This is a continuation of my other question How does a mid-19 century military combat a modernized one?

So, let’s say our USCA was able to destroy those damn meddling Bunkerites once and for all. Their bases in Sawtooth and Pocatello have been eliminated, and the few survivors have been arrested, tried for war crimes, and executed. Except for one. Dr. Theodore Bloomfield was a Bunkerite scientist who, along with having extensive knowledge on their weaponry and vehicles, happened to have schematics of them on him. After brief torture, Dr. Bloomfield is convinced to join the USCA’s developmental team.

My question is, even with schematics, and an expert on hand, could a civil war society recreate modern weapons?

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    $\begingroup$ What industrial capability do they have ? Chemical and materials engineering ? Because at the civil war level they couldn't make a modern helmet. $\endgroup$ Feb 24, 2019 at 3:48
  • $\begingroup$ @StepehenG: WDYM? I said Civil War Tech Level, Civil War industrial level $\endgroup$
    – DT Cooper
    Feb 24, 2019 at 3:51
  • $\begingroup$ I mean how much infrastructure exists ? What kind ? Modern weapons need modern infrastructure and lots of it. What level of knowledge backs it up ? Scientists ? Engineers ? Transport infrastructure ? Plans are simply not enough. $\endgroup$ Feb 24, 2019 at 5:24
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    $\begingroup$ Your title refers to "reverse engineering" - which is taking examples of a product/device/whatever and producing schematics. But your question suggests that they have all those schematics, and is more about whether they have the industrial capacity required. Which are you after? $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Feb 24, 2019 at 5:31
  • $\begingroup$ Not a duplicate, but my answer to this other question is relevant. On the other hand, this question is dang close as a duplicate, but IMO not quite. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Feb 24, 2019 at 6:38

4 Answers 4


Yes, but ...

It is a mistake to think about a 19th century industry building 20th century weapons. Instead, you have a 19th century industry getting selectively upgraded to 20th century standards. Afterwards, it won't be a 19th century industry any more.

If you have reached interchangeable parts, you are on the right track, and that concept was developed over the 19th century. But you also have to mass-produce them.

Assuming this Dr. Bloomfeld is really properly trained by 20th century standards (he's the grandkid of a scientists who went into a bunker, right?), consider the "simple" task of building an assault rifle.

  • Start with the propellant. Black powder won't do, it would foul the action in no time. They will need soda and acids in large quantity and good purity. Do they have the chemical industry to supply that?
  • Used to be that each soldier could cast a lead bullet with a mold, even if most bullets were centrally produced. No longer. To get a modern full metal jacket round, they need a production line and machine tools.
  • Cartridge cases were within reach of 19th century science, but feeding them into the action of a semi-automatic or automatic weapon will require uniform dimensions and quality. Otherwise the case might rupture on extraction and jam the weapon.
  • The weapon itself may be barely within their grasp, but parts will corrode much faster unless the metallurgy gets improved. A modern firing pin lasts for tens of thousands of shots. Same for the recoil spring.

That was an assault rifle. A machine gun is just the same, right? But a modern GPMG without water cooling has to switch barrels every couple of thousand rounds. That requires interchangeable parts instead of individually fitted ones. Even so, inferior metals could mean that you have to switch the barrel every dozen rounds, not every couple hundred rounds.

Next, a mortar. The metallurgy might actually be easier, but you will need a fuse. Perhaps a watchmaker can make it. One a day? One a week? How many watchmakers in your postapocalyptic 19th-century industry?

  • $\begingroup$ Um, the first proper cartridges date from 1808. The pinfire cartridge was developed in 1835. The bolt-action Chassepot became standard French issue in 1866. The Maxim gun, which brought in recoil automatic operation, came out in 1884, not very long after the US Civil War. It wasn't so much the technology as the ideas that are important. $\endgroup$ Feb 24, 2019 at 21:24
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison, a modern-day cartridge is very different from one of the early ones, especially pinfire. A 1835 pinfire would not be practical in a semi-automatic, and that is not solved by simply moving the hammer. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Feb 25, 2019 at 4:41
  • $\begingroup$ True, but the question is whether looking at a modern rifle would allow production of something functionally equivalent in the 1860s, and the fact is yes, it a great many cases it would. Gun tech went from percussion cap muskets to fully automatic weapons in less than 20 years, and it wasn't because there were revolutionary new materials or methods, but because of concepts and designs and trial and error to see what would work. If you know what will work ahead of time, life becomes much easier. $\endgroup$ Feb 25, 2019 at 17:06
  • $\begingroup$ To give a practical example, knock-off Colt 1911 pistols are made in remote villages in the Philippines, by hand (and maybe some minimal power tools), that are just as functional as the ones coming out of a modern factory. The material may be of lesser quality so it might not last as long, but the weapons go bang on command. $\endgroup$ Feb 25, 2019 at 17:09

I'd say they wouldn't be able to, not without overcoming a number of technical barriers first.

So you have 1 scientist who knows how weapons and vehicles work, and some schematics- I'd say they were a long way from being able to implement these, depending on what the scientist's background is (does he have a background in chemistry, as well as more practical aspects such as machining, engineering etc or is it more designing things on the drawing board and letting others do the fine details).

Firstly, in order to make the weapons, you need the raw resources. In order to produce metals capable of containing the pressure of firearm propellants, you're going to need a lot of trace minerals (elements like manganese were used quite a bit in the 20th century firearm production, for example). You're going to need things like chromium and tungsten for the machine tools to make the components. You're also going to need a lot of knowledge like how much trace elements are needed, how to heat treat the materials, etc. You're also going to need to know how to mine and refine these resources- all of which seems like it's going to be outside of the scientist's expertise, although a civil war society may have some understanding of these processes.

Once you have the actually raw materials like steel produced, you then have to manufacture the parts. A civil war tech society may have some exposure to milling, however it would be a fairly immature technology if they have even invented it yet, and there would be a lot of kinks to work out. Techniques such as stamping sheet metal would be used pretty extensively by the Bunkerites, and as this is an early 20th century technology the USCA would have absolutely no experience with this, this would make mass manufacturing very difficult as everything has to be milled. (One real world example I can point to is the Soviet Union, trying to adopt technologies learned from the Stg-44 after WW2. Even with help from German small arms designers, there was a number of manufacturing hurdles they had to overcome.)

Tolerances (i.e. how accurately you can machine something), are going to be vital in manufacturing weapons and vehicles. Improving this is going to be one of the scientist's key tasks.

Trying to reverse engineer modern weapons is not going to be an easy challenge, and unlikely at best. However, on writing this, one thing that could work is the scientist helping the USCA develop WW1 / interwar level weapons. A civil war tech society is probably on the route to developing firearm cartridges, and maybe 20 years or so from developing smokeless powder (which is something the scientist is likely well suited to assisting them with.) The USCA may have tried developing weapons like black powder revolvers, paper cartidges etc. Once integrated cartridges, smokeless powder and better manufacturing tolerances have been achieved, it isn't too much of a stretch to begin to work on bolt action rifles, and semi automatic handguns, as well as heavier machine guns (all probably 30 ish years away for a civil war tech society).

As a significant amount of firearms development has been collective learning on how to approach certain problems (like the best gas systems for semi automatic weapons, how to develop magazines, what propellants to use etc), the scientist has a lot of hindsight to apply to these problems. It would probably take a number of years to get working prototypes out for bolt action rifles, handguns and machine guns, but it would definitely be possible to massively improve the capability of the USCA given where they already stand technologically.

The scientist would also be able to help developing internal combustion engines, however again trying to jump all the way to modern tech levels would be very difficult.

Edit: while not 100% relevant to your question, this video analyzing an attempt at reverse engineering the 1911 pistol by a Vietnamese craftsman does give some interesting insights to the issue.


Simply put, NO!

Some of the technology isn't significantly different, and the USCA can work out what they do and duplicate them, if they have samples or schematics.

Most of these will be duds.

The precision of machining in the Vietnam era was far greater than that of the Civil War era, and the fractions of an inch involved will drive up the failure rate, hence the costs.

As regards the devices they don't have a frame of reference for, such as electrical switches and valves, if not electronics, those will take years of developing an industrial base, in order to use them. That means aircraft and guided missiles are right out.

Note that I'm strictly maintaining the definition of weapons to include firearms and vehicles only. Chemicals, such as high explosive, and supporting technology such as radar and radio communications are not addressed, even though any of those could be a game changer

  • $\begingroup$ Agreed the major limit on civil war manufacturing was not ideas but a lack of precision machining and mass production. Examining modern equipment will not help them accomplish either of those. with one possible exception, radio which was not invented until a few decades after the civil war, of course that assumes they know what a radio does... $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 24, 2019 at 14:21

Of course.

Because they aren't really reverse engineering anything. They have Dr. Bloomfield and Dr. Bloomfield has access to all the Bunkerite technology, processes, machinery and etc. that were used to make the things used by the Bunkerites!

It all comes down to does he have enough time to teach the technologically backward USCA engineers how to fill the gaps in their knowledge base.

  • $\begingroup$ Yep. And, Dr. Bloomfield also has urgency to do it. I̶f̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶d̶o̶e̶s̶n̶’̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶y̶’̶l̶l̶ ̶s̶h̶o̶o̶t̶ ̶h̶i̶m̶ $\endgroup$
    – DT Cooper
    Feb 24, 2019 at 3:52

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