Clay’s COVID-19 Gun Buying Guide for Noobs

Author filming at Independence Indoor Range in 2017.

Alright, this is not the usual fare for our GunsAmerica readership. But it is something that needs to be said. If you are a regular, it will have some entertainment value, if nothing else. You can have a chuckle while you gaze upon your safe full of options, likely while sitting on your throne of 5.56/308 ammo cans.

This is also something you can share with the people undoubtedly asking you a million questions right now. And it is a place to engage the collective brain trust of our readership. If you have something to add or some sound advice, please toss it in the comments down below. Given the currently deteriorating situation, you may help save someone’s life.

Other episodes in this series:


Here is the situation that I have seen firsthand. MANY people that never thought they would need one, are suddenly lined up at the gun store. Visa cards, gold coins, grandma’s silverware — turns out that in a crisis, paying for a gun becomes a high priority. This has nearly overwhelmed the background check system, which is a fight for another day. And it includes more than a few “persons” that were gun-grabbing commies last week, wondering why anyone needed a semi-fully automatic assault machine gun rifle with double-barrel magazine extended clips. Who are now dismayed to learn that they can’t mail-order an M-60 machine gun nor a run-of-the-mill hand cannon to their front door, “gun show loophole” or not.

So, first off, WE F*CKING TOLD YOU SO!!!!!! There, it’s out of the way now. But we are still going to help you. I, for one, hope this lesson sticks after the crisis averts (assuming it does and people aren’t killing one another in the streets next week or month over a 12-pack of Charmin). Even if we as a nation never fire a round in anger during COVID-19 season, a lot of people are going to be comforted by some variation of Mr. Colt standing watch. If even 10 percent of the people now panic buying convert to the church of “Guns Are Fun,” we have gained a powerful set of allies. We have a chance, right now, to set the gun grabbers back 30 years. So not only am I going to help you, I am going to encourage all of my friends with guns to help you. And that, my dears, is an army in itself.

When we look at the facts on the ground we have to make a number of assumptions, all of which are bad. First, most of the desirable stuff is already likely gone. Second, nobody buying a gun for the first time today is going to get A.) Training from an expert in the near future B.) Enough ammo for practice and self-training. They might not even get to test fire that weapon, which is horrifying. But, we got what we got.

Author with 5.56 AR-15.

Best Gun to Buy:

My number one choice remains an AR-15 in 5.56/223 chambering. But good luck finding one right now. However, a few gems do remain. In my local market at least, it seems like all the cheap and mid-priced ARs are gone. But the really “nice” (read expensive) models are still here. Things like the Daniel Defense M4V7 , SIG MCX, Nemo Battle Light & LWRC IC-A5. If you can get a couple of boxes of ammo to go with one of those (no ammo means all you have is an expensive bat), consider you are going to have to pay a premium. Getting a high-end gun right from Day 1 does pack some advantages, though.

LWRC, a premium AR brand.

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Don’t think for a second that a noob with a high-end rifle is going to outshoot a seasoned hooligan with a battered SKS that shot a spam can per week leading up to this. It won’t happen. But… a high-end rifle is likely to have a very forgiving trigger, which does help with accuracy. And you can grow into it after the crisis ends. You are still going to have to shoot a pile of ammo to do so, but you are essentially paying for all your upgrades at once. Consider yourself taxed.

SIG MCX in 300 AAC chambering.

Next Best Gun to Buy

The second choice in the AR family is merely thinking outside the box. Lots of ARs in 556 here are gone, and all the bullets are too. But you can still buy rifles in both 300 AAC and 6.8 SPC. That might not be the best choice in normal times, but these aren’t normal times. If you burn through a stash of say, 250 rounds of 6.8 SPC, one of two things is very likely. Either you are dead or you have won. If you won, I suggest battlefield recovery ASAP. You may also be able to find a large frame AR, in 308, 6.5 Creedmoor, or 260 Remington. You pay a cost in weight, but the side benefit is the bullets are going to be devastating to whatever you hit.

Okay, we haven’t been very out of the box yet. I just wanted to clarify that an AR is still King, in my opinion, if you can find one. After an AR would be any variant of AK, then 9mm Mag fed Carbines , M1A , SKS, in any particular order you can think of.

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Big Horn Armory, yes, with a red dot sight

Other Options:

As a class then, my next choice would be a lever-action rifle. Lever-action rifles are surprisingly agile and instinctive. Even for you AR guys, if you have never shot one, you might be shocked at how easy it is to snap around. Henry makes an excellent rifle, as do many others such as Marlin and Big Horn Armory. Caliber, you have to make a choice. Rifle calibers will reach further, and generally hit harder. But pistol calibers have more capacity. My Big Horn Armory review gun was chambered in 500 S&W, which would be an excellent choice. Bonus to lever actions: ammo may still be on the shelf. For pistol caliber, look to 500 S&W, 44 Magnum, and 357 Magnum/38 Special. (Like revolvers, many 357 rifles will also shoot 38 Special, two calibers for one gun.) In rifle calibers, 30-30 is a classic, but other options exist.

I’m going to catch some grief for this next part, I always do. But I would take any rifle over a shotgun. However, the shotgun is next down the line. Rifles and shotguns are both what we call “long guns.” Long guns are easier to shoot accurately, deal more damage per round (even in pistol calibers, as the longer barrel creates higher projectile speeds), and are harder to hurt yourself with. Very relevant to the new shooter crew.

Mossberg 590A1, author’s first choice in pump-action shotguns.

It can be argued that shotguns create more devastating wounds at closer range, and let’s just say that is true for now. They do come at a cost though. First, they are harder to load. Once they are empty, the cost to get them back running is time you don’t have (Mag fed being a rare exception). Second, years of 3 Gun shooting has taught an unmistakable lesson. A shotgun, especially a semi-auto shotgun, is the least reliable weapon in the arsenal. They have gotten better over the years, but they are still more likely to jam than anything else. Even a pump shotgun is easy to short stroke under pressure. If you grew up duck hunting, this might not be a factor. But for the truly new, it matters. Third, you have to aim a shotgun just like you do a rifle, with greater recoil. The irony is that the closer a target is, the easier it is to miss with a shotgun. While the spread on a gauge does help you somewhat at range, it takes a further distance than most people would think to open up. And fourth, the manual of arms is difficult compared to most rifles.

So while a shotgun isn’t a terrible choice, it is behind the rifle in my opinion. My order for shotguns is somewhat subjective, but here we go.

Option one in my book is a pump action. Yes, you can screw it up. But, a pump is still orders of magnitude more reliable than a semi-auto. I like the Mossberg 590A1 as a top pick.

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Jordan Micheals with Henry .410 lever gun.

Option two is a little off the beaten path, but our own Jordan Michaels just reviewed the Henry lever-action shotgun. Don’t rule out the lever gun.

Side by side shotgun

Option three is a side-by-side. These have an advantage in simplicity, but they lack capacity. I strongly recommend getting some dummy rounds (aka snap caps) and a Cowboy Action style belt if you go this route. It takes time and effort, but a talented SASS shooter can chuck lead from a side-by-side faster than most mortals with a pump action. Don’t rule this out.

Beretta 1301, author’s first choice in semi-auto shotguns.

Option four would be my last choice for the noobs, if only for the reliability issue. It should also be said, in a panic, you could empty the tube much faster than you intended. This is not a place to cheap out either. I highly recommend the Beretta 1301 or the Benelli M2.

If Nothing Else…

Absolutely last on the list is any form of hand cannon. This is for two reasons. First, with absolutely no training, your ability to hit the floor if you drop it is in question. A pistol is by far the hardest weapon to master, as any shooter on this site will tell you. Even police, with at least some training, routinely miss the perp. (In case you didn’t click the link, hitting 9 bystanders would get you kicked out of any military unit I ever served in, if not a court-martial.) Second, with its short barrel and other things that make them awesome for concealed carry but troublesome for noobs, you are much more likely to hurt yourself. With a rifle you might shoot your foot by accident, but with a pistol any part of the body is in play, including your head. If you do end up with a pistol, and you’ve never trained, for God’s sake be careful! Learn the four rules of firearms safety. This applies to all guns not just handguns but now is as good a time as any to remind you of them:

(H/T: Colion Noir)

When it comes to pistols, you have two choices of action, subset by multiple choices of size. To break it down to the lowest level, we have to simplify a lot of things.

Glock 19X, another author’s favorite.

First, how it works. Which is pretty much a semi-automatic or a revolver. Many times, we tell new shooters to get a revolver. And it does have some positives. It has by far the easiest to learn manual of arms. As in, it is pretty hard to screw up loading and unloading in terms of safety. Not impossible. But pretty hard. Second, it is about the most reliable gun in the arsenal. With few exceptions, they almost always go bang. And 99.9% percent of the times they don’t, just pulling the trigger again resolves the issue.

The downsides to a revolver? They usually have a long, stiff trigger. While you can make precision shots quickly with that trigger, it takes lots of practice. Which you have zero time to learn. Second, they come with a significantly reduced capacity. 8 rounds on the high end, and 6 is normal. Couple that with a steep learning curve to be able to reload quickly, and you can see the drawbacks.

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Which leaves a semi-auto. If you must go semi-auto pistol, I recommend you get the biggest gun you can find and hold comfortably. Not in caliber, but in frame size. Larger “duty class” guns are not only easier to shoot, but they have a higher capacity. I like the Sig P320X5 and Glock 34 .

9mm is by far the most popular round today, which means you might not find any around. In that case, you have to choose a different caliber that is likely to recoil more. If this is your first rodeo, that recoil isn’t great to have, but it isn’t a deal-breaker. I would look for 45 ACP, 40 S&W, and 357 Sig, in that order. But if push actually comes to shove, don’t completely shy away from the big boys. Like the Desert Eagle 50AE .

Desert Eagle, when you need to throw an absolutely HUGE bullet.

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I hope this helps, and more importantly, that we all get through this without actually descending into Mad Max world. But if we do, I will leave you with this from Niccolo Machiavelli,“ Before all else, be armed.”

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About the author: Clay Martin is a former Marine and Green Beret, retiring out of 3rd Special Forces Group. He is a multi-decade and -service sniper, as well as 3-Gun competitor and Master ranked shooter in USPSA Production. In addition to writing about guns, he is the author of “Last Son of The War God,” a novel about shooting people that deserve it. You can also follow him on twitter, @offthe_res or his website,

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  • BUURGA April 3, 2020, 4:24 am

    Fine article , EXCEPT,the notion that pistol caliber rounds from a rifle do more damage per round than a shotgun. It some universe it may be true, but it certainly is not in this one.

  • Thomas Morrow March 31, 2020, 1:14 am

    Interested view of what constitutes a well appointed arsenal. I would agree if the point was to overthrow some small middle eastern country or defend against raging hoards of persons attempting to inflict harm. However , since the majority of us lowly firearms owners are unlikely to experience such a grandiose display of mayhem I would recommend the following: the shotgun: preferably a slide action , single or double in 12 or 20 gauge. Ease of manipulation, vastness of ammunition choices and a multitude of uses to include procuring food. Secondly , a solid rifle in bolt action or lever action . Any reasonable sporting caliber . Thirdly, a .22 LR which is useful for trapping , small game and general utility. If a pistol must be a part of the equation it should be one that the owner can utilize with some degree of effectiveness. My preferences run toward a revolver in .357 . But regardless of the choices I’ve illustrated a person new to firearms should acquire appropriate training in the manual of arms and upkeep of whatever they decide on. And to those just entering this field I still recommend a 20 gauge or even a 410 if you are slight of stature and unable to tolerate recoil.
    Just my opinion , AR, AK and the like are NOT great choices for a few reasons , Manual of arms and upkeep more labor intensive, cartridge choices limited and not overly powerful, not wonderful for hunting and the like

  • Pat J March 28, 2020, 2:48 am

    Wow. Invisible pathogens, new firearms, and 50 rounds in the top drawer of the dresser.
    Scared gun-haters have asked me what they should buy. I tell them “a fire extinguisher for their houses”
    I would never trust any weapon, even a Glock, until a thousand rounds have gone through it, by its owner.
    It’s not a video game, but most people need training to learn that, and it’s a little late.
    Food, water, fuel, Rxs, weapons, primers, powder, heads, and a defensible perimeter.
    I went to science school, this ain’t gonna be over by Easter. Maybe the 4th.

  • Ti March 27, 2020, 3:54 pm

    Okay okay we got your point Captaingeneral Obvious. Better late, than never.

    Great primer for the novice.

    Clay is healthy and writing, and I applaud this and he is writing to someone, not talking down to a novice. I learn every time I read this column. Whether Clay wrote it or captain obvious commented On what he wrote.

  • Capt Ron Thielen March 27, 2020, 1:31 pm

    I agree with Clay’s assessment and opinion in this article with the exception of his final suggestion “But if push actually comes to shove, don’t completely shy away from the big boys. Like the Desert Eagle 50AE .” I’ve been
    shooting hand “cannons” for many years and have very limited experience with a 50AE. If memory serves me correctly it was as old Rudy’s statement to the Judge: Judge, it just don’t take me long to look at a hot potato. Two shots, cleared the pistol, placed it back on the bench, told the proud owner nice gun, and walked away
    to lick my wrist wounds. I’m not necessarily recoil sensitive as I enjoy .44Mag in my Redhawk and M29S&W but the 50AE was another horse to ride.

  • Kevin March 27, 2020, 12:32 pm

    If you are new to the “world of guns” yet feel the need to protect yourself, go to a gun shop if you can find one open. Buy a .38 or .357 revolver, ( barrel length doesn’t matter), a box of hollow point ammo. Get the clerk to show you how to load it. Go home, stay there until this mess is over. Do not touch, I repeat, do not touch the the gun unless there a threat to life. When this mess is over, if you still feel the need for a gun, go to “gun school”.

  • Capt Bart March 27, 2020, 11:56 am

    Touched in passing but not, in my not so humble opinion, covered in enough detail. The value of Snap Caps (or equivalent) should not be over looked. When my daughter received a revolver from her husband I took her to the gun range/store and bought her some snap caps. Then I had her practicing with them daily. Draw from her concealed position, and fire. The drill goes like this:
    1. Unload the gun and verify that it is unloaded.
    2. Carry the empty gun into a room that has NO ammo in the room.
    3. Verify that the gun is unloaded. (if I sound paranoid, it is because I am!)
    4. Load the weapon with the Snap Caps you left in the practice room (remember no live ammo in there)
    5. Now, practice your draw and fire. I use a full length mirror and my reflection as a target so I can see where the muzzle is pointing.
    6. When finished practicing, unload the Snap Caps, verify the empty gun, go to where you left the ammo,you reload the weapon, verify the load, and properly store the weapon.

    Note: most revolvers have a stiff action until 100 rounds or so have been fired. The repeated operation smooths out any rough spots in the action. Thing is, practicing on the range is great but some or all of those “smoothing” rounds can be snap caps. Cheaper than live rounds; not as good but better than not being familiar with your weapon.

    A comment about semi-autos; most folks, including shooters, do not realize the force inside the firing chamber. On a pistol without a decocker, like my 1911, lowering the hammer on a chambered round is always a risk. If the hammer slips, the round may go off and the slide comes back with something like 50,000 PSI behind the movement. If it does not amputate the thumb (note you will not have had time to lower it, even if you thought to try), it will shatter it and make it useless, perhaps for the rest of the shooters life. The trick to safely lowering a hammer on a live round is to place the thumb of the weak hand between the firing pin and the hammer, If the hammer slips, the weak hand thumb blocks the firing pin. It does hurt, I tried it on an unloaded 1911 and the bruise under the nail lasted about a month. After the hammer is resting on the weak hand thumb, change your grip so that the hammer is between the thumb and index finger of the strong hand. Now remove the weak hand thumb and lower the hammer the rest of the way. Now even if the hammer slips and the gun fires, the slide will pass between the thumb and finger. You’ll probably lose skin but you won’t break anything. Practice on an unloaded gun until you get comfortable with the procedure.

    • chas maravel March 27, 2020, 3:47 pm

      That’s good advise. I like the part about using the thumb and finger to lower the hammer. Makes a lot of sense to prevent severe damage to the hand you are going to need for everything these days. I hope the new owners are going to practice at some point and we should be trying to help. Most gun owners have been taught to hate the non owners or new owners but this is in my humble opinion is just dumb. Every non owner I ever really talked to has accepted the fact that they may one day need to own a weapon for self defense. The man who helped me get my training for concealed carry(retired PD) was what you call an apostle to the unarmed. He in particular tried to talk to single women both young and old. He would tell them about his career as a public servant and how although he tried he simply could not protect them from danger at all times and that they needed to help themselves. He offered training and advice and encouragement AND it worked very often. We need to do more of this one by one or at times like this as a group. Its not to late to give good advice as well as some warnings. I told you so may feel good for a while but it simply does not get the job done. Welcome to the club is in my humble opinion the only way forward. Thank you for being part of the solution and keep up the GOOD ADVICE. Stay Safe Stay Home

  • Sam March 27, 2020, 11:10 am

    You can’t fix stupid- and common sense cannot be taught. If you are just arriving at the party- you are sh*t out of luck. For the new people that are lucky enough to have purchased a gun and /or ammo, spend some of your free time watching Colion Noir videos on gun safety. The sad part of all this situation is- there will be collateral damage. You simply cannot save people from themselves. You can’t even get them to wash their damn hands correctly. Have a nice day.

  • robert padilla March 27, 2020, 9:47 am

    1. learn to take the gun apart and put it back together so you understand how it works.
    2. if you can buy a Lazer training device and practice with it to develop trigger control and how to aim and hit your target.

  • Alan1018 March 27, 2020, 8:10 am

    If you waited until now you waited to long.

  • james gruver March 27, 2020, 5:27 am

    Clay deal in reality not your own dream world ! This is about first time buyers home defense firearms, a single mother of 2 affording 95% of what you list here is unreal. It’s a 20 ga shotgun & nothing else !

    • Eric March 27, 2020, 8:38 am

      I was thinking paintball gun.

      • Capt Bart March 27, 2020, 11:21 am

        Please do NOT even joke about paintball guns. Someone will decide it might work. I nearly shot a teenager who thought it would be fun to shoot up my house with his paintball gun. I heard a noise outside (paint balls hitting my garage door) and went out to investigate. Saw someone on the roof across the street (around 0100) with a “gun” in his hands and heard a “round” go by my heard. Fortunately for the kid, I’d heard bullets go by before and it sounded wrong; too quiet I guess. Anyway I didn’t shoot the 12 GA, double ought buck loaded, shot gun and the 19 year old lived. We did call the cops and after their visit with the police the kids parents made him move out. Years later kids in the green belt playing with realistic paint ball guns had removed the orange tips so they could hide better in the dark! I reached, for my carry pistol but realized I knew the kids before I drew. We had a nice discussion about the danger of blacking out the orange, I explained the 4 rules of gun safety and allowed them to handle my unloaded 1911(they thought it was heavy). I showed them how to clear the the pistol and then let them return to their play. Next time I saw them they had the orange back on their paintball guns. This was all some years ago and I would not show the kids my 1911 now; too much chance of litigation and red flag crap.

  • Will Drider March 26, 2020, 1:13 pm

    For the Newbies: A firearm is not like a new vehicle where if you have a problem or issue, you have time to find the answer in the Owners Manual that was previously ignored. Those who will potentially use/depend on the firearm MUST READ and UNDERSTAND the Owners Manual!

    Let the firearm sit as it was when you brought it home. Read the first Sections containing WARNINGS and Cautions. Make sure the firearm unloaded and clear (you can read that section First if not previously read. Now read the entire with the actual unloaded firearm as a hands on training aid. Read but DO NOT practice loading and unloading (*) until after you have digested the entire Manual.

    PRACTICE firearm handling, manipulation and “aiming with sights” at home with a unloaded, clear and safe firearm only.

    * While following all Firearm Safety Rules and clear/safe area forward of the muzzle: you may load or unload as needed.

    Kids are curious, more so when they are slightly aware of something but denied a full view and a kids appropriate level of explanation. Much better for you to show and tell then them looking and finding without your supervision. Secure the firearm appropriately for your conditions with kid considerations.

    You Newbies found this site, now find a firearms Forum where you can interact with gun users and ask question.

    • Tenbones March 27, 2020, 9:51 am

      Good article for anytime, not just a panic.

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