No discussion of guns and the right of armed rebellion would be complete without a look at the only genuinely successful example of such an insurrection in US history -- the Ku Klux Klan. This is, after all, the only time in our history in which irregular resistance of the every man and his gun type successfully defeated the US military and persuaded it to back down.
I can imagine at least some defenders of a Second Amendment right of armed rebellion taking offense at this statement. Am I calling them racists or comparing them with the Klan? The answer is no, although the fact that the Klan is the only example of a successful rebellion of the kind they romanticize should cast some doubts on their romanticization or irregular rebellion. At the very least, it should cast doubts on the underlying assumption that everyone who offers irregular resistance to the federal government is necessarily a good guy. Plenty of bad guys offer armed resistance as well. But that is not my primary focus here. My primary focus is two-fold.
First of all, the Klan had its defenders, both among contemporaries and later historians, particularly the Dunning School in the early 20th Century. But if any of the Klan's defenders justified its actions by arguing that members were simply exercising their Second Amendment rights of armed rebellion, then I, for one, have never seen that argument. Most of the Klan's defenders have spoken more in terms of necessity, self defense, and having no other recourse. As a typical example, "When a people find themselves persecuted by aliens under legal forms, they will invent some means outside of the law for protecting themselves; such experience will typically lead to a weakening of respect for law and a return to more primitive methods of justice." So said Walter Fleming, a Dunning School historian of the early 20th Century. There are numerous similar examples, but I do not care to go to the work of hunting them down. All defend the Klan's actions by some sort of appeal to necessity. None suggest that such actions were authorized (or at least facilitated) by a Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. And all acknowledge that the Klan had some downsides, that its violence got out of hand and exceeded what was strictly necessary for self-defense, but sometimes lapsed into settling personal scores. Naturally, today's Second Amendment insurrectionists never even acknowledge that such a thing could happen.
Second, one can ignore the Klan's racism and look at it in solely tactical terms as what appears to have the best chance of success engaging in armed rebellion against the US government.* I see the following factors as significant:
The Klan was a highly popular movement. It has been estimated that in some areas, as many as two-thirds of all while men participated. And certainly few doubt that most white southerners supported the Klan's ends, though not necessarily its means. Again, this casts doubts on the inherent virtue of people who engage in armed rebellion against the US government, or of the public at all. But otherwise insurrectionist would presumably like this factor. It means that extremely widespread armed opposition can defeat the federal government. Insurrectionists might not like my other conclusions as much.
The Klan had limited objectives. It was not seeking to overthrow the US government, or to secede again. In some cases, it sought to overthrow Reconstruction state governments, but most of the time it just wanted to end federal occupation and direction of their states. It seems most unlikely that any larger objective would have succeeded.
The Klan had many powerful political allies in the North. The northern Democratic Party as a whole had no use for the Reconstruction, occupation of the South, or racial equality. They simply wanted to defeat secession, bring the Southern states back in, and wash their hands of the whole matter. This outlook was widely held among the Northern Democratic public and in Congress. Democrats in Congress either denied that any reign of terror was going on, or insisted that black people brought it on themselves with their "insolence." They saw federal occupation of the South as illegitimate and what happened there as a matter of states rights. Even many Republicans regarded a powerful federal government as inherently oppressive and wanted out. Once again, it is far from clear that the Klan would have succeeded without strong political allies in positions of power.
The Klan hit soft targets. The Klan's racism can be ignored in a purely tactical discussion of its success, but I do not see how its choice of soft targets can be. The Klan did not take on the Union Army directly. It terrorized black people and white Republicans (northern and southern). In this, it was fairly typical of guerrilla resistance movements in general, which begin by hitting soft targets, and only move up to harder ones as they become stronger. And in the case of the Klan, its choice of targets was closely related to its strong political supporters. Most Northerners did not care if the Klan killed black people, or even white northern Republicans. But if it had taken on the Union Army directly, Northern opinion would have been outraged by this act of open rebellion and have supported a severe crackdown.
So, if the Klan is to be taken as typical, it suggests four factors that would make armed rebellion against the federal government most likely to succeed. The movement will need strong popular support, at least in a given region. It will have a better chance of success if its objective are less ambitious than the overthrow of the federal government. Its chances are better if it does not limit itself to military means, but has plenty of allies in the corridors of power. And at least at the outset, it will probably not be strong enough to take on the US military directly and will have to start with soft targets. And this last should be particularly troubling to "Patriots" who see themselves as the good guys in such a struggle. Choosing soft targets doesn't make one look like good guys, but it is the most effective way to avoid being slaughtered.
*Granted a sample of one is not large enough to give any kind of scientific validity, but one is the size of sample available, so we have to make do with what there is.