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There is no doubt that a big part of most every survival situation is defense, protection and security against not only the elements that threaten you – a hurricane, earthquake or man-made disaster – but from the people who tend to be less prepared than you are. You have supplies, food, water and equipment that will need protection, and your very life and the lives of your family and friends depend on it. A handgun is a perfect solution. It’s small and compact, easy to use, and most of all concealable. In certain situations, advertising your intentions and abilities with a rifle or a shotgun might attract more attention and trouble than you need or want. Your best bet is to have a handgun that can be kept under wraps.

However, any conversation about concealable handguns for survival needs a few qualifiers. We need to first establish exactly how concealable the gun needs to be, and then we need to determine if the gun is primarily for self-defense or foraging for food. Finally, a decision needs to be made about whether our goals can be accomplished with a single gun, or if there is room in the formula for two or more handguns to achieve our goals. If you wonder about concealability being an issue you have to look no further than the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when local authorities took it upon themselves to go house to house confiscating firearms from law-abiding citizens. This left them easy prey for the burglars who swooped into neighborhoods to loot, steal and worse. If you live in any kind of urban setting you are almost certainly talking primarily about a concealable self-defense handgun that will be the same in day-to-day use today as it would be in some future kind of disaster scenario. If you are like most of us and live in a city, or even a suburb outside the city, stop and take a look around yourself. Your primary food sources in the city will be pigeons, rats and household pets. Nearby suburbs may add rabbits and squirrels to the menu. How long do you think these protein sources will last when everyone is on the prowl? Different game animals and fowl will be available well outside of town depending on what part of the country you live in, but again, be realistic about the longevity of these food sources when it’s every man for himself.

So, lets presume the question is, “If you could have only one concealable handgun in a survival situation what would it be?”

Let’s start with semi-autos of different calibers. Lost or damaged magazines will turn those handguns into single-shots, but for the sake of this discussion we’ll assume proper maintenance and careful handling on your part. You’ll need to experiment beforehand to determine the most reliable and accurate ammunition for your pistol and then you need to get a good supply of it. I would set a minimum round count of 1000 to be safe.

This won’t be a day at the range or an extended plinking session, but acquiring more ammunition in an emergency probably will not be possible, and ammunition will be one of the most valuable commodities for trade and barter under tough circumstances. In a .22 rimfire, the Ruger semi-auto sets the standard here, with the Browning Buckmark coming in a somewhat distant second. Both guns are well-made, reliable, and accurate enough for our purposes here. They can also be easily concealed.

The Accelerator pistol from Excel Industries has interchangeable nine-inch bull barrels in .22 Magnum and .17 HMR.

You can kill just about anything that walks the earth with a .22 rimfire if you can get close enough and deliver a round to the most vulnerable and effective spot on the animal. I wouldn’t count on that for starters, and as time wears on after the trigger event that has put you on this path the animals will get more and more wary, as you will not be the only one chasing them. Shotshell cartridges increase the versatility of the .22 and other calibers, but they have to be single-loaded into the chamber from the magazine as they will not cycle the pistol.

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Moving up to the .22 Magnum, we only have a couple of choices: one from Kel-Tec and the other from Excel Arms. Both are rather large for concealment, but it could be done if you “dress around” the gun. I have no experience with the Kel-Tec, but the company has built a reputation for innovative designs, reliability, accuracy, and friendly pricing. When it comes to the Excel Arms Accelerator it’s a different story. I’ve done a lot of shooting with the pistol, and I purchased the test gun because I was so impressed with it, especially its superb accuracy. Besides being a real tack-driver in .22 Magnum, the Accelerator also has an interchangeable barrel in .17 HMR that shoots as well as the .22 Magnum and makes the pistol even more versatile.

There are dozens of pistols available in the .25 ACP, .32 ACP, and .380 ACP, and the good news is they are all pretty concealable. The bad news is that it’s pretty much a “something is better than nothing” situation when it comes to reliability and accuracy. Moving up from there you’ll find the 9mm, 9x23mm, .38 Super, 9x25mm Dillon, .40 S&W, 10mm and .45 ACP, each with its own character and application.

Top to bottom and left to right you have shotshells in .22 rimfire, .22 Magnum, .38 Special/.357 Magnum, 9mm, .40 S&W, .44 Special/.44 Magnum, and .45 Colt.

All are available in concealable handguns, they are all good self-defense rounds and plenty of medicine for small to medium game, and the 9x25mm Dillon and 10mm run right on the heels of the .357 Magnum and .41 Magnum rounds fired from a revolver. For example, I just tested some new 10mm ammo from Federal that launches one of their superb 180-grain bonded core softpoints at 1237 Feet Per Second (FPS) from the stock five inch barrel of my Glock, and 1358 FPS from the six-inch match barrel and long slide from the Glock wizards at Lone Wolf Distributing.

A Model 442 S&W “snubbie” in .38 Special or a small auto like this custom Colt Mustang from Terry Tussey in .380 is plenty concealable, but leaves something to be desired in utility value.

Those loads are churning up 612 FPE (Foot-Pounds of Energy) from the five inch barrel and 737 FPE from the six-inch long slide assembly. Within reasonable handgun hunting range that’s plenty of whack for just about anything that walks, and if they didn’t go down immediately you can be sure you made them plenty wobbly!

Looking at revolvers and starting with the .22s it’s a big world out there. Many folks produce .22 rimfire and .22 Magnum revolvers with a spectrum of barrel lengths, from two inches out to eight, and even ten inches. Finding a well-shooting, concealable revolver that’ll do the job for you is just a matter of hunting around until you hit paydirt, and just about all the offerings will be reliable and acceptably accurate. There are lots of different loads in both .22 chambering in addition to shotshells in various calibers that will function in any revolver. I have stainless steel S&Ws in both .22 chamberings with four-inch barrels that provide the ultimate in durability, reliability, and concealability while being surprisingly accurate. The .22 Magnum is a step up from the .22 Long Rifle and I note that Ruger is chambering their new snubbie revolver for this cartridge, which is in some ways mute testimony to its performance in a “belly gun”. Stepping up in bore size we come to the .32, which includes the .32 S&W and .32 S&W Long, a fairly anemic pair dating from early in the last century. The .32 H&R Magnum from the mid-80s is a great improvement, upping the velocities of matching bullet weights in older cartridges by 400 to 500 FPS. Finally, the almost brand new .327 Federal is just a barn burner, upping the .32 H&R velocities by another 300 to 400 FPS. There are no factory shotshells for the .32 calibers, but I used to “roll my own” as regular shotshells, shot capped with a round ball, or two round balls stacked in the front of the case. Those performed well, and I can only assume the extra shot or ball load possible in the longer .327 Federal case would be an improvement on an already good thing.

You have to read the barrels of these two stainless steel revolvers to tell them apart. The S&W J-frame on top is a Model 63 in .22 rimfire, and the one below it is a Model 651 in .22 Magnum. They both have four-inch barrels.

Next we’re looking at one of the old standbys, the .38 Special. This was the “cop gun” cartridge for several decades until it was surpassed by the .357 Magnum introduced in 1935. Today you can have both flavors with a dizzying array of bullets or factory shotshell loads.

The .41 Magnum was an idea that never really took off even though those who tried it often became converts. Despite being accurate, a fairly flat-shooter, and mildly recoiling next to the .44 Magnum, it just never got traction. Next we have the old .44-40, the .44 Special, and finally, its big brother, Dirty Harry’s favorite, the .44 Magnum. The .44-40 was meant to feed six-guns and rifles alike in the old west so a person only had to carry one type of ammunition. The .44 Special is a grand old cartridge capable of some outstanding performance using modern cases, powders, and guns, but the .44 Magnum was king of the hill for a long time after its introduction in 1955. As soon as Clint Eastwood hissed that the Magnum round in his S&W Model 29 with a six-inch barrel made it “the most powerful handgun on earth” you couldn’t find one of those revolvers, especially at list price, for quite a while.

The classic S&W K-38 (top) is an excellent field gun. The Model 66 below it is handier due to the four-inch barrel, more durable due to the stainless steel, and can be more powerful if you load it with the .357 Magnum.

However, it turned out that many hapless buyers weren’t up to the challenge of full-house Magnum loads. In fact, I once bought a pristine six-inch Model 29 with a 50-round box of ammo missing only six rounds, if that tells you anything. Finally, we come to the .45 Colt cartridge. There was a shorter version first known as the .45 Schofield, and later more powerful versions like the .454 Casull and the .460 S&W, which are close enough to be called brethren.

This Model 317 from S&W is an excellent candidate for a survival revolver. It’s an eight-shot .22 rimfire with a three-inch barrel, adjustable sights, and a scandium alloy frame that makes it lighter than the holster in which it’s carried.

It’s called the .45 Colt because one of its first homes was the 1873 Colt Peacemaker and it’s closely associated with that revolver. Originally producing around 750 to 800 FPS with a 250-grain bullet in the military loading, the commercial civilian offering would clock in at around 900 FPS with the same slug. It first saw a rebirth with the modern sport of cowboy shooting, where competitors use guns and cartridges from the old west while donning proper garb and aliases. Like the .44 Special, the .45 Colt can be juiced up with modern brass, new powders, and guns made with modern metallurgy. The Casull is essentially a Magnum .45 Colt, and the .460 S&W is an attempt to split the difference between the old Colt cartridge and the Casull. I have fired exactly three rounds of the Casull offering at a SHOT Show Media Day, and I elected to not finish off the cylinder-full that I started with in the Freedom Arms revolver.

The long-slide Colt from Tussey Custom and the long-slide Glock below it from Lone Wolf Distributors are chambered in the hot shot 9x25mm Dillon, which will run right along with a .357 Magnum.

My personal handgun in that .45 Colt chambering was a stainless Ruger Bisley with a five-inch barrel that was a pussycat with the standard loads, but quickly got your attention when firing some hot stuff from Buffalo Bore Ammunition that would tread on the heels of the Casull. You can shoot the milder .45 Colt loads from the Casull chambered revolver, making it easier to handle and more economical to feed.

The author’s custom Glock from Lone Wolf Distributors has six-inch barrels in 10mm and 9x25mm Dillon for the long-slide and five-inch barrels in 10mm, .40S&W, and .357 SIG to go with the stock top end.

Yes, there are factory shotshells available for the .38/.357, the .44 Special/.44 Magnum, and the .45 Colt/.454 Casull, and each one is better than the last as you go up in bore size, and all three put the .22 LR/.22 Magnum shells to shame with pellet size and pattern density. Can you conceal these medium to big bores? For most of them, depending upon barrel length, all you need is the right holster and a proper covering garment. In closing, let me acknowledge the existence of the .50 S&W, but we’re not going there today!

The stainless, four-inch barreled S&W Model 629 is Hantke’s go-to gun when cornered to pick just one handgun for survival.

The S&W K-22 on top is a safe pick for a .22 rimfire with a six-inch barrel. But the rather rare Model 35 J-frame below it wears the same six-inch barrel and weighs a pound less.

I have been asked many times what my choice would be if I could have only one sidearm, and my answer is either one of my four-inch S&W 629s, with the little four-inch stainless J-frame Model 51 coming in close second.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the February 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.