Prepper Guns: Firearms, Ammo, Tools, and Techniques You Will Need to Survive the Coming Collapse (2016)

RIFLES

.308: Is Bigger Better in an AR Battle Rifle?

A look at the .308 option.

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Like most gun guys, I think a lot these days about how to protect myself and my family. When it comes to my defensive rifle, the choice is clear; it will be an AR of some sort. This is the fighting gun I am most familiar with and one that, after many thousands of rounds, I have learned to trust. But the .223 Remington cartridge is a concern. There is a school of thought that wonders, “Do I want to trust my life and the lives of my family to a varmint cartridge?” The .223/5.56x45 has always been controversial. When it was first used extensively in combat during Vietnam, there were a lot of critics. One good friend of mine got so frustrated with its failures that he dumped his M16 and picked up an AK-47 off a dead enemy soldier and used that for the rest of his tour. A tour, incidentally, that was cut short when he was on the receiving end of another AK-47. He survived that, but the lingering physical effects of the war killed him while he was still relatively young. I might note that he was a medic during the war and saw the results of many bullet strikes from a wide range of cartridges. I knew him for two decades, and he never wavered about the fact that a bigger bullet is better.

Even today, more than half a century after the military selected the 5.56 NATO, the controversy still rages and a lot of reports from the sandbox are critical of its stopping power. Of course, the arguments peck away at lesser issues like barrel length or bullet design, but the bottom line is that with a bigger cartridge there would be no argument at all.

While our fighting forces have to use what they are told to use, we civilians have a choice. Certainly we have an advantage that the military does not in the choices about which bullets we can load in our magazines, as we are not bound by foolish convention agreements made by politicians. The non-expanding bullets the military is forced to use are banned in most states for hunting because they are ineffective and cruel, yet we let our men and women of the military trust their lives to them. It makes no sense to me. But if we were forced to use a military style, non-expanding rifle bullet, then clearly a bigger bullet would be more effective.

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This DPMS .308 is a lightweight rifle that is very accurate. It lacks a flash hider, but that’s not important.

That is a distinct possibility for a prepper. While we may plan to use better bullets, what’s that old saying? Man plans, while God laughs? We may be separated from our ammo, or we may use it all up. With NATO cartridges you can be sure that ammo will show up on the black market. If we are forced to use non-expanding military ammo, suddenly the bigger bullet of the .308 has a lot of appeal over the .223.

As a hunter, I am a firm believer in bigger, heavier bullets. While I have hunted deer and other game with .22 centerfires many times, the results ensured that I am not an advocate. The fact that .22 cartridges are illegal to use for big game in many places supports my opinion. So why defend your family against bad guys who are about the same body weight as whitetail deer, or even a bit bigger on average, with cartridges and bullets you would not hunt with?

(I am not trying to disparage the .223 here. I feel it’s an important cartridge and the AR-15 is an important firearm for preppers. But I am willing to play devil’s advocate a little to explore the issues. I am not trying to talk you out of your AR-15, as that would be foolish; but I am trying to make you think.)

One thing that is important with any home defense rifle is ammo availability. In days past the issue of social collapse was mostly fodder for interesting theoretical barroom discussions. Today, it’s much closer to reality. With the threat of terrorism growing ever larger, the possibility of economic collapse on a world scale very real, rogue nations building nuclear arsenals and questionable leadership in Washington, there has never been a more dangerous time in America.

There are two approaches to this. One is to pretend it’s not real, scoff at those who believe it is, and bury your head in the sand. That’s what most of my neighbors are doing. Or you can prepare for the worst case scenario and hope it never happens, which is what I am doing.

In a simple home invasion scenario, ammo availability is not an issue and you should have plenty on hand to deal with the problem. But if there is social collapse, you will probably be using your rifle not only for defense, but also to feed your family. It’s like Hank said, “a country boy can survive,” but only if he has the tools. In a long-term survival scenario, sooner or later you will need more ammo.

A military cartridge makes sense because the odds are much higher that you will be able to locate ammunition in times of crisis if it’s used by multiple governments. The problem, as noted already, is it will be non-expanding. If you are forced to use non-expanding military ammo for foraging and protection, a bigger bullet is insurance against failure.

All this is leading down multiple paths which all converge on the .308 Winchester, or 7.62x51 NATO as the military calls it. We can, of course, consider other cartridges, but something always rules them out. For example, the 6.8 SPC might be a good choice from a ballistic standpoint. After all, that cartridge was spawned by the military; but they rejected it in the end and ammo is now available only through civilian channels. When is the last time you saw cases and cases of 6.8 SPC on a shelf in a gun store? The 7.62x39 is an effective cartridge, except it’s not a NATO cartridge, which could lead to availability problems in stressful times.

Sure, there is a lot of 7.62x39 ammo floating around, but it’s strictly a civilian cartridge in America. If it shows up in military hands on American soil, we will have very big problems. As in Russia invading. It is also not friendly in an AR-type rifle. I know; I own one, and over the years I have collected a drawer full of high-capacity magazines that do not work. This cartridge was designed to work in the SKS or AK platform, and its tapered case doesn’t play well with AR rifles, with the exception of the new CMMG Mutant. That gun uses AK not AR magazines.

Most other common cartridges are eliminated because of the ammo availability issue. Unless it’s a military cartridge, you are at great risk of ammo shortages. When you look at all the arguments, a .308/7.62X51 rifle is the only one that makes sense.

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One potential downside of a .308 is magazine capacity. Most magazines top out at twenty or twenty-five rounds, but .223 AR magazines are standardized at thirty rounds and larger capacity magazines are very common.

While I suppose the current lack of high-quality, high-capacity magazines could be an issue if you are holding off an advancing zombie horde, I can’t see that it is truly a big issue for a home defense rifle. You can get a lot done with twenty rounds. If that’s not enough, a magazine change can be accomplished very quickly with practice, so with multiple magazines on your person you are not hugely disadvantaged. Besides, let’s not lose sight of why I picked a .308 rifle. It’s the same reason I often choose a 1911 in .45 ACP for my carry handgun instead of a high-cap 9mm; because I don’t plan my defensive strategy around how many times I am going to miss or how many times, other than once, I need to shoot the bad guy to make him behave. I fail to see the value in sending a swarm of little bullets to accomplish the same thing as one big bullet.

Clearly, power is the primary advantage of this rifle cartridge. The popular 168-grain .308 load has more than three times the bullet weight of the common 55-grain .223 load and more than twice the muzzle energy. In fact, the .308 has more energy at 400 yards than the .223 has at the muzzle. Not to mention that the frontal area of the expanded bullet is much larger with the .308, so it pokes a bigger hole. It will also penetrate much deeper in any material. If you must shoot through a car door, windshield, or building wall, the .308 has a huge advantage. And let’s not forget that zombie thing; everybody knows that they are tough buggers and sometimes take a lot of killing. No point in taking chances with a little prairie dog bullet.

Sure, the recoil is heavier in a .308, but with a muzzle brake it is still a mild recoiling rifle. In fact, I was surprised at just how easy a shooting rifle the .308 turned out to be.

I was concerned that the higher recoil of the .308 would negate any tactical advantage the extra power brought to the table. But a properly configured fighting gun is pretty fast. Part of that is because it is a semiauto rifle. While recoil can be a big issue with the military when shooting full auto, civilians are limited by law (with a few notable exceptions) to semiauto rifles. It is much easier to deal with recoil when using a semiauto, as the shooter has full control over when the rifle fires and can bring the sights back on target before firing the next shot.

During the test outlined in the following sidebar, the .308 made a good showing. While the results in the sidebar are compiled averages for all the shooters, I would note a few points. I think that one of the toughest comparisons between cartridges, as far as the effect of recoil, would be the close range, double-tap, multiple-targets test. My best time on my first run-through with the three different rifles was with the .308 Win. After my second run-through, that time was only eight-tenths of a second slower than my best time for all six runs with three different cartridges. Also, my splits, which are the time between the two shots on each target, were virtually the same. Considering that I have been seriously training with .223 rifles for a few years and this was the first time out with the .308 Win. rifle, these results put to rest any lingering doubts I had about the recoil becoming a huge factor. In total, with all the scenarios we ran, my average time with the .308 was actually three-tenths of a second faster than with the .223. The bottom line, in my opinion, is that with equally equipped rifles and plenty of practice, a good shooter will give up very little speed in a fight by selecting a properly set-up .308 over the .223.

One more point. Most 3-gun competition is centered around double-taps, particularly on the close shots. I know that a lot of operators rely on them as well. I have a friend who is a professional hunter in Africa, but in his younger years he was in the South African Special Forces and he saw a lot of action. He told me that they always double-tapped.

The point of a double-tap is to hit the bad guys twice because you cannot be sure that one hit will eliminate the threat. If you hit them with a .308, the odds of the first shot eliminating the threat raise exponentially over a hit with a lesser cartridge, probably making the double-tap an unnecessary redundancy or much better insurance that the guy is out of the fight, depending on your point of view. I hunted in Zimbabwe some years later with a veteran of the Rhodesian war. He used an FN FAL rifle in .308 during the hostilities and told me that it was a very effective, one-shot fight-stopper.

With shooters of equal ability and similarly configured rifles, the .223 may always be a little bit faster for repeat shots or multiple targets. But the difference is smaller than you might think and it all comes back to that swarm of little bullets versus one big bullet thing. Me? I know from painful experience that the heavyweights hit harder. That’s true in boxing, martial arts, and in rifle bullets. I’ll put my trust in the big guy every time.

That’s why an AR-L in .308 is such a good choice if my family is ever in danger.

I still think that the AR-15 in .223 is the best primary defensive long gun a prepper can have, but when building your battery of guns it makes a lot of sense to also have an AR-L in .308 Winchester. It’s a better fight-stopper and much better for hunting and foraging. Also, as with the 9mm pistol, it’s one of those cartridges that show up in any ammo source, including the black market. Finding a bunch of .308 ammo will do you no good unless you have a rifle or two to shoot it.

Testing the Cartridges

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The three cartridges used in the test: .223 Remington, 6.8 SPC, and .308 Winchester.

In the interest of finding out how the .308 stacks up as a fighting gun from a user-friendly point of view, some years ago I conducted a long and loud test.

I set up three DPMS M4-style carbines (in .223 Remington, 6.8 SPC, and .308 Winchester), all similarly equipped with a 16-inch barrel, a muzzle brake, and an adjustable stock. They were all equipped with good triggers; the .223 and .308 both had JP triggers while the 6.8 had an American Trigger Corp. AR15 Gold trigger.

Leupold was kind enough to loan me three of their Mark 4 CQ/T scopes. These are a 1–3 variable with an illuminated circle-dot reticle. This optic is very popular with military and law enforcement and is a good option on any fighting rifle. By having the same optic on all three rifles I tried to eliminate as many variables as possible, and to direct the focus on the differences in the cartridges.

I assembled a team of five shooters who varied both in age and experience. This gave me a good cross section to test the cartridges, not only with experienced old gray beards but also with young, new shooters. I think it is important to note that not one of us had any measurable experience with the .308 AR-L rifle at that point. While the amount varied, we all had past trigger time with the .223 prior to the test. If anything, this skewed the test slightly against the .308.

I set up three scenarios and we shot them with all three rifles, running through each scenario twice, but not consecutively. All the shooting was measured with a PACT timer and the results were recorded on the back of a couple of cardboard USPSA (United States Practical Shooting Association) targets. You know when you drive to the range with that nagging feeling you forgot something? In this case it was my notebook.

We used Remington ammunition during the test. Remington is one of only two companies that offer ammo for the .223 Remington, 6.8 Remington SPC and the .308 Winchester. Hornady is the other.

The .223 Rem ammo was Express 55-grain PSP. The 6.8 SPC was Premier Core-Lokt Ultra with 115-grain Core-Lokt Ultra Bonded bullets. Finally, the .308 Winchester ammo was Express with a 150-grain Core-Lokt bullet. Each represents a popular bullet weight for these cartridges.

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The three cartridges tested, .223 Rem, 6.8 SPC, and .308 Win. The advantages of the .308 in terms of power are obvious in the size difference.

Stage One

The shooter is standing, the rifle on his shoulder, muzzle down. There are five bowling pins at 35 yards. At 85 yards there is an Action Targets Hostage target, which is a metal target the size and shape of a USPSA target. At 90 yards there is an R&R Racing swinging target with an eight-inch diameter plate.

At the buzzer the shooter knocks down all the bowling pins, then double-taps the hostage target before shooting the eight-inch circle to stop the clock.

The idea is to have some smaller and more difficult targets at moderately long range for an offhand shooter. This calls for speed and precision. Most did well until the last, when hitting the eight-inch target off hand proved elusive for some shooters. That has the some of the raw times higher than expected and skewed the results a bit.

With no misses, this stage can be completed with eight shots. While we did have a bunch of nine-shot runs, a clean run was accomplished only once when I did it with the .308 in 10.32 seconds.

The trouble was that the bowling pins proved tricky, as well as the R&R Racing target. The fastest time was 9.4 seconds, by Brendan Burns shooting the 6.8 SPC. That means he beat my best time by just over half a second. If he keeps that up I might not let him marry my daughter.

(Update, we did this test several years ago. They have been happily married for several years.)

Results

.223

Raw Time—average for all shooters:

19.009 seconds

Splits—average for all shooters:

1.03 seconds

Number of shots to complete average:

13.375

6.8 SPC

Raw Time—average for all shooters:

15.346 seconds

Splits—average for all shooters:

1.122 seconds

Average number of shots to complete:

10.75

.308 Winchester

Raw Time—average for all shooters:

19.567 seconds

Splits—average for all shooters:

1.3765 seconds

Average number of shots to complete:

10.875

If you look at the splits you can see that on average the shooters had little problem dealing with the extra recoil of the .308. The lower the recoil, the faster the splits; so the .223 was best, the 6.8 next and the .308 last as expected. But check out the differences; there is less than 0.35-second difference. Remember, this is for aimed fire at relatively small targets at longer range.

Stage Two

This was a cardboard USPSA target set at fifty yards. The shooter begins by lying prone with his sights on the target. At the buzzer he shoots the target five times, as fast as possible.

The concept here was simply to measure the effect of recoil on speed, but with purpose; as all five had to hit the target to score. The splits between shots as well as the raw total time are both telling.

My son, Nathan, turned in the fastest time with a .223 at 1.12 seconds. He also had one at 1.13 seconds. That edged my 1.25 seconds, also with a .223, back to third place. I hate it when that happens.

Results

.223

Raw Time—average for all shooters:

1.505 seconds

Splits—average for all shooters:

0.285 seconds

6.8 SPC

Raw Time—average for all shooters:

1.774 seconds

Splits—average for all shooters:

0.388 seconds

.308 Winchester

Raw Time—average for all shooters:

2.778 seconds

Splits—average for all shooters:

0.60 seconds

Again, the difference between the cartridges follows the expected path. I think that the prone position made a difference here as the lighter recoiling rifles could be “tripoded” with the magazine and both of the shooter’s elbows contacting the ground. With this technique, the sights stayed on the target and once the shooter realized that, it became a matter of how fast he could pull the trigger. But with the .308, the recoil was just enough to require some sight correction between shots. Still, five shots into the center of mass in less than three seconds on average is not bad. Nathan did it in under two seconds with the .308.

Stage Three

Four USPSA targets were placed in a semi-circle at distances from five yards to fifteen yards. The shooter started with the rifle on his shoulder and the muzzle down. At the buzzer he double-tapped the targets. On the first run we shot right to left and then reversed the direction for the second run.

This measures shooting speed, both in the splits between the shots on targets and on how fast the transitions from target to target are completed. The targets must be hit to score.

Once again, Nathan was fastest. Using the .223, he did it in 4.28 seconds. Between him and Brendan they had four runs that beat my best time, which was with the 6.8 SPC at 4.66 seconds. Three of those were with the .223 and one with the 6.8. I will note that on my first run through my best time was with the .308 Winchester, 5.49 seconds. My splits with the two shots on target were almost identical between the .223 and the .308, with only 0.0025 seconds difference. The .308, by the way, was the faster of the two.

Results

.223

Raw Time—average for all shooters:

5.672 seconds

Splits—average for all shooters:

0.3 seconds

6.8 SPC

Raw Time—average for all shooters:

5.916 seconds

Splits—average for all shooters:

0.273 seconds

.308 Winchester

Raw Time—average for all shooters:

5.984 seconds

Splits—average for all shooters:

0.434 seconds

This is a good simulation of a fight when your position is being overrun and speed, power, and accuracy are your only hope for survival. The difference in raw time between the .223 and .308 is only three-tenths of a second for the four targets and eight shots, but the odds of taking out all the bad guys with two hits each from the .308 are astronomically higher than with the .223.

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We turned a lot of ammo into empty brass with this test.