Choosing Your First Rifle

There are many different ways to become part of America’s tradition of gun ownership. Some people get their start with a shotgun, learning how to blast flying objects out of the sky. Others experience guns for the first time by learning how to shoot a pistol. Many people, though, learn about guns by shooting a rifle. 

I’m one of those rifle people. My first experience with guns was on my uncle’s farm, shooting cans on a Sunday afternoon with a .22 rifle. I then graduated to gopher hunting trips in the surrounding fields. This may be changing, though. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the trade industry group for firearms manufacturers, reports that many first-time gun buyers are buying pistols and shotguns over rifles

Many Roads To The Same Place

A young shooter firing his first rifle at the range.

Safely teaching your children how to shoot is a fun family activity.

If your introduction to America’s gun culture was with a pistol or shotgun, welcome, we’re glad you’re here. Take the time to learn to use your new gun, and use it well. However, there is more to firearms than just one gun. Rifles are still very relevant, however. They’re great for plinking or target shooting, are very common in competitions, and are excellent self-defense tools as well. If you started on another type of gun, you’ll soon find out that owning a rifle makes a lot of sense, even for today’s urban-dwelling gun owners. 

Choosing your first rifle can be just as confusing as choosing any other type of gun. Things have changed over the years. Lever action and bolt action rifles used to dominate the market. Today, however, semi-automatic rifles are the first choice for American gun owners — the AR-15 in particular. Is an AR the best first rifle out there, though? Let’s take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of buying an AR as your first long gun, rather than the .22 rifle of years gone past.  

Is An AR The Best First Rifle?

An AR-15 first rifle displayed on a wood background

An AR-15 is an increasingly popular choice for a first rifle.

The AR-15 is remarkably adaptable. It can take an almost infinite variety of accessories and optics, allowing you to tailor your rifle to your exact requirements. Most AR-15s use .223/5.56mm ammunition, which is powerful enough to be an effective defensive round, yet it has very controllable recoil. There are other options out there, though, and we’ll talk about them later.  The AR can be used for hunting, and it’s the dominant rifle in 3 Gun competitions and other shooting sports. It’s lightweight, easy to shoot, easy to clean and maintain, and has provided years and years of reliable service for all kinds of gun owners. 

There are some disadvantages to the AR as a first rifle over a .22. For instance, .223/5.56 ammo is much more expensive than .22LR ammo. This means that you’ll get less bang (literally) for your buck with an AR-15 than you will with a .22, shortening your training sessions and range time. Moreover, while .223/5.56mm is a very controllable centerfire cartridge, it still produces far more noise, muzzle blast, and recoil than a .22LR cartridge. This muzzle blast and noise can make shooting an AR at an indoor range very uncomfortable for you and those around you. Finally, the appearance of an AR can be intimidating to people who are new to the gun culture. Should people be intimidated by how a gun looks? Of course not. Does it happen? Yes it does. 

The AR-15 is a semiautomatic rifle, and only a semiautomatic gun. Rifles chambered in .22LR, however, are available in a variety of different actions, such single shot, bolt action, lever action, and semiautomatic. There are a wide variety of AR-15 manufacturers. There are also a wide variety of manufacturers making .22LR rifles, including some that bear a distinct resemblance to the AR-15. The .22LR round is easy to control, has almost no recoil, and makes very little muzzle flash or noise when fired. That lack of dramatic noise and recoil make a .22 rifle an excellent choice for first time shooters. 

The Case For A .22

single shot 22 rifle

This Remington 514 was my youngest son’s first rifle. His second rifle is a Ruger 10/22. His third rifle will be an AR-15.

.22LR is also one of the least expensive rounds out there. This means you can put round after round into the target without emptying your wallet. If you’re looking to test your skills, there are many different options out there for competing with a .22 rifle. In addition to this, .22LR is an excellent round for hunting small game and can even be used for self defense in an emergency. Finally, there is an entire ecosystem that has been built around popular .22 rifles such as the Ruger 10/22, with multitudes of options for aftermarket triggers, barrels, and other accessories. 

There are, however, some drawbacks to using a rifle chambered in .22LR as your first gun. The low power of the .22LR cartridge may be great when it comes to recoil and noise, but that also means it’s very short-ranged. If you’re looking to engage targets at more than 100 yards, you’re probably looking at something more powerful than .22. Also, while .22LR can work as a self defense round, it really doesn’t have the power to penetrate far enough to reach the vital areas needed to stop an attacker

Best Of Both Worlds?

22LR AR-15 adapter on a picnic table

The author’s well-loved (and well-used) .22LR conversion kit for the AR-15.

A compromise solution exists, namely, an AR-15 rifle with an adapter that allows your rifle to work with .22LR ammunition. They’re not cheap, though, and you may find yourself buying an inexpensive .22 rifle to complement the capabilities of your centerfire AR-15. 

With its increasing popularity and ability to adapt to almost any situation, the AR-15 might very well be the best first rifle for power. However, there is a lot to be said for the light recoil and inexpensive cost of a rifle chambered in .22LR. Which is best? To be honest, I own both kinds of rifles, and I take both to range with me when I am teaching new shooters. I start them out on the .22 and then transition them to the AR-15 so they know what it’s like to shoot America’s most popular rifle. Both the AR and the .22 have a place in the gun safe of your home. No matter which one you chose to buy first, you’ll probably end up getting the other one soon.