Let’s Talk Guns. Specifically Calibers

There’s no question that the ability to defend your home and family is an integral part of survival. That primarily means guns, as they are the best weapon available to us today. I started shooting as a child, and I taught all my kids to shoot when they were pretty young. As with most other preppers, we have guns in the home and the ammo we need to use them.

I don’t often talk about guns specifically, although I do talk about self-defense and home defense. The main reason I don’t talk about guns is that so many other people do. I see many articles about firearms, especially what guns are “best” for survival, and I even read a few. But by and large, all I’m seeing is people’s opinions. But I think there’s a need for a serious discussion about guns and why one gun might be better than another.

Please note that I have no intention of telling you what gun you should buy or what gun is the best. That’s your decision to make, and it’s a very personal one. What’s best for one person is rarely best for the next. So, even if you are interested in what I carry, that doesn’t mean you should buy the same. However, I will talk a bit about why one type of gun might be better than another in a given survival situation.

Let’s Start with Pistols

All of the guns we’re concerned about can be broken down into two general categories; pistols and long guns. As a starting point, every team member who is old enough to handle firearms safely should have one of each. In a survival situation, especially a post-disaster world where there is a breakdown of law and order, their pistol should never leave their body unless they are bathing or sleeping.

I’m also a firm believer in carrying concealed and do so every day. We aren’t preppers and survivalists only in the aftermath of a disaster, but every day of our lives. In all the years I’ve carried, I’ve only had to draw my pistol two times, both to stop crimes from happening. And in both cases, the criminal ran once they saw that I was armed.

What Kind of Pistol?

But what sort of pistol is the best to carry? There are two fundamental ways of categorizing pistols; one is that they are either semi-automatic or revolvers; the other is by their caliber. There are proponents of semi-automatic pistols and revolvers, and both have good reasons for their point of view. Revolvers are by far a simpler firearm, so they are less likely to cause a problem in a survival situation and much easier to repair. On the other side of the balance, semi-automatic pistols can hold more rounds and be reloaded considerably faster. While I know one ex-police officer who can reload his revolver as fast as I can refill my semi-auto carry gun, he’s the only one I’ve ever seen do that.

My main reasons for carrying a semi-automatic pistol as my carry gun and my survival gun are those twin benefits of larger capacity and faster reload. Should I ever find myself in a position where I need to use that pistol to keep me alive, I don’t want to be limited by how many shots I can take.

What Pistol Caliber?

But now we get to the bigger question; that of caliber. Let me start by saying that one key element here is comfort. Nobody should carry a larger caliber pistol than they can shoot comfortably. That might mean that a woman would be holding a .380ACP pistol, which I consider sub-optimal as a defensive gun. But if her hands aren’t strong enough to rack the slide of a 9mm, she shouldn’t be carrying it. As a test, if someone can’t shoot a box of ammo through the pistol without help and their hand hurting, they shouldn’t be carrying it.

9mm vs .45ACP

The considerable debate in pistol calibers breaks down to 9mm or .45ACP. I’m a fan of both and have both as active parts of my gun collection. The reason for that is that these two calibers were developed for different things and are useful in different situations.

The .45ACP was developed by famed American gun designer John Browning for the U.S. Army. First manufactured by the Colt Firearms Company, the Colt Model 1911 had a 7+1 round capacity, with a removable magazine. It was developed to replace the .38 Special revolvers, which were the Army’s (and other service’s) standard sidearm. The main reason for this was the Army’s need for a pistol round that could stop the Moro tribesmen of the Philippines, who would attack them high on drugs.

The distinguishing features of the .45ACP bullet are that it has a larger diameter than any other standard pistol round (there is now .50ACP, but there wasn’t when it was developed), and it is extremely blunt. This combination of large surface area and a blunt point means that the bullet is poor at penetration but extremely good at transferring its energy into whatever it hits. It functioned well for its intended purpose of knocking down those Moro tribesmen. It worked so well that Colt Model 1911 was the military sidearm for 72 years.

In contrast to that, the 9mm Parabellum, otherwise known as the 9mm Lugar (for the inventor), or 9mm NATO (as it has been the NATO standard), was designed by a German named Georg Luger. He intended to create a semi-automatic pistol cartridge that would be lethal at 50 meters.

Luther developed a more pointed bullet than any other pistol bullet of the day to accommodate this. Even today, the only bullet with a more pointed profile than the 9mm is the FN 5.7. But that’s a rifle bullet, essentially the same as the 5.56 rifle round in a smaller cartridge.

The sharp point of the 9mm allows it to penetrate much better than any other pistol bullet out there. It is widely considered to be able to penetrate up to 12 inches into a body. This allows the bullet to hit vital organs, even when the target is turned sideways to the shooter, forcing the shooter to shoot through the arm and into the body cavity.

The difference between the two is remarkable in any ballistic test.

  • A .45ACP bullet will not penetrate very far into any material, be it Kevlar, wood, flesh, or fiberglass.
  • On the other hand, the 9mm will penetrate farther than any other pistol round, including a .357 magnum or .44 magnum, but excluding the aforementioned FN 5.7.

Choosing between the two means choosing knockdown power or penetrating power. When dealing with criminals, who might very well be high on drugs or adrenalin, the .45 is the superior choice.

But when defending yourself from quasi-military forces attacking your home, the 9mm is a superior round, more likely to kill or at least severely incapacitate the attackers. Besides, the 9mm will carry more rounds, which will likely be necessary in a post-disaster world.

The .40ACP

One other caliber I feel a need to mention is the .40ACP. It was a later development intended to try and combine the advantages of the 9mm with the benefits of the .45ACP. The resulting bullet and cartridge look like the .45ACP’s little brother. The bullet geometry is smaller but still the same shape.

This ended up resulting in a bullet that doesn’t penetrate as well as the 9mm and doesn’t carry the knockdown power of the .45ACP. In other words, it is combining the worst of both cartridges rather than the best. Sadly, many of our country’s police forces have adopted this caliber for their issue sidearm, not giving the officers on the street the best possible weapons to defend themselves.

The Long Guns

There is a much larger variety of long guns to choose from than there is of pistols. I’m not just talking models here, but the primary type of firearm. At a minimum, we can include:

  • sport rifles
  • hunting rifles
  • shotguns
  • fully-automatic rifles

You can easily find proponents of all of these somewhere in the prepping and survival community.

Before we go any farther, though, let’s talk about how a long gun might be used in a survival situation. As best as I can see it, there are two primary reasons anyone would need a long gun: to defend their home or to hunt for food. So anything we choose has got to fulfill at least one, if not both, of those needs.

Fortunately, we don’t have to limit ourselves to one long gun, although carrying more than one in a bug-out would be a bit too much weight. However, we can get around that problem by having different team members armed in different ways. That would give us the various capabilities that we need.

Long Guns for Home Defense

The number one concern we need to look at using long guns is home defense. That means individuals or groups of attackers coming to break into the home and steal your food and other supplies. We usually picture these individuals as being armed and willing to use violence to get what they want.

Assuming that our assumptions are correct, we’re talking about close-quarters fighting here. While I would do everything possible to keep them from breaching the perimeter of your home and getting in, significantly if they outnumber you, that doesn’t mean taking up a sniper rifle and shooting at them a couple of blocks down the street. Unless they’re shooting at you from there, you have no way of knowing that they’re attacking you.

Even though we’re talking about a time when there will probably be a breakdown of law and order, that doesn’t mean things will stay that way. Most likely, things will return to some semblance of normal at some time or other, and when that happens, there will be those who will want to prosecute anyone who had to defend themselves. So you want to be sure that your actions will meet the legal test of being in self-defense. That means that you only use deadly force when you are under attack or threat of invasion by someone physically close enough to do you bodily harm. So much for sniper rifles or their civilian equivalent, the scoped hunting rifle.

Likewise, fully automatic rifles are unrealistic for defending the home, as they are notorious for the muzzle rising due to recoil. That means that once the first shot has left the muzzle, any others are likely to go up into the air, missing their target. That’s not so much of a problem, but what they hit when they come back down to earth could be very serious indeed.

Taking those two categories of long guns out, we’re left with shotguns and sporting rifles, specifically the various versions of the AR-15. Both are excellent for home defense, although you must be careful with the AR-15, as the bullets can pass right through someone, hitting something beyond.

There are a wide variety of shells available for 12-gauge shotguns, including slugs and less-lethal rounds. This makes the 12-gauge one of the most versatile home defense guns out there. The only thing wrong with it is the limited magazine capacity of most shotguns. This can be solved by either buying one of the newer bullpup shotguns with dual magazines or a tactical shotgun that feeds from a magazine.

In no case is a hunting shotgun good for home defense.

However, even with as good as shotguns are for home defense, I wouldn’t just depend on a shotgun with nothing else as backup. Other than those with removable magazines, reloading would take too long in a firefight. If the fight went that far, it would be better to set the shotgun aside and grab a secondary firearm, like an AR-15.

Long Guns for Hunting

When hunting, the same long guns that anyone uses today are ideal for survival hunting. Whatever your favorite hunting rifle is, plan on using it for survival. As far as a shotgun goes, if yours has a removable plug in the magazine, I’d go ahead and remove it, all the while saving it for reinstallation whenever things go back to normal.

The one problem here is that the rifles and shotguns we use for hunting are not ideal if we end up being attacked while out hunting. Carrying a second long gun is impractical due to the weight. The best thing to do is carry a hunting rifle with replaceable magazines, such as some versions of the Remington 700 or an AR-15 chambered for hunting.

Another critical consideration in hunting is the small game. That will probably be more plentiful than big game. So a good .22LR rifle should be part of everyone’s survival arsenal, either that or a conversion kit for their AR-15.

Of course, this assumes you’re going to be able to go hunting, something I’m not so sure of. There will be many other people out there trying to hunt for food, to the point where the game population will become diminished rapidly. If your survival plans depend on hunting those animals for food, I can only hope you live far enough away from any population centers that you will still be able to find the game. Otherwise, you’ll probably be wasting your time.

But for all of this, you should read Simple Gun Hacks That Will Instantly Double Your Accuracy from Decorated Green Beret!

Written by

Bill White is the author of Conquering the Coming Collapse, and a former Army officer, manufacturing engineer and business manager. More recently, he left the business world to work as a cross-cultural missionary on the Mexico border. Bill has been a survivalist since the 1970s, when the nation was in the latter days of the Cold War. He had determined to head into the Colorado Rockies, should Washington ever decide to push the button. While those days have passed, the knowledge Bill gained during that time hasn’t. He now works to educate others on the risks that exist in our society and how to prepare to meet them. You can send Bill a message at editor [at] survivopedia.com.

Latest comments
  • I was hoping a gun manufacture would make a 40 cal. on an AR platform to be the same a a pistol, but no one has yet.

  • I beg to differ with you on penetration of the 9mm vs. .45 ACP. In ballistic tests I’ve witnessed using large blocks of ballistic gel, you were dead on for using the 9mm using standard load 115 grain bullets: 12 inches penetration straight as a rod and then tumbling all over for another 4-5 inches. Cavitation (which is the real killer, as any organs in the cavitation zone are destroyed or seriously damaged) was 4 inches at point of impact and minimal after 12 inches. For the .45ACP, penetration was straight as a rod for THIRTY INCHES, with cavitation at point of impact being six inches and declining in a straight linear line all around out to the width of the bullet at 30 inches. Since cavitation is essentially as deadly as the actual bullet penetration channel, this means that although the 9mm is likely to put your opponent down, it is much less likely to make sure that he won’t survive to dispute your account of what happened.. The .45ACP is way more likely in any body hit to kill, and if you hit an opponent in an arm or leg, much more likely to either remove the limb if it hits bone or ensure that he can’t use till after reconstructive surgery. This is why i own NO 9mms and several .45ACP…but as you correctly note I can handle one, I provide my wife with a pocket sized .357 loaded with .38 Special, with .357 Magnums for me.

  • Interesting write up. Yes I was issued a 38 special. After being shot down in the jungle with a 5 round Barnie Fife load out, I got back, had a conversion with the unit armor, left with a CAR-15 and a 1911. 50 years later, my choices are more consistent with shoot, communicate, and not so much move. Your suggestion about a 12ga. bullpup is right on. Eight of my friends and I have Black Aces Tactical, FD-12 semi-auto magazine fed bullpups. They have 5 and ten round stick magazines, and a 20 round drum but that is too heavy and bulky. If you have six stick magazines they function just like AR magazines. Fast swap, bolt hold back release and keep shooting. Remember 15 pellet #1 Buck shot multiples your lethal effectiveness beyond 50 yards. 15 pellets times 60 rounds puts out 900 pieces of lead in about a minute. It has an 18″ barrel and 28″ overall for good CQB maneuverability. Ammunition options open the tool up for many mission capabilities. Backup pistol is a Springfield XD 9mm with Sig V-Crown Ammo. Its tactile features make this a winner over Glock, Sig, etc. These cover home defense in the traditional context. However, if you have any expectation of encountering Blue Helmets in the near future, then your doctrine is shoot them as far away as possible. I find 6mm ARC 18 to 22″ AR to be most useful. It is lethal beyond a 1,000 meters and you can self spot with it. Old guy friendly for sure. Plus you can swap uppers for something in the middle range if necessary.

    • You have decent weapons in my opinion. The 6 millimeter Advanced Rifle Cartridge is a rare round to find. I would also have another AR-15 upper assembly that shoots a more common caliber.

      My choice of home defense weapons (not superior to yours) is a .40 Smith & Wesson and a 9 millimeter carbine. Both have 16 to 30 round full capacity magazines. Pistols I chose are .45 Auto and .40 Smith & Wesson. I disagree with the author that .40 Smith & Wesson is an inferior round to 9 millimeter Luger.

      Long range choices for me are AR-10 and M1A rifles both in 7.62 x 51. My intermediate range rifle is a 7.62 x 39. 7.62 x 39 ammo is so easy to find in August 2021 and it is cheap in price.

  • The 45 CAP was designed to replace the 38 Colt cartridge and not the 38 Special. The .40 cartridge discussed is correctly called the 40 Smith and Wesson. I am unaware of any cartridge referred to as the 40 ACP.

  • One thing to consider here, the military is precluded from using hollow point rounds. But the civilian world has modern HP rounds that are a significant game changer when it comes to terminal balistics.

    Be very careful to do your research on your ammo, and research testing with the barrel length you use. A HP round from a 4 inch barrel will perform much differently than an HP round from a 2.5 inch barrel. It’s the users responsibility to know and understand their weapon/ammo choice.

  • Does NoOne talk about the effects of barrel length on ballistics ? What about the specific firearm ? I use .38 Cal.+P s in my Charter Arms and S&W – with a 4 in. barrel. The .357 Mag is good for blindness and deafness with the same barrel. P.S., the .38+Ps are much better than the 9mm Para. .

  • Excellent article Bill and thank you for posting it. Personally I have pared down my collection of fire arms to a minimum which works for me. I have two separate 9’s that I EDC depending on how i’m dressed that day. One is a sub compact and the other is a full sized Baretta. I have two scatter guns in 12 GA that can chamber 3 inch rounds. One is for hunting ( which I don’t do often anymore ) and the other is a tactical shot gun. I keep a bolt action rifle .22 for small game hunting. All these are more than adequate for my semi rural situation. Some of my friends are serious fire arm collectors and more power to them! Myself, I try to keep it simple.

  • I would like to offer another perspective to gathering firearms for a SHTF situation: Find out what the military and local law enforcement officers are carrying, and get those. Usually the military carries a rifle and a pistol. Find out what they carry and get one of each. Very often, local police will carry a pistol and have a shotgun in the car. Find out what they have and get one of each.


    Because ammo is going to be extremely hard to get in a SHTF situation. (Ammo is hard to get right now.) The Federal, State, County, and City governments will always ensure that the military and the police will have a steady supply of ammo. You may be able to get some of that supply during Dark Times, when all other calibers & gauges are impossible to find.

    After that, consider getting the weapons that are used by the enemies of the US. Then if you are ever faced with encountering their troops, you can fire their ammo too.


  • I was hoping to see the Taurus Judge mentioned here for home protection. The revolver can take .45 long colt or .410 shotgun shells. The 3″ chamber can accommodate the .410 magnum shells with 00 or 000 buckshot. The rifled barrel enhances spread, which is important if you are facing enemies closing. For knock-down power in close quarters when engaged with multiple attackers, it is my first choice. Especially if you need to fire in darkness.

  • It’s sad that no one ever mentions the AR-10!

    I’ve hunted, and harvested, deer with one for well over 20 years, and would still put it up against any 5.56 home defense rifle!
    I also have a 1970s era chinese SKS that I’ve hunted with too, although it is a bit heavy. Also a good hunting/home defense weapon. Just get a REAL SKS, not the stamped out junk they sell now.

    There’s a lot of options out there, do some research and, as always, BUYER BEWARE!

  • I have calibers all over the board. My opinion doesn’t matter to anyone, so my thinking is that varying my ammo needs I have a few popular rounds and only a few not standard. Thus having an easier time to match caliber to weapon. I’d like to note that S&W .500 is great for hunting, (some long range, depending on barrel length) but the best reason is vest busting.