Best Survival Rifles
We break down what make a good survival gun and review the TPS Arms M6 Takedown rifle.
A survival rifle must satisfy three criteria. First, it needs to be lightweight. Second, it needs to be packable, and third, it should be utterly reliable.
The primary purpose of the survival rifle is help you live off the land when stranded in the wilderness. They are often packed in bush planes, hiker’s packs, small boats and kayaks, and vehicles by anyone who spends time in places that are remote enough that a small mistake could lead to an extended and unexpected stay.
A .22LR rimfire makes the most sense for a chambering, since you can pack a lot of ammunition in a little space and it doesn’t weigh much.
A rifle that also fires a .410 shotshell makes for an extremely versatile subsistence hunting firearm with a tolerable recoil that can be used my almost anyone to take a variety of game one may encounter.
The obvious needs for a survival rifle make sense for bush pilots and anyone else who spends time in remote wilderness areas. For those of us, however, who have more pedestrian occupations, I tend to think of situations we could easily get into. A simple canoe trip gone bad, getting turned around during a hike, or sliding your vehicle into a snowy ditch in the middle of no where during a snow storm.
You can probably think of other situations where an honest weekend adventure turns into a sideways, banjo playing ordeal where you don’t have the option of packing up and driving home.I personally like the reassurance a survival rifle gives at my camp site.
And that leads me to the secondary purpose of a survival rifle, to protect yourself from four legged predators. Survival rifles aren’t made to fend off a brown bear, but just think if you are injured, maybe bleeding, and leaving a scent trail that makes wolves and coyotes salivate. Having even a small takedown .22 can mean the difference between life and death.
If a survival rifle has a third purpose, it is also to protect you from two-legged predators. You run into all types of folks in remote areas, many of whom are decent people who will offer help if you’re in a bad way, but there are also folks who aren’t so nice who may want to do you harm.
In any of these situations, a survival rifle is about one thing: self rescue.
Survival Gun History
Survival rifles have been part of U.S. Air Force crews since the 1940s and the M4 Survival Rifle rode under crew members’ seats. It was intended to help pilots survive if they should have to ditch or crash in a remote location.
The M4 was a bolt action rifle chambered in .22 Hornet with a four-round magazine. It had a collapsible wire stock and measured about 14 inches in length with the stock collapsed and weighed about four pounds.
A pal of mine has an issued M4 and it is a stripped-down bolt action capable of bringing down a deer at close enough range and that can easily be toted in a backpack. The pistol grip is a flat strip of metal bent into a pistol grip shape. It’s not the most comfortable rifle to shoot, but it’s quite usable.By the 1950s, the M4 was replaced by the M6 Aircrew Survival Weapon, which was of a considerably different design. It was a break action over/under combination gun with a .22 Hornet barrel over a .410 smoothbore barrel and was issued into the early 1970s.
There were plans to replace both guns with the Armalite AR-5, which never came to fruition. Instead, the AR-5 became the AR-7 survival rifle, which has been made by a number of companies and is currently produced by Henry Repeating Arms.
A tactic during the Cold War was to have B-52 bombers fly through Canadian airspace, over the polar ice cap, to lay waste to what was then the Soviet Union. Surface to air missile systems at the time could not reach the high altitudes the B-52 flew.
Of course, the B-52 would have to contend with Soviet MIG fighter jets and no doubt some B-52s would be hit and their crews would need to ditch over vast areas of uninhabited land. The enemy in this situation was hunger and four-legged carnivores higher up on the food chain.
Marbles Game Getter
The M6 was patterned after the Marbles Game Getter, which was a hunting rifle/shotgun combo that featured a folding stock.
The Game Getter looks a lot like a long, double-barrel pistol and was manufactured from 1908 through 1962. The gun was chambered in .22 LR and .410 bore and was a very utilitarian firearm. Magazine advertisements of the day touted the Marbles Game Getter downing animals ranging from ducks to bears.
The Game Getter is an opportunistic hunter’s firearm. If grouse, squirrel or deer made themselves available, someone could effectively fill the need for supper with this simple firearm.
M6 Aircrew Survival Weapon
The M6 Aircrew Survival Weapon was never intended to be used to engage enemy troops, but only to help downed crews forage for food. It featured a .22 Hornet (which has about three times the velocity of a .22LR) rifle barrel over a .410 bore shotgun barrel, both of which were 14 inches long. It weighed 4.5 pounds and had an overall length of 28.25 inches and 15 inches when folded.
A unique feature of the M6 is it ability to be folded via a hinge pin that connects the barrel assembly to the receiver. It uses a manually operated hammer with a firing pin selector to fire either the top or bottom barrel.
Also unique to the M6 is a long trigger which was designed to be fired wearing heavy mittens, as bomber crews were operating over the Artic at the time. It is not so much a trigger but a bar that is squeezed to fire the gun.
The gun has no furniture and the only non metal parts are the buttplate and the cheek rest. Air crews were instructed to wrap the barrels in parachute cord to create a forend.
The metal stock had a compartment with a hinged cover that hid nine rounds of .22 Hornet and 4 .410 shotgun shells. The entire gun was constructed of stamped steel to minimize manufacturing cost and reduce weight, making for a rugged firearm with a cult like following among survivalists—and with good reason.
Springfield Armory introduced a civilian version called the M6 Scout, which was nearly identical to the original M6, but had 18.25-inch barrels to comply with National Firearm Act restrictions.
Springfield introduced models in three different rifle calibers: .22 Hornet/.410, .22 Magnum/.410, and .22 LR/.410. Some models had no trigger guard, like the original, while others featured an oversized trigger guard. Later models also had Picatinny accessory rails for sights and scopes.
In 2010, Chiappa began making a version of the M6 called the Chiappa M6 Survival Gun. It packed a bit more punch as it was available with either a 12 or 20 gauge shotgun barrel on top and a .22 LR or .22 Magnum rifle barrel below. This gun is also available with the “X Caliber” adapter system consisting of sleeves that fit in the 12 gauge shotgun barrel.
These 7-inch sleeves allowed it to fire a variety of pistol cartridges including .380 ACP, 9mm, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .40 S&W, .44 Special, .44 Magnum, .45 ACP, .45 Long Colt, .410 bore shotshells and 20 gauge shotshells. The idea was that it could be used not only to scavenge for food, but also to scavenge for ammunition in a desperate situation. While it looks like the M6, the design is quite different.
I consider myself member of the M6 cult since I have a lot of respect for the gun’s design. It is rugged, basic, reliable, packs light, and takes up little room. For extended hiking trips, canoe journeys, camping, the M6 makes a great companion and I rue the day I sold my Springfield Armory M6 Scout. Fate has a way of pointing you in other directions and that is when I came across the TPS Arms M6 Takedown.
This year, TPS Arms began producing its version of the M6, which is very similar to the Springfield version, but includes a cross bolt safety and some other small tweaks. The TPS M6 is not so much a knock off of the original M6 military version but an enhanced version. Jeff Paulson at TPS Arms says, “This is not your daddy’s M6.”
After running the TPS M6 through its paces I can confirm TPS put a lot of thought into this upgraded version, making sure to include improvements that made sense and bring additional quality, usability, and value. Plus, it’s fully made in the U.S.
The overall length is of the this evolved M6 is 32.25 inches when assembled. It folds down to 18.875 inches and it easily comes apart via a captured takedown pin, like you find on many AR-15s, for rapid takedown without worry of losing the pin. That’s one of the features I like about the M6—you can fold it and stow it or take it apart and stow it.
It weighs 5.1 pounds, which is more than the original M6, but that’s mostly due to the longer 18.25-inch barrels. I like the added length for muzzle velocity and shot patterns. Plus, the shotgun barrel uses interchangeable .410 choke tubes for more effective hunting of a variety of game. It comes with a standard full choke tube and choke tube wrench.
Like the original, it is equipped with a flip-up peep sight for the .22 barrel and a V-notch sight for use with the .410 barrel. The front sight is fixed and part of the band the holds the barrels at the muzzle. The steel extractor is enhanced for easier removal of stuck shells.
TPS really enhanced the stock assembly of the M6. It is made of high-quality aircraft grade aluminum and has a textured powder coat finish. The aluminum butt pad is wider than originals in order to be a little more forgiving when shooting 3-inch .410 slugs, buckshot, and defensive loads.
The buttstock is drilled and tapped to accept standard sling swivels like the original M6 and there is hole in the front sight assembly to attach the other end. The comb of the M6 forms the hinged cover to a compartment with interchangeable shell storage inserts. My test rifle came with one .410 insert for 6 shells and one .22 insert that holds 13 rounds. Unfortunately, the rounds can easily fall out of the insert if you flip the rifle upside down.
Since there is no resistance, the rounds are easy to load and unload, but they do rattle when you shake the M6 and could be fairly easily lost if you’re not careful. Its more useful for keeping the ammunition with the rifle when it’s stowed, but perhaps not when hunting.
There is also a compartment in the front of the stock for accessories, and the shell inserts can be removed to use the space underneath the inserts for storage of perhaps a survival kit instead. The aluminum hinged cover is rounded on the edges for more comfort when you have a solid cheek weld.
As I mentioned, TPS added a cross bolt safety to their M6, but probably the best update is the trigger which has very little creep and is fairly crisp.
Before I ventured out to the range, I packed the TPS M6 in my backpacking backpack—the one that holds all my gear for a weekend in the bush. The folded TPS fit, but I would most likely transport the TPS takedown into two pieces and store it in a nylon case with extra ammo and place that in my pack or lash it along the outside for a serious trip. Plus, the case keeps the survival rifle discrete.
I piled a variety of .410 shells from Aguila and Federal game loads with #6 and #7-1/2 shot, respectively, as well as Winchester shells loaded with 000 buck and slugs.
I also tried Hornady Critical Defense specialty ammo loaded with two 35 caliber round balls under a 41 caliber FTX bullet. For .22 LR rimfire ammo I had CCI Mini Mag with a 40-grain LRN, Aguila Supermaximum with a 30-grain CPFP bullet.
Plus, I grabbed some big box department store Remington Thunderbolt ammo loaded a 40 grain LRN. I also had Federal Game Shot .22 LR shot loads with #12 shot, a favorite for snakes.
To load the M6 you push up on the breech lock. It works a lot like a break top revolver. Push it up and the barrel will pivot down similar to an over/under shotgun. The top barrel is the rifle barrel and the bottom barrel is the shotgun barrel. Swing the barrel up to snap the breech lock closed and the M6 is ready to be cocked.
The M6 features a manual hammer with a knob built in. Pull the knob up and the top barrel will fire, push it down and the bottom barrel will fire. If you leave it in the middle, neither barrel with fire, which can be used as an additional safety.
The M6 is small with a shorter length of pull than a typical rifle and that’s due to the fact that it was designed to be as compact as possible. I found I could the tightest groups when I used the curved end of the trigger.
The peep rear sight for the 22 barrel is clearly marked on the M6 and I was quite surprised I could shoot 5-shot groups that measured on average .75 inches. For small, compact rifle that could be used as club as much as a rifle or shotgun, that’s some fine accuracy.
Shooting the M6 with your hand inside the trigger guard offers a different trigger pull experience. It is more like a squeeze than a pull or press.
Moving to .410 shells, there was a noticeable uptick in recoil, but it was quite tolerable. I also think the .410 component of the M6 makes it more versatile. I fired everything from game loads to defensive loads and found the M6 patterned well even with the short barrel.
Game loads produced a 20-inch spread at 25 yards and that is quite capable for rabbit, grouse, squirrel and other small game you should encounter. The buck shot, slugs, and specialty loads could also get the job done at 25 yards on predators. At even closer ranges, the M6 was surgical.
Your survival kit should have a survival firearm and the M6 is a great reinterpretation of the classic M6. In addition to the TPS Arms M6, here are four other Survival Rifles worthy of the space in your survival kit.
They can also make good starter guns for novice shooters. I also keep one handy for pests like snakes. A .22 Short cartridge can be fired in a .22 LR chamber and hardly makes any noise, so you don’t disturb the neighbors.
Other Notable Survival Guns
The AR-7 is a classic survival rifle based on the Armalite AR-5, designed by Eugene Stoner. Personally, I think the AR-7 is also one of the coolest and most easy to use survival rifles. It has been made by a few companies over the years, including Charter Arms, with varying success, but the currently available version made by Henry Arms is a rock solid semi-auto .22 LR rifle with a good trigger and great accuracy. The reliably of Henry’s version is mostly due to a redesigned magazine which is not backwards compatible with other versions of the rifle.
What I like about the semi-automatic AR-7 is its weight and compact package. It weighs 3.5 pounds and when disassembled all the rifle components fit inside the impact-resistant, water resistant polymer stock.
The stock acts like a Tupperware container. Even with the components in the stock the stock floats, and it has room for two loaded 8-round magazines. With a buttstock pouch, you can easily carry a couple hundred rounds.
When fully assembled, thanks to the large stock, it feels like you are using a full-sized rifle. Some survival rifles have a short length of pull and it can feel like you are firing a miniature rifle, not so with the Henry. It is chambered in .22 LR and comes with two 8-round mags. Though shooting without any kind of forend takes a little getting used to.
The peep rear sight and blade front sight are easy to use and rifle is fast to assemble and disassemble. It fits in a day pack, too.
It’s currently available in black or in True Timber-Kanati camo or Viper Western camo.
I’ve come to really appreciate the versatility and usefulness of the Savage Arms 42 Takedown. This is an over-under rifle and shotgun combination gun that fires both .22 LR and .410 shells.
It has a simple break-action design and manual hammer so it needs to be cocked before firing. It weighs 6.1 pounds, which is a bit hefty, due to the 20-inch barrels. But I like the added barrel length since it provides better velocity and shot patterns. The model 42 disassembles quickly and can be stowed in it own nylon case.
I opted for this combo in .22 LR and .410 though you can get it in .22 WMR. I prefer the .22 LR chamber since I can get this ammo nearly any where.
As detailed above, the Chiappa M6 is a different take on the classic M6. It uses a lever to open the the action and fold the barrels for storage. Chiappa also increases the M6’s firepower with a .22 LR barrel under a 12 gauge shotgun barrel. A 20 gauge version is also available.
Plus, Chiappa offers the X-Caliber adapter set which include eight inserts that allow a variety of calibers to be fired such as: .380 ACP, 9MM, .357 Magnum/.38 Special , .40 S&W, .44 Magnum/.44 Special, .45 ACP, .410/.45 Long Colt, and 20 gauge. This is the scrounger’s choice in survival rifles since it fires nearly all popular handgun calibers.
It also features an M1 carbine style rear sight and red pipe fiber optic front sight. The receiver is equipped with Picatinny rails on the top and sides that allow for mounting optics, lights, lasers or other accessories. The stock holds extra ammo.
Instead of a combination style firearm, the Rossi Matched Pair features a separate shotgun barrel chambered in .410 and a rifle barrel chambered in either .22 LR or .22 WMR. The shotgun barrel uses a brass bead front sight and the rifle barrel uses a fiber optic front and adjustable rear.
The Matched Pair weighs about 5.6 pounds and is easy to disassemble. Just unscrew the front sling swivel to remove the foreend and swap barrels. It comes equipped with a thumbhole polymer stock that also stores 410 shells and 22 ammo. The break action design is simple to load and unload.