Five Letters Re: ARs as Survival Combat Weapons

I just read Dan in Missouri’s article “ARs as Survival Combat Weapons, by Dan in Missouri”/ I learned you need to take an AR-M4 and do all sorts of upgrades, buy a $250 chamber reamer, and about $400 worth of backup parts, and you evidently cant pull one out of the box and depend on it – what a sad commentary on the design being inherently flawed and constantly in search of an upgrade. With the AK, one can fire assorted qualities of ammo, neglect cleaning or maintenance for thousands and thousands of rounds, and generally ignore the weapon, and it still works.

I read a book by Col. David Hackworth, a decorated officer of the Vietnam war, where he talks about the AK. He hated the M16s, calling them ‘pieces of garbage’. When his battalion was constructing a fire base, a bulldozer uncovered the body of a dead Viet Cong soldier, complete with AK-47. Hackworth jumped into the hole, pulled out the AK, scraped the mud off it and told his men, ‘now watch how a real infantry weapon works’. He pulled back the bolt and fired off the entire magazine without a jam or mis-feed. He said the gun worked as if it had just been cleaned, instead of being buried in the mud for about a year. It may not have been the most accurate weapon, but it was unsurpassed for reliability. I have an article by Peter Kokalis discussing firing several hundred rounds through an AK, later to discover it had broken parts inside , all that time. Personally, I would think that if one might be in “extreme circumstances”, reliability is the only valid consideration- all else is parlor talk for the carport commandos and gear geeks- I wish Dan’s group well – shoot what works for you! I have a real Rhett Butler attitude about the “argument”: Just shoot what works for you. – K.T.


I read with interest Dan’s evaluation of the AR for a survival weapon. While I am no fan of the 5.56 in FMJ I am told that civilian rounds can be quite effective. That said, if the 5.56 platform is your choice, then find rounds that reliably feed and transfer the energy into the target. The smaller FMJ round taught all of us GI’s to shoot a lot of rounds. We never counted on a first round stop. This generated into a ‘spay and pray’ mentality. While the lighter weight rounds meant that a troop could carry many more rounds (up to a 1000 for some), they carried all these rounds because they thought they needed them! Military channel did a special on sniper rifles and had a statistic that it took something like 55,000 5.56 rounds for each VC/NVA killed while 1.4 rounds of .308 from the Model 70 sniper rifles for each enemy. While I realize that means most 5.56 rounds missed, my point is that fire discipline seems to vanish if you don’t trust your rifle. It is also good to note that the British, Germans and Japanese all used bolt actions for their battle rifles to good effect in WW2. The M1 Garand was superior because it was an 8 shot, 30-06. The 30 caliber, semi-auto gave sustained fire when needed but the troops were confident enough in their weapon to use aimed fire when possible.

My main reservation with the AR platform (indeed with most .22 caliber platforms) is the absolute necessity for frequent maintenance to ensure reliable operations. I did carry the old M-16A1 in combat in SE Asia. I was totally underwhelmed by everything except the weight and clear air accuracy. The bullet had a tendency to tumble when shooting in foliage and became unreliable. Not so good in the jungle. In tough terrain it was difficult to keep the rifle reliably clean. A condom over the muzzle helped but I was never completely comfortable that the rifle would fire each and every time I needed it. I am alive today because of a 1911A1, not the M16.

The heavy cleaning requirement means that you must stock more cleaning supplies that for other rifles. Also, before deciding that it is reliable, put it in ‘field conditions’ for a month or two and see how well it functions. Being stored in a humidity controlled safe is not the same as two weeks in the field getting wet and dirty. Make sure the magazines function when dirty as well. Can you clean it in the field without losing small parts or needing special tools?

That said, the AK-47 seemed to fire forever. I’ve never run across one that was too dirty to shoot. Until recently, I’d never fired one. I assumed they were inaccurate since all of my experience had been from the ‘wrong’ end of the rifle. Having been shot at quite a bit, they always missed. I got my wife an AK because for her frame size and arm strength it was much easier to operate and fit her better. (Yes, the collapsible stocks would have help the AR here, but she didn’t want one as she found the T handle charging lever awkward to use). She shoots it well and out to 100 yards it is certainly well less than 2 MOA. Because of our age, I’m getting her a scope for longer ranges – neither of us see so well out passed 100 yards. A bit more recoil than an AR, less than say a 30-30 lever gun, but easily handled by my 5 ft tall lady.

7.62X39 ammo is readily available, cheap and can be had from Russian or US manufacturers. It has the further advantage of being a .30 caliber and hence more useful as a game rifle. Ruger makes their Mini-14 as a Mini-30 which is also the 7.62X39. While I can shoot the AK well I find the stock a little short for my 6ft 2in frame so I’m looking at a Ruger or a modified AK for my use. As to cleaning, remove the machinery cover and everything is laid out in plain sight. No tools needed to disassemble, no small parts and almost any cloth or shoe lace or reed can be pressed into service to clean it. Finally, clean or dirty, it functions.

I guess the question becomes one of what fits for you and what you think may be the use for the weapon. Being realistic, at 61 with a bad foot and caring for a mother-in-law with Alzheimer’s, I really don’t envision small unit tactics against an armed force. Being retired military, my suburban home is well laid out for point defense. I am well aware that a trained military unit (or paramilitary unit for that matter) can overcome any static defense if they are willing to pay the price to do so. I am also well aware that the odds of any of us facing a trained military unit are slim. Individual survivalist compounds stand small to no chance against well equipped military units either. (Think Branch Davidian outside Waco.) It is valuable to remember that from Viet Nam forward, the US Army never lost any major engagement. Irregular warfare is about fighting on your terms, not the organized military’s terms. If they can force engagement, you lose. If you are trying to defend a compound, they can force engagement. ‘Crowd Control’ is much different. Utilizing enough force quickly enough almost if not always resolves the situation in your favor. The Golden Hoard are very unlikely to utilize proper small unit tactics. Remove the mob leaders and the followers will go off to select new leaders who will lead them to softer targets. (think Korean store owners protecting their stores during the LA riots.)

If you have an M16 class weapon, find the most effective ammo, keep the rifle and magazines properly maintain (the Army has a lot of lessons learned here), and it should serve you well. If you haven’t purchased your battle rifle yet, find someone to let you handle several before spending a lot of money on the AR. You might find a really good deal (AK’s run for 1/2 to 1/3 the price of a good, solid AR) for a rifle that fits you and your needs better than the AR platform. Parting shot from another Military channel show (Top 10 Infantry Rifles- the AK was #1, the AR was #2) from the curator of a US infantry museum was (paraphrased, don’t remember exact quote) – If I was to be dropped down anywhere in the world or even on another planet and I could only have one rifle, it would be the AK-47. – Captain Bart


While I realize you are aware of this, I wanted to take a moment to re-iterate this for your blog readers: the AR15 is not and never has been, a ‘Battle Rifle’. Period. It is, however, a very capable ‘Assault rifle’ which is a slightly different thing.

A ‘Battle Rifle’ is a large caliber, select fire (usually) long range rifle capable of carrying considerable power to the enemy at ranges out to 1000 yards. It is not designed for close combat (though it can certainly foot the bill) and isn’t always ideal for all environments because of it’s size and weight.

An Assault Rifle is a less powerful rifle (often smaller caliber but not always as in the AK47 with it’s 7.62 caliber bullet. However the Russian 7.62×39 cannot compete with the NATO 7.62×51 when it comes to power and range and therein lays the difference) designed for close quarter combat and assaults where range and power are less of a factor. Assault rifles are typically select fire weapons capable of high rates of fire with large capacity magazines.

Examples of ‘Battle Rifles’ are: M14/M1A, FN FAL, H&K G3 Examples of ‘Assault Rifles’ are: M4/M16/AR15 and AK47

Battle rifle range: 800+ yards Assault rifle range: 300+ yards

Power at 300 yards (battlefield average): M14 Standard with 150grain Full Metal Jacket = 1687 ft/lbs M16 Standard with 62grain Full Metal Jacket = 640 ft/lbs

Notice the M16 is 1000 foot pounds of force weaker at just 300 yards! That is significant when faced with drugged up criminals bent on liberating your retreat from you!

Power at 800 yards (point for M14 and area for M16): M14 Standard with 150grain Full Metal Jacket = 700-1000+ ft/lbs M16 Standard with 62grain Full Metal Jacket less than 200 ft/lbs

Again, notice the massive difference? 200 ft/lbs won’t stop a 150 lb meth addict whereas 1000 lbs will!

Just looking at those numbers should tell you why the M1A is a better choice as a ‘battle rifle’ while an AR15 is a fine choice as an assault rifle perhaps. For one, a battle rifle needs to have the power to kill at long range as well as the power to kill/knock down at close range while an assault rifle needs high rates of fire, light ammunition, ease of operation with low recoil for rapid changes in sight picture — the AR15 is fine for this purpose but never confuse it for what it is.

Lastly, it is also very important to consider caliber. The 5.56 NATO round was chosen as the round of choice by politically motivated Generals — and I’m not kidding. Bear this in mind any time you consider this light caliber.

Let’s consider the M16 for a minute and it’s predecessor shall we? The M14 is chambered in 7.62 NATO (.308 Winchester) and has very similar power and ballistics to the older and well proven 30-06. It is incredibly simple, super reliable and has the power required to stop the enemy at any range. It can penetrate walls, provide accurate long range fire and has a removable box magazine and relatively high rate of fire.

However, it is heavy, hard to shoot for smaller stature shooters, can’t be fired rapidly while holding on target (lots of muzzle lift) and the ammunition is heavy and expensive.

The Army at first requested a 7.62 NATO rifle to replace the M14 and the AR-10 was developed for this purpose however about the same time there was a push for a smaller caliber, lightweight, rapid fire weapon to replace the M14 and the 5.56 NATO won out. It was said that it wasn’t designed to kill but rather to wound because 1 wounded soldier took two of his buddies to carry him off the battlefield thereby removing three combatants with one shot…something to ponder. Is this what you really want? Those 3 soldiers/criminals may choose to come back.

Now decades later the M16 continues to prove to be a reliable weapon which does what it was designed to do — but is that what you want for your retreat?

In my case I prefer the heavier M14 and Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq have gone back to using them in some cases; usually when dealing with Urban environments because the M16 can’t shoot through walls or when dealing with long open spaces because the M16 just isn’t capable of doing much damage out past 500 yards and even then it’s not a lot. However, I also realize that some family members can’t handle the big rifles very well, if at all and in this case the smaller, lighter and easier to shoot AR-15 is a good second. I’d recommend considering a slightly larger caliber though — like the 6.5mm for example. Anything to give a little more killing power (because that is what you are wanting whether you admit it or not) that you can count on.

Nothing worse then investing a ton of money into a shooting platform only to find that it won’t cut the mustard!

Lastly, the M14 isn’t just a battle rifle! It’s also an excellent hunting rifle as JWR has pointed out elsewhere. The M16? Not so much unless it’s gophers and groundhogs you are after.

So, in conclusion, the M16/AR-15 is NOT a Battle Rifle, it is an Assault Rifle and should never be confused with it’s bigger brother, the real battle rifle. The M14, FN FAL and others all rule the roost when it comes to ‘battle rifles’ and they are far far more capable then the smaller, less effective, less powerful but faster shooting little sisters.

It’s the M1A Scout Squad for me unless I’m shooting long range then the M1A Standard will do just fine thank you.

Semper Fidelis, – Erik


Thanks for the great blog.  I find the information in it endlessly interesting and informative.

I almost hate to address this age-old subject.  That is, the effectiveness of the .223.  But I will because the people who read survival blog, and particularly those unfamiliar with firearms, deserve to hear other sides of the story. 

Dan has provided a good synopsis of the AR platform.  I have no argument with using AR-style weapons, provided that all of the perhaps numerous and expensive “required” and “recommended” items listed in his text are followed.  Performing all of these, however, might make the cost prohibitive for many people, and has certainly prevented me from buying an AR style weapon. However, for many people, including my brothers and nephews, it is just about “perfect.”  More power to them.

Firstly, while I have no argument with the AR-15 as a launching platform, I disagree that its use of the .223/5.56 mm bullet is effective to any appreciable range, particularly past 300 meters. Many studies over the last several decades have found that the .223 cartridge is insufficient for stopping a determined enemy beyond that range, and some would argue that 200 yards is more likely the true effective range. Some others might even say that it wouldn’t stop a determined enemy at 100 yards.  Dan mentions:

Max Range – 500 Yards: “This is the furthest that we expect to engage targets with our battle rifles out to.  This is largely limited to eyesight, and proper target identification.  The standard for a “marksman” by organizations such as the Appleseed shoots or manuals such as “Fred’s Guide to Becoming a Rifleman” is to be able to hit a man at 500 yards from any position, including standing.  I know this can be accomplished as I can do it, but expecting much more, especially under stress isn’t very practical.  Beyond this range, I’ll be reaching for my scoped bolt-action 308.  At this range, a 55 grain .223 round has 169 lb-ft of energy, which is more than enough energy for adequate penetration.”

While I and many other Marines have qualified with the M16 on the 500 yard line, oh those many years ago and prior to attending the gathering in Vietnam, which attests to its ability to “hit,” striking a man at 500 yards does not equate to incapacitating him in any way.  In fact, people have been hit with the 5.56 bullet at 100 yards, notably in one negligent discharge during Desert Storm in which a soldier was hit at that range and simply walked away after from it.

In his monograph, “Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan: Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer,” By Major Thomas P. Ehrhart, United States Army, (excerpted below and available in full as a 70 page PDF) the author directly addresses the notion of the long-range (beyond 200 meters) effectiveness of the 5.56 cartridge.  I would suggest that anyone who seriously considers using a platform that launches a .223cal/5.56mm bullet, particularly as a “survival” weapon to think carefully about what is required of such a weapon.

Which brings me to the second point:  A “survival combat weapon” is somewhat of an anomaly to me, and I think mixes apples with oranges.  To me, a survival weapon is one that will do many things, from shooting squirrels to deer to elk to stopping invading bipeds.  Because this would be truly remarkable piece of one could find it, one generally thinks in terms of possessing more than one “survival gun.”  For myself, I think of a .22LR for smaller game, and a rifle that launches .308 bullets for anything much larger, and most certainly in anticipation of “combat.” I do not, for instance, think of a .223 for shooting deer and elk.

I believe that a combat weapon, by contrast, is something much different from a pure “survival” weapon, for it has but one purpose, and that is to stop a gremlin from close range out to at least 500 yards.  Much as Dan notes, I would be reaching for a bolt gun chambering either a .308 or .30-06 cartridge if the ranges got way out there.  But for very close range and for anything out to about 400 yards, I would use and recommend a semi-automatic rifle in any one of several variants that fires at least a.308 (7.62 x 51mm) cartridge.

I would not encourage anyone to rely for life and limb and for putting meat on the table, which likely will equate to the same thing in a dire situation, on a 5.56 cartridge, regardless of which platform shoots it.  And I have two such, a tricked out Ruger Ranch Rifle which will shoot 1.5 MOA, and a Ruger 77 bolt rifle that will seemingly thread a needle with a .223 bullet. But I surely would not use either rifle for medium or large game, nor for any 500 yard shot, because the 169 ft/lbs of energy mentioned by Dan as being the slapping power at that range is woefully insufficient to do anything but irritate an attacker unless he is hit in the eyeball.  I add that the minimum energy level usually considered humane for taking deer-and-larger-sized animals is in the 900-1100 area. Of course, some might say that that is a “peacetime” figure, and maybe would get stretched in an end-of-the-world scenario.  For myself, in a SHTF situation, I would endeavor to get closer and hit the animal even harder with a single shot, both to conserve ammunition and to save my own energy in having to track a wounded animal.  I would want the animal to go down.

And that is precisely what I would want two-legged creatures to do, as well.  I certainly would not encourage anyone preparing for a societal collapse, particularly those who are inexperienced with firearms and firearms training, to rely upon a .22 caliber bullet for anything but the most close-in fighting and for shooting squirrels, in the case of the .22LR. 

I have selected portions of the 70 page monograph and copied them below.

In addition and for further information on this subject, see Gabe Suarez’s blog,
for his definition of a combat rifle.

“Two Dogs”, USMCR (ret.)

“Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan: Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer,” By Major Thomas P. Ehrhart , United States Army

Excerpt from Abstract:

“Operations in Afghanistan frequently require United States ground forces to engage and destroy the enemy, often at ranges beyond 300 meters.  These operations occur in rugged terrain [like mountainous areas in the U.S.? td] and in situations where traditional supporting fires are limited due to range or risk of collateral damage.  With these limitations, the infantry in Afghanistan require a precise, lethal fire capability that exists only in a properly trained and equipped infantryman.  The thesis of this paper is that while the infantryman is ideally suited for combat in Afghanistan, his current weapons, doctrine and marksmanship training do not provide a precise, lethal fire capability to 500 meters and are therefore inappropriate.”

“There are several ways to extend the lethality of the infantry.  A more effective 5.56-mm bullet can be designed which provides enhanced terminal ballistics out to 500 meters.  A better option to increase incapacitation is to adopt a larger caliber cartridge, which will function using components of the M16/M4.  The 2006 study by the Joint Service Wound Ballistics  – Integrated Product Team discovered that the ideal caliber seems to be between 6.5 and 7-mm.  This was also the general conclusion of all military ballistics studies since the end of World War I.”

Excerpts from text:

“Small arms doctrine defines maximum effective range as ‘the greatest distance at which a weapon may be expected to fire accurately to inflict casualties or damage.’  The maximum effective range of the M4 carbine is incorrectly listed as 500 meters for a point target and 600 meters for an area target.  These ranges only take into account the ability of the weapon and ammunition to hit a target and not the terminal capability of the cartridge. For example, the M1 Garand and M14 rifles, firing a 150-grain bullet, and the M16A1 firing a 55-grain bullet, all had the same maximum effective range of 460 meters.  Clearly, these ranges do not consider the terminal ability of the round to inflict casualties. As discussed earlier, the M855 cartridge is most effective to a distance of 200 meters after which its effectiveness is limited unless hitting a vital area of the target.” Pages 25-26

“In general, the requirements for the infantry squad are that they have weapons capable of reliable incapacitation from close range to a distance of 500 meters.  This capability does not exist in the current family of 5.56-mm ammunition, either with military or with commercial off the shelf ammunition, though efforts are underway to remedy the situation.  Currently, the infantry squad does not have this capability unless its designated marksman is armed with a rifle of 7.62×51 caliber.  Those armed with 5.56-mm versions of the SDM-R are marginally effective and then dependent on shot placement in the small vital areas of the enemy for their effectiveness.”  Pages 28-29

“The requirement for squad designated marksman to engage targets from 300-600 meters requires a caliber larger than 5.56-mm.  As discussed earlier, current 5.56-mm ammunition is not suited for ranges beyond 200 meters.  One solution is a purpose built rifle chambered in an intermediate or full power cartridge.  This rifle would be capable of precision as well as suppressive fire.  This capability currently exists in the M110 sniper rifle.  M110 sniper rifle is a semi-automatic sniper rifle whose lineage goes back to Eugene Stoner’s first creation of the AR10.  In appearance, it is a larger scale copy of the M-16, chambered in 7.62x51mm, fitted with a 3.5 to 10 power telescopic sight.” Page 49

See also: Battlesight zero. Page 49

Excerpts from Conclusions:

“The adoption of the M14 rifle and its full power cartridge was plagued with controversy and the political reaction resulted in the adoption of a marginally capable weapon known as the M16 and its 5.56-mm cartridge.” Page 56

“The environment of the Vietnam War was specifically a close range fight.  Under these conditions, the M16 as originally configured was moderately effective.  The combination of the M16 and 5.56-mm cartridge, the loss of the precision capability in the reorganization of the infantry squad, and the Trainfire qualification course, resulted in the complete inability of the infantry squad to engage targets beyond 200 meters effectively.” Page 56

“Further refinement of the M16 design and the requirement for a light squad automatic weapon resulted in a heavier 5.56-mm cartridge designed to defeat soviet troops wearing body armor on European battlefields.  This cartridge proved ineffective in Desert Storm and Somalia, but the short duration of those conflicts and minimal supporting data, did not warrant change.  The emphasis on urban operations combined with increased movement by vehicles necessitated the requirement for a shorter length weapon.  The resultant M4 carbine combined with the new 5.56mm cartridge further reduced the incapacitation capability of the standard issue rifle.”  Page 56

“Operations in Afghanistan quickly identified the shortfalls in equipment, training, and doctrine for engagements in mountainous terrain.  The M855 cartridge has limited effectiveness beyond 200 meters and therefore requires either an improved cartridge within caliber or the adoption of an improved intermediate cartridge, which can be adapted to a modified upper receiver group.”  Page 57


Mr. Rawles,

I read Mr. Dan’s article with using the AR series platform. It was well thought out with most of his recommendations except the use of the McFarland single-piece gas rings. As a team shooter for a US Military High Power Rifle Team I have seen more issues with McFarland rings than using the standard three ring set up. There are issues with McFarland rings not brand new along with them being either undersized and over-sized. The belief that the gaps between the three rings must not be aligned is a misnomer. I have seen master armorers take apart a bolt and upon locating a McFarland ring immediately discard it and replace it with the original factory style rings.

Sincerely, Dan in Florida