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The world has ended and our valiant group of survivors is roaming around the ruins of the old world about sixty years after the apocalypse.

Now, most people carry around black-powder muskets and maybe a few, and precious, guns of the old world.

Would it be possible to make bullets out of the alloys regularly used on cars or buildings?

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    $\begingroup$ You mean musket bullets? Iron bullets are not that easy to make, survivors will be scavenging for lead. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jun 29 '18 at 0:11
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    $\begingroup$ Steel bullets do actually exist; see an example. But, what's wrong with lead? Lead is heavier (which is good for a projectile), melts at much lower temperature, can be worked and cast with simple equipment, and is very common. One common car battery has enough lead for thousands of bullets. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 29 '18 at 0:12
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    $\begingroup$ And there should,be plenty of lead car batteries in the wreckage of the old world to make ammunition with. To cast steel needs high temperatures, I could cast lead soldiers at home without special equipment when they allowed such things $\endgroup$ – Sarriesfan Jun 29 '18 at 1:27
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    $\begingroup$ Black powder muskets for post apocalyptic survivors is extremely unlikely. It is very hard to manufacture black powder, especially as a small group of people struggling to survive. If they were set up well enough to create black powder, then they would probably be doing just fine and wouldn't have to worry about anything. $\endgroup$ – Tyler S. Loeper Jun 29 '18 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ general ammunition and guns could potentially survive after 60 years, many people that stockpile ammunition keep it in air tight containers with moisture absorbing packs. Reloading equipment and dies are also somewhat common in the sporting world. It wouldn't be overly absurd to still have our modern day firearms in use. As others have said black powder specifically can be tricky to produce. While at the moment in real life gun powder is abundant and available in very large quantities. (At least in the US) $\endgroup$ – Nate W Jun 29 '18 at 20:58

11 Answers 11

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You can make bullets out of almost any metal if you want, but there are always going to be tradeoffs. Why are most bullets today made of lead?

It's dense.

This means that you get more mass (hence more momentum) in a smaller package (hence less wind resistance). It's also deformable, so when it hits a target, it spreads and does more damage. It also has lower melting point meaning less heat energy to form the bullet (as AlexP points out).

That said, many high velocity rounds (like sniper bullets) are actually encased in a copper alloy or steel so that the bullet doesn't deform on firing due to the large change in velocity.

Steel and Steel core bullets (which would be the primary alternative because of availability) are actually in use today; they make great armour piercing rounds because although they're not as dense as lead, they're much harder, meaning that they have more penetrating power with the momentum they have.

So yes, you could use other metals, but when you do, you just need to bear in mind the properties of the metal you're using to understand the pros and cons the change introduces.

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  • $\begingroup$ the softness of lead is also necessary to work with the rifling of the barrel. otherwise the bullet would need to be able to fall through the barrel, which means loss of power (hot gas passing through the gaps) and losing the spin, and subsequently, precision. $\endgroup$ – Burki Jun 29 '18 at 8:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Burki This is only true of small-bore weapons. Large-bore weapons easily deform harder metals than lead, e.g. the jackets on 762 rounds. $\endgroup$ – Dan W Jun 29 '18 at 9:16
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    $\begingroup$ Not only is the softness of lead useful for rifling. It also flattens on impact and transmits much more force to the recipient, whereas steel will just drill a neat hole through that will cause minimal damage to the recipient unless it hits a lethal spot. Painful, yes, disabling, after a period (they will need to seek treatment, but they will have a good chance of being able to draw back from the combat), and less damage (still ball through the shoulder, minimal wound; lead ball, the expansion might well rip most of your shoulder off). $\endgroup$ – 23fc9a62-56de-47fb-97b4-737890 Jun 29 '18 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ Lead also was historically used because of its low melting temperature. You could easily make lead bullets with what you have in your house. Iron/steel would require a foundry of sorts. $\endgroup$ – Aron Jun 29 '18 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ There's a scene in Little House in the Big Woods where Pa makes lead bullets in his living room, no foundry required. $\endgroup$ – MissMonicaE Jun 29 '18 at 17:56
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Boring old lead shot. This is post apocalypse! Can't we jazz it up some?

Let us consider the blunderbuss, a black powder muzzle-loaded shotgun and a fine weapon for your survivors. I thought you could shoot anything from one of these but apparently not. The following is an article on Lewis and Clark's use of blunderbusses.

http://www.lewis-clark.org/article/2360

Finally, blunderbusses were never loaded with bore-damaging nuts, bolts, screws, scraps of steel, or rocks.1 They were loaded with lead pellets of suitable size for self-defense.

  1. Young George Shannon once bent the rule slightly, but with due consideration for his rifle. Lost for sixteen days (August 26-September 11, 1804) while on a hunting assignment, he ran out of bullets. Desperate for meat, he at last killed a rabbit by shooting it with a piece of a hard stick.

So your survivors could keep their barrels intact by using lead shot - which I here assert you could work into shape cold. But where is the fun in that? Could they not use some sort of postapocalyptic shot soft enough not to scratch the barrels but hard enough to hurt?

I propose teeth. There will be lots of dead after the apocalypse and lots of teeth to be had. Even if dead a long time the teeth will be ok. Teeth are durable and dense and can withstand being fired from a gun but teeth wont scratch steel. Teeth with fillings will be the best because of their higher density. Plus it seems bizarre in a good post-apocalyptic fantasy way to get shot / bit with a load of dead teeth.

If the tooth shotgun has been done someone link it up. It seems too good for me to have invented just now.

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    $\begingroup$ ‘Who.. Who are you??’ - ‘They call me the Tooth Fairy’ -Boom $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jun 29 '18 at 5:52
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    $\begingroup$ +1 just for turning my teeth into lethal munitions. $\endgroup$ – Michael Eric Oberlin Jun 29 '18 at 9:29
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    $\begingroup$ @willk Tooth shotgun - I absolutely love it. I'm gonna try it too. Just need to "find" some teeth. $\endgroup$ – Headblender Jun 29 '18 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Headblender That comment is far more ominous given your username. $\endgroup$ – Dubukay Jun 29 '18 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ Creative, good post-apocalyptic vibe I agree, but I think teeth are right up there with rock, glass, tool-steel, etc. in terms of hardness! The density might be lower, but that's what you're banking on. They should use fishing weights, batteries, things that are actually softer $\endgroup$ – Nathan Smith Jul 1 '18 at 3:34
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Your problem has already been solved

Black powder requires supplies of charcoal (NOT briquettes), sulfur, and potassium nitrate. Charcoal's not that hard to come by, but unless you have a chemical factory somewhere to process the fertilizer that might (might) still be around after 60 years (plastic bags wouldn't last that long...), you will have had to mine for the sulfur and potassium nitrate.

Which means they found lead, it's commonly found with sulfur.

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If your survivors are not only roaming, but also have set up a camp somewhere, and found a couple of still operational solar panels, they could make a coil gun.

Coil guns are pretty simple weapons. Manufacturing one require electromagnets (easy to manufacture), capacitors (which are present in most electronics, computer PSUs usually contain large ones), batteries (backpack with car batteries?, you can also keep the capacitors in a backpack to make it easily wield-able), and some electronics know-how.

They fire pretty much anything that's magnetic, without requiring it to perfectly fit into the barrel. Nails and bolts are the most obvious candidates as ammo. If you use a replacable PVC barrel, damage to the barrel when firing won't be a problem.

Here's an article on how to make your own, to keep in your apocalypse shelter.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's an interesting alternative! $\endgroup$ – Sasha Jun 30 '18 at 3:03
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There are a lot of great answers here, but I think the primary question is what level of technology you're imagining people being comfortable with. Historically, we used slings, spears, and arrows for a long time before we developed gun powder (~tenth century), and it was substantially longer after that when we began to mass-deploy it to individual soldiers.

I would suggest starting by looking into the manufacturing process of dragon carbines, one of the earliest literal hand-cannons. I'm not an arms manufacturer so I can only say so much, but they were distributed to early dragoon units, the predecessors of modern US Army Rangers and a number of other spec ops groups in the world.

It comes to mind because, at that early level of technology, firing a hand cannon was dangerous to any user, let alone an untrained one. What we see as bullets today came about because of extensive manufacturing process upgrades, even to make it to muskets. I would imagine you would need someone familiar with the weapon, someone familiar with metallurgy, and someone familiar with machining.

The issues of what metals could be used were addressed in an earlier answer.

I would suggest reviewing this link, to an explanation of how rounds are created in the modern day. It might feed an idea for how people could reproduce it, and what the trade-offs might be.

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May suggest keeping a quarrel of bolts for crossbows. Some heavier siege crossbows can pack 1200lbs. They make a sound comparable to small firearms and have quite the recoil. Almost a gun with dirty cheap technology.

this is Tod's xbow. 1250lbs! punches through steel plate

Also the Repeating Crossbow 10 Shoots of dirty cheap ammo vs a musket. Chu ko nu, Chineese invention from thousand years ago Reserve your precious bullets for decisive battles, the rest can be resolved appliying crossbow fire at leisure.

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  • $\begingroup$ although an arrow can be stopped fairly easily, especially ones from a weak repeating crossbow, tares, sheet metal, even wood will stop them. whereas there are few portable ways to stop a bullet, even a musket ball. $\endgroup$ – John Jun 29 '18 at 4:47
  • $\begingroup$ You know why the repeating crossbow never caught on in the real world? It's because, fictional depictions notwithstanding, rate of fire isn't everything. If you don't have enough energy to punch through an opponent's armor, being able to fire a dozen shots at them isn't worth any more than firing a single shot. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jun 29 '18 at 22:32
  • $\begingroup$ Rate of fire vs power. The repeating xbow can harm a human vs Siege xbow penetrating more than 1mm of solid steel. Vs modern firearms which have all the advantages, no contest. The OP mentions Muskets, which have an atrocious rate of fire. Know that the Siege Xbow can shoot 3 times per minute. So the RoF are similar. Now the xbow offers advantages of simplicity and reliability while mantaining power. $\endgroup$ – Gustavo Jun 29 '18 at 22:48
  • $\begingroup$ That's an interesting suggestion, but the question was about exotic bullets, making quarrels for crossbows out of steel and aluminun are common pratice. $\endgroup$ – Sasha Jun 30 '18 at 23:50
  • $\begingroup$ Argh!... Can people stop using the verb to fire when describing non-fire weapons? Bows, cross-bow, slings, trebuchets, etc. shoot - they don't fire. $\endgroup$ – Oscar Bravo Jul 2 '18 at 7:40
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Pure lead is soft and good for musket balls. Bullets are mostly made with lead alloys with varying amounts of tin, antimony and other lesser alloying ingredients.

Wheel weights from older cars are lead of unknown composition and the lead terminal posts and electrode grids from car batteries are clean lead of high quality with possibly some undesirable alloying materials in small proportions.

Older electronic solders are 60% lead - 40% tin (a good hard mix to add to other soft lead) and vintage plumbing pipes are almost pure lead.

The roof cladding on some (and flashing on more) vintage churches and heritage buildings may still be pure lead (more common in Europe). If the Church has an old style pipe organ many of the pipes were (hand) made from pewter which was mostly tin and good for alloying with the lead, old perter goblets, tankards and trophies are also mostly tin. Stained/leaded glass windows had the came made of soft lead.

Most hospital radiology departments will contain at least one room that is lined with lead sheeting (X-ray) or lead bricks (nuclear/radiation medicine) and will hold a lifetime supply.

Searching a harbour for sailing ship keels may net you ton lumps you will be hard pressed to salvage without scuba gear or pearl divers and a crane barge. Melting down the scuba-diving belt weights would be a temptation as well.

Finding a horde of old letterpress printers type or Linotype/Intertype/Ludlow type metal slugs would be the best as it would be clean and mostly good alloys of suitable hardness.

Sifting out bullets from the earth bank at an old shooting range can net you a few ton for a couple of weeks hard labour.

Casting lead bullets or balls is a (trivial) time honoured tradition and does not require any great skill and only minimal tools. Lead alloys come in many varieties but generally melt below 330 degC (620 degF) and down to 240 degC (465 degF) for tin-antimony eutectic alloys. Testing for alloy hardness can be done with not much more than a nail, a known weight and careful measurement.

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    $\begingroup$ Nothing signals the End of Civilisation more than having to melt down printing-press type to make bullets... $\endgroup$ – Oscar Bravo Jul 2 '18 at 7:45
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Well, with a world of wreckage, you can pick up and do bullets with everything

The real problem is: Survivors will have to spend ALL the time available to look out for food in a world without a chain food. They live in the greatest open graveyard there's ever been. One day, without industries and central distribution, all canned food will go stale. These people won't have the time to waste to prepare gunpowder. I strongly suggest they create slingshots: low-tech enough to be prepared with any material available, and you can use everything as projectile. Slingshots, spears, knives...As long as they are lethal and won't require excessive maintenance they'll be okay.

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    $\begingroup$ Hmmm. The question states 60 years have passed, so I suspect the worst of the food crisis would be resolved, one way or another, several decades before. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Jun 29 '18 at 8:15
  • $\begingroup$ right-o. O well, after all, before the war, they did try to advertise insect diet as perfectly healthy... $\endgroup$ – Valerio Pastore Jun 29 '18 at 10:09
  • $\begingroup$ The question is just too vague to really know whats going on here. Still, primitive tools are going to be much more likely than complex remanufactured ones because Ocam's Razor. $\endgroup$ – Tyler S. Loeper Jun 29 '18 at 13:40
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    $\begingroup$ The story is about 60 years after the apocalypse, there are already lots of stablished farming comunities. Spears and bows will be a big part of the story. $\endgroup$ – Sasha Jun 29 '18 at 18:55
  • $\begingroup$ @ValerioPastore are you suggesting it's not perfectly healthy? $\endgroup$ – Aethenosity Jun 29 '18 at 19:36
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Your survivors don't need to be limited to black-powder muskets. It is perfectly feasible for survivors to make their own modern ammunition even without heavy industry. Modern bullets consist of 4 main parts, the projectile, the shell casing, the gunpowder and the primer.

In real life, plenty of people buy loose projectiles, shells, gunpowder, and primers and combine them in a reloading press. These are run by hand, no electricity or gas necessary. They do this because it often can save a lot of money if you shoot a lot. So your survivors are going to need to own or scavenge these presses, one for each caliber they plan on using.

Next, they'll need a way to get the shells. If your survivors already have ammunition, they can just keep reusing the same shells. Most will be fine to refill and use again. If not, or if they ran out, the survivors will need to scavenge an autobody or mechanics shop. You're looking for a stamp mill, which you can use to stamp out shell casings. You don't absolutely need to use brass, steel will work fine. It is probably beyond your survivors' capability to make shells that are not straight-walled, at least not without purpose-built tools. This limits you to cartridges like .45-70 Government, .45 Long Colt, or any other cartridges without a shoulder. So not .556 Nato or 7.62x54r.

Next, you will need to make the gunpowder. For this, you will need nitrates, charcoal, and Sulfur. The nitrates can be leached out of manure, especially poultry manure. This is a time consuming process though, as the manure needs to decompose quite a lot before you can really leach anything out of it. Charcoal is easily made by just piling wood in a metal container and cooking it until it stops steaming. The charred wood inside should be charcoal. Sulfur can be acquired in large quantities from car batteries.

Last, you need mercury fulminate for the primer. The mercury for it can be scavenged from old thermometers if you can find them, or from mercury switches which could be scavenged from electronic hobby shops. I'm not going to describe how to make this in any more detail, because it's a potent explosive. It is also extremely sensitive to both heat and impact, and so should be made and handled with great care.

Now all you have to do is combine these pieces in the reloading press I mentioned above, and you have a bullet. It will fire just fine in a modern gun. However, the recipe I described above makes black powder, which will provide much less energy than modern smokeless powder. You will get a big cloud of white smoke with every shot. Further, the bullets will have a lower muzzle velocity. Also, semi-automatic or fully-automatic guns will likely not cycle, as the recoil will be much lower. This will effectively make them bolt action. Last, black powder leaves a lot more residue than smokeless, so your guns will need to be cleaned a lot more often.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, the choice of keeping it black powder was in part to remove most automatic weapons from the story. $\endgroup$ – Sasha Jun 30 '18 at 3:07
  • $\begingroup$ My point is though, that black powder doesn't automatically mean muzzle-loading musket. You can cartridges or shotgun shells that use black powder. So pump action, lever action, and bolt action rifles and shotguns are all possible. You also don't need to worry about keeping your powder dry. $\endgroup$ – Ryan_L Jun 30 '18 at 3:30
  • $\begingroup$ Most of those old world guns will be on the hands of the three dominant societies. The common man is a nomadic hunter/gatherer, their muskets will probably be made out of scrap they scavenged or bartered for in some city. $\endgroup$ – Sasha Jun 30 '18 at 12:46
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, guns are a side effect of resource shortages. After appocalypse there will be a population shortage and resources may actually be resonably freely available to the lay person. Everyone can pick nuts and berries, the fit can hunt and the farmer types grow eggs and bacon. Without population pressure there is room to get away from the greedy people. $\endgroup$ – KalleMP Jun 30 '18 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ Cody's Lab on YouTube got his first strike for his DIY video on refilling his own shotgun primer. The primer is the tricky part and making it safely is hard. The materials needed when in large amounts are a safety hazard and a public danger if not properly handled. Black powder is a well understood process and early 1900 chemistry books describe it in adequate detail to do safely. Raw materials will be harder to source but may be a task for nomadic sorts. Chemical manufacturing is not a very good nomadic activity. $\endgroup$ – KalleMP Jun 30 '18 at 22:37
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A lot of good answers here already. This isn't so much another answer, as commentary on other answers that is too extensive to go in comments.

  • Bullets need to have accurate weights and dimensions. Deviations can result in poor accuracy and dangerously high chamber pressures. The higher the power of the firearm, the more critical this is: a modern rifle is much, much less tolerant of out-of-spec ammo than was an old muzzle-loading flintlock.
  • As others have noted, lead (alloy) is by far the best answer, in terms of high density, correct hardness, and availability. However another major factor is that its low melting point makes it easy to mass produce precise bullets at home, simply by casting them. Even today many people do this as a hobby, and bullet moulds are readily available. It can even be done on a stove top (although outdoor is preferred!) Most alternatives will require either specialised machinery or hand- finishing in a well-equipped workshop -- a very slow, costly process.
  • Plain cast lead bullets are only suitable for low velocity applications. In a high velocity load, the lands of the rifling tear through the lead, leading to unstabilised (wildly inaccurate) bullets and heavy lead fouling (which produces dangerous pressures.)
  • It is also possible to make jacketed bullets at home -- or at least, in a well-equipped home workshop that has a press for swaging -- and some people also do this as a hobby. However one of the raw ingredients to do this is the jacket "cup." Those seem simple but require precise dimensions; otherwise the round will be wildly inaccurate. So without a supply of cups, you will need a factory to make jacketed bullets.
  • It is unlikely that much 60 year old ammunition will be serviceable. When made new, it is usually rated for a minimum of 10 years' careful storage, although most people still get satisfactory results out to 20 years or so. Beyond that, the reliability and performance begins to decline. I have personally tested a batch of forty year old ammo. Two out of 20 rounds misfired, and the rest had very inconsistent velocities. So 60 years? Hmm, I sure wouldn't want to stand in front of it; but equally well for self-defense it would be my emergency last choice.
  • It really isn't practicable for people to make modern smokeless powders for themselves. The process is quite complicated and high precision. Small errors will produce material that it is both ineffective and dangerous.
  • It is possible for people to make their own black powder, and again, some have done so at a hobbyist level. However there are several complications. None of these are insurmountable, just things to consider for your scenario:
    • Black powder is completely unsuitable for use in modern semi-automatic firearms as it will rapidly foul the gas system, and the ratios of port to chamber pressures are wrong. You also simply can't squeeze in enough powder to get similar muzzle velocities to factory ammo.
    • Performance control -- to get consistent velocity at safe pressures -- requires control of granulation and moisture content. It is not impossible to do this as a cottage industry, just be aware that it is much more complicated than most "internet recipes": in a traditional powder mill, mixing the (well known) ingredients was only step two of an approximately seven stage process. Without this, you will either have to use reduced powder charges (giving limited range and low performance), or risk eventually blowing up your gun
    • Getting the saltpetre is difficult. When black powder became important to national security, an entire industry was set up just to do this. Their commissioners had the right to enter any private property in search of soil likely to contain saltpetre (stables, animal pens, and disused latrines.) I have read an account by a re-enactor who tried the process at a Renaissance Faire. After about two weeks of foul stenches, he had managed to reduce a ton of well-manured stable dirt down to about ... half a pound of saltpetre.
    • Compared to smokeless there are several disadvantages to black powder, apart from the much lower power. It is more sensitive to moisture, more easily ignited accidentally, and of course produces prodigious clouds of smoke, especially in humid weather.
    • It's not all disadvantages, though. As previously mentioned, smokeless powder deteriorates over time; the process can be slowed down but not stopped. Black powder does not do this. Provided the containers are completely air tight so they are not affected by moisture, a 100 year old stockpile of black powder is just as good as a new one.
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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! I'm trying to keep the technology level at black powder exactly to make it so that guns aren't so prevalent. The idea of the saltpeter as an important resource for the surviving settlements is really interesting. $\endgroup$ – Sasha Jul 6 '18 at 17:46
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If you are using a tech level of black powder firearms, any alloys found in structures or vehicles are probably significantly different from the standard steel or element materials that we use now (this is assuming that the cataclysmic event occurs in the future). It may be extremely difficult to extract parts from the frame of a skyscraper, but possible to remove a rotor or door from a smashed vehicle given simple tools.

A solution to this problem may be to introduce the characters to an NPC that has the needed technology to create projectiles. Maybe he lives in a prominent town, or maybe he's out in a secluded location in the woods, but he is willing to craft bullets (at a price) when provided with metals. This bridges the gap of HOW the characters create the bullets and with what materials they use. Now they can pick up metals while on their main quest with the express purpose of giving it to the NPC to replenish their ammunition stores.

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