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I'm creating a world several hundred years after an apocalypse, but am struggling to get the decay of our current civilization right.

The world in short: Earth was hit by an apocalypse in the 2060 (nothing too fancy, just standard nuclear apocalypse with everybody throwing nukes at each other; plus some nanobots going rogue, based on that question). Several hundred years later, world is quite recovered, crowded with changed animals and demons (mutated humans). Humanity barely survived and is still scarce in the world; there are three to four bigger cities all around the world, several small villages, but apart from that not much.

My heroes are traveling through Vietnam and Siberia at some point of the story (Siberia several months or even a year later than Vietnam). Because they need to defend themselves against animals and demons, I came up with the idea to let them find weapons and ammunition stored away in a cache by the Vietcong and (in Siberia) by the Russian army in an old bunker.

My question is split in two parts:

  1. Can a firearm (preferably a handgun of a type used in the the Vietnam War) and ammunition stored away in a cache in the jungle of Vietnam last until about 2650 and still remain usable or relatively easy repairable? How does such a cache have to be constructed? What about a firearm (handgun and/ or rifle) + ammo stored in a Russian army bunker in Siberia?
  2. Can a person repair such a stored gun to fully functional conditions using only handtools that would be carried by a typical scavenger or found in the environment? This might include something like knives or a prying bar, maybe a wire cutter or an axe/ hammer, and also things found in the environment, such as sand for polishing, acid juice from fruits or animal fat. Power tools or workbenches are not allowed.

To make it clear, the weapons don't have to be in perfect condition, just restorable. Any rotten wood like a handle or stock is okay, since it can be replaced quite easily. Rust outside is also okay. Just the mechanism and the barrel have to be in such a condition they can be restored easily. Ammunition should be usable, too.

The required knowledge for our heroes is not the focus of this question, until it would be necessary to restore nearly any part inside using abilities only a gunsmith has. You can expect them to know how to field strip a gun and solve minor technical problems, since they have seen and used guns before. When they came to Siberia, their knowledge might be grown to a level necessary to understand the inner working and mechanics of an assault rifle like the AK.

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    $\begingroup$ According to this answer and a few others to similar questions, ammunition won't survive anything on the scale of centuries without losing its explosive...ness, and it's doubtful that any other components will be intact either. $\endgroup$ – Cadence May 18 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ "I'm creating a world several hundred years after an apocalypse, but am struggeling to get the decay of our current civilization right." Grab yourself a copy of The World Without Us if you haven't already. $\endgroup$ – a CVn May 18 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ Humanity barely survived and is still scarse in the world; there are three to four bigger cities all around the world Cities are never self supporting and require a large external support network to supply basic foods and even water. If humanity barely survives and is still scarce then the existence of functioning cities (especially in a hostile world) is dubious. $\endgroup$ – StephenG May 18 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ they need to defend themselves against animals and demons Their society might naturally develop a considerable proficiency in using more "primitive" weapons. A knife, sword, spear or some kind of bow and arrow are very effective weapons. A sling is another deadly weapon that was used in warfare for centuries. The trope of "leftover" firearms in post apocalyptic scenarios is not the only way to go. $\endgroup$ – StephenG May 18 at 22:07
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! We're glad you could join us! When you have a moment, please click here to learn more about our culture and take our tour. We're lenient with first-time users, but please understand that StackExchange's Q&A model is one-specific-question/one-best-answer. You've asked four questions and they're not related enough to be easily ignored No sweat this round, but please keep it in mind to avoid closure as "too broad" in the future. $\endgroup$ – JBH May 18 at 23:55
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So many negative thoughts!

Let's put our creative hats on.

  1. Immersed in oil. O2 excluded. What holds the oil? Glazed pottery urns sealed with wax. The oil could be mineral, olive or rice bran. Yes the volatiles may have evaporated and the whole lot set into a nasty waxy mass but I still argue for minimal corrosion.
  2. Stored in an inert atmosphere (nitrogen / argon). Containment will be more of an issue but, say an airtight concrete bunker filled with an inert gas.
  3. For extra insurance say a combination of 1&2.

Of course with option 2 at least one of your party members are going to die when they enter the chamber.

The key factors are going to be:

  • Excluding oxygen

  • Keeping moisture out

  • Keeping it cool

  • Keeping the temp stable

I would also note that modern smokeless powders don't degrade the way black powder does.

700 years is a big ask though.

If I were to create a scenario I'd go for Siberia. Imagine a bunch of pessimistic Russians (who knew?).

  1. They build a bunker in the side of a mountain below the permafrost line.
  2. They line it with concrete so it's airtight.
  3. They fill it with as many AK47's as they can lay their hands on + tools and spares to service. All packed in ph neutral preservative in sealed containers.
  4. They include enough ammo to win a small war (remember standard Russian military doctrine relies on massed fire) similarly packed and sealed.
  5. They pump in Argon until O2 levels are minimal. (Also plays to Russian sense of humour - 'Anyone opening this door is going to get a big surprise, nyet')
  6. They seal the doors and just for laughs bury the whole lot under a few meters of ice and snow.

If steaks good enough to eat can be cut off a mammoth that's emerged from the ice I feel there's at least an even chance some of these munitions will be useable.

Have 'at er dudes

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    $\begingroup$ I'd have more problems believing on someone burying a cache of weapons with such an intrincate scheme that I would on simply believing the weapons just survived 700 years old by chance. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft May 20 at 10:35
  • $\begingroup$ the products of long term hydrocarbon breakdown are acidic, not something you want to immerse iron in. an open container will allow that to escape but will also allow the material to evaporate and pick up water. Oil and wax are just bad ideas. $\endgroup$ – John May 20 at 13:11
  • $\begingroup$ Hey guys. No argument on the intricacy of the scheme. Just spit-balling some ideas to kick off discussion. Re John's specific comments. Open containers? I specified that the containers be not only inerted but also sealed. I agree breakdown products are a problem. This is one of the reasons the scheme is intricate. By excluding oxygen it was my intention to limit oxidation. Noting also that in sealed containers breakdown products will reach equilibrium levels & so limit further breakdown. Let's not just rain on this parade but think about how we can help the OP make it work. $\endgroup$ – pHred May 21 at 3:09
  • $\begingroup$ Governments and private militia probably do cache weapons underground sometimes, in case an enemy might overrun their position or they might need to fight a guerrilla war. I could see the notoriously paranoid Soviet Union doing so. The Viet Cong of course were overrun and fought us out of tunnels. It is entirely reasonable to believe that there are some 1970s weapons still sitting in a forgotten cavern somewhere down there, although I doubt the containment would be as sophisticated as this answer. $\endgroup$ – workerjoe May 21 at 17:43
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Not unreasonable:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmoline

Cosmolene is a mix of waxes and oils. Fresh, it's about the consistency of vaseline or peanut butter. Exposed to air, it hardens into candle wax.

If you can contain it, vaseline can be used. It doesn't turn into gummy crud exposed to air, but even modest temperatures result in it liquefying and running off.

So...

applying this principle:

Take 45 gallon removable head plastic barrels. Pack with weapons. Fill barrel with cosmoline, vaseline or any low temperature melting point wax. Fasten the lid. Plastic (Polyethylene) doesn't rust. I don't think it is subject to creep. It will degrade from exposure to UV light. A barrel full of guns and wax stored in a cave should be good for centuries.

Ammunition. Other sources have mentioned that it would not be good after hundreds of years. Not sure why it would degrade if kept from air. (My suspicion is that the metal crimp at the bullet is not fully air tight, and so air and water vapour very slowly degrade the powder or primer.) If, in addition, you keep it cold, 700 years doesn't seem unreasonable. In general organic chemical reactions have a strong temperature co-efficient, dropping by a large factor with cooler temps. (I recall a vague generalization of a factor of 10 for each 10C change)

Surfing some firearms sites the big problems are indeed oxygen and water. A cool dry environment is best. Oxygen eventually destroys the primers. Eventually water and air and trace amounts of NOx in the air causes the brass to corrode.

Ammunition stored in Pelican cases with a new greased o-ring gasket, with a packet of oxygen absorber, and a desicant packet then closed it with a lump of dry ice in it, vent open, and up. The CO2 sublimes, fills the case with dry CO2, over flows through the vent. Then close the vent. My experience with the pelican cases is that they are airtight. I have had days when without opening the vent, I cannot open the case. I had closed it on a low pressure day. (The cases are good to 30 feet water, and are warranted against everything but sharks and small children.)

More cheaply: The standard military canisters were designed for decades storage, and ones that havent been opened and shut much have very tight gaskets. Just adding a desiccant and O2 absorber to one of these may be sufficient, especially if stored in a constant temperature environment.

The largest degradation in this case would be the barometric pressure changes causing the ammo boxes to 'breathe' each inhale bring a bit of oxygen and water vapour in. a container that could deform with pressure changes might be more effective. Say a plastic gas gerry with caps put on with silicone seal.

Gaskets eventually dry out, lose their plasticizers, and crumble. Again oxygen is the culprit. A film of grease may add decades to their life.

Addition: Zeiss Ikon comments that the primers degrade. And even a small percentage of non-fires will make an awkward pause in combat. Your options:

  • Special run of ammunition that was designed for storage.
  • The weapons stored are modern flintlocks designed to use smokeless powder and minie balls. This would play hell with your rate of fire, but if you have guns and your opponent has rocks or arrows the odds are in your favour.
  • Instead of ammunition, you have an entire production facility mothballed. And while I doubt the ability to keep everything at liquid nitrogen temperatures, I don't think impossible to keep something in a dry inert atmosphere.
  • Retarded time field. For the ammo it hasn't been 700 years. Remember all the Faerie legends where someone danced the night away in Faerie, and came home to a hundred years having passed? Only the other way.
  • You don't explain it. Your protagonists don't know why it still works.
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    $\begingroup$ Primers degrade -- old "corrosive" military primers are good for forty years or so and stay reliable, up to seventy with "some of these will fire." Modern styphnate are good for, at most, about twenty. 19th century mercurics about the same as styphnate. Nitrate powders similarly, especially if produced under wartime "rush production" conditions. All of these might be slowed by storage at liquid nitrogen temps -- but that isn't going to last centuries in and of itself. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon May 20 at 13:35
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for cosmoline. I have seen M1 Garands dipped in cosmoline that spent 70 years in the Philippines that looked like they just came off the line. (I have also seen ones that were stored "dry" that were unsalvageable.) Going from perfect after 70 years to usable after 700 is not crazy. Removal does not have to be difficult. One person I know got it off by hanging the gun nose down in his attic all summer. Known-bad primers could easily be replaced by using a drill (it better be bad though). A medieval chemist could probably have made lead-azide if they knew to try. $\endgroup$ – UrQuan3 May 22 at 19:52
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If you are at all willing to shorten the timeline of your story, you might be interested to study the history of the Gahendra rifles. These were made in Nepal in the 1880s and stored in the royal armouries. Fast forward to the early 2000s or so and, post-coup, loads of these old guns came on to the market, relatively cheap. Not a bad buy for an untouched century old firearm of somewhat dubious quality.

They clean up pretty well and some people do in fact in shoot them. Without simultaneously blowing their hands off. It can get warm and rainy in the summer, cold and snowy in the winter. But the weapons survived pretty well.

I concur that anything stored in Vietnam will be a heap of rust after seven centuries; and probably even after one century!

But a much better equipped, better constructed Russian facility perhaps with better conditions and higher quality weapons & methods in general might allow for caches of weapons to survive relatively unscathed for a century or two.

Ammunition may not last for 700 years, but it could easily last one to two centuries. Anecdotally, I've read a number of accounts of folks happily shooting off ammo of WWII and WWI vintage.

The key is how well the guns and ammo are stored, and thus what condition the bunker was left in when originally abandoned. If it was carefully evacuated, left intact and locked up and then forgotten about, your characters might just be in luck!

On the other hand, chances are better it will be hastily abandoned, left disheveled and unsecured during the Pockyclypse and will thus be subject to scavengers.

I'd just hate to have to wander all up to Siberia just to find a gun of dubious utility!

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The stuff in Vietnam is toast. Pervasive humidity, warm climates, and storing metals do not mix.

The stuff in Siberia might survive, provided they put it someplace that froze over and they used archival grade materials.

Plastics, oil, and wood have volatiles that will outgas, and will produce some reactive elements that will destroy the rest of the gun. The metals in firearms are corrosion resistant but nothing made of iron is corrosion proof. Springs in particular will be destroyed quickly as they can't be made as corrosion resistant and still preserve their qualities.

Guns often constrain multiple different metals which can cause galvanic corrosion, because of this don't expect anything that has been plated to survive.

Extremely low temperatures can slow all these reactions to the point properly stored firearms might might be usable with a little work if they stayed cold enough the entire time. Wood parts however will be powder due to the dehydrating effects of cold. Note you still want the guns in sealed containers ice is nearly as bad as water for corrosion.

Remember the firearms were made by the lowest bidder, they were never designed for centuries of storage.

The ammunition is garbage no matter what. Ammunition has a shelf life, reactive chemical in general do not store for centuries. In addition the various metals can actually react with each other exacerbating the process, picture old batteries..

If they were actively maintained over the years instead of stored they may very well be usable as is but even the best passive storage makes for very poor conditions.

ideal storage for metals (the wood or plastic parts can be replaced) is low temprature, low humidity, no oxygen, no salts, no dust, and surprisingly no oil (oil releases volatiles over long term storage). Ideally any wood or plastic parts will be stored separately otherwise volatile coming off them will corrode the metals. They should be stored in sealed metal or glass containers filled with inert gas.

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  • $\begingroup$ A frozen environment that varies in temperature even if its always below zero will experience sublimation which enable corrosion of metals. constant temperature and no air exchange constrains the volatility of plastics since its stops once the partial pressure of the low vapor pressure volatiles equilibrates with the total atmospheric composition $\endgroup$ – EDL May 19 at 7:02
  • $\begingroup$ that is asuming there is water present inside whatever container the gun is in, one of the advantages of low temperatures is the air contains very little water to begin with. the equilibrium point of most of the volatiles are close to the volatiles all being gasses. $\endgroup$ – John May 19 at 12:32
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I also doubt modern weapons abandoned in a cache would still be usable in 500 years. But I used to work with a gentleman who made reproduction 18th century duelling pistols for fun - starting with a block of wood and 3 blocks of metal and only using handtools and techniques from that era.

Maybe instead of a military bunker your heros could discover a museum with similar reproduction pieces? Modern steels might well last and be useable if replacement woodwork can be made. Gunpowder would be sufficient and is relatively low tech so possible they could either have some already or also rediscover the recipe.

[Officially the guns he made were inactive. Unofficially they were authentically accurate, although it turned out that powder from shotgun cartridges was a bit too powerful.]

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I want to address the second part of your question:

Can a person repair such a stored gun to fully functional conditions using only hand-tools that would be carried by a typical scavenger or found in the environment... Power tools or workbenches are not allowed

While it may not work as well (and probably missing some major features), I am confident in saying this is 100% possible. Improvised fire arms have been made from almost literally everything made of metal.

Basic examples:

This is a Brazilian improvised firearm made from a paintball marker (there is even an office chair tilt knob for cocking handle).

Here is a gun made from a metal table leg.

These Swedish guns were made from boat components and a pipe.

This trash bag full of handmade zipguns was turned over to Mexican officials in exchange for cash and amnesty.

This beautifully hand-built gun was turned over in the same buyback program.

Here are some guns found when a Japanese was arrested after producing improvised guns for over 40 years. (full article with more pictures)

These were used in an assassination attempt on a South Korean official, they are almost literally just pipes taped to wood.

Converting old flare-guns into pistols seems to be a favorite of criminals in India.

This gun was made to emulate the famous AKM despite only being bolt action.

Semi ironically these eoka type pistols were made by African colonies from the expended 20mm cartridges of their oppressors.

More complex examples:

Groups in The West Bank have been covertly producing The "Carlo SMG" which has been used in many terrorist attacks.

Improvised Sten Guns have been made across the world from the IRA to Yugoslavia to Guatemala. (The one pictured was made from just an angle grinder)

Similarly The "Błyskawica", based off the Sten was widely used by the Polish resistance during ww2. (Top is Błyskawica, bottom is Sten)

The "Borz SMG" was widely used by Chechen Separatists as a crude semi-disposable weapon to ambush police and military forces, after which they picked up whatever guns they could find.

P.A Luty famously/infamously wrote a book claiming it was impossible to ban guns because people would just make their own, then explained how he made this gun from scrap metal and hand tools (Image is of a modern copy made from his book).

Summary: This is all to say without a machine shop, a gun can be easily made. Anything that could be salvaged that resembles a gun would make for an even more effective improvised weapon


Bonus:

Nerf gun conversions from South Africa

Homemade AK like smgs from Bangladesh

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Firearms made early than the 18th century had very poor quality steel and poor methods of preservation for the wooden stocks. They had very short lifetimes, especially on the battlefield when exposed to wind, rain, mud, and blood. But today, people collect weapons that were made in the 18th and 19th century, and they are still functional. That's because people learned to make better steel and learned how to preserve the wood.

Today, we know how to make awesome steel and other alloys with high hardness and corrosion resistance. Under ideal environmental conditions, firearms that were high-quality plastic and metal construction, like an M-16, would be either viable or repairable. The lubricants exposed to air would have broken down, and the slides and receiver might stick, but cleaning and lubricating and working the mechanisms should make them operational. It's possible that springs might weaken, too. But, I would expect a cache would have a small set of tools and replacement parts of wear-prone items.

If the weapons were standard "dirt cheap because they are made of dirt" AK-47 then I would expect that they would be less likely to survive without corrosion and rot making them unusable.

But, assuming ideal conditions, many disfunction weapons might be torn down to make a few functional weapons.

So, an arms cache buried in a hole during the Tet Offensive would not provide ideal conditions. But a command bunker for the government types might. It could conceivably be sealed against humidity and deep underground where the temperature is low and stable.

For Siberia, I would think that Modern Russian caches and depots are as well designed as anyone else's caches and depots, and the weapons would be in good condition.

The ammunition will degrade if the temperature varies and humidity is high. So as long as the packaging is intact and everything was cool and dry, it would last for a very long time. ANd, the muzzle velocity produced by the ammo would be reduced, and some rounds might not provide enough kick to support semi-automatic fire -- they jam instead. But, manually racking a round would still work

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    $\begingroup$ Even high quality steel will rust away to nothing in a humid environment after 700 years. Springs in particular because of the composition are very vulnerable and difficult to replace. wood and plastic have volatiles which will outgas over hundreds of years. $\endgroup$ – John May 19 at 2:46
  • $\begingroup$ rust needs oxygen, and good preservatives are designed to prevent the ingress of that. $\endgroup$ – bukwyrm May 19 at 9:49

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