Cheap Guns Vs. Top-Tier Guns: Is Your Gun Really “Just as Good?”

“Just as good.” We often hear that phrase in the firearms community. Sometimes, it touts a particular gun’s relative quality. Other times, it’s a snide insult. Depends on the context. Most often, “just as good” means someone is justifying a less expensive purchase to someone else. Or perhaps a reviewer is trying to draw clicks and eyeballs. Whatever the context, determining whether something is “just as good” requires honest thought and clear assessment. The answers are sometimes definite but often relative. The keys are asking the right questions and understanding a particular gun’s role relative to its owner and/or operator. So, let’s look at what makes a firearm “just as good,” or not.

Hi Point C9 pistol
Is this Hi-Point C9 “just as good” as more expensive brands? Maybe, in certain circumstances. The Hi-Point you can afford is better than wishing for a gun you can’t. (hi-pointfirearms.com)

You Get What You Pay For

The saying that you get what you pay for is true. It’s always been true of firearms. However, modern design and manufacturing techniques have made quality more affordable. And quality takes different forms. Let’s look briefly at those.

Reliability

You should always want reliable guns. I think reliability is the number one requirement. Happily, buying a reliable firearm doesn’t require emptying your kid’s college fund. You can do that if you want, but it’s not necessary.

I am a lifelong gun owner, but I only got seriously into guns in 2010. My knowledge base and my discretionary funds were pretty low at the time. I wanted to carry concealed, but I didn’t own a single handgun. My first pistol was a $179 Hi-Point JHP 45. It was big, clunky, and downright ugly. But you know what? It ran, though I should specify that I was only shooting 50 to 100 rounds per week. I never carried it because it was so big and heavy. But I didn’t know what I didn’t know. That first Hi-Point started teaching me that stuff. One thing it taught me was that I could buy a reliable gun without spending lots of money. I later learned that reliability is also relative to how hard you run your pistol.

I sold that gun and used the cash for a Hi-Point C9 Comp. That was my first carry gun. Once again, it was ugly and heavy for its size. But it went “bang” every time I pulled the trigger, and I was able to hit my targets.

Was that Hi-Point C9 “just as good” as a Glock or H&K? Of course not. Those guns would run rings around my Hi-Point. But for a new handgun owner who was learning to shoot, learning to carry, and just wanted something that worked reliably in my limited range time, it did the job as well as those guns would have. If I’d been shooting 500 rounds per week, that almost certainly would not have been the case. But for 50 to 100 rounds per week, that little C9 was “just as good” for the job I assigned it.

Walther PPQ M1 pistol
My Hi Point provided me a firearm while I saved up for my Walther PPQ, which I still run 12 years later. (Author’s Photo)

I eventually began shooting more and carrying more confidently. The C9 never gave me a problem, but I was learning why Hi Points are inexpensive. I hesitate to say “cheap” because Hi-Point has always recognized their role in the firearms space, and I appreciate that they provide inexpensive options for people who can’t splurge on guns. Having nothing because you can only afford a Hi-Point is stupid. Buy the Hi-Point while you save.

However, materials and manufacturing processes are not quite as refined as they are for brands like Walther or Beretta. The more you run a gun like the Hi-Point, the more likely those shortcomings will eventually show themselves in reduced durability. Excessive wear reduces reliability. That’s when such guns are no longer “just as good.” I turned to other brands when I began shooting more.

Features

My Hi-Points were almost featureless. The slides were heavy, the triggers were just okay, and the slide release was functional and nothing more. On the flip side, the extra weight helped with felt recoil, and the bare-bones ergonomics made me focus on good technique.

I recognized the need to upgrade as I got more serious. I eventually saved enough to buy a Walther PPQ in 2012. The features and ergonomics were light years ahead of my Hi-Point pistols, which were nowhere near “just as good.” But the fundamentals I learned with the Hi-Points meant that I didn’t rely on the PPQ’s better everything to shoot well. But those features sure didn’t hurt.

IWI Masada Slim, Ruger Max 9, Sig Sauer P365XL pistols
L-R: IWI Masada Slim, Ruger Max 9, Sig Sauer P365XL. The Sig costs over $200 more than the Masada Slim and over $300 more than the Ruger. I love my P365XL, but it’s not that much better than the other two. Doing your homework can save you money without sacrificing quality. (Author’s Photo)

Can I say that the Hi-Points were just as good, or maybe better, for teaching me proper fundamentals? Maybe. If so, I’d say that’s an individual thing and not something to be applied across the board. As a more experienced shooter these days, I think I’d rather teach a newbie to shoot with a more ergonomically friendly handgun than a Hi-Point. But I think the experience benefited me.

Aesthetics

I often see people trash certain firearm brands for their guns’ less-than-perfect finish. Yes, we all want our guns to look nice. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or exceedingly realistic. Let’s be clear: tool marks and not-so-great finishes do not affect a gun’s performance. They just don’t. If your gun runs, tool marks are less-than-superfluous. But, and there’s always a but, tool marks can indicate a lack of precision where it counts. And less expensive finishes affect durability and rust-resistance. Researching your purchases beforehand can mitigate those concerns.

Critics also bash ugly guns. I admit my Hi Points were not eye-pleasing. But they did what I needed them to do. Their looks had no bearing on that job. But at least a few of those criticisms are highly subjective. I remember one prominent gun influencer who hated Walthers because he said they were ugly. Fine. But do the Walthers run? Yes, they do. Looks are the least relevant topic when comparing guns. I only mention it because I see some people equate looks with quality, sparking the “just as good” jokes.

I’m not immune to that. I’m a lever-action rifle enthusiast. I just love them. But I want nothing to do with the Browning BLR series. I know they’re great guns, but I hate how they look. That doesn’t mean I trash people who like them.

IWI Zion-15 and Grey Ghost Precision AR-15 rifles
An IWI Zion-15 and a Grey Ghost Precision Mark II Light. The Grey Ghost rifle costs $1,000 more than the IWI. There are reasons for that, but the IWI might be “just as good” for your needs. Honestly, the Grey Ghost should probably cost more than it does, so depending on what you need… (Author’s Photo)

What’s the Mission? Part One

A firearm’s being “just as good” often depends on who you are. If you’re, say, a SWAT team member, your needs will differ from the guy who wants a capable home defense gun that he shoots every six months. The SWAT guy’s department may pay for his rifle, or at least offer a weapon allowance. But the other guy may have three kids and a mortgage, with a limited firearms budget.

The SWAT guy wants and needs the best equipment he or his department can provide. A Springfield Saint isn’t going to cut it. Plenty of people love their Springfields, but those guns are not designed for professionals who shoot thousands of rounds every year. So, in that case, the Saint isn’t “just as good” as the higher-grade SWAT weapon.

But what if the second guy buys a Saint? Let’s say he shoots 500 or even 1,000 rounds per year. That falls well within the Saint’s design parameters, meaning the Saint is probably “just as good” for his intended use. A $750 AR-15 will usually do that job every bit as well as a $2,000 AR-15, assuming proper maintenance. Now, if he decides to compete or gets the training bug, his round count will increase dramatically. That likely means buying a better-quality rifle designed to handle that load. That changed role means his Saint is no longer “just as good.”

Another option is to buy the AR-15 you can afford and upgrade its components over time. That process is beyond the scope of this article, but guidance is easily found. The AR-15 platform is perfect for a plan like that.

Palmetto State Armory AK-103 and Saiga AK-103 rifles
A Palmetto State Armory AK-103 and a Saiga AK-103. The Saiga was built at the same Russian factory that makes Russian Army AKs. It’s also very expensive in today’s market. A cheap one will cost over a grand more than the PSA. But the PSA might suit your needs just as well. Only you can decide. (Author’s Photo)

What’s the Mission? Part Two

“Tacticool” Snobs

The “tacticool” community has some of the worst offenders when it comes to putting down other people’s guns. I won’t name names, but social media is full of them. If you’re not rocking a $2k rifle (at least) with an equally expensive optic, a custom pistol, a Gucci plate carrier, and night vision, you’re a “poor.” How dare you say your off-the-shelf AR is “just as good?”

Again, “just as good” is relative. Your AR and other gear may be “just as good” for your requirements, as we noted earlier. I should say that not all social media influencers are that way. I’d say most aren’t. But some people have loud voices. And the more some folks spend on a gun, the more they want validation, amplifying those voices even more.

Hunting Snobs

But snobs exist everywhere, including the hunting community. You’ve likely seen the guys with custom hunting rifles look down their noses on guys with Ruger Americans. The same principles apply to hunting rifles as to tactical guns. Do you spend thousands of dollars each year on exotic hunts? Do you expect to take, and make, 800-yard shots on big game? If so, your Ruger American, or whatever, probably isn’t “just as good.” I’m not hating on the Ruger American. It’s a solid, reliable, affordable rifle. But it’s not a Bergara Premier Canyon. Nor is it meant to be.

Bergara Premier Canyon and Ruger American rifles
The Bergara Premier Canyon (top) is a better hunting rifle than the Ruger American (bottom). But the far less expensive Ruger may deliver results that are “just as good,” depending on how you hunt. (bergara.online/ruger.com)

If, on the other hand, you hunt locally, have reasonable shooting skills, take makeable shots, and reliably harvest your game, then yes, your $600 rifle is just as good as those other guys’ $2,500 rifles. A competent marksman can kill a deer at 150 yards with an affordable Ruger American just as well as he can with a $15,000 Mauser M98. The mission, and getting it done reliably, dictates “just as good” in this case.

Now, the Ruger American looks like an ugly duckling indeed next to that top-end Mauser or even the Bergara. So, if looks and craftsmanship are counted, then the Ruger is clearly not “just as good.” It always comes back to what you’re trying to accomplish.

One other thing to consider is durability. We discussed that earlier, too. Your Ruger American’s barrel isn’t designed to fire 1,500 rounds every year. Or even 500. That gun is designed for the average hunter who probably zeroes it every fall and then takes the necessary shots during hunting season. The Ruger’s durability is “just as good” in that role. But a higher round count will dictate a better-quality rifle with a stronger barrel, chamber, and action. And reliably making those long-range shots requires that kind of practice. You’ll probably want a better stock and glass bedding, too. You’ve moved beyond where the Ruger is “just as good.” Again, know your gun’s role, and remember that “just as good” is relative.

Home Builds

We need to be honest on this one. I’ve seen some great “home-built” guns. The proper term is probably “home-assembled,” but you get the idea. Most home-built guns leave something to be desired. The truth is that most of us aren’t trained technicians with all the proper tools. Most of us aren’t gunsmiths. We are enthusiasts with varying skill levels working with commercial-grade tools. Many of us are probably looking to save a buck as well.

“Just as good” affects this situation in two ways. First, we lack the skills and equipment needed to assemble and fine-tune a firearm. We also lack the factory’s quality-control capabilities. You can put it together, and it will probably work. But it won’t work like a factory-built gun. Ask any firearms instructor how many home-built guns have crapped the bed in their courses. In the first defensive rifle course I took, the instructor implored us to own at least one quality factory-built rifle for that very reason.

Beretta 1301 Tactical and Mossberg Maverick 88 shotguns
The Beretta 1301 Tactical (top) is a fantastic shotgun. But the Mossberg Maverick 88 will do just about everything the Beretta will. It’s not as nice and not as smooth, but it can cost up to $1,400 less. You make the call. (beretta.com/mossberg.com)

But skill isn’t the only issue. All parts are not created equal. Sorry, but that budget barrel just won’t perform like a Bergara or a Ballistic Advantage. Nor will it last as long. I know I said that “just as good” is relative, and it is. If you shoot your project gun a couple of times a year, it’s probably fine. But if you intend to take classes and actually train, it’s probably going to let you down.

Some folks will tell you not to splurge on an expensive AR-15 lower receiver. And maybe you shouldn’t. Lowers have no moving parts, but how they fit to the upper is paramount. A less-than-perfect fit can allow slight movement that affects accuracy. Maybe not enough to matter for you. It’s your choice. Just be aware of that possibility. But barrels, bolt carrier groups, triggers, and uppers absolutely need to meet certain standards if you intend to run your rifle. It comes back to understanding your intentions and the gun’s role. But, truthfully, a home-built firearm is rarely “just as good” as a factory firearm.

Justified Criticism

I should note that some of the “just as good” criticism is well-deserved. Categorically claiming that a budget AR-15 is “just as good” as a Rainier or Grey Ghost Precision rifle is absurd. Same with budget 9mm pistols and an H&K. Yes, your budget guns will do certain things just as well as the more expensive guns. We’ve covered that. But claiming they do everything just as well is ridiculous.

My Hi-Point pistols did some things as well as my PPQ, assuming I didn’t push them too hard. But the PPQ is clearly better across the board. Sustained use will show that. I have a Taurus G3 Tactical pistol that I love. I think it’s a great handgun. Right now, it does everything as well as my other, more expensive guns. It even has a couple of features I wish they had. But will it still be running at a high level after extended use? We’ve run it through one defensive pistol course so far. It did well. Will it hold up to multiple courses like my PPQ has? I don’t know. I hope so, but realistically, it won’t. It costs less than $500 for a reason. My PPQ is still going strong after 12 years. We’ll see.

Taurus G3 Tactical pistol
I love my Taurus G3 Tactical. It’s feature-rich, and the price is right. But realistically, it won’t hold up over time like some more expensive handguns. But I hope I’m wrong. (Author’s Photo)

But here’s a piece of advice. I get that you don’t like people trashing your guns. I’m the same way. But claiming you’ve put 10,000 rounds through your $500 gun “with no issues” isn’t the way to address that criticism. First, everyone knows you probably haven’t fired 10,000 rounds through any gun. Second, firing 10,000 rounds without a single issue is what battlefield-grade weapons do, and even they rarely meet that standard. No one believes your budget gun did it.

Be Honest

In the end, be honest with yourself. What are you trying to accomplish with whatever gun you buy? Gucci guns are unnecessary. They’re often great, but you don’t need them. Less expensive guns can and will do the same job, even if you are a SWAT guy. However, understanding your chosen gun’s role will help you assess where you can cut costs and where you shouldn’t.

Also, consider buying what you can afford and working toward what you want. That’s what I did with my Hi Points and my PPQ. I didn’t know I was doing that at first, but that’s what it became. The Hi-Point you can afford is better than wishing for a gun you can’t, no matter what internet critics and gun snobs might say. And if you are an internet critic or gun snob (or both), consider holding your tongue sometimes. Choosing between groceries and a pistol isn’t difficult. People do what they can. Now, if they’re spouting off about how their $250 gun is “just as good” as your H&K VP9…you gotta do what you gotta do. But maybe save it for the loudmouths.

The trick is doing your homework. I spent dozens of hours (not kidding) researching handguns before settling on my PPQ. That was time well spent because I’ve never regretted that purchase. Research will teach you where you can get a good quality product without the premium price tag. That sweet spot exists. I’ve mentioned a couple of guns like that in this article. Guns that probably should cost more than they do. The Hi-Point isn’t one of them. But I’ll give you one example of what that looks like: an IWI Masada pistol. You don’t have to buy that gun, but it’s a great example of the concept. You’re welcome. Put in the work, understand why you want your gun, and take care of it. I promise that your gun will almost certainly be “just as good” for the role you’ve assigned it.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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