By Cope Reynolds
Suarez International Staff Instructor
In today’s troubled world, and with the threat of things becoming even more troubled, the subject of what firearms are best for particular situations comes up with monotonous regularity. In this article I will weigh the pros and cons of different weapons, ammunition, sighting devices, storage techniques, and a few miscellaneous subjects. This is not intended to be all-inclusive, or the “word of law.” My opinions and methods of doing things come from listening with an open mind, experimenting without fear of failure, and the experience of over 35 years of hunting, plinking, competition shooting, reloading, and living in the Southwest--where it is possible to do these things whenever the mood strikes. I hope to be able to save the new shooter/survivalist the expense and inconvenience of learning things the hard way, and maybe offer the experienced shooter an idea or two he hasn’t thought of.
WHAT IS SURVIVAL?
The subject of what is the best survival weapon has created some intense debates over the years, often resulting in fist fights, best friends splitting up, divorces, sabotage, or relocation. It really doesn’t have to be that way. One of the problems is that everyone has a different definition of “survival.” To some, it means an end-of-the-world scenario (as in the movie “Mad Max”) where things just can’t get any worse. For such an unlikely event, one would want to choose a gun that never needs repairs or spare parts, and for which there is an unlimited supply of ammo available. For others, survival means constant foraging for food while having to battle foreign troops of the New World Order on a regular basis. In such a case, one would want a gun of the same caliber and type as one’s opponents. This would make it easier to “liberate” needed ammo and magazines. Still others feel that survival entails avoiding detection, gathering food, and repelling unwanted guests.
The “Mad Max” scenario is unlikely (though not impossible) in our lifetime. And by the time we got to that point, you’d probably not have the same weapon you started with anyway. The “New World Order” scenario has less to do with survival than combat. A true survival situation would, in my opinion, require a somewhat different kind of rifle than that which would be used primarily for combat. The “avoiding/foraging/repelling” scenario is not only the most likely, but is already a way of life for some.
What I’d consider to be a true survival situation might be caused by such things as getting lost or injured in the wild, car wrecks or plane crashes in remote areas, or a social and/or financial collapse that forces us to hunt for food and protect our families from predators and looters. For purposes of this article, let’s assume that these possibilities are what we’re primarily concerned with.
RIFLES AND AMMUNITION
There’s no way we can discuss every scenario that may arise, but let’s try to cover some that are most likely, and the rifles and ammunition combinations that are best suited to them.
When someone has to survive an unscheduled stay in the wild, the three most important things that a rifle can accomplish for him (or her) are signaling, defense, and harvesting small-to-medium game for food. For food, you need to consider the areas you’ll most likely be traveling in, and what kind of game is around. A rifle chambered for the .22LR will probably do 90% of anything you will need to do in the U.S. This caliber has taken--and will continue to take--deer, though for this purpose it is a very poor choice. However, the lowly .22 is a fine choice for small game, requiring lightweight, inexpensive ammo and causing minimal damage to the meat. The sharp crack and high decibel level of the .22 also makes it fairly good for signaling.
While not the best choice for defense, the .22 makes a formidable weapon in the hands of a calm, cool, collected marksman. If you’re traveling and not really expecting trouble, but want to have something available “just in case,” you might consider one of the take-down models such as the Marlin 70SS, or a copy of the old Charter AR-7. They’re light, compact, and relatively inexpensive. Ruger, Marlin, Remington, and others all make fine .22 rifles in semi-auto, bolt, pump, lever, and single-shot actions. Another good choice that offers something for big and small game and defense is the Savage 24-F or 24-V. This combination gun offers the shooter the versatility of having a rifle and a shotgun in the same easy-to-carry package. The rifle barrel is on top and is either currently, or has been, offered in a number of different calibers, including .22LR, .22 Magnum, .22 Hornet, .222, .223 and .30-30. Depending on the model, the shotgun portion can be had in .410, 20, or 12 gauge. The newer 12 gauge version offers interchangeable choke tubes.
Another popular combination is the carbine and handgun that use the same cartridge. This is particularly appealing to those who carry both a sidearm and a rifle and wish to avoid the weight and confusion of carrying two kinds of ammunition. The semi-auto rifle versions that shoot 9mm, .40 S&W, or .45 ACP do not offer much of an advantage over their handgun counterparts in terms of velocity or energy, but do provide a longer sight radius, thus improving accuracy. However, the survivalist who is armed with one of the lever action carbines chambered for the .357, .41, or .44 Magnum, or the .45LC cartridges, paired with one of their handgun counterparts, is indeed very well armed and prepared for most anything he may get himself into. In my opinion, the .357 is the best option given the scenarios we’re considering here (unless you happen to be in big bear country) due to ammo availability, light recoil, and fairly mild muzzle blast--though a .357 Mag handgun still has an earcrushing blast. Since the .357 carbine will shoot most anything that the .357 revolver will, including .38 Special, you should never have any ammo-feed problems.
A good rifleman should rarely feel undergunned with a lever action in a firefight. It’s a very fast-handling weapon, and there are no magazines or stripper clips to lose or damage. The venerable .30-30, for example, is an outstanding rifle, though keep in mind that there is no conventional handgun chambered for that round. Unlike any of the military-style weapons, the levergun can be loaded without taking the gun out of battery. In other words, when there’s a lull in the action, or while you’re moving to another position, it’s simple to stuff more shells into the tubular magazine. If while doing this the enemy catches you by surprise, you simply drop the rounds still in your hand and resume firing. There’s no chance of dropping the magazine you were loading--thus being left with an “$800 single shot.”
For those of the military persuasion, or who are preparing for TEOTWAWKI, a whole new set of rules comes into play. Quite naturally, we’d still like a rifle that is easy to handle, but we also might want to consider a semi-auto built for sustained fire. The military (or military look-alike) weapons are the ones that really fill the bill. When it comes to these, there are a couple of things you need to consider before your purchase. First, of course, is ammo availability. Can you afford enough ammunition to last the duration of the hardships that may befall you? Also, if you’re forced out of your home and away from your supply cache, for whatever reason, you really don’t want to be shooting a “bastard caliber” (i.e., one that is rare and thus difficult to replenish). While you may not like to think about harming others, you need to consider choosing a caliber that is likely to be used by either looters or foreign troops. That way, you can more easily acquire additional ammo should you be fortunate enough to be the victor in a skirmish.
Another thing to think about with regard to military-style rifles is the detachable/fixed magazine dilemma. Sure, the detachable mags are faster to reload, but how many can you carry at once? Are you sure you’ll make it back to base tonight where there are more magazines awaiting you? And did you stash enough magazines to begin with to last you indefinitely in the event that manufacturing is disrupted? Also, what makes you think that, due to the stress and confusion of a real live gunfight, you’ll remember (or have time) to pick up your discarded mags? You are not in the military. There’s no resupply waiting in the rear. No air drops. This is one of the reasons I prefer the SKS over the AR-15. I know, I know. The AR-15 is what we’re all used to . . . and many of the parts will interchange with the M-16 . . . and it’s a NATO round . . . and yada, yada, yada.. But the .223 does not have the energy of the 7.62x39, the AR is not as reliable as the SKS, and although the Ruger Mini 14 is a very reliable weapon, it lacks a little in the accuracy department. The .223 runs out of energy at 300 meters or so, and the 7.62x39 generally runs out of accuracy at about the same distance. Each has virtually the same effective range. However, the 7.62x39 does have substantially more energy at longer ranges.
But back to the magazine debate. I prefer the fixed magazine of the SKS because I can't lose it. And I can also single-load it through the ejection port if I run out of stripper clips. As to size, I prefer the 20-round fixed mag over the ten-round. Now, I don't use the 20-round mag because it holds 20 rounds; I use it because it holds more than ten. That may sound stupid, but let me explain. With the standard ten-rounder, if you fire less than ten rounds, you will have a partially full mag that cannot be refilled except by loading one round at a time. This means you're either going to have a partially loaded gun, or a half-full stripper clip rattling around in your gear losing shells, or you'll have to take time to top off the mag by hand. Circumstance may only allow you to get one stripper load in the 20-round magazine to start with. If you start out with either ten or 20 rounds, you can then shoot anywhere from two to 11 rounds and still be able to easily insert a full stripper clip into it. (It is quite difficult to insert a ten-round stripper in a 20-round mag that already has ten rounds in it; they call it a 20-round magazine, but it works best with 18 or 19.) Since you will not be able to lock your bolt back to insert a stripper clip in an SKS with a partially loaded magazine, here is the procedure that works for me: place the butt of the rifle in the groin area, just below the opening of your right hand trouser pocket. Then reach across the top of the rifle with your left hand and pull the bolt handle fully to the rear. This will eject a live round out that you can either let fall or catch with your right hand (if you have time). Now let the bolt slide slightly forward to accept the clip and insert a loaded stripper clip with your right hand. Now grasp the rifle's forearm with your right hand and release the bolt handle with your left hand and you’re ready for action.
Ideally, we would all like to have either an M1A or FN-FAL (my personal favorite is the AK-47)and a couple hundred 20-round magazines, but for those who just recently started preparing, or who can’t afford the expense, that’s only a dream. Any good rifle chambered for the .30-06, .308 (7.62x51 NATO), the .223 (5.56 NATO), or the 7.62x39 will suffice. But do take the aforementioned suggestions into consideration before buying. Yet another consideration is the ability of your rifle to resist corrosion and weathering. It’s advisable to try to find a rifle with a protective finish, or that is made of stainless steel, and has either a laminated wood or synthetic stock.
There are a number of different sighting options for the survival rifle, all of which have their own calling in life. The open, iron sights that come on most commercial hunting rifles are suitable for most purposes, but are fragile and useless in low-light situations. A good quality scope, on the other hand, is no more fragile than open sights and offers far superior accuracy and low-light capabilities. A good compromise between the two is the aperture, or peep, sight. This sight is used on almost all military-style rifles and is rugged, easy to use, and highly accurate. Aperture sights are also significantly better than open sights in low light. The aperture sight is operated by centering the uppermost part of the front sight in a small aperture in the rear sight, while also holding the front sight on your target. Your eye naturally places the front sight in the center of the aperture with little or no conscious effort on your part. The rear aperture appears as a cloudy ring and is not distracting at all. Just focus on your front sight (which you should also do with open sights, of course, but it’s easier with peep sights), place it on your target, and shoot. These are also sometimes called “ghost ring” sights.
Handguns provide yet another platform for some very heated discussions as to what’s best for what purposes: revolver versus semi-auto; single-action or double-action; stainless steel or blued; short barrel versus long barrel; 9mm, .40, .45, .38, or .357. There are also arguments over whether it should be carried “strong side” (i.e., on the side corresponding to your predominant hand) versus “crossdraw,” and the shoulder holster versus the tactical (hip or thigh) holster. And there’s always the night sights issue. It seems the things people find to argue about are practically endless. Let’s try to address a few of them.
Whether you should carry a wheelgun (revolver) or a self-feeder (semi-auto) is a matter of personal preference. Both have their good and bad points. The revolver is somewhat slower to reload and, in most cases, has fewer shots to offer. But there are no magazines to lose and they are mechanically fairly simple. Another thing to consider is that revolvers are offered in much more powerful calibers than are most self-feeders, if that is of concern to you.
In order to reload the double-action revolver with any degree of rapidity, one must use speedloaders. These are nifty little cartridge-holding devices that can release a full load of cartridges into the cylinder of your double-action with the twist of a knob or the push of a button. They are not quite as fast as changing magazines in a semi-auto, but run a very close second with practice. The best speedloaders on the market, in my opinion, are those manufactured by HKS. They are incredibly rugged and reliable. In contrast, reloading the single-action revolver requires removing and replacing cartridges one at a time. An alternative to this would be to have another cylinder or two fitted at the factory for your gun. This will allow you to change cylinders for a more rapid reload, but is not really cost effective. When buying revolvers, stick with top name brands such as Ruger, Smith & Wesson, Colt, and Taurus. My personal favorite is Ruger. Their revolvers are extremely rugged, moderately priced, and more than adequately accurate.
Modern manufacturing techniques, advanced metallurgy, and the advent of space-age polymers have made the semi-auto pistol every bit as reliable as the revolver, and in many cases just as accurate. Modern semi’s are available in a number of different finishes, such as stainless steel, electroless nickel, Parkerized, and, of course, blued. Stay away from nickel or chrome plated guns. They are pretty durable, but once the plating chips, the chip increases in size until the gun must eventually be refinished. The last decade or two has also brought us pistols built on a polymer frame. The most notable of these is the Glock. The Glock was the one of the first of the “plastic” guns, and is virtually indestructible. The polymer that Glock uses is 17% stronger than steel and 83% lighter. In the standard Glock, there are a total of 36 parts, including the magazine, base plate and follower, 3 pins, and no screws. The Tennifer finish on the metal parts is more durable than stainless steel and nearly as hard as diamonds. Needless to say, Glock is also one of my personal favorites.
The debate over which handgun caliber is best is as old as the calibers themselves. The bottom line is shot placement. If you don’t hit your target in the right place, it doesn’t matter what you use. Two of the most popular calibers are 9mm and .45. The 9mm has more penetration than the .45, but the .45 has more energy. My personal favorite is the .40 S&W, as I think it has the attributes of both. But none of these has quite the power of the .357 magnum, let alone the .41 mag or .44 mag.
For carry, I prefer a crossdraw holster for my hunting revolvers, and a beltslide for my daily carry gun, which is a Glock. The crossdraw allows easy access to the gun when driving or riding a horse. The lighter, shorter semi-auto in the beltslide is not even noticeable and I can wear it in any situation.
Tritium night sights are definitely a plus in low-light operations. They offer a very clear, precise sight picture even in total darkness. Tritium is a radioactive substance that generates light--but don’t worry, you would have to ingest something like 30,000 sets of them in order receive as much radiation as one dental X-ray. Most of these sights offer a 12-year half-life, which means that they will be half as bright in 12 years as they were when they were manufactured.
The handgun’s role in the survival arsenal depends a lot on how proficient you are with it. Although a handgun shouldn’t be considered your primary weapon, you should be competent enough with yours that if it was all you had, you’d still be able to feed and/or defend yourself. Generally speaking, the average effective range of most handguns is about 50 yards. That being said, depending on caliber and type of gun, you can easily stretch that distance out past 100 yards with practice. A good, accurate .22LR handgun, such as the Ruger MK II or Single-Six, is indispensable for small game hunting. Most handgun calibers are also suitable for deer-sized game if you are close enough and place your shot well. I am not, however, advocating that an inexperienced handgunner go after deer, except in an emergency. Also, you would be well advised to buy a handgun with some kind of protective finish, or (with respect to self-loaders) a polymer frame.
Whatever sidearm you choose, use the right ammunition for the job. For defense from most animals (including two-legged varmints), and also for hunting medium-sized game, a good hollowpoint is the most effective--although there is considerable evidence that some of the flat-nosed, hard cast bullets are also very effective in the hunting field. For larger dangerous game, and for smaller edible game, a solid bullet such as some FMJ’s, and most hard cast bullets, are the better choice. They’re better for dangerous game because they offer more penetration, and for small game because they don’t destroy as much meat as a hollowpoint.
A FEW WORDS ABOUT SHOTGUNS
For personal protection, the shotgun has no peer. It is a graphically devastating weapon. For most of the purposes considered in this article, a pump-action 12 gauge is hard to beat. Although the 20 gauge is a very comfortable and effective gun to shoot, it’s best reserved for hunting. This is because you’ll have a hard time finding either buckshot or slugs for the 20. Wal-Mart, for example, rarely even carries the heavier 20 gauge stuff, simply because there’s not enough demand for it. And it’s hard to get them to special order things sometimes. A lot of men buy a 20 gauge for their kids or wives, but they mostly use them to hunt birds or rabbits, so most stores don’t see a need to carry anything but the smaller shot. There just aren’t very many people who hunt deer with a 20 gauge, or use it for defense.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the 20 gauge; we have two of them. But for a survival situation, the 12 gauge is a much better choice, simply because of ammo availability. Police, military, other survivalists, militia members, ranchers, etc., all use the 12. If you do insist on using the 20 gauge, and plan on storing a bunch of shells to make up for non-availability, what happens if you have to “bug-out”? You can only carry so much, and leaving the gun behind shouldn't be an option, as I think a shotgun is mandatory. When you use up what you can carry, you’ll just be out. You can’t carry all that reloading stuff with you, either. I personally am not really stocking up on any reloading supplies. Of course, I have a bunch anyway, just because it’s a serious hobby of mine, but I figure when things go bad, I would rather have all those components already assembled into something that I can use.
Something else to consider is power. While the velocities of the 20 gauge are comparable to the 12 gauge, the weight of any given shot charge or slug is much more with the 12. Granted, this generates a little more recoil, but my 5’5”, 140-lb. wife can handle a 12 just fine. (She also prefers a .44 mag to hunt with. It’s all in the training.) The 20 gauge usually shoots a slug that either weighs 273 grains or 328 grains. And I have one “recipe” for a 341-gr. slug. Compare that to a 12 gauge that shoots slugs weighing anywhere from 437 grs. to 575 grs. That’s a hell of an increase in delivered energy, which translates to penetration and longer range. Twelve gauge slugs are also good medicine for “hard” targets; i.e., cars, block or brick walls, and so on. Not as good as a .308 or 30.06 in some cases, but still very good.
As far as buckshot goes, #3 buck is the by far the most common for the 20 gauge. If you get much bigger than that, the 20’s little shell just doesn’t hold enough pellets to do any good. If the 12 gauge only holds between nine and 12 double-ought buckshot pellets (depending on manufacturer and type of wad used), you can safely assume that the 20 would hold only five to six of the same pellets. While you can put eight pellets of #1 buck in a 20 gauge shell, most 12 gauge loads will hold 16. In any case, you’re not looking at a very dense pattern from the 20 for defensive purposes.
A couple of the best choices for defensive shotguns are the Mossberg 590 or 500, and the Remington 870. While some will tell you that the 590 is far and away better than the 870, it really comes down to what you like. I’ll admit that the 590 has a slight edge over the 870, simply because it was designed solely as a combat shotgun. It really has no sporting purpose. There are plenty of after-market accessories available for both the Mossberg and the Remington. Also, Winchester makes a couple of suitable defensive-type shotguns, but I have no personal experience with them.
LONG-TERM GUN STORAGE
A question I get asked frequently is, “How do you suggest I store firearms and ammunition in such a way that I would not lose them in the event my house burned down or was broken into or Uncle Sugar wanted to come get them for one reason or another?”
One way is to buy one of the waterproof containers available almost everywhere (and cost too much), slide your gun into a rust-proof storage bag, put it in the container, then bury it somewhere. The method I recommend, however, works just as well and will protect your guns indefinitely.
Buy as much 8-inch PVC pipe as you need from a water/sewer materials distributor. Eight inches in diameter is larger than you will find at any hardware store. Get the kind of pipe designed for handling sewer water rather than fresh water (ask for SDR35). The water pipe works fine, but is unnecessarily heavy and expensive. There are three kinds of caps you can get to seal the ends. One kind is glued on and is permanent, but if you’ve never installed pipe before, it’s easy to miss a spot with your glue and thus allow for leakage. Another kind of cap is rubber gasketed. To use these, bevel the pipe back about 3/4 of an inch with a rasp or grinder, smear an even coat of lubricant on the pipe end (any kind of liquid soap will work), then slip the cap on. If done correctly, the seal will be absolutely 100% air and water tight. The third kind of cap uses a glue-on adaptor with a screw-type plug. You just glue the adaptor to the pipe end and the plug screws in to it. But these are unnecessarily expensive and just about impossible to remove without a BIG wrench. In my opinion, the gasketed caps are the best choice because to remove them, you can hold the pipe between your legs and kick them off or use a rock. No tools are required. To put them back on the pipe, just use a little liquid soap as you did the first time. You should have room for two long guns, a couple of handguns, and a little ammo for each in a 4-foot section of 8-inch pipe. Since scoped rifles, rifles with fixed mags, and even some open-sighted rifles with a lot of drop in the stock may not fit into a 6-inch pipe, spend just a little more and buy the bigger 8-inch stuff.
Now that you have your pipe prepared, clean your guns as you normally would, leaving a very light film of oil on them. Forget cosmoline or heavy grease; Break-Free is my preference. Slip each gun into a breathable case, then put it into your pipe. To make an effective dessicant, put some crushed sheetrock or kitty litter on a cookie sheet and bake it at 300 degrees for about 30 minutes. Fill a sock half full with your homemade dessicant, tie it off, and put it in the pipe. (If you don’t like the homemade method, you can always go spend a bunch of money on special dessicants that some people say you just can’t live without.) Before sealing, keep the pipe in the house for a day or two to make absolutely sure that the interior is as dry as it can be. This is especially important if you live in a humid climate.
Bury the sealed pipe somewhere away from your house, preferably half a mile or more depending on the population close at hand. If possible, bury it vertically in order to present a smaller target for metal detectors and ground penetrating radar. If you must bury it close to your home, try to place it parallel to metal pipelines, under the edge of a metal-reinforced concrete slab, under a fence post, etc.
In closing, I would like to offer my suggestions for a practical arsenal. For the individual that is solely concerned with wilderness survival and personal defense, I would suggest, at the very least, a .22 handgun and rifle, a centerfire handgun, and a shotgun. The .22s provide you with the means to practice a lot for the price of peanuts. As I noted at the beginning of this article, a .22 will do 90% percent of whatever needs done. The centerfire handgun or the shotgun will provide you with all the defensive capabilities that you’ll need for any dangerous game or bad guys you’re likely to run across in the woods.
For folks who are concerned with the state of the nation and the rough waters that lie ahead, I would suggest all the above, along with a centerfire rifle in one of the configurations we discussed earlier. Remember, you can’t have too much ammo. I would recommend you have a minimum of 1,000 rounds for each centerfire rifle, and 500 to 1,000 rounds for the shotgun, with about half of that being birdshot (such as #6 or #4) and the rest in heavy buckshot and slugs. The birdshot is just as deadly at close range as the bigger stuff and is also suitable for small game hunting. I’d also suggest 500 rounds for each centerfire handgun, and as many .22 shells as you have room to store. I truly believe that .22 ammunition may be the standard by which barter with, at least for a time. I think the time will come when a box of .22 shells will buy you a chicken or two or a set of flashlight batteries.
See that every person in your home who is old enough to shoot is properly trained in the use of all these guns, and that eye and ear protection is available.
There are many other things concerning the troubled times that await us that I’d like to share with you, but that’s another story.
Copyright 1999 by Cope Reynolds
This article may be freely copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, as long as it remains unedited as to content (which includes the title, the author’s name, and copyright information), and this notice is attached.
Want to read more? Here is a link to an article I wrote awhile back about survival guns.