The Best Survival Rifles

The term “survival rifle” can mean different things to different people. For some, it’s a rifle of last resort, others might see it as more of a backpacking or camping firearm designed to be easily carried into, and out of, the great outdoors.

Almost everyone agrees that a rifle geared toward excelling in the elements should be lightweight and either a take-down rifle that can be broken down and stored in a pack or constructed with a modest-enough overall length to be easily taken anywhere. 

In essence, a survival weapon small enough to be packed away for an emergency or easily carried somewhere on foot while capably filling multiple roles.

Henry AR-7

The Henry AR-7 is the continued production of the Armalite AR-7, a semi-automatic version of the AR-5 takedown rifle issued by the US military. 

The entire rifle breaks down to be stored in its stock — including the barrel, receiver, trigger group the magazine. All components weigh 3.5 lbs, and the rifle folds down to just 16.5 inches long.

The AR-7 is a semi-auto rimfire rifle, with simple blowback action. The detachable magazine holds 8 rounds of .22 LR — the use of high-velocity ammunition is recommended to keep cycles consistent and provide the most reliable function. Iron sights are included, but the receiver has a rail for mounting a scope.

The AR-7 is reasonably priced and serves well in the role. It’s the archetype of the breed, and for good reason.

KelTec SU16C

The KelTec SU16 is a folding semi-automatic (gas piston) centerfire rifle offered in 5.56mm NATO. All models have a hinged stock that allows the gun to be folded. The survival-focused model is the SU16C. 

All models use either KelTec’s proprietary 10-round magazines or any AR-15 magazine, a smart touch.

The C model has an under-folding stock that hinges at the pistol grip. This allows the stock to fold down without preventing the rifle from being fired, unlike other models. The rest of the SU16 product line requires an empty magazine well to enable the folding action, as the trigger guard rotates into the stock, preventing the other models from being fired when folded. 

Folding the SU16C also reduces the width, and length, when folded, is 25.5 inches. Unloaded weight is 4.7 lbs. 

Iron sights are included, and the receiver has a Picatinny rail for mounting an optic. 

Another cool feature is the bifurcated fore-end, which allows the two halves of the grip to be unlocked and rotated down for use as a bipod. It works well as a compact and stowable “truck gun” or home defense carbine, as well as in a pack.

Ruger 10/22 Takedown

While bigger and slightly heavier than an AR-7, the Ruger 10/22 Takedown with Magpul Backpacker stock has more modern features. Just like the AR-7, it’s a semi-auto rimfire rifle (.22 LR) and uses Ruger’s 10-round (or larger) rotary magazines. 

The Takedown models use a cam block and locking lever to lock the barrel into the action rather than a screw-on collar, making the connection remarkably solid. If done correctly, a scope mounted on the receiver will not need to be re-zeroed. 

The Magpul Backpacker stock includes a locking recess for storing the barrel and forend. When taken down, overall length is just under 20 inches and unloaded weight is 4.2 lbs, so it ticks all the survival rifle boxes. 

The Ruger 10/22 is the semi-auto plinker by which all others are judged, so this is a solid buy.

Winchester Model 1892

The Winchester Model 1892 Deluxe Trapper Takedown has a lot to offer as a survival rifle for the discerning buyer.  

The 1892 is a lever-action rifle, offered in .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and .45 Colt, so plenty of wallop for deer- or elk-sized game at modest distances as well as hostile personnel. With a 16-inch barrel, these calibers approach rifle ballistics and are nothing to sneer at. 

Barrel length is 16 inches and overall length assembled is 33.5 inches, meaning just under 19 inches when taken down. Unloaded weight is just under 6 lbs, with a 7-shot capacity. The 1892 is a top-ejector model with iron sights, so forget optics.  

It’s still that damned Yankee rifle you load on Sunday and shoot all week. 

It’s a rather simple takedown gun, but the stock is Grade III or IV (luck of the draw) black walnut, with case-hardened blue steel. It is gorgeous to look at, but also makes a great survival gun. 

A practical but elegant weapon, from a more civilized age.

SA SAINT Victor

A more modern take on the backpack gun is the Springfield Armory SAINT Victor AR pistol. The Victor is their middle tier is the only SAINT offered in .300 BLK. 

.223/5.56mm depends heavily on velocity for terminal performance, but .300 BLK was purposefully developed for short-barrel use and 100 to 200-yard engagements (although the BLK does just fine beyond 200-yards).

Barrel length is 9 inches, overall length is 25.25 inches with the brace fully collapsed, and unloaded weight is about 5.6 lbs. The bolt carrier group is 9310 steel and is high-pressure and batch particle tested to ensure quality and reliability.

The free-floated handguard has M-LOK slots and has a forward safety stop, and the receiver is railed for adding a red dot, and the tube wears a BCM Gunfighter brace.

.300 Blackout is a capable defensive cartridge as well as for hunting at reasonable distances. While this is a bit more of a Gucci option for a survival rifle, for those considering one for defense plus other stuff (rather than hunting and maybe defense) it’s as solid as it comes.

H&K SP5 9mm Pistol

If you wanted a modern pistol-caliber carbine as a survival gun, you could try and find one or you could do it right with an H&K SP5 with the collapsing stock, which would require the SBR stamp. 

But you get the 9mm subgun (semi-auto only, of course) by which others are judged. 

H&K’s roller-delayed blowback system is as simple and reliable as it gets. Most importantly, operating one requires the HK slap, which frankly is almost worth the cost of admission alone. 

They are reliable. They are accurate. You get to do the HK slap. There are accessories out the wazoo for it and the gun takes to a red dot like a duck to water. 

With stock collapsed and its 9-inch barrel, the SP5 comes in just around 20 inches long and 5 lbs unloaded, so it’s handy and stowable in a pack. 9x19mm ammunition is good for defensive purposes, and shot semi-auto, the SP5 easily has an effective range of 100 meters if not a bit further, good for reliable shot placement on medium game.

What exactly is a survival rifle?

A survival rifle is a concept, which evolved from a class of firearms formerly issued to military pilots.

In a military context, a survival rifle is a lightweight take-down gun designed to take up little space on an aircraft and allow a pilot to protect themselves or forage for food as they navigated their way to safety if downed in hostile territory or in a survival situation. 

Forms and function carry wildly

These specialty firearms have run the gamut from semi-automatic & bolt-action to single-shot break-action weapons and single-shot shotguns, with varying calibers and effectiveness.

Classic examples include the Armalite AR-5 (issued as the MA-1, and Eugene Stoner’s first hit with top military brass, preceding the AR-10 and AR-15) and (the ugly duckling) M4 Survival Rifle, both bolt-action rifles chambered in .22 Hornet.

M4 Survival Rifle
The M4 Survival Rifle looks like it couldn’t survive without a case of WD-40

A more conventional take was the M6 Survival Rifle of the US Air Force, a hammer-fired break-action over-under with a .22 Hornet barrel over a .410 shotgun barrel.

M6 Survival Rifle
While the M6 Survival Rifle looks more conventional, the over-under orientation, stamped steel construction, and oddball “mitten-friendly” trigger bar do it no favors.

Another popular survival rifle during the Vietnam era was the CAR-15 Survival Rifle, in essence, an XM77E1 with the upper and lower receiver stored separately along with magazines. 

A slightly different take still was the M30 Drilling, the survival rifle issued to the Luftwaffe during early WWII. Luftwaffe Drillings were handmade tri-barrel (drilling means three-barrel in German) guns with dual 12-gauge shotgun barrels and a 9.3x74mmR rifle barrel tucked between the shotgun barrels. 

Today’s survival rifles are different

Today, a “survival rifle” implies a take-down rifle either in a small centerfire or rimfire caliber.

The idea is to stow it in a backpack so it’s self-contained and ready to roll if needed. You don’t need to carry the rifle normally, just tuck it into your backpack or gear bag and you’re off. 

When would you need one?

In the real world, the most practical (and frankly most likely) use of a survival rifle is for small game hunting around camp or general-purpose shooting if living out of a backpack for a while. 

Bonus backpacking hunts

They’re also great for bonus hunts for squirrel, grouse, rabbits, or other game while pursuing larger game in the backcountry, or a bit of hunting to supplement protein intake while hiking one of our long national trails. 

Plinking fun too

Since many of them are chambered for .22 LR or .22 WMR they’re great for plinking, and some of them are both cool-looking and pretty ingenious. Not long-range sniper material, but they certainly check the portable and fun boxes.

Few, if any, are suitable for home defense or self-defense owing to their small calibers and take-down designs — but something is better than nothing in a pinch.  

SHTF, not so much

Some people (see: preppers) may concoct fantastical SHTF scenarios where a survival rifle fulfils some greater purpose, but most folks generally chalk those up to dystopian fantasy more than anything else.

Selection Criteria: What makes a good survival rifle?

Look at overall length when disassembled. If you want a backpacking gun, it’ll need to fit completely inside your backpack, so make sure it works with the pack or storage you’ll be using.

Smalelr calibers are your friend

Chambering is similar for most of these guns, given that weight and size are at a premium.

For small game, opt for .22 LR or .22 WMR. If defense is a consideration, the best option would be a common centerfire round such as a rifle in 5.56mm NATO or a similar caliber, if not a common pistol caliber like 9mm, which could support a 9mm handgun as well.

These calibers also tend to offer more generous capacity and quick reloading options such as detachable magazines.  

Keep it lightweight

Also, consider weight. Remember ounces are pounds in the field, so a gun that will be in your pack should be light enough to not be a burden when 10 miles out. 

Avoid novelty

Be careful about selecting the make and model. Choose a proven design from a manufacturer that is known to make quality products.

The hitch with survival rifles is they’re a stone’s throw from gimmick guns and unproven designs aren’t known for reliability or accuracy. 

Sights matter too

Consider the sighting system. The gun should have iron sights or a rail for mounting a scope. If you intend on using optics, you have to either leave a scope on or have a rail compatible with a quick-disconnect mount such as a Weaver or Picatinny rail on top of the receiver. 

Parting Shots

Frankly, any hyper-portable long gun can be a “survival gun.” The question is what you want in one. 

Do you want a small game rifle for hunting that you can stow? Or an uber-portable defensive arm that can serve double-duty as a hunting piece? All of the above-mentioned guns cater to this niche by being light, compact, and either collapsing or offering take-down features to store in a pack.

If any of the above suit your particular needs, they’re about as good a choice as it gets.

Sources:

  1. Wikipedia, ArmaLite AR-7 
  2. Wikipedia, M30 Luftwaffe drilling 
  3. Wikipedia, CAR-15 
  4. American Rifleman, Jeremiah Knupp, The Unlikely Resilience of the AR-7 Survival Rifle, December 27, 2016
  5. Wikimedia Commons, File:M4-Survival-Rifle.jpg
  6. Wikimedia Commons, File:M6 Survival Rifle.jpg

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