This article is an attempt to select an "ideal rifle". What this means is that if you were forced to select a single rifle to rely upon for your survival, what would it be. The scenarios could range anywhere from a current day home defense weapon all the way up to global disasters and the aftermath that follows (TEOTWAWKI) and everything in between.
Modern firearms have come a long way. There are thousands of handguns, rifles, and shotguns designed for military and sporting use. You could select a single category such as ‘double-barreled shotguns for hunting ducks’ and get a large number of "ideal" choices. Ask a few people to select their choice, and you’ll likely get about as many different replies.
So how is it possible to select a single "ideal rifle"? And furthermore, why bother selecting a single rifle?
The answer to the latter is easier. Most do not select a single rifle. They have a selection, which they can call upon for the specific task at hand. This is perhaps the ideal condition, but in this article we’re operating under the premise that a single choice needs to be made. A single choice allows for better familiarity, consistent operation, and all resources are focused on a single firearm (ammo, tools, training, parts and accessories). In some situations, you may only be able to carry a single firearm, and thus be forced into the decision. It is not practical to travel by foot carrying multiple long guns, particularly over any period of time.
In modern times, one could argue the dependency for survival on a rifle is not what it may have once been. We have burglar alarms, cellular phones, laws and police forces, a powerful army, and technology has made us safer than ever. At the same time, technology has made us more vulnerable than ever before. A small group has the potential to wipe out millions of people with a single nuclear weapon. The fall of the Soviet Union has loosened the control over its existing nuclear weapons, and third-world countries can have nuclear arsenals. The threats from crime, terrorism, natural disaster, and weapons of mass destruction are real. If something were to happen today, you would need to have made a decision about the rifle you would select and be prepared for such an event.
So the need to select a "survival" rifle is real. Selecting a single "ideal rifle" is not easy. The AR-15 series of rifles comes out ahead when compared to everything else. In the text that follows, this article will attempt to justify that decision, as well as to take it a step further and specify a single configuration of the AR-15 that is "ideal".
Keep in mind that this is a single opinion in an exercise to select a general-purpose tool for a great number of possible scenarios. This means that while the selected rifle may not be the best choice for a particular scenario, it is the best choice when all those scenarios are viewed as a whole.
Selecting a single weapon for your survival means that it is going to be called upon to perform a number of different tasks. These can range from hunting to self-defense including CQB and long-range battles. In addition, shooting may require penetration of body armor, cover, or other obstacles and at the same time the selected firearm/ammunition may be called upon to be safe when rounds go astray indoors.
The selected weapon and ammunition will need to be light as travel may be required, and you’ll want to keep them with you at all times. The rifle needs to be reliable, durable, easy to maintain, and parts should be readily available.
Since distances can vary from a few feet to a few hundred yards, selecting a single weapon/cartridge that will handle short to intermediate ranges seems like the best tradeoff. While it is often advantageous to keep as much distance between you and your target, this applies for the most part to offensive tactics; in a survival situation, most encounters will be defensive and thus at shorter ranges. These "defensive" ranges can range from a few feet to 300 yards.
The AR-15 series of rifles are the ideal firearms for the purpose at hand. Having been around for several decades and having seen considerable combat and widespread use, the AR-15 has evolved into a reliable, robust, and accurate weapon. It has managed to function under all types of conditions or been improved to do so. The following describe a few of the areas where the AR-15 excels.
The AR-15 is perhaps the most flexible firearm ever developed; in seconds, a carbine can be switched over to a long-range rifle by swapping upper receivers. With options available for almost every part of the rifle, a rifle can be custom tailored to an individuals specific needs and desires.
Today’s AR-15’s are capable of providing MOA accuracy or better. The AR-15 now dominates service rifle matches.
Current AR-15 rifles are extremely reliable and suffer none of the problems experienced at its inception. Through advanced engineering and manufacturing the AR-15 has evolved into a dependable firearm as capable as any other.
As one of the most widely issued military arms in history, the AR-15 series has proven itself though nearly 4 decades of military service. It has been used by most of the armies in the free world, and is current issue for a large number of these.
The AR-15 quickly disassembles into its major parts without the need for tools. At this point it can be easily cleaned and inspected, and parts replaced.
The long-term success of the AR-15 means that parts are readily available worldwide and relatively easy to come by. These parts are interchangeable with other rifles. There is no other rifle in existence with more available parts than the AR-15.
Semi or Auto
The only time that full-auto fire offers an advantage is when facing very close adversaries and multiple threats. The advantages of full-auto do not justify the high costs of registered firearms or the liabilities of illegally possessing one. In most cases, semi-automatic fire is not only adequate but also superior to full-auto, and this is especially true in a survival situation where conservation of ammunition is a priority.
While there are also options to convert AR’s to a large number of pistol and rifle calibers, the standard .223 (5.56x45mm) is the best solution. (a comparison of calibers is outside the scope of this article) The .223 round is available and manufactured in greater numbers than any other round. In addition, different loads are available to fill a number of needs, from hunting small game up to long-range accuracy, tracers, incendiary and more.
It is perhaps the best round for CQB, surpassing any of the handgun rounds with more stopping power and less chance of over-penetration. It offers a flat trajectory, good penetration when necessary, and destructive effects on targets.
The 5.56mm NATO also offers a light recoil, and small size. This is important because you may need to carry and store a large amount of ammunition, and the light recoil aids in training and use by smaller or younger individuals.
As for loadings, either the U.S. M193 55 grain or the current NATO 62 grain, steel core will do (U.S. SS109). Preference goes to the 62 grain NATO round if it can be found. However, the 55-grain loadings are cheaper and more readily available. There are a number of other weights available, but do not offer any advantages for our general-purpose use.
The ideal barrel length is 16". This length is long enough to extract the necessary performance from the ammunition and to provide the accuracy desired, while remaining short enough to be easily maneuvered in close quarters. The 14.5" M4-style barrels are very popular, but the legal limitations and higher costs do not justify their selection over a standard 16". These barrels need to have their flash suppressors permanently attached to bring the overal length to 16"; the standard A2 flashider is not long enough.
Twenty-inch barrels are a bit long, and don’t offer the performance increase over a 16" barrel to justify their length and additional weight. Anything above 20" detracts from the rifle’s "all purpose" use, and is for more specialized applications.
The weight of the barrel will only refer to whether the barrel is a "heavy" one or not. The heavy-barrel (HB) designation means that there is more metal there. Some of these taper at different points, either underneath the handguards or from the front sight on. The HB whose thickness does not vary (i.e. is maintained from back to front) offers the most durable design. The 16" barrels are available in a lightweight configuration, M4 profile (thin under handguards, thick outside handguards, and with a cutout to allow mounting of M203, and in a heavy barrel. For this rifle, a lightweight or M4 profile offers the most advantages as far as weight and handling.
Fluting a barrel will reduce the weight as well as offer improved cooling, but may reduce the strength of the barrel. This is a tradeoff that may go either way- get a heavier fluted barrel, and you’re at least as well off as the non-fluted barrel. Stick with a non-fluted barrel.
For a survival rifle, the benefit of a flash suppressor is important. The standard A2 flash hider is very good, but not long enough for those 14.5" barrels. In that case, a better alternative is to replace it with the Vortex flash hiders that are most effective in their role. Many have argued the post-ban (non-threaded) barrels offer an advantage in accuracy, but the advantage of a flash hider outweighs this in the survival situation. Get a rifle with a flash hider. There are a few alternatives now to the Vortex, and time will tell how well these fare.
A bayonet lug is for the most part never going to be used. However, since the flash-hider is required, the existence of the bayonet lug does not require any additional effort and should be included. It is better to have and not need than to need it and not have it... keep in mind that a bayonet will not fit correctly on a 16" barrel; it will fit a 14.5" barrel.
The barrel’s twist rate refers to the distance a bullet travels in the barrel to complete a full revolution. For instance, a 1/9" twist means that the bullet will make a complete revolution for each 9 inches traveled in the barrel. Heavier bullets require a faster twist rate to stabilize them correctly, but too fast of a twist rate will potentially cause a bullet to spin apart. For this reason it is important to match a barrel to the bullets being fired. In selecting a single twist rate for the survival AR, either a 1/7" or a 1/9" will serve the purpose best. These barrels are designed for bullets from 55 to 62 grains, and these are the weights that will most likely be used in survival. The 1/9 is the better of the two, but the majority of Colts/military barrels are 1/7.
A survival rifle should have a chromed bore and chamber. The smooth, hard chrome finish offers increased longevity and facilitates the task of cleaning. It is also more resistant to the effects of oxidation.
While an argument can be made for the superior sturdiness and reduced complexity of the fixed stocks, the telescoping stock offers advantages in storage and carry, and is strong enough for rugged use. It also offers flexibility in stock length, useful when wearing body armor or thick clothing. While perhaps not as rigid as the standard stocks, the advantages of the telescoping stock make it the "ideal" choice.
The telescoping stocks are available in either an aluminum or plastic construction, both of which are strong enough for the purpose, but the aluminum have a tendency to shatter if hit. They are also offered in 2, 3, or 4 position varieties representing how many positions it locks open in. The 3 or 4 position stocks are desirable to offer the flexible stock lengths necessary when either smaller individuals are using the rifle, or when thick clothing or body armor are used. The best of these is the Colt M4 stock, which is a plastic,4 position stock. Bushmaster's stock is also pretty good, and I would not recommend on that wasn't Colt/Bushmaster.
The rifle’s iron sights are its primary sighting system. When optical sights, lasers, and other aiming gizmos fail, the iron sights are always there to fall back on. Iron sights are also quicker to acquire and offer a greater field of view than most any other alternative. Do not get a rifle with detachable iron sights that can get lost.
The A2 sights are supposed to be superior to the original A1 style and allow for easy windage and elevation adjustments. In addition, the A2 sights are calibrated for adjusting range; zero your rifle for 300 meters and you can dial in the range up to 800 meters. In reality, a combat rifle should never have the sights adjusted once the rifle is zeroed. All that "adjustability" only introduces the chance that the sights will be knocked out of adjustment. Preference is the simpler A1 sights, but replace the tiny aperture with the A2 aperture for better target aquisition at closer ranges.
The recommended zero is 300 meters, as the bullet’s flat trajectory will require no adjustments from 0-300 meters.
Optical sights can enhance target acquisition, particularly at longer ranges. While iron sights should be the rifle’s primary sights, a scope can offer some advantages.
It is easier to aim and more precise using a scope. Magnification can vary, but about 4x is ideal for the medium ranges we’re interested in. A key benefit for an optical sight on the survival rifle is in target identification. Although a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope offer a better picture, the rifle mounted scope is always with you, does not require an additional set of hands and eyes, and eliminates the need for movement when switching from target identification to firing.
The current cost and dependency on batteries prevents the current generation of weapon mounted night-sights from being practical. However, a scope with an illuminated reticle can offer some benefits when shooting in low light. Even though such a scope would be dependent on batteries, they are small, last a long time, and are commonly found. Once the supply of batteries is exhausted, you only loose the illumination; scope will function fine (minus illumination) without the batteries.
The big question with upper receivers is flattop or carry handle?
The flattop uppers provide a more stable platform for mounting sights as well as a closer to bore line of sight. This allows for a natural cheek-stock hold when sighting. There are a large number of optical as well as fixed and flip-up sights available for these receivers.
However, there are several advantages to the carry-handle uppers that make them a better choice for the "ideal" rifle. The most important of these is the ruggedness of the built-in sights. When selecting a survival rifle, it is important to always have backup iron sights regardless of how good of a scope you mount on your rifle. I prefer the carry handle sights to any "clamp on" option for flat tops.
Another advantage is the ability to use this handle for carry. Anyone that’s carried an AR-15 for any period of time ends up either slinging it or carrying it with four fingers in front of the magazine well underneath the barrel and the thumb through the front of the carry handle; a carry not available without the advantage of the carry handle.
Although flattop receivers have a removable carry handle available, I would not want to need to keep track of add-ons not attached to my rifle. If you intend to keep the handle mounted at all times, then you might as well skip the flattop.
The AR-15 can be enhanced with a few accessories, and some are required.
The advantage of a tactical light may not justify their added weight in most cases, but if any work is done in a dark environment, they can be invaluable. When selecting a light, make sure it is designed for its intended purpose. A weapon-mounted light is subjected to the repeated abuse of recoil, and most bulbs are not designed to withstand that.
It should offer bright light and a it’s pattern should be free of dark spots that may detract from it’s purpose in identifying a target. Also, the light should offer a pressure activated momentary-on switch mounted where it’s operation does not interfere with normal handling of the rifle. Perhaps the best of these is the SureFire Millennium.
A good supply of 30-round GI aluminum magazines is a must. The plastic magazines are also usable, but the GI aluminum magazines are more widely available, more reliable, and even cheaper. The 30-round capacity is superior to the 5, 10, or 20 round varieties, and the 40-round magazines are more prone to jamming, less available, and cost significantly more. Many prefer the 20 round magazines as they do not interfere with shooting in the prone postion, or from a bench. Recommendation? Get some of both.
These can be reused, as long as they are well taken care of, indefinitely.
Stay away from the multi-sectional cleaning rods whenever possible. The joins on these rods can cause irreparable damage to the barrel.
There are a large number of solvents on the market, and most of them do a decent job. While some may take longer than others may, their purpose is to dissolve deposits left on the barrel that may affect accuracy. Some would argue that a chrome-lined barrel doesn't need a solvent to clean; oil or CLP is enough.
Lubrication and Protection
Lubrication and protection are the most important parts of maintaining your rifle. With proper care, a rifle will last several lifetimes. Light lubrication prevents wear and binding on metal parts, and the same oils are used to protect against oxidation. Just about any oil will do, and while there are very specialized "gun oils" around, plain motor oil will do when it runs out. If available, some of the dry lubricants work better than oils particularly in colder climates where oil can freeze. General purpose CLP is probably the best solution.
A sling on your rifle is required. It is probably going to be the most used item on that rifle. A sling allows you to carry a weapon while freeing your hands, carry additional rifles, and helps to always keep your rifle with you. I cannot recommend any of the "tactical" slings, as these are too restrictive in a fast moving environment; the standard M16 slings server their pupose as a "carry strap" very well and can be had for less than $5.
The "ideal rifle" as described above is an AR-15 with a short (14.5 or 16) lightweight or M4-contoured barrel with 1/7 or 1/9 twist (latter preferred), flash hider, M4 collapsible stock, A1 carry handle receiver (with A2 aperture). Options can include illuminated optical sight and a weapon-mounted light. A scope can re-balance a front-heavy rifle (caused by tactical light). This configuration gives the greatest flexibility under a variety of conditions, and performs its duties as well as or better than any alternative.
The need for self defense under unpredictable geography, weather, and conditions is common to every military force. It is also common to police forces and anyone interested in "survival." A large portion of the world’s armies has adopted the AR-15 in its various forms, and currently police departments throughout the world are making the switch. The U.S. military, perhaps the best equipped Army in the world has recently begun deploying it’s new generation rifle to it’s forces: an AR-15 with a collapsible stock, short barrel, and optical sights where appropriate. Millions of dollars on research and development have been spent to find the "ideal rifle" and the AR-15 has once again risen to the top.