Think everyone in the military is a gun nut? Think again.
Believe it or not, National Opinion Research Center survey data shows that gun ownership is actually declining among late-teens and people in their early 20s, the demographic most military recruits are now pulled from. This has resulted in a large number of people entering military service with little to no experience handling firearms.
That’s not to say that they are anti-gun, they just come from backgrounds where firearms are not as prevalent in their lives. I was an infantry officer for 10 years, but prior to signing up, my only interaction with guns had been a few times plinking cans in the desert with my dad’s old .22 single-shot bolt action. I had terrible aim, and we didn’t go out there nearly enough to really spark the interest of a teenage kid. At that age, it’s hard to focus on anything other than girls, video games, and girls again.
Once you’re in uniform, however, being knowledgeable about firearms is no longer a choice. Depending on your branch or occupational specialty, you may be fortunate enough to get range time on the regular. Soon, you realize that firearms aren’t just an important tool in your day job, but they’re a lot of fun to shoot. And you’re getting paid to practice. For many, a budding interest in guns will branch off into competitive shooting, hunting, or even being more proactive about self-defense.
Nobody in the military gets to choose their service-issued weapon (despite what every video game would have you believe). There are pros and cons to the various weapons systems, and range time is a perfect way to get comfortable with handling and using firearms to determine what you like — and it’s even better when it’s free!
Here are a few of the more common weapons you’ll see if you spend any time at all on a military range, as well as some of their sexier civilian cousins:
The M1911A1 Pistol
There’s no hiding the fact that the .45 caliber M1911A1 holds a special place in the hearts of many combat veterans. There is a lot to love about this pistol. It’s accurate, comfortable, and has one of the smoothest triggers ever to grace a service weapon. In addition, John Moses Browning, its creator, took safety to the next level by requiring both the thumb and grip safeties to be actively disengaged. And it’s among the most customization-friendly weapons for aftermarket parts.
But the old reliable is not all it’s cracked up to be these days. Concealed carry is difficult for a weapon weighing in at close to 3 lbs., and with a meager 7+1 magazine capacity, you’d better hit what you’re aiming at — though once you’re out of ammo you can use the thing as a pretty effective blunt-force combat hammer. There’s always at least one upside to lugging around a heavy weapon.
The original 1911 is also prone to certain common malfunctions, and often needs a level of care that’s above what you expect to put into a handgun. Unless you have experience with 1911s, the learning curve can be unforgiving.
The Upgrade: Rock Island M1911 A2
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but with so many aftermarket modifications available, it’s easy to run into a 1911 variant that has been cobbled together by, let’s just say, less than expert hands. It can suffer from serious performance issues that you won’t discover until you’ve spent significant time with it at the range. To top it off, the popular Colt 1911s are pricey – very pricey. If you’re set on having a genuine Colt model, you’d better be prepared to drop well over two grand.
That leaves 1911 enthusiasts in a tough spot. You may have been issued a 1911 once upon a time, or you may just be a diehard fan who respects the craftsmanship. Either way, odds are you’re a big believer in owning a quality sidearm that delivers performance every time. And if you’re not, then go ahead and close out of this window. We’re done talking.
Luckily, there’s an alternative, and it’s one of my personal favorites: the Rock Island Model 1911A2, which I bought on Guns.Com using some of that sweet combat pay the last time I came back from the sandbox. Made from 4140 Ordnance steel, it’s a standard 1911 platform with a five-inch barrel and a double-stack magazine that fits 17 rounds. You read that correctly: 17 freakin’ rounds in the most iconic semi-automatic handgun frame sold today. Need I say more?
Superficially, it resembles the original government-issued 1911s but it has some key upgrades that make it a better fit for the average shooter. To start with, it features a beavertail safety cover on the grip, which is crucial because I don’t think anyone enjoys the bleeding flesh or permanent scars of action cycling and the hammer bites on the webbing of your hand.
Rock Island has also added a skeletonized hammer and trigger, which stabilizes the trigger pull and increases accuracy. It also shaves a few more critical ounces off a gun frame that’s notorious for its heavy weight. This was a huge plus for me as I hate the way a standard mil-spec 1911 pulled my pants down when I wore it in a belt holster. There’s no sense in having a weapon if you’re literally caught with your pants down.
On top of all that, Rock Island has added high-visibility adjustable sights as a standard feature. Both the front and rear are low-profile, anti-snag, and infinitely customizable. Out of the box, you’ll get checkered polymer grips, a parkerized coating, and an extended thumb safety, all of which combine to make this gun one of the highest quality 1911 models on the market and at a price that won’t break the bank.
Beretta M9 Pistol
The Beretta M9 is a legendary (many would say infamous) weapon. In the 1980s, the M9 won a competition to replace the Colt 1911 as the standard sidearm of the U.S. military, surviving testing that included exposure to temperatures from -40˚ to 140˚F, soaking in saltwater, repeated dropping onto concrete, and being buried in sand, mud, and snow. They beat the hell out of this thing and it still came out on top.
Despite some Colt and Sig Sauer fans’ claims to the contrary, military testing results stated that the M9 surpassed all other competitors, with a Mean Round Before Failure (MRBF) count of 35,000. It officially entered service in 1990 and has been the standard sidearm of the U.S. Navy, Army, and the Air Force ever since. That is, until 2017 when the Army adopted the Sig Sauer P320 as its new Modular Handgun System and other services started following suit.
For thousands of service members and law enforcement who joined with no previous firearms experience, the M9 was the first pistol they’d ever handled. Though it may be an unpopular opinion, I believe that this has created a large fanbase among enthusiasts based more on nostalgia than actual knowledge about the pros and cons of the weapon itself.
The Upgrade: Beretta 92FS
On the other side of the coin are those who loathe the M9 and claim its 9mm rounds offer significantly less stopping power than the .45 caliber of its predecessor. Personally, I feel the trigger pull is uneven and the weight distribution with a fully-loaded magazine still leaves a lot to be desired.
For the legions of Beretta fans out there, there’s an even better option: the Beretta 92FS, which offers some key advantages over the aging, original M9. Haters can ignore the rest of this section.
The first (and possibly most important) reason to choose the 92FS is the slide, which on the standard models would sometimes shoot back during operation. While further testing and research showed that these failures were due to defective ammunition rather than problems with the weapon, the 92FS has incorporated a larger hammer pin to correct this issue and improve safety for the user.
The M9 incorporates a two-dot sighting system, which even supporters acknowledge has accuracy issues during low-light or high-stress conditions (like combat when this could not be more important). Meanwhile the 92FS has swapped to a three-dot configuration, improving accuracy and the speed of target acquisition. However, no system is perfect, and some diehards still swear by the two-dot system.
The Beretta 92FS also has an angled dust cover in front of the trigger guard instead of the flat cover of the M9. The angled cover was introduced by Beretta to strengthen the frame of the previous models, and they used the same design on the 92FS. The original M9 featured a flat dust cover, affecting how well the gun fits into a holster. If you have an older model holster for an M9, you’ll likely need to buy a new one for a 92FS, since the angled dust cover may create drag on the draw.
If you’re like me, you’d never spend your own money on any type of M9 variant. However, for the fans out there, check out the upgraded 92FS option.
The Colt M4A1 is the current generation standard-issue combat rifle for most units in the U.S. military and law enforcement. But if you’re in the USMC, chances are you’re still using the Army’s hand-me-down M16A4. Easily assembled and disassembled, with a 30-round magazine and chambered for NATO 5.56mm, if you’ve ever worn a uniform you’ve almost certainly at least qualified with this weapon. That familiarity has made its AR-15 civilian cousin one of the most commonly purchased guns in America. I had my own version until it was tragically lost in a boating accident along with all my other firearms. Note for the future – don’t let your drunk cousin drive the boat.
Unlike the M9, the M4’s popularity is not just tied to familiarity. Aside from the horror stories during the Armalite M16 Vietnam-era fielding (the weapon’s handguards literally rotted during jungle use), the M4 carbine variants carried today are proven combat rifles. They’re accurate to almost 500 yards, able to stand tough field conditions (with proper maintenance) and have a forgiving ballistics trajectory, making it an easy platform for becoming a proficient shooter.
The Upgrade: The Bushmaster XM-15
The XM-15 is one of the most cost-effective civilian variants of the M4, shooting like the military rifle you know and love without wrecking your wallet. Base models come in at under $1,000. There’s not much else to say on this one. If you’re not a fan of the M4 and its variants, then you’ll likely be looking elsewhere. But if you’re like me and want to continue building on the shooting skills you’ve spent years crafting in the military, a civilian AR-15 series is your best bet.
With a modular rail system for almost infinite customization, you can build your systems around your shooting style. Mine had 2 kits: a 4x Leupold scope with Harris bipod for distance shooting, and a folding front grip, and Trijicon ACOG 4×32 with integrated Docter red-dot sight for closer range work. If you’ve served overseas, you’ve likely already figured out which rig is best for you, and aside from a PEQ-15 (which why the heck would you need anyway?), you’ll be able to run them all on your Bushmaster, or any AR-series with a Picatinny rail.
Buy what you like
Once you’ve decided what to buy, price and availability become your biggest concerns. Ammo isn’t cheap, and if you blow your paycheck on the platform and have nothing left over, then you might as well buy a paperweight.
If you plan on spending a ton of time at the range, you may want to look into reloading. The upfront cost is a little hefty ($700-$5000) depending on the setup, but it will pay for itself if you’re a regular shooter. However, I think most enthusiasts are like me and are lucky to get to the range once or twice a month. In that case, bulk ammo buys are your best bet. I get mine from Guns.com, which is enough to give me a few hours at the range with plenty left over for home defense purposes and last-minute shooting events. That way I don’t have to run to the store and pay jacked-up retail prices. It’s really revolutionized my gun buying experience because they’ll find the closest store to you for pickup or when they can, they’ll send the product straight to you. They also have a great newsletter I use to learn about new products, events, and it even put me in touch with the right armorer after my .22 Sig Sauer Mosquito took a crap on me at the range.
At the end of the day, owning a firearm is a personal decision. Do your research and spend a lot of time at the gun range before you buy. Most stores will let you try as many as you want before purchase (you’ll just pay for the ammo). And trust your gut. It doesn’t matter what the reviews say, if there’s a gun out there that you love to shoot and are comfortable handling, then go for it!
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This article is sponsored by Guns.com.