Survival Gun Selection

by James Wesley, Rawles

In my survivalist novel “Patriots”, I included lots of descriptions of firearms used in various situations in order to illustrate that there is no single “perfect survival gun.” Different situations are best handled by using different firearms. There are several requirements that must be considered in selecting guns for use on a farm, ranch, or survival retreat. First, and foremost, they must be versatile. A single gun might be pressed into service for shooting crows or starlings at 10 yards, rabbits or coyotes at 100 yards, or rattlesnakes at five feet. While there is no single gun that can handle any task, it is important to select guns with at least some degree of  versatility. Further, it is not realistic to believe that you can get by  with just one gun, or even just one rifle, one pistol, and one shotgun. Versatility has its limits. Like a carpenter’s box of tools, each type of gun has its special place and purpose.

The second major consideration for survival guns is that they be robust  and reliable enough to put up with constant carry and regular use. Good designs not prone to mechanical failures are a plus. When an infrequent   repair must be made, a small stock of spare parts that do not require special gunsmithing to install must suffice. When the nearest gunsmith is  a two hour drive away, you have to depend on your own resources. And needless to say, who knows which replacement parts will be available when things get Schumeresque? Since they are carried quite frequently and in all sorts of weather, farm/ranch/survival guns need to have durable finishes. Stainless steel is by far the best choice for most situations. Unfortunately, however, not all guns are available in stainless steel. For guns that only made with a blued finish, there are several alternative finishes available. These include Parkerizing (the military standard gray or black phosphate finish commonly seen on M16 and AR-15 rifles), and various other factory finishes  with trade names such as “Coltalloy” or “Armour Alloy.” In addition to gun factory finishes, a wide range of exotic materials such as Teflon and Zylan are now frequently used as “after-market” gun finishes. The Robar Company uses a nickel/Teflon composite. My personal favorite of the exotic finishes is called METACOL (METAl COLor), which is offered in a wide variety of colors by Arizona Response Systems
( Exotic material finishes offer rust protection that is exceeded only by stainless steel and are quite durable. For those that dislike the highly reflective surface of stainless steel, it too can be coated with one of the exotic materials such as green Teflon with a matte texture.

Because trips to town to procure ammunition might be infrequent (or impossible in a severe survival scenario), and reloading will likely be the norm for those seeking self-sufficiency, it is desirable to limit the number of different cartridges that you stock. Having ten different guns chambered in ten different cartridges would only serve to complicate logistics. Further, it is best to select only guns chambered for commonly-available cartridges. Small country stores stock ammo like .22 Long Rifle, .308 Winchester, .30-’06, or 12 gauge, but probably not .264 Winchester magnum, .300 Weatherby, or 28 gauge.

Small Game

There are several categories of firearms that belong in the gun racks of nearly every farm or ranch. The first, and most frequently used variety are small game/pest shooting guns. These guns are used to hunt small game for the pot (squirrels, rabbits, etc.), to shoot garden pests (crows, starlings, gophers, etc.), and marauding predators (coyotes, foxes, weasels, ferrets, etc.) They also end up being the guns most frequently used to slaughter livestock. Good cartridges for small game/pest shooting include .22 Long Rifle (.22 LR), and .223 Remington. The most common shotshells for this use are .410, 20 gauge, and 12 gauge. The .22 LR will suffice for everything up to the size of rabbits at conservative distances. It is inexpensive to shoot, quiet, and has hardly any felt recoil. The .223 Remington (virtually identical to and in most cases interchangeable with the 5.56mm NATO cartridge used by the military) is a good cartridge for shooting perched birds that would be out of range for a .22 rimfire, or for shooting feral dogs, feral cats, or coyotes. Experience has shown that both handguns and long guns are needed for small game/pest shooting. A long gun would of course be the ideal choice in most circumstances, due to their inherently higher velocity and longer sighting radius (and hence greater accuracy). There are times, however, when it is not practical to carry a long gun. When mending fences, feeding livestock, hauling wood, riding a tractor, or doing most gardening work, it is usually not practical to carry a long gun. On farms and ranches, long guns tend to be left behind inside buildings, or in vehicle gun racks. They are only rarely carried when doing chores or just walking down to the mailbox at the county road. This is where handguns come in.

Rimfire Handguns

A good quality .22 rimfire pistol may be one of the most useful handguns in your battery. They are used for dispatching those “uncatchable” chickens for the stew pot, for shooting small game/pests, and for inexpensively maintaining marksmanship skills for those more powerful (and more expensive to shoot) handguns. My wife and I use a stainless steel Ruger Mark II with a 5-1/2-inch bull barrel and Pachmayr grips. The Ruger is also offered in 6-7/8-inch and 10-5/8-inch barrel lengths. But we find that the 5-1/2-inch barrel is a handy length for holster carry. Another well-made stainless steel .22 autopistol is the Smith and Wesson Model 622. It is available with a 4-1/2 inch or 6-inch barrel. If you prefer a revolver, the stainless steel Smith and Wesson Model 617 is a good option. It is available in a 4-inch, 6-inch, or 8-3/8-inch barrel length.

Rifles chambered in .22 LR are often used guns on farms and ranches. They are useful for pest shooting, small game hunting, and target practice. Reliable, American-made semi-auto .22s include the Ruger Model 10/.22 (also available in stainless), the Marlin 70-P “Papoose”, the Remington Speedmaster Model 552, and the discontinued Remington Nylon 66. If a bolt action is your preference, either the Kimber Model 82 or the Ruger 77/.22 are good choices. Two good quality lever action .22s are the Marlin 39TDS and the Winchester 9422. Regardless of which brand of .22 rifle you buy, you should consider mounting it with a telescopic sight. Because of its low energy, proper placement of a .22 rimfire bullet can mean the difference between crippling and cleanly killing small game. Mounting a scope will in most instances give you the ability to not just hit an animal’s center of mass, but rather hit a precise aiming point, such as its head or neck. If you do decide to mount a scope, use a full size (1-inch diameter) scope rather than one the inexpensive 3/4-inch diameter scopes made specifically for air rifles and .22s. Inexpensive scopes generally have a poor field of view, considerable parallax distortion, and are not as ruggedly made as the full-size rifle scopes. For training youngsters, I recommend the diminutive Chipmunk .22 LR single shot bolt action, with a 16″ barrel.

Centerfire Handguns

If you are seeking a particularly versatile handgun, you might consider the Thompson/Center T/C Contender. This single shot pistol uses readily-changeable barrels in a wide range of chamberings. The Contender is available in both blued and stainless steel. It was also formerly offered in a proprietary alloy finish called “Armour Alloy II”. Some of the most useful of the 20-plus chamberings are .22 LR, .223 Remington, and the .45 Colt/.410 shotgun barrel.

The handguns in our battery that we traditionally carried the most was our pair of Smith and Wesson Model 686 .357 magnum revolvers. Both were black Teflon coated (a short-lived S&W factory variant dubbed “Midnight Black”), with 6-inch barrels and equipped with Pachmayr Signature grips, and red ramp/white outline adjustable sights. The six inch barrel length is a compromise between ease of carry and accuracy/velocity. While an 8-3/8-inch barrel would provide better accuracy and velocity, without using a shoulder holster, a gun with this barrel length is not comfortable to carry. We typically carried those revolvers in inexpensive black nylon Michaels of Oregon (“Uncle Mike’s” brand) black nylon hip holster rigs, each with pouches for four spare Safariland speed loaders. Our habit was to have two speed loaders loaded with .357 magnum 125-grain half-jacketed hollow  points, one with CCI #9 birdshot “snake” loads, and one with .38 Special tracers (for shooting in low-light conditions). These revolvers accounted for numerous snakes, rabbits, and even a couple of coyotes, not because they were the best guns for the job, but rather because they were the guns we habitually carried and thus they were available when needed. These guns also pack a punch, so they allayed our fears of dangerous predators, whether of the two-legged or four-legged variety. In addition to the Smith and Wesson, good quality stainless steel double action .357 revolvers are made by Colt (the King Cobra and Python) and Ruger (the GP-100).

We now carry Colt Stainless Steel Gold Cup (Model 1911 pattern) .45 ACPs with Pachmayr grips, extended slide releases, and Trijicon tritium-lit sights. One thing that we missed about the .357s was their ability to fire bird shot cartridges, but Remington makes a .45 shot cartridge that functions fairly well in a .45 auto. When we moved to bear country, we sold off the 686s and standardized with the .45 automatics. We wanted to be able to put a lot of rounds into a bear in a hurry, and .45 autos are far faster to reload than revolvers–at least under stress, in our experience. Granted, the chances of surviving a bear attack are slim, but we feel that we have a better chance with the Gold Cups. At least when they find all the ejected brass around our mangled corpses, they can say that we put up a good fight. 😉

Speaking of bears, for homesteaders living in brown bear or grizzly bear country, a more powerful handgun than even the .45 ACP is often recommended. A stainless steel Smith and Wesson Model 629 (6-inch) .44 magnum, or Ruger Redhawk (5-1/2-inch) .44 magnum, or perhaps the Colt Anaconda (6-inch) .44 magnum would be good choices. If you would rather carry an automatic, the LAR Grizzly (.45 Automatic magnum), Wildey (.45 Automatic magnum), Desert Eagle (.44 magnum), or the long discontinued Auto Mag (.44 Auto Mag) would also serve the same purpose, although all of these guns are relatively expensive and heavy to to carry.

A lightweight rifle chambered in .223 Remington is particularly useful for shooting both perched birds and predators. Remington, Ruger, and Sako all make good quality .223 bolt actions. Selecting one is largely a matter of personal preference. We use our .223s on coyotes, which currently abound in great numbers in the Western U.S., and are a constant source of trouble in our area. They have a penchant for devouring ducks, chickens, pet cats, and newborn lambs. We use three different guns on the uncommon occasions when we have a chance to snipe at coyotes. These guns include a Remington Model 7 bolt action chambered in .223 Remington, a Colt CAR-15M4gery“, and a scoped L1A1 semi-auto chambered in .308 Winchester (virtually identical to and in most cases interchangeable with the 7.62 mm NATO cartridge used by the military). a .308 bolt action is used when we spot a coyote at beyond 300 yards. With the Remington Model 7 available, the CAR-15 is largely superfluous. But we like its easy handling, and the fact that we can get off a quick second shot when shooting at running rabbits or coyotes.

Combination Guns
The next category of guns are combination or “garden guns.” These range from expensive imported rifle/shotguns to inexpensive combination guns made domestically. The European three barrel combination guns or “dreilings” (often anglicized to “drillings”) can easily cost $2,000 or more. Guns typical of this breed are the Colt/Sauer drillings, Krieghoff drillings, and the Valmet over/unders. They typically feature a high-power rifle barrel mounted beneath side-by-side 12 gauge shotgun barrels. Domestically produced two-barrel combination guns, while not as aesthetically pleasing. cost far less than European drillings. These guns offer the ability to fire a single shotgun shell or rifle cartridge, with the flick of a switch. They are by far the best gun to have at hand when out doing garden work. They give you the versatility to eliminate a pesky gopher or marauding birds, whether they are perching or in flight. One of the best of the inexpensive combination guns now on the market is the Savage Model 24F with a Rynite fiberglass stock. This gun is currently available in .223 Remington over 12 gauge, or .223 Remington over 20 gauge. Screw-in choke tubes for the shotgun barrels are now standard. Both models are also available with traditional wood stocks. In the past, Savage Model 24-series guns were made in a wide range of chamberings such as .22 LR over .410, .22 LR over 20 gauge, .22 Magnum over .410 gauge, and .357 magnum over 20 gauge. All of these now-discontinued guns featured wooden stocks. They can often be found used at gun shows or in gun shops at modest prices. Due to their versatility, they are well worth looking for. Because most of the Savage 24-series guns come with a blued finish, it is recommended that they be upgraded with a more durable finish such as Teflon or Parkerizing.

Long Range Rifles

Big game hunting/counter-sniping rifles are the next group of guns to be considered. The selection of a big game rifle depends on the variety of game to be hunted. In the lower 48 states, a bolt action rifle chambered in .308 Winchester or .30-’06 will normally handle most big game. Regional differences will determine exactly what you need. For example, in the plains and desert states, you might need a scoped rifled chambered in a flat-shooting cartridge such as .270 Winchester or .25-’06. No matter which chambering you select, it is important that you buy a well-made rifle with a robust action. Remington, Ruger, and Winchester among others all make guns with these qualities. After you buy the rifle itself, you will probably want to have a more durable finish applied to its metal surfaces. You might also want to mount a telescopic sight if you will be hunting in open country. If you’ll be hunting in brushy or densely-wooded terrain, you could find a scope is more of a hindrance than a help. It is important to note that scopes are more prone to failure than any other part of a rifle. Therefore, it is wise to select a rifle with good quality iron sights, whether or not you intend to mount a scope. If and when a scope should fail, you will have the recourse of removing the scope and reverting to iron sights. The need for a cartridge more powerful than .30-’06 is normally a consideration only in Alaska or parts of Canada where moose and grizzly  bear are found. Several powerful cartridges are currently popular. These include the .35 Whelen, the .338 Winchester, and the .375 H & H Magnum. For our type of big-game hunting (normally deer, but nothing bigger than elk), my wife and I selected a pair of Winchester Model 70s. One is chambered in .308 Winchester, and the other in .30-06. The .30-06 is in a  H-S Precision Kevlar-Graphite stock with integral aluminum bedding block. The .308 is in a Brown Precision green fiberglass stock, and was converted by Master Class Sports to take standard detachable M14 magazines. (Which are available in 5, 10, and 20 round capacity) This gives it interchangeability with magazines for M1As. They were both given a green Teflon finish and topped with Trijicon 4-power matte finish scopes. Because either rifle might also be used tactically, we had their muzzles threaded for flash hiders (1/2″ x 28 thread–the same as that used on the M16) by Holland’s of Oregon, and had Holland slim line muzzle brakes installed. We decided to get the muzzle brakes because they don’t draw as much attention (in these politically correct days) as a flash hider. However, if we get into some deep drama, we can quickly switch to flash hiders.

The next gun categories to consider are upland game and waterfowl shotguns. If you will have the opportunity to hunt upland game or waterfowl on your property or somewhere nearby, you will of course want to include one or more good bird-hunting shotguns in your battery. As you will likely be carrying your shotgun more often than the average city dweller, a durable finish is desirable. Remington’s “Special Purpose” versions of their Model 870, Model 11-87, and Model 1100 fit this bill nicely. They come from the factory with a non-glare stock finish and a dull gray Parkerized finish on all their surfaces. Several makers produce (or produced) Parkerized-finish pumps and autos comparable to the Remington Special Purpose series. One such is the Winchester Model 1300 Waterfowler. Like most other currently produced domestic shotguns, the Remington Special Purpose guns come with screw-in choke tubes as standard equipment. A 26-inch barrel length is best suited to upland game hunting, while a 28-inch or 30-inch barrel is normally recommended for pass shooting at ducks and geese. Because odd gauge shells might be difficult to obtain in rural areas or regardless of where you live in times of turmoil , it is best to buy either a 12 or 20 gauge shotgun. Also, given the trend towards steel shot, a 3-inch length chamber is recommended. The longer chamber allows the use of magnum loads, which are needed to give the less dense steel shot the same killing power as traditional lead shot loadings. In addition, screw-in choke tubes are advisable. As steel shot wears out chokes quickly, replaceable choke tubes can greatly increase the usable life of a gun. Because my wife is of small stature, (5′ 2″, 100 pounds) she prefers to do her bird hunting with a 20 gauge shotgun. She uses a Remington Model 1100 “Youth” model. (Remington also makes a “Youth” pump action Model 870 20 gauge, and Winchester has made similar small-dimension variants of their 20 gauge Model 370 and Model 120.) Because screw-in choke tubes were not available at the time that this gun was purchased, it was retrofitted with a Poly-choke adjustable choke. To make the gun less vulnerable to the ravages of wet weather, it will soon be shipped off to be black Teflon coated. With an extension magazine and a spare short (20″) barrel, our birdguns can double as self-defense guns.

One gun that deserves special mention is the .410 gauge “Snake Charmer II” single shot shotgun, made by Sport Arms, Mfg. This lightweight little gun just barely meets the Federal size minimums (18-inch barrel and 28-1/2 inches overall length). It is constructed of stainless steel and has a synthetic stock with a compartment that holds spare shotshells. Because it is compact and lightweight, our Snake Charmer gets taken along on walks where heavier, bulkier long guns would usually be left behind. This gun has been used to kill several rattlesnakes and a good number of quail.

Retreat Defense
Self-defense guns are the final category to be considered for farms, ranches, and survival retreats. Just as homesteaders in the 19th century had to depend on themselves for the protection of their lives and property, many modern homesteaders are finding that they must do likewise. Post-TEOTWAWKI, we all may be “on our own”–with no law enforcement to call on. (Or any way to call them, even if they are still available.) Even in the present day, rural farms and ranches are often a long driving distance from the nearest sheriff’s office. Even in relatively peaceful times, a lot can happen before help arrives, so it makes sense to be prepared. If you expect bad economic times or other sources of social unrest, you should make a concerted effort to stock up on defensive guns, plenty of ammunition, lots of spare magazines, and a good selection of spare parts. Again, the assumption that law enforcement officials will be able to assist you also depends on being able to contact them. Encounters with poachers, escaped convicts or other assorted riff-raff might not necessarily take place in the immediate vicinity of your home or vehicle where you would presumably have access to a telephone or CB radio. If you are walking a fence line at the far end of an 80-acre parcel and run into trouble, the only law enforcement assistance available might be the handgun on your hip. Be prepared. At our farm, we have a variety of guns whose main job is defense, but that are also used for other purposes. As previously noted, our L1A1s double as a long-range coyote eliminators. Our large frame handguns are primarily self-defense guns, but also usable for hunting and shooting pests. As I noted previously, we have begun carrying .45 automatics instead of .357s.

If you like the ballistics of the .45 ACP but prefer the action of a revolver, you might consider purchasing a Smith and Wesson Model 625 revolver. This is a stainless steel revolver built on the “N” frame–the same heavy frame used for the Smith and Wesson .44 magnums. The Model 625 uses “full moon” spring steel clips to hold six rounds of .45 ACP. Unlike most speed loaders, with the full moon clips, there is no knob to twist, or any mechanism that could potentially fail. You just drop the whole works into the cylinder. This makes them just as fast, if not faster, than any speed-loader. The Model 625 is offered in 3-inch, 4-inch, and 5-inch barrel lengths–the latter one of which is just about ideal. Because the .45 ACP has the same bore diameter as the .45 Colt cartridge, a spare cylinder and crane assembly can be fabricated for this more potent cartridge. This combination would make a particularly versatile handgun. One shop that specializes in this work is Miniature Machine Co. of Forth Worth, Texas. (See: Gunsmithing Service and Parts Providers, below)

Shotguns are also well-suited to defensive work. A spare short “riotgun” barrel for a pump or automatic shotgun can make it double as a formidable home defense weapon. For our Remington 870 12 gauge, for example, we have a 20-inch length barrel that is equipped with rifle (slug) sights, and the choke tube that we keep in it is cylinder bore (no choke). It is ideal for shooting rifled slugs or buckshot. With the short barrel and a Choate eight-round extension magazine, the Remington 870 is a particularly handy gun to use at night for shooting feral dogs and cats or other animals that are attracted to our barn full of rabbits and chickens. It is also a reassuring gun to have around for home defense. The short riotgun barrel stays on our Remington most of each year, while the long “bird” barrels are normally mounted only during the quail and pheasant seasons.

The “Battery “
Just how many guns will you need? If you are on a budget, you might get by with a good quality bolt action rifle chambered in .308 or .30-06, a 12-gauge pump shotgun with a spare riotgun barrel, a .22 LR rifle, and a .45 automatic pistol. However, in order to have the versatility required for the many shooting tasks at most farms and ranches you will likely need at least twice this many guns. For a more complete discussion of guns suitable to a self-sufficient and self-reliant lifestyle, the late Mel Tappan’s book Survival Guns (The Janus Press, Rogue River, Oregon) is generally recognized as the best general reference in print. And for a more complete discussion of guns suitable for self-defense, I highly recommend the book Boston’s Gun Bible.

A battery of guns for use at your farm or ranch should be considered a necessity, just like buying a Hi-Lift jack or a chain saw. Purchases should be made systematically and dispassionately. Like buying any other tool, you shouldn’t skimp on quality. A well-made gun can deliver years or even generations of reliable service.

One final note: You can buy the best guns in the world, but unless you practice with them often, you are not prepared. Getting training at a firearms school like Gunsite or Thunder Ranch is money well spent!


Gunsmithing Service and Parts Providers:

The following is a partial listing of suppliers and services. Many gunsmiths offer Parkerizing. You might be able to locate a local shop to provide this service, and thus eliminate the expense and delay of shipping a gun via common carrier.

METACOL Finishes:
Arizona Response Systems (T. Mark Graham)
16014 West Remuda Drive
Surprise, AZ 85387
phone 623-556-8056 (by appointment only!)


Nickel/Teflon (“NP3”) Coating:
The Robar Companies Inc.
21438 7th Ave., Suite B
Phoenix, Ariz. 85027
(602) 581-2648/2962


.45 Colt cylinders for .45 ACP S&W Revolvers:
Miniature Machine Co.
606 Grace Avenue
Ft. Worth, Texas 76111


Kevlar-Graphite Stocks:
H-S Precision, Inc.
1301 Turbine Drive
Rapid City, South Dakota 57701
(605) 341-3006


Winchester and Remington Bolt action rifle detachable M14 magazine conversions:
Master Class Sports
166 Pocono Road
Brookfield, CT 06804
(203) 775-1013