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I'm trying to figure out if it would be possible for a group of people living in the wilds of a post-apocalypse USA could find some useable weapons and/or ammunition. The post-apocalypse in question is essentially one where monster-like creatures have overrun the world, and twenty to thirty years later, they hunt what's left of humanity, but not really focusing on destroying any existing buildings or structure save for a few places where they build their "nests." Would it be possible for the survivors to find bullets or guns just lying about or maybe in some kind of storage facility? I think I remember reading somewhere that the United States made over ten billion bullets a year, so I thought maybe it wouldn't be too unrealistic, but I'm not sure.

So given the context of the setting, what would need to happen to make finding useable weapons and/or ammunition a realistic possibility?

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    $\begingroup$ How "post" are we talking here? Finding bullets tomorrow is easy. Finding bullets when factories haven't been in operation for 10 years is another matter altogether. $\endgroup$ – Cadence May 17 at 19:14
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    $\begingroup$ Which type of CARTRIDGES are you realistically going to find, not having been spent already, in the US? How it's stored is the only thing that "usable" ammunition has to do with. - After we're done with everything made before 1986 in the first few hours, the kind that only go into Russian bolt-action rifles (in America, because we ain't got none of their fully's), because they're rimmed and rimmed cartridges don't go into American fully automatic weapons. The question should be which weapon will you find in the US, with cartridges still available: the Mosin–Nagant. $\endgroup$ – Mazura May 18 at 8:05
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    $\begingroup$ Which is the second most produced bolt-action rifle in the world and the one of the two that's still in service (the other was the Mauser Gewehr 98), and third of all time of non-crew-served weapons, the winner being the Kalashnikov AK-47 which is fully automatic. List of most-produced firearms $\endgroup$ – Mazura May 18 at 8:09
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    $\begingroup$ People still die from time to time from ammunition left over from ww1. Its called the iron harvest and is quite dangerous in belgium and france. This war ended over a 100 years ago. $\endgroup$ – Vladimir verleg May 18 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ How many people need to be armed in the context of this effort? Are we talking like a small band, or is this like trying to arm a militia? The feasibility of getting ahold of modern weaponry via a given source changes drastically depending on how many guns we're talking about. $\endgroup$ – Iron Gremlin May 18 at 18:48
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Some variables need to be established in order to come up with a sensible answer.

The first question is geography. In some parts of the United States, local governments have imposed various restrictions on ownership of firearms. Other localities might favour shotguns, or large calibre hunting rifles (for deer, moose etc.), AR-15's (shooting small game or "varmits") or handguns (urban areas). So characters are not going to go around like kids in a gun store and just pick up what they need - they might only find weapons which are of limited utility for them, even if the former owners were satisfied.

The second issue is ammunition. Ammunition needs to be carefully stored otherwise it will degrade. Ammunition sealed in metal ammunition cases is probably ideal, but factory packaging that resists moisture is second best. Ammunition stored in relatively temperature controlled environments will also last a long time. Otherwise, the primers and propellant will begin to deteriorate, and the casings can also corrode (especially things like Russian steel cased ammunition - lots of surplus Russian ammunition was sold starting in the 1990's to go with things like SKS rifles).

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The best way to store and carry ammunition

The third issue is just what sorts of weapons are needed. "Monsters" are probably not going to be affected by .22 Long rifle ammunition, but keeping your game pot full might depend on your skills with it. Human predators may be deterred by a .22, but you will really need something more powerful to ensure the target stays down when hit (.38 for handguns is about the minimum. .223/5.56 X 45 has become almost ubiquitous in the US for AR and Mini-14 style weapons, but .308/7.62 X 51 is a far more reliable choice. Larger calibres are also needed for larger game, or to reliably engage at long ranges.

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Good for big game, not so much for rabbits

Movies and political myths aside, fully automatic weapons are not available to civilians in the US, except under very tightly controlled circumstances (essentially the trade for the very limited number of "grandfathered" weapons which are now collectables). Military armouries and police stations will be where these can be found, but over the decades looters will have been using bulldozers to knock down the vaults and without proper training and fire discipline, the ammunition may have been blown away in blazes of glory. Carrying a belt fed machine gun is a pain due to the size and bulk, and even a proper automatic rifle like an M-4 will require a load carrying vest capable of holding 10 magazines if you are serious about using automatic fire.

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There's a reason they dress like that

When you get down to it, any competent machinist can make a firearm with hand tools (the Sten gun from WWII was designed to be built that way, and Pakistani gun smiths can make replicas of virtually any firearm you can name). Hand loading ammunition is possible so long as you can collect the casings and have access to the tools and chemicals, so you are not just limited to scavanging. In a really post apocalyptic environment, it may even be more sensible to make or find a black powder firearm, as your ammunition resupply will be easier to solve (you can make your own gunpowder and even your own shot or ball projectiles).

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The AK will be ready next week

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Your ammunition will be done shortly. You said 15 cases, right?

The other avenue of approach is to relearn the art of making bows, especially longbows (warbows with 100 lb draw weights) or steel crossbows (using a spanning mechanism, you can have up to 1200 lbs draw weight). These bypass issues like ammunition (although you still have to find or make arrows or quarrels), and are much quieter than firearms as well. Bodkin pointed arrows or quarrels could penetrate mail armour, so should have some effect on monsters, unless you are fighting Godzilla, in which case even a Barrett light .50 rifle is pointless.

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Making a longbow is an art

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At 1200lbs draw, things will be uncomfortable for the target

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    $\begingroup$ If you're looting an American's house, oddly enough what you're likely to find (with its 'spam packs' of 8x54R ammo from 1959, which the supply of only recently dried up) is the Russian made Mosin-Nagant. "It is one of the most mass-produced military bolt-action rifles in history with over 37 million units having been made since its inception in 1891, and, in spite of its age, it has been used in various conflicts around the world up to the present day." $\endgroup$ – Mazura May 18 at 7:19
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    $\begingroup$ IDK which Russian fully automatic weapons fire that rimmed cartridge, but there are none that an American one does, and undoubtedly few Russian ones that do, in America. They're $100 rifles and everyone who shoots has one because the ammo's cheap. They're old, so the stripper clips don't work very well if at all, so you load by hand and your thumb gets tired before you waste too much ammo. There's 440 rounds per 'can'. Two oughta do it. $\endgroup$ – Mazura May 18 at 7:20
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    $\begingroup$ "Movies and political myths aside, fully automatic weapons are not available to civilians in the US, except under very tightly controlled circumstances" This is untrue; you just need to pay for a tax stamp and fill out the appropriate paperwork with the federal government. $\endgroup$ – nick012000 May 18 at 8:47
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    $\begingroup$ @nick012000 - citation needed, because that's the one line on this page that kept me for putting all the crap I just said into an answer. "fully automatic weapons [manufactured after 1986] are not available to civilians in the US" by law. - You're talking about transfers, of which (are the most coveted items on the planet) there are a limited number and their prices are exuberant because the artificial drop in supply created a demand. Last I check an MG42 was 40k. Which in WWII cost 100 to make, adjusted for inflation from 1945 to 2020, that's ~1.5k $\endgroup$ – Mazura May 18 at 9:23
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    $\begingroup$ Anecdotal, but it's kinda like antique cymbals. From what I hear, people don't sell them, they trade them, for similar other things that YOU cannot have because you're not rich (and money doesn't matter to those people so it's not for sale for money). You can't make an antique cymbal, and you can't make something in 2020 that has somehow existed before 1986. - Stupid rule is stupid; another win for the rich people. Either we can have 'em or we can't have 'em; MUYFM. Except it's unconstitutional to say I can't own a thing that I own.... $\endgroup$ – Mazura May 18 at 9:37
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The real trouble isn't the deficit in small caches of firearms and ammunition. Others have pointed out that the United States has more than plenty of these things.

The problem is that, in an event that allows monsters to overrun the US (not just invade it), likely much of that will have been exhausted in the initial fighting. If we were to plot out the remaining ammunition along a curve, we even know what shape it must be! The only unknown factor would be along the x axis and how far in the future it approaches zero.

If fighting (or hiding from) these monsters is a matter of survival, and if only small pockets of humans remain, then we have a situation where most people went down fighting (and presumably expending ammunition). If instead they didn't even have a chance to fire and could leave behind large caches of ammunition... what has changed that ammunition will do any good for your characters in the story?

I suspect strongly that they will occasionally stumble upon small caches. A box of handgun ammunition, a revolver with a few unexpended rounds, things like that. But these will likely be on the order of once every 6-24 months. Not daily, and never in quantities that will make them comfortable.

As for weapons themselves, any firearm that stays out of the elements and avoid significant rust will either be serviceable or can be made so with basic tools and know-how. But without ammunition they will be little more than paperweights.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica May 18 at 16:38
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    $\begingroup$ Presumably the monsters are not interested in the ammo. So a survivor gathers a large horde of ammunition. Then some time later they're killed by the monsters. They would have used some of their ammunition, but the odds are good that they didn't use all of it. Basically I think the most common finds would still be large caches, they just wouldn't be in warehouses, gun stores, or other obvious spots. They would be abandoned or breached safehouses. $\endgroup$ – Ryan_L May 19 at 3:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Ryan_L You're describing a single case. This isn't a single case. Average out over the entire contintent, over every person... ammunition either gets used up, or is so ineffective that having large dragon hoards of it won't help the heroes. As I said, they will occasionally come across it, but never enough to make them comfortable. The chances of finding the big pile of the guy who was killed before he could use it, before someone else found it and wasted it, are slim. Lottery jackpot slim. $\endgroup$ – John O May 19 at 4:15
  • $\begingroup$ I'm saying that survivors will tend to gather supplies. This will deplete the surrounding region. Decades into the apocalypse, which is when the OP's question is set, these small caches will have all been found and either used or stashed away in larger hoards. Survivors don't have to be killed by a monster to leave their stash unattended. Maybe they died of natural causes. Maybe they had to move to a new location and couldn't carry everything. Maybe they died while away from their safehouse. People are not going to waste ammo. They'll ration it heavily unless their life depends on it. $\endgroup$ – Ryan_L May 19 at 4:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Ryan_L That doesn't matter. Gathering supplies just means that the bullets get used up quicker (easier to find, all in one place). Doesn't change the curve. On the average, the supply dwindles. There won't be anything left decades later. $\endgroup$ – John O May 19 at 12:38
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Yes, easily.

I think most people don't quite understand how many guns there actually are in the USA. Here's the fact:

For every 100 people in the USA, there are around 120 civilian owned firearms.

This means that, on average, every man, woman, child, and baby in the USA owns 1.2 guns. The house with a nuclear family in it has five guns in it on average. If I searched a US neighborhood and did not find at least one gun in a safe, I'd know that I'm experiencing a severe localized statistical anomaly.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica May 18 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ @ Warcupine In Canada, yes, carrying ammo and having a gun is having a loaded weapon. Restricted ammo and guns have to be carried separately and stored separately otherwise it is treated the same as a loaded gun. Having a gun in a holster is having a gun, period. You don't have to draw it to be charged. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme the Second May 18 at 13:33
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    $\begingroup$ Averages do not illustrate the very localized nature of gun ownership in the US. Although there are more than enough guns to arm every US citizen, some states have gun ownership rates as low as 5%. Nationwide gun ownership rate is about 20-30%. And it definitely deserves pointing out that half of all civilian guns are owned by just 3% of the population. If you're in Arkansas, finding a gun will indeed be easy, if you're in Rhode Island, not so much. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang May 18 at 13:44
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    $\begingroup$ @NuclearWang No way is there any state with gun ownership rates as low as 5%. Gun owners are very wary of gun registries, or "surveys" that could be used to create unofficial gun registries. What those surveys really measure is, what percent of citizens are dumb enough to brag about the guns they own. (As for me, well, I lost all of mine in an unfortunate canoe accident...) $\endgroup$ – workerjoe May 18 at 17:06
  • $\begingroup$ @workerjoe I would add that in states with a lower reported gun ownership, gun owners would be even less inclined to fill out the aforementioned surveys, skewing the stats even further $\endgroup$ – TCooper May 19 at 0:36
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After a few decades, Yes

There are two sides to this problem. Ammunition, and firearms to fire them. Both of them should be fine as long as it's only a few decades later.

Ammunition

I admit I didn't actually know this, so I asked Google. This guy has fired off some ammo significantly older than the time frame you're contemplating. He seems like the closest thing to an expert that I could find: a police officer assigned the task of disposing of old ammo people drop off because they don't want it in the house anymore. According to what he wrote, your characters shouldn't even have to worry about how to make new ammunition (which is a thing that probably can be done).

The only problems I’ve ever had with ammunition not working is when I try to shoot old shotgun shells…especially the paper hulled ones. A great majority won’t fire. It must be the difference in primers between the shotgun and handgun ammo or the fact that the paper hulls attract moisture.

As a general guideline, you should never shoot ammunition that:

Is corroded
Is misshapen and doesn’t fit into the chamber easily
Has the bullet pushed back into the cartridge
Is rusty
Has a cracked case

If it doesn’t have any of these characteristics, it’s probably safe to shoot. One additional caution: if an old round doesn’t immediately fire, keep the muzzle pointed downrange for about 10 seconds before clearing the gun. Occasionally, old ammo “hangfires” which means there is a delay between the striking of the primer and the detonation of the gunpowder. If you have a batch of ammo that is hang firing, I would not shoot any more of it.

Weapons themselves

There are plenty of folks out there who know how to make replacement parts and have gunsmithing tools. So even repairing firearms shouldn't be a problem.

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    $\begingroup$ New ammunition from scratch would be a non-trivial challenge. The casing, bullet, and powder are all easy enough to make, but the primer - the element that actually sets the bullet off when struck by the firing pin - requires some knowledge of chemistry and equipment that isn't exactly easy to come by in the postapocalypse. $\endgroup$ – Cadence May 18 at 2:27
  • $\begingroup$ Today preppers know how. The kind of apocalypse in the question isn't rapid enough to prevent someone using a web scraper to archive Wikipedia & Crash Course Chemistry, off YouTube, the online course archives some universities offer, etc. Computers won't last forever, but a few decades? Plausibly still around, especially as more-common solar makes it easier to power them. Black powder isn't that hard to make. Primers are much tougher. But there's a good chance the knowhow won't entirely be gone. Don't underestimate preppers: skilledsurvival.com/how-to-make-your-own-ammo $\endgroup$ – Ton Day May 18 at 3:49
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    $\begingroup$ What I'm getting at is the sort of apocalypse described won't prevent survivors from still having access to advanced knowledge. And once someone works out a way to make primers - and there will be people who have the knowhow - they can spread the knowledge around. There might not be many people who can do it, but I can't see the knowledge having been lost. Too much will have survived. $\endgroup$ – Ton Day May 18 at 3:51
  • $\begingroup$ @TonDay If all the nation's power goes out, there would essentially be no internet. Without all the servers and ISPs up and running, there'd be nothing to connect to. If you had access to a satellite dish and means to power it, and there was still functional internet outside of the US, you might be able to access it. That said, the information can still easily be found in library books, so lack of internet wouldn't be a total loss of information. $\endgroup$ – Darrel Hoffman May 18 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman People will have already downloaded the information, including PDFs, wiki pages, and videos. Many already have, certainly. All you need is a small gas generator to run your laptop and read them. $\endgroup$ – workerjoe May 18 at 17:09
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Yes.

The best places to check would be storehouses, followed by factories, gun stores, and armories for police or military forces.

But these places would also be obvious to other survivors, so that may complicate it, whether they have already been looted, or the other survivors are still there.

(This assumes a short time frame. Chances that something went wrong increase with every passing year, of course, making it more difficult.)

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As John O said, ready-to-use ammunition will quickly become rare. But it's not hard to refill your own cartridges. Plenty of people do it now, sometimes it's cheaper than buying new ammo.

I would check outdoor shooting ranges. The firing line will probably have some empty brass lying around, and the backstop, if it's dirt or sand, will probably have tens of thousands of bullets in it. You can easily sift through the dirt to find it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wouldn't the bullets in the backstop be too deformed from the impact to be re-used? I suppose if you had the means to melt them down and recast them it might be useful... $\endgroup$ – Darrel Hoffman May 18 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ They would deform, yes. But you can easily recast them. Lead melts at a pretty low temperature. youtube.com/watch?v=PSgQ82Kqhzo $\endgroup$ – Ryan_L May 18 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ Here's another video. I know they're not making bullets in it, but the point is we see them melt lead with just a wood-fired open flame. youtube.com/watch?v=K1cpJBtWnQg $\endgroup$ – Ryan_L May 18 at 19:39

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