It seems that the days of reasonably cheap ammunition are over. Centerfire rifle ammunition has almost doubled in price over the last ten years, and as shooters have increasingly scoured gun store shelves and Internet retailers for bargains, even the supplies of foreign surplus ammunition have largely dried up. Where people could once feed their AK-style rifles and SKS carbines with commercial 7.62x39mm ammo for four dollars per box, paying twice as much for corrosively-primed WWII surplus ammunition seems like a really good deal these days.
When a fun afternoon at the rifle range requires a cash outlay that’s the equivalent of a text-happy teenager’s monthly cell phone bill, and the only alternatives are either taking out a second mortgage, or letting the rifle collection gather dust in the gun safe, one starts looking for other solutions to keep shooting long guns on a regular basis.
A time-tested solution to the problem of ammunition economy is the pistol-caliber rifle. Using the same size of lead ball for both rifle and pistol is an idea that dates back to the days of the flintlock, but in those days, people hardly ever owned and carried both at the same time. The concept really came into its own with the advent of the metallic cartridge, and the westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century.
For an explorer or adventurer striking out for the uncharted wilds, having a rifle and handgun in the same caliber made a lot of sense. It meant having to buy and store only one kind of ammunition, a valid consideration when all one’s provisions and supplies had to fit on the back of a mule or in a Conestoga wagon. It also provided a level of redundancy in the event of a lost or broken gun. If the rifle broke, the ammo for it could be used in the handgun, and vice versa.
What made sense for a 19th century wilderness explorer also makes sense for a 21st century rural or suburban gun owner, albeit for different reasons. Sure, it’s nice not to have to throw out a few boxes of cartridges when the home defense rifle breaks, but modern-day gun owners don’t usually put a carbine into their minivans for the long and dangerous trek to the pizza buffet, and a competent gunsmith is usually closer than a three-week ride on horseback. Owning a pistol-caliber rifle does have its own set of modern advantages, however.
One major selling point for the rifle in a handgun caliber is the ability to use cheaper ammunition. While handgun ammo has seen as much of a price jump as rifle ammunition, it’s still cheaper in absolute terms to shoot a 9mm Luger or .357 Magnum than a .30-30, .308 Winchester, or .223 Remington. When you own a rifle chambered in a caliber that’s almost exclusively available with hunting bullets—try finding some FMJ surplus .30-30, for example—you’ll pay easily eighty cents per round, whereas you send only twenty-five or thirty cents downrange every time you pull the trigger on a carbine loaded with 9mm Luger FMJ ammunition. Saving money on ammo means more practice per dollar spent, and for people on a slim budget, it can make the difference between getting some range time, or not being able to take the rifle along for range trips at all.
Another advantage of the pistol-caliber long gun is the increased availability of places to practice. Many indoor pistol ranges allow the use of long guns in handgun calibers, but very few have facilities for rifle shooters to stretch the legs of their .308 Winchester deer-getters or AR-15 home defense rifles. While most indoor ranges are limited to 25 yards at most, the pistol-caliber rifle is still useful for practice because you can compensate for the sorter range with proportionally smaller targets.
Lastly, pistol-caliber long guns have an intangible advantage over their higher-powered cousins: they are easier to shoot, and a lot of fun. This makes them especially suitable as long guns suitable for the entire family, or for the gentle introduction of new shooters to centerfire rifles. While you wouldn’t want to start a new shooter on a Marlin lever-action rifle in .30-30 or .45-70, there are few guns more fun to shoot than the same lever-action rifle in .357 Magnum, loaded with mild .38 Specials. Incidentally, the low recoil and limited power of most handgun-caliber rifles also makes them an outstanding choice for home defense. They generally have very low recoil and can be used proficiently by most people regardless of stature and strength, and they won’t shoot through things as thoroughly as full-powered rifle, a consideration in urban environments. And since shooters can practice with their rifles at indoor ranges at precisely the distances likely in a home defense event, they’ll be more likely to hit their targets.
Like most things in life, handgun-caliber rifles have disadvantages as well. They tend to be underpowered for their weight and length, their ammunition makes them 150-yard rifles at the most, and they are not very flexible for hunting. But for many common scenarios, those disadvantages are precisely the strength of the handgun-caliber rifles, and for many uses, they’re actually more suitable than full-powered rifles.
Those who decide that the concept makes sense have many good options when it comes to selecting a rifle or carbine to match the caliber of their handgun. Lever-action rifles from Winchester or Marlin come chambered in competent revolver calibers that are easy to shoot in a rifle, but offer substantially increased power over a handgun in the same caliber. A .357 Magnum load that clocks 1,400 feet per second out of a four-inch revolver barrel will leave the muzzle of an eighteen-inch carbine barrel at over 1,800 feet per second, and develop eight or nine hundred foot-pounds of muzzle energy. That kind of ballistic performance puts it well above the best handgun rounds when it comes to stopping power, and even makes it sufficient for hunting deer-sized game, all while offering moderate recoil, high capacity, and the fast handling of a lightweight carbine. For those willing to trade the extra power of a Magnum round for faster reloads and ammo commonality with semi-automatic pistols, companies like Kel-Tec and Beretta offer carbines that will in many cases even use the same magazines as their companion pistols. And for the tactically inclined, the popular AR-15 rifle system has many upper receiver assemblies in pistol-caliber rounds available for it. This enables owners of the AR-15 to turn their familiar .223-caliber rifles into lower-powered training tools, plinkers, or fast-handling home defense carbines. The modular nature of the AR also makes it possible to put together a dedicated pistol-caliber training rifle that looks, works, and handles just like the same rifle in a bigger caliber.
A note on the lever-action carbines widely available due to the current popularity of Cowboy Action Shooting: some people consider them obsolete old-time technology, but they have several real-world advantages relevant to modern-day use. They have tubular magazines, so besides offering a reasonable capacity for most uses—six to ten or more rounds depending on caliber and magazine tube length—they can be topped off after every shot if needed. Lever-action rifles also don’t have detachable magazines, which means that shooters on a budget can own a practical rifle without having to invest in a stash of magazines. They offer adjustable power levels—you can load a lever-action carbine chambered in .357 Magnum or .44 Magnum with soft-shooting .38 Special or .44 Special loads. Lastly, lever-action rifles look traditional and non-martial, a consideration in some unfriendly jurisdictions where even SKS rifles and Ruger rimfire carbines are sometimes labeled “assault rifles”, and the sight of a collapsible-stock, all-black AR-15 will result in unfriendly looks or law enforcement attention. Political realities being what they are in some parts of the United States, a wood-stocked “cowboy gun” gets less attention at the range, and looks like less of a liability in the courtrooms of jurisdictions hostile to gun rights.
The “Frontier Logistics” setup of a handgun and long gun that can be fed from the same ammo box has its limitations. A pistol-caliber carbine is not as powerful or far-reaching as a rifle firing a bottle-necked cartridge. For those of us who would like to have a sensible defense battery on a budget, however, the idea has a lot of merit. There’s only one kind of ammunition to buy for both rifle and handgun, and it’s much more affordable than full-power rifle ammunition. It’s possible to practice more for the same ammo budget, and in locations closed to most other rifles. A pistol-caliber rifle does an adequate job for many tasks for which the average suburban gun owner needs a rifle. For home defense use, its limitations actually make it a better choice for many people than a more powerful rifle. And lastly, all the rifles in pistol calibers out there are just a lot of fun to shoot.
Anyone looking to buy a long gun for plinking, practice, or home defense ought to consider the merits of having a low-recoil companion to the pistol or revolver they may already own. The pistol-caliber rifle is a fun, useful, and economical addition to the gun safe.