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Starting From Scratch, a Beginner’s Guide to a Basic Armory

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I’ve been seeing a question going around forums and social media for the last week or two. The gist of it is, “What would you suggest as a solid basic armory for a serious new gun owner?” The context usually a friend or young man coming of age into the world of firearms ownership and training. I’ve found the answers to be both entertaining and enlightening. You see the obvious bias of the authors and their personal preferences for using firearms. Some people veer towards the outdoors and suggest hunting rifles and big bore revolvers for backwoods protection. Others went right towards the tactical realm.

So today is my personal answer to this question, and I’m couching it in terms of the Martial Marksman and Scenario-X. I’m not leaning purely on the tactical, though. Rather, my preferences for someone starting out is thinking in terms of versatility and reliability. Too many marksmen, including me at times, go needlessly deep into “optimization.” By that, I mean we think of a possible situation and then work backwards to build a rifle or collection tailored to that situation.

But, as the Martial Marksman principles dictate, there is no such thing as optimum. We are, in fact, better served with a tool that does many things pretty well rather than a tool that does one thing exceptionally well at the expense of usefulness elsewhere. Sure, there’s a time and a place for specialist tools once you’ve established your foundations- but this post is about actually building the foundation.

So let’s dig in.

Amory Prioritization Tiers

Much like the “gearamid,” I’m break my starter arsenal down into a series of levels. The most important and highest priority items being at the bottom, and the least important specialist items being at the top. This isn’t to say there isn’t a reason you might skip a level, but you should do so understanding that you’re probably neglecting something important in the process.

Tier 1: The Martial Marksman

As far as I’m concerned, this is the starting point. If you’re at all serious about defense of self, home, and community- then this is the core of it. A beginner’s top priority falls along two things: a common and reliable semi-automatic pistol, and a common reliable semi-automatic rifle in an intermediate cartridge.

I have some important additions and caveats to go along with this, as well.

The Starter Pistol

I said that a beginner Martial Marksman should have a common and reliable semi-automatic pistol. That’s not terribly specific. I know a lot of readers and listeners want something more specific and concrete. The thing is, I’ve found that handguns are a personal preference. Once you find one that you like, or even a particular family of them, it ends to become your default suggestion going forward. You can tell when other writers go down this path by only suggesting something like a Glock 19 or 17.

I think that’s a mistake, though.

So here are guidelines for a Martial Marksman’s first handgun:

  • Proven track record of reliability
  • Compact sized (i.e. about a 15 round capacity of 9mm)
  • Currently for formerly issued to police departments, government agencies, or military units
  • Comfortable to hold and shoot in your hands

Reliability is #1, here. This isn’t your weekend match gun that only costs you the win if it goes down. You may very well stake your life or your family’s life on this gun going bang every time you pull the trigger. Don’t skip this point.

I suggest compact sized for versatility reasons. You could obviously go full size duty pistol here, but then it would be more difficult to use for concealed carry. A compact-sized pistol is still large enough to have most of the ergonomic benefits of a larger pistol, but still small enough to conceal. On the other hand, going down to a subcompact gun gives up a lot of capacity, ergonomics, and marksmanship potential. In the world of pistols, the compact is the “just right” Goldilocks size.

A gun that is or was widely issued to agencies and military units does a few things for you. First, it usually solves the reliability question. Second, it means that the pistol has plenty of support for spare parts, holsters, and gunsmithing knowledge. From personal experience, it’s very frustrating to buy what you perceive as a fantastic pistol, only to find out that you’ll pretty much never get to carry it because nobody supports it.

It’s fine for your second or fifth pistol. But for your first one, keep it basic.

By the way, issued to law enforcement, military, and other agencies doesn’t just mean US agencies. There are plenty of good options that aren’t widely issued within the US, but have a lot of traction in Europe- so the support still exists. The CZ 75 series is a good example of that.

My personal CZ 75D PCR, my most common carry pistol

So what pistols do I think meet this criteria?

If I could have only one, I would probably take something from the Beretta M9 series. The M9A1, M9A4, or one of the newer 92X models. It’s not the most compact nor the newest, but I trust the platform so much and shoot it well enough that I’m willing to sacrifice a bit on the compactness front. In hindsight, I wish I had gotten the M9A1 instead of a 92A1 when I had both in my hands years ago- but I just didn’t know any better.

“But Matt,” you say, “I can’t mount a dot to that!” Ok, fair. Pick something that you can (like a 92X). However, I’d argue that dots on pistols aren’t necessary for most shooters. They have an advantage, to be clear, but I don’t think that advantage becomes important until we’re talking high levels of skill.

The Starter Rifle

As with pistols, my statement was somewhat vague. There are a lot of rifles that fall into the “reliable semi-auto rifle” category. Here’s the bottom line, though: if you don’t live in a state the precludes you from doing so, then this should be an AR-15 along the lines of the Minimum Capable Carbine. For compatibility reasons, I think it’s important to stick to 5.56/.223 here.

  • 16″ or 20″ lightweight barrel
  • Specs meet military TDP for reliability and parts conformance
  • Accurate enough to meet our basic standard of 10″ up to 300 yards

There are plenty of high quality brands out there reliable enough for duty use, so take your pick from BCM, Daniel Defense, Colt Enhanced Patrol Rifle, SOLGW, Sionics, and others. I do suggest still paying attention to whether or not the brand you choose holds a lot of agency contracts.

If you can’t buy an AR-15, then your goal should be to stick to the same requirements that I had for a pistol as close as you can. It needs to be reliable, preferably used by agencies and/or military units somewhere in the world, and be comfortable for you to shoot. Replace “compact” with “lightweight” in this case.

Not Done Yet…

Rather than going to the next tier, I think we need to take care of something firsts. Seeing as this tier is the core of your new armory then you need to pay some extra attention to it. At a minimum, I suggest buying a second pistol. Ideally, it would be the same make and model of your original one. Barring that, at least a second pistol that follows the same guidelines for reliability and such.

As for the rifle, I would also say get a second one- but I would settle for a minimum of a complete spare bolt carrier group and complete set of spare springs, ejectors, trigger, etc.

The point here is that you may find yourself in a situation where you cannot just go out and buy a new gun on demand or even take your current one to get repaired. Having a complete spare might save your bacon in tough times.

Not to mention a full compliment of magazines. I would say at least a minimum of 6 per pistol and 10 per rifle.

Tier 2: The Well-Rounded Shooter

With the absolute foundation out of the way, we branch out a bit. The well-rounded shooter tier includes two items, each serving a different niche.

First, I suggest a 12 gauge shotgun. This can be either pump action or semi-auto, whatever is within budget. The shotgun is the multi-tool of the shooting world. Yes, you can use it defensively, but it’s also an incredibly powerful tool for hunting. Whereas you could probably get away with hunting small game with a .223 AR-15 from Tier 1, the 12 gauge opens up the ability to hunt just about anything from birds to moose.

As before, I think it’s important to look for shotguns with proven track records for reliability- especially if you might use it defensively. Obvious examples for pump actions include the Mossberg 500/590 and the Benelli Supernova.

For semi-autos, I like the Beretta 1301, Beretta A300, Benelli M2, and Mossberg 940.

The second gun I put in the Tier 2 category is a 22 LR long gun. That can be either a common semi-auto like the classic Ruger 10/22 format, or a bolt gun like my Tikka T1x. The goal of the rimfire is two fold. First, it provides an inexpensive marksmanship training and practice tool. Secondly, it’s useful as a compact and quiet weapon for hunting very small game and pests. Even better if you suppress it.

Tier 3: Precision Support

This is where we introduce full power rifle cartridges. In my mind, this firmly in the realm of bolt actions for precision, but a quality semi-auto will do as well. Tiers 1 and 2 heavily focus on our prioritized “proficiency zone” of 0-200 yards. Tier 3 enhances our capability in the “operational zone” and beyond.

For this, I suggest a scoped rifle chambered in .308 Winchester. I realize I’m being a little old school here by suggesting the 30 cal while everyone else has moved on to 6.5 mm as the “do-all” caliber. In my mind, .308 still works extremely well at the practical ranges we’re focused on, it’s well understood ballistically, and offers a nice balance of cost to performance and barrel life.

You could obviously opt for a semi-auto. However, my observation is that getting to a high level of reliability in a semi-auto 308 platform is not happening cheaply. Typically, you’re in for at least $2k+ for just the rifle. If we’re talking about a starting armory, I think there’s the best bang for the buck by going with a bolt action platform.

My picks here are the

Alternatively, rather than go the 308 route, you might instead elect to build up a dedicated SPR project. This could be either a precision-oriented AR-15 still shooting .223/5.56 (and benefiting from ammunition compatibility). Or you could take advantage of the specialty rounds like 6mm ARC, 6.5 Grendel, and others.

What Else?

Tiers 1-3 cover just about anything you might want to do with a firearm. This is a fantastic starting place for anyone looking to build a collection. However, I know there are lots of things that I didn’t mention. So let’s talk about those a little bit. I think the following things are entirely optional, but they do have a place for those who wish to venture down the path with them.

Specialization Tier

The specialization tier is about gaining either enhanced capability with existing weapons or filling ultra-specific niches. So the very first thing I’ll point out here is suppressors. While relatively unnecessary in the big picture, suppressors are a wonderful tool for enhancing safety (by reducing hearing damage), helping train new shooters, and overall making shooting more comfortable in all conditions.

Second in the specialization tier are short barreled rifles and sub-gun formats. As you might know, I’ve been venturing down the sub-gun rabbit hole lately, myself. These platforms enhance capability at very short distances and have some unique benefits as long as you’re aware of the tradeoffs.

The third item in this tier is rifles that specialize in long range. That actually has less to do with the rifle and more to do with the cartridge. Think about all the hot rod long range chamberings like 6.5 PRC, 300 Win Mag, 6 Creedmoor, and others. They all have benefits, but also drawbacks when it comes to shootability, parts wear, and cost.

Next comes battle rifles. This is your semi-auto platform chambered in a full power rifle cartridge. Think of an LR308, AR-10, M1A, etc. You can elect to share the same ammo as your earlier precision rifle in Tier 3, or go another direction.

Lastly, this tier includes large bore handguns like .44 Mag revolvers common with outdoorsmen. There’s no denying that there’s a certain level of comfort knowing that you’ve got the “big iron” on your hip when you’re in bear territory.

“Because Fun is Allowed” Tier

At this level, we’re talking about weapons that are still effective at what they do- but they come with a lot of downsides in one way or another. For the most part, this tier is comprised of old warhorse weapons that served admirably for decades, but lack of parts availability and ballistic inefficiency means they just aren’t a good first choice for modern tasks.

I put lever guns, vintage war rifles (i.e. the M1, Enfields, Mausers, etc.), muzzle loaders, and the like here. You get into this tier because you’re passionate about it, or because you’re extremely limited in what you can buy. It’s not because you’re doing anything that can’t be done cheaper or better with weapons in the other tiers.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great stuff here. But if I’m scoping this to what I think makes sense for a Martial Marksman’s starting point, then it doesn’t really go down this route.

Wrapping Up

So there’s my take on the question. My thinking flows right along with my prioritization of training zones, and covers all the bases- including redundancy and backups.

How would you answer the question?

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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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Hi Matt. Great article. I agree with your logic and suggestions. I would also add recommending a 22lr upper for the AR in Tier 2 instead of a 10/22 or other similar rifle. This allows the new shooter to practice with primary AR at a reduced cost and also use the same gear( mag holders etc.). Nothing against the 10/22s, but I think it is import for shooters focus developing primary weapon skill and fundamentals and not get distracted by too many weapon systems. That being said, I started my armory in the reverse order: I bought several C&R surplus… Read more »


Hey Matt – long time reader, first time commenting. Absolutely love your work and the information you share. I consider myself somewhere between a significant Tier 2 (SOTAR grad and building/gaging/balancing rifles now) and prepping to venture into Tier 3. Question re your Precision Support choices – is there a reason the Rem 700 didn’t make your list? After a year’s research I had pretty much settled into a Rem 700 in 6.5Creed (partially due to its longevity in the market) but you have me second-guessing that. I had considered the Tikka and Ruger on your list as well. I… Read more »

Replying to  Matt

Well that’s exactly what I didn’t know. Thanks for the follow-up. After more research I’m starting to lean toward a 308 instead of the 6.5C for the barrel life too. Thanks for the site man, always a good read!


Hey Matt – it’s really all about perspective isn’t it? Although your suggestions are fine if not ‘preferred’ for average city/suburban dwellers who ‘can’ own high capacity semiauto firearms (as you mentioned) – I would need to know more about the individual’s experience with firearms and their particular environment they live and work in. I cut my teeth on revolvers (Glocks weren’t made then) and despite the popular disdain for their low but efficient capacity I would strongly recommend them for beginners and the infrequent ‘nightstand’ users. Without exception I’ll put any name brand production revolver up against any name… Read more »

Replying to  Paul

You make some good points. Let me add my own “twist” to what you have said above. I do have leverguns and revolvers. They are my go-to weapons in any home defense…I will grab them first and they should be adequate for 90% of situations I might encounter. I also own a couple AR rifles and some auto pistols in 9mm and 5.7×28. Those are my backup weapons in case the revolvers and lever actions can’t end the threat. I know that is completely backwards to how most other people think, but IMHO I have the best of both worlds.

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