Building Your Gear – 1 of 3, Shopping Skills

My name is SARGeek and I’m a gear junkie. It is not an uncommon failing amongst geeks of various trades (science, computers, technical vocations, etc.) that we tend to be a little nuts about cool gear and will “Ooooh” and “Ahhhh” over it like kids. It’s not (quite) an universal geek trait but it’s close. In my case it is reinforced by the things I do both for fun and for service in my community, backpacking, rock climbing, HAM radio, and Search & Rescue in Colorado tend to be gear-intensive activities. Over the years I’ve built up quite a bit of gear and thrown quite a bit in the trash in disgust. Along the way I have learned a few things that apply to most gear-related situations, specifically to include defensive carry and the Emergency Preparedness topic on the GunToters Forum. Since the gear involved tends to be what my lady refers to as “spendy” and since most of the folk reading this are not in a position to buy stuff just to try it out, I thought I’d share some of my learning on this in hopes of saving you some money to spend on training and practice ammo. This will be a series of articles (I currently have very basic outlines for three) covering several aspects of building what my Aussie friends are fond of calling “kit”. So without further ado…

For most of us the biggest barrier to building up the kits, bags, and tools we want is that we have many demands on our hard-earned money. Whether we’re supporting a family, living on a fixed income, or whatever the situation, there are very few of us who can just go shopping whenever the mood strikes. So here are some ways to make your money go as far as possible. Feel free to comment below on your own ideas and successes to add to mine.

Cheap gear costs more

It sounds like an oxymoron but it’s true. How many discussions and articles have you seen on the costs of cheap holsters? Well, the same concept holds true across a large part of the gear spectrum. The “why” is simple; well-made items constructed of quality materials will last longer, wear better, and most often perform far better than the opposite. This isn’t anything mysterious but it does seem to get blocked from sight when someone goes into the Bargain Box Store. This isn’t to say that you should buy the most expensive item for any given application, just that it is unlikely to the point of absurdity that the cheapest ones will do well.

So how to strike the balance? What will do the job well, last as long as possible, and be easiest to use for the amount of money you’re forking over for it? What do you look for to help you decide? I look for quality of materials, quality of construction, fit, and finish. Having looked over a lot of gear in the past 30 or so years since I started buying my own tools, I rarely give the least expensive stuff more than a cursory glance unless it catches my eye as an exception immediately. I almost always look to the middle of the road priced stuff as a starting point and then start the rest of the research.

Name brands can be rip-offs too
There seems to be a cycle with brands. They start out small and if they sell a good product and a good value they grow. As they grow they often improve and offer even more good products and even better version of the original product. After a while the bean counters start into the mix and look for ways to cut costs, this is a critical point in the life of the brand because if they maintain quality and save by doing the same work with the same product more efficiently, they will grow some more. But if they start cutting corners in product quality or customer care they are headed for a downturn. Dr. Stephen Covey has a great example of this, and the breach of trust it creates, in his landmark book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” when he discusses a chowder shop that comes under new management and starts watering down the successful recipe. Beware the name brand that is coasting on it’s reputation. Look at the product in front of you and it’s value, quality, and features. If it is worth the money they’re asking without the name printed on it then you’re in good shape. If not though…

Another pitfall companies often fall into is an attempt to break out of a niche market by building a cheaper product to sell to a mass market. It may have the cool name printed on it but it’s not going to be the item you expected it to be.

There are good brands out there maintaining the integrity of their products and customer service. But look at the actual product to make the decision, then reward those companies with your business.

Start with key items when building kit
When you are building a set of gear for any reason you want it to be “operational” in the least amount of time. It is a drain on your resources to have a bunch of parts and not be able to effectively use any of them because the important ones are missing. For example, would you buy a holster or two, and bunch of ammo, and all the brushes to expand your cleaning kit and then wait six months or more to buy the gun to which it all applied? The same is true for other types of gear; it’s hard to go backpacking without the pack in which to hold everything you’re taking with you! Since you will be building any “kit” or set of gear around some key items, focus on those first, this helps shorten the time until the whole set is usable and helps fit secondary gear (holsters, sights, ammo) to the key items as you get them, making the whole shebang more effective.

Where to spend the money
Obviously you want to get as good as you can afford for any application that is important. That said, we all have to make decisions about where to focus our dollars when we’re starting out to build stuff up. As I work with young people teaching them wilderness SAR (Search & Rescue) I am always asked what the most important parts of the field gear are. My answer: The pack and boots. This is because without those two items meeting at least a minimum standard, the trainee won’t make the first 5 miles of the day, let alone show up for the second day! In any application there will be “foundation” items that serve a critical function in what you are doing. In defensive carry it is usually the firearm itself. You’re a lot more likely to get away with a cheap flashlight than you are a cheap gun! Not to recommend getting “cheap” anything but you have to set some priority items if you are to succeed. Make these the items that are central to the task for which you intend to use the kit. For carry that means get a good gun and put it in a good holster since hopefully that is where it will spend most of it’s time.

Where to save up front
Rarely can we buy all the toys… Ooops! I mean tools, that we want up front. So where to we “get by” with the less costly item, or even wait for an item altogether, as we get started? My rule of thumb is as follows: “If the item is critical to the function of the gear set it must be good enough to do the job at least until I can replace it”. All else is a judgment call. This will vary from person to person even in the same application. For example, someone who is mobility-challenged may have higher requirements for being able to access a holster than someone who can stand up easily or worm around without restriction. In that case, saving on the holster would be a poor choice. However, there may be offsetting savings they can make, possibly in running shoes since they are not going to be setting any records there. Shoes that support the foot and provide good traction may be enough since they are not going to be running very quickly no matter what shoes they have. In hiking and backpacking and good set of breathable waterproof rain gear can run over $200 very quickly. When getting started though a $10 poncho will keep you and your gear dry in the rain until you can get the better stuff. In reloading, that turret press may be nice but if all you can afford is the single stage it will work, spend the money on carbide dies that will last longer and work to better tolerances for consistency in your hand-loads. I think you get the point.

Used gear
This is particularly applicable to defensive carry and shooting. Many of us look for used guns and even other gear so I thought some coverage of this would be to the good. Used gear should be treated like you would purchase anything that was new with a few extra considerations. If you know how to judge the product, then look at it yourself, if you don’t then get an expert to look it over. In guns this is of particular importance because they are life safety equipment and they are subject to some rather extreme stress in regular use. The pistol that looks brand new could easily have bowed chamber walls from shooting the “super-duper, extra spicy, kill-a-bear” load that some guy thought was the way to make a 9mm act like a .357. On the other hand, the old lever gun with the scratches in the furniture and a little wear on the bluing may be immaculate mechanically.

If you are looking at something yourself: Does it have enough wear left to do the job? Has it been damaged in a way that makes it less reliable?  Does it fit?

If a deal seems too good to be true than it probably is. Craigslist and eBay are afflicted with con artists who would rip you off. They are the bane of the majority of folks there who are really trying to deliver value and be fair. If it looks like a fish and it smells like a fish, don’t let someone try to tell you it’s a cat.

In closing
Most of the folks reading this have been around the block in life and much of what is said above seems like remedial training. I have noticed however that whenever we get into something new we tend to lose track of what we already know in our expectation that we are newbies and so we don’t automatically transfer across knowledge we’ve already gained that may apply. Even if you are new, don’t sell yourself short. Our community, whether here or at our older location, has a tradition of treating new folks with respect, genuine welcome, and friendly assistance. That includes pointing out that you may know more than you think you do as well as instruction on what is new.

Next time I’ll talk about putting a set of gear together for a specific purpose. Be it carry, a day hike, or a HAM radio response to a disaster.

I hope this was helpful.


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7 Responses to Building Your Gear – 1 of 3, Shopping Skills

  1. Taurian says:

    Excellent write-up!

    Regardless if someone has been around the block or a “Probie”, this is good information to consider.

    I’m looking forward to the remaining two write-ups.

  2. DangeRuss says:

    Nice post SARGeek.
    I look forward to the #2 and #3 posts in the future, Keep up the good work.


  3. Pingback: Building Your Gear – 2 of 3, Planning a Kit | Gun Toters

  4. rdpG19 says:

    Nice article and very true, I’m on a fixed income and have to save up/spend my dollars very carefully. When I first started carring I ended up with about a dozen cheap holsters, none of them worked for me. I now have three that I actually use two IWB and one OWB.

  5. Pingback: Building Your Gear – 3 of 3, Substitutions and Interim Items | Gun Toters

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