Rifles in Self Defense
This interview first appeared in the Network's April 2009 journal.
An interview with John Farnam by Gila Hayes
The Network is fortunate to have firearms instructor extraordinaire John Farnam as a member of our Foundation’s advisory board. Beyond his generous assistance in these formative times for the Network, Farnam is a rich source of information about most anything to do with guns and ammunition, and is particularly outspoken in his views about armed citizens and self defense. We spent a little time with Farnam in February 2009, and he graciously agreed to sit down for an interview.
eJournal: I am eager to hear your views about rifles for private citizen’s self defense. We might think of a rifle as a military weapon, but I suspect you assign rifles a broader role.
Farnam: Absolutely! You’ve heard me say before, “We don’t carry pistols because they’re effective, we carry pistols because they’re convenient.” Pistols translate to the seat belt in a car; they’re for unexpected threats. Rifles are for expected threats. When we have an expected threat, that is when we would want a rifle nearby. Personally, I travel with one all the time.
eJournal: What makes the rifle so important for the private citizen?
Farnam: The capability of the rifle is really threefold: first its increased power, which loosely translated, means by virtue of greater power, it ends fights quicker.
Number two, it has range, and that is probably the most important. A handgun, for most of us is a 20 meter gun. Handgun bullets certainly go further than 20 meters, but hit probability drops off, especially on animated targets. And that’s for a good shooter; for most shooters it’s probably a ten meter gun on animated targets.
eJournal: How much more distance do we get from a rifle?
Farnam: 100 meters!
eJournal: Even for a mediocre shooter?
Farnam: Yes, we can train anybody to hit things at 100 meters.
eJournal: With iron sights or telescopic sights?
Farnam: It doesn’t make any difference at 100 meters and in. The reason is that 100 meters is about the limit at which you can reasonably identify a threat. In military training, in order for someone to get shot all they have to do is wear the wrong uniform! They don’t have to represent a threat, they don’t have to make a threatening move, they don’t have to point a gun at you! So, in a military scenario we can engage people at two, three, four and five hundred meters, and snipers take longer shots. We [private citizens] have a different set of rules of engagement in our world, at least as presently configured. In order for us to contemplate shooting someone, we have to have an articulable threat.
eJournal: From as far away as 100 yards?
Farnam: That’s about the maximum. In our rifle course most of what we do is from about 20 to 70 meters. And closer than 20, because there are times that a pistol might do better, but if I have a rifle in my hand, I’m not going to put it down and draw a pistol, so we practice at point-blank range with a rifle, too.
eJournal: Does your technique change at closer distances?
Farnam: Sure does! Your sighting device becomes very important outwards of 10 meters, but inwards of 10 meters, you probably don’t need to be on your sights and it is probably contra-indicated. With a body index, most people can get pretty good hits without using their sights from maybe 10 meters and in. Beyond that, you ought to use your sights.
Now, before I forget it, remember the rifle gives us increased power, increased distance, and the third leg of that stool is penetration: the ability to shoot through things.
eJournal: Of course, ammunition plays a role there. Compared to military circumstances, do private citizens need different performance from their ammunition? I sense, and correct me if I’m wrong, that you are not a big fan of the .223.
Farnam: It’s not so much what would be ideal as what is available. .223 is going to be the dominant caliber for the rest of our lifetimes. We’ve been saddled with this .223 for about 40 years; I’ve lived long enough to remember when it came into the system. I did all my training with an M14 but when I got to Viet Nam, I never saw an M14. They said, “Here’s your new rifle; if you have any questions, keep it to yourself!”
eJournal: Did the .223 work for you there?
Farnam: Yes and no. On unarmored targets, that is, if I didn’t have to shoot through anything, within about 150 meters, it worked fine.
eJournal: So, the .223 is OK in non-military functions?
Farnam: Yep! As a patrol rifle and for personal defense, I think a .223, if not ideal, is just fine.
As a military rifle, I think it is woefully inadequate, and we have generally conceded that now. It is inadequate in penetration and range. We need a 300-meter gun; we have a 150-meter gun. We need something to shoot through car doors; .223 hardball won’t shoot through car doors. We need something that shoots through cinder block; the .223 will not shoot through cinder block. But for personal defense, I think it’s fine, because it’s recoilless and it has a lot of ammunition.
eJournal: What do you like for .223 ammunition?
Farnam: We’ve got a DPX round now for the .223 and that will shoot through car doors—a 55-grain hardball round won’t, but that DPX will go through car doors. The DPX has really changed a lot of this stuff.
eJournal: How does that work?
Farnam: Because the DPX bullet is homogeneous, that is, it’s not a combination of lead and brass, where the metals separate. When that happens, it fragments and generally what comes out the other side is just pieces. That’s stuff that people like Pete Pi [of Cor•Bon] worry about; they look at graphs and charts and figure out how to make it. For us at the consumer end, that DPX has been a Godsend. It is so expensive that it is ridiculous, but it’s what I use.
eJournal: Well, I guess you buy what you believe is going to work!
Farnam: That’s right. We have tried to improve .223 every which way: make the bullet heavier, make it lighter. We have done everything we can. The best of the lot is the DPX, by far. But still, the .223 is what it is. Still, for personal defense, I recommend the .223. As a military weapon, we need to move on to something else. During our lifetime, we may see another cartridge. We may see it go back to .308. I would love to see the Soviet .30; I’d love to see us go to the 6.8. I think the 6.8 would be ideal. You know, back in the .30s, when John Garand was designing the Garand rifle, he designed around the .276 Pedersen (7x51) cartridge. And, he designed a nice, small, slim rifle around it. It was the medium cartridge of the day, similar to the 6.8; it was .27 or .28 caliber. It was a 300 meter gun.
And then came the meeting with Doug McArthur. And Garand was explaining all this, and Doug said, “No, no, no, no, no, no! This needs to be chambered for 30-06.” And Garand said, “Doug! It’ll be huge!” And McArthur said, “I don’t care how big it is! Just build it!” [Laughter] The rest is history! We got the biggest, heaviest rifle ever issued to infantrymen before or since! There has been nothing like it since; there was nothing like it before!
I own three of them! And in fact, they’re sitting in my safe. The gun that travels with me is a Robinson XCR.
eJournal: Are there any particular models or brands of rifles to which you are partial?
Farnam: In AR15s, the top brands are DSA, Rock River Arms, Sabre, LWRC, Smith & Wesson. The five I gave you are at the top of my list, but there may be some others in there that I don’t even know about that are just as good. I have lost count of people making AR15s!
eJournal: What choices do we have beyond AR15s?
Farnam: For FNs, no doubt the FAL is at the top of the list, but there is nothing wrong with an M14. As far as the FAL, DSA is pretty much the only game in town. Springfield Armory is probably the only game in town for the M14. There are several outfits that make Kalashnikovs, but Mark Krebs is at the top of the list. And, the only other rifle would be the Robinson XCR. That’s the new gun on the block.
And there are lots of people making .308s. Because of the pressure for a heavier caliber, the Pentagon is taking old M14s and either reissuing them or taking the gun out and dropping it into a new chassis that has rails and all of this other stuff on it. That’s what I was trained with, but when I got to Vietnam, I never saw an M14, but I saw a lot of M1 carbines.
In WWII, in the Pacific Theater, the M1 carbine actually garnered a pretty good reputation, and people liked it. But if we look at the circumstances, we were shooting Japanese soldiers who were genetically smaller than most Americans; they were all starving; they were skin and bones; and it was in the tropics, so they weren’t wearing anything. So against small, starving, mostly naked people who aren’t charging, it works fine. A few years later in Korea, shooting North Koreans in the winter, who had a one-inch fat layer because they were well-fed, and in addition to that, heavy winter clothing, it garnered a very poor reputation.
eJournal: In your experience were the M1 carbines effective?
Farnam: Sure! When people tell me, “I have a M1 carbine that I like,” I say, “Have you ever shot anyone with an M1 carbine? Well, I have. And they were really impressed! To the best of my recollection, I didn’t need to ever tell them they were hit!”
The .223 is kind of the same way: it works against an unarmored target, wearing normal clothing within 150 meters. But the problem is, at extended ranges, the bullet becomes so de-energized that it won’t be effective. For domestic defense, anything beyond 100 meters is probably wasted capability, which is why I think a .223 or an M1 carbine is actually an ideal patrol rifle and actually ideal in terms of foreseeable issues.
eJournal: I was under the impression that you favored the FAL. Is that right?
Farnam: Oh, yeah, it’s my favorite rifle in the world. But here’s what you have to know about it. I can get almost anyone into a .223; I’ve had 9 year olds shoot .223s. It is relatively recoilless, the blast wave is upsetting to some people, but still, I can get most people into a .223 and teach them that they can shoot it fairly well. I’d say fully 40 percent of my students are never going to shoot a .30 caliber rifle. The gun itself is too heavy; the recoil is sufficiently unpleasant that they cannot be persuaded to practice.
eJournal: Isn’t that offset by good technique?
Farnam: Technique is helpful, but there’re limits to that, too. And for some 120 pound gal, I can’t name a .30 caliber rifle that you’re going to like—M14, FAL, whatever. In between there is the 7.62x39. That’s the Soviet .30, it’s a shorter case and ballistically equivalent to a 30-30 rifle round. It’s .30 caliber—the .308 is 7.62x51, and the Soviet is 7.62x39.
eJournal: What type of rifle is commonly chambered for the Soviet .30?
Farnam: Mostly the Kalashnikovs, which are user hostile. The rifle works, it’s just not user friendly. More recently the Robinson Arms XCR came out, which is far more user friendly. It’s what I have with me right now. It’s a 300-meter gun that actually has pretty good penetration. Not good as a .308, but it will go through car doors, and with Soviet ammunition, it will go through cinder block.
eJournal: And you’re traveling with a Robinson XCR? How do you pack it?
Farnam: Get a folding or collapsible stock. Get a 32-inch hard case and put that in your suitcase. That’s what I do. I have three 30-round magazines for the rifle, they’re capped at both ends, so TSA is alright with that. If you have an AR 15, you might make a note of this. Look at the MagPul. The MagPul magazine comes with a cap on it. When you take the cap off, it snaps onto the bottom.
eJournal: What about optics?
Farnam: I’ve got a micro Aimpoint, forward mounted. When I don’t need it, I just ignore it. When I need a dot, I just look and there’s a dot. When I don’t, the dot disappears, and it’s not in my face. A lot of my students are now in their 50s, 60s, and 70s–in the bifocal stage of life. They get to the point they can’t use iron sights any more. We plunk an Aimpoint on their rifle and they say, “I’ve got a whole new lease on life! Wow, I can really be effective out to 30 or 40 meters and do what I have to do.” I think that micro Aimpoint is just a Godsend for those people, so they have something they can use.
eJournal: Does a rifle give that kind of person a confidence that perhaps a handgun does not?
Farnam: There’s no doubt it does. Once you see what you can do with a rifle, you won’t want to be without one. That’s why I travel with rifles. People ask me, “What if it gets stolen?” I say, “So what? I’ll just get another one.” It is just a machine, it exists to serve me, I don’t care about it, and I’d have no complaints about throwing it away and getting another. That’s the attitude you have to have.
eJournal: Well, some people have invested pretty heavily in their rifles!
Farnam: If you spent $5,000 on your gun, you still won’t like it enough! Custom guns become a pursuit of whim. It reminds me of the Rogaine ads, “Is your thinning hair ruining your self confidence?” Well, if it is, you’re a JERK! If your self confidence is tied up in your hair, Bud, you’ve got more problems than a chemical can cure!
The rifle is exactly the same thing. Get over it! It is there to serve you. Your skills are there to serve you. Your heart is there to serve you. And together, who knows? You might actually hit something on purpose!
eJournal: I see we’re out of time, and that seems like the perfect ending, John! Thank you so much, this has beena fun interview and I know our members will enjoy reading what you have to say. I appreciate what you are doing for the Network. It really means a lot to us.
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