3 Rules: Choosing Centerfire Survival Handguns

Best Survival Handguns Centerfire

Survival handguns in societal disorder situations have the same basic requirements that rifles and shotguns do. The survival gun characteristics of reliability, ruggedness, portability, simplicity, effectiveness, and sustainability are just as critical.

Survival Handguns Rule #1: Portability

Learn more about survival pistols and revolvers

Read more about survival guns in the author’s excellent book, “Gun Digest Book of Survival Guns.”

Now, portability may seem to be an “oh, duh” type of requirement for a survival handgun, since they are designed to be portable, but it really isn’t.

For example, if you don’t expect your travels to carry you through wilderness areas where grizzly bears roam, than a handgun chambered in .500 Smith & Wesson or even “just” a .44 Magnum simply isn’t required and, in fact, can be detrimental.

Portability for a handgun also doesn’t mean you have to have a primary handgun as small as the Ruger LCP.

What you need is a standard size, standard make, law enforcement or  ilitary duty sidearm, in its most basic configuration, meaning lights, optics, or custom competition modifications of any kind are not only not needed, but detrimental to the mission.

Survival Handguns Rule #2: High Capacity

The survival handgun you choose should be a high-capacity firearm of a commonly available caliber. With the present ammunition shortage, go with what you know you can obtain now and later.

That may seem like another “duh” point, but a firearm becomes less reliable the harder it is to find ammunition.

Survival Handguns Rule #3: The Six Centerfire Calibers

There are six basic centerfire calibers to consider for survival handguns, and I will list them in order of my preference.

  • 9mm
  • .40 Smith & Wesson
  • .45 ACP
  • .357 Magnum
  • .38 Special (I know, these last two are for revolvers)
  • 5.7x28mm (just to stir things up a bit)

While I love the .357 SIG and .38 Super and would take them over the .40 in a gunfight (the .357 SIG was our duty caliber at the sheriff’s office), they are not easily obtainable

Again, these are my personal favorites, but they are also top choices for survival handguns.

What Survival Handguns Do You Use?

What kinds of survival handguns do you use? Leave a comment below.

11 thoughts on “3 Rules: Choosing Centerfire Survival Handguns

  1. Stephen Clay McGehee

    I use different classifications, so I look at it a bit differently – not that mine is necessarily a better way, but it is what works best for me.

    I have what I refer to as my “Personal sidearm”. It is the gun that is with me whenever I’m dressed, and within arm’s reach when I’m not. It is the best balance that I can come up with for power, accuracy, concealability, comfort, and confidence. It is a compromise that fits my specific situation, and may or may not fit yours. My choice is the S&W Model 640 (stainless steel.357 mag, 5 shot, internal hammer). This is my “normal times” sidearm. When the time comes that carrying something more suitable for multiple bad guys and other unpleasant situations is needed, that will become my backup, but it is always with me. At that point, my Ed Brown 1911 becomes the primary sidearm while the 640 remains as the personal sidearm.

  2. USSHouston

    For a survival handgun, which is different from a defensive handgun, I think a weapon that has good range and can be used for small to medium game and for defense. One that fits into this nicely is the 22 mag. Lots of ammo can be carried, it has great range, accuracy and can be used on squirrels up to a small hog. One of the best I’ve seen is a fairly new pistol, the Kel Tec PMR-30.

  3. Sniperfox

    I purchased a used Beretta 96FS service pistol trade in when our department replaced them with the Glock 21 a few years ago. I also found on the Beretta forum an almost new 92FS complete upper(slide, barrel w/locking block, and recoil spring/guide rod) so it allows me to fire 9 m/m as well as .40 S&W with only a minor swap of the uppers. Mags for both are relatively cheap and in a crunch, I can use the same mags for either caliber. I also purchased a factory .22 conversion kit that now allows me 3 caliber choices in one pistol system.
    I have done the same thing with a Glock 17. I purchased a Glock 22 complete upper, a G31 barrel and a separate trigger mechanism housing and with only the G17 and G22 mags, I can fire 9m/m, .40 S&W and .357 Sig through the same frame. I am planning on buying an Advantage Arms .22 conversion kit for this also.
    I purchased and modded 2 cases for the Beretta and the Glock that allows me to carry their complete systems in small carrying cases.

  4. davidbrown

    My daily carry is a Beretta 92FS, but I’m looking for a smaller frame 9. For backwoods expeditions, I take a S&W .356 and a Rossi lever-action .357. Should I have a SHTF/bug-out situation, I’d take my Beretta, Mossberg 500, and my S&W MP15.

  5. JLA

    Overall this is some fairly good advice, although there is one point on which I strongly disagree. The author says, “lights, optics, or custom competition modifications of any kind are not only not needed, but detrimental to the mission.” Custom competition modifications should definitely be avoided, but upgrades like tritium night sights, lasers & weapon-mounted lights are a different matter entirely! Not only are they definitely NOT “detrimental to the mission”, but they could very well mean the difference between success & failure and even life & death. Adding something like a pair of Lasergrips & a Lightguard from Crimson Trace or an X5L or C5L light/laser combo from Viridian will most definitely increase the capabilities of your sidearm and are worthwhile additions indeed!

    1. noobers

      while yes i agree that a light or laser can help.

      i want to start a discussion about how the light or laser can add weight .

      as well as draw attention to you if you are simply trying to avoid confrontation

      they also loose effectiveness over time as batteries die and need to be replaced.

      i think it would be a situational thing .

      maybe have a light you can quickly snap on ?
      but a laser would need to be set for range and elevation

  6. Monk

    Full size- Browning Hi-Power 9mm 147gr Ranger SXT
    Small auto- East German Makarov Hornady HP
    Pocket pistol Model 60 S&W 158gr lead HP (“FBI Load”)
    LOTS of ammo and 45 years of handgun experience

  7. justbill

    I believe far too much emphasis is given to “easily obtainable calibers” in a true survival scenario. As so clearly demonstrated by the ammo crises started in November 2008 and again just before Christmas 2012, common cartridges dried up overnight. Magazines as well. Despite greatly increased output by all ammunition manufacturers and importers, the situation isn’t much improved 8+ months into the latest buying frenzy. Common handgun ammo remains in greatly reduced supply and is often sold before it even hits the retail shelves. How can anyone rationally believe it would be any different in “societal disorder situations?”

    Face it, the only ammunition you can count on is what you bought BEFORE crisis strikes. The same goes for magazines and spare gun parts. The person armed with a 7.62x25mm Tokarev who stocked their home, car and bug out locations with spam cans of surplus ammo and extra mags is going to be far and away better off than someone relying upon a 9/40/45, a couple magazines full of ammo and the spurious hope of resupply after SHTF.

  8. Smithkowitz

    My personal top 6 choices listed by most often to least often carried:
    40S&W, 380ACP*, 45ACP, 45LC/410* 9MM, 44MAG.

    My daily carry is 40S&W, usually a Kahr MK40.

    Asterisk for 380 & 45LC/410 because they are not carried so often alone, but often as backup.
    380 is carried alone only in t-shirt weather (1 or 2 months a year), the 45LC/410 is carried on car trips and hiking as a backup and snake gun..

    The 45LC/410 is a Bond Arms Snake Slayer IV.

    Depending on where I am going camping/hiking I generally have the 44mag 3″ barrel revolver that is usually in addition to some size of semi-auto, generally a 45ACP.

    Don’t generally carry hi-cap semi-autos, prefer to carry an extra mag or two and or backup.

  9. longjohn

    I would love to carry my 1911 38 Super; but as you have said ammunition is too hard to find. I load my own but don’t have that much brass for such. So I carry either my Sig P939 (9mm) or my Sig compact 45.