Build a fire. Sounds simple enough, right? We can all agree that the skill of building a fire is an important one. Whether it is to provide light and heat during a wilderness survival situation or just getting the fireplace going for a romantic evening at the house, everyone should be able to start a fire. This subject came to mind when I was looking at all the “cheater” options for getting a fire going. Modern technology makes getting a fire going entirely too easy. You can douse your firewood with lighter fluid or if that is too complicated, you can just light the paper bag containing a log made of compressed sawdust and an accelerant. Maybe we could go old school and pile up some sticks and logs then pour on some diesel fuel. Any of these methods should get a fire going, but are we cheating ourselves out of a skill that could save out lives if we are in a true survival situation and need fire to keep from freezing? I’ve been guilty of this myself too many times. I’ll want to get a fire going for any number of reasons, but I want it going now. Out comes the petroleum products and a lighter. Instant fire! When I was younger, I could put together a nice little fire with a little piece of charred cloth and a flint and steel. That’s not a skill I’ve practiced in many years, so I’m not sure if I could still do it. That is something I need to refresh on. In the meantime, it’s handy that I smoke, because I always have a Bic lighter with me. It’s part of my EDC, all day every day. Even having a lighter doesn’t mean that someone can build a good fire. It still takes skill to turn that small ignition source into a fire that can sustain itself. We’ll look at the skill of starting a fire, but this article is just as much a “Can You?” as it is a “How To.” Each of us should honestly evaluate our ability for firecraft. If you find yourself lacking, then practice now so that the skill is available if you truly need it. I know I need to improve my skills quite a bit.
I’ll cover some basics and explain how I go about starting a fire. There are as many ways to set up for building a fire as there are people. Some are no doubt better than others, so if my way conflicts with a method you already use just go with what works best for you.
The first thing I like to do is figure out where I want to build my fire. Once it’s lit, a fire is pretty difficult to pick up and move. Select an area that is safe above all considerations. Lighting fires under low hanging tree branches or on grass in the middle of a prairie are both really bad ideas. Keeping your fire from getting out of control is a major responsibility. I like to find an area close to where I need fire that is already as free from vegetation as possible. Before I do anything else, I remove anything from the site that can catch fire. I push or scrape back leaves and grass. If possible, I’ll dig a shallow hole to help contain the fire. Adding a ring of rocks can add some additional safety. Just be careful if you use rocks from a river. They can contain water that will boil and can cause the rock to explode. I thought this was a myth until I had a rock blow up rather violently. Once I’ve got my spot prepared, I start gathering my fuel for the fire.
There are three types of combustible materials used in starting a fire. They are tinder, kindling, and finally the main fuel source (usually logs). Tinder can be any material that takes a flame easily and burns rapidly. Dry grass is a favorite, but you can use any number of materials. If need be, you can take larger sticks and use a knife to shave off very thin slivers to create tinder. I figure out how much tinder I think I need, then collect about twice that amount. Next we move on to gathering up kindling. Kindling is simply small twigs and sticks. These sticks should range in size from very thin to sticks about the thickness of a finger. When I’m laying out my kindling, I sort it from smallest to largest. This makes it easy for me to grab it in appropriate order once I have a flame going. Now I start to gather larger pieces of wood to use as my main fuel source. These range from the diameter of my thumb up to as large as I can find. I lay these out the same way as my kindling. Having everything at arms length and ready to go makes starting a fire much easier.
There are several methods of laying out the materials to start the fire. Most common methods have names that are self explanatory such as the “Teepee” and the “Log Cabin”. I prefer to start out with a log cabin design then move over to a teepee once the fire is well established. With some experimentation, you will find what works best for you.
I start with a big handful of tinder and fluff it up a little to allow airflow. Once the tinder is ready, I lay it out and put some of the smallest kindling on it. When I’m first starting the fire, I don’t add anything bigger than the diameter of my pinky finger. I have larger pieces of kindling within easy reach to add as the fire starts to grow so I don’t have to move from my position.
Light It Up!
Now that everything is laid out and I have my tinder and small kindling ready, it’s time to break out the ignition source. Like I said earlier, I prefer Bic lighters, but matches work wonderfully. Fire steels also work well if you are proficient in getting a good stream of sparks from one. I try to light my tinder on two different sides as quickly as possible. Once the tinder catches, you should see the small kindling start to catch pretty soon after. As it catches, carefully place more kindling on the fire. As the new material catches, start adding the larger pieces. Within a couple of minutes you should be adding some of the largest kindling if your fire is healthy. At this point, the fire should be burning pretty well without having to constantly add material to it. Once I get to this point, I start laying pieces the diameter of my thumb and larger in that teepee design. Now it usually looks like a pretty good fire. Through the whole process, I add progressively larger pieces of wood until I’m using material from my main pile. At this point, it is easy to adjust the size of the fire normally by adding wood as it needs it.
A lot of fire safety is basic common sense. First and foremost, touching the fire is a bad idea. Don’t do that under any circumstances. It might seem obvious to us, but make sure any children around are well supervised. This is one lesson kids don’t need to learn the hard way. Also, be aware that metal is a great conductor of heat, so if you are using coat hangers or metal skewers to cook hot dogs, they will heat up. No need to turn a hot dog roast into an exercise in cattle branding.
If you cheat and decide to use an accelerant, please be careful. Vapors can be explosive and any spilled liquid can combust easily. Pour the liquid then light it rather than pouring flammable liquids on a fire that is already burning.
Control that fire! By starting a fire you assume full responsibility to control it. In most places, you even assume legal responsibility for any damage resulting from your fire. Before starting a fire, be sure you have a way to extinguish the fire. If winds start to pick up, monitor any blowing embers to make sure they can’t start another fire. When in doubt, just put it out.
This weekend the Self Reliance Expo made its stop in the north Texas area. Sarah and I managed to sneak over for a few hours to see what was going on. This was a pretty big feat for me since I had to violate a personal rule about crossing into Dallas County. Dallas has a lot to offer and a lot of cool things going, for most people. It’s there if I need it, but I can generally make due without the massive 6 lane freeways and the 5 mile long interchanges that involve half of the major interstate highways in Texas. Couple that with all the drivers that feel like they aren’t moving unless they are passing you. Yeah, I generally avoid the big city unless something really cool is going on. Fort Worth can be crazy, but Dallas is usually pure insanity. That “something cool” was there this past weekend.
We didn’t get to make it out that way until around noon on Saturday. I like getting to events much sooner to the opening than that, but with prior obligations we got there as soon as we could. I was hoping that showing up halfway into the second day of a two day event would still allow me to see everything available and meet the folks I was hoping to run into. I wasn’t disappointed in the least. We made it just in time to catch the presentation from Doctor Bones and Nurse Amy from Doom and Bloom. It didn’t take long before they had our full attention. For an hour they covered medical care for collapse situations. Everything from broken bones to lacerations was covered in detail with a great slideshow presentation. I’ve sat in on medical presentations in the past that bordered on boring. A few have crossed over into true slumberland. Not this round. Doctor Bones and Nurse Amy are both good presenters and enjoy interacting with their audience. Not once did I get the feeling that they were dragging. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on their new book, The Doom and Bloom Survival Medicine Handbook. I was planning on getting one at the expo, but Doctor Bones explained that they managed to sell every copy they brought with them.
Once the presentation was over it was time to hit the aisles and see the vendor booths. Food and water are always popular items at events like this, so I got to get myself familiar with the product offerings for both. Berkey water filtration seemed to be a hit, so it took me a few minutes to get up to the booth and ask a few questions. I was surprised as the number of options available for filtering water. I knew about the big countertop units Berkey offers, but discovered they have other options as well. Of note were water bottles with integrated ceramic filters. Sarah pointed out this might be a good gift option for friends of ours that spend a few months each year in research in the jungles of Central America. To say the water should be avoided down there is an understatement!
Next we were on to the food vendors. The normal offerings were available including Mountain House, Wise and Thrive brand long term foods. Sarah discovered Thrive’s freeze dried grated cheese. We’re both a little leery of long term dairy, but this stuff was pretty good. We’ll be adding some of that to the long term storage. The hit of the day for me was the booth for OvaEasy Whole Egg Crystals. I’ve had dried eggs in the past and the results were less than stellar. After asking the important question… “Are these just powdered eggs?” I was presented with a fork full of scrambled egg. That answered the question. “NO” these are not just powdered eggs. They tasted like eggs, but more importantly, they had the texture of eggs. Gonna have to add this one to the long term storage grocery list.
There were several booths extolling the virtues of alternative energy at the expo. That’s a subject I’m interested in, but the product prices in that field are pretty much off limits for the prepping budget in the short term. I didn’t spend much time in those booths, but will be sure to the next time the expo comes through town. I spent a little more time with the custom knife makers, but their wares were out of the budget as well. My lust for a custom knife will have to wait until more important items are procured.
The folks at Ready Made Resources were there showing off some of their cooler products. I only got to speak with the proprietor for a minute since his booth seemed to be one of the most popular that afternoon. They were showing off a solar power pack that looks incredibly portable and useful, but I didn’t get a chance to ask many questions thinking I could find it on their website. No luck yet, so it looks like I need to give them a call.
On our way out the door, we paused to talk with the folks from Backwoods Home Magazine. I’ve been a fan of theirs for a long time, so I really enjoyed getting to meet Dave Duffy, the editor. Since I think they do a lot of great work for the Survival and Homestead community, I decided to go ahead and get a magazine subscription. They make a ton of info available on their website for free, so I wanted to support them on the side of the business that pays their bills.
Overall, I was impressed with the Self Reliance Expo. I think it was well worth the ticket price to get in the door. I hope the show was successful enough to expand to other cities, and I certainly hope to see it again in north Texas. Now I I can just talk them into moving it a little west to Fort Worth so I don’t have to break my “No Dallas” rule again!
Once again, I’ve managed to stumble on a great deal on a great weapon for zombie defense. My endless hours of reading all things gun related on the internet yielded another interesting firearm I needed to check out. I love finding good guns for great prices to add to the collection. The latest find covers that important niche of home defense. We’re all familiar with the benefits of shotguns in home defense, and how potent they can be if hoards of the undead show up at your door. I’m a firm believer in the power and versatility of shotguns, and I’ve been a fan of pump guns for their reliability. I’ve shot dozens of different shotguns over the years from the cheapest pumps up to the legendary “B” guns like Benelli, Browning, and Beretta. Each has their place, but I always come back to the pump guns. In my opinion, they are the most durable action available. This can be evidenced by the fact that they are widely used in police and military applications. I’m not going to criticize anyone that owns a semi-auto or double barrel by any means, but I personally favor the pump shotguns for most applications. Now that I’ve got my ramblings about preference out of the way, we can get to the point of the gun in question…
H&R has been in the gun business for over a century. They’ve long been known for offering reliable guns for a cheap price. They’ve gone through more than a few ownership changes over the years, but still offer great guns and wonderful customer service. I own several of their guns and have yet to have a problem. Their mainstay is the single shot platform in both shotguns and rifles. I’m a firm believer that you can’t go wrong doing business with them. Recently they started to branch out and expand their line. Part of that expansion is into the pump shotgun market. I was hesitant to jump on board at first since they weren’t manufacturing the guns themselves. I was unsure about quality and simply put, I prefer to buy guns made in America. With that said, I did my research about their pump guns and couldn’t find any negative reviews. I’ve been wanting a short barrel 12 gauge pump for a while and looked at all the offerings. Remington and Mossberg are the go to in this market, but I was turned off by the price of new pump guns. That’s where H&R comes in. They offer their Pardner line of pump guns that are imported copies of the famous Remington 870. The model that caught my eye is the Pardner Protector. It seemed to fit the bill on what I was wanting with a much less expensive price. I hit the road in search of one to put my hands on. After visiting the local gun show and a couple of local stores with no success, I went to the Cabela’s store here in north Texas. Luck was with me on that trip. Not only was one available to handle, it was on sale for Christmas. The salesman hands me the gun to check out and I begin my overly thorough examination at the gun counter. I’m sure I irritate sales staff with these examinations, but I like to do my due diligence before forking over my hard earned cash.
The Initial Examination
As I was handed the gun my first impression was “This thing is built like a tank!” It’s a little on the heavy side, but the proper balance is there. Now I start looking for this little flaws in machining and finish that tell me if the gun is manufactured as cheaply and quickly as possible. I’m sure it is, but I want to see if attention to detail is there. Looking over the crown of the barrel and fit of the receiver to the stock, I’m pleasantly surprised. Everything looks good. Opening the action reveals the same satisfaction. All the guts look smooth and they fit together like they should. The only flaw I could really see is that the oil from the gun interacted with the styrofoam in the box to create this sticky white residue on the top of the receiver. I can deal with that later.
Now onto the workings… Pumping the action reveals a solid feel with the forearm. That’s always a big selling point for me. If the forearm feels wobbly, it’s a big turn off. I grab this one, shake it a little, then rack the action. Solid feel for sure. Sliding the forearm forward feels solid too. The receiver locks in good and of course it makes that incredible sound known the world over. I’m pretty sure I was grinning at this point. A few more racks of the action and I’m convinced. I grab the barrel to make sure it fits the receiver well with no play. Another solid fit. Now it’s time to look at that price tag hanging from the trigger guard. $159.99 for a limited time only! SOLD! Now it’s time for all that fun stuff like Form 4473 and waiting for the background check.
Now to cover the basics of the gun. The H&R Pardner Protector sports a black synthetic stock and forearm. It comes with an 18.5 inch barrel chambered for 3 inch shells. It doesn’t come tapped for chokes, but I’m not interested in that for a gun with a short barrel. It does, however, come drilled and tapped for mounting optics, sights, or a rail on the receiver. The receiver is almost identical to the Remington 870. Since it is made of steel rather than an alloy, it’s more a copy of the 870 Police model rather than the 870 Express. This was a big selling point for me since the Police model 870 is pretty freaking expensive. Overall length is a little over 37.5 inches and it weighs in at 7.5 pounds empty. That’s a touch heavy for a short barrel shotgun, but it feels balanced in the hands. Capacity is 5+1 using 2 3/4 inch shells. Most of the Remington 870 accessories will work on this gun without modification. The big exception is replacement barrels. I’ve read that 870 barrels can be modified to fit, but with other barrels available from H&R, I don’t see the point in modifying a Remington barrel. Magazine extensions are iffy as well. As far as I can find out, Remington tubes are too long. Wilson Combat makes a +1 extension tube that is rumored to fit. I’ll be giving this a shot in the near future. Another nice addition is the gun comes with sling attachments, including a swivel at the end of the magazine.
After getting the gun home and cleaned up, it was time to figure out when I could get out and put it through its paces. Luckily, my cousin called me up wanting to shoot a few rounds of skeet. We got to the range and walked up to the skeet field. Needless to say I got some chuckles when I uncased a black shotgun with an 18.5 inch barrel. One of the other shooters asked if I was expecting a riot on the skeet range. I just took it all in stride and got myself together for our first round. I step up, load a couple of shells and get set. “PULL!” “BANG!” Then a clay turns into a little cloud of black dust. Now I’m the one chuckling while a couple of other shooters are wondering if their foot will fit in the mouth. The first round went well for me and I finished up breaking 20 birds out of 25. Now the other shooters are interested in what kind of gun I’m using to outshoot them. We ended up shooting 6 rounds which comes out to 150 shots. Every time the gun fed the shell in smoothly and put lead downrange. I was expecting a hiccup somewhere in there since new guns tend to run a little tight. Not an issue one. I’m pretty abusive on a pump shotgun when shooting clays, so I was a little concerned. I’ve actually broken the slide arm on a Mossberg 500 at a previous range trip. The Protector took the abuse in stride. 150 rounds in rapid succession is a good way to get a gun hot and dirty, especially using cheap shells. Even when it got hot, the Protector ran smoothly. Overall, we had a great time at the range and the Protector proved itself.
I had concerns about the gun when I was researching before buying. H&R Pumps are manufactured in China and that can be hit or miss with quality. After my experiences with this gun, H&R did well when selecting a manufacturer. They felt comfortable enough to put their name on it, and I feel comfortable giving it my personal endorsement. I know there are plenty of purists out there that say they would never buy a Chinese gun, but I would point out them that China has a long track record of making some fine firearms. Anyone will admit that Chinese SKS rifles are top notch, and just about anything else labeled Norinco. I prefer to buy as local as possible, but I’m also have an eye for a good deal that fits my budget. The Protector fits that bill. This gun gets the seal of approval for quality, function, and finish. I would recommend it to a friend and to any of my readers that are looking for a reliable weapon for home defense or the zombie apocalypse. I really tried to look for flaws or issues and haven’t had much luck finding anything wrong other than the weight of the gun. It’s slightly heavier than the comparable Remington 870 Police model. Even this isn’t much of a flaw since I carried it around for an afternoon without much fatigue. If you are looking for a good deal, this might be the gun for you. I plan to add a few accessories to my gun, including a collapsible stock and the Wilson Combat mag tube extension. Once I get around to these modifications, I’ll revisit the gun in an article to let everyone know how well everything fits.
A lot of natural disasters can be area specific. Folks in Minnesota really don’t need to prepare for hurricanes and folks down in southern Florida don’t really worry about being snowed in. Each of us should look at the possible natural disasters for our area and do our best to be ready in case one strikes. But there is one disaster that doesn’t care if you are in New England or the southern Great Plains. Thunderstorms can develop anywhere in the country, or world for that matter. Sure, some places they are more frequent, but anyone can experience the damaging winds, flooding, and lightning strikes from a thunderstorm. The area I call home is notorious for violent thunderstorms, so much so that we just consider them a normal part of life. Spring and summer are the seasons where they show up most frequently, but we’ve had some pretty significant storms in the dead of winter. We won’t go in to great details on the meteorology behind storm formation since this article is geared to being prepared to cope with the effects of a thunderstorm. The National Weather Service has great information on thunderstorms and their formation, so I’ll post a couple of links at the end of the article.
Thunderstorms come in a couple of varieties and vary in intensity based on a lot of complex variables. There are some necessary ingredients for a thunderstorm to get going. These are humidity, instability, and lift. Lift is one of the most important parts of storm formation since the stronger the lift the more intense the storm. There are lots of causes of lift, but the most common is a frontal system. Cold fronts are notorious for spawning storms if the other conditions exist. As a cold front moves across an area all that cold dry air interacts with warmer humid air and forces it up. We’re all familiar with those radar images of a long line of thunderstorms moving over a wide area. Occasionally these systems can be very powerful producing hail, heavy rain, and powerful winds. Tornadoes in these systems can pose a threat as well.
The next type of system to look at are the infamous Supercell thunderstorms. These aren’t as common as frontal systems which is good for us. These thunderstorms can turn ugly in a hurry. I’ve personally seen, chased, and spotted these types of storms and I’ve seen hail the size of softballs, straight line winds of 100 miles per hour and tornadoes. One of the biggest problems with this type of storm is that they can develop very fast, which doesn’t give us much time to prepare for them. When your local meteorologist is predicting conditions favorable for the formation of Supercell storms, you should start paying attention to what’s going on. You might not have much warning to take shelter.
The best course of action is to be prepared before you get word that a storm is on top of you. You don’t want to be the one in a panic when the weather radio starts broadcasting a severe thunderstorm warning or a tornado warning for your area. Of course, having plenty of warning is nice but it isn’t always possible. I’m a firm believer in having a plan in place before anything can go wrong. One of the most important parts of having a plan is being able to get important information in time to act on it. Thunderstorms are a great way to have a power loss, so getting information can be affected when the power goes out. Having a battery powered NOAA weather radio is a must. With a battery powered radio, you’ll never be without the information you need to react to any developing weather situation. Be sure that radio has good batteries and know where spares are. The last thing you want is to hear the name of your county then silence because the batteries died. I’ve covered being prepared for a power outage here, so check that out since it applies quite well to storm induced power outages. The next step is to have a predetermined place in your house to take shelter if you need to. The best place is an interior room, hall, closet closest to the center of the structure and as far from windows as possible. If you have a basement, that’s probably the best place to be. If your house is two story, a closet under the stairwell is pretty good. Stairwells are usually close to the center of the house and are pretty strongly built. If your house doesn’t have features mentioned, a bathtub with a mattress or heavy blanket can can provide additional protection. Analyzing this beforehand will let you have the area prepared to shelter in case of a severe storm. If possible, stage a blackout kit and a weather radio in this location. By doing this, you can eliminate running around to locate what you need when you should be getting to cover.
Getting Caught Outside
One of the scariest experiences you can have is getting caught out and about during a violent storm. Many years ago, a storm producing softball and grapefruit size hail moved rapidly over Fort Worth, Texas. Unfortunately, it moved right over a big outdoor public event called Mayfest. 10,000 people were caught out in the open as the storm moved over. A lot of people scrambled to shelter in vehicles, but with hail that size windshields and windows were shattered. Over 90 people were injured by the hail. 16 people were killed in this storm, mostly from drowning in flood waters. It’s actually amazing that more people weren’t killed or injured in this storm. The biggest lesson this event teaches is to have a plan in the back of your mind if you are out and about with the threat of severe weather. If you are in your vehicle, get to a safe place and park. Try to get in a sturdy building if you have time. If not, staying in your vehicle is the safest bet. It will provide some shelter from rain, wind, and hail. If there is a lot of lighting, try not to touch any metal surfaces inside the vehicle. Hail and windblown debris can shatter windows, so if you can you should cover up with a blanket or coat.
After the Storm
Once the storm has passed, it’s usually safe to get out and survey any damage. A lot of folks like to drive around an look around the neighborhood or town. There is still a silent danger lurking after the storm has passed. Storms produce a lot of rain, which results in a lot of run-off. This water will flow into creeks and flood control channels pretty quickly. Those rolling waters kill more people than just about any other weather event each year. You’ll do well to keep yourself and your children away from any rushing water. If you are driving, NEVER cross running water. A few inches of running water can sweep a vehicle away. As the National Weather Service says, “Turn Around, Don’t Drown.” It would really suck to survive a violent storm then end up failing at survival because of flood waters.
My friend Brian Burns is an incredible songwriter that put out an album several years back called “Heavy Weather”. It isn’t a survival topic by any means, but the album certainly relates to the topic at hand. The title track is my theme song when I’m out chasing thunderstorms. You can support independent artists and check it out here.
As promised, an article on the basics of reloading shotgun shells! If you read the previous article on centerfire ammo reloading, you’ll notice quite a few similarities. You’ll also notice that there are some differences in construction. Shotshells do follow the basic process of other ammo reloading in that you still have a case, called a hull, a primer, propellant, and a projectile (actually a lot of small projectiles). We’ll add to that list a wad, also known as a shot cup. This is a small plastic device to hold the shot together and protect it from hot gases on its trip down the barrel. Once the shot and wad exit the barrel, the wad has served its purpose and will fall to the ground while the shot continues on to your target.
Another difference between shotshells and centerfire cartridges is the equipment used to reload. There is shotgun specific reloading equipment that won’t work for centerfire reloading. Initial investment can run about the same as getting set up for centerfire reloading, so a lot of people choose to start with one or the other. At the time in my life when I started reloading, I was doing a lot of shotgun shooting, and I mean a LOT. It was normal for a couple of buddies to get together and shoot three cases of shotshells over a weekend. I was lucky enough to have a friend’s dad be a former skeet shooter that no longer wanted to reload. I was able to buy his press and enough components to reload 3 cases of shells for a hundred dollar bill. I never did the math on return of investment, but I would imagine it paid for itself within a week with the amount of shooting I was doing.
Polyformed versus Compression Formed Shotshell Hulls.
Before we get into the actually construction and process of reloading shotshells, we need to look at the types of hulls commonly available. The two most common hulls on the market differ in the way they are made, and this has a huge impact on reloading. Polyformed shotshells are the most common in factory loaded ammo because they are cheaper to manufacture. These are easy to identify because the plastic part of the hull has a slight ribbed texture to them. Most companies offer these type in their less expensive game and target loads. They can be reloaded, but the results are less than stellar. You have to find load data specifically for them to be safe, and the crimps don’t hold very well, so you might have shot leaking out in the box or in the magazine of your gun. These hulls are also slightly weaker, so they are prone to cracking or tearing when reloaded. In my opinion, it’s best to leave them out when selecting hulls to reload.
Compression formed hulls are smooth to the touch (they lack the ribbed feel). These hulls are used in factory loaded ammunition and usually cost quite a bit more. A couple of examples of factory ammo that use compression formed hulls are Remington STS and Winchester AA. These offerings can sometimes cost twice as much as other shells. The compression formed hulls are considerably more durable and can be reloaded several times before they need to be replaced. These hulls hold a crimp well and offer a better reloading experience. It’s best to stick with these types of hulls for all of your reloading needs.
The Construction and Operation
Shotshell construction differs quite a bit from rifle or pistol cartridges. This is the main reason for the difference in equipment. The concepts and a few components are the same, but shotshells add another component that centerfire cartridges don’t have, the wad. A wad is a plastic device that looks similar to a badminton birdie. Its main purpose is to hold the shot charge while it travels down the barrel. It also serves to protect the shot charge from the hot gases from the burning powder. Without a wad, the shot pattern of the shotgun would be awful, and the hot gases would deform a lot of the shot, even further destroying the pattern and accuracy. The next component is the shot charge. Rather than a single projectile, shotguns offer a charge of small, round pellets that spread out once they leave the barrel. Shot comes in all sorts of sizes and materials to suit the needs of the shooter. Since reloading data is measured by weight, what size you use can be determined by your needs. There isn’t load data specifically for individual shot sizes, but rather how much shot you add. Examples would be a 7/8oz load or a 1 1/8oz load. Load data will be the same for the 7/8oz load whether you opt for small #8 shot or larger pellets like #4.
Now that we’ve covered the differences from centerfire, we can look at the similarities. Shotshells use a primer to ignite a powder charge to generate the force to propel the shot charge down the barrel. This concept is identical to centerfire cartridges. The primers are larger, but they serve the same purpose. When you shoot a loaded shell in a shotgun, the firing pin strikes the primer to ignite the powder which burns to create a lot of hot gases. These push the wad containing the shot charge down the barrel. Once the wad and shot charge leave the barrel the shot charge continues on to target while the wad falls to the ground. Wads are disposable, one-use pieces, so there’s no need to go find them and attempt to re-use them. Luckily they are very inexpensive.
Most shotshell presses offer “stations” that perform each step. Some require each hull to be moved manually to the next station and some will automatically move the hull for you. One feature most offer is that you can have hulls in each station at the same time so as you are completing the first step on one hull, the next station is completing its step on another. This really speeds up the process.
1. Depriming and resizing.
This step only applies if you are using hulls that have already been fired. You can skip this step if you are using new hulls. Basically it is exactly as it sounds. The spent primer is forced out of the primer pocket and at the same time the brass portion of the hull is forced back to factory specified size. This ensures your hull will fit the chamber of your shotgun.
Once you have a hull prepared, the next step is to seat a new primer. Shotshell reloading presses have a specific station just for this because primers contain small amounts of explosive mixtures. You have to use the specialized tools on the press to do this. If you try to install a primer by hand, it’s very possible to ignite the primer. Different presses have different ways of delivering the primer under the hull, but mine is simple. I set a primer in a small recess and the press pushes the hull down onto it.
3. Adding the Powder Charge.
Once you have a primer in, you add the gun powder. Most shotshell presses have a slide bar that you move to one side to drop a pre-measured powder charge. Once you slide it over, it uses gravity to deliver the powder through a tube into the hull.
4. Inserting the Wad.
On most presses, this step is completed in the same station as adding powder. You set the wad at the open case mouth and pull the lever to force the wad into the hull. There are varying amounts of pressure to seat specific wads, so you’ll need to make sure the seating force is set properly on the press. Once the wad is seated in the hull, you proceed to the next step which is usually done in the same station.
5. Adding the Shot Charge.
With most presses, that same slide bar that adds the powder will add the shot charge. you simply slide it the other way to gravity feed the shot into the hull on top of the wad. If you’ve added the proper amount of charge, there should still be a small amount of empty space at the case mouth of the hull.
Crimping the case mouth serves to close off the case mouth to hold in the shot charge. This step should seal up the end of the hull well enough that shot stay in, even with some rough handling. From the factory, most crimping dies are set pretty well and don’t require much fine tuning to get a good crimp. Occasionally, you might need to adjust the crimp die. In my personal experiences, this can be a headache. Set it too deep and the end looks like a funnel that lets shot out. Crimp too shallow and you have a funky looking dome that lets shot out. Adjusting the die just right should result in a crimp that looks identical to factory loaded ammunition. If you have to adjust the die, plan on screwing it up a few times while you fine tune it. Patience (which I rarely have) is paramount on setting the dies!
Some Thoughts on Specialty Reloading.
The process I’ve just described works for most of your shotshell needs. I’ve reloaded for target shooting like trap and skeet as well as game loads for dove and small game. The shot charges are measured in ounces and the press will automatically load the proper amount if you install the correct bushing in the slide bar.
Buckshot varies from the process in that it cannot flow well through the slide bar on most presses. Once you get to the point of adding a charge of buckshot, you will need to count the individual pellets and add them to the hull. Larger buckshot requires that you stack it in the hull in a certain way so that the proper number of pellets will fit. Buffer material is usually added to the shot charge to provide cushion to the lead pellets. This prevents deformation which can lead to poor patterns. I recommend using commercially available buffer material. You might find some load data that recommend using all sorts of things including corn meal. Just don’t. It might have been good 80 years ago, but we have better options today. Cornmeal and other materials might get damp and clump up or bind together. It is best to use the best materials available for reloading.
Some people are going to want to load their own slugs. I’ve never loaded slugs so I’m not willing to offer advice on the subject. There is a lot of information available from other sources, so if you want slugs you are on your own. I might learn the techniques at some point and cover it in a later article, but for now I’ll leave it alone.
As always, I have some comments on safety. When reloading any type of cartridge, you will be dealing with gunpowder and explosive primers. Safe handling procedures are paramount. I don’t want to hear about any of my readers losing a finger or starting a fire in their garage. Please pay attention and follow all the rules and processes carefully. As I stated in the article on centerfire cartridges, only use PUBLISHED load data. There is a lot of data people offer up on the internet, but unless it can be verified as safe, stick with the data from component manufacturers.
If you want to start reloading for shotshells, make your first purchase a reloading manual. This will get you all the load data you need and lots of great information on reloading in general. For shotshell reloading, I highly recommend the Lyman Shotshell Reloading Handbook. It has great load data and step by step instructions for safe reloading. This is the book I rely on most for my shotshell reloading needs.
There comes a time when people look around and start to see through the complacency that most of the population is guilty of. With that first realization that things might not always go as planned comes a little bit of panic. All of a sudden you feel inadequately equipped to take care of yourself and your family. If you let the unease or panic influence your decisions, you’ll start spinning your wheels or even worse, you’ll spend a bunch of time and money in ways that don’t offer much benefit. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there with a case of MREs in a closet somewhere that don’t feel any better about their situation. Then there are folks that do what modern people do when they don’t know something, hit Google and start reading. The are tons of great resources on being prepared, but there is a lot of chaff to sort through. I visited hundreds of website, blogs, and online stores before I started getting relevant information. I haven’t found many sources for a new “prepper” to get information on where to start, so that prompted me to put one together. I’m sure there are things I’ll miss, and some folks will think my priorities might be a little off. I’ll take that risk to do my best to help someone new get started without feeling overwhelmed. We’d all like to have a zombie proof compound in the Rockies and provide for all of our own needs, but that’s not a realistic short term goal for most of us. Starting small and working up is the only way to approach being prepared. If you start big and plan for massive global disaster, you’ll always feel inadequate and burnout will set in pretty quickly. Starting small in your own home will give you a feeling of security and give you a base to build on. By starting small, you won’t prepare for any one specific disaster. There are a lot of ways that things can go wrong in life. It’s best to have basic levels of preparedness that will cover a lot of bases. I’ll approach this as a step-by-step plan. This might evolve into an easy to follow checklist with some input from others in the survival community.
Now let’s get to the nitty-gritty of gaining that warm and fuzzy feeling of knowing you are better prepared than most to weather the storms life might throw at us. We all have basic needs to meet to maintain our basic survival like air, water, food, and shelter from the elements. Air is pretty easy; if we don’t have it we are toast within a couple of minutes. For simplicity, we’ll assume air will be available. Water is the next important need to meet. We can only go a couple of days without water before we expire so it needs to be taken seriously. Food rates really high on the list as well. We can go a few weeks without it, but those will be a few miserable weeks. Hunger leading into starvation is probably one of the worst ways to die. We’ll address these needs in our first step.
Step 1. Getting Our Homes in Order.
Being ready at home is as easy as having the things we need available to us every day. Water and food storage is the best place to start. Having a year of food and water put away is nice, but a giant step for any household. Start smaller and look at having a week or two of reserves. We live in a society that allows easy access to grocery stores and a seemingly endless supply of clean water from the tap. Everyone takes this for granted. If we need something, it’s a short trip to the store. Maybe we do this several times a week. At some point, there might be a situation where we can’t get to the store or delivery trucks can’t get to the store to restock. It doesn’t take a massive disaster to cause this. Maybe it’s something as common as a winter storm that makes driving unsafe for a few days. A lot of times, most people never have food to go more than a couple of days. If you have 2 weeks of reserves, you won’t even notice in your daily life. The easiest way to approach building this reserves to look in your pantry and determine what foods that you eat have a long shelf life. Once you have an idea, start buying one or two extra items when you grocery shop. It starts to add up quickly. It is easy to start looking at all sorts of stuff at the store to find the longest shelf life, but limit it to foods you like to eat. A case of SPAM doesn’t matter much if you hate the stuff. “Store what you eat and eat what you store” is a common saying in the survival community. If you like beans, then that makes a great item to have extra on hand. Pasta is another favorite that store well and a lot of people eat regularly. Keep in mind that you aren’t looking for large amounts that will last for years. This is stuff you like to eat, so you’ll be using it and replacing it when you go to the store. This way you have food reserves, but they are constantly being rotated as you prepare meals. Use the oldest first and put the new to the back of the pantry. Now you are not only storing a little extra food, you also have a rotation system in place to make sure you always have fresh food if you need to rely on your storage for any reason.
Storing water often gets overlooked because we have complete faith in our water supply systems. Every time we turn on the faucet, clean water comes out. Water is bulky and heavy, so why would we want to store it? Simply put, our water system can and has failed in the past. It might be a major catastrophe or something as simple as a water main break that interrupts service to a part of your town. If you’ve ever had this happen, you know how quickly grocery stores run out of bottled water. You can store bottled water in individual bottles or in larger containers if you would like. I do this myself, but I also have some regular tap water stored. Water from the tap is usually clean and very cheap. It can be stored in 2 liter soda bottles or in specific water storage containers. I use 7 gallon water containers with a spigot on the lid so it is easy to pour. I got mine in the camping section of a big box store for less than $10 a piece. How much you store is up to you and how much room you can spare, but a good rule of thumb is a gallon per person per day. It never hurts to have more stored for washing dishes and ourselves and flushing toilets. Now for a word of advice I learned the hard way… Don’t store water in milk jugs. The plastic they are made from is designed to be biodegradable and they will start to break down after a short period of time. Also, protect your water containers from freezing. Some are not durable enough to handle the expansion of freezing water and they can crack or rupture.
Step 2. Prepared on the Go.
There might be a time where we have to leave our home to escape a disaster. I’ve seen personally the effects of someone having to leave their house in a rush. In a panic mode, most people will not be thinking clearly and will forget crucial items or they will try to get too much and won’t end up getting much at all in the rush. This is where the often mentioned Bug Out Bag (BOB) comes into play. If you have to “bug out” in a hurry, you need a bag that is already put together that you can grab on the way out the door. like to keep mine in my vehicle, but it’s up to you so long as you can get to it quickly.
The basic concept of a BOB is a bag that can sustain you for 3 days. The contents should be able to meet your basic survival needs. Food and water is a must. Enough water for three days is heavy and hard to carry, so I have some water and a few means to source water wherever I might end up. Water filtration and purification means are important. Hiking water filters and purification tabs serve well. I also keep a 1oz bottle of bleach with me. One ounce of bleach will purify more what than you can imagine, like hundreds of gallons. I also have a means to prepare and eat the food I have in my bag. You will probably want a way to start a fire and shelter yourself case you have to spend the night outside. Having a change of clothes and extra socks and underwear will go a long way toward making a survival situation easier to bear. It would be easy for me to go into great detail on what the perfect BOB should contain, but a lot is personal choice and there are so many resources on the web that cover it better than I can. I’ll post links at the end of the article to help you get started. I’ve also covered overlooked items in a different article, which you can read about here.
Step 3. Your Vehicle.
I’ve already written an article covering vehicle preparedness that you can read here. A lot of people feel better about having their house and BOB ready, but overlook the vehicle. Most of us will take our vehicle if we need to get out quickly, so having what we need there is important. During the widespread evacuations of the Houston area preceding Hurricane Rita, countless motorists got stranded in the gridlock that resulted on every major road out. Most people weren’t prepared to evacuate, so they were at the mercy of others for help to get out of harm’s way and off the road. If you’ve read this far into the article, I’m assuming you don’t want to be one of these people any more.
Step 4. Defense.
In a perfect world, defense would just be limited to keeping the snakes and bears when away in the woods, but we don’t live in a perfect world. In fact, we live in a world where people will literally try to kill others over a sale item at a store the day after Thanksgiving. I’m a firm believer that in most cases the majority of people are good. They will help others and work together to make the world a better place. There are those that are out to hurt, kill, and steal, but I think they are the smallest percent of our population. BUT, when there is a disaster, people panic. When people panic, they do things they would normally never do. The mild mannered accountant might just shoot you in the face to take food if his children are starving. I’m not saying this to scare anyone, and I don’t believe it is the norm, but the threats are there. There are those that would do you harm, either out of malice or out of fear. All of your best preparations are useless if you cannot defend yourself when a wolf is at the door. I know some of my readers live in areas where gun ownership might be difficult or impossible. For most of us it is a right, and one that should be exercised. However, ownership is not enough. Training on the safe and proper use is a mandatory responsibility of all gun owners. Additional training on defensive uses are highly recommended. Most of us might never have to defend ourselves, but it is our responsibility to do so if the time comes. It is also our duty to do so in a means that is appropriate to the level of threat we are faced with. There are personal, societal, and legal ramifications with this subject that I am not qualified to comment on, so I’ll leave it up to each individual.
Step 5. Feel Better and Start Learning.
Once you have the basics of being prepared underway, you should start to feel a little better about where you are. Knowing that you are better prepared to face what life might throw at you is a liberating feeling. I know how I felt when I knew that something as simple as an ice storm wouldn’t make my life miserable. I’m not saying that having to face a disaster would be fun, but it’s a little less scary when you can rely on the steps you’ve taken so far. Most of us at this point begin to feel empowered. We know we can’t control the world around us, but we know we can take steps to handle a lot more than we could before. For me this was the catalyst to start exploring other ways to take back control. This was my first step in self reliance. Now I focus on learning skill and gaining knowledge that will help me as I strive for more freedom from dependency. Which steps you take next are up to you. For me it was learning ways to remove dependency. Growing a garden to provide my family with real, healthy food was a great step in that direction. I was lucky to grow up in a family that placed a lot of emphasis on providing for ourselves. We always had a garden. Now I’m looking at ways to do it better. Every skill you learn should have a benefit. In my life, learning simple things like how to preserve food or fix a vehicle has not only saved me a ton of money, it gives me a feeling that I am in better control of my life. It’s these little skills that tell me I can handle problems as they arise. There is a feeling of freedom there that I hope each and every reader at Surviving Modern Life will grab and make their own.
Links for the Bug Out Bag
Here is a good list, but leans toward being prepared for all out collapse.
This is a very thorough list.
One of the better articles I’ve seen on BOBs
FEMA has some thoughts on how to prepare.
Another great article on getting started can be found here.
A major part of being self reliant is the willingness to take our personal protection into our own hands. As survivalists and preppers, most of us own firearms and are at least somewhat proficient in their use. That takes practice and ammo costs money. I believe that training and practice are worth every penny, especially if you ever need the skills in a defensive situation. If you shoot much at all, you’ve noticed that the price of ammo is constantly going up. Honing the shooting skills can quickly get expensive. The best way to reduce this cost is reloading your own ammunition. I want to give you the basic information that will let you decide if reloading is an endeavor that would benefit you personally. I won’t be going into great detail on the processes because I’m a firm believer that the most important information should come from published, trusted sources. I can recommend where to get technical information about reloading processes and load data. You should never trust load data that isn’t published in a book from a component manufacturer.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to learning to reload is the misconception that the initial startup costs are too high. I’ve proven personally that you can get the equipment and components you need for a reasonable price, less than $100 in some cases. Another major stumbling block is the idea that reloading is complicated and dangerous. It’s a very simple process and will only be dangerous if you don’t follow simple directions and pay attention to simple safety guidelines. I’ve been reloading for years and years without any sort of accident or mishap. Reloading is no more dangerous that filling a car up with gas or using household cleaning chemicals. With all of that said, we can get into the fun stuff!
The best place to start is to cover how ammunition is constructed. Then I’ll move into the actual reloading process. I’m going to be breaking this into two Articles, Centerfire cartridges and Shotshells. Each has its own basic construction and process, and use different equipment. Today we’ll be covering centerfire cartridges.
Centerfire cartridges can be anything from the little .25 ACP up to the 50BMG. As different as they may seem, these two cartridges are constructed the same way and of the same materials. All of the components in a cartridge are a case, a primer, a bullet, and a propellant. Cases are generally made of brass, but some are steel or aluminum. Brass is the only suitable material for reloading. Bullets can be made from all sorts of materials, but the most common are lead alloys and lead alloy jacketed with copper. A primer is the small round button on the bottom of the cartridge. They are a small metal case with a chemical mixture inside that ignites with explosive force when struck by the firing pin of a gun. This small explosion is the “spark” to ignite the propellant charge. Propellants, commonly referred to as powder or gunpowder, come in various textures and burn rates but all of them serve the same purpose. They burn rapidly and create a high volume of hot gas. This hot gas expands rapidly and provides the force to move the bullet down the barrel and out to the target. Different propellants have different burn rates that are suited for specific purposes. Generally speaking, pistol and shotgun powders burn very fast compared to most rifle powders.
The process to reloading these cartridges can be boiled down to inserting a primer into a case, adding a powder charge through the neck of the case, then seating a bullet into the neck. Of course this is stating it very simply and there are a lot of other factors that go into reloading. There are a couple of steps added if you use cases that have been used before. Depriming is the first. The old primer needs to be removed. Resizing is a big step in using fired cases. This forces the brass back into specified size and shape. Cases that have been fired multiple times can “grow” in length, so they must be trimmed back to proper length. Once these steps are taken, the case should be back to factory specs and can be reloaded. For the step by step, we’ll assume the use of new brass that won’t require additional steps. The basic steps are as follows:
1. Priming the case
This step is pretty self explanatory. You use a priming tool to insert a new primer into the primer pocket on the bottom of the case. Because the case now contains a live primer, it should be handled accordingly. Treat it as you would a live round.
2. Adding the powder charge
Using published load data for the cartridge and powder you pick, you add a very specific amount of powder to the case. Different equipment setups do this by different means, but it can be as simple as pouring a measured amount through a small funnel.
3. Seating the bullet
Once powder is added, a bullet is seated into the neck of the cartridge. The bullets usually are of a slightly larger diameter than the case neck, so it is a tight fit to protect against the bullet falling into the case or coming out of its own accord. Some processes call for using a special tool to crimp the bullet into place. This usually isn’t required, but it does have some benefit.
At this point you have a live round of whatever cartridge you are loading. Now I’m going to get considerably more technical about components. You can’t just pick powder and bullet combinations at random. The first step in selecting a combination is finding published load data for the combination you want to use. The reason you should only use published load data is because the cartridge, bullet and powder combination have been thoroughly tested to ensure they will work together in a safe and efficient manner. Developing your own load data requires substantial knowledge and specialized equipment. You might run into some reloaders that claim to develop their own loads by estimating chamber pressures and velocities. This is an unsafe practice since there are countless variables that can influence pressures and velocity. Sticking to published load data from bullet or powder manufacturers is the only way to ensure the load you use is safe. A lot of people decide what bullet they want to use, then look at load data to determine what powder will meet their needs. For any given bullet and cartridge, there might be a dozen or more suitable powders. I base my powder choices on several things; recommendations of other shooters, availability, and price are determining factors for me.
Bullet selection should be based on your desired purpose. Are you going to be using this ammo for practice? An inexpensive full metal jacket (FMJ) should work well. Are you going to be big game hunting? There are hundreds of bullets designed specifically for hunting. Are you shooting long range at varmints? “Varmint” bullets are available that basically come apart on impact to prevent ricochet. Other experienced shooters and reloaders can help you select the right bullet for the job.
Some words of advice and caution… I’ve been pretty adamant so far about following published load data in this article. That means follow the load data to the letter. Do not substitute powders or bullets. Any deviation from the data can take a safe load into the world of ruined gun and injured or dead shooters. I’ve intentionally been vague on details of each step of the process and the equipment to use because no one should read an article on a blog and think they know enough to jump right into reloading. At this point, if you are interested you have some reading to do. A good manual on reloading is invaluable to a new reloader. A mentor with years of experience is even better, but that’s not always an option for some of us. I never had a mentor and I’ve been successful as a reloader. For those that plan to be “self taught”, I cannot recommend a specific book highly enough. It is Modern Reloading by Richard Lee. Richard Lee is the founder of Lee Reloading, a reloading equipment manufacturer. With this one book, you will gain enough information to become a competent and safe reloader. I’ve read several books on the subject, but this one is by far the best. The book is very inexpensive, so if you are interested but still unsure if you want to reload, you can buy it without much investment.
Since I mention in the title about saving money, I thought it was only fair to show you how much money you can save by reloading. I’ll use one of my favorite cartridges as an example. The .270 Winchester cartridge is a pretty common cartridge so it usually isn’t expensive to buy factory ammunition. Premium hunting ammunition ranges from $35 to $45 per box of 20 cartridges. If I reload using comparable components, I can load a box of 20 for $13.50. If I save by brass cases and don’t need to buy new brass, that cost drops to $9.20.
If I reload the 40S&W pistol cartridge using brass I already have, I can put a box of 50 rounds together for around $11.
With prices like this, practice starts to get a lot more manageable. I can shoot quality ammunition made with good components for the same price or even cheaper than buying cheap imported ammunition with steel cases and crappy bullets.
If you have any questions, feel free to email me with the first link in the blogroll on the right side of the webpage. Hopefully this article will give you enough information to figure out if reloading is something you might be interested in. Stay tuned for a companion article on reloading shotshells.
I’m including this link as a resource. It is very thorough and contains more information that I can give in one article. While it is very thorough, I still recommend buying a copy of Modern Reloading to have as a reference.
I wanted to follow up on the post about communications with my thoughts on some of the gear I use personally. Before I get into the main subject, I want to take a minute to fill everyone in on the goings on at Surviving Modern Life. I haven’t been as productive as I would like to be on getting articles up and published. I was on a pretty good roll when I managed to herniate a disk at work. I highly recommend that you do everything you can to avoid injuring your back! I’m the type to avoid going to the doctor or take medication unless necessary, but it became very necessary. I think I’ve been to the doctor more in the past two months than the rest of my life combined. On top of that, prescription pain medication makes me a zombie. I’ve been the walking dead for several weeks, so my writing ability and motivation have taken a serious hit. I’m on the mend, so I hope to get back to publishing articles a lot more frequently.
I’d also like to point out that I’ve added links to the Blogroll on the right side of the page. A new addition is a link to the website of Dr. Bones and Nurse Amy. I’ve been a fan of theirs for a few months now. Their specialties are medicine and gardening (and a combining of the two). Dr. Bones is an MD and Nurse Amy is a Nurse Practitioner and a master gardener. They offer an incredible amount of GREAT medical advice geared toward the prepper community. Check it out, you won’t be disappointed. I also added a link to a new blog from a member of the prepper community. Prepper Gal is just getting started in the world of blogging. Stop by her site and say hi!
I’ve added a “Gear Sources” page at the top of the main page. In there are links and descriptions of places to buy any gear or supplies you might need. Those are personal endorsements from places I’ve done business with, not paid advertisers. The list will grow as I give my endorsement to other companies that offer good value and great customer service.
Now on to the Communications!!
A few months ago I decided to add FRS and GMRS radios to the comms I have available. Sarah and I were walking through Academy Outdoors and I found a set of radios on clearance. I read over the features and they looked pretty impressive. They were on par with radios from other brands that cost a hundred dollars or more, all for the low price of $55. So I bought a set of Cobra CXR920 radios. The two features that made my mind up were rechargeable battery packs and multiple security options. The rechargeable batteries are a big deal since higher power radio transceivers can really go through AA or AAA alkaline batteries. That ends up being a pretty significant operating cost over the long run. THe Cobra radios use Lithium Ion batteries, much like modern cell phones. They hold a charge for a long time and won’t develop as much memory as NiCD or NiMH batteries. I’m still not sure how long the batteries will last because I’ve never had them die on me yet. Granted, we haven’t used the radios in an all day situation yet, but so far it looks very promising. The security settings are nice in that they can help in areas with crowded frequency use. Any major event will find a lot of people using FRS and GMRS radios. Because of this, finding an available channel can be iffy. By using one of the 38 CTCSS or 83 DCS codes, you have a lot of options on getting your own slice of the frequency pie. Just to be fully honest, I wouldn’t really call this security as anyone with a comparable radio can listen in on your conversations. They might have to scan through a lot of channels and codes, but it can be done. Any time you use radio communications, you should have no expectation of complete privacy. Now on to the nitty gritty with these radios…
The packaging promised a 30 mile range, but as I covered in my last article, I knew better than to expect that. These radios operate via UHF frequencies, which means line of sight. If two people are standing on perfectly level ground with no obstructions, the best you can hope for is 6 miles. Physics won’t allow an more range. You can always increase range by increasing the height of the antenna of the radio, but to get 30 miles, you would need one radio to be 360 feet in the air and still have no obstructions. This is theoretically possible, but not likely in most situations. In a real world situation with terrain and obstructions doing their best to block communications, I’ve gotten about 3 miles out of these radios. Anyone that claims to do much better is dealing with better conditions or is exaggerating.
One of the best features these radios offer is probably worth their purchase price by itself. They receive all 10 NOAA Weather Radio channels. This lets me kill two birds with one stone. I’m a firm believer that everyone should have a battery powered weather radio available to them, and if possible, one in the bug out bag. Now I have one with me any time I have one of these radios with me, which is pretty much all the time. Being able to keep up with what the weather is doing can make the difference between a normal outing and a true survival situation. Reception of the weather radio is nothing spectacular, but it is clear enough to understand.
Transmit power isn’t much of a problem with these little radios. They have 3 power settings that are user selectable. FRS channels are locked in at low power since FRS radios are very restricted on power by law. GMRS allows for higher power, so those channels can be selected. Of course, you always want to use the lowest possible power to get your transmission out. Not only is this good radio etiquette, it will also greatly extend your battery life. As a disclaimer… Using the GMRS channels requires a license from the FCC. I believe the cost is $80 annually for the license. There is nothing to prevent unlicensed use other than threat of penalty. This always stand true unless there is an emergency situation. In a real emergency, you can use any means available to place a call for help.
Some other features the radios have that I haven’t used yet include VOX (voice activation) and handfree use, memory for storing channels and security settings, A LOCK feature to keep keys from being pressed my accident, and “Maximum Range” which turns off the auto squelch. This will increase the range of the radios, but at the expense of a lot of interfering noise.
Overall I like the function and operation of these radios. The quality of the construction is top notch. I’ve owned Cobra CB radios and have always been pleased. It looks like Cobra has scored again. I would recommend these radios to anyone needing short distance communications. At the bottom of the article, I’m posting a link to the user manual for the radios. It’s a PDF file of some size, so be warned if you have a slow internet connection.
Today I wanted to cover an often overlooked topic in modern survival. In these modern times, most of us rely on cell phones as our primary form of communication. Some of us rely on them as our only source. It’s easy to see why when you look at plans that offer unlimited calls to other cell phones across a very secure and reliable communication network. I’m not going to bash on cell phones as a communication means at all, I have one myself and feel crippled when I’m in an area with bad network reception or when I make a call and get that dreaded “network busy” flashing across the screen. It doesn’t happen often, but it should have us thinking about having a backup plan in case we need to get that important call out. During a large scale emergency or disaster, we can expect to see this magical service stressed to its limit. The limitations aren’t reached often, but if you look back to the terrorist attack on New York on that awful September morning, a lot of people couldn’t get calls in or out of the area for a while. Even major sporting events push infrastructure to the limit. I used to live within a mile of the Texas Motor Speedway. During a NASCAR race, there would be upwards of 250,000 additional people in my quiet little area of north Texas. Major cell service providers would set up trailer mounted towers to accommodate the additional service needs. A bit of advice when you can’t get a call to go through… Try sending a text message. Texts messages require a lot less network resources to get out and will often work when a voice call won’t. With these limitations in mind, we need to look to other means of communicating with others. This article will not be a in depth technical manual on radio theory, but hopefully it will give you enough information to get you started on setting up a personal communication plan if life doesn’t go exactly as we plan. I won’t be able to cover every form of communication available to us, since that could turn into a year long series on communication where I would have to bring in true experts in the field. I also hope to dispel some of the myths with radio communications that seem to have a stronghold in the minds of a lot of people.
HAM, or amateur radio, is probably the first thing a lot of people think of when we talk about radio communications. During a disaster, HAM operators are instrumental in getting information in and out of an affected area. A lot of radio clubs are partnered with local and state government emergency management agencies. These partnerships allow small agencies access to people with radio equipment and expertise they could never dream of having a budget for. This actually drives a lot of people to get their license to operate within these bands. I personally got my HAM license just so I could participate in a group called ARES, which handled the local SKYWARN storm spotters for the National Weather Service. Even if this isn’t an interest for you, HAM makes for a great communication method. It does require a license to operate within these frequency bands, but the basic license, called a Technician class, is easy to obtain. All you need to do is pass a written test administered by local HAM radio clubs. This would get you started in HAM radio at a basic level. There are two higher level licenses called the General and Extra class. Each of these requires an additional written test that covers more in depth information about radio theory and FCC regulation. In turn, you are granted privileges to more frequencies. At the end of this article, I will post links to a lot of HAM radio resources so you can doo your own research and see if HAM would work for you and your situation. I would like to bring up some of the limitations of HAM radio (and all radio comms for that matter). Despite what we see in movies and have heard from people all our lives, HAM radio will not allow you to talk to anyone in the world in any reliable way. Sure, a lot of operators carry on conversations with folks from Japan or Antarctica or Great Britain, but this is all subject to a concept known as propagation. Propagation is basically the way radio waves travel. That guy you talk to in Japan today might not be heard again. It is dependent on weather conditions, solar activity, antenna design and countless other variables. Also, if you can reach as far as Japan, then you most likely wouldn’t be able to talk to someone in the next town on the same frequency and antenna setup. Sometimes, solar activity can block out entire frequency bands. When I discovered that I couldn’t just get my license and a transceiver and start talking to people all over the world, I was a little disappointed. Even with these limitations, HAM has a lot to offer for backup communication. I personally use the 2 Meter band (144-148MHz) quite a bit. In the north Texas area, there are a ton of repeaters that let me talk to people 30 or 40 miles away with a $100 radio. Not too shabby for a frequency that works line of sight. Of course, these repeaters could be brought down by widespread power outages, but barring that communication is pretty easy across a wide area.
These radios are what most people turn to when they want something to communicate with friends or family over short distances. They serve well for a group of hunters that need to talk across a deer lease or a family at the amusement park that needs to be able to coordinate with each other. One of the biggest thing these radios have going for them is cost and ease of use. You can pick up a pair at any big box store for $20 and get started. Of course, you get what you pay for in that case and the radios will have very basic features. I spent around $70 on a pair that are feature loaded and offer pretty good range. I won’t go into great detail on those radios as I plan to cover them in a review article soon. A couple of things to be aware of when purchasing these little radios are range and legal issues. A lot of them will say on the package that they offer a range of 18 miles or 23 miles or 36 miles. This is complete crap and you can never expect that kind of range in daily use. They operate line of site and no further. If you have someone standing at the top of a mountain talking to someone in town 20 miles away, they MIGHT get that far. There have been reports of these radios going as far as 70 miles, but that required perfect conditions that included line of site, no obstructions, and perfect weather. In all honesty a reasonable expectation is a couple of miles. The other thing to be aware of is that they operate on two separate frequencies. FRS is free for anyone to use, but offers lower transmit power. GMRS will let you operate at higher power, but it does require a license from the FCC. There is no test required, but there is an $80 fee to get it. Using the GMRS frequencies is as easy as changing the channel on the radio, but it is up to each individual user to ensure their compliance with FCC regulation and licensing requirements. I’ve never heard of the FCC cracking down on unlicensed use of GMRS frequencies, but I don’t want one of my readers to be the first.
CB, which is short for Citizen Band, is a high frequency radio that works similar to some HAM frequencies with much lower power limitations. These are the radios found in just about every tractor trailer in the country. They offer good range, in the area of 2 to 5 miles. There is usually a lot of activity on CB frequencies, especially channel 19, which is known as the Trucker Channel. Channel 9 is reserved for emergency use only, so makes sure not to transmit on this channel unless there is a legitimate emergency. Because of their popularity, you should have zero expectations of privacy. This form of communication is excellent for communication between vehicles if you are traveling with a group with multiple vehicles.
A lot of times, you will hear of people getting incredible ranges out of the radios. Some of this is from perfect propagation, and some of it is from people operating at power levels way beyond what is legal. I’ve heard conversations between people that were 80 miles apart. These guys were probably operating at 10 times the legal power levels. Surviving Modern Life never condones illegal activities, so if you were to ever engage in this activity, you are on your own.
There are a lot of other options available for backup communication, but I’ll stop here today. A bit later we can cover some of the other methods. A quick word about legal issues with communications. The FCC has complete control of all radio frequencies. Their power is pretty much unlimited in allocating, assigning, and banning use of radio devices and frequencies. It’s generally uncommon for the FCC to nail someone for abusing regulations unless you are illegally broadcasting to the public or you are causing harmful interference to lawful use of a frequency. That is not to say that you are immune from prosecution is you do break the law. There is one regulation I agree with completely, and it is in regards to true emergency situations. If there is an immediate threat to person or property, you can use any means to call for help or sound a warning. In these situations, you could broadcast with more power than the biggest AM radio stations to call for help if you have the means. I believe the wording of the law is “any available means”.
ARRL – American Radio Relay League. This private organization works closely with the FCC to administer the HAM bands and protects frequencies from being reassigned by the FCC.
Practice Tests and Study Guides – This website has everything you need to prepare for taking HAM radio exams.
FCC – The FCC website contains all the info you need to remain compliant with laws and regulations.
GMRS License Page – Here’s everything you need to know to apply for a GMRS license.
CB Radio – Some basic information about CB Radios