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The Rack Rifle: “Break Glass in Case of Emergency”

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The question you’re probably asking is, “Matt, what the hell is a rack rifle?” This post stems from a conversation in my friend Ilya’s community. He tagged me on it to provide some of my thoughts, and then he built out his own calling his project, “The AK of ARs.”

The instigating question went as such: “I have a thought experiment where I try to keep in mind what setup I’d choose as a rack standard. If I was going to set up a fire team’s worth of ARs the same, what would I actually buy for my people?”

Ilya gave his answer, and now I’m providing mine. 

In all honesty the end result is not all that different from what I’ve already said about the minimum capable carbine, but there are a few philosophical points I think we can dig into a little bit more.

So What is a Rack Rifle?

By “Rack Rifle,” I’m specifically talking about a rifle that spends most of its life sitting on a gun rack (or in a safe). It’s not a pet project or something that sees a lot of range time. For all intents and purposes, it’s a “just in case” rifle that you own explicitly for handing out to your friends and neighbors during Scenario-X.

The Minimum Capable Carbine, a concept very similar to the rack rifle.

The caveat in the question is that it’s for a fire team’s worth of rifles. So we’re not talking about just another backup rifle to your main one, but up to four or five additional rifles all configured the same way. These rifles also need to be reliable enough for defensive purposes, and they need to be usable by just about anyone with a minimum amount of training.

This immediately rules out a lot of things I might otherwise advocate unless you are exceptionally wealthy. Most people can afford to set up one rifle really well for themselves and then a potential backup rifle. Outfitting four or five “hand out” rifles to an acceptable level means making compromises.

Targets and Requirements

As John Simpson talked about last week, an exercise like this starts with defining our target and situation. What is it that we actually need out of the gun? 

I think there’s a lot of risk to bias our “favorite” use case, building the gun, and then hope that situation actually happens in a way that suits what we built. A great example is the ubiquitous “porch sniper” where everyone thinks they’re just going to get by with a Recce rifle or bolt action topped with big magnification and hold off bad guys at 400-500 yards. Instead, we should be thinking about the statistical probabilities of what will actually happen.

To that, I think we should consider what a defensive situation within Scenario-X actually looks like and what kind of people are likely to be involved in my imaginary fire team. I linked the scenario itself above, so I’m only going to focus on what conflict itself would probably look like.


I think John’s use of the 1957 Army Trainfire doctrine is an excellent starting place for armed citizen conflict- particularly the first 6 points.

  1. Enemy personnel targets are rarely visible except in a close assault
  2. Most combat targets consist of a number of men or objects linear in nature, irregularly spaced, and using cover such as ground folds, hedges, and borders of woods or ditches.
  3. These targets, detected by smoke, flash, dust, noise, or movement are usually seen only fleetingly.
  4. These targets can be engaged by using a nearby object as a reference point.
  5. The range of combat targets will rarely exceed 300 meters.
  6. The nature of the target, the terrain on which it appears, and the “digging in” requirements of the defensive often preclude the use of the prone position. These conditions do, however, favor supported positions such as the foxhole standing or squatting positions.

These principles are the result of a many years of research by infantry leaders spanning several wars, and provided the basis for infantry training standards for decades. With that in mind, what are our key takeaways?

First, the statistical outer edge of engagement for light infantry small arms is 300 meters, and probably far closer due to terrain and construction. Second, targets are fleeting, and so we must be able to get shots on target quickly. Thirdly, the ability to locate and identify targets is probably more more important than actual shooting them.

Engagement Distances

A second source of data about the situation should come from law enforcement engagements. In my view, the average citizen defender’s requirements are closer to a police officer than an infantry soldier in a foreign nation. Issues around the legal use of force, terrain, and other considerations are all pretty close.

I am not a lawyer, so take this with a grain of salt- but generally speaking, even if you can spot a target at 300 yards, you’re going to have a difficult time justifying actually shooting at it from that distance as an “immediate threat.” My emphasis on locating targets is so that you can see what’s coming before it’s time to engage it.

Moreover, John Simpson’s research into police sniping, a specialty role, shows that 98.58% all sniper engagements take place within 200 yards. Of that, 91.67% take place within 100 yards. I would wager that police patrol rifle engagements are even closer than that. 

With this in mind, I believe we should primarily focus on up to 200 yards as our bread and butter distance for training. The bulk of our targets will be within 100 yards, but the goal is complete confidence up to 200. A 300-yard shot is still possible, especially depending on what part of the country you’re in, but it should be seen as an outlier.

Target Size

Along with distance, we should discuss an accuracy standard. To reference John’s work again, most classic Army training uses silhouettes representing some form of front-facing “bad guy.” The average width of a human torso is 19″. However, point number 2 and 3 of Trainfire indicate that targets are probably not standing in the open squared off to us. They may very well be moving side to side perpendicular to us moving to cover. So instead, let’s reference the depth of a human torso from sternum to spine, which is about 10″.

Given Trainfire’s outside edge of 300 yards, we should expect our infantry rifle to reliably hit a 10″ target at 300 yards, which works out to about a 3.18 Minute of Angle (MOA) accuracy standard. We’ll round that to 3 MOA as the goal.

Since our focus is up to 200 yards, at which a 10″ target is 5 MOA, I think we should say that 5 MOA is the minimum acceptable performance standard for our rifle and ammunition. 

For the sharpshooters, 3 MOA at 200 yards is also about the width of a human head, so take that for what you will.

The Fire Team

The target requirements and rifle are one thing, but what about the shooters? I’m sure we’d like to think that everyone we hand a rifle to on our team is like us. They’re in good physical condition and have solid marksmanship fundamentals through regular practice. Sadly, that’s probably not reality when it comes to our “average” neighbor. If it was, then they’d probably bring their own gun to the fight and you wouldn’t be handing them a rack rifle.

We have to assume that in an emergency, our average neighbor is in relatively poor physical condition. They’re probably not very strong, nor are they particularly well conditioned. Eyesight may not be perfect- though they’ll probably have corrective lenses. Our friends and neighbors come in a variety of shapes and sizes as well.

We also have to assume that they don’t have a lot of familiarity with marksmanship. You’ll probably provide the basics to them over the course of handing them a rifle, but that doesn’t translate to copious amounts of practice with natural point of aim and the basic marksmanship positions.

I bring these up because it means that our rack rifles need to be as lightweight as possible (without sacrificing reliability). They’re going to be carried a whole lot more than they’re going to be shot, so they can’t be cumbersome. They also need to make it as simple as possible to achieve acceptably accurate shots at our target distances.

I also want to avoid any other complicating factors that would take additional training and practice, like white lights. I realize this is counter to my own advice about lights/sights/slings, but the reality is that becoming proficient with lights requires practice and discipline so that you don’t give away your position with negligent light discharges. For a rack rifle, it’s probably best to skip it.

Putting the Rack Rifle Together

We now have our scenario and basic assumptions laid out. From that, I figure the following requirements for the rifle itself:

  • Lightweight, weighing ~7 lbs unloaded
  • 16″ barrel
  •  Minimum 5 MOA accuracy standard, but preferably 3 MOA or better
  • Adjustable stock length
  • High reliability
  • Basic trigger
  • Simple and reliable optic suitable for up to 200 yards
  • Simple sling

I haven’t mentioned cost at all, but the goal is obviously to keep it as affordable as possible while still meeting the above requirements.

Picking the Platform

The first question is what platform to build on? The obvious answers are either an AK-47 or AR. Both platforms and their associated cartridges were essentially purpose-built for light infantry combat under the requirements we’re talking about.

You can certainly make the case for the AK based on it’s cartridge and track record for reliability and ease of use amongst peasant folk. If I was going the AK route, I think the PSA AK-47 GF3 series is the winner. It’s got a pretty solid reputation by this point, and at $699 (as of this writing), it’s affordable. Reviews indicate it’s anywhere between a 2-5 MOA rifle, which meets our minimum specification.

However, I do have a few big caveats to the AK. First, it’s already topping 7.5 lbs before you add anything else to it. That’s beyond our desired target weight.

I don’t think the iron sights on AKs are great. To help our novice shooters obtain the expectation of consistently hitting 10″ targets at 200 yards, you’re going to need optics. The AK platform isn’t built for direct mounting. So plan to add another 7 oz and $150 or so to the cost of the rifle for the optics mount. That means we’re up to 8 lbs, before adding an optic, and a cost of $850.

I think the AR-15 is the better choice for a rack rifle. It’s lighter, more ergonomic, easier to mount optics to, enjoys huge economy of scale in pricing, and has great parts commonality.

The Upper Receiver

Without going down the parts build path, we can probably focus on complete uppers. On Aero Precision’s site, they have a 16″ pencil barrel upper with free floated handguard that catches my attention for a reasonable price.

Keep in mind you still need a bolt carrier and charging handle to go with it. They don’t have a weight listed, unfortunately, but I expect it to be light.

Since we don’t need a super high accuracy standard nor any fancy attachments on the front, I see no reason that we can’t go “classic” here with plastic handguards and fixed front sight post. Aero offers that configuration, too, and it saves you money even with the bolt carrier and charging handle. However, you lose the pencil barrel.

The site says this weighs 4.35 lbs. If you add a complete lower with basic mil spec stock, figure about 2 lbs, you’re looking at 6.3 lbs before we get to the optic. The first upper is probably lighter.

As an upgrade option, I’d look at a BCM 16″ Enhanced Lightweight upper with MCMR rail. Again, no weight listed here, nor does it come with bolt carrier or charging handle, but I’m sure we’re down around 6 lbs with a complete lower.

If we figure that a complete basic lower runs around $250, then we’re looking at about $750 to $1100 to have some solid rack rifles put together before getting into optics.

On the budget end of the spectrum, Palmetto State Armory has a 16″ pencil barrel upper complete with bolt carrier, charging handle, and backup sights for $399.99.

There’s definitely a lot of appeal to this path because of the price. While I normally sway people away from going down this extreme budget route, I’m willing to compromise on it here because it’s not intended as your main rifle that sees thousands of rounds of practice, competition, and training.

The Complete Rifle Option

With a budget in mind, the upper/lower combination is really compelling. Of course, another route to go here is a complete rifle. For around the same price as the upper end upper lower combo above, Ilya pointed out that Faxon Firearms has a model called the Sentry which looks really interesting for our purposes.

It’s comes in at 6.1 lbs complete with upper, lower, improved trigger, fancier ambidextrous controls, and a 16″ Gunner profile barrel (which I’m a fan of, and used the 18″ version in my Minuteman Rifle project). Cost on the Sentry is $1149 as I’m writing this.

Rack Rifle Optics Selection

I’m sure there’s a lot of debate to be had about the “ideal” optic to use on our rack rifle. It all comes back to our stated scenario and requirements.

Our ideal requirements called for 3 MOA or better, with the bulk of our shooting being targets 10″ wide up to 200 yards (5 MOA). That standard is perfectly doable for just about any quality red dot sight, prism sight, or LPVO on the market.

So the next question is one of speed to target. Our optic should enable relative novices to quickly get shots on our 10″ target up to 200 yards.

Since this is a rack rifle that is probably going to be left alone most of the time, then we also have to consider battery life. How well will the optic do if it’s left alone for 1+ years without a battery change?

Given our objective of keeping costs down, the choice boils down to red dot sights and low power prism optics.

Red Dots vs Prisms

Spoiler, there’s no solutions here, only trade-offs.

On one hand, I sincerely believe that a low power prism with 2x or 3x magnification is the best all-around option for a general purpose rifle. It helps with target identification, has a reticle that doesn’t rely on a battery to function, and helps the shooter better place their shots. My own testing shows that these low power prisms don’t result in a significant speed penalty up close, typically within a 1/10th of a second, and are probably significantly better at range. On top of that, the latest generation of compact prisms are practically the same weight as comparable red dot sights.

On the other hand, prism optics (even at 1x) still have parallax and shooters must learn to have that consistent cheek weld and sight picture.

Red dot sights are nearly idiot proof. Set it for a reasonable point blank zero, which is easy to do with a primary distance of up to 200 yards, and it’s practically a “point and click” solution. This is ideal for novices. Examples from Holosun and the Sig Romeo series all sport very long battery lives, shake awake, and other features.

The downside of the red dots is that they don’t help whatsoever with identifying targets. Our situation says that targets will be using cover and mostly visually detected by smoke, flash, dust, and movement. Magnification helps us with all of these. Also, people with astigmatism often have issues with red dots- though we might expect our fire team has corrective lenses.

So which way would I go?

It’s hard to beat an optic that works without the battery all together. I lean towards a low power prism. The reticle is always there, and help a bit with precise aiming, the eye piece is adjustable, and they help with locating targets.

Which ones, though? I think either the Primary Arms GLx 2x, Primary Arms SLx 3x Micro, or Vortex Spitfire 3x all work well. My preference would go to the GLx 2x. 

If you step down to 1x prisms to have all of the same benefits without magnification, then either the Primary Arms SLx 1x and Swampfox Blade 1x both seem like good options.

If you still insist on a red dot sight, which is perfectly valid, I think the Holosun 503 makes a compelling case at the budget-friendly end of the spectrum.

Additional Accessories

To wrap this up, I want to touch on just a few more things for the rack rifle. I honestly don’t think it should have many accessories. White lights are out due to lack of training and issues with unintentional light discharge with novices. We don’t need lasers or anything like that. So, really, what we’re looking at is slings.

It should be a 2 point sling, and I don’t care about quick adjustability. The one that stands out as a nice blend of functionality and low price is the Specter Gear Raptor 2-Point.

That’s it. That’s the rack rifle.

Spend the rest on magazines and load bearing kit to hand out to your team as well.

Wrapping Up

Thanks for indulging in my thought experiment. I realize it was long, but I found it helpful to think through the actual requirements for such a rifle and how I would meet them.

In the end, I know everyone would love to build up a whole collection of gucci rifles and gear- but we all have to start somewhere.

In truth, I see no reason that the rack rifle shouldn’t serve as the baseline template for all of our thinking about rifles we own for defensive purposes. Once we start at this point, then we make intentional decisions about what to change or expand on to suit other requirements like great accuracy, longer range, or higher complexity.

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Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He's a former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He's a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.

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Oldest First
Newest First

IF you have “friends” that don’t have their own rifle, kit and training then you probably need new friends 🤪

Replying to  Matt

That’s a great point! I’d like to revisit the idea of expanding the ‘rack rifle’ concept to having an entire cache of essential gear to go along with the weapon. Magazines, radios, IFAKs, water containers, etc. and a method to transport (move with) these items – a ‘minimum capable’ team member rig. As we cannot predict ‘when’ an event may unfold or ‘where’ we’ll be – having a capable weapon and rig ready for a ‘trained’ friend would never be a bad idea. Even untrained ‘neighbors’ once becoming part of the ‘task force’ must be able to reference assistance and… Read more »


Great post Matt! I ran across this same concept for LBE kits ready to be handed out (along with appropriate rifles) for family and members of like minded community in a discussion of what to do with all the ‘extra gear’ we have. Your point of considering ‘police operational statistics’ as realistic for civilian defense circumstances is too often overlooked by ‘militia’ focused strategies. John knows what he’s talking about! Although 200 yds. is a solid practical outside distance for rifle capability – if the ‘rule of law’ is or will be in place – even that distance may be… Read more »

Replying to  Matt

Several decades ago the AK47, variants and the SKS along with inexpensive ammunition were the only game in town as the newly legal AR15 was quite rare and expensive. Today’s geo-political climate has changed the availability of these weapons and inexpensive ammunition along with the ‘cookie cutter’ availability of the AR15. My point is that IMO there is absolutely nothing wrong with a ‘rack’ of surplus but extremely reliable and general purpose capable AK47s or SKSs as a cache of ‘go to’ weapons to be used when the balloon goes up – especially if training and familiarity is already acquired.… Read more »


Thank you Matt, very well done!

Ryan morris
Ryan morris

A few thoughts: When buying or building the basic do all “rack rifle”, consider working backwards from the ammo and prism scope. Buy an ACOG made for M855 out of a 14.5 or .223 out of a 16 in barrel (TA31), then build a rifle to take advantage of its BDC. Stock a military surplus bandolier, or a BFG chest rig of magazines loaded with appropriate ammo for grab and go. Over decades of shooting as I have upgraded or evolved my equipment, or built a niche rifle, I have sought to repurpose old equipment into this role. Maybe it… Read more »


Another good thought exercise, Matt. One I’ve done myself, but not as thoroughly as you. I don’t disagree with your recommended configuration, but I have reservations about handing a rifle – during a high-stress situation – to someone who doesn’t have prior experience handling firearms. Maybe if it were a hunter or a vet, but guys like that are probably squared away already. When I consider my friends and family members – I think the risks outweigh the benefits. I’d rather put radios in their hands. That being said, I do think there’s value in having a “rack rifle” that… Read more »

Damien Strowger
Damien Strowger

This is a really interesting concept as I have been thinking about a SHTF scenario like this. And for me realistically, that would be some sort of freak snowstorm that knocks out power region wide and people are forced to stay home. Or a region wide flood that forces us into a situation like this. I’ve decided to take the role of being in charge until someone with actual tactical experience can take over. Anyways. One thing I’ve always worried about were people having capable rifles. I live in a hunting community so I would bet most neighbors have some… Read more »

Replying to  Damien Strowger

I’m not sure I’d want to leave my rifles and gear at checkpoint. That’s just a receipt for one guy to leave early because it’s raining or snowing or he forgot his gameboy, then leave your gear for the next guy and the next guy turns out to be looters.

We all want a neighborhood watch team of rangers and delta guys but chances are they can tell you more about last years football and baseball stats that bullet drop at 500 meters. If they knew that, then they’d probably already have a rifle capable of doing the job


Sunshine Shooter

Have we considered what nylon gear we’d hand out with the rifle?

Dave T
Replying to  Matt

Easy fix for mags water and IFAK carriage. The family group I am a part of purchased 5 Ruger AR 556s. To carry spare mags, we bought 5 MOLLE bandoleers and added a one inch nylon strap to them to secure them to a person’s body. They can be worn over the shoulder or high on the chest. For water, 5 2qt canteens. Each pouch for the canteens was adapted by our ladies with PALS webbing on the front where we attached IFAKS to them. Simple, cheap, and effective.


Nicely written. One of the things I’ll point out is that the rifle as set up has to be simple enough for the untrained to use in a pinch and for the trained to not be held back too much. You want the optic to help you with target ID and some basic observation to a couple of hundred yards with likely engagement distances to be closer to 50 and in.
Given that this rifle will be carried a lot, light weight is a good thing and that is where ARs have a clear edge over AKs.


I’m thinking Ruger 10/22. You are realistically going to train people quickly and easily to 100 yards or so, with a $200 rifle and a bunch of 40 grain bulk. Scope optional. If they are already trained and competent they have their own gear anyhow. What distance will you actually fight at? It depends, but I’d imagine your squared away folks engage at distance if necessary… most fighting might be across the street or less. Which case, a bunch of people defending the block with 4 or 5 magazines is generally sufficient. I know I know- “stopping power”. Yes, this… Read more »

Replying to  Riley

The 10/22 isnt a bad idea. Personally I would opt for the Ruger PC Carbine. While 22 ammo is cheap, is combat/self defense effectiveness is arguably only one step above a sharp stick. Its better then harsh language but upgrading to 9mm makes a considerable difference. Nine millimeter is still cheap and much more effective. Picture the PC Carbine with a MagPul Drum and you have a modern day PPSH 41. The range is the same (maybe a little better), there are less ammunition related issues (over 22), recoil is barely noticeable, and you are an effective team member. Add… Read more »

Replying to  Pieter

We went with savage a22 mag, light,easy to carry,not hard to shot. It gives a harder hit than the 10/22.What do you guys think.


The Del-Ton DT Sport Mod 2 is configured well for new and unexperienced shooters: nitrided pencil barrel, car handguards, and front sight. Listed weight is 5.8 pounds.

Phill Davis
Phill Davis

We seem to frequently have similar thoughts, this is another example. I had this same idea a couple of years ago and had a chance to grab 6 sets of Aero Precision M4E1 receiver sets for just this purpose. I got them in FDE, even though I don’t love the look. But the color does make them easier to pick out of the “rack”. Maybe buying prebuilts, or complete upper/lowers would make more financial sense, but that isn’t how I roll. I have all of the tools and like to tinker. Plus, when it comes to crucial tools, I like… Read more »


Im not exactly sure who I want to arm, and how well I want to arm them. Yes I do see the virtue to having spare kit on hand incase a buddy is visiting without their gear. I also see benefit in establishing a neighborhood watch in the event of an emergency. The question remains, am I giving weapons to virtual strangers in the hopes that we have a common goal of protecting our neighborhood. It seems much like not wanting to hand out your extra food to neighbors because it might “mark” you as the prepper who has what… Read more »


I think a rifle great for this matter is the Smith and Wesson M&P15 Sport 2 with the fixed front sight post. The handguard could be upgraded to a Magpul MLOK MOE handguard with better heat shielding and capability to attach lights. A Magpul MS1 sling mounted with paracord would offer some adjustability for not much more than the Specter Gear. For sights, a Midwest Industries fixed combat rear sight is, I believe adequate for the purpose of a hand-off rifle as it’s a fixed sighting system that is able to work with red dots and their factory mounts if… Read more »

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