Weapons, particularly firearms, are an important part of most preppers’ survival plans. Considering the importance of other supplies and equipment compared to any firearm, you might even say it is overemphasized. Nonetheless, most folks preparing for really rough times will not feel comfortable, or happy, without a good rifle at the ready.
A smartly chosen rifle, more than any other firearm, gives you the most capability across all ranges and all tasks. Rifles of all kinds have range, accuracy and power in abundance, enough to take most kinds of game animals easily and are a terrible threat to any would-be attacker when on defense.
But the idea of a survival rifle carries with it certain connotations when it comes to capability. Most people when they imagine a survival rifle picture in their minds a light, handy one of modest caliber, capable of bagging larger animals and severely punishing anyone who would harm you or yours.
Others think bigger and better, and want a powerhouse that will fell the largest animals and make a mockery of the human body. Still other people think of smallbore, featherweight rimfires that you can shoot for a month on a small brick of ammo.
So which is best, which is the “ideal?” Is one type of rifle better than another, or is there room for variation in the survival rifle category? In this article, I’ll be sharing what I consider the most essential characteristics of any survival rifle and my top choices in models for the duty. So pick up you pack and let’s get going.
Survival Rifles in Context
Any discussion about survival rifles would be nothing but flame bait unless we all get on the same page regarding context, or perhaps better said, what is meant by the term “survival situation.” I’m not being pedantic; the term means completely different things to different people, even ones who have experience in life-threatening situations.
Some folks think of the classic alone in the wilderness scenario and base their rifle selection off of that, paying particular attention to making the gun light and easy to carry. Others consider a self-defense scenario against other humans survival enough and make those parameters part of their criteria.
Plenty of preppers are generalists, and want a rifle as well-rounded as possible for any potential situation involving man or beast. And then you have a few folks who simply want a “just in case” gun to keep neatly tucked away for a rainy day, be it a truck gun, BOB gun or something similar.
Which of these is right? In a sense they all are because they all define a certain segment of survival. We might have to hunt for game to get a full belly. We may very well have to fend off desperate or evil humans to keep ourselves and our families safe.
You could certainly be carrying a rifle over a long distance if you want to hang on to it, bugging-in or vehicle-based carry being no option. All of those factors do bear some consideration.
All of these scenarios, with the exception of the traditional self-defense encounter, are survival scenarios in the grand tradition because they are of intermediate intensity and indeterminate duration, and in any of them the outcome is highly dependent on your skills, grit, determination and equipment, or nearly so.
You might be “surviving” for two days or two weeks or two months. A rifle is a valuable, even essential tool in any of those situations when you are completely dependent on you for a positive outcome.
So now that we know that we may be choosing a rifle that could potentially be called on for all kinds of duties, what other characteristics should it have?
Characteristics of a Survival Rifle
In my mind a survival rifle is a generalist’s gun, able to do all kinds of things passable to well and only struggling in the most unusual, unlikely or specialized circumstances. This alleviates the need to carry or even own several specialized guns, and makes life very easy when the balloon goes up as there is no need to fret, hem and haw over which gun is the one to (hopefully) carry the day.
As with any gun for serious matters, a survival rifle must be reliable, truly reliable, in the conditions that you can reasonable expect to carry and use it in. A rifle that is fussy to keep running will be more help than hindrance.
Any gun that is too delicate will not survive rough handling and all manner of knocks, dings, drops and dents in the field. This goes for any optic equipped on the rifle, too. Anyone who is so boastful as to suggest that they will not let their rifle be abused has no practical experience and should be ignored.
A survival rifle should be light and handy, or at least as light as possible to reduce fatigue when shooting and carrying it. This is one characteristic that is most likely to be blown off by users as most folks will be supremely self-assured that they will be bugging-in or they will be travelling by car and so the portliness of their rifle is of no concern. The joke will be on them when they are forced to schlep it out on foot hauling their BOB and their 13 lb. rifle.
Length is a concern as well, though this is more dependent on your location than the other concerns in this section. A very long barrel is most often wasteful when using modern ammunition and it will only be a hindrance in any close quarters or dense terrain, whether in the hands or slung.
If you live in a gridiron-flat part of the country this may not be as great a concern for you as one who lives in the city or mountains, but you should still consider how that long barrel will affect your getting in and out of vehicles easily. When in doubt, nearly any intermediate or smaller rifle cartridge is aptly served by a barrel of 20 inches or less.
Lastly, caliber is an important consideration, though in my mind not the most important. Sounds odd, yes? After all it is among the very first things talked about by most preppers when on the topic.
My reasoning is simple: the only optimal choices of cartridge for our generalist survival rifle will be an intermediate rifle cartridge, of which there are several to choose from, or .22 LR.
Caliber selection is a hot topic, and it is the rare shooter who will stand to see their pet cartridge besmirched. From your latter-day hunters of big game who consider .30-06 petite and long-range sniper wizards hawking only the most efficient of long range ballistic to the proponents of the seemingly omnipotent 7.62×39, most preppers can pull out intricate and impassioned rhetoric to defend the virtue of their favorite round.
Preference is all well and good, but most cartridges do not fit the profile of what we need our rifle to do. Consider your big .30 caliber cartridges, .30-06 and up, let’s say. Their adherents champion them for their range and power.
Fair enough, but how long a shot do you reasonably expect to make in a survival situation? Unless you are surviving on an outdoor rifle range or live on true flatland, the answer is “not as far as you think.” A shot beyond 300 yards will be an extreme rarity, even when hunting most kinds of game.
Consider also what kind of shooter you are. Serious query: if you are a 200 yard shooter, tops, you will not be getting much efficacy from a 6.5 Creedmoor or .300 Winchester Magnum. Sure, the power is there, but that begs the question of what kind of game you are after? Unless your locale is bountiful with very large game, think brown bear, moose and the like, your efforts are best spent on becoming a better marksman than on a stomping magnum caliber. It goes without saying that such capability will all but certainly be wasted in self-defense encounters.
Lastly, if you are enamored with the idea of a big, long range cartridge for your survival rifle the whole idea is moot if you do not have a correspondingly good scope to take advantage of its range. Spare me any talk of iron sights on the matter: there are some truly great shooters who can do amazing things with iron sights at long ranges, but chances are you don’t practice those shots and aren’t one of them.
I know I am not. I am reliably good with irons to 300 yards or so in field conditions with a man-size target in the open, and I shoot and practice an awful lot. Don’t believe internet horsecrap about legendary forum trolls claiming to have plinked an oxygen bottle with their garbage Mosin-Nagant at 1,000 yards. Didn’t happen. Most people cannot even discern the presence of a target smaller than a building at 1,000 yards with the naked eye.
Even the much beloved .308 Win. is, for all purposes, not worth it for our survival rifle concept. It is too heavy and the performance gain over intermediate cartridges does not justify its weight and bulk. It might, might have some merit if you are really concerned about taking large animals or shooting into cars, but its vaunted reputation for demolishing cover on the internet is overblown.
You’ll also notice I left out pistol caliber carbines and rifles. For my purposes, the pairing of a long gun and a pistol cartridge (save the .22 LR, an exception) is never worth it.
While the ability to stock and share one kind of ammo between handgun and long gun is appealing, the loss of performance over a real rifle round is unappealing. You can carry more handgun ammo in the same space than you could rifle ammo, but not so much as to make the tradeoff worth it, excepting again the .22 LR.
The one niche application these guns really shine in is going, in the words of preeminent sage Elmer Fudd, vewy, vewy quiet: most pistol cartridges are much easier to suppress than rifle cartridges of any stripe, and far more subsonic loads are available for pistols in general.
Paired with a good load and the right suppressor, these guns draw very little attention. If you must have a pistol caliber long gun, though, make sure you are choosing one according to the rest of the criteria set forth in this article.
So why an intermediate cartridge? For all the reasons above: An intermediate cartridge will provide the best possible combination of capacity, terminal performance, quantity of ammo carried and availability.
These are by design our do-all rounds, able to take down all kinds of animals as well as humans easily. There are very few problems that call for a rifle and cannot be solved decisively with a 5.56mm, 5.45mm, 7.62x39mm or .30-30 Winchester.
All of the above are available in all kinds of lightweight, modern rifles of excellent quality, and are totally at their best from point blank range out to 200 yards and beyond if you have the ability. There is very, very little reason to choose something else if you need or want a high performance cartridge.
The other choice, .22 LR, is a smart one for folks who plan on avoiding trouble at all cost, and especially for people who plan to bug out. .22 LR is a highly capable small game cartridge, can dispatch larger animals with excellent shot placement, is reasonably effective against humans and is very, very easy to suppress.
Also of great importance: the ammo is tiny and light, and several hundred rounds occupy the same space as about a 100 larger rifle cartridges.
Too many preppers still fail to realize just how bulky and heavy ammunition is, especially when loaded into magazines. When space is at a premium in a bag or in a vehicle, you may be very glad of the tiny form factor and light weight of the humble .22 LR. It also has the benefits of being very easy to suppress.
If in doubt, choose an intermediate cartridge. If you want to stay light, lean and mean, go with the .22 LR with the understanding that you will be using it in a defensive context more to force an attacker to deal with his wounds than to end him with authority. Many times the former is more than good enough to ensure our survival.
This matter is somewhat simpler than caliber selection. Your choice of action should be, if at all possible, semi-automatic for simplicity and ease of use. Acceptable alternatives are lever-action and the rare pump-action if a repeater is what you desire or all that you have access to.
I do not like bolt-actions in this role. Why? Bolt actions are too slow, and give up so many other good perks for a nominal increase in accuracy the trade is just not worth it. Remember what I said about long range calibers above? Same thing applies, more or less, to bolt actions. A bolt-action’s best attribute, precision, is only fully realized at extended ranges, which is precisely where we will not, most likely, be shooting.
Consider also that your average bolt action is quite long, slow to manipulate and has very limited capacity, and this makes using one to good effect on defense exceedingly difficult. If it is absolutely all you have, drive on, but I am talking about optimal solutions here, not last-and-so-also-best choices.
A repeater like a lever action is still a decent choice for a survival rifle. Compared to bolt guns, lever actions are very quick to cycle and as a rule are lively, nimble rifles, well-suited to taking game or self-defense against humans with some practice. Similar attributes are shared by pump action rifles, but these are comparatively rare next to lever actions.
Compared to any of the above, semi-autos are the overwhelmingly smart choices. Effortless follow-up shot capability is a huge advantage no matter the activity and topping off a semi-auto that uses a detachable magazine is far faster and surer than any of the other actions. Some of the world’s very finest rifles available today just so happen to be semi-auto and you should make all efforts to select one for your survival rifle.
Additional Equipment and Accessories
No survival rifle is complete without some vital additional equipment. I am not kidding. No matter how sublime the design, any box-stock rifle is incomplete without the things you’ll need to load, carry and shoot it effectively. Depending on your specific plan and circumstances, you could make good use of a few extra goodies that I’ll detail below.
The number one item you’ll need for your survival rifle, hands-down, no ifs, ands or buts, is a good sling. To say a rifle without a sling is akin to a handgun without a holster is a cliché, but it is 100% true.
Your sling is a must for keeping the rifle on you when walking and rambling but it is also essential for simply freeing up your hands when you need them.
Opening doors, climbing, hopping fences, reloading and drawing your pistol are all made far easier with a good sling. Without one, you must set the rifle down or rely only on one hand to control the gun. The support of a sling is a real boon when shooting or just carrying your survival rifle so make sure you get a good one.
The very best of the breed in modern slings is a quick-adjust 2-point sling as exemplified by the Blue Force Gear VCAS, or Vickers, Sling and the Viking Tactics VTAC. Both can be readily adapted to any rifle imaginable, from the most tricked out AR-15 to your grandpappy’s Winchester Model 70.
The next most important item is a good optic, whatever kind you deem appropriate for your situation. For sheer utility, nothing beats a good red dot sight, and their combination of speed and precision at close range is a quantum leap over iron sights.
You must not scrimp on your RDS, though: cheaper models will not survive the same use, abuse and rough treatment that even an average rifle can with no ill effects. Among red dots, Aimpoint makes the very finest, but Vortex, Trijicon and Leupold all make good units as well.
In keeping with the spirit of a generalist survival rifle, you might consider one of the latest generation low power variable optics, or LPVO’s. These chunky rifle scopes allow you to dial magnification all the way down to 1x or near 1x and use them like a big reflex sight, or crank their power up to 4x, 6x, or even 8x for far greater perception and precision at longer ranges.
The only drawbacks to these sights are their greater weight and cost, but their all-around capability is tough to match any other way. No matter which type of scope you equip your rifle with, make sure you stash an extra battery or two on or with the rifle to power it.
Any rifle that gets fired will need to be reloaded, and if you are in a fight with your rifle you will need to reload it in a hurry. This means you’ll need to have your supplementary ammo stored intelligently so it can make its way into the gun efficiently.
For detachable magazine fed firearms, this means having spare magazines (these can be your sole source of ammo storage if you choose) but for guns that are loaded with single rounds into fixed magazines you’ll need some type of carrier.
Belt or chest mounted, on the receiver of the gun or on its stock, whatever method you settle on must be durable and capable of holding rounds securely lest they be lost. Most skilled users will setup a two tier system for loading, the first for rapid reloading of the gun from ready reserves of ammo, and the second for replenishment of the first, usually a slower but more secure store of ammo.
No matter what rifle you choose, you must have a small supply of the most commonly required spare parts. Mr. Murphy of Murphy’s Law fame will definitely be along for the ride no matter where you are heading and you must be prepared to shoo him off. Any gun, no matter how well made, can suffer a broken or misplaced part.
Using the AR family of rifles as an example, good spares to have would be a firing pin, firing pin retaining pin, extractor with spring and insert and cam pin. Other designs have their own “weak links” that are commonly broken or lost when the gun is disassembled, so make sure you do your homework and get the right selections
An optional item is a flashlight, though it is usually considered mandatory on defensive guns for effective target identification and engagement in the dark. Depending on your rifle and its mounting options, you may need to buy a separate adapter or special mount to get a flashlight effectively installed and placed for intuitive activation.
The Best Survival Rifles
The following rifles represent my favorites in their category that still meet all of my criteria I laid out above. No matter what you want out of a survival rifle, I can virtually guarantee that one of these will fit the bill just fine.
AR-15 Variant, 5.56mm
You knew it was going to be on here somewhere. And that is with good reason: there is no other rifle on earth that offers the mighty AR’s combination of reliability, adaptability, shooting characteristics, price, and widespread availability.
While it can be easy to go overboard on accessories like heavy barrels, adjustable stocks and the like, a smart prepper will go the other way and choose a light, lean gun that has a skinny barrel and handguard that allows you to mount only the accessories you want.
The AR is supremely easy to mount all manner of optics to, and options like folding stock adapters allow you to fit it in to small spaces for easy storage or transport. Magazines, spare parts and ammo are available anywhere with enormous variety of loads to suit any need.
Contrary to the opinion of some shooters, a well-made AR-15 is extremely reliable and weather resistant. The AR action, when fully sealed by the dust cover (or ejection port door, if you prefer) is nearly impenetrable, keeping dust, dirt, mud and water out easily. It does not need to be kept fantastically clean according to myth, but must only be periodically lubricated if shot heavily.
The AR is still the once and future king: light, accurate, powerful. Easy to shoot, easy to maintain and suited to almost any job. The AR is America’s fighting rifle, and a fine choice for your survival rifle.
AK Variant, 7.62x39mm or 5.45x39mm
The great former Com Bloc competitor to the AR, the AK is no less worthy of consideration for a survival rifle. AKs are renowned for their simplicity and ruggedness, and any quality model will have these attributes in spades. While ounce for ounce not quite as accurate as an AR, nor as ergonomic, owing to their typically middling triggers and awkwardly placed safety, AKs are easy to shoot and certainly reliable.
No doubt of interest to proponents of thirty caliber rifles, and often the reason for choosing an AK over the AR, is the AK-47 family’s legacy cartridge, the “short .30” 7.62x39mm, a punchy round with catapult-like trajectory but good performance against a wide variety of intermediate barriers. It is cheap, common and a solid performer, though its greater recoil is apparent at the first trigger pull.
For fans of hotrod small caliber performance, the 5.45x39mm that supplanted it in the AK-74 and its variants offers 5.56mm-like performance and trajectory in a much flatter and nicer shooting package, though ammo is more expensive and far less common than the 7.62 which will necessitate stocking up ahead of time.
AKs are very forgiving of abuse and neglect, though they do not forgive quite so much as legend would have you believe. A possible concern is that many parts are not as interchangeable from one rifle to the next as is expected with AR’s. Also take into account this rifle’s greater weight, especially its common steel magazines.
Nonetheless, the AK has served with distinction and perhaps notoriety around the globe, and is entirely adequate as a survival rifle.
Marlin 336, .30-30 Winchester
One of the most loved and successful lever actions of the 20th century and direct successor of the Marlin 1893, the 336 is among the strongest lever-action rifles made. Unlike many of its contemporaries of the time, the 336 allowed mounting of a scope (or a red dot today, if desired) thanks to its side ejection pattern and solid-topped receiver.
The 336 is stout and heavy for a lever gun, but still very nimble and quick-handling. This rugged and reliable rifle is completely at home in rough field conditions thanks to forged internals and heavy duty coil springs. Both exhibit long life and great wear characteristics even under heavy firing schedules, meaning that, unlike some classic lever guns, this rifle is one you can both train and work hard with.
Of particular interest to preppers, the 336 is a cinch to work on compared to Winchester actions thanks to its clever and refined design; lever arm, bolt, cartridge carrier and ejector are all easily removed or swapped with minimal fuss and tools should field repair become necessary.
With over 3 ½ million 336 variants made to date, this is among the most prolific and iconic lever-actions ever made, and also one of the strongest. Winchesters may have the panache, but this Marlin has the grit: if you want a lever-action survival rifle, make this the top of a short list.
Ruger’s 10/22 needs no introduction to shooters young and old, but its finer qualities as a survival rifle may escape notice without some explaining. If you are of the mind to stay as light and space efficient as possible with your rifle, the 10/22 deserves a look.
The 10/22, paired with good ammo, certainly meets our requirements for reliability, being one of the most boringly dependable .22 rifles on the market since its introduction. Unlike many other semi-auto .22’s the 10/22 is largely ammo insensitive when it comes to feeding. The mandate to use good ammo instead of bulk pack plinking fodder is to ensure you don’t suffer any ammo related malfunctions.
The 10/22 also enjoys an extremely robust market of upgrades and options for any conceivable need. I particularly like the newer takedown models that separate into two easily carried and stored halves that assembly quickly with no major adjustments required.
One of these takedown rifles equipped with a red dot, sling and 500 rounds of ammo along with a few 20 round magazines makes for an extremely light, compact and capable package that go almost anywhere.
You might laugh at the idea of a .22 LR in a defensive role, and on paper it pales next to a proper rifle cartridge, but you should underestimate the effect of multiple, rapid high-velocity .22’s on a human torso at your peril. The ability to easily suppress such a rifle makes it even more attractive for hunting or self-defense in a survival situation.
The 10/22 is the best choice if you want to stay light and still carry of ton of ammo. A thousand rounds of .22 LR is easily carried, and you can do an awful lot of problem solving with that much ammo.
A survival rifle can take many forms, but the best examples of this sometimes nebulous breed will allow the person carrying it to cover most of their needs with a light, easy to carry and capable package.
No matter if you want a tricked-out semi-auto or a trusty lever-action, with some care in selecting and outfitting your gun you can wind up with a survival rifle ready to help you weather the worst of life’s storms.