Prepper Guns: Firearms, Ammo, Tools, and Techniques You Will Need to Survive the Coming Collapse (2016)
Bludgeons, Brutes, and Thumpers: Big-Bore AR-15 Cartridges
Cartridges that pound things that need pounding.
L to R: .450 Bushmaster, .458 Socom, and .50 Beowulf. These cartridges are the “sledge hammers” of AR-15 Cartridges.
In a survival situation it’s always a good idea to have plenty of backup for every plan. Redundancy in your firearms ensures that you will always have something to work with. While the primary focus of our survival battle rifles should be those chambered for the most common and proven cartridges, a smart prepper does not stop there.
Clearly money is always a factor; most of us can’t own one of every gun mentioned. The decisions for each prepper must be made on a personal level and based on the situation and expected needs. The goal of this book is to explore the options so you can decide what works best for your unique survival situation. Each of those is going to be different. Somebody who is way off the grid may have a lot more foraging options than an urban or even country prepper.
I have friends in Alaska who are so far off the grid that you truly can’t get there from here. Visiting them means multiple plane rides and finding a boat to cover the last, very long leg. There are no roads and no commercial service of any kind. I expect that they will deal with foraging for game more than most of us. They will also have more problems with bears than with bad guys emptying out of the cities. My friend is a prepper, but his taste in survival rifles runs more to big-bore lever-action and bolt-action rifles than to AR-15s.
All preppers have to make their own choices, but the guns discussed in this chapter make a lot of sense on multiple levels for almost everybody. It’s probably a good idea for any prepper to pick up a gun or upper and some spare magazines in one or more of these cartridges.
I see two big reasons to do that. First, depending on where you live, you may be foraging to find food. If part of that includes shooting wild big game or even cattle or hogs that have escaped captivity and become wild, then you should always bring enough guns.
If you are going to forage with your AR-15 in a fighting cartridge, it might end in disappointment. There is a lot of misinformation out there about hunting big game with typical AR-15 cartridges like the .223 Remington. Most of it is wrong.
The .223 Remington is, in my never-humble opinion, too small for any game deer-size or bigger under the best of circumstances. I base this on actually using it in the field a lot, not on what I read or on some internet theory. I have used the .223 on deer and hogs and found it lacking. Sure, using better bullets like the Barnes TSX, Hornady GMX, or Federal Trophy Bonded Tip will help, but you can’t change physics and in the end it’s a tiny bullet with a less than ideal amount of energy. I understand that a .223 Remington will kill deer or hogs, but it’s not reliable.
It can and does kill these critters under perfect circumstances. But those promoting the cartridge for big game continuously and conveniently ignore the failures. If you are sport hunting and a wounded deer runs off, it’s tragic, but you are not in danger as a result. If you are trying to feed your starving family and the deer, elk, wild cow, or whatever escapes after you wound it with an inadequate cartridge, it can be a very bad thing for all involved.
With the entire human population trying to survive and so many out hunting, game is going to become very scarce and very spooky. The longer a crisis goes on, the tougher it’s going to be to find food by hunting. Every opportunity to shoot some protein will be very important. If you are sport hunting and blow it, you only have to deal with disappointment. This is called “survival” because failure means you may not survive. So, rather than forage with a marginal cartridge, it makes sense that on those days you know you are hunting to be using a rifle in a suitable cartridge.
So why not just use a bolt-action hunting rifle? If you are sure there is no possibility of running into problems, that might make sense. My buddy in Alaska will be pretty sure that he won’t be facing a roaming gang of punks. But the rest of us, even those of us who live in or have retreated to remote areas, probably can’t be sure.
We must assume that the world will still be dangerous, and this option will keep a battle rifle in your hands. It’s still a magazine-fed semiauto, which gives you the best hope for winning a fight, far better than a bolt-action or other traditional hunting rifle. (One might argue that this is the concept for the Scout Rifle as designed and promoted by Colonel Jeff Cooper. There is some validity to that argument, particularly for those who are using a magazine-fed Scout Rifle and have practiced and drilled with it enough to be proficient in its use, although I would argue that a magazine-fed semiauto is still a far better choice. Scout rifles are explored in another chapter.)
Beyond that, the .223 Remington is far too small for elk, moose, bears, or cattle. It’s a varmint cartridge suitable for prairie dogs and woodchucks that was adopted by the military because they wanted a smaller, lighter cartridge so ammo would be less expensive and so soldiers could carry more ammo. The shift in thinking with the military at the time led away from effective cartridges and precision marksmanship. When our forefathers fought the British for independence, every shot counted. That’s why they won. The British lined up and fired “volleys” without picking targets. The Americans hid behind cover, picked a target, and made every shot count. I am not a military strategist, but it’s clear that things changed after World War II. Today it’s more like the British approach: Blast out a lot of bullets and hope a few hit something. For that, I suppose the .223/5.56 made sense.
If you doubt that, then explain why the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the military fired 250,000 rounds in Afghanistan and Iraq for every insurgent killed. Clearly marksmanship is not key to today’s style of fighting wars.
I recommend the .223/5.56 for survival for a multitude of reasons. When they are all considered together it makes a lot of sense, but it is not the most effective cartridge available for fighting, and it’s not even in the running for the most effective big game hunting cartridge. You may wonder why, when deer are similar to men in body mass. Fighting and hunting are two very different things, with much different terminal ballistic goals. For both, the .223 is a compromise; but it’s a much bigger one for hunting big game than for protecting your family. The .223 will work for foraging, of course. If you see a deer and it’s the gun in your hands, shoot the deer. Odds are it will do the polite thing and die. But the cartridge is far less than ideal and in a hostile, threatening situation “ideal” is a goal you might want to keep in mind. This is true for many, if not most, of the popular cartridges used in the AR-15 platform (the exceptions being the three that are the topic of this chapter).
Left to right: .450 Bushmaster, .458 Socom, and .50 Beowulf. .223 Remington in front. One look tells you that the big-bore cartridges pack more wallop.
Forget survival for a moment and let’s consider hunting, because that’s what you will be doing with these cartridges to survive. I have a simple test when choosing cartridges for hunting big game with an AR-15 rifle. It assumes that you have a working knowledge of cartridges and ballistics. The only requirement is that you be honest when you answer. Ask yourself: “If you were shopping for a non-AR rifle to hunt deer, bear, or hogs, would you pick one chambered for the cartridge you are willing to use in an AR-15?”
In other words, would you buy a bolt-action deer rifle chambered for .300 AAC Blackout over, say, a .308 Winchester or a .30–06? The honest answer is, of course, no. Otherwise gun makers would be flocking to build .300 AAC Blackout bolt-action rifles and they are not. Why not? Because there is no market. In fact, Remington tried this with the 6.8 SPC, but dropped the bolt-actions because they didn’t sell. The .223 Remington is a good seller in a bolt-action, but not for big game hunting. The vast majority of .223 Remington bolt-action rifles are purchased for hunting varmints. The few .300 ACC Blackout bolt-action rifles I have seen were designed for tactical use, suppressed with subsonic ammo, not for deer hunting.
Big game hunters use the .300 AAC Blackout, 6.8 SPC, or .223 Remington in an AR-15 because of the platform, not the ballistics. Sure they can all kill game, but they are always a compromise and the hunter runs a higher risk of wounding loss than with traditional, more powerful deer, bear, or hog cartridges.
The trouble with the AR-15 platform is the limitations it puts on cartridge length. It’s hard to make the gun work with a cartridge much longer than 2.26 inches. Of course, you can move up to the larger AR-L (AR-10) platform that is based on the .308 size cartridges, but the guns are bigger, heavier, and more expensive. That said, they are never a mistake. From a ballistic standpoint the .308 Winchester is a much more effective cartridge, both for fighting (which is covered at length elsewhere in the book) and for hunting. An AR-L rifle in .338 Federal is powerful enough to shoot just about anything you run into in North America. My friend Randy Luth proved that by shooting a large brown bear with a .338 Federal in an AR-L. However, this discussion right now is about the smaller AR-15 rifles, a gun that every smart prepper should own.
Oddly enough, back in the early days of self-contained metallic cartridges, new cartridge designers faced a similar dilemma but for very different reasons. The limitations of black powder and bullet construction pretty much topped out the bullet velocity at around 1,500 ft/s, give or take. So, to increase power, the cartridge designers made the bullets heavier and bigger in diameter. That’s why the military’s rifle cartridges were 45-caliber in the 1870s rather than the 22-caliber used today. I have read a lot of American history and while the trapdoor Springfield .45–70 used by the army had a lot of problems, I don’t recall ever reading that a solider complained the cartridge was ineffective when shooting the enemy. Do a Google search on the 5.56 and its failings and then you will understand that with bullets, size does matter. There are a lot of complaints about the stopping power of the 5.56 on enemy combatants.
A .223 bullet next to a .500 bullet. The .500 clearly will hit harder and make a much bigger hole.
While the reasons are a bit different, today’s hard-hitting cartridges for the AR-15 use the same concept as those old black powder cartridges. If you can’t make the cartridge longer (or drive the bullet faster), then make the diameter larger and add bullet weight.
Just as the hunters using the old black powder cartridges understood, a big-diameter, heavy bullet at moderate velocity is deadly on big game.
For a prepper there is another big advantage to having guns chambered in these big-bore cartridges. Remember, you need to envision every scenario and plan ahead to deal with the worst-case situations. No matter how much ammo you store, you may find it gone. You could be forced to abandon it, or it can be stolen or confiscated. You may even use it all. At some point you might be handloading your ammo, and if components are hard to find, you may be making bullets. If you are loading ammo and using cast bullets, those smaller AR-15 cartridges, like the .223 Remington, are not going to be very effective for much of anything. They will be poor fight-stoppers and even worse for hunting. As always, it’s better to have them than no gun at all, but a non-expanding, small diameter bullet at a moderate velocity is not going to be very effective when compared to the full power, expanding bullet ammo the cartridge is designed to use.
These big-bore cartridges, even with cast bullets, will be one-and-done fight-stoppers. Just like the .45–70 that saw military duty in the 1800s, these big-bore cartridges toss a bullet that doesn’t need to expand to punch a big hole. If there is a chance you will be fighting or foraging with cast bullets, size counts. Big bullets make big holes, even if they don’t expand—and cast bullets rarely expand. Cast bullets do have some problems with the gas systems in AR-style rifles, but if they are your only option, they are workable.
Prepping is about backup plans. If one of yours is to have an AR-15 rifle, or at least an upper, in one of these thumper cartridges, it can help you deal with a lot of problems.
The lineup is not huge for big-bore cartridges on the AR-15 platform. In fact, from mainstream gun makers there are only three cartridges. But that’s enough, as each one of this trio brings something impressive to the table.
This is the smallest of the trinity of thumpers, with a bullet diameter of .452 inch. It uses a rebated rim cartridge case based on the .284 Winchester case.
The concept used to develop the .450 Bushmaster was initially put forth by Colonel Jeff Cooper. Cooper is best known for creating the Modern Technique of the Pistol, founding Gunsite Academy, and for his admiration of the 1911 pistol. Cooper was an avid hunter and loved to roam wild places in a “come what may” sort of way. He was a man of great experience in hunting all over the world, and he recognized that a big bullet is a good thing when shooting big game. He thought that the perfect rifle for most “general” big game hunting would be a semiauto rifle, larger than 44 caliber and capable of taking big game out to 250 yards. He called this the “Thumper” concept.
Bushmaster rifle in .450 Bushmaster. Ammo by Remington and Hornady.
Tim LeGendre of LeMag Firearms developed the cartridge and called it the .45 Professional. He licensed the concept to Bushmaster Firearms International for production and distribution, while Hornady developed the ammo. They modified the case a little so it would work better with their SST Flex-Tip bullet. The name was then changed to .450 Bushmaster with the blessing of LeGendre, and the cartridge was introduced in 2007.
The current Hornady .450 Bushmaster load uses a 250-grain FTX bullet with a factory-advertised muzzle velocity of 2,200 ft/s from a 20-inch barrel for 2,680 foot-pounds of energy. On my chronograph this load has a velocity of 2,090 ft/s fifteen feet from the muzzle when fired from my Bushmaster rifle with a 16-inch barrel. This produces 2,425 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle.
The Remington Outdoor Group now owns Bushmaster, so it makes sense that Remington would start making ammo. Big Green currently offers a 260-grain Premier AccuTip load with an advertised muzzle velocity (MV) of 2,180 ft/s. Muzzle energy is 2,744 foot-pounds. This ammo produces 2,062 ft/s and 2,455 foot-pounds of energy from my rifle’s shorter barrel.
I shot a bunch of hogs using some experimental ammo from Remington that was loaded with 275-grain Barnes XPB Bullets with an advertised MV of 2,175 ft/s and 2,889 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. From my rifle, the velocity is 2,009 ft/s and the energy is 2,465 foot-pounds. The addition of the Barnes X-bullet improves the terminal performance of this cartridge over the lead-core bullets. They were primarily designed for deer size game, where this bullet can be used on bigger game with good results.
The author shot this water buffalo with the .450 Bushmaster. This powerful AR-15 cartridge is good for hunting, foraging, or fighting.
There have been a few delays in getting this ammo to market, but we should see it soon. Meanwhile, the bullet is available from Barnes to handload. It’s listed as a bullet for the .460 S&W handgun cartridge.
I also shot an Asian water buffalo that weighed more than three-quarters of a ton with the .450 Bushmaster and that experimental load. I was very impressed with all of the results on hogs and the buffalo. I will admit, this cartridge is probably a bit on the light side for hunting buffalo, but it’s the gun I had with me when opportunity knocked, which is exactly the concept that Cooper envisioned.
The .458 Socom was developed for military applications after the fighting in Mogadishu in 1993. That battle left a lot of participants disappointed in the performance of 5.56 NATO cartridges, and they wanted some serious, .45–70 class thumping power for the M16/M4-style rifles.
The Rock River Arms LAR-458 rifle in .458 Socom is a thumper!
I might point out that hogs, bears, moose, elk, and even some deer tend to run bigger and tougher than underfed insurgents. If the guys in the fight think that the .223/5.56 is not enough cartridge, then perhaps we should reevaluate the use of that cartridge, at least for big game hunting. The fact that they were not happy with the performance on bad guys speaks for itself. That is a common complaint with our military. Better ammo has helped alleviate the problem for the military, but they are still stuck with non-expanding bullets. As civilians we are not forced by foolish politicians to use ineffective ammo, and the .223/5.56 cartridge is much more effective as a defensive round when loaded with high-quality hunting bullets.
(As a cautionary note, much of the “price-point” .223/5.56 ammo is also loaded with non-expanding bullets. It is fine for practice, but a very poor choice for defensive use. You should keep that in mind when stockpiling ammo. Look for expanding bullets loaded in ammo you plan to use for defense.)
History has shown that a heavy .458 bullet at modest rifle velocity is effective both on bad guys and on big game. The .45–70 was the US Military cartridge for many years. Back then they had non-expanding lead bullets. Not because some politician decided to risk the lives of our military with ineffective projectiles, but because it was state of the art at the time. That’s why the military used a .45 and not a .22. Now we have bullets that will expand at those velocities very reliably. With high-quality expanding bullets, the .45–70 is a one-and-done fight-stopper and an outstanding big game cartridge.
The .458 Socom was designed to duplicate .45–70 performance. The cartridge came out in 2002, and while it didn’t gain widespread acceptance as a military round, it has proven to be a great hunting cartridge.
It uses a lengthened .50 Action Express case with a rebated rim and is necked down for a .458-inch bullet. Unlike the straight-walled cartridges, which must headspace on the case rim, the .458 Socom has a shoulder to headspace off. This is a more positive approach to headspacing, and it allows the bullets to be crimped in place.
One big advantage of the .458 diameter over the .452 diameter is there is a wide selection of rifle style bullets on the market. This is reflected in the multiple factory load options, and it opens a lot of doors for handloaders. One of the best bullets for any use, short of the largest African dangerous game, is the 300-grain TTSX that Barnes developed specifically for this cartridge.
I have found factory-loaded ammo currently offered by three companies: Wilson Combat, Southern Ballistics Research, and CorBon. Rifles are from Rock River Armory and Wilson Combat. My current rifle is a Rock River with a 16-inch barrel.
CorBon has ammo using the Barnes Tipped TTSX 300-grain bullet. The advertised muzzle velocity is 1,825 ft/s. They also have a 300-grain HP at 1,900 ft/s and a 400-grain JPH at 1,600 ft/s. These velocities are reported from a 16-inch barrel.
From the 16-inch barrel on my Rock River test gun, MV for the 300-grain Barnes load was 1,894 ft/s, which is slightly higher than advertised. The 400-grain Speer JSP load has a MV of 1,580 from my gun. Given the chronograph screen at 15 feet, and if you extrapolate back to the muzzle, it’s pretty much what they claimed. That load produces 2,218 foot-pounds of energy.
I have used this same 400-grain Speer bullet at about the same velocity from a .45–70 for years to hunt black bear, hogs, and deer. To say that it has always been impressive on game would be an understatement. I once shot a black bear with this load, and another hunter sitting in his stand almost a mile away said that the bullet impact sounded like Hulk Hogan had clobbered the bear with a two-by-four. He was so impressed by the sound that he left his stand and walked to mine just to see what kind of gun I was shooting. The bear was even more impressed, and his big skull is on a shelf watching over me as I type these words.
The Wilson Combat 300-grain Barnes TTSX load produced 1,834 ft/s and 2,241 foot-pounds of muzzle energy from the Rock River rifle.
Southern Ballistic Research offers twenty-one different loads for the .458 Socom, with bullets ranging from 100 to 500 grains. I tested the 300-grain JHP load and got 1,831 ft/s and 2,234 foot-pounds of energy.
After testing two different Rock River .458 Socom carbines, the LAR-15 CAR A4 and the new LAR-15 X-1, I have been very impressed with the accuracy. Both shot right around the MOA mark with just about any ammo I tried.
It might have a military background, but the .458 Socom is a big game cartridge capable of taking anything in North America. I think this cartridge deserves a look from any serious prepper.
As you have probably figured out by now, I am not a fan of small cartridges for hunting. I have hunted big game with most of the popular cartridges, from the .17 HMR to .500 Nitro Express, as I think experience is the best way to gain knowledge. But I have come to believe that each category of game has a list of specific cartridges that are appropriate for use. I tend to gravitate to the upper 50 percent of that list in size and power. I like a cartridge that hits hard and removes the doubt. The .50 Beowulf epitomizes that concept. With a 325-grain, half-inch diameter bullet at 2,000 ft/s, it moves the power level up a notch, and there is never any doubt when you hit something.
The .50 Beowulf is a beast that can fill the dinner table or stop a fight with one shot.
Bill Alexander of Alexander Arms was one of the pioneers of big game hunting cartridges in the AR-15 style rifles. He developed this cartridge and named it after Beowulf, a legendary literary warrior who slayed the undefeatable Grendel by ripping his arm off. The day after that battle, Beowulf fought the horrible monster that was Grendel’s mother. He killed her by cutting off her head with a mighty sword from her own armory. A sword of which it was said “no other man could have hefted in battle.” Years later, in his doddering old age when he was worn out and feeble, Beowulf fought and killed a dragon.
In short, Beowulf was big and bad and backed down from no fight—the perfect namesake for this cartridge.
When it was introduced in 2001 the .50 Beowulf was the first of the AR-15 specific, ultra-big-bore cartridges to be offered by an AR manufacturer. It is based on a lengthened .50 AE case with a severely rebated rim so that it fits a bolt head designed for the 7.62X39 cartridge. This bolt face size works well with an AR-15 style rifle.
From a 24-inch barrel, the .50 Beowulf pushes a 325-grain bullet to 2,010 ft/s and 2,916 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle. The 400-grain load has a muzzle velocity of 1,875 ft/s and 3,123 foot-pounds.
The bullet is half an inch in diameter and can expand to more than an inch. Compare that to a 55-grain .223 Remington at less than half the diameter. The 325-grain Beowulf has almost 500 percent more bullet weight and an unexpanded diameter that is larger than a .223’s fully expanded bullet. Once it has expanded, the Beowulf bullet has a 123 percent larger frontal area, not to mention that the Beowulf has about three times more energy than the .223 Remington. This is a serious step up in power for the AR-15 platform.
Even from the stubby 16.5-inch barrel on my rifle, the .50 Beowulf loads are moving at 1,950 ft/s for 325-grain and 1,800 ft/s for the 400-grain. That is 2,745 foot-pounds of muzzle energy for the 325-grain and 2,878 foot-pounds for the 400-grain load. Considering the 7.5-inch difference in barrel length, the velocity loss is minimal. Clearly, this is a cartridge that is well suited to the shorter barrels often used on the AR-15.
I have used the cartridge on multiple hogs and a few deer, always with very good results. With the right bullets it hits hard, penetrates well, and leaves a very large hole in its wake. Just as Sir Samuel Baker said about his two-bore rifle, “Baby,” I can honestly say that I have never lost a single animal hit with this cartridge! I don’t even need to rely on exploding bullets for that result, as he did with Baby.
The first time I shot my Beowulf, we were blasting at a piece of steel that had been on the range for a while. I had shot it with a lot of different medium velocity cartridges, with little or no real damage. But when after two or three shots the Beowulf knocked it off its stand, we walked the 100 yards to hang it back up. We were shocked to see that the big bullets were making craters. Not the eroded-out craters that high-velocity bullet impacts make, but huge, deep bowls reshaped into the metal that left bantam egg–sized bulges popping out of the off side of the steel plate. Most steel target damage is a result of high-velocity impacts or steel-core bullets making holes or divots, but these were caused by the brute force, bludgeon-type power of these big bullets smacking the steel and pushing it out of shape.
The Beowulf has been used for some military applications, including one that’s a bit on the secret side, so I can’t get into specifics. (I know I sound like every other douchebag that has ever wrote about AR-15 rifles and wanted to impress you with his “connections,” but it’s true. I swore to the guy I would never reveal the details. Trust me, though, the guy who told me about it was the real deal and was in a position to know the truth.)
Following an overseas terrorist attack, the military identified a previously unknown situation. Until they could get this problem addressed they needed a short-term solution that included a way to break stuff like the engines that were propelling attack vehicles. They armed a bunch of military guys with Beowulf AR-15 rifles and lined them up to deal with any attack. I honestly don’t know if any more attacks happened during that time, but if they did, the Beowulf stopped them because we would have heard about it if they did not.
Obviously, these cartridges are not designed for long-range. But, all the recent “sniper” hype aside, the truth is that most big game (and bad guys) is shot at well under 200 yards anyway.
So to answer my own question, “Would I buy a non-AR-15 rifle for hunting if it were chambered in these cartridges?” I would welcome any of these cartridges in any rifle. A short-action bolt gun would be very interesting, and I think they would be great in a lever-action. In fact, I have hunted for years with cartridges with similar ballistic performance, such as the .444 Marlin, .45–70, and .450 Marlin. So the answer is pretty much, “been there, done that,” only now I get to use an AR-15, which is very hip and happening these days.
These cartridges are very specialized, but they do have a strong place with preppers. I would not make them your first gun purchase or consider them as a primary long gun. But if you are well into your prepping and have several AR-15 rifles already, I would consider buying one or more of these guns, or at least an upper and some magazines that you can use with your current AR lower. They will make foraging more successful and safe. They also can be handy in some defensive situations, particularly if you are going to be using cast bullets. Plus, they are just friggin’ cool! Shooting this much power out of an AR-15 is fun!
Bigger bullets are never a mistake.