Part 4: The Best Survival Carbine (AR Style Rifle)

Part 4: (Build Options) With the large military and civilian gun markets in the United States, there are a large number of manufactures of the AR-15 style carbine.  Each manufacturer has their own take on quality and design.  We will look at some of the more common build options for the survival carbine.

This article is Part 4 in a series of posts.
Read Part 1: (A Little Background)
Read Part 2: (History)
Read Part 3: (Direct Gas Impingement (DI/DGI) vs. Gas Piston Operated)

Most of these survival carbines can be purchased in various configurations, regardless of their operating system (Piston or Direct Gas Impingement).  Typically choices range from the original carrying handle style upper to the monolithic upper receiver, caliber variations (5.56mm, 6.5mm, 6.8mm SPC, & 7.62mm), barrel twist (1:7, 1:8, 1:9, etc), different compensators & flash suppressors, sight options and types of barrels and treatments (chrome lined, stainless steel, etc.)

Upper receivers – Monolithic Uppers offer more space to mount optics, laser sites, flashlights POF-Monolithic-upper-receiver-survival-rifleor anything else you may want to have on your AR, however they can sometimes be expensive to replace if they get damaged.  Also it seems that the more room you have the more stuff you mount.  On the other hand, flat top uppers usually offer a little bit of the best of both worlds.  With the classic fixed front hard site, you can add a scope as well Paul-howe-lwrc-survival-rifleas a picatinny rail mounted hard site to the rear as a back up.  There are also a number of people who have went back to the classic carrying handle style AR-15.  In a survival situation there would be little to go wrong with these rifles (scopes, lights, lasers, etc).  A good example of this is how former Delta Force Operator Paul Howe builds his personal rifle, not a lot of flash, just fixed front sights and rear sites (click here to see video).

Lower Receivers – It’s best to stick with MIL-SPEC on these so that you will have the option to interchangeably mount upper receivers without compatibility issues.  A typical AR15 / M4 / M16 MIL-SPEC lower receiver can accept a wide variety of magazine options (USGI, P-Mags, C-Products 7.62×39 mm) that have been designed to feed the rifle different ammunition depending on the upper receiver’s barrel and bolt carrier group.

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Chambering – 5.56 mm is the standard chambered round for AR15 / M4 / M16 type weapon platforms however the terminal ballistics have been a source of continual dissatisfaction for some operators and there are some different options being fielded recently to include 6.5 mm, 6.8 mm SPC and also 7.62×39 mm.  All of these rounds have the capability being loaded into their respective magazines (or, in some cases, even a standard GI 5.56 magazine as long as only a few rounds are used) and fit functionally into the magazine well of a MilSpec M4 / M16 lower receiver.  The only two things that typically need to be changed out are the barrel and bolt carrier group.

Barrel Twist Options – Barrel twist optimization depends on the weight/grain of the round being used with 1:7 twist being better suited for heavier rounds (60 GR to 75 GR) and 1:9  or greater being better suited for lighter rounds (55 GR or less). 1:8 has been reported to be a good twist rate for handling a wider range of bullet grains. 1:7 is the standard military/MilSpec twist rate for their M4 rifles. The ratio X:Y stands for X twists/turns of the bullet every Y inches of barrel length.

Barrel Material Options – typically offer two main choices: chrome lined or stainless steel.  A chrome lined barrel tends to last longer, is more robust and able to handle heavy rates of fire under extreme conditions but is reported to be less accurate than stainless steel.

Barrel Length Options – Differences in barrel length effect portability and maneuverability, muzzle velocity (you tend to lose around 50 fps/feet per second every inch shorter under 18” or so because longer barrels tend to give propellant more time to work on the bullet before it exits), ballistic performance (how fast the round exits the barrel has a major effect on performance), weapon reliability and function (when using a DI/DGI weapon around or under 10” and/or suppressed, there can be a high incidence of cycling problems).  Typically ideal length for a combat carbine is anywhere between 12.5” – 16”.  Longer or shorter barrels are also good for special applications (shorter for CQB/Close Quarter Battle and longer for DMR/Designated Marksmen Rifle applications).  Due to legal restrictions unless you obtain an NFA tax stamp to own an SBR (Short Barrel Rifle is any rifle with a barrel less than 16”) you will need to either stick with a 16” or longer barrel or buy one with a 14” barrel and get the compensator pinned (pinning is a “permanent” method which attaches the compensator to the barrel so that it cannot be removed thereby becoming part of the barrel and complying with the National Firearms Act).  A good way to expedite and obtain an NFA stamp for Federally regulated firearm items is through an NFA Gun Trust.

Muzzle Compensator/Flash Suppressor – These can be a permanent part of the barrel or they can be changed out (if they are not permanently attached).  Depending on their design they can address and reduce the flash that comes out of the angry end of a rifle barrel or they can address the tendency of the force from the exiting round to try and push the end of the barrel around.  Some companies offer options for one or the other and some companies offer dual purpose/flash suppressing compensators.

Gas System Adjustments – Companies like Noveske, Sig Sauer and LWRC offer adjustment controls on their barrels that can be set to divert gas that is usually used to cycle the firing system.  One of the main applications for this is when shooting with sound suppressors.

Trigger Assembly –  There are several options for the trigger assembly out there: single stage stock trigger, adjustable single stage trigger, non adjustable two stage trigger, adjustable two stage trigger.  The adjustments that can be made are related to the amount of force that needs to be applied when pulling the trigger.  Some shooters prefer more or less depending on their preference and application.  Two stage triggers tend to be better suited for DM / Designated Marksman roles while the single stage is more commonly used for CQB/close in fighting rifles.  A company that has a great reputation for manufacturing top end triggers with excellent durability is Geissele Automatics.

Buffer Tube Assembly – There are options in the buffer tube assembly that come into play Buffer-kitdepending on whether you are using a DI/DGI or a gas piston system.  H1 buffers are typically used with DI/DGI systems and H2 buffers tend to be used with gas piston systems and address some of the problems associated with carrier tilt that can reduce weapon reliability.

Sights – You can have fixed sights, pop-up sights or no sites at all.  I would recommend having Trijicon-acog-ar15-survival-riflesome type of sight on your survival rifle otherwise you will have a heck of time hitting what you’re shooting at and may waste a lot of bullets.  You can mount a scope on your rifle which comes in handy at distances (over 150 yards or more) but they leave a lot to be desired at close range.  A majority of shooters like to use Aimpoint, EOTech or some other type of electronic sight.  These sights are great for ranges up to 150 yards and in.  They can be used out past 150 yards as well but I actually start preferring some supplemental magnification much past that if it’s available (Trijicon’s ACOG’s are great multi-application sights especially when coupled with a Docter sight on top)… if not, I know I can hit a man size silhouette at 500 meters with my iron sights so I don’t get too stressed out.  These electronic sights can be supplemented with a magnifier 3x or 4x optic mounted on the rail system and used for targets at distance (Click here to see an image of EOTech with Magnifier on LMT Rifle). The nice thing about these types of sights is that they allow for rapid engagement (especially Close Quarter Battle / CQB scenerios) as it’s fairly easy to put a dot on a target.  As long as you have proper shooting fundamentals, when you pull the trigger, the bullet will go where the rifle is aimed.  The drawback for fancy electronic sights is that at some point they could fail and at the worst possible time (batteries could go bad, EMP, it could just plain break, you name it… electronics can be finicky) and although I think they are worth their weight in Troy-Battle-Sightsgold, I would not think of using anything else before I first set up my iron sights and made sure I had solid, reliable, non-electronic, old school backup iron sights which stayed on my rifle all the times regardless of what else I chose to mount.  If you have a flat top upper or a monolithic upper, check out Troy folding battle sights for your Survival Carbine, they make a great set of back up hard sights.

On a side note, I also never go anywhere “important” just using a GPS for navigation, I always first make sure and pack my compass, same thing with hard sights – “Two is One and One is None.”

Bolt Carrier Group – Some of the newer gas piston systems offer alternatives to the classic DI bolt carrier group (BCG) parts systems such as the Advanced Combat Bolt offered by LWRC which is a one piece BCG or the single piece long stroke gas piston that is attached to the BCG and routed through the charging handle on the PWS systems.

Continue Reading: (Part 5) Commercially available DI/DGI Direct Gas Impingement Systems

Read Part 1: (A Little Background)
Read Part 2: (History)
Read Part 3: (Direct Gas Impingement (DI/DGI) vs. Gas Piston Operated)

Photo credits:

Joel Jefferson
Written by Joel Jefferson

Joel is one of the original founders of After college, he joined the USMC where he served as an (0302) Marine Infantry Officer. Joel is an avid outdoorsman and spends much of his free time in the mountains. Joel’s hobby is researching survival gear & weapons as well as prepping. Read his full interview here. Read more of Joel's articles.

34 thoughts on “Part 4: The Best Survival Carbine (AR Style Rifle)”

  1. If I had to pick one long gun and one side arm, which is all I would want for travel survival, I would go M4 and M1911A, or a .38 Mag lever action and .38 Mag revolver. I wouldn't want anything much larger than 5.56 for a long gun because I'm honestly not going to be eating a whole freaking deer myself and bigger ammo would annihilate smaller game, not to mention 5.56 with deal with two-legged threats just fine, and 45 ACP has superior stopping power than 9mm (imho I'll take it and the availability of ammo over the extra rounds). Otherwise, I'd go with the .38 Mag combo because of the use of the same ammunition with the stopping power and hunting/weight advantages.

    I've considered some nice scout rifles, but the M4 versatility is hard to beat. I also honestly think that while shotguns have their place, their use is much more limited due to short range to be my choice if I only had one long gun to choose.

  2. Pneuma brings up a good point, interchangeable ammo (between firearms) could save a lot of headache… and backache, if humpin' it. While I haven't found a solid set up that I will purchase yet, I am looking into an AR system that uses .45 ACP, so I can have the same ammo in my M1911 and a long gun. There is also the BEOWOLF variant in 500 S&W, and they have uppers that will run just about any pistol caliber you can think of.

    Can you guys give us some more info on these pistol caliber variants?
    If I get a MIL-SPEC lower, will it accept the uppers in the 6.8 ect?

    I am new to the AR systems, but am very interested in them because in a SHTF situation you could potentially have easy to find parts and ammo if you stick to the standard (most law enforcement departments have them in their patrol cars, military, national guard all use them).

  3. I agree with the carbine comment completely. My only concern with the 6 mm stuff is availability post TSHTF. My 7mm Rem Mag is a rifle round (.276 Cal) and I have my ammo for it but I don't expect to find much available after TSHTF. I suspect (don't know) even less 6 mm stuff. Otherwise, any true rifle round works – it isn't JUST caliber. It is also bullet weight, ballistics, and energy down range. Anything that isn't useable beyond 500 (I prefer 800) yards is NOT a rifle but is a carbine in my not so humble opinion.

    • It might be possible to work around some of the availability concerns as far as other calibers are concerned if you limit yourself to cartridges which are based on either the .308 case or the .30-06 case. But you would still need a complete reloading set up with bullet molds and other assorted items to guarantee that you would be able to keep up your ammo supply using scavenged .308/.30-06 ammo. Also, even if you can mold your own bullets, I doubt that most people would be able to recreate anything near as good as what you can buy from the factory today.

      As it stands, I've heard things about the .260 Remington's ballistics that sound good, and the .280 Remington comes pretty close to the 7mm Rem Mag in performance while using less powder to do so. However there's still the issue of not only having to carry whatever weapons you have chosen in those calibers, but potentially the reloading gear as well. That might not be as much of a problem if you're operating out of a secure base of some sort, but if you've got to spend a lot of time moving it could be a serious hassle. Also, while I am aware of DSA and DPMS making rifles chambered in .260 Remington, I don't know of anybody making a battle rifle in .280 Remington. You would likely have to get an M-1 Garand and have it rebarreled.

      Fortunately if I have my information correct the 6.5mm Grendel is based on the same parent case that the 7.62x39mm R was based on, so it might be possible to keep a Grendel going using the same sort of trick as with the cartridges based on .308 and .30-06 cases, only using scavenged 7.62x39mm R. As for the 6.8mm Remington SPC though, I don't know of anything that is likely to be commonly available that would work. The guys who started the development of the 6.8 were using what was effectively a rimless .30-30 case for a round that never caught on.

      Regardless, while there are other rounds that based on ballistics analysis might do as well or better than the .308 for some uses, with the exception of the .30-06 they might not be scroungeable through time.

  4. well thought out. Depending on your location (Texas Big Thicket the shotgun is a very effective deer gun – forest limits range drastically) you choice would work nicely. I like my .45 Colt combo because it shoot shot shells and some can chamber .410 rounds. I'm not sure how effective the 556 is on small game – it can do a LOT of tissue damage at close range. A .357 Mag lever gun and revolver have the advantage of either .357 or .38 rounds just as a .44 Mag combo would give you 44 mag, 44 spl or 44-40 choices. I actually prefer revolvers for reliability reasons but that's personal preference. I commend you for your process. If you HAD to take a deer for food, the 556 can do so provided you shoot well and are willing to expend more than one round.

  5. I respect your opinion and the subsonic 22 LRs have the added benefit of being very quiet – not screaming "HUNTER HERE!" That said and agreeing with "but i want to hide, not get in a shooting match" the fact is at times the .22 is just not enough and at others hiding may not be an option. Read about two hunters out hunting bear, each packing a .375H&H Mag, got crosswise with a grizzly. Both shot and the bear charged. Mauled one very badly until the buddy killed it with a third shot. The necropsy showed that all three rounds had hit vital areas and that any one of the shots was fatal. The guy was still almost killed by a dead bear! If you're going out with a .22, I would strongly advise a major caliber handgun (.44 Mag, .454 Casull, .45 ACP or .45 Colt (in modern loading-not cowboy action stuff), .460 or .500 Smith&Wesson) that can put down a major predator if the need arises. If the critter that wants to eat you is too close, that scoped rifle is now a club anyway and not a very good one. A revolver can be pressed up against the skin and the trigger pulled. An auto might go out of battery and not fire so my preference is a .460 or .454 revolver. A .44 Mag or .45 Colt or ACP is probably good enough but if I'm playing you bet your life up close and personal with a ticked off bear I'd like the .460 given my druthers. Some predators have learned to go to the sound of a shot as that means there is fresh meat there! Most hunters give ground to the Bear (good idea) but the Bear has now learned that shooting means easy food. A bad lesson for the hunters.

  6. Nice recommendation. Back in my motorcycle days I was advised to get one colored like the local LEO with a similar style helmet. People who can't see a truck at 10 yards will see a cycle that MIGHT be a police cycle at a mile and a half. 🙂
    It is also possible that on a really bad day, you might be able to give ammo to a LEO who really needs it. Could become a good friend to have.

  7. Good recommendation. My backup to my Colt Commander in .45ACP is a Ruger revolver with a .45 ACP cylinder. I don't know if cylinder are available for .40, .41 or 10mm but they might be. It also shoots the shot shells my Commander chokes on so it is my 'walk-about' gun for taking the dogs into the green belt areas. We've have coyote, skunk, small dog packs, bob cat etc. in the green belt and I don't want to be faced with being unable to shoot because there is a house behind the target. The shot shells give me a freedom of action with less concern about over penetration. Post SHTF, there will be less worry about over penetration and I have a backup to the auto.

  8. I am suprised at the AR focus here.
    For reasons to numerous to list, I'd rather have an SKS or AK than an AR as my "last" gun.
    And a .22 in some form, you just gotta' have one. The dude w/ the 4000 round .22 combo has some valid points, though I wouldn't want to rely soley on that combo…….

  9. I was re-reading the thread and thought of something that does concern me. I can do all the reload on my straight case (45-70 and 50-90) black powder rounds by hand press and I have the full setups for the modern powder stuff but the shortage that I might not be able to overcome is the primers. I have a BUNCH of primers/caps but it is the one thing that I absolutely can not make. I saw a guy at the range working up loads for his flintlock last Friday. The thought came to me, 6 years into my 5 year plan a flintlock my be the most prized possession I have.
    Anyone have any experience with making primers?

  10. Having the right tool for the job is important. While AR-15 variants with longer barrel will probably perform marginally well over 300 yards it will also have depended on the cartridge used.
    For longer ranges I would not want to use AR. My choice would be between M1 Garand, .303 Enfield or 7.62x54r Mosin-Nagant, all predicated upon availability and having ammo on hand. Also, any bolt action rifle in 30-06 caliber would be a better fit if nothing else was available.

  11. "there is nothing on this earth that will survive it provided the operator is competent." I'm sorry sir, but that is simply not true. There is a reason the minimum caliber for dangerous game in Africa is a .375 H&H Mag. The ability to take a Brown Bear sow at the end of summer while she is defending her cubs is more than just will the animal eventually die. It is will the animal die before it kills you. Elephants have been taken with with AK-47s but, really, do you consider a kill that required over a 100 rounds a good example of 'nothing surviving'? There are many animals that an expert shot can take with a 22 – even black bear I've heard – but that requires a calm animal and an excellent shot. I would bet on the bear every time that a 5.56 goes up against a direct encounter where the bear is aggressive. In that case, my 45-70 Marlin or .375 H&H Mag may not get the job done in time.

  12. Just found the site and am impressed by most of the logic. here is my .02. Perfect bug out carbine is an AR-15 with a light weight 16", chromelined bore & chamber, 1/7 twist barrel. personal choice on fixed vs colapsable stock, as you would disassemble the upper & lower to fit in your pack. 3 to 6 30 rnd mags preferably 77 grain. But, 55 or 62gr would do. Additionally carry a 22lr conversion device and mag with it (cost about $125), and a brick of 22lr. I'd add 2 hand guns: My favorite M1911commander and a ruger semi in 22lr. I also would be fine w/ a good quality .357 magnum revolver, say a S&W mod 66 .

    Chefbear58 – Olympic makes complete AR upper assemblies in alternative chamberings, among them 45ACP. I think the list prices are between $500 & $600. you'd probably want to budget some extra for magazines. You could pop the top on your AR in 5.56 and in a matter of seconds be good to go in 45acp or 7.62×39, or 9mm. I like the idea , especially in an urban setting of being totally set up for 45. A cheaper alternative is Marlin's camp rifle in 45 acp. and I think they use 1911 mags.

  13. Olympic Arms GI-16 for me. I like the A1 upper and every military unit and most law enforcement orgs use the 5.56mm, so there will be plenty of ammo around to scrounge if the crunch comes. I have enough mags to drop a few in a 'problem' and still not run out. I have used it my entire military career in one form or another, from M16A1 to tricked out M4, and it is a great weapon. My sidearm was an M9 but I got rid of it for a Glock19 and am happy I did.____I intend on getting an FN-FAL, a 500A 12ga. and an AR-7 to round out my bug out kit.

  14. Well my shtf senario calls for my m4 ar rifle in 5.56mm for human threats or large game. Got to have my 22lr for small game. also the large amount of ammo i could carry like the man said and it could double as a close range self defence weapon. Head shots with a 22lr work everytime for deer or domestic. And side arm would be my colt 1991A1 45 acp. for up close and personal. But i do have my shot gun packed too. And long guns. ha ha!!! Don't think i would want to leave any of my guns or ammo if i had to run. So i'm preparing for just that .

  15. Hello all!! im new here and love this site and wanted to add a few opinions. I can say from many years experience in the military that the 5.56 has its ups and downs as previously stated although the "AR" platform gives you unlimited options of modification and personalization. I recently bought a 6.5 grendel rifle and am amzed at its versatitily and ballistic charachteristics. I also wanted to mention the 5.7mm as a rifle/pistol combo. the FN five seven along with a FN P90 or variant rifle would make a great combo.. Plenty of ammo per mag (20+1 pistol and 50 rifle). Not to mention wieght to ammo load out ratio. Like it was previously stated, matching your ammo for your rifle and pistol isnt abad idea in a survival situation.

  16. the best gun to have is the one you practice with over and over. I love going to the range and the guys spend way to much for a gun with everything attached to it and cant hit a target. then they talk like they can shot in battle. if you have never been to shot at while shooting then you have no idea. i build guns for fun, and this site is a great for reading and researching. i like ar's but i dig ak's also. the 5.7 are my favorite round next to the 762.39.

  17. a .223 or 5.56×45 bullet will hardly stop a person 50 yards out or more even if you use half a mag also if you are using a .223 upper and shooting out 5,56 out of it the gun will most likely explode. i've seen us army rangers throw hundreds of ar15rifles in piles and sell them to south amarica for $40 a pound but my dislike for .223 and5.56 is just for use against people its a fine target shooting cartrige

  18. As I have said…
    My bug out setup would be
    Sks rifle 100 rounds in strippers 2 back up boxes
    hi point 9mm 3 mags
    backpack ar-7 survival rifle 250 rounds
    ruger bearcat
    I crosman slingshot 50 steel shot
    this setup is designed as my awww shtf bugging out on foot and would not be too heavy so I could
    not carry my load out.
    I noticed alot of folks when they talk about the survival load out are not taking into account weapon weights with ammo, plus your gear unless "we" and are families are all pt superstars
    just saying.
    to the extreme light weight load out
    ruger 10/22 with good extended mags
    ruger mk2 3 mags
    ammo 1500rounds
    crosman slingshot 150 steel shot
    pocket fisherman
    load out

  19. my bug out weopen load

    ar 15 6 20 round mags 400 rounds of hp and fmj ammo

    kel-tecs new pmr-30 in .22 magnum 3 20 round mags and 200 rounds

    and ne of my knives i make they ar the best in town!;)

  20. so i have a ? i have the ruger sr 556 its gas piston. i want to turn it into a 300 aac blackout. from what i have read online all you have to do to change a 556 into a 300 is change the barrel however i dont know if the gas piston changes things. so can i just get a 300 blackout barrel and be ok or would i need a whole upper?

  21. I fear for our nation, our families and our very lives. In my SHTF scenario –
    our government steals our money, and bankrupts the country in midnight-backroom deals. Then they buy 700M hollow point bullets for agencies you'd never expect ; like EPA, SBA, Homeland Security, Forest and Social Security Services, disguising heavily armored war-vehicles as "POLICE RESCUE" while patrolling our neighborhoods with enough fire power to kill each and every living American. It's happening now, and this scenario is REAL.

    Do the research and arm yourselves well; because it won't be the forest animals coming to kill you, it will be the ones we put in office – the ones that are planning a tyrannical marshal-law governed dictatorship.

    Please vote. Get your family and friends to vote. It's one of the rights that our military risk their lives for every day to keep us free. Let us stay armed to help them defend our freedom from those that seek to; dismantle democracy, kill us and our way of life.

    May God bless America restoring this nation once again to the greatness it was designed for.

    45ACP, 380ACP, 38+P, 12G Shotgun

  22. If I had to pick one long gun and one side arm, which is all I would want for travel survival, I would go M4 and M1911A, or a .38 Mag lever action and .38 Mag revolver. I wouldn't want anything much larger than 5.56 for a long gun because I'm honestly not going to be eating a whole freaking deer myself and bigger ammo would annihilate smaller game, not to mention 5.56 with deal with two-legged threats just fine,

  23. Well you could do what I did, I standardized to the AR platform in 3 different calibers…

    I have a S&W M&P 15/22 in .22 lr, a BCM AR-15 in 5.56 NATO, and a Ruger SR762 in 7.62 NATO. I have Aimpoints on the .22 and 5.55 guns, and a Leupold MKIV 3.5×10 on the Ruger.


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