Compiled by Jay Pinsky
The question is pretty commonly heard at gun shops, barbecues and shooting ranges. Every shooter knows it, and every shooter thinks about it. What gun would you choose if you could only have one gun? It seems simple, but experts and enthusiasts alike know how difficult it can be.
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The question gets a little trickier when we add a caveat: What if it’s during the apocalypse? Now you have to consider ammunition; if you run out of ammo, will you be able to scrounge some up? What about hunting and self-defense?
Answering this question can be difficult, but that’s why we’ve assembled an assortment of industry experts to offer their opinions. On top of learning more about each of these gurus, these answers can also help you formulate your own.
- Affiliation: DoubleStar Corp.
- Position: Senior Executive, DoubleStar, Training Academy Instructor
- SHTF Gun: AR-15
I’d choose an AR-15 for a SHTF situation. That’s an easy choice. I have had this conversation many times with industry associates as well as family members and friends. With the thousands of variations available, the AR-15 is the best choice. My decision is based on the following: training, reliability, ease of use, size and ammunition.
I have spent ample time training on this firearm. I feel like I would be able to handle the weapon in a variety of situations. Whether I am in a rural setting taking distant shots or a densely populated area, the AR-15 is capable of kill shots in excess of 300 yards, and it’s short enough to maneuver in urban terrain.
The reliability of the AR-15 is only as good as the sum of its parts. When built with quality components, the AR-15 will perform in most any condition, as proven by our military and law enforcement over the years. I adhere to the “buy once, cry once” principal when buying gear. Go ahead and pay for the good stuff and you won’t have to buy it again.
Ease of use is another big factor. Not everyone is a trained firearms enthusiast, so you may encounter situations where you are unable to fire and need to teach someone in your group to return fire or hunt for food. The AR is very basic and easy to use. My 9-year-old son has been shooting one since he was big enough to hold it up, and in my training experience, it doesn’t take much to get the average person up to speed safely.
The size of the AR-15 makes it easy to carry. If you have ever covered a long distance on foot, you know every ounce you are carrying counts. Moving through obstacles also requires a small, compact firearm. Any hunter can tell you that climbing over fallen trees and rough terrain is easier with a smaller, shorter rifle, and the AR-15 can be made short to carry and adjusted for the correct length of pull with collapsible stocks.
The last and maybe biggest factor is ammunition. The AR-15’s standard 5.56mm cartridge is big enough to put down small- to medium-sized targets with well-placed shots. Whether it’s a zombie horde or a whitetail dinner that comes into the scope, the 5.56mm cartridge can handle it. Carrying six to ten 30-round magazines on your plate carrier or in your backpack still leaves room for things like water, food and medical supplies on your trek without adding too much bulk or weight. Other factors include caliber conversions for larger ammunition and parts availability. The AR-15 is the most popular rifle in America, and it should be easy to find ammunition and parts while scavenging. For these reasons, the AR-15 is the ideal SHTF firearm.
- Affiliation: Mad Dawg Global Marketing, Inc.
- Position: President
- SHTF Gun: AR-15 carbine
Guns are tools, and each of them has been designed to perform a certain job. Unfortunately, an event of apocalyptic proportions can limit our choices, so the selection of just one gun is extremely critical. To me, this means choosing a gun that has a great degree of versatility. My pick would be an AR-15 carbine.
For many years I competed in USPSA competition and considered myself an above- average shooter, and I own many nice, custom 1911 pistols. But I have enough experience behind a carbine to know that no matter how much I practice with my pistol, I will never be able to shoot one as accurately as one of my AR-15 carbines. AR-15s are accurate while the 5.56mm cartridge is light on recoil, making this combination especially effective and easy to shoot for all family members.
Besides the precision of a carbine, there is also the capacity factor. Thirty-round AR magazines are abundantly available at bargain prices. My own home-defense guns all use 40-round Magpul 5.56mm magazines.
Flattop carbines are especially versatile and offer the shooter the ability to use folding backup sights, reflex sights or a scope depending on the task at hand. Free-floating handguards make it easy to attach lights, lasers and other accessories to aid the shooter.
The AR’s modular design also makes it easy to switch uppers—i.e., convert the gun from a short M4-style carbine to a long-range precision rifle with ease. Guns can even be converted to hard-hitting calibers like the .458 SOCOM or inexpensive .22 LR.
The ubiquitous of the AR-15 makes its choice a logical one in a doomsday scenario. Parts, magazines and ammunition should be easier to find with such a popular gun. Unwanted parts or accessories should also make for good trading fodder.
My own choice for home defense is an AR-15 SBR with a 7-inch barrel, a flash suppressor and a red dot reflex sight. In the event of an unimaginable catastrophe where I can only grab one gun before I leave my home, I would feel very well protected with my AR-15!
- Affiliation: U.S. Army Special Forces veteran, survival instructor, author, star of the Travel Channel’s “Lost Survivors”
- Position: Founder and Director of SpecOps Adventures and Training
- SHTF Gun: Scavenger 6 by Ralston Arms
Like any skilled person, I prefer to use the right tool for the task. However, sometimes you have to make do and improvise. As a survival guy, I live with a long machete, large, medium and small knives and a backup. The same principles apply for my weapons; I have sniper rifles, shotguns, AR-15s, pistols. But if I must choose just one weapon, I want the one that will give me the biggest bang for the buck, which means it has the most utility and versatility.
So, for me, the best all-around weapon to carry in a bug-out situation would be the Scavenger 6 by Ralston Arms. Designed by one of the most creative survival inventor/designer guys I’ve ever met, Tim Ralston, it’s a weapon that can shoot 21 different calibers. In a survival situation, you never know what kind of ammo will be available. It’s very likely you’ll sooner or later expend whatever ammo you have stored and you can’t always carry all the ammo with you, but if your weapon will shoot whatever is around, you’re well ahead of the power curve, and in a crisis, that could be the difference between surviving and pushing up daisies.
- Affiliation: Vista Outdoor
- Position: Communications Coordinator for Firearms & Ammunition
- SHTF Gun: Savage 11 Hog Hunter
I’m a bolt-action fanatic, and a gunsmith first. Somewhere deep down inside me, I still believe that the autoloading firearm is a passing fad; lever actions, bolts and revolvers are simple mechanical mechanisms that still rise to the top of my list if SHTF. Don’t get me wrong—I play with the AR platform, and I’ve assembled more ARs than I can count. The AR-15 is a great option if you expect a firefight. My primary concern is a simple rifle that anyone can operate and maintain should I become immobilized. Backup iron sights are mandatory. If anything happens to the optic, I can’t be stuck guessing where I am shooting. I need to be able to harvest game while having the ability to stop two-legged varmints. No excess hanging off the gun, waiting to get caught on brush while moving. Simplicity.
I value the ability to make one shot matter, and believe the Savage 11 Hog Hunter rifle in .223 Remington would be tough to beat if things got bad in a hurry. The Model 11 Hog Hunter comes in at 7.25 pounds, so it’s no flyweight, but I’ll take the extra weight of the medium-contour barrel for better off-hand control on target. Pre-threaded for a suppressor, the medium-contour barrel won’t submit to point-of-impact shifts that a sporter-weight barrel will with a suppressor out front. I’d top the rifle with a Weaver Classic 1-3x24mm optic in Weaver rings. Light, simple, reliable and the adjustable LPA sights ensure I can hit what I’m aiming at no matter the situation. With an optic, I can keep the entire package under 10 pounds, which is a reasonable threshold for days on the move.
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Moving parts and reciprocating mass are more likely to wear, raising concerns over long-term maintenance. Autoloaders have a tendency to make a person waste ammo with extra trigger pulls. The Hog Hunter is compact, made to be hauled through the stuff no one wants to move through, precisely where I’ll be lurking. The Savage action is extremely strong, and should I come across ammo that is questionable, I know that the chances of the action failing are all but nonexistent. The zero-headspace system of the Savage barrel nut and floating bolt head give me a 100-percent reliable lockup that guarantees maximum accuracy and safety.
By choosing the .223 Remington as my caliber, I can carry a high volume of ammo. I need to pack as much ammo on my person as possible. While we’re at it, make it 69-grain Federal Gold Medal rounds; I need to know I’m hitting exactly where I’m aiming. Federal’s Gold Medal Match ammunition is sufficient to engage targets out to 600 yards while I make evasive maneuvers. It also doesn’t hurt that I have a large stockpile of it cached at the farm. It’s not designed for expansion, so it doesn’t excessively damage rabbits, pheasants and vermin that I may need to eat. I also have a decent supply of Fusion ammo stashed around; the 62-grain bonded bullet is more than sufficient for the biggest Minnesota deer I’ll encounter.
If SHTF, my goal is to avoid a close-range confrontation. I don’t need to eliminate most threats—I just need to slow them down long enough for me to get out of the area. Being discreet is my go-to plan, and getting to and holding our farm ground would be my top priority. The Model 11 Hog Hunter is versatile enough that I could trust my life with it when the going gets tough.
If SHTF, I can assume that I’m not expecting a typical self-defense scenario, which our daily-carry pocket dump anticipates in these pre-apocalypse times. Instead I have to assume that we can expect multiple encounters with multiple targets. Since my first choice, air support, isn’t an option, I’m reduced to choosing only one gun.
Whatever I choose has to accomplish three goals: have adequate stopping power against multiple targets, be easy to carry with lots of ammo and, given the likelihood of a target rich environment, be common enough in caliber to have a reasonable expectation of finding more ammo when necessary. The multiple-target expectation means that for me, I need semi-auto capability. It also needs to be maneuverable both indoors and out. I think an SBR is just the ticket here. Assuming there is no government at this point, an SBR won’t require a tax stamp—just a hacksaw.
Caliber-wise, I like the .22 LR because I can carry lots of ammunition with me. Unfortunately, I have to find that ammo first and haven’t had very good luck doing that for several years. I know bunches of people are hoarding it in their basements, but if I try to scavenge it from there, I’m very likely to become one of their targets. Let’s say that the .22 LR won’t work due to ammo availability, and we don’t even need to consider stopping power for this one. The 5.56mm and 9mm calibers are going to be the most commonly encountered rounds. They are close enough to the same overall bullet weight that we can call choosing one over the other a draw. For stopping power though, the 5.56mm NATO has to get the nod, assuming I can come up with something other than FMJs, but that’s not a guarantee.
The 5.56mm gives me more range over the 9mm, but I’m more concerned with multiple close targets, so a 9mm carbine or submachine gun is probably going to be my go-to gun in this scenario. It’s got plenty of magazine capacity, good stopping power with the defensive loads most commonly found in the caliber, and it generates low recoil. The 9mm is lighter in weight than a 5.56mm carbine and with a folding stock, and it’s easily concealed. Some might accuse me of being a little biased here, but my top pick has to be the CZ Scorpion EVO for my SHTF gear bag. The Scorpion is fast and reliable. Add a red dot and a suppressor and it’s even better.
- Affiliation: Nightforce Optics
- Position: Marketing Communications Manager
- SHTF Gun: DEVGRU “RECCE” carbine
In the event of a true SHTF situation, we must accept that our “normal” day isn’t so normal. If I am limited to taking just one firearm to help me solve problems in a SHTF environment, it’s going to be a rifle.
In my eyes, it is hard to beat the all-around qualities of a good AR-15 carbine. My personal favorite for “the one” is a modern interpretation of the DEVGRU “RECCE” carbine. This upgraded AR-15 has a medium-contour, 16-inch, stainless steel, match barrel; a slim, 15-inch handguard; a muzzle device to accept a suppressor; a collapsible buttstock; and a match trigger. When paired with a good optic/ammo combination, you now have a very effective platform to deliver rounds accurately on target at any practical distance.
Topping off the carbine would be a Nightforce 2.5-10X riflescope, attached in a Nightforce Ultralite Unimount. This piece of glass is a perfect all-around optic that enables close/fast firing at low power, and up to 10X power for target indentification and shooting at longer-range targets. Quality ammo with heavy 69- to 77-grain projectiles or a premium- bonded bullet would be fed through the rifle for the best balance of accuracy and maximum terminal effect downrange.
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The moderate weight and overall handiness of this package makes it easy for such a combination to accompany me on many trips hunting for deer, ridding fields of prairie dogs, competing in field/action rifle matches and countless trips to the range. The carbine is not too heavy to carry in hand or on a sling and is a good size to stash in a vehicle. I can deliver precision fire out to 600 yards with reliability (and a little farther on good days), but also engage targets at CQB ranges with ease. Other qualities to like about this setup are the plethora of magazines available, light recoil, ease of operation and perhaps most importantly, reliable operation. As higher-level maintenance or repairs became necessary; the parts availability and limited tools required make it an easy task for a competent person to handle.
Additionally, lights, lasers, bipods, night-vision devices and a whole range of other accessories can be added or removed to suit a particular use or environment. Chambered in 5.56mm NATO, this setup can also accommodate nearly any .223/5.56mm ammo one had stashed or had to scrounge.
If things go seriously wrong in my part of the world, my anticipated threat levels are going to go up, and my armament levels will go up to match. While a handgun provides an easy solution to carry all day, the energy on target, effective range, ammunition capacity and modularity of an AR-15 rifle cannot be ignored. My preference for an “accurized” carbine provides a balanced set of features for nearly any use, from hunting to defense or even limited offense if needed. I like having options to deal with problems, and my “RECCE” gun would be the one to grab.
This is a very fun question to answer. It gives insight into both professional and personal preferences. Many will look at personal interest and or a favorite cartridge. Others will think about the sexiest gun to have during this time. For me, I’ll be driven by practicality.
As an avid handloader, my decision will be driven by something that is effective on wild game for food and predators, be they two- or four-legged. But it also must conducive to being handloaded and offer real versatility. Therefore, my choice is a .357 Magnum lever-action rifle, the Marlin 1894C. With its 18-inch barrel, it can generate enough energy to kill a deer, disable an attacker and handle coyotes but is also compact and convenient enough for easy carrying. Mine would sport a peep sight that works very well for my eyes, and the rifle’s overall handling characteristics make it a good choice for instinctive or point shooting when necessary.
From the reloading front, the choice of the .357 Magnum allows for the use of a variety of powders and, most importantly, the ability to simply and easily cast bullets for future use. Hopefully I’ll have a large stock of good projectiles on hand, but if that’s not the case, this caliber is a simple one to cast bullets for, regardless of what that dark future may hold.
Since the .357 Magnum has a straight-walled case, I won’t need to have lube for sizing. It is extremely easy to load for, and long case life is a positive. Additionally, in a future where we may have to scrounge for components. With that in mind, .357 Magnum and .38 Special brass is going to be relatively easy to find. Through creative loading we can create a range of offerings from quiet, low-velocity, low-flash defense loads to heavy-bullet loads capable of taking deer-sized North American game for food. While I would not tackle a grizzly bear, I would have confidence with this rifle on a black bear, which, by the way, could produce lube for my cast bullets if needed, with a heavy bullet and slower powder.
- Affiliation: Wilson Combat
- Position: President and Founder
- SHTF Gun: Wilson Combat Tactical Lightweight .308 (rural), Wilson Combat AR9B (urban)
I think there are two different answers to this question based on where I am geographically. If I’m living on my ranch in rural Texas when SHTF and I can only have one firearm for the foreseeable future, my pick would be a lightweight .308 Winchester AR with a 14.7-inch barrel. I’d hopefully also have two additional upper receivers—in 6.5 Creedmoor and .338 Federal—with 18-inch, crowned-muzzle barrels for longer-range defense and more killing power for hunting. I’d really feel pretty naked without a handgun on my side since I carry one 24/7, but the question was one gun, and a .308 Winchester AR would handle most any defensive situation I would likely encounter in rural Texas and still put meat on the table as needed. Also .308 ammunition is pretty common in this neck of the woods—not that I don’t always have plenty on hand!
My setup would be as follows: I’d choose a Wilson Combat Tactical Lightweight .308 with a 14.7-inch barrel and a permanently attached Q-Comp flash suppressor. I’d add a top-quality optic like a Leupold 2-12x42mm VX-6 riflescope as well as a Streamlight TLR-1 HL weapon light and a sturdy Blue Force Gear Vickers two-point sling.
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If allowed, my extra 6.5 Creedmoor upper would have a mid-weight, 18-inch, crowned-muzzle barrel and a Leupold 2-12x42mm VX-6 scope. The .338 Federal upper would have a light “Hunter” 18-inch, crowned-muzzle barrel and the same scope.
If I am in a large city on business (I would never live in a city!) when SHTF and I can only have one firearm for the foreseeable future, my answer changes. For this one I’m assuming total society breakdown and chaos in the city. For that, the need for concealed carry is a thing of the past. That being said, I’d go with one of our new AR9B 9mm carbines that uses Beretta 92/M9 magazines, which I normally take with me when I travel. In a true SHTF situation in an urban area, I want to be prepared for multiple assailants at relatively short ranges.
A light and short carbine that is easy to carry and deploy in tight places would be very handy. A 9mm carbine would also allow me to carry a lot of ammunition, and using subsonic loads, it would be almost as quiet as a suppressed 5.56mm. An additional plus would be the very likely chance that eventually I would be able to acquire a 9mm pistol, and ammunition compatibility would be a good thing.
For this setup I’d choose a Wilson Combat AR9B with a fluted, 14.7-inch barrel and a permanently attached Q-Comp flash suppressor. I’d use a Leupold 1-6x24mm VX-6 scope and an Aimpoint CompM4s, both in QD mounts, as well as a Streamlight TLR-1 HL weapon light and a Blue Force Gear Vickers two-point sling.