Choosing the Perfect “Bug-Out” Carbine

Photo by Oleg Volk

The decision to “Bug-Out” will always be a difficult one and the conditions that would necessitate it are very hard to predict. In the worst possible scenarios, you may find yourself out in some pretty dangerous environments. In these situations a basic conceal carry pistol just won’t cut it and you may require something with a little more “reach” and “punch”. For this reason alone it is critically important to invest and train with some kind of carbine.

There are endless debates about the “best” survival carbine and caliber. In reality they all are effective for their intended use. The crucial differences lie in understanding the tradeoffs and selecting the weapon with the most acceptable compromises in the following categories:

  • Overall Weight (Weapon + Ammo)
  • Reliability
  • Stopping/Penetration Power
  • Effective Range
  • Ability to Conceal
  • Versatility

Overall Weight

Ammo is heavy, never forget to consider its weight in your Bug-Out planning.

In Bug-Out scenarios you may have access to a vehicle, but don’t count on it. You should be able to carry everything you need to survive on your person, including extra ammo and magazines. It doesn’t matter if you plan be out for a basic 3 day outing to scavenge and then return home to resupply or if will you have to hump your gear several hundred miles without any plans to return. In either case, weight is the principal selection criteria for your carbine.

One option to reduce weight is to look at carbines that that are chambered in pistol caliber rounds like the Beretta Storm (9mm, .40mm and .45ACP), the H&K USC (45ACP), and the Kel-Tech SUB-2000. These weapons are lighter and more compact than many of the other options and in this sense, meet many of the criteria for a Bug-Out carbine. As a bonus, with the right combination of carbine and pistol, your magazines may be interchangeable along with the same caliber of ammo.

This is one of my favorite pistol caliber carbines, the H&K USC chambered in 45 ACP.

Personally I would not recommend this as a solution however. You end up compromising too much in other areas like effective range and penetration power. Weight is still a factor, so we will have to look at other ways to get better performance and not exceed your overall all weight restriction.

If you insist on standardizing on a single caliber that can be interchanged with your pistol, the best choice would be the 5.7×28 cartridge. This is a very unique round developed for NATO as an extremely lightweight round intended for pilots to carry that is capable of penetrating modern body armor. The 5.7×28 cartridge can be fired by both the FNH Five-seveN series handguns as well as the FNH PS90 carbine.

NOTE: Keep in mind, however, The 5.7×28 cartridge is likely going to be very hard to resupply during a SHTF scenario as it is not a very common caliber. Reloading for it is also difficult given the general lack and expense for the dies and bullets.

Reach and Power

Left: 5.56x45 Right: 7.62x39

Even though pistol calibers are very light weight, for a bug-out carbine you really need a more powerful rifle cartridge. Your carbine needs to be able to reach out to around 100 to 200 yards with ease as well as be effective for close quarters combat, hunting and sniping. Pistol caliber carbines can be used, to a limited extent, for all these uses but they are at a significant disadvantage compared to rifle cartridges.

Common rifle cartridges are the 5.56x45mm NATO, 7.62x39mm, or 7.62x51mm NATO. Of these rounds I personally prefer the 5.56 NATO due to its lighter weight and general availability. Both of the other calibers deliver more stoping power but I feel that the trade off on weight makes a more than fair compromise. A single 5.56x45mm round is almost half the weight of the 7.62×39 and more than a third the weight of the massive 7.62×51 NATO.

Selecting a Gas System

When it comes to carbines chambered in rifle cartridges, there are essentially two different choices, “Gas Piston” Operated or “Gas Impingement” Operated. My preference is a “piston” style gas system because it is much more reliable, requires less cleaning, and is more forgiving with lower quality ammo. Gas piston system run cleaner because they don’t vent “dirty” gases back into the “guts” of the weapon; instead gas is blown out the front of the weapon.

NOTE: The most famous “Gas Piston” carbine of all time is the AK-47 and you will be hard pressed to hear anyone argue the reliability of an AK-47!

I chose to go with the Sig 556 platform in lieu of the more popular AK-47 because it gives me the best of both worlds; a “gas piston” system in a carbine chambered in the lighter weight 5.56 NATO. Gas piston uppers are available for the AR-15 platform but they are not very common and don’t have the proven track record of a manufacturer like Sig Sauer. Similar system are also made by FNH with a model called the SCAR 16.

The FN SCAR is another option for a "Gas Piston" operated carbine chambered in 5.56 NATO

Trade-Offs with Barrel Lengths

Length of the carbine is the next important consideration. The minimum legal barrel length in the United States is 16 inches with some barrels extending out as much as 20″ and 22″. Anything shorter that 16″ is considered “Short Barreled Rifle” or SBR by the ATF and will require additional paper work to acquire.

NOTE: SBR’s, though can be purchased or modified legally at the Federal level, they may be considered illegal by your State of residence. Be sure to check with your particular states laws to ensure they are legal in your state. California, for example, will never allow a civilian to own an SBR.

The longer the barrel the better the performance at longer distances. A 16″ or greater barrel will easily get you out to around 400 to 600 yards and a 20″ or 22″ barrel can get you all the way out to as much as 800 yards with the right ammo, setup, and training. In my opinion you are not likely to need to reach out much further than 200 yards with 100 being the most likely distance so a 16″ barrel is more than long enough.


Notice how my Sig 556 SBR virtually disappears in the front pocket of my Maxpedition Falcon II 3 day pack!

Keep in mind that the longer the barrel the harder the weapon is to conceal. Concealment is a greatly overlooked aspect of bug-out scenarios. Don’t assume that in a bug-out scenario it will be feasible to openly display your carbine. In particular in areas with some law enforcement still in effect or during the initial phases of a more serious SHTF scenario; you may need to keep your carbine hidden from the casual observer. The last thing you need is for your weapon to be taken from you by law enforcement or worse, seen as a threat and fired upon by them.

NOTE: I live in Florida where the gun laws are much more reasonable and owning an SBR can be legal so I opted for the shorter 10.5″ barrel. My Sig 556 SBR has an over all length (when the stock is folded) of about 20 inches. It is very easily concealed in my INCH bag or rolled up in my sleeping bag. And what’s more, even with only a 10.5″ barrel, I can still consistently hit a head size target out to 150 yards with room to spare.

And the Winner is?

My personal recommendation is to get the shortest gas-piston carbine chambered in either 5.56 NATO or 7.62x39mm you can legally own and train with in your state. If you want less weight and more ammo go with the 5.56 NATO cartridge or if you don’t mind trading the weight, trade it for an AK-47 chambered in 7.62×39.

Either caliber will give you all the power you are likely to need in most situations and still be able to carry enough ammo and supplies to get you were you need to be. The shorter the barrel the easier a time you will have concealing it, using it in CQB and still have the option to “reach out and touch someone”.


Here is a shot of my Bug-Out Carbine - The Sig 556 SBR


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A nerd on a journey to learn how to survive TEOTWAWKI and WTSHTF
  • Joshua Robbs

    I’m assuming that Bug Out Carbine refers to the weapon you have while you’re traveling, and not to the weapon(s) you’ll use when you get to your B.O.L.

    Space and weight are at a premium in this situation. I wouldn’t want to have to carry 2 kinds of ammo. And since I don’t have any pistols that fire rifle caliber rounds, I guess I’ll have to go with a long gun that uses pistol rounds. Heck, if you picked a Glock and one of those Kel-tec backpack folders, you would only need one kind of magazine!

    During a Bug Out, speed and agility are your greatest weapons. I think a MBR (even a little one) would slow me down too much.

  • SeahawkDriver-B

    This is scar, this guy and I think exactly alike. Never read this article before, but if you look in my bug-out bag, there’s a SBR 556 almost exactly like the one he has. I chose the more expensive ELCAN spectre 1-4x as my optic and put the Swiss SANS stock on the back. Otherwise, same thought process, same conclusion, same gun.

  • Owen

    Great article, I know we’ve had the argument more than once, but I cant help but think that this is coming from a “money is no object” point of view.
    It might be worth pointing out that you could buy 2-3 AK-47′s for the price of a single Sig 556.

  • Rickeybell

    If you don’t mind sharing, did the carbine start life as the P556? If so, what did you use to attach the stock and allow folding. Also, what/where did you get the handguard?

    • TechPrepper

      You got it. It started as a P556. The stock and adapter I picked up online from a guy going out of business. They are unmarked so I have no idea where they were made. As for the hand guard, it is the earlier style before they went with the “swiss” model. Some Sig556′s come with them. Many people don’t like them and prefer to use the Troy battle rails, so they do occasionally popup on the market. I like the styling and feeling in my hand so I picked a few up for the sigs I have that didn’t come with one.

  • Kutter_0311

    Having bought my son a Sig 556 before Sig’s US plant started having QC failures, I find it an excellent rifle, and it wears my ACOG to get the best flexibility out of the rifle. Since then, I bought myself 2 Arsenal SGL21′s that are both lighter and simpler than the 556, and together cost about as much as the one 556. I prefer the heavier 7.62x39mm round as it is significantly more capable of both taking larger game like deer and stopping human threats, even through cover. Soon both AK’s will get Ultimak gas tube rails and Aimpoint Micro optics to speed accurate target engagement. I don’t consider concealing a rifle very practical, that’s what pistols are for. However, as much as everyone thinks walking will be their main transport method, no one who has humped a heavy load very far will turn down the chance to drive instead, so fighting from a vehicle is always a concern. My AK’s may get ACE folding stocks to improve storage and vehicle employment.

  • irobj

    I would choose a DGI AR 15. Here’s why:
    Overall Weight – gas impingement is lighter than piston systems. .223 / 5.56 ammo is lighter
    Reliability – AK wins overall, but modern AR’s are very reliable.
    Stopping Power – Both AR’s and AK’s will do the job against enemy and food sources.
    Effective Range – Both AR’s and AK’s will be effective at the range you specified.
    Ability to conceal – I like the AR’s ability to easily remove the upper and lower receiver…makes it easy to conceal.
    Versatility – AR’s are modular, and easy to customize to your needs / comfort.

    In a bug out scenario, lightweight is paramount. Many mfg’rs make lightweight DGI carbines with iron sights. Often in the 6-7 lb. range! Most piston systems are 7-8+lbs. It’s a proven system, affordable if you keep it simple, parts are common, and ammo is common as well. With 4-6 30 rd. magazines, you have a means to rapid, potent firepower that can keep you safe or fed while buggin out…

  • Pitt

    I like your thought process. Shorter is better (within reason) when it comes to fighting rifles. Longer is better when it comes to fighting pistols. Right now, my do everything rifle is my Saiga Hunter .223 conversion. It’s been a great rifle thus far, but I am looking at other options. I may SBR a Draco AK pistol. That would come very close to meeting your concepts. Take care and God Bless.

  • Joatsurvival

    I have to disagree with your comment about the track record of the Sig piston system, as opposed to the AR piston systems. None of them have a very long track record. Also so far all of them have worked quite well. second, going to an SBR is a compromise I am unwilling to take. The loss of velocity and effective range not to mention energy make it too tricky a balance given I can’t foresee the exact circumstances I will be in. Given that, My recommendation would be an LMT monolithic upper with a quick change spare barrel in a different length. You could even have a spare barrel in .300 Blackout or 7.62x40WT.

  • MarkM

    Unfortunately, the concept that piston is inherently better, and by inference, the AK highly reliable based on it is in error. Kalashnikov got that reliability because the magazine and feeding lips in it present cartridges in a near perfect relationship to the chamber, and that’s about all. Being piston or DI actually has little to do with it – the top three causes of a malfunction are magazines, ammo, and operator error. In this regard, the AK fails on two.

    Most other aspects of the weapon are as outdated as any other gun from the era it was fielded – the early ’50′s. An reciprocating bolt handle on the wrong side, obtuse safey that cannot be easily taken off when in the firing position, and ammunition that is less powerful than the .30-30 don’t really recommend themself. In that regard, the venerable Winchester 94 lever gun would be the better choice – ammo is extremely widespread, it’s more powerful, the gun is ambidextrous, and it’s public image isn’t associated with terrorists.

    Having trained, used, and shot a variety of civilian and military weapons, I would recommend quite a few more than the AK, especially in a doomsday scenario. Most of the various models are not built with interchangeable parts – a plant in one region does not share the same blueprints as another 1000km away. Even magazines are problematic, and getting your hands on any ammo will be limited to whatever you started out with.

    This presupposes the actual need to “bug out” was valid at all. In some limited circumstances, such as Katrina, those living on the coast had good reason. For others of us, such as in a EF5 disaster zone, moving hundreds of miles simply isn’t necessary. With other family in the area, support from them will be extended, as we saw locally done thousands of times. External resources will also be extended.

    In a complete downfall of civilization, I’d have to ask, what were you doing living in a high risk, low resource zone to begin with? If it’s that important to be able to use other resources, including natural, then live there – not in a danger area that will require fighting your way out of. That goes to a complete lack of training or a reality mindset, something military service would at least expose someone to, and definitely prioritize the needs that might ultilmately need to be faced.

    Backpacking days across country to get to a safe zone, with juvenile family members, on short rations, and under fire, is setting oneself up for failure. Even the pioneers didn’t do that – they banded together for strength, and shared resources. Instead of setting yourself up as a lone wolf, become part of the solution and interact with your neighbors. In the right location, you don’t have to move, shoot, and communicate, because the zombies will be avoiding you.

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