Camping & Survival

Firearms for Dire Straits

two handguns with old and new rifle

These are uncertain times. Few of us have faith in our government or leaders. We have seen lackluster responses to genuine emergencies, failings within our infrastructure, even catastrophe. Fires and hurricanes are a fact of life.

Social upheaval may rear its head in the near future. These are dire straits. We still have a voice and a vote to make ourselves heard and must do so. We must also prepare for the worst.

Kel-Tec 9mm pistol
The Kel Tec 9mm is practically a must-have for the prepared American in times of dire straits.

Natural disasters have occurred during the calmest of political climates, but just the same the consequences have been horrible. The Galveston flood is one example. Galveston was a thriving city with a population of almost 40,000 at the turn of the previous century.

The town was important to shipping and railroads, and the population enjoyed many advantages. The destructive force of the Galveston storm is practically unequaled.

At least 6,000 and perhaps 12,000 people were killed. In those days, there was no FEMA; the government simply exerted its resources, and the military was called in to help. During the aftermath of the storm, one 125 looters were killed, almost all by citizens.

Looters and rapists did not prosper. One guardsman killed at least three looters in one day with his rifle.

The San Francisco earthquake was a far different event than the earlier episode when death came howling out of the ocean, but it was also a killer. The fabled New York power outage of the 1960s is among the first emergencies with a deadly human undercurrent.

A power outage by itself is not deadly in the sense that a storm or earthquake is deadly, but humans taking advantage of the power outage to loot and rape added a critical side to the equation. New York regressed to the Stone Age overnight.

two handguns with old and new rifle
Modern firearms are great choices, but there are classic handguns and rifles that will serve well during dire straits.

I am not one of those who state that society breaks down during an emergency. Rather, the cohesion of society has already broken down. A lack of respect for other human beings and an entitlement mentality has already sunk into the fiber of these men and women.

The breakdown in government response and natural and man-made emergency are simply an excuse to loot, rape, and destroy.

The breakdown of rule of law had chaotic results. With the police severely crippled as to response and forced to guard the most vulnerable areas such as hospitals and schools, the mob will rise and wreak havoc. I assure you the police cannot be counted on to help you.

There have been criticisms that the police show a desire to retreat during such emergencies. This was certainly not true during the 9/11 attacks or during actions in the early part of the previous century. But criticism of the police is something that must be taken in context.

During the L.A. riots and hurricane Katrina, the police may have been reluctant to engage looters.

After decades of fighting a losing battle with the protein-fed ex-con criminal class and being harshly criticized—even criminally charged when force is required—the police have little respect for our revolving-door justice system.

AR-15 magazines with Magula speed loaders
Be certain to stock up on magazines for dire straits.

Many actions, including the North Hollywood, CA, shootout, in which the LAPD behaved bravely with good discipline, are fought with felons who should have remained incarcerated but were not.

After being pilloried by the liberal media, faced with overwhelming odds and uncertain support from their political leaders, the police may hardly be blamed for backing off, regrouping, and letting events take their course.

While they may earn the scorn of some when everyone holds cops in such low esteem, from the local thug to the previous president of the United States, it is more than understandable that the police may not give a damn at the moment.

There are good peace officers who risk life and limb every day. But if you happen to live in one of those jurisdictions where the police are mainly concerned with ticketing citizens with minor infractions and seldom deal with real crime, you had best take your own counsel.

I hold a degree in criminal justice, and my profession entails rather sober and boring work at times. An observation that has remained constant for well over 100 years is that the active criminal population of a city is usually around 2 percent.

If that seems low, consider the odds: Many large cities have about 200,000 criminals to deal with against less than 5,000 officers, and the officers are parceled out in shift work. Thank God most people are honest!

Winchester Western .351 cartridges
These Winchester Western .351 cartridges have been around since 1940, and every single one fired normally. Good-quality ammunition enjoys a long shelf life and is handy in dire straits.

Of course, there are areas where the criminal population is much higher. My county contains about 250,000 people. That would figure out to about 5,000 active criminals, except that we are among the highest crime areas in the country. Fortunately, this crime is centralized in a few areas, although it spills out countywide.

We have a well-led proactive Sheriff’s Department, a professional municipal agency, and the usual small-town agencies of varying stripes. The police are outnumbered by 10:1 in total, but closer to 20:1 in the municipal agency.

Add to the active criminal population the hangers-on and lowlifes who will join the mob when it suits them and you see we have a problem.

The police will be outnumbered by a realistic 100:1. Add communication glitches and jurisdictional jealousy. As for your neighbors, there is a high percentage they will stand in the street and cry for the government to save them.

If there are any you can count on, you had better know who they are and make plans now.

I have worked a number of weather-related emergencies, including a particularly bad storm that claimed the lives of a number of people, both in their home and in accidents on the road.

Among the heroes were two firemen who navigated a snow-covered mountain trail to reset a radio repeater and restore communication.

A disabled child was stranded on the road and rescued, and my own children were in a church-based shelter for the duration. During this, the thieves were in full swing. Most thieves are lazy in the conventional sense, but they are cunning and sense an opportunity.

What all of this information should do is convince you that you need to be prepared.

Auto-Ordnance 1911 .45 pistol right profile
The Auto-Ordnance 1911 .45 is a no-frills GI .45. It is a capable firearm in dire straits.

There are many things you need to prepare with, and some are out of my field of expertise. But I can counsel you concerning firearms. You may not need a battle rifle and a tactical pistol, but you do need to be armed.

Working Firearms

A wood stove or gas heater may be as important as a good rifle, depending on where you live. Even if you live in Florida, a gas stove is good to keep warm and dry clothes. If you haven’t weathered a storm yet, you may not realize how much you will need.

The same may apply to firearms. The advantages and disadvantages of each type of firearm may be debated, but the important thing is to have a firearm. The real advantage is having something you are able to use well.

A bit of forethought is necessary because you may also have family members who need to be armed.

I have personal choices I think are good, reasonable choices for other family members. I have presented both my daughters-in-law with double-action Smith & Wesson .38 revolvers, each to suit their tastes.

One is a schoolteacher, and the other has two tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan on her resume. Both are well armed.

Having something on your hip builds confidence. Facing a mob alone is suicide. Having a handgun close at hand is a comfort to the just and a deterrent to the evil. A skilled handgunner may hold their own against one or more looters in their own home. Show the adversary their own blood and they will often flee.

Unlike armed citizens and cops, thugs of this ilk have no concern for their own fallen. They leave them lying and retreat. I know of a particular case in which a gang was so eager to retreat, they ran over a wounded gang member with their vehicle.

Anything is better than nothing in this situation, but that anything should work. Avoid ineffectual calibers and ironmongery.

I doubt there is anything as bad as the defunct Llama pistols on the market today, but there are a number of pistols that do not work with a degree of reliability I trust.

Military surplus is often well worn, although a Romanian or Polish Tokarev in good shape would be at the top of the short list of good but inexpensive handguns.

The inexpensive brass-frame single-action revolvers should be avoided. There are pot-metal double-action revolvers that are not well suited to hard use.

Anything you use should be proofed. There are good used Smith & Wesson revolvers that will serve well. I am urging you to use what you have and use it well, but the baseline in defensive calibers should be the . 38 or 9mm.

I lump the .25, .32, and .380 ACP and the .32 Magnum in the same category. They are not enough for the job. You are in the situation of being armed with a deadly weapon but not well able to defend yourself.

Woman holding a pistol caliber carbine with a zombie target in the rear
Sometimes a pistol-caliber carbine is a good choice for young shooters in dire straits.

The .38 Special +P and 9mm +P are good defensive calibers, easy enough for occasional shooters to handle, and relatively available. I would not feel particularly handicapped with a 7.62mm Tokarev and good ammunition, but there are better choices.

If I could not carry at least a .38, I would prefer a .22 to the minor calibers. A good midframe .22 such as the Ruger Standard Model autoloader or the Taurus Tracker revolver will prove accurate and capable of making the most of anyone’s marksmanship skills.

The .22 is not the instant stopper we prefer, but then it goes back to showing them their own blood. I am not advocating the .22 over a centerfire, but everyone needs a good .22 and sometimes you go with what you know.

The handgun should be a true general-purpose handgun. We do not know what will come up.

A long-barrel hunting handgun or a short-barrel deep-concealment piece is not as useful in all situations. A red dot sight relies upon batteries and may be unhandy during movement.

If we expect our less interested family members to use a handgun, it should be a plain vanilla type.

I mentioned double-action revolvers. If you are willing to master the recoil and accommodate the muzzle blast, the Smith & Wesson Combat Magnum is still a fine sidearm. You may be surprised by the level of accuracy offered by quality Smith & Wesson revolvers, something often absent from modern polymer-frame, low-bid autoloaders.

If you like single-action revolvers, a quality example is far from useless. They are as good as any handgun for the one shot you may need.

There are standouts, even icons of reliability. I obtained a Beretta 92 in order to teach military-bound students. I have lost track of the inexpensive ball loads and lead-bullet handloads this pistol has fired, but it must be well over 10,000 rounds.

There have been no malfunctions of any type.

I added a solid-steel guide rod to tame the already light muzzle flip further. This is a controllable, reliable handgun that you can get a student up and running on quickly.

Major Matthew Campbell shooting the Beretta 92 pistol
Major Matthew Campbell finds the Beretta 92 good enough for critical use in dire straits.

If you favor the 1911, get a good one. This begins with the Rock Island Armory pistols. An underrated but effective handgun, the mil-spec Rock comes out of the box emergency ready.

If you care to invest in a Springfield TRP or Kimber Gold Combat, by all means, do so. The .45 auto is a great performer in its best renditions.


Arming yourself with a rifle shows forethought and preparation. A long gun simply makes sense. If you are lost in the woods or behind a wall in a riot zone, a good rifle is a potential lifesaver.

Not many of us have ice water in our veins. Your best performance on the range is not likely to be repeated in an emergency. The rifle makes the most of what ability you have.

I find that the average student will maintain his proficiency with the rifle to a higher degree than the handgun or shotgun over long periods of disuse.

When choosing a firearm of any type, you must answer the question as to what type of chore the firearm must handle. What type of incident do you wish to survive? Are animal attacks a part of the task? You need power.

To thwart a robbery, you may need an instant second shot. To feed yourself you may need accuracy or power or both. Let’s look at the reality of the situation. If you are lost or injured, you are at a disadvantage.

You need a good firearm to make up for these disadvantages.

Sitting around a campfire nursing an injury and listening to the coyotes howl is one scenario you may face. Being trapped in an apartment while looters ransack the neighborhood is another.

Big dogs get ugly when they are not fed, and these animals may be a real problem in short order in an urban environment. A good rifle is an efficient problem solver.

The power and complication of the rifle may depend on who is going to use it. If you are keeping rifles on hand for less interested family members, a good .22 is valuable.

The .22 has plenty of accuracy and penetration against human targets and is capable against small game.

Among the most reliable and all-around useful rifles I own is a Ruger 10/22 with the standard sights and a black synthetic stock. I do not add accessories, and I have yet to meet an extended magazine I trust completely until the Ruger X magazine was introduced.

With Winchester Wildcat 40-grain ammunition, it will group five shots into an inch or less at 25 yards. Being able to direct a bullet exactly where I want it to go on-demand is appealing. Anyone hit with a .22 is well advised to seek medical attention immediately.

At 13, the Ruger was my daughter’s bug-out gun. This was the only rifle she is familiar with.

I realize that the thought of a 13-year-old having a bug-out gun may horrify some folks, but the image of a slaughtered teenager is considerably worse to the author. The point is, the best rifle will be the one you have.

A few thoughts on obtaining food with the rifle. Be certain you know how to field dress and cook game. But rather than carry 8 pounds of hunting rifle, how about a 4-pound rifle and 4 pounds of food such as MREs?

Just a thought, but one that makes sense. You may decide you want more food and less ammunition and rifle.

I have not yet mentioned centerfire rifles, but by all means if you have a good one, consider its use in an emergency. The AR-15 comes to mind in terms of a survival rifle. I own several and have great respect for the type.

As for the 5.56mm and the 7.62x39mm, neither cartridge is ideal as an all-around rifle round for American conditions. The AR-15 features low recoil and good accuracy as well as a good ammunition reserve.

The cartridge does not have good penetration against light cover such as vehicles, an urban consideration. It is not an ideal deer cartridge.

I own a Winchester Model 1894 Trapper (16-inch barrel) in .30-30 WCF that I feel makes lots of sense as an emergency rifle. The rifle is flat with no handle or magazine to catch on brush or other obstacles. It is very accurate to about 100 yards, and the rifle hits hard.

Several handgun with paper targets
Whichever handgun you choose, master the piece and be certain it functions properly. You’ll be thankful you did when dire straits come along.

I have fitted mine with Providence Tool aperture sights, a close copy of the original Lyman receiver sight. The Winchester is reliable, and if there is a reckoning of your actions, it is a hunting rifle, not an assault rifle.

I load the Winchester Power Point in this one. A good short, fast-handling .308 is another excellent option. The .308 Winchester will handle 99 percent of the hunting chores on my table and serve well as a Katrina rifle as well.

While we may not think of a bolt gun, many are light, reliable, accurate, and affordable.

Battle Rifles

As a young man, I heard complaints concerning the M16 rifle from returning veterans, most concerning wound potential at longer range. There were reliability concerns with some rifles.

My grandfather’s generation and my father’s as well served with the M1 Garand. I have never heard a single complaint, ever, from anyone who used the Garand. The AR-15 is a fine rifle for small-unit actions.

It is overlooked, but once the American solider enjoyed air cover and was not in danger of air attack, the .30 rifle was less of a necessity.

My research tends to indicate that our rioters are not of the same stock as those who stormed the Shah’s palace in the face of 20mm Vulcan cannon fire. Show them blood, and they flee.

In the unlikely event I were employed in an urban defense situation, my M1 Garand rebuild would not be out of place.

Wrap your mind around a sniper at 200 yards in a bell tower. Will the AR-15 cut through light cover and ring his bell? While this seems cinematic, most of your adversaries will have been trained in tactics by the cinema.

They will be far easier to handle than those with military training. The main advantage of these firearms is in making us both truly safe and in feeling safe.

The bottom line in any practical discussion is that you must consider who will be using the gear and how practical it really is. In the end, a highly specialized firearm may be counterproductive. Choose a versatile firearm.

The reality of the situation is always foremost. The best emergency firearm is probably the one in the gunsafe that you use best.

Ammunition and Load-Bearing Devices

Your load-bearing gear must be up to the task. A heavy gun belt that keeps the handgun and holster properly in place and balanced is important. The holster must be either heavy ballistic nylon or treated leather.

A suede or natural-finish holster isn’t going to last long in hard use.

The holster and belt must be of first quality. If you use a Kydex holster, choose a good one such as the Blackhawk Serpa. The low bid is prone to break at the paddle. The rifle must have a good sling.

Most of us probably already have enough ammunition on hand to get us through a few days of danger. A few hundred rounds seems plenty barring a post-apocalyptic nightmare. If you choose your caliber in anticipation of an emergency, the choice will resound later.

If you deploy a .45-caliber handgun or 5.56mm rifle, ball ammunition is as effective as expanding ammunition in many cases. The big bores and the fast .223 are proven. On the other hand, RNL 9mm and .38-caliber rounds are poor performers.

Modern JHP loads are great, but perhaps a caliber that does not rely on an expensive or difficult load to find would be a good choice.

I keep 500 rounds of Winchester USA ball in .223, .308, and .45 ACP on hand at all times. It shoots well, and I am prone to pick at it and slow to replace it at times, but this program serves me well.

Whatever ammunition you choose, primer and case mouth seal are more important than potential wound ballistics. A cut-rate loading does not use such seal, and inclement weather will invade the case.

Per my research, the primer often survives while the powder is dampened. If the primer fails, the cartridge is easily extracted. If the primer fires but only partially ignites the powder, you may have a bullet stuck in the barrel. That is a real problem.

Ammunition for emergency use is critical. I do not like carrying spare ammunition on the firearm or the sling or holster, but a spare gun load should be carried in a proper ammunition pouch.

What are your favorite firearm for dire straits and why? Share your answers in the comment section.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (55)

  1. Michael Allen, not sure where you saw anything racist, unless you think only minorities can be looters or criminals.

    While many consider .38 as the lowest caliber, and the author did at least point to the .22 LR, as a .22 LR can do some damage and with the higher number of rounds in a .22LR revolver and the ease of returning to target due to low recoil with a revolver or semi-auto, they can be very useful in defensive situations. Perhaps not the most desired, but functional and useful. That being said, I believe a .32, and .380 are both viable defensive rounds. A .32 was a round used by many European militaries and law enforcement for much of the 20th century, and the .380 is a 9mm short.

    That being said, while I would not refuse to carry a .22 LR, or a .380 or even a .32, I do prefer the .45 ACP in a good 1911. Old school I also like the Browning Hi-Power in 9mm, and the 92 is a good firearm, but as an armorer, there are far too many little parts and far too many people lose parts in the field.

    A good .22Lr or .22 WMR with a .410 is a good survival long gun, such as the Chiappa. Breech loading, one shot each, but you have the rifle and the shotgun combination. Not the best for defense perhaps, but a good basic survival weapon.

  2. Due to the versatility of ammo, I think the shotgun should be the first choice as preppers build their survival arsenal. In order, I’d recommend: 1) Shotgun, .12 or .20 GA (to tolerance). 2) .22 LR (Ruger 10/22, Marlin 60). 3) Handgun (.45 ACP -City, .357 MAG-Rural). 4) Modern Sporting Rifle (M4/AR15 or Ruger Mini-14). Bolt Action in .308 WIN, 30-06.

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