Shoot-out! The best SHTF gun.
By Jim Tarr
In a serendipitous coincidence (I get paid extra for big words), my editor decided the subject of our next "Shootout!" should be the "Ultimate SHTF Gun" right after I finished building what I believe is just that. If you don't know what SHTF means, try an Internet search (but disable images).
Work on this project for me started not too long after I upgraded (and then camo painted) my Alexander Arms AR, detailed in two articles in Shotgun News last fall. I really love that rifle, and in fact it is leaning against a bookshelf four feet to my right as I type this (yes, loaded; an unloaded gun is just a really expensive paperweight). And yet, the more time I spend with it, the more I realize that the rifle is not quite perfect.
As I pondered exactly what I didn't like about my AA rifle, and what a "perfect" rifle would look like, I realized that perfection is contingent upon the situation. Many people think I tend to go off the high side on a lot of issues, and they're not wrong, but at least I'm consistent. I started thinking about construction of what I began calling my TEOTWAWKI gun. TEOTWAWKI stands for The End Of The World As We Know It, and in contemplating what I would want in such a firearm it became a great intellectual exercise. Plus, it was an opportunity to build another AR.
The true end of the world as we know it would be a planet-killing rock from space. The odds of that happening are greater than zero, but it may take a million years. Short of that, a foreign power detonating a large nuke above the middle of the country, and the resulting EMP frying every non-shielded electronic, would be the end of America as we know it, at least for a few decades. If that happened in a Third World country, most of the population wouldn't even notice. In America, where we live on our smartphones, a huge chunk of the populace depends on the government to put food on the table, and very few people have any useful life skills, we'd have 100,000 dead or wounded in a month due to food/gas/race/bank/just-for-the-hell-of-it riots. A gun suitable for that kind of unrest definitely fits any SHTF scenario you can imagine from a simple burglary on up.
First, my SHTF gun had to be a rifle, as there are a lot of things a pistol just can't do. And I can't shoot anything as fast or well as I can the AR-15. The 5.567.223 with the right ammo (copper solids or bonded core bullets) is more than capable of killing any animal living within 500 miles of me, or handling two-legged predators. Plus, .223 is one of the most common calibers out there.
As for barrel length, as cool as SBRs are, you lose a lot in velocity, and they're really loud and bright. So you'd almost need a suppressor, and that's a whole lot more muzzle weight and money spent for not much benefit, at least to my way of thinking. However, working that Alexander Arms rifle with its 16-inch barrel around cover made me wish it was just a bit shorter. And I've found there seems to be a huge perceived difference in length and handiness in cars between a 14.5-inch and 16-inch barrel.
Once I decided on a length, it took me only a fraction of a second to decide on a barrel--the Paul Howe from Wilson Combat. I'd tested one before in the Wilson Combat Paul Howe Carbine and really liked it. This is a 14.7-inch stainless steel barrel with a mid-length gas system and 1/8 twist. It is fluted, so even though it has a medium contour it weighs the same as a lightweight 16-inch barrel. The barrel also has a 5.56 NATO chamber, so less chance of popped primers if I'm shooting surplus or liberated ammo.
For extra strength (if you're mounting suppressors or whatnot), this barrel comes with 5/8x24 threads (what you'd normally find on a .30-caliber barrel). I wanted a muzzle device that would not generate any more flash than an A2 flash hider but hopefully reduce recoil, and so I picked the BCM Gunfighter Compensator Mod 1-7.62, which I know meets my criteria handily. It's more than 2 inches long, so when permanently attached the overall length of the barrel is longer than 16 inches.
Some of the parts I wanted to include in my rifle I bought for this build, others I had sitting in my basement just waiting for a home. One of the latter was the San Tan Tactical lower receiver. This is a billet lower with ambidextrous controls, but there are dozens of those on the market. I think the San Tan is a superior product for a number of reasons.
First, many companies are throwing ambi controls on their lowers (some better than others), but just about all of them put a standard mag well on their product. That is just dumb. How many times are you going to need to lock back the bolt with your trigger finger when the SHTF, versus how many times are you going to need to reload? The San Tan has a very nicely flared mag well, and that makes a huge difference in reload speed no matter how stressed you are. It also has an integral oversize trigger guard and QD sockets on either side at the rear of the receiver. Not just that, but billet doesn't have to mean heavy--this lower is relieved in all the right places and not any heavier than a standard forged lower.
I wanted a long handguard, and while I love the BCM KMR handguard on my Alexander Arms rifle, it is so narrow and thin that my support hand starts to get uncomfortably warm after only one 30-round magazine. So I wanted something a little beefier and wider.
When it comes to mounting methods, I don't have a preference between KeyMod and M-LOK. However, the latter was invented by the kings of AR accessories, Magpul, and many of those accessories were already sitting in a box in my basement.
Between the beefier and wider and M-LOK requirements, my choice in handguards was an easy one; a 13-inch Mk8 Super Modular Rail from Geissele Automatics. This handguard has a full-length MIL-STD 1913 rail along the top and M-LOK slots at 3, 6, and 9 o'clock for its entire length, not to mention QD swivel sockets on either side at the rear of the handguard. It is strong while not being especially heavy, and comes with a low profile stainless steel gas block.
Within the past few years I have also come to appreciate the utility of vertical foregrips. Not as a handgrip, but rather as a handstop and improvised shooting brace--press it against a support as you're shooting and recoil drops to zero. So I installed a short Magpul RVG.
While I love the utility of stocks with compartments, I find they add weight to the gun and I never use them. If I need to carry spare batteries, I'd rather have them on my body than weighing down my gun. For that reason I chose the Magpul CTR stock. Not only is it stronger than the Mil-Spec stock, if you close the lock it eliminates almost all stock rattle, which is important if you're taking a precision shot. It weighs a few ounces more than a GI collapsible stock.
"Ultimate" doesn't have to mean expensive. A SHTF or TEOTWAWKI gun has to be reliable more than anything else, but being able to afford the parts you've chosen isn't a bad idea either. For that reason I chose certain parts because they work, and no extra expense was needed for custom gear. Parts such as the Brownells gas tube, BCM forged upper receiver, Magpul sights and grip, and CMMG lower receiver parts kit.
I am also a trigger snob. For this rifle I wanted a nonadjustable trigger, but one that provided a light pull and yet was guaranteed to be reliable. After going back and forth for a couple weeks I secured a Geissele 2-Stage (G2S) trigger, available exclusively from Brownells. This trigger functionally is identical to Geissele's SSA-E trigger, but significantly less expensive. It provides an excellent two-stage 3.5-lb. trigger pull that allows for both precision and speed.
The bolt carrier group is from AIM Surplus, which is a great place to find quality parts at a great price. The bolt is HP tested and MP inspected and the carrier itself is nickel boron coated, which means it can be wiped clean with a rag.
No SHTF rifle is complete without a flashlight, and I mounted a Magpul base at 10 o'clock on the end of the handguard. In it I installed a TerraLux TT-4. All aluminum waterproof construction yet light weight, 520 lumens, less than $100 retail--need I say more? The rifle needs a sling, of course, and I've yet to find a better sling than the Quad from Savvy Sniper.
A rifle needs an optic as well. While there are a lot of great scopes out there, I had to mount the one scope I have that I just love, and has proved itself in competition--the Trijicon TR25. This 1-6X scope has fiber optic illumination so it is EMP proof. It can be used as a red dot at IX, and 6X is enough to engage targets out to the limit of the cartridge and rifle.
As a former Green Beret once said to me, ounces equal pounds and pounds equal pain. Unnecessarily heavy rifles are stupid. This rifle, unloaded minus sling and optic but with flashlight, weighs seven pounds even. As I've got it set up I think it can handle any problem an AR-15 is capable of handling.
Sweeney's Pick: Piston-Driven AR
By Patrick Sweeney
OK, I could pick three or four SHTF guns, depending on the circumstances. But we'll define and refine, and get down to one. I'm not looking for the best "all around TEOTWAWKI" gun. I'm not looking to hunt rabbits, or off a heifer or sow for butchering. What I'm thinking of is a pretty specialized situation, but one I have refined over the years: The bad guys are kicking in the front door. What do you grab to run out the back door, to either flank them, or disappear into the night? (The first one to lecture me on tactics gets slapped. This is a tool-defining exercise only.)
For me, the choice is simple; my LWRC SBR. It is chambered in 5.56, it is done in a foliage green Cerakote, and it is, admittedly, a bit on the heavy side. That is due to it having an old quad-rail handguard on it. One of these days I'll get around to swapping the handguard to something lighter, but it will have to be something that will clear the gas system piston.
The barrel is 11.5 inches long, and sports a Surefire muzzle device, which is where I park the Surefire SOCOM 5.56 suppressor I have when it isn't being used on another rifle. With the SOCOM in place, the LWRC is no longer than a standard carbine, and quieter. Yes, I give up a bit of velocity with the shorter barrel, but I'm not looking for long-range shooting.
And with the "not long range" shooting in mind, it has an Aimpoint Micro T1 2 MOA red dot on it. Using the Aimpoint QD mount, it rests in the middle of the receiver. No magnifying optics, in the semi-urban environment I'm in, where the end of the block is 150 yards away. I can hit a reduced silhouette at 300 yards with just a red-dot, which is a lot further than I can identify the people I'm considering shooting. At more realistic distances, it is wicked fast, small, and batteries last forever. (I don't think I've changed the battery since I got it. Maybe I should do that now.)
The stock is the same SOCOM-like stock it came with from LWRC, and I'm not picky about such things.
The sling will outrage the tacti-cool set. It is a plain old (and it was used before I got it) section of nylon webbing, tied to both ends with 550 cord. It is light, simple, long enough for me to use as a sling or aiming brace, and did I mention, simple?
Ready to go, lacking a magazine, but including the Surefire, the carbine is exactly eight pounds. Maybe I'm being a bit harsh on it, since the world is full of bare-bones M4geries that the makers are proud to tell us are 7.5 pounds.
The whole package is small enough that when broken down will disappear into a messenger bag, or a bookbag-looking backpack. This leads me to the next outrage; magazines. The "out the door" ammo supply is also brutally simple; a cotton USGI bandolier filled with aluminum 20-round magazines. The tac vest that is the alternative is filled with twenty-round Magpul magazines. Why twenties, instead of more, more, more ammo? Compactness and prone shooting. Keeping a low profile with twenties is easier than it is with thirties. And when it comes to going prone, I can get a lot lower with a 20-round magazine in the rifle than I can with a thirty. I'm not' as skinny at Jim, but I'm still skinny, and I can get in a prone so low I can use a roadside curb as cover
Last up is ammo. Here, nothing but the best. While the LWRC has proven to be a tack-driver with anything and everything, what I'll feed it when the recycled food product hits the oscillating atmospheric driver is copper. As in, a heavy, all-copper load such as the Asym SDX 70-grain Barnes load. No, I won't be getting the full 2,800 fps out of my 11.5-inch barrel, but I know that it will be popping through auto glass and other chance barriers without breaking up. I've tested it in auto glass, sheet metal, wallboard, etc. It performs as advertised.
An alternative would be the Homady 55-grain GMX, or Corbon DPX. If I had enough on hand to load up, one of the bonded bullets with a lead core, like the Federal LE Tactical 62-grain or other like it would also work.
When trouble comes, it likely won't be alone, and it may well come prepared. I want ammo that will reach through and hurt that trouble.
No light, you ask? Light is good, when it is dark out. But light also attracts attention, and takes up space, adds weight and requires some kind of a switch. I'm still testing various lights, and haven't settled on one yet, although the Surefire Scout light is high on the list.
In case you haven't been paying attention, this is a setup that is as low profile as possible, as compact and light as I can make it, but is a useful tool to keep bad guys from doing bad things. I'm not looking for a do-everything rifle, with light, laser, optics and optics, and oh, optics, and a bipod, and spare ammo, and even a tourniquet on a stock pouch next to the cup holder. I've seen such rifles, they weigh closer to eleven pounds than ten, and they have so much on them you can't find the bang-switch.
Ready to go, the carbine has a loaded 20-round magazine in it, with a Chambersafe clear chamber indicator. The loaded bandolier hangs right next to it, so one grab gets the rifle and 160 rounds of ammo. Attached to the bandolier is a basic blowout kit, and a tactical light and tactical knife. Grab and run, and I have enough to get me to a safehouse, or Valhalla.
Tarr on Sweeney's Pick
I'm not sure if it is obvious to the casual reader, but Pat was pouting when he wrote his piece on his "Ultimate SHTF gun." Why? Because our editor made him just pick one. Pat was like, "Well, if the left-handed redheaded zombie apocalypse happens, then I'll grab that Kristoff Maximillian Custom carbon fiber cocobolo Whackadingle, and if a squadron of buggies filled with homicidal Amish cobblers tries to cut me off in traffic I'll grab the Pike UberBling TactiTerror Mark VIII."
To his credit, our editor, Dave Jones, put his foot down and wrote in this fierce email exchange, "No. When the SHTF, the SHTF, and you've got one gun to grab. That's the gun you've got to write up."
To his credit Pat has come up with what most people might consider a reasonable worst-case scenario, a group of bad guys kicking down his door. And he has excellent choice in ammo. But even so, he's picked a short-barreled rifle that may or may not be wearing a suppressor, so there's a good chance he'll be blinded and deaf if the bad guys kick down the door when that suppressor is on another rifle. Oh, and the battery on his Aimpoint might be dead, because he just realized he hasn't changed it in years.
Then let's look at the rifle itself. LWRC makes great stuff, but really, a piston AR? Sure, piston ARs are heavier, have more parts, are more expensive, and recoil harder than equivalent direct gas impingement guns, but at least they aren't any more reliable.
And a quad rail, really? Lots of cheese grater rail space there. And what does Pat have attached to all that rail space? Nothing. Not even a flashlight. He's thought about adding one but is a bit worried as "light attracts attention." I'm sure he's right, no cops or high-speed tough guys ever use flashlights--too dangerous.
Nice try on this one Pat, you get a Participation Medal, but that's about it. Sounds to me like this isn't a "SHTF" gun at all but rather a "What, me worry?" rifle.
Sweeney on Tarr's Pick
Tarr is ... reasonable.
You have no idea just how much this pains me to say, but Jim sounds reasonable in his arguments and conclusions.
That won't keep me from mocking his starting premise that his is an excuse to build another AR. Dear God, man, one does not need a reason to build an AR, this is America! Even admitting that you need an excuse to build another AR is risking your standing in the gunwriters guild.
I find it interesting that we both settled on ARs, that we both went for as light a build as possible, and that we agree that heavy bullets, and all copper if we can get them, are the apex choices in a TEOTWAWKI rifle.
I find his logic on barrel length curious. SBRs give up too much performance, but a suppressor to tame the flash and blast adds too much weight? Jim, there are suppressors that aren't anvils, that aren't goiters on your muzzle, and they are very useful. And mine rides on the STHF gun all the time.
I wouldn't call you a trigger snob, more like a trigger slut, who will do anything to avoid the practice needed to actually get good on a trigger. I think Bill Geissele is a genius, but I also know that I can easily drop the 300-meter half-sized targets with a box-stock trigger. So, the clean and crisp factory trigger in my LWRC will do the job.
Unlike Jim, I don't find vertical foregrips all that handy, and I have even come to find the "curb feelers" that are abbreviated stops to be a hindrance. The sling attachment, either 550 cord, or a bolt-on swivel (fastened to the handguard) are fine hand stops for me. As for bracing against a wall, post, etc., I can do that without an extra protrusion on my rifle.
That's why I'm still undecided about lights. Yes, light can be handy, but if I'm objecting to a small angle of aluminum--a hand stop--as being too big, then what does that make most lights? My idea of a useful light would be something that was in its entirety no larger than a single AA battery. Just because we have SEALs who can break a boulder defining what is "useful" we find ourselves saddled with lights that are too big, too heavy, and too powerful.
Last up are optics. Jim wants a l-6x scope. Nice, but heavy. Were I living in a location where the distances mean a 6X scope might be useful, I would not be choosing a 5.56 carbine as my STHF rifle. I'd be packing something either 6.5 Grendel, or 7.62x51. And then the bandolier by the door would have a pouch for the laser rangefinder.
All I can say is thank god Jim didn't paint his rifle to match his wardrobe. The very thought of an AR done up in Hawaiian shirt pattern "camo" is enough to make me a bit ill.
Editor's Note: This time around, Tarr and Sweeney go head-to-head on the best gun for when it hits the fan. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments.
A LITTLE EXTRA MAKES A DIFFERENCE
By Patrick Sweeney
OK, you want to have a rifle ready, but in long-term storage. This isn't the one next to the desk, in case the apocalypse happens while you're working. No, this is the ready-rack rifle. How to keep it safe, and known safe? The Chambersafe. (http://shop.centermassinc. com/Chambersafe-Chamber-Blocking-Safety-device -0242623725629.htm) An orange plastic ring with a stub on it, the use is simple. Check the chamber, make sure it is empty. Poke the stub into the chamber and close the bolt on the Chambersafe.
Now click a loaded magazine in place. You now have a rifle that is visually known to have an empty chamber, but a loaded magazine.
The main use is on the training range, when it comes time to get rifles clear, so we can talk, demo, and work while cold.
In police work, it can also be used and then the rifle inserted in a vehicle rack, and again, it is obvious what state it is in.
Use is simple; grab the Chambersafe, yank it out and drop it Then use the charging handle to chamber a round, and get to work.
If at any time the Chambersafe mysteriously comes up missing, you know something has changed. Find out why, and correct it.
For moving around in a less-tactical manner, that is, not scaring the women, children and horses in the streets, a low-profile carry bag is great. The current vogue is a skateboard bag or a musical instrument case, but pretty much anything that isn't instantly identifiable as a gun case will do. Have a case, because it also allows you to carry more, and more than you can stuff into your pockets in a few seconds. To quote Tech Sgt. Kwan, "It's the little things."
I love a good debate, especially when the pundits know what they're talking about. That's why this series has been such a hit; Jim and Pat know their stuff, and the not-so-casual but friendly insults keep me grinning. Usually Pat and Jim are at odds on the subject at hand, which makes for great prose and rebuttals, but In this case they agreed on an AR-15. Granted, Pat went with a high-dollar piston-driven gun, but it's still a Stoner-like design nonetheless. To split the operational hair, I side with Jim and opt for a gas-driven AR-15.
My vote goes to an AR-15 (but not just any) for many of the reasons already laid out; rifle "oomph," big capacity, a high degree of accuracy and light weight. My particular choice is a 14.5-Inch Bravo Company upper fitted with a KeyMod rail and a Streamlight TLR-1 HL. The lower is also a Bravo unit (they don't make junk) with a Wisconsin Trigger Company trigger. It's amazingly light rifle with a fantastic two-stage trigger that offers enough resistance that it won't double on me, but allows me to wring all of the precision out of it that the Bravo barrel can afford, which is more than adequate.
On the back is a Maxim Defense CQB stock. It's a PDW-style stock that you might remember from the PDW stock roundup I wrote a few issues back. In my opinion, this one offered the best strength-to-weight ratio, and didn't require the use of a proprietary bolt carrier group like some do and deploys with just the yank of your hand. The others required some kind of button to be depressed to extend the stock, which slows deployment considerably. The bolt carrier group is a Bravo unit (seeing a pattern here?) that's just like the ones I have in all of my ARs. I've never been given any grief from any of them. Magazines are an assortment of Hexmags and P-Mags loaded with Hornady TAP and Black Hills ammo.
If I had the scratch, I'd opt for a Trijicon like Jim, but hey, it just ain't there. Maybe I'm paying him too much (And Pat too, for that matter. A piston gun?!). That said, I like TruGlo's newest red dot, the Tru-Tec 20mm. It'll set you back about $150, and comes with mounts and risers to co-witness with irons in the lower 1/3 of the optic. Thus far it's been extremely reliable and the dot is visible in any light conditions. My rifle wears LWRCI Skirmish backup irons.
Got an idea for a "Shootout!" story? Send it my way at email@example.com.
--By David Hunter Jones'