Throwback Thursday: Firearm Reliability for Home and Self-Defense

Reliable, trustworthy, steadfast — traits we want in a firearm that we may reasonably bet our life on. In fact, firearm reliability should be a top concern when deciding on a defensive firearm. Reliable function is defined as a high propensity to fire with each pull of the trigger and to continue to fire normally. The firearm should also be reliable in stopping the threat, which is a function of power and practical accuracy.

Accuracy is defined as repeatability with the firearm delivering consistent accuracy, to the level of accuracy the firearm is capable of. The trigger action is consistent, and the average grouping, point of aim, and point of impact relationship are calculable. Man’s inhumanity and hostility toward his fellow man has given me a considerable stake in proving reliability in firearms.

Blue silhouette target with multiple bullet holes center mass and a Devil Dog 1911 pistol
Shot-to-shot accuracy and handling are constants that must be demanded from a personal defense handgun.

Dangerous individuals have made a terrible impression on my mind and body. As an example, as a young child, I was impressed by a fellow who came into Dad’s business. This man had a knife scar across his cheek leading into the corner of his mouth. It was a disfigurement that gave the man a permanent snarl.

When the man left the shop, I told Dad, ‘That man scared me.’ Dad replied, ‘Don’t be afraid of him. Be afraid of the man that did that to him.’ Less than 12 years later, I picked up a scar of my own while actively chasing down and imprisoning dangerous men. Some were pitiful, others were warped, but all were dangerous men.

Semi-Auto Rifles

There are guns that other writers and the average citizen trust, but I have no faith in. Some are too cheap, some unproven, some proven unreliable. I suppose we went to a different church.

It isn’t debatable that an inconstant firearm may cost you your life. In my young adulthood, the AR-15 was not held in the high regard it is today. The M16’s story could fill volumes. The M16 was forced-fed ammunition that was different than what it was designed to handle.

The result was not only poor function but a different cycle rate. The gun quickly got dirty and did not cycle properly. It was only after the correction of this error that the rifle again became reliable firearm Stoner designed.

Springfield Saint AR-15 rifle, right profile
Modern AR-15 and AR-10 rifles are models of reliability.

Much the same situation exists today with folks adding aftermarket parts of dubious quality that often are neither needed nor beneficial. The AR is a machine of irreducible complexity. If a single part breaks, the rifle is often out of business.

Modern AR rifles are superior in fit and finish. The durable coatings we now enjoy add a degree of lubricity to the rifle’s moving parts. With good quality ammunition and magazines, there is nothing more reliable than a quality AR-15. That begins with Springfield, Colt, or Ruger in my opinion.

I have never experienced an unqualified malfunction with my AR-15 rifles. A cheap trigger set came apart in a build and was replaced. Parts guns are problematic. A quality AR is not. I avoid cheap magazines and dirty ammunition. I don’t accept a dodgy firearm, and neither should you.

Three magnum revolvers with barrels of varying lengths
These magnum revolvers are very reliable and more accurate than most shooters can hold.

I have owned a much smaller number of AK types than the AR. I have not enjoyed the vaunted reliability promised with the AK, save for a few good quality examples. Many are made cheaply and were simply made to sell. They tie up and fail from time to time.

AK reliability depends on quality parts and ammunition choice. When you cheapen a machine, and the Russian AK-47 was a very reliable rifle, you make it more likely to fail. While many AK clones have the look of the AK in appearance, they do not resemble the original in performance. Many of the malfunctions are traced to problems in loading and unloading the rifle. A good quality rifle is one type, the other guns are for recreational use only.


Many regard semi-automatic shotguns as less reliable than pump-action shotguns. This hasn’t been true since the introduction of the Remington 1100 and later the Benelli M4. The Remington 1100 is among the most reliable shotguns ever made.

Bob Campbell operating the bolt on a WWII vintage rifle
Any rifle serving in two world wars, and many other fights large and small, must be given respect.

The narrow receiver and near perfect balance lead to good hits in the field. The placement of the hands with one in front of the other on the forend and stock lead to optimum coordination and fast, sure handling. The piston assembly encompasses the magazine, and in some ways resembles the M1 Garand in function.

Remington later introduced the even more reliable 11-87. This shotgun with its self-metering pressure valve is reliable with a wider range of shells than most any shotgun. Then the Benelli M4 earned an enviable reputation for reliability.

When we consider the fast handling of these shotguns and advantages such as a 1 5/8-inch drop at the comb, we have a reliable shotgun that handles quickly and provides hits like a real shotgun — by feel. The difficult to obtain Remington Versa Max Tactical is more of the same.

Several modern shooters purchase AR and AK-styled self-loading shotguns. They no longer have a natural point. They must be aimed like a rifle. Reliability is not impressive in my experience. Many of the problems stem from operator error.

Pump-action shotguns are touted as more reliable than semi-automatic shotguns. When you consider the wide range of shells that may be stuffed into the pump-action shotgun and manually operated, then this is correct. However, the pump-action suffers from operator error.

Modern Remington 870 follower design to limit the effect of short cycling
This is the most modern Remington 870 follower. It is designed to limit the effect of short cycling.

If not cycled vigorously, a short cycle may occur. This happens when the bolt isn’t racked all the way to the rear. During a short cycle, the bolt is brought forward and catches a shell before it is aligned with the chamber. The result is a nasty jam that requires some exertion to clear. Remington modified the shell carrier of the Remington 870 with a slot in the carrier body that allows a blade to be inserted to help clear a short-cycled shell. However, it is better to operate the pump-action properly and to avoid malfunction clearance.

Manually-Operated Rifles

Manually-operated rifles include single-shot, lever-action, and bolt-actions. The lever-action is regarded as a model of reliability. If the cartridge elevator becomes worn, it is common for a cartridge to tie the action up. The cartridge will be lodged in the feedway between the magazine and bolt. This is difficult to clear. The lever-action rifle must be operated by running the lever forward, not down.

Recently, I was working with an 1886 clone that would not feed from the magazine when the lever was worked slowly. A sharp movement was always reliable. The lever-action is a reliable type, but not foolproof.

short throw lever on the Henry .45 Colt rifle
Note the short lever throw of this Henry rifle in .45 Colt. Operate the action vigorously as intended.

While a lever gun is reliable, a Springfield M1A is probably more reliable in sustained fire and all conditions. The most reliable rifle action of all time is the Mauser controlled-feed bolt-action. With a non-rotating extractor collared to the machined bolt, a Mauser action (of the original design) controls the cartridge through every step of the feed and extraction process. The Ruger M77 is among the best choices for all-around reliability today.


Semi-automatic pistols are less reliable across the board than semi-automatic rifles in my operation. One reason is that rifles are grasped and fired in a three-point lockup when in use. A pistol may be fired with a weak wrist and improper hold. Errors in a shooter’s form may certainly result in a malfunction, and far too many will later blame the gun.

Pistols need cleaning and lubrication. My most trusted firearms are quality 1911 handguns, CZ 75 pistols, and the Browning Hi-Power. Good magazines, good lubrication, and good quality ammunition are essential — even implicit — in the recipe for good function.

Browning Hi-Power cocked and locked and a Beretta 92 pistol
Long-term reliability is a strong suit of the Hi-Power and Beretta 92 type pistols.

Among the most proven pistols in the world are the SIG P-series, including the P226. There are no pistols as proven in institutional testing as the P226. The Beretta 92 enjoys a similar service history. The Glock is a baseline for reliability proven in many tests.

While I prefer the 1911 handgun, I would never trust my life to a cheap 1911. There have been too many concessions in the race to the bottom concerning price with cheap parts and finish. Kimber, Ruger, Springfield, and Dan Wesson are good starting points. While I prefer the speed to an accurate first shot of a good 1911, a cheap 1911 is inferior to the Glock in reliability. This isn’t a good trade-off.

I cannot stress enough the importance of reliability. Handling, natural heft, a good point, and handfit — not to mention accuracy and power — are important, but reliability has the most impact on your survival. Therefore, among the most useful handguns for defense is a revolver.

Lever action rifle and pump-action shotgun
Not only are manually-operated firearms reliable, they are often affordable — a win-win situation.

Even inexpensive revolvers are reliable in the usual course of things, although the action may be rough. The revolver has a high likelihood of firing with every pull of the trigger. If a cartridge fails to fire, another pull of the trigger brings a fresh cartridge up and under the hammer. The revolver will function — even if jammed into an adversary’s body and fired repeatedly. The revolver barrel may be braced on a door jamb or wall and the revolver may be fired accurately. When reliability is the overwhelming concern, manually-operated firearms may be at the top of the list.

In the end, it is your life and the lives of your loved ones that hang in the balance of your firearm’s reliability, so pick wisely. Which firearms do you trust to have the reliability necessary for personal and home defense? Share your answers in the Comment section.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in June of 2022. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.

  • Bob Campbell shooting a shotgun from hip with a spent hull in the air
  • Mauser 98 (CZ version) with leather sling, left, profile
  • Revolver with speed loaders and loose rounds
  • Lever action rifle and pump-action shotgun
  • Browning Hi-Power cocked and locked and a Beretta 92 pistol
  • Bob Campbell operating the bolt on a WWII vintage rifle
  • Wilson Combat Remington 870 12 gauge shotgun with combat light forend
  • Lee Enfield Jungle Carbine with leather sling
  • short throw lever on the Henry .45 Colt rifle
  • Henry .30-30 lever action rifle with wood stock and forend
  • Overhead view of Bob Campbell shooting the Remington Versa Max shotgun
  • Bob Campbell shooting the Black Aces 12 gauge shotgun from the hip at an outdoor range
  • Modern Remington 870 follower design to limit the effect of short cycling
  • mossberg 590 12 gauge pump action shotgun, right profile
  • Glock 19 pistol and Shadow Systems Glock model
  • Three magnum revolvers with barrels of varying lengths
  • Revolver with the gips removed and gunsmith tools on a mat
  • Blue silhouette target with multiple bullet holes center mass and a Devil Dog 1911 pistol
  • Field stripped Ruger 1911 handgun
  • Bob campbell shooting a handgun at an outdoor range
  • Winchester Defender 7.62x39 ammunition box with three loose cartridges
  • Springfield Saint AR-15 rifle field stripped
  • AR-15 rifle with the lower receiver open and the bolt removed for maintenance
  • Springfield Saint AR-15 rifle, right profile

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