Although not normally listed as such, the ability to defend yourself is high up there on the list of survival priorities. It won’t kill you in 30 minutes, like losing your body heat will; nor will it kill you in 3 days, like going without water; you can’t even say that it will kill you in 30 days, like a lack of food can. For some, the inability to defend themselves will never make a difference at all. But for others, that lack could allow someone to kill them in a matter of seconds.

A lot depends on the specific situation one finds themselves in. A gun isn’t going to help you fight a hurricane, but it will help you fight looters who try and break into your home afterwards. It won’t keep you from getting hypothermia, lost in the mountains, but it will help ensure that nobody steals your survival gear. You can’t even count on a gun to prevent your family from feeling the pinch of a financial collapse, but you can use it to keep those who are feeling that pinch from invading your home and stealing your food.

Guns are one of the most controversial pieces of survival equipment there is. Not only is there the political hot potato of whether you should have a gun at all; but even amongst those who believe in their Second Amendment rights, there is a lot of disagreement about what sort of gun you should have. Everyone has their own opinion, and no two of those opinions are alike.

I have my opinion too. But I don’t want to try and impose my opinion on you. What I want to do is help you make the decision for yourself. If you’re an experienced gun owner, you’ve probably already made that decision. But if not, perhaps I can steer you in the right direction.

Why Guns?

Let’s start with the obvious question, why should guns be a part of your survival strategy? There really are several reasons for this, but I want to touch on only two; hunting and defense. Those two reasons trump every other one that’s out there.

Standard prepper philosophy is to stockpile food and other supplies, so that you have them when an emergency comes along. Then, once you have enough supplies to get you through the longest disaster recovery period you expect to encounter, the idea is to add the ability to produce your own food. For most of us, this essentially means homesteading, at least to some extent or other, so that we can grow animals and vegetables for our family to eat.

While growing animals is actually a more efficient means of procuring meat than hunting, we should always look for means to broaden out our options. Mankind has hunted for meat since the dawn of time, and while the ratio of available game to potential hunters isn’t what it used to be, in a long-term crisis, the ability to hunt should be a part of anyone’s survival strategy.

Of course, if you end up bugging out, the need to hunt will increase exponentially. Nobody can carry along enough food to supply themselves indefinitely. They’ll either need to be going somewhere where they’ve already stockpiled food or plan on hunting for it once they get there.

But the bigger survival need for firearms in the ability to defend yourself. Every time there is any sort of disaster, there are those who come out of the woodwork, seeking to prey upon their neighbors. Some are merely looters, but others turn to much more serious crimes, once the restraints of law are loosened.

We have to understand that a survival situation will make many of these people desperate. They aren’t the kind to become preppers themselves; but rather, those that are accustomed to sponging off society. Hunger will make them desperate, and as the saying goes, “Desperate people do desperate things.”

We have no way of knowing right now, but defending yourself and your family against these people could become your biggest survival challenge. If so, then the weapons you have and your ability to use them will become your greatest survival assets. While you may never need them, the risk is just too high to ignore.

The gun has been called “the great equalizer.” That’s because no matter how old you are, how strong you are, what your sex is, or how many hours of training you have, you can still use a gun to protect yourself. Granted, training and practice will improve your ability to use a gun accurately, but the basic ability to shoot can be taught in a matter of minutes.

The Broad Range of Guns to Choose From

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of different types of guns to choose from in today’s market. With such a large selection, it’s no wonder that most new gun buyers quickly become confused. But in reality, all those choices boil down to just a few basic categories.


The pistol is a purely defensive weapon, designed to be easy to carry and easy to deploy if one comes under attack. Lighter and smaller than “long guns,” pistols give up a lot in accuracy, especially over range, in order to gain portability. But in a self-defense situation, the pistol is the most likely gun you will use.

Pistols themselves have two basic sub-categories:

  • Revolvers – The rounds are carried in a revolving cylinder, which turns after each time it is fired, aligning a new round for firing. They are typically limited to six rounds.
  • Semi-automatic pistols (mistakenly called automatic pistols by the media) – The rounds are carried in a magazine (sometimes mistakenly called a “clip”) allowing quick reloading.

There is much disagreement about which of these is better. Revolvers have been around longer, with a strong history in the Old West. Being of a simpler design, there is less to go wrong with them, making them more reliable under the stress of a survival situation.

But the revolver is limited to the number of rounds carried in the cylinder. Reloading is a time-consuming operation, even if one is using “quick loaders.” By comparison, semi-automatic pistols usually have a larger capacity (unless they are small guns designed for concealability) and the magazines can be changed out in a matter of a couple of seconds. So, in a firefight, a semi-automatic pistol makes more firepower available to you.

My Glock 17, extensively modified. Has a lighter trigger pull,
extended slide release, extended magazine release, tritium night sights,
 Crimson Trace laser sight and Crimson Trace tactical light.

Of course, in a true firefight, you’ll want to get your hands on a long gun (shotgun or rifle) as soon as possible, to have the greater range and accuracy available to you. Nevertheless, the portability of a pistol makes it a necessity for your survival arsenal. As one firearms instructor put it, “A pistol is so that you have something to carry, while working your way to where you left your rifle.”

Few people can fire a pistol accurately as far as 50 feet. While that may not seem like a long range, it is for pistol shooting. Most pistol shots are limited to 30 feet or less. That’s great for self-defense indoors, but not for use outdoors.


The shotgun is probably the most versatile gun on the market. Originally developed for hunting birds, shotguns fire a number of “shot” (hence the name) at one time. How man shot they fire and how large the shot are depends on the type of round that is selected for the shotgun.

Herein we find the true versatility of the shotgun. Ammunition manufacturers and inventors have come up with a wide variety of different types of rounds that will fit a standards 12 gauge shotgun. You can get everything from beanbags which are intended to stun, rather than kill, up through various gauges of shotshells for hunting progressively large birds and even large game. Slugs, which are a large, single piece of shot are large enough and pack enough of a wallop to take down some of the biggest game there is. You can even buy specialty shotshells which shoot a net for taking down a snoopy neighbor’s drone, without destroying it.

However, shotguns do have their limitations as well. First of all, they don’t typically carry more than a few rounds at a time. While it is possible to find shotguns which use a magazine, they aren’t common. The other limitation is range. Shotguns don’t have a rifled barrel (spiral grooves cut into the barrel to cause the bullet to spin), so they lose accuracy over range, much like the muskets of the Revolutionary and Civil wars. That limits them to a range of about 100 feet.

Hunting Rifles

Hunting rifles are designed for long-range accurate shooting. Most big game is hunted at a range of 200 to 500 feet, with some types of big game requiring the ability to shoot out as far as 1,000 feet. In order to do this, many hunting rifles have telescopic gunsights mounted on them.

The same characteristics that make a hunting rifle ideal for hunting big game, make them ideal for hunting humans at long range as well. The sniper rifle is essentially a modified hunting rifle, built for the purpose of hunting men in a combat zone. In fact, one of the most popular hunting rifles on the market has also been used by the U.S. Army for years as one of the most popular sniper rifles.

However, the chances of needing to shoot our fellow man at long range are slim, regardless of what some people say. Yes it is possible to encounter a situation where long-range shooting would be advantageous. But the problem with that is that it is nearly impossible to prove in court that the person you would shoot is an imminent threat to your life. About the only way that you could, would be if they were shooting at you.

Nevertheless, hunting rifles can be used as defensive weapons at shorter ranges, such as a situation where your home was under attack. A pistol probably wouldn’t be good enough in such a situation, and a hunting rifle gives you more firepower than a shotgun will.

Tactical or Sporting Rifles

More than anything, this category refers to the AR-15 in its many iterations. Mistakenly called an “assault rifle” by the liberal left, this is one of the most utilitarian categories of firearms ever created. Designed along the lines of military firearms, tactical rifles offer a lot of versatility and a lot of firepower, in a shorter, more maneuverable package than a hunting rifle. However, they don’t have the fully-automatic firing capability of a true assault rifle.

The modular design of the AR-15 and other tactical rifles makes it extremely easy to customize them for your personal needs and preferences. For those who live in an urban or suburban environment, a short-barreled AR-15, with a red dot sight offers maneuverability. On the other hand, those who live out in the country might prefer a longer-barreled version, with a telescopic sight. In each case, the same basic gun is being customized for the need.

Besides the ability to be customized, the big advantage that a tactical rifle has over a hunting rifle is firepower. The standard magazine for these rifles holds 30 rounds, and like any semi-automatic pistol, can be changed out in a matter of seconds. That difference could be critical if it is necessary to defend yourself and your home.


My custom AR-15. Has 1x-4x scope, as well as a laser sight and tactical light
in the foregrip handle. Controls, such as the charging handle and slide release
are enlarged for easier engagement. The gas tube has been replaced with a
piston and the pistol grip and stock are rubberized for a better grip.

These rifles are also easier to maintain than hunting rifles, with more robust parts, which won’t become damaged easily in severe use. After all, their cousins, true military rifles, are designed to survive combat.

Fully-Automatic Rifles

This group includes everything from submachine guns to full sized machine guns. The one thing they all have in common, is the ability to fire on full automatic, meaning that as long as the trigger is pulled and there is ammo to fire, the gun will continue to fire, spewing forth hundreds of rounds per minute.

Fully-automatic firearms were designed for military use. Even then, while their use is common, their utility is limited. One must always remember that those hundreds of rounds of ammo that they fire per minute have to be carried by someone. Considering that an infantryman’s basic load of ammo is 240 rounds, supposedly enough for one day’s fighting, they can’t do much fully-automatic firing.

There are two times when fully-automatic fire is justified on the battlefield. The first is when the enemy infantry is charging your location. At that point, there are too many targets to choose discriminately, and those targets are moving too rapidly to aim at them accurately. The second time is for suppressive fire, which isn’t intended to hit anyone, but to cause them to keep their heads down and not shoot at you.

Taking that into consideration, along with the fact that even in a crisis situation, we are legally responsible for the lives we take, fully-automatic firearms are not a practical choice for survival. Even if they were, their high cost and the massive amounts of ammo that you would have to stock would still make them a rather impractical choice.

Bringing Personal Preference Into the Picture

Now that we’ve discussed the various options that are out there, we need to bring another aspect into the picture, that of personal preference. I’m not talking about “I like that gun, it looks cool” here, I’m talking about your personal survival and defensive style. One who is more likely to abandon their home when confronted by an angry mob, doesn’t need the same firepower as one who is going to stand their ground and defend their home.

Each of us is different and therefore each of us has different survival plans. Survival in an urban environment is different than survival in a rural one, and that’s different than survival in the wilderness. While the needs are all the same, the environment puts different demands on us.

Not only that, but one must have a gun that they are comfortable shooting. Giving a 12 gauge shotgun to a child and having it knock them over may make a funny video (to some, personally I think it’s irresponsible), it doesn’t make for practical defense. One must have guns which they can control and fire effectively. For women and children, this limits the size of the gun and the caliber that they can use effectively.

When talking about pistols, one should never use a pistol that is of a larger caliber than they can shoot comfortably. If you can’t put 100 rounds through that pistol, without your arm becoming tired from fatigue or your hand feeling like someone has been beating on it, that gun is too big for you. Pick something smaller.

Many shooting ranges have rental guns, allowing new shooters the opportunity to shoot a variety of different calibers and styles, before making a choice. This is the best way to help a new shooter make an informed decision as to what will work for them.

Another factor here is the individual’s shooting ability. Someone who has spent hundreds of hours on the shooting range, perfecting their ability, is going to be able to shoot better under the stress of a survival situation or an attack, than someone who hasn’t. If you have a sniper in your team, that person is the most likely candidate. Their training and unflappability will allow them to shoot accurately at long range, whereas others may be better off with a shotgun, simply because accuracy isn’t their strong suit.

Getting Down to Brass Tacks

I want to take an important lesson from the Army here, specifically, Special Forces, although you see the same thing in the infantry. A Special Forces A-team or infantry squad is armed with a variety of weapons. You don’t find them all carrying M-4 rifles, configured the same way.

That’s because the Army has learned that their soldiers are going to be faced with a variety of different situations, sometimes changing from moment to moment. Each of those situations is going to require different types of guns, with different capabilities. So, the armament of the squad is based on trying to balance out those different needs.

The vast majority of the team will be armed with the M-4, configured for the environment in which they are operating. But you’ll always find that there are a couple of soldiers in that squad who have grenade launchers slung under their rifle barrel. There will probably be at least one who has a rifle configured for shooting long-range, acting as the squad’s sniper. At least the sergeant will have a pistol for close-up work, and you would probably find a couple of shotguns for the same purpose. The team will have rocket launchers, anti-tank weapons and fully-automatic machine guns available to them as well, although they may not carry them on every mission.

So how does this apply to you? You probably don’t have a machine gun, grenade launcher or anti-tank weapon hiding in your closet.

But you can still use the basic concept that they are. That is, arm your family or your survival team with a variety of weapons, intended for use in a variety of different circumstances. If you are in a situation where you need to survive by yourself, then you want to be armed with the most versatile weapon you can find.

Actually, each shooter in your survival team should be armed with two weapons, a pistol and a long gun. There will be times when you have to put your long gun down, in order to perform the work of surviving. Those are the times when it’s especially critical to have a pistol strapped to your side. If you were to be attacked in such a moment, that pistol would be the only weapon you’d have readily available.

As for long guns, at least one person should have a long-range hunting rifle, both for hunting and for use in counter-sniper fire if you should ever need it. A couple of people should carry shotguns, for close in work, and the rest of the team should probably be armed with some sort of tactical or sporting rifle.

For solo survival, your best choice is a toss-up between a tactical rifle and a shotgun. The versatility of the shotgun, especially in ammunition choices, makes it a great survival gun. But the larger shell size means that it’s going to be hard to carry a lot of ammunition along with you. Even in combat, those who carry shotguns are much more limited in the amount of rounds they carry.

On the other hand, a sporting rifle, like the AR-15, gives you much of the same flexibility, along with the ability to carry much more ammo. While you can forget about bird hunting with them, and you won’t have the spread of a shotgun blast, you will have the ability to put a lot of rounds downrange, if you need to. If it were me, I’d probably have the coin fall on this side.

Customizing Your Firearms

Another important aspect about firearms choice is how you are going to customize your firearms. I’ve already mentioned that the AR-15 is highly customizable, but it isn’t the only gun out there that you can customize. While there aren’t as many modifications available for most guns, as there are for the AR-15, it’s a good idea to take advantage of what is available, if it will help you survive.

Personally, I have a tendency to customize all my guns, seeking to make them the best I can, for my needs. I don’t go for cosmetic upgrades, but rather functional ones, such as extended slide and magazine releases, to make it easier to operate the gun or lightening the trigger pull to help increase my accuracy.

But the biggest and most important way to customize any gun is in the optics. In most cases, there are much better sights that you can buy, than the ones which come on a gun. Changing them can make a huge difference in your ability to engage targets accurately in a hurry.

As far as I’m concerned, any pistol should have tritium night sights on it. The stock sights are fine for daylight shooting, but when twilight comes around, you can’t see them well. In full darkness, they basically disappear. Tritium sights give you three dots, one on the front sight and two on the back, which glow in the dark, allowing you to sight the gun even in total darkness. Just remember that you still have to be able to identify the target as a true threat.

Any long-range gun should, of course, have a telescopic sight on it, preferably one with a high magnification. But even more important than that is that the sight have adjustable magnification. That way, you can use it for close range or long range, as the need arises. If you can get it, for your gun, you should mount that sight on an “open mount,” so that you can still see the iron sights as well.

For closer range, you could go with the existing iron sights on the gun; but that may not be your best choice. The Army has basically abandoned iron sights for the red dot or reflex sight. These provide a single aiming point, rather than having to align two sights with each other and then with the target. The reduction in complexity makes aiming the rifle (or shotgun) much faster and easier.

The Most Important Part

The most important part of any firearms or defensive package isn’t the weapons, it’s the person holding the weapons. You can have the best firearms known to man and still miss your target. That’s actually a whole lot more common than hitting the target, especially in the stress of an actual armed confrontation.

Practice with your firearms and then practice some more. Insist that everyone in your family or on your survival team do the same. Work on decreasing your group size, to the point where you’re shots make one ragged hole, rather than a bunch of scattered holes. Learn to shoot from a number of different positions, drawing and firing rapidly, shooting in low light and shooting with your off hand. Only then will you be able to use those firearms effectively in a survival situation.


30 rounds of 9mm from 7 yards, timed rapid fire. That’s a 2 ½” group.

Dave Steen

About The Author: Dave is a 58 year old survivalist; father of three; with over 40 years of survival experience. He started young, learning survival the hard way, in the school of hard knocks. Now, after years of study, he's gray-haired and slightly overweight. That hasn't dimmed his interest in survival though. If anything, Dave has a greater commitment to survival than ever, so that he can protect his family. Click Here To Read More About Dave

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