Ask anyone who owns guns or who has made some effort towards preparing for a disaster about a “survival rifle”, and you are liable to get very strong opinions that range from basic, single shot packable rimfires to computer sighted behemoths that border on anti-tank weapons.
The problem is that each person has a different concept of what a survival situation is. For some, it might consist of becoming lost in the wilderness. For others, it might be defending the bunker from the Zombie Apocalypse. For most of us, it is something in between. You may live in the middle of a large city. You may live in the suburbs. You may live in a rural area. You may spend a great deal of your recreational time away from civilization. You may perform relief work in third world countries. Where you think you may encounter a survival problem influences what you would consider as the quintessential survival rifle.
There are different ways to categorize rifles. Three of the more common ways are
- Chambering (I don't use “caliber” because caliber can refer to many different chamberings)
- Action type
- Typical usage
Chambering refers to the profile of the ammunition used in a rifle. Many people confuse this term with the word “caliber”. Caliber refers to the bore size of the barrel on the rifle. For instance, “30 caliber” would cover many, many different chamberings, including 308 Winchester, 30-06, 30-30 Winchester, 30 Remington, 30 Carbine, and a host more.
Some of the more popular chamberings in North America include .22 Long Rifle, 223 Remington (very similar to 5.56 NATO), 30-30 Winchester (sometimes referred to as 30 WCF), 243 Winchester, 270 Winchester, 308 Winchester (virtually identical to the 7.62 NATO cartridge), 30-06, 7mm Remington Magnum, and the ancient 45-70 Government.
Under well defined circumstances, any of these might be a good survival rifle. But, as my respected acquaintance Art Eatman is fond of saying, “no one size fits all”. Here is an example: Let's say you are flying out to the Kenai peninsula to photograph the spring wildflowers that grow there. Along the way, your bush plane crashes, but you survive the crash intact. As you pull out your pack, you remember that you packed your Springfield Armory M6 Scout.
So, you haul the Scout out of your pack and load it with a 22 Long Rifle cartridge and a .410 shotgun shell, and say to yourself, “I'll be OK. If I see a ptarmigan or a hare, I'll have dinner.” At that moment, an 800 pound Alaska brown bear tops the hill 100 yards away to see what all the commotion is.
Chances are, in this scenario, the “survival rifle” is not going to be adequate for the scenario or the location. I am always a little confused by people who think that a firearm chambered in 22 Long Rifle is a good option anyway. It doesn't deter most predators, even two-legged ones, and any game that can taken with it, I can be taken by other methods, like snares and deadfalls. Furthermore, in a situation where there may be multiple predators, say like a wolf pack in the Alaska plane crash scenario, a single shot (or, in this case a 2-shot) firearms don't offer a lot of protection.
Action type refers to a rifles mode of mechanical operation. The more common types in North America are the breach loader, the turn bolt, the pump (or slide) action, the lever action, and the self loader, sometimes referred to as autoloader or semi-automatic. As an aside, a true automatic rifle is one where multiple shots are fired when the trigger is pulled once and held. A semi-automatic requires that the trigger be pulled for each shot.
Breech loaders are simple guns. They may be able to be loaded with one, two, or three cartridges. Most breech loaders have a hinged action which enables the cartridges to be loaded from the breech end of the barrel, and the empty cases retrieved from the breech end once the cartridges are fired. Our M6 Scout is a good example of a breech loader. Breech loaders are slow to operate and have low firepower. In the arboreal forests of the southern regions of North America, where there are no large predators, a small caliber breach loader, like the M6 Scout, might make sense as a survival rifle. In Alaska, however, I would feel more comfortable with a Holland and Holland double rifle, which is also a breech loader.
The turn bolt action is largely thought of as America's hunting rifle. On a turn bolt, there is a cylindrical bolt with a handle that acts as a lever to rotate the bolt in order to unlock it from the rifle's breech so that a cartridge may be inserted into the rifle's chamber for firing. Turn bolt rifles, aka bolt-action rifles, may be single shot, but more often are “repeaters”, that is, they contain a magazine with additional cartridges, which may be loaded after firing the previously loaded cartridge by “repeating” the loading sequence. Below is a picture of a typical turn bolt rifle.
Pump or slide action rifles are not so common. They are almost always repeaters, and are chambered in 22 Long Rifle rimfire as well as most common centerfire hunting cartridges. Remington probably makes the preponderance of large caliber pump action rifles. They can be very fast and accurate in the hands of someone who has trained with them.
The lever action holds a nostalgic place in the minds of most people in North America. It represents the Frontier, the conquering of the Old West. For many people, it is a “cowboy” gun. Lever action rifles may be chambered for rimfire cartrudges, high power hunting cartridges, or for lower power handgun cartridges, such as 32-20, 45 Colt, or 357 Magnum. They are almost always repeaters and can hold anywhere from 3 to 15 cartridges.
And finally, we come to the mack daddy of rifles, the autoloader or semi-automatic. Autoloaders have garnered themselves an unenviable reputation in certain circles in this age of ignorant political correctness. Many times, the Eastern Establishment Press, has equated these rifles to machine guns, using the term “assault rifle” to describe them, when no nation on the face of the earth uses semi-automatic rifles in the role of assault rifles. Regardless, the features and functions that make these rifles desirable in the context of survival boils down to one characteristic: firepower. All autoloaders have a magazine which contains two or more cartridges. Sometimes the magazine is internal, and sometimes the magazine is detachable, and the autoloader fires a cartridges each time the trigger is pulled.
More than a few autoloader rifles are patterned after military rifles. The autoloader in the picture above is the M1 Garand, one of the first successful military autoloaders, and it has an internal magazine that holds 8 cartridges. Below, is a picture of the most popular autoloader in North America today, the AR15. It has a detachable magazine which may hold 5, 10, 20, or 30 cartridges.
Now, let's take a look at potential scenarios where we might find a survival rifle useful and see what we might realistically consider. So far, we have identified “lost in the wilderness”. What other scenarios are we likely to find ourselves in?
Since the vast majority of human beings live in cities, potential survival situations in urban environments seems likely for most people. This could include a breakdown in civil society, rampant, uncontrolled crime, oppression by the authorities, or invasion by a hostile force. In the city, chances are you will not be hunting, unless it is for long pork. Of course, I could be wrong, and there are always rats, but if you are reduced to hunting rats, chances are you need to be doing it quietly, and a firearm is not the way to do that. So, in most urban environments, your survival rifle will most likely be against predators of the two-legged variety. A breach loader is probably not going to hack it since most predators tend to hunt in groups, so you are going to need firepower. Because of the urban environment, there is a lot of cover for someone or something that wants to cause you harm, so you are going to need a relatively powerful cartridge to penetrate that cover. That means the 22 Long Rifle is probably a poor choice. In this scenario, the best choice would be some sort of repeater or autoloader chambered in one of the more popular rifle cartridges.
OK, so you don't live downtown. What about the suburbs or a semi-rural setting? In this scenario, there are quite a few variables, some of which are housing density, terrain, homogeneity of the population, and how well you know your neighbors. There may be hunting for a short while, but in most of suburban and semi-rural settings, the hunting will peter out in a matter of days or weeks. Then the issue becomes defense. Suburban areas by definition means proximity to cities, and cities mean raiders. It comes down to self defense again, whether due to a breakdown in society or due to natural disaster. Because the density is probably much lower than in the city, firepower becomes less of a concern, unless the raider group is very large, but accuracy and range become more important. In fact, the less density of the population, the more range comes into play. So, you need a rifle with range and the accuracy to use that range.
One scenario that both urban and suburban inhabitants always gravitate towards is “bugging out”, that is leaving their primary residence for some location in a lower density setting, sometimes called a “retreat”. If the civil authorities are still in control, this might be a viable option, and chances are that whatever survival rifle you have chosen will be sufficient, since by virtue of the authorities still being in control, most people will be behaving in a rational fashion. On the other hand, if civil authorities have lost control, you are fooling yourself if you think that bugging out is a viable option and you wait until everyone else has the same idea. If you wait until the last minute, it does not matter what your survival rifle is; you will be road kill, and someone else will be carrying your rifle.
Let's say you make it to your retreat. You didn't wait till the last minute. You are stocked up on food, water, and ammo, and you have your friends and family with you. Guess what? In about a week or 10 days, the hoards that bugged out of the city will show up. They may have organized into raiding parties. What kind of survival rifle will you need? Again, it will come down to firepower, range, and accuracy. Again, that means a repeater chambered in one of the common rifle cartridges.
About hunting – quite a few of the people who come to the conclusion that they are going to but out also think they are going to subsist on hunting. Even people who live in rural settings think that hunting might be an option. History tells a different story. During the Great Depression, wild game, especially big game was wiped out in the Southeaster United States. It was so bad that deer and turkey had to be reintroduced during the 1950s from northern tier states. There was still some small game around, but it was not easy to harvest, and a lot of it was harvested with traps and snares because no one had money for ammunition.
I know it sounds like I think that the primary purpose of a survival rifle is to used in battle. Human nature being what it is, I believe that the most likely scenarios will be related to competition among humans. Firearms are not necessary for hunting. Heck, humans hunted for at least 75,000 years without firearms. A rifle might make it easier in most circumstances, but it is not truly necessary.
So, to reduce it to its simplest terms, when choosing a survival rifle, consider the most flexible tool. Flexibility would include many of the factors we have touched on here – accuracy, range, and firepower. It will also include things that we have not touched on, and that I may cover in a future posting, things like how common the ammunition for your rifle is, whether or not the rifle is field maintainable, and how easy it is to repair the rifle if one of its components breaks.
Regardless, I would say that any rifle is better than none, and some are better than others.