There are lots of rifle, handgun and shotgun cartridges to choose from. I knew this but did not realize the abundance until I edited the thirteenth edition of Cartridges of the World; more than 700 rifle and pistol cartridges are detailed in that book. This can make choosing a few cartridges to rely on during a survival situation a daunting task. The reality, however, is that for the pragmatic survivalist the options are pretty narrow.
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By approaching the problem from an application perspective and considering the ways you might need to use a firearm in varied survival settings, sensible options are not all that extensive. Whether you are working through a serious natural disaster, a post-economic meltdown or some other cataclysmic event, you will use the firearm in one of two ways: You’ll use it for protection or for food.
You might need a firearm for protection from humans or dangerous animals, which can even include former pets. A few weeks after Hurricane Katrina, rogue dogs—some large and aggressive—were prowling New Orleans looking for food. I was working there in a law enforcement capacity, so I know. You also might get hungry and need to hunt. Handguns and shotguns work for protection or hunting at close range and rifles work near or far. Surviving a long-term event might also necessitate shooting skills training, so having a firearm and ammunition for practice is not a bad idea.
Let’s start small by looking at the .22 LR cartridge. This ammunition is affordable and comes in many varieties. (CCI has a wide selection of rimfire ammo to choose from.) You can carry lots of .22 ammo and it will not weigh you down. It can be used effectively on small game and even on animals as large as deer at close range. It can even be used for protection, though there are better options. And finally, it is a preeminent practice choice due to its low report and lack of recoil. A survival plan that does not include a .22 rifle or pistol is flawed.
.223 & .308
For a more powerful rifle cartridge I see only two viable options, and that’s the .223 Remington and the .308 Winchester. Both offer plenty of power for personal protection and will work for hunting all commonly consumed game animals in North America. With the .223 you can carry and store more ammo. It also comes in rifles that are reasonably lightweight. If you expect to be frequently encountering marauding grizzlies, however, the more powerful .308 Winchester may be a better choice, but a shotgun with slugs will also suffice.
The primary reason the .223 Remington is the top choice is because it is standard issue for the U.S. military. All branches of the service rely on the .223 Remington/5.56mm NATO. This, combined with a wide assortment of special purpose ammo like CorBon’s new Urban Response load, makes the .223 perfectly suited for survival. For what its worth, the .223 Remington and the 5.56mm NATO are somewhat interchangeable. In a modern .223 Remington bolt-action rifle you can shoot either. With an AR-style rifle, avoid 5.56mm NATO ammo unless the barrel is so marked. In fact, if you are purchasing an AR for survival, it’s best to choose one with a 5.56mm chamber so you are not limited in the ammo you can shoot. Federal has just released cans of American Eagle 5.56mm NATO FMJ (full metal jacket) ammo that is nitrogen packed in waterproof/weatherproof containers that are great for long-term storage.
9mm, .40 & .45 ACP
A proper centerfire cartridge for the survival handgun might be a bit more of a complex subject. While a .223 Remington can be had in most every action type, handgun cartridges like the 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP are most commonly found in semi-automatic handguns. There’s nothing wrong with a semi-automatic handgun, but over time and with a lot of use the pistol’s springs may need to be replaced. And, when you’re shooting a semi-auto, the empty cases get scattered about.
With a revolver, you must physically eject the empty cartridge cases and this makes them easier to retain. In a long-term survival situation where you may have to rely on handloading to keep ammo in your guns, this could prove beneficial. Additionally, even though modern semi-automatic handguns are very dependable, they typically cannot compete with the revolver when it comes to the lack of care needed to keep them running reliably.
If you choose to equip yourself with a semi-automatic there are only three choices that make sense, and they are the 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. The 9mm (and the .45 ACP to a lesser extent) are military cartridges. As with the .223, this makes them good choices. The .40 S&W, while popular with law enforcement personnel, is not as prevalent. Some law enforcement agencies are even starting to switch to 9mm because the .40 S&W has shown no measureable advantage and with its harder recoil is more difficult for many to shoot. Sig Sauer’s new line of Elite Performance Ammunition is available for autopistol cartridges and features the reliable personal-defense V-Crown bullet.
Logic would seem to dictate that the 9mm is the way to go. Not only is it used by the U.S. military, but the soldiers of many other nations also use it. This means ammo for the 9mm will be easier to find than ammo for the .40 S&W or the .45 ACP. You might also consider that if you are arming each family member, they should all be armed with a handgun chambered for the same cartridge—maybe even the same handgun. This will allow ammo exchangeability and limit the need to store ammo for multiple cartridges. Even if you opt for a semi-auto handgun, however, I would strongly urge you to have a revolver on hand, just in case.
With the revolver there’s really only one answer, and that is the .357 Magnum. It has plenty of power for defense or hunting and will also shoot lower-powered .38 Special ammo. It will give you a handgun with dual power levels, and as revolver ammunition goes, .357 Magnum and .38 Special are the most prevalent. With the array of .38 Special/.357 Magnum loads from Federal, Speer and CCI you should not have a problem finding several to rely on.
An honorable mention here should probably go to a revolver in .327 Federal Magnum. It will almost equal .357 Magnum performance and can also shoot .32 H&R Magnum, .32 S&W Long, .32 Short and .32 ACP ammo. No other handgun can work with five different cartridges.
For shotguns, there’s really only one answer as well. The 12 gauge is the most prolific shotgun chambering and is the only shotgun chambering used by the military and law enforcement. Yes, a 20 gauge will kick less and you can carry more 20-gauge shells than you can for a 12 gauge. But, chances are that if you find a box of shotgun shells lying around, they’ll be 12-gauge shells. And, if 12-gauge recoil is a problem, try some of the Hornady TAP low-recoil 12-gauge ammo.
This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE ™ Spring 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.
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