Many find surplus guns attractive because of their associated history or the simple fact that they’re old, like antiques. They’re also affordable. While some guns are highly sought after by collectors who have in turn driven up their prices, others are a great bargain. There’s not much talk about using them as self-defense tools, however.

A gun gets to be “surplus” when it’s no longer needed by the military or a law enforcement agency. That also happens when there is an oversupply of them, or when they are replaced with newer models. But just because a gun is old and a newer design has come along doesn’t mean it is no longer useful to protect life.

Surplus guns are frequently stored for years and have a good amount of wear, but others are in near-new condition. Sometimes the wear is only on the outside, caused by riding in holsters or being moved around the warehouse. Meanwhile, the internal parts are in great shape because the gun has been fired little. Of course, when buying such a gun, it is important to avoid those that have not been properly cared for and have worn or broken parts. Particular attention should be paid to the bore, since corrosive ammunition used in some of these guns may have affected the lands and grooves. Most surplus guns are fully functional but may need to be checked by a competent gunsmith before being put to use.

A wide variety of accessories can come with surplus guns. These range from holsters and slings to magazine pouches, stripper clips and ammunition carriers. While some of the accessories may not be very useful in a self-defense gun, others like magazines are. A good cleaning is often needed to make the surplus gun ready for the home-protection role. Sometimes caked-on preservative needs to be removed and adequate lubrication applied. Before any gun, new or surplus, is considered for home defense, it must be test-fired on the range with your defensive ammunition to confirm the ammo and gun are fully functional and reliable together.

Surplus guns are not always perfect. Their sights may not be as good as modern sights, but they served their purpose back in their day, so they can still work. The ergonomics of old guns may not be as well thought out as those of their modern counterparts, either, but that’s not always the case. There are quite a variety of surplus guns to choose from, including revolvers, turnbolt rifles and carbines that are over 100 years old, and semi-automatic long guns and pistols. It’s hard to beat a 1911 pistol, and it was designed over 100 years ago. And it is always a good idea to seek out and obtain competent defensive training from a qualified instructor, no matter what gun is selected.

What’s Out There

Some rifles and carbines include bolt actions like the M1903, M1917, Russian Mosin-Nagant, Carcanos and a variety of Mausers from many different countries. Lever-action guns that were once used by U.S. law enforcement agencies can also sometimes be found. The SKS and the K31 Schmidt-Rubin straight-pull rifle, which served the Swiss military for many years, can be viable alternatives. Then there are semi-automatic rifles or carbines like the M1 Garand and M1 Carbine. The M1 Carbine was extensively used by the military in World War II and in a number of conflicts since. It was also used by the NYPD Stakeout Squad and other law enforcement agencies. Lightweight, short and easily handled, it has relatively light recoil, which translates to faster follow-up shots.

These guns can be a lot of fun for those who want to practice on the range for an afternoon. While the old military full-metal-jacket (FMJ) bullets are probably not a good choice for home defense, several manufacturers, including Federal, Remington and Winchester, manufacture 110-grain rounds with hollow-point (HP) or soft-point (SP) projectiles that many experts agree are more effective for self-defense than FMJs. And Hornady offers Critical Defense loads that use the company’s proprietary FTX bullet, which has an excellent reputation for expansion and penetration—two critically important characteristics for stopping attackers. In tests with a surplus M1 Carbine, the FTX bullets functioned perfectly every time.

Some guns are newly built from old surplus parts. These guns are sometimes semi-automatic versions of a select-fire or fully automatic gun. They’re modified to make them legal for the average citizen to own without having to pay a tax for a Class III firearm. An example is the Sterling semi-auto available from Century Arms. It is chambered in 9mm and fitted with a 16-inch barrel after being converted from a submachine gun to a semi-automatic.

Often found on the market are surplus police or military handguns like Glocks, P1s, P5s, Makarovs and Tokarevs. These guns have been replaced by newer models but still have a lot of miles left on them. They are all semi-automatic handguns that are still fully functional and can be very effective in the right hands, just like they were when they were when they were new and state of the art. In fact, many of these models still serve in military or police units, so they are by no means useless.

While some may not have magazines that contain more than seven or eight rounds, they can still be extremely useful. Some surplus guns have become so popular that factories are making new guns that are just like the old ones. Examples include Makarovs, M1 Carbines and Tokarevs. And not to be left out is the classic Browning Hi-Power and the 1911, which is still hugely popular.

Surplus Guns Back On Duty

When buying a surplus gun for serious duty, consideration should be given to the availability of magazines. It may not be as easy as going down to the local gun shop and picking up a replacement, so a supply should be obtained when the gun is purchased. Finding holsters for some handguns may be problematic but not impossible. Some manufacturers make nylon holsters that fit a wide variety of similarly-sized and shaped guns. While soft nylon holsters aren’t always the best solution for a gun that may have to be drawn in a hurry, this is not always a concern for a home-defense gun. If it is, though, you can make your own holster from Kydex or have one custom made.

When selecting a surplus gun for self-defense, make sure self-defense ammunition is available. It would probably not be a good idea to buy a surplus gun chambered in some obscure, hard-to-find caliber. And using surplus ammunition for self-defense is not recommended because it may not be reliable, although it can be used for practice. If the ammunition is corrosive, special care must be paid to cleaning the gun promptly after a session at the range. Surplus guns are often very useful, so don’t write them off as useless just because they are old. With the right combination of training, accessories and ammunition, these classic old guns can still save lives.

This article was originally published in “Personal & Home Defense” #204. To order a copy, visit

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