revolvers or semi-auto 5.56mm carbines of similar make. This is not to say these guns are cheap, unless you use the word “cheap” as a synonym for “inexpensive”.
I make the distinction between budget and cheap guns because I have confidence and expectation that budget guns will still do what they are designed to do, even if they are not as nice, not as accurate and not as dead-hard reliable as nicer, better guns.
For our purposes, we are shopping for a gun that is intended to serve us in a self-defense capacity, with potentially a little game-getting (hunting) on the side.
You know, your standard fare SHTF survival gun. This changes our requirements compared to a gun just for hunting, target shooting and the like. Any gun for self-defense, budget category or not, must be chosen with adequate reliability being foremost on our list of requirements.
Finding a less expensive gun that fits our budget and is still reliable enough to declare it good for self-defense is not always easy, but it can be done.
A Word on Reliability
What is “reliable enough” for self-defense? Everyone has a slightly different take on this simple question. Some folks quote the (rare) records of official lab tests of given models and compare failure rates to make determinations.
Others gather anecdotal data on the history of a given model to make sure they aren’t choosing a lemon. Others still will rely on the advice of owners of a particular model, a sort of Consumer Reports investigation. If their brother, his friend, and the gun shop guy all like theirs, it must be good! Right?
Maybe. Considering that proper testing of guns in laboratory settings gets mighty expensive very quickly, and sample sizes matter, we will rarely have the benefit of extensive data sets and testing results on even a few guns on the market.
Similarly, even a couple of glowing reviews from friends, family, YouTube personalities and others does not necessarily mean a gun has the chops for the long haul.
Even so, seeing enough guns perform in “the wild” often enough we begin to piece together a picture of what we can expect from a gun, good or bad. One of the best sources for this kind of high-volume, high-instance exposure is professional trainers who teach firearms skills.
If they work from a fixed location or spend their year as road warriors, both will likely be seeing lots of different guns in their students’ hands.
This information can tell us quite a bit, like which guns hold up during higher volume and high tempo shooting, but also which guns aren’t showing up. That can be a clue.
If a gun you are considering is seldom encountered in someone’s hands, that may mean it is not selling well enough for us to get a composite picture of how it performs and holds up.
This is not to say that makes an unpopular gun a bad one, as there are plenty of excellent models that just flopped commercially, but it does mean we should be extra cautious in choosing one over a better known quantity.
Ultimately, most guns are reliable enough to bet your life on if all you are betting on is a handful of rounds fired in a sharp, short fight. Almost any gun can do that without malfunctioning or breaking these days.
Where things start to get hairy is when you start piling up rounds fired over time, inclement weather, abuse, neglect and so forth that you will see higher-end guns leave the budget models in the dust.
Something to think about if you have the means to afford a better weapon, but are convinced that a budget option is “just as good as.” It isn’t.
This is not to say that a budget gun may not serve you superbly, as many can, just keep in mind you pay for much more than a fancy logo with 99% of the nicer guns on the market; some of those things are superior design, better materials, intensive quality control and better testing.
All of that adds up to a gun that goes “bang” when you want it to, and one that will keep on doing that for a very long time to come.
Nonetheless, for shooters who are not going to be doing regular high volume training and working out with their guns in the worst conditions, budget guns make sense.
I would rather see a shooter armed with a budget gun who had money left over for extra magazines, ammo and training than one who had the latest European wonder weapon but no money for ammo to practice.
The Case Against Too Cheap
While today’s firearms are drastically better in almost every way than the guns from years past, and the corresponding lifting of the performance floor means even low-end guns are surprisingly good performers, you must not be lulled by this Golden Age mentality in to buying too cheap a gun, lest it fail you when you need it most.
At best, you will be saddled with an uncooperative junker that you wasted a pile of cash on looking for a bargain.
As I said, there are, yes, are bargains to be had, guns that don’t cost two months’ rent or mortgage and are reliable enough that most everyman preppers would not hesitate to bet their outcome on them.
But there still exist plenty of new guns that are decidedly not in that category, guns that are barely acceptable for hobbyist plinking. I am talking the cheapest of the cheap. The lowest of the low.
These guns might look, sound and feel just like their more expensive and superior cousins whose origins they defile (think ARs, AKs, other standard pattern guns) but just because a cheapo toaster feels like a top-shelf make does not mean (at all) that you’ll get top-shelf performance out of it.
While there is no hard and fast rule you can put to the puzzle, there is a definite scale of quality in guns that, almost as a rule, rises steadily the more you spend.
Even the bump from “cutting room-floor” low up a couple ticks to “budget” is often the matter of a $100 or less for a handgun, or just a couple hundred dollars for a rifle, but the improvement in quality and performance can be significant. If you find yourself trapped in the very bottom of a price category, think long and hard about what you can do to broaden your budget.
You might only be a little bit of saving or penny-pinching away from a much nicer firearm.
The Best Budget Guns
In this section you’ll find my recommendations for the best budget guns in any given category. All of these are new, current production models that can be found in almost any gun shop.
I have not included used guns as a category because it sort of goes against the spirit of the article; used guns are often tremendous values, and a great way to get into a higher end gun that one would not normally be able to afford, but if that were the case you would see nothing but “used, on sale” high end brands in this list!
Instead, I want to show folks that you can have a decent gun, factory fresh and new, for not a ton of money, and get away from the barrage of Glock-M&P-BCM-Benelli-etc. Some of these models you may not have heard of. That’s alright. If they are on this list, they meet my (admittedly strict) standards for performance in their category.
Below you will find handguns, rifles, and shotguns. So no matter what you are cruising for, you’ll find a good recommendation here.
Best Budget Semi-Auto Pistol: Smith & Wesson SD9 VE
The S&W SD9 VE series is a result of lessons learned from the earlier Sigma series pistols and the breakout striker-fired success of the M&P series (which itself cribbed plenty of notes from the Sigma). The SD9 VE pistols are quality, no-frills handguns that you can depend on.
Boasting a conservatively milled stainless steel slide with wide, economical grasping grooves front and rear, 3-Dot sights, and a 16+1 capacity, the SD9 is a close performer to its more refined and feature-laden stablemate, the M&P9.
Like that pistol, the SD9 is polymer, with a checkered frontstrap, backstrap and grainy stippling on the sides. A consistent action trigger, while not quite as crisp and positive as the M&P is plenty nice enough for a pistol in this category. A rail in the usual place on the dustcover allows mounting of lights or lasers at user preference.
The SD9 VE is a lot of pistol for around $375, and will outperform price competitors from other manufacturers, especially in the reliability department.
Best Budget Double-Action Revolver: Charter Arms Undercover
Budget DA revolvers are often a no man’s land: you have a wide gulf between utter crap and decent quality with nothing in between. Luckily there are a few models by a few makers that will suffice for the budget shopper.
Charter Arms is one such maker, and though you will never hear them discussed favorable in the same sentence as Smith & Wesson, Colt and Ruger, their compact Undercover series has a reputation for being adequately reliable.
No surprises here, this is a standard snubbie through and through: 2” barrel, .38 Special, 5-shots. The trigger is fairly janky, the cylinder release is sharp and mushy and the action is a tad rough, but with practice you can overcome these flaws and it will smooth up some with repeated firings.
You can get your noir P.I. on with one of these in any color you want for around $350 or a hair less.
Best Budget Semi-Auto Rifle: Smith & Wesson M&P15 Sport II
S&W’s second entry on our list, and probably a surprise to the AR connoisseurs. Any time you see an AR offering labeled as “Sport” or something similar, you can be assured you have found that maker’s cheapest and least desirable rifle.
Face it, a hobby gun. Ugh. They are usually good for what they say right on the box- sport, play, fun, plinking. Not much else, if my experience with these builds is anything to go by.
The M&P15 Sport II is a pleasant surprise, then. Where other makers budget offering usually omits some essential characteristic from the AR’s design parameters (the ejection port cover and forward assist being the most common) and offer them in a stripped-down configuration (no sights…) the Sport II is well equipped, if spartan by today’s standards.
This rifle comes in standard carbine configuration with everything that entails: plain M4-type telestock, standard pistol grip, round two-piece plastic handguards with a fixed front sight gas block assembly. The one modern convenience is a sturdy and useable folding rear sight by Magpul. All in all, no surprises.
But this is where the rubber meets the road: where other makers would rather crank out garbage rods with no QC and worse QA cloaked in Magpul furniture to entice the unwary, the M&P15 Sport II brings it where it counts: a true 5.56mm chamber, melonited barrel, properly staked gas key, impressive fitment and in-spec parts all around, including the gas port. This is one budget gun that can punch with the nicer guns.
Believe it or not, you can get this righteous little AR for around $775. Hard to beat in its price range!
Best Budget Shotgun: Mossberg Model 500
Mossberg’s reputation for durable, reliable shotguns needs little introduction around here, but special mention goes to their ubiquitous and inexpensive Model 500.
Offering an excellent combination of adaptability and reliability for right around $350, the Model 500 is respected for its highly ergonomic and ambidextrous tang-mounted safety and boring resilience in the face of bad weather or rough conditions.
The only real shortcoming, if you want to call it that, of the 500 is that it relies on a direct screw-in attachment to affix the barrel to the end of the magazine.
This means no thread-on magazine extensions, and is compounded by the fact that a replacement magazine tube must be mated to a barrel of corresponding length to assemble. Bummer.
But, assuming you get one with ample capacity of about 5 rounds or so, you will not be at any great disadvantage and you can still partake of an excellent selection of accessories like stocks, ammo carriers and forends.
You don’t have to completely forsake quality and reliability just because you are on a tight gun budget, but you do have to shop just a little bit smarter. If you take what you have learned in this guide along with a few good recommendations you can keep your finances in order while bringing home a new shooting iron.
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.