So what are the best survival guns to own? Before we can even attempt to answer that question we need first to understand what the answer to that question is not:
It’s not a random laundry list of various makes and models.
Because not all survival situations are the same. For instance:
- Are we talking about surviving while lost in the wilderness?
- Dealing with a broken down vehicle in the desert?
- Post “Captain-Trips” outbreak from Stephen King’s – The Stand?
- How about being stranded afloat on the open ocean after your fishing charter goes down?
- What about defending your home from armed criminals and intruders?
- Or are we talking about an all out TEOTWAWKI scenario?
In my accompanying firearm article, Top Ten Survival Rifles, I defined five different roles a good survival rifle must fill. But to be brutally honest, there is only one role for a survival handgun: self-defense.
Yes, I’m aware that you can hang a big-ass scope on top of a .44 Magnum and hunt deer, but, frankly, hunting game is no reason to carry a hand cannon like this in a survival situation.
That’s not to say there aren’t a few useful roles for a Dirty Harry gun when you’re trying to survive. But, hunting and long-range sniping are just not one of them. Instead, the handgun excels at short range self-defense.
It’s useful for ranges under 60 feet and ideal under 10 feet. And the type of survival gun what you want in tight and confined spaces.
Here’s a simple analogy:
It would be silly for an F-350 pickup to attempt to race a Mustang. So why would you try to employ a handgun as a sniper rifle? It’s always best to match the equipment with the goal. And with handguns, the goal is close range self-defense.
So the real question we need to answer is this: what are you defending yourself against? And this question can be further broken down into two broad categories:
- Animals – wild predators with the ability to kill you
- Humans – the most dangerous game of them all
With these two categories cleared up, the answer takes us not to the best choice of survival gun, but instead, we turn to the ideal choice of cartridge for the task at hand.
Here are the most common handgun rounds we will consider today:
- .22 LR
- .380 Auto
- 9 MM Luger
- .357 Sig
- 38 Special
- .357 Magnum
- .40 S&W
- .44 Magnum
- .45 ACP
- .500 S&W
Let’s face it, some of these cartridge sizes are impractical for survival, and we can dismiss them immediately.
So Let’s Play The Elimination Game
.380 Auto? Really? Why the compromise? If your goal is to carry the maximum number of rounds possible, then go for .22LR. The .22LR is much more common and widely available compared to the .380 auto.
If you’re going to carry a 9mm, why a 9mm short? The round costs more; is less powerful, and not nearly as available as the 9mm Luger.
The 38 Special, while an old cartridge and still attractive, holds no advantage over the much more readily available 9 MM Luger. In fact, the 38 Special is a rimmed cartridge designed for revolvers, so you are also limited in capacity over most 9 MM semi-auto pistols.
If you ramp this baby all the way up to Plus P hollow-point, then why not just go with the .357 Magnum? You can always shoot 38 Special in a .357 revolver if you happen to find any.
The .357 Sig is a great cartridge fired by high-quality Sig Sauer and other pistols, but again, it is not nearly as prevalent at 9MM.
Sure, the old faithful Luger round may not technically be any better, but its use is far more widespread.
How can I say something bad about the .357 Magnum? It’s a devastatingly powerful round. However, it is not nearly as common as .45 ACP and not nearly as powerful as the .44 Magnum.
A post-apocalyptic world will begin running short of .357 Magnum very quickly. It always amazes me to see Rick on the Walking Dead always has a full cylinder of .357 Magnum hollow points.
Also read: 7 Unexpected Consequences of an Economic Crisis: That Will Throw The Nation Into Total Chaos
For the same reason, a 38 Special is a poor substitute for the .357 Magnum.
Also, the .357 Magnum is a poor substitute for the .44 Magnum. If you have to go large, then go with the .44 Magnum or .45 ACP. We’ll learn why in a little bit.
The .40 S&W is an excellent police round with more stopping power than the 9 mm, but, then again, why round up just a bit. Why not round up a lot – the .45 ACP is more common and simply devastating.
The .500 S&W is a big, bad ass round fired from one heavy, giant hunk of a revolver. It is the most powerful handgun round in the world – designed to take down just about any animal you may run up against.
It was designed specifically for hunting. It’s also a round that will be hard to find in an emergency or survival situation.
So in my opinion, there is nothing you can kill with a .500 S&W you can’t kill with a .44 Magnum.
Yes – it may take two shots – but still not worth dragging this huge revolver with only a five round capacity in a survival situation.
So with all that said – I’m going to narrow our original list down to the following survival calibers:
- .22 LR
- 9MM Luger
- .44 Magnum
- .45 ACP
These rounds represent the full gamut of firepower we’ll need to survive, however, each one has its own niche.
Very few people intend to end up in a survival situation. With an unexpected breakdown, a few poor decisions, and dumb luck you can end up in a survival anywhere, in any climate, and any topography. In fact, it’s most likely to occur in the place for which you haven’t prepared.
That’s just Murphy’s Law.
In these various climates, you may encounter any number of terrifying, deadly predators. Let’s look at a few:
Let’s face it; snakes are a one trick pony. They bite.
They won’t hunt you down, they don’t attack in packs, and they won’t even attack unless provoked, but it’s not out of the question to accidentally provoke one.
In most survival situations it’s wise to give them wid-berth, but, on the other hand, they can also be a valuable survival food source.
Now, you can kill them with any of the rounds mentioned above, but why would you waste .44 Magnums when a couple .22 LRs will suffice?
If you find yourself under attack by a wolf or coyote, keep in mind that one animal is not stalking you—a pack is.
A wolf is a pack animal and his brother and sister Lobos will be waiting in the wings to ambush you. This is where a high capacity handgun is ideal. So a good, double stacked, 9mm is perfect for this application.
No doubt the .44 Magnum will make a wolf explode, but you only have six of those opportunities in that big gleaming revolver. If you miss, you better pray for a small pack.
The .45 ACP will do the trick as well, but again, it’s a big round, and at best you may be looking at ten rounds. So I prefer 9MM Luger in this circumstance for the combination of both capacity and power.
Grizzly Bears/Sharks/Big Cats
You may be wondering why I haven’t eliminated the .44 Magnum? These beasts are why. The grizzly bear is the bad-ass MF of the animal world.
When you are facing something nine feet tall, 850 pounds, with long teeth and six-inch claws – you need stopping power.
The .22LR represents a mosquito bite to this fellow—unless you hit him right in the eye. I’m not even sure a .22 LR would crack a grizzly skull.
The 9 mm will annoy this giant and maybe even kill him – after he bleeds out over the next few hours – long after you’ve bled out.
So this is the one instance where the .357 Magnum almost makes the grade.
I’ve been told no one should go into the Alaskan wilderness with less than a .357 Magnum. But, again, why not be sure and go with the .44 Magnum instead?
If you are in an area with large predators, bears, large cats, etc. plan on equipping yourself with a gun that can kill any of them with just one or two shots.
What if you’re in the open ocean being attacked by a shark? Believe me; you’ll be happy with the .44 Magnum here, too.
Finally, this brings us to the most dangerous game of them all: Man.
This species can reason, plot, plan and adapt. He can be a solo attacker or work in large packs. He’s often unpredictable, illogical, and irrational. Or just as easily he can be cool, calm, collected with a predatory instinct.
Humans are a challenge to plan for. The toughest ones will arm themselves with similar or superior firepower – and they shoot back. In some cases they may even wear body armor, making them an even harder target.
Here’s the really bad news. In a post-apocalyptic world, after only a few months, the only humans you will be facing in combat will be the ones who are truly adept at self-survival. The talented well-armed fighters will remain.
The days of the rank amateur will be over.
However, there is some good news here. Any of the rounds mentioned above can kill a human, and no one wants to be shot by any of them.
Even the lowly .22 LR will crack a human skull.
Sub-sonic .22 LRs, by the way, deliver the same punch with all the sound of a survival air rifle – a good option if you don’t want to draw attention to yourself.
Still, let’s be realistic. You probably don’t want to be in a gunfight holding a .22 LR pistol even if it does have a few advantages. These guns tend to be accurate because your aim is not affected by recoil. Why? Because there is no recoil.
Also, many .22 LR semi-autos and even revolvers can hold more than six rounds – but you will need every one of those rounds. Unless you hit your opponent with a headshot, or possibly a heart shot, he is not going down right away.
With the .22 LR, there is no guarantee of penetration. If the guy turns and the round hits at an angle, the energy of the .22 LR may dissipate before doing any real damage.
The same applies to shooting through bulky clothing and winter coats. The one really nice thing about the .22 LR is that you can carry a lifetime supply of ammo on your person (assuming you’re storing ammo).
So if you are planning on bugging out, 500 .22 LR can be stashed in your bug out bag without destroying your back. 500 rounds of any other ammo and your bug out bag will weigh too much to carry.
On the other hand, if you are in a gunfight with a guy with anything larger, that lifetime will be over in minutes – in which case the other thousand rounds in your bug out bag really didn’t help, now did they?
The 9mm Semi-Auto
How About A 9mm Semi-Automatic? Now we’re talking.
The Luger is not the last word in stopping power, but it’s still a lethal round. There is a reason military forces all over the world have employed this round for almost a century.
The beauty of the 9 mm is two-fold. Many makes of semi-automatic pistols offer double-stacked magazine holding up to 17 rounds. More is always better.
Plus, next to the .22LR, the 9mm Luger is most common pistol cartridge in the world.
In a post-apocalyptic world, hopefully far into the future, I can imagine that the last round fired from any weapon anywhere may very well be a 9 mm Luger (Parabellum).
The .44 Magnum
The .44 Magnum is no doubt a lethal round. If it can take down a grizzly, it can destroy a man. Let’s face it – if it can blow holes in engine blocks, it can blow bigger, messier holes in human beings. No doubt about it.
Most firearms that employ these rounds are revolvers – carrying at most six shots. Revolvers are inherently more accurate than semi-auto pistols, but the recoil of this round is monstrous.
This round will do the job in a pinch against a single assailant, maybe even a pair of bad guys. However, in a more crowded gunfight, you will want more capacity. And since you are carrying one in the case of a grizzly encounter, you’d be advised to carry a few speed-loaders and become proficient in their use.
The .45 ACP
That leaves the somewhat mythic .45 ACP. The catchphrase associated with this round is,
Against a human being, the .45 ACP is damned deadly.
That’s ten. And here’s a runner-up:
Against a human being, the .45 ACP is damned deadly.An assailant hit by a .45 ACP is usually immediately involuntarily incapacitated. [this excellent study “Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness” refutes this previously made statement].
This round blows big holes in people and is generally delivered from firearms with at least eight round magazines. Since this round is fired from a semi-automatic pistol, most of the recoil is absorbed in working the action.
These guns tend to shoot smoothly with little recoil for so large a bullet, typically 230 grain. The only advantage the 9mm holds over the .45 ACP is capacity – which usually starts the whole argument of stopping power versus capacity – although at least one manufacturer offers a 13 round capacity for .45 ACP.
So now that we know which cartridges we should consider for each circumstance, we finally get to the point of this article, the top ten best survival guns to own and shoot.
The Ten Best Survival Guns (pistols)
These firearms are not listed in any particular order, and the order doesn’t indicate relative value or quality:
1 – Glock 17 – 9mm (17 rds)
2 – Glock 41 – .45 ACP (13 rds)
3 – Springfield Armory XD9 – 9mm (16 rds)
4 – Springfield Armory XD-M – .45 ACP (13 rds)
5 – Beretta Model 92FS – 9mm (15rds)
6 – Sig Sauer P320 – .45 ACP (10 rds)
7 – Sig Sauer P226 – 9mm (15 rds)
8 – Smith and Wesson Model 629 – .44 Magnum (6 rds)
9 – Ruger Single Ten – .22LR (10 rds)
10 – Ruger Super Blackhawk – .44 Magnum (6rds)
That’s ten. And here’s a runner-up:
11 – Smith and Wesson Model 686 – .357 Magnum (6 rds) – (if you absolutely must have to have a .357 Magnum)
One caveat I do want to stress as you read this. I made this list practical for the average survivalist – which means there are no custom $3500 Les Baer 1911s on my list.
There are some great 1911s out there, like Colt, Kimber, Rock Island Armory and Ruger to name a few. However, I wanted a list of weapons the majority of people can afford while having the same utility as the more expensive alternatives.
Although the 1911s are a tried and true design with excellent ergonomics, reliability, recoil management, with precision sights and accuracy, they are also typically restricted to ten or fewer round magazines.
They also tend to be made of old school, heavy metal – pretty beefy to be carrying around in a survival situation when there are quality-made, light-weight composite-rich alternatives.
So to wrap this up:
The real choice in the best survival gun is not which one, but which two.
Carrying one survival gun for capacity and one survival gun for sheer power makes for a winning combination.