A few years ago, I read an article similar to this one that listed the greatest risks to hunters, anglers and hikers in the remote backcountry regions in North America. Grizzly bears were on the list, which isn’t surprising considering the uptick in bear encounters in states like Montana and Wyoming. Falls were a significant threat, and so were drowning and hypothermia. But the number one risk facing anyone who heads into the wilderness is actually one of the characteristics that draws most of us to these areas in the first place—their remoteness.
If you’re going to platy in the backcountry that means you have to survive in the backcountry, and sometimes that takes resilience. You need to be able to find shelter, navigate, locate water and food, and defend yourself. The latter usually requires a firearm regardless of whether you need to protect yourself against two or four-legged predators.
The closest call I’ve had was on a family hike where a careless dog owner and his ill-mannered, free-ranging dogs nearly ended in tragedy, and since then I don’t go into the wilderness without a firearm close at hand. I’ve carried several guns through the years, some that I liked and some that I didn’t. But the guns listed here are ones with which I’ve had personal experience and I’m a fan of them all. Here are my picks for eight great backcountry backup guns.
1. Marlin 1895 Trapper
Why I Love It: Compact and easy to carry, the Marlin is suitable for stopping even the largest predator in its tracks.
When Ruger purchased Marlin in 2020 there were high hopes that the latter would return to prominence, and that’s exactly what happened. Today’s Marlin rifles are better than any to come before them, and the new 1895 Trapper is their best backcountry defense weapon in the company’s history. It’s chambered in the formidable .45-70 and comes with a threaded 16.17-inch barrel, laminate stock and satin stainless finish on the metalwork. Length is just over 34 inches, so you can slide it in a saddlebag or boot on your ATV, and at just 7 pounds, you can even pack this gun into the great beyond without much discomfort. The Skinner adjustable peep/blade sight setup is rugged and allows you to get on target in a hurry. It’s also surprisingly precise, and with a bit of practice a group of writers I was with managed to smack a deer-sized steel target at 200 yards with those sights on a fairly regular basis offhand. I like handguns in the backcountry, but if I had my druthers, I’d much sooner have this .45-70 loaded with hot hard-cast bullets between me and a charging bear than any handgun.
MSRP: $1,449; marlinfirearms.com
2. Ruger Redhawk/Super Redhawk
Why I Love It: Ruger’s robust double-action wheelgun offers enough options that you can choose the big bore revolver that’s perfect for you.
Bill Ruger was an exceptionally talented gun designer, and his double-action .44 Magnum Redhawk helped set the standard for big bore revolvers. Originally offered in .44 Magnum, the Redhawk is also available today in .357 Magnum and .45 Auto. Step up to the Super Redhawk and in addition to .44 Magnum offerings there are also .454 Casull and .480 Ruger options. These guns are built with high-quality steel and the durable finishes can withstand the worst weather conditions, and they have proven to be exceptionally reliable for generations. My personal choice would be the relatively new .357 Magnum 8-shot 4.2-inch barrel model, but if I were headed into bear country a .454 Casull Super Redhawk Alaskan would be my choice. With its 2.5-inch barrel the Super Redhawk Alaskan measures just 7.62-inches long, about an inch shorter than my 10mm 1911. The Super Redhawk Alaskan isn’t exactly light at 44 ounces, but it rides very comfortably in a chest holster—and you’ll rest comfortably knowing that it’s close at hand. The chest holster is ideal because it supports the gun’s weight comfortably and keeps it out of the way when wearing waders. The .454 Casull is a wrecking ball, but I’ve shot this revolver with .45 Colt ammunition and it’s actually very pleasant.
MSRP: $1,509 (Super Redhawk Alaskan); ruger.com
3. 1911 10mms
Why I Love Them: A Trim 10mm 1911 rides close to the body and offers plenty of power on tap.
When I started scribbling a list of my favorite backcountry guns, several were 1911 10mms, and that list includes guns from Kimber, Rock Island Armory, Colt, Springfield Armory and others. So long as the 1911 10mm you choose is well-built and you practice with it, I feel any of them will work. The 10mm was famously snubbed by the FBI because recoil was simply too great for some employees, but for experienced shooters, the 10mm is manageable. A recent survey of Alaskan bear attack victims clearly shows that the 10mm works (every respondent lived and killed the bear—both black and grizzly—with the 10mm), and the 1911 fits close against the body and is safe to carry cocked and locked. My go-to Alaska rig is a Rock Island TAC FS 10mm in a Kenai chest holster and loaded with full-power hard cast bullets, although RIA’s new Rock Ultra HC double-stack 10mm 1911 might be a better option simply because it offers 16 rounds of 10mm ammunition. If I had to choose just one 10mm backcountry gun that would be the winner.
MSRP: $849 (RIA Rock Ultra HC 10mm); armscor.com
4. Smith & Wesson 69 Combat Magnum
Why I Love It: Relatively light and easy to carry, the five-shot .44 Magnum is suitable griz stopper.
Unlike most Smith & Wesson .44s, which are built on the company’s large N-Frame, the 69 Combat Magnum is built on the slightly smaller L-Frame. It’s still sturdy enough to handle full-house .44 Magnum loads, but capacity is reduced to five rounds. The major payoff for the gun’s smaller size is reduced weight; at around 34-ounces, this is one of the lightest .44 Magnums you can carry and one of the only ones you can effectively conceal. With hot .44 Mag. defensive loads, the 69 Combat magnum is certainly a handful, but it’s manageable. Load it down with lighter .44 Special defense loads when you’re not in bear country, and it’s one of the sweetest-shooting carry revolvers available today. If I were going to spend every day in grizzly country, I’d probably opt for Smith & Wesson’s Model 29/629 or Ruger’s Redhawk/Blackhawk revolvers, but the Model 69 Combat Magnum will get the job done and it makes more sense for those of us who only occasionally drift into big bear territory.
MSRP: $979; smith-wesson.com
5. Maverick 88 Security 12-Gauge
Why I Love It: This $200 workaday pump is a backpacker’s best friend.
A few years ago, I tested Maverick’s 88 Security pump-action shotgun, and I was so impressed that I kept it. I put a lot of shells through the gun during testing and found out that I would wear out way before the Maverick. At 6½ pounds and just over 40-inches long, it’s the perfect firearm to slide under the seat of a pickup or place in the rack of a side-by-side, and with eight rounds of 12-gauge magnum loads on tap, the Maverick makes a trustworthy companion in bear country. What’s more, you load it up with No. 8 target loads, and it’s great for potting grouse and rabbits for the campfire or dispatching venomous snakes. The Maverick 88 Security is an austere shotgun that comes with a basic black polymer stock, bead sight and blued finish, but the steel-to-steel lockup, dual extractors and twin action bars all but guarantee that this gun will keep running under any circumstances. And nothing says “stop right there” to a large predator quite like a 12-gauge slug at close range.
MSRP: $262; mossberg.com
6. Striker-Fired 9mm Carry Pistol
Why I Love It: Familiarity breeds contempt? Nah. Familiarity means you’ll have a gun when you need it and know how to use it.
A lot of “best guns for the backcountry”-style articles focus exclusively on the wilderness, but there are dangers that lurk on the state park trails and bike paths around your home, too. A few years ago, I wrote a piece on the dangers of running unarmed, and during my research I was alarmed to learn just how many instances of assault and attempted abduction occur on the same paved and manicured trails where so many suburbanites put in miles in anticipation of their next 10K race. Additionally, my collection of friends who bike, hike, hunt, fish and generally spend time in nature also have more collected scars from attacks by domestic dogs than wild animals, so it’s not just bears and cougars that might attack you, and while I myself am a dog owner, I’m not going to let someone’s 90-pound rescue mongrel chew my calf muscle into kibble while the owner tries to placate their hellhound. We tend to view natural areas as “safer” because there are more trees and fewer people, but let this serve as a reminder that when you need a firearm you need it badly. You’re more likely to carry that 9mm semiauto pistol that rides in an IWB holster on your belt everyday than your Ruger .454 Casull in a chest rig, so even if what takes you outside is more an escape to the edge of the ‘burbs than a wilderness adventure you should still be able to defend yourself.
7. TNW Aero Survival Rifle
Why I Love It: This pistol caliber carbine is easy to carry and it’s an ideal defensive weapon in the most remote areas.
Pistol caliber carbines, or PCCs, have become popular in recent years. Of all these guns perhaps TNW’s Aero Survival Rifle is most sensible because it allows you to not only disassemble the gun for carry but you can also swap calibers and use your favorite Glock pistol magazines. It’s available in common calibers like the 10mm Auto and 9mm Luger, but you can also have one in more oddball flavors like .460 Rowland. The barrel is threaded for suppression and the top rail has plenty of space for mounting optics. Personally, I’d add a pair of flip-up iron backup sights that are co-witnessed with a reflex sight, and I’d choose the 10mm Auto version. Disassembled length is 17.25 inches, and the unloaded and unscoped weight of the gun is about 5½ pounds. Its AR-style stock is adjustable, there are a variety of color options, and the blowback design is well thought-out and functions reliably. The TNW Aero Survival rifle is light enough and compact enough for day trips, but if I were venturing deep in the wilderness in a fixed-wing plane, boat, UTV or truck, you can bet I’d have one of these is a bag with a box or two of ammunition.
MSRP: $919; tnwfirearms.com
8. Savage Model 42 Takedown
Why I Love It: A defensive gun that’ll help you procure food in the wilderness.
The Savage Model 42 in an over/under combo gun that offers a rimfire (.22 LR or .22 WMR) barrel on top and a .410 shotgun barrel on bottom. The gun is hammer-fired, easy to operate and disassemble, and it weighs 6 pounds. At less than 3 feet in length, it’s easy to pack, and while the .22/.410 combo isn’t ideal for stopping big bears, this gun is certainly suitable for defense against most threats you’ll encounter in the wild. Plus, it offers diverse load selection. You could carry a Punch .22 (either WMR or LR depending how the gun is chambered) round in the top barrel and one of the various .410 defensive loads in the bottom. You could then switch to plinking ammunition or light .410 shells to secure some food in the backcountry. The rugged design means this gun will stand up to the abuse of a backcountry adventure and its simple-to-operate design won’t get fouled up by dust and debris. It’s admittedly a gun that’s more about practicality than personal defense, but it serves both roles in the most remote corners of the country.
MSRP: $559; savagearms.com