OK - breakdown in society - economic apocalypse in 2030 - society breaks down and the supply chain of what we take for granted fails. 200 years later we have regressed to a technological period of around 1300, however some things have survived - for example the knowledge that bacteria and viruses kill - metallurgy etc. But the destruction of supply chain has resulted in falling back on older tech.

Let's say that by 2030 a cache of oil stored modern firearms has been found (to keep this simple - lets say bolt action military rifles like the Mauser or Lee Enfield SMLE - STEN sub machine guns, Webley Revolvers). Now in theory. provided the weapons are stored in oil they should be fine with a clean - but what about ammunition? Ammo for these weapons was usually shipped in sardine can type packs in wooden and steel sealed boxes. Would the propellant in the cartridges have survived 200 years or would there be too many corrupted cartridges to risk an unacceptably high incident of misfire? Secondly - with the rifle and revolver - would it be feasible to replace the propellant for black powder (can see problems with the primer here as from what I understand, it is the primer that would most likely fail over time).

OR -

Would older tech - longbows/crossbows - be more reliable.

In a society like the British Isles, where there are very low firearm stocks outside military use, and most of those shotguns - I would like to think that after 200 years that bows would be back in use - perhaps the shotguns could have been converted to a match or flintlock - the barrel being the most complex part of any firearm to engineer and very difficult to do so without specialist machine tooling.

any suggestions?


For the Webley and SMLE, the rounds were originally loaded with black powder, and there's no good reason a Sten couldn't work (for a magazine or so, anyway, before cleaning) with 9 mm cartridges loaded with black.

On the other hand, even corrosive primers won't last two centuries, so just pulling down the ammunition and replacing the propellant with black powder won't solve the reliability problem. Military ammunition as little as fifty years old is unreliable, even when pulling down rounds doesn't show any degradation of the powder itself. Plain old misfires, and worse (from a safety standpoint) hangfires as long as several seconds become distressingly common.

What the cache could provide, to people capable of understanding what they've found, is the exact specs to produce their own ammunition. They could use the brass (or steel) cases, make their own primers (once they rediscover the idea and have examples that work sometimes), load with black powder, and be ready to fight. I don't know whether this could be done with 14th century technology, however; even their black powder was pretty dreadful stuff compared to modern Goex, Swiss, or Elephant Brand (they hadn't even discovered incorporating, never mind pressing and corning), and you'd be calling on alchemists to step to make the priming compound (which would almost certainly have to be a fulminate base at this level -- those were the first explosives, in the real world).

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ OTOH, a huge stash of Schrodinger's cats will be at least 50% live and you could thus use them as weapons :-) $\endgroup$ – Carl Witthoft Jun 14 '19 at 15:17
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @CarlWitthoft That depends how many half-lives make up 200 years. If a Schrodinger cat has a half-life of 20 years, you'll have 1/(2^10) of the original supply left. If it's got a half-life of 20 minutes, you'll have effectively none after that much time, no matter how big your original cache. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Jun 14 '19 at 15:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ humourously speaking, a Schrodinger's cat's half-life is how long until the box is intended to be open. $\endgroup$ – Carl Witthoft Jun 14 '19 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ Which, in the case of a military weapons and ammo cache, is almost certainly less than fifty years, never mind two hundred. In practice, most military ammunition is sold off as surplus or scrapped within twenty years. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Jun 14 '19 at 17:59
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "Military ammunition as little as fifty years old is unreliable", really? I'm pretty sure I fired thousands of military surplus rounds from ~1968 with 0 misfires. Is this based on some particular type of ammo? (Mine were 7.62x39s from Czechoslovakia) $\endgroup$ – Maxim Jul 19 '19 at 23:04

If you allow for a system, perhaps powered by a massive radioactive source, which maintained cryogenic temperatures, it's at least more likely that standard ammo, plastic explosive, etc. might survive without significant degradation.


Thanks for your responses. Ironically, you'd probably be better off with a flintlock weapon than a cartridge or percussion cap weapon. From my own research (British Muzzle Loaders - a wonderful Youtube channel run by a Canadian chap who has thoroughly researched the drill, life and weapons of imperial soldiers from about 1800 to 1900 has been extremely valuable) you can chart the development of firearms as machine tools and metallurgy advanced in the 19th C

The biggest challenge in making any fire arm is going to be machine tooling and the quality of the steel going into the stressed parts, never mind the precision required. The technological leap from the Brown Bess style military musket (the main infantry weapon of British forces from 1740 through to 1815 (dates are my own guestimate) and the Baker rifle that Sharpe uses in the books and on the telly is a considerable one primarily because of the tolerances demanded by the rifle and the quality of the barrel,

Today you can buy a kit to build a Baker rifle from a company in Canada. The only thing not included is a barrel - for this you need to go to a gunsmith as it is the barrel that requires the specialist engineering bit and because you don't want to kill yourself with an exploding breech.

I think a good starting point over the 'cobbling together' of weapons could be the Afghan jezzail, the often home made rifle made by the tribesmen of 19th C Afghanistan. These were usually built by local craftsmen and the firing locks found are a mix of matchlock and flintlock, percussion locks start to make an appearance. Early on the firearms are almost all matchlocks, a matchlock is a relatively straightforward thing to make, a tinsmith might be able to cobble together a crude one. Flintlocks in these weapons have machined parts and require a spring - again a sophisticated bit of metal, needing high carbon spring steel - making such by hand is a specialist job as any watchmaker will tell you. The reason why we start to see such in many Afghan made weapons in the mid to late 19th C is due to recycling flintlocks from British and Russian made weapons. However, the more skilled artisans would have been able to make the locks and springs but I suspect that in most, springs were recycled from captured or salvaged British weaponry.

The wheel lock is a sophisticated and complex design requiring again, sophisticated metallurgical skills and and understanding of clock work. If drum springs could be found then there is no reason why a crude matchlock couldn't be made. As to the primer issue - this is the biggie and this is the thing that really rules out cartridge weapons, black powder or otherwise or percussion caps - never mind the skills required to produce machinery to make the actual caps themselves. So I reckon that in reality, any cartridge weapon of 20th or 21st C design is going to be obsolete in a post apocalyptic 2230 because of the primer isssue. Gunpowder is also an issue - sulphur being the major headache.

Throughout the gunpowder age in Europe, the primary source of sulphur were the sulphur mines on Sicily in the vicinity of Mount Etna. Saltpeter and carbon can be extracted from local sources (local = Scottish Highlands and islands in the setting of this book) but sulphur is an issue. Now, such would require relatively sophisticated and extensive pan European trade routes however, 200 years after a population destroying non nuclear apocalypse As to gunpowder quality - IF the effort of building a firearm as described above is deemed worth it then there is no reason not to think that such would not exist. I am a trained archaeologist and there's ample evidence of fine axe heads from what we now know as Wales, being traded as far a field as modern Russia during the neolithic period. Flint mines in southern England supplied quality flints across Europe for a period of 50,000 years or so and the discovery of a stone age sea going trading boat on the south coast of England indicates that such trade routes were commonplace for desirable or essential materials like quality flint.

Corned gunpowder would not be beyond the skills of someone who knew their history, it merely requires adding water to the blended gunpowder, forming it into cakes before crushing it and sorting the larger corns from the finer ones using a sieve to get your different grades of powder (priming powder vs charge vs cannon charge vs explosive) corned powder is a much better prospect than uncorned especially for those who need to travel.

Sten guns with black powder? I suspect they would probably jam due to fouling of the barrel after a magazine worth - one of the reasons why gatlings etc used multiple barrels - also is the pressure from black powder enough to drive the bolt? I wouldn't know.

So looking at all the above, a more feasible projectile weapon would probably be the crossbow. Which is, after all, a 13-14th C in its final widespread military use. Tests have shown that a hand cranked crossbowman can lose around 8 bolts a minute when working at top speed (about half that of a semi competent longbow archer) Yes crossbows require some skills to make but are not beyond an artisan. They are easier to use than longbows and do not require the years of dedicated practice longbows require

composite bows again, are not beyond a skilled artisan. Horn and suitable wood can be laminated together with a glue made from boiling fish air bladders. They might, however, suffer in the damp climate of Scotland.

  • $\begingroup$ Crossbows predate the Christian era -- early Bronze age tech (and could be made with neolithic materials). However, the question was about finding a cache. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Jun 19 '19 at 12:42
  • $\begingroup$ That said, I've seen examples of semi-auto weapons running on black powder. If the cartridge is weaker, on a blowback like a Sten, you need to lighten the bolt (grind off some metal, for the easy way). Yes, fouling is an issue; that's why I mentioned "for a magazine or two". Bottom line, your story, your choice of rehabbing found technology or going all the way back to Bronze/Iron age. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Jun 19 '19 at 12:48
  • $\begingroup$ indeed, they were in wide use during the early Chin state. The crossbows used around the time of Agincourt were the apex of pre gunpowder crossbow development I suppose (disregarding post gunpowder crossbows). Those requiring a crank were very powerful indeed but also not particularly portable. $\endgroup$ – Richard P Jun 19 '19 at 12:49
  • $\begingroup$ I think the plan is to head back to the sort of tech found in dark age Europe. Therefore pre machine tools - what caches found could be valuable for parts. feasibly muzzle loaders might have be an option but crossbows make more economic sense to those without access to a supply of quality sulphur. Longbows - yes but we know the training of a longbow archer requires significant time investment. I've also considered the sling as an option - yes training is required but strength isn't required in the same way that a longbow requires it and slings are cheap. $\endgroup$ – Richard P Jun 19 '19 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ Staff slings have more range and hit harder, and don't require any more training -- maybe a bit less. Cost one stick more... $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Jun 19 '19 at 12:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.