The Evolution of the ‘Prepper Rifle’
The “prepper rifle” has received many names over the years and many still call these rifles “brush guns.” Essentially, it’s a rifle intended to be easy to carry, having enough ammunition to handle most immediate situations and offering reliability. As the world changes, so does the apparent purpose and design of this always-ready firearm.
The most iconic prepper rifle would be the musket of the type used by the Minutemen during the Revolutionary War. With all their needs, the musket still took precedence, and a Minuteman was hardly without it. The purpose during those times was for supporting the rebellion and establishing a free nation.
In the American North and West, a bush rifle was often carried by men who were hunters, trappers or just woodsmen who needed a rifle for hunting or defense from animal predators.
In the current political climate, a prepper rifle needs to fill both of these roles with utmost efficiency, ease and reliability.
Why is Caliber Important?
Caliber determines not merely range and power but also effectiveness. The .30-30 has been around for over a century and is still an excellent and effective hunting round for deer.
Unfortunately, the range is limited and only effective up to about 200 yards in most rifles. This is ideal for the hunter who needs to be prepared. Other “old” caliber types – such as the .45-70 – offer much more effective range and power. Likewise, pistol calibers began to see frequency of use when mixed with smokeless-powder. The .45 Colt and .44 Magnum were utilized to shape the American West following the Civil War.
The benefits of some of these older caliber types include the ability to use black powder as the main propellant or explosive. Since the cartridge design goes back to a time before modern gunpowder, it’s an easy transition backward. Bullets are also moderately easy to produce at home or in the field. This makes these late-19th and early-20th-century calibers incredibly versatile, something necessary for a SHTF scenario.
Following both World Wars, modern cartridge designs began to take priority. Calibers such as .303 British, .30-06, .308, 7.62×39 and 5.56 started to be utilized. Most of these calibers were meant to address the gaps that previous cartridges could not: mostly range and accuracy. Many of these calibers are also the parent cartridge of new calibers such as the 6.5 Creedmoor or .300 AAC.
While looking at the current and historic examples of prepper rifles, I will be focusing on larger caliber types. Many would argue the .22LR and 12-gauge are some of the best caliber choices, but they lack some of the necessary power for hunting all game and providing defense. Lacking these distinct features forfeits the previously defined needs for a rifle for both a Minuteman and hunter/woodsman. So, to make things easier, we will focus on larger-caliber firearms.
Many memories of a first hunting rifle are of the old .30-30 lever-action rifles. These guns have a long lineage that eventually leads up to the .30-30 cartridge, which is still a commonly used hunting round. Lever-action designs are lightweight, easy to carry and house all necessities in one package. There is no need for additional magazines, ramrods, specialty triggers or various other add-ons.
While these rifles can be upgraded, they are perfectly fine the way they were originally designed. With modern firearm materials these guns can easily accept the pressures produced by black powder-filled cartridges and smokeless powder with no negative effects.
It’s hard to overlook the fact that these rifles need little care and maintenance to remain useful tools. There are old Winchester, Henry, and Marlin rifles that have gone through several generations of shooters and still shoot true. While reloading speed may be an obstacle, it’s one that can be adapted to and still offer the necessary firepower.
One inherent benefit of many pistol caliber rifles is the ability to pair it with a revolver in the same caliber, often seen after the American Civil War. Many conversions are available for black powder revolvers. The .45 Colt is a popular cartridge in both rifles and revolvers.
While not always as powerful as other caliber choices, the .45 Colt can be loaded as +P ammunition for rifles and fill the needs for hunting. Alternatively, the .44 Magnum needs little modification and can be adapted to the same uses as a .45 Colt.
During the 1950s and ’60s the firearm industry jumped into a new range of development, both good and bad. Firearms began to be manufactured in unprecedented numbers and became more affordable.
China even began producing many of their own firearms and exported them to the US. Americans got a glimpse of some reliable and inexpensive alternatives, such as the SKS. Even military surplus weapons following WWII and the Korean War were inexpensive and readily available during this time.
“LEVER-ACTION DESIGNS ARE LIGHTWEIGHT, EASY TO CARRY AND HOUSE ALL NECESSITIES IN ONE PACKAGE. THERE IS NO NEED FOR ADDITIONAL MAGAZINES, RAMRODS, SPECIALTY TRIGGERS OR VARIOUS OTHER ADD-ONS.”
The hard part about this era of firearms is reliability. Sure, many weapons from this time frame are post-war relics or contemporary designs based on technology used during the war.
However, quality control was limited and with inexpensive prices, they were not always properly cared for. Before WWII, firearms were not seen as dispensable. After the war there was a massive influx of weapons, an economic boom and easy access to manufacturing machines, which left quality control suspect.
Many would argue there are three main firearms from the late 1930s to 1960s that would fit the role of a prepper rifle. While there are numerous options to choose from, those three would be the SKS, M-1 Garand and M-14. They are all semiautomatic (selective fire in some), reliable and utilize decent ammunition.
Following the war, there were many reproductions of the M-1 and M-14 that are unreliable and downright dangerous. It’s become challenging to find reasonably priced original M-1 Garands.
What most people consider a prepper rifle would be today’s modern variants. The AR-10, AR-15 and AKMs take the reins when it comes to modern prepper rifles. We seem to be revisiting the trend of firearm availability and affordability, similar to that in the 1950s.
In the United States, manufacturing and material costs are incredibly low. Even if you remove overseas components often used, a decent rifle is not much money.
The AR-15 was theoretically designed as a wounding weapon, i.e., drain the enemy’s resources by wounding their soldiers. With the low weight of ammunition, it’s incredibly easy to produce a follow-up shot. This is significant whether hunting deer or defending oneself.
Since the AR-15 was designed as a scaled-down version of the AR-10 (or LR .308 DPMS) the AR-10 might be a more attractive option. Using the .308 caliber provides a longer effective range with a lot of power.
The AR-15 and AR-10 are unique in their ability to utilize different calibers in the same system. An AR-15 can be built to fire more powerful rounds that mimic the ballistic characteristics of popular calibers. Likewise, an AR-10 can be chambered in calibers that can outperform many comparable bolt-action models.
“NO SINGLE RIFLE WILL FIT ALL THE NEEDS OF EVERY USER, BUT THERE ARE MANY THAT CAN FILL MOST PREPPERS’ NEEDS. VERSATILITY IS KEY AND WITH THAT, PERSONAL PLANNING COMES INTO PLAY.”
If we’ve gathered anything since America’s involvement in the Mideast, it’s that the AK in 7.62×39 shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s overpriced but it offers performance and ease of maintenance that is arguably better than its AR-15 and AR-10 counterparts. It’s hard to omit the AK as a modern prepper rifle, but it might be more economical to chamber a 7.62×39 in an AR-15 platform.
The goal of these rifles is to offer protection in all environments. One thing often overlooked is how effective the rifle or firearm will be in all situations and all areas. Keeping that in mind, modern NATO forces tend to stick to the .308 NATO caliber instead of the 5.56. The 5.56 is considered a less-lethal lighter-weight alternative and can be effective in its own right. However, if encountering a grizzly bear, a 5.56 would be grossly underpowered.
I subscribe to the idea of the .308 being one of the most efficient, all-around caliber choices for all environments. The 7.62×39 is a close personal second, and the .45-70 comes in third. Each of these calibers will be effective in urban areas for defense and hunting while offering adequate range. While the 7.62×39 would not be a recommended caliber defending against a grizzly, it’s adequate for most other game animals.
One caveat about these common caliber types: They will quickly disappear in the event of a SHTF scenario. With so many rifles utilizing the same ammunition, there will easily be a run on available ammunition and components.
In many ways, less common or wildcat cartridges may offer an unintentional benefit. Regardless, it’s likely a good idea to stick with a specific family of cartridges – those designed from a common caliber type – and stock up now.
The role of a modern prepper rifle is to fulfil the roles of both a defensive and hunting weapon. No matter what an individual prefers, their rifle should be endowed with the advantages enjoyed by the Minutemen, hunters, cattlemen, homesteaders and trappers who came before.
No single rifle will fit all the needs of every user, but there are many that can fill most preppers’ needs. Versatility is key and with that, personal planning comes into play. Set a plan of action in place for when the necessity arises, but allow yourself and your equipment the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and environments.
The old black powder calibers possess the capability of being paired with reloading equipment. The old Lyman 310 Tool – currently produced by Rick Morrill of The 310 Shop – uses reloading dies proprietary to the Lyman 310 handles. This allows a user to take their spent cases and re-prime/reload them multiple times or until the brass is no longer viable. While it’s not as capable as standalone bench presses, it performs an adequate job.
Lyman produced the 310 Tool after its purchase of ‘The Ideal Tool’ from Winchester, which began production in 1884-85. Following the introduction of smokeless powder, the Ideal Tool found relative success and reliable use when utilizing the same cartridges paired with the same rifle.
In the ’30s, partly due to the economic crisis during the Great Depression, Lyman Gun Sight Corporation took over Ideal. They utilized some of the success of the tool as the grounds for their bullet mold casting process.
Even today, the 310 Tools are a successful companion to a rifle and caliber of choice for survival. Each tool is lightweight and, with Rick Morrill’s involvement, the caliber options have increased extensively. It’s not hard to justify the capabilities and value of a 310 Tool for many calibers.
From older to new, there are a lot of additional items that can make any rifle fit your particular needs. The AR platform is known to accept various accessories making it more ergonomic. Some of these can completely change the AR from a standard rifle to a survival machine.
Stock options, such as the FAB Defense Survival Buttstock, can allow a user to carry an additional magazine for emergencies. And products such as Cold Steel Tactical’s Survivor Sling allow users to carry additional cordage in a useful and convenient format without sacrificing space or functionality.
The biggest benefit is the ability to change upper receivers quickly. This change will make caliber changes relatively easy and inexpensive. While peripheral equipment is required for caliber changes, the rifle portion – the lower receiver – remains the same.
This may allow for quick and rapid firing in an inexpensive caliber, precision training, and a hard-hitting caliber for SHTF without needing to procure several rifles. That said, one can never have enough rifles.
AR-15 10.5-in. Upper Receiver
M5E1 – AR-10
BRN180 10.5-in. Upper Receiver
Cold Steel Tactical
M4 Survival Buttstock
Henry Repeating Arms
Big Boy Brass in .45 Colt
1858 Remington .45 Colt Cylinder
The 310 Shop
Lyman 310 Tool
MCS Multi Caliber System
14.5-in. Upper Receiver
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the June, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.