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So, nuclear war has wiped out civilization, and brought humanity to its knees. Nuclear winter, radiation and violence has turned the Earth into a wasteland; a slaughterhouse and a breeding ground for monsters. The few human beings who survive must contend with violent raiders, mutated creatures, and mutated humans, and for that purpose almost everyone who's able carries a gun to defend tehmselves- AR-15's, 9mm handguns, and shotguns being the most common means of self-defense.

The problem is: ammunition. Since the war human civilization has been shrunken back to small city-states and farming villages scattered across the desert. They lost the industry that allowed for ammunition and whatnot to be produced. But, I still want them using their guns, even after decades or centuries. So here's my question: Would it be possible for them to craft ammunition after the apocalypse?

  • The technology in the wasteland is about as advanced as the 1890's, just with lower industrial capacity.
  • The main types of ammo they want to produce is .223/5.56, 9mm, 7.62mm, .44 magnum, and 12 gauge shotgun shells.
  • This story takes place in the southwestern united states, so they have access to natural resources from that area.
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    $\begingroup$ The question cannot be answered unless a lot more detail is provided about the technological level of the hypothetical world. If they are truly "as advanced as the 1890s" then there is absolutely no problem -- they could have easily made those sorts of ammunition in 1890. (As an example, the famous Luger semi-automatic pistol widely known as Parabellum was introduced in 1898; and it was not the first semi-automatic pistol available.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 23 '20 at 16:58
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    $\begingroup$ Um, pick somewhere else. Those are natural resources in the southwest. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Dec 28 '20 at 13:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Mazura: What do you mean? $\endgroup$ – DT Cooper Dec 28 '20 at 15:33
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    $\begingroup$ I was being (not entirely) facetious. Yours is the opposite problem of this, How would I make guns uncreatable in a post-apocalyptic world?, frame challenge answers to which include: everyone who knows how to do it needs to be dead, all precious metals have evaporated, and there can't be any encyclopedias laying around, or you have to handwave all of physics. Let alone that in the SW US, you will already find everything you need in the right person's basement. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Dec 29 '20 at 3:29
  • $\begingroup$ 'Would it be necessary for them to craft ammunition?' If you want .308, etc. probably. In reality we're all going to be shooting at each other with 22LR because those come 500 in a box about the size of a fist and have been flying off the shelves for at least the last decade as fast as manufacturers can make them. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Dec 29 '20 at 7:24
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Huge caches of ammo and guns.

There used to be a lot of people. Back when there were many people, manufacturers made lots of guns and ammo for all the fighting all those people were going to do. Now there are just a few people left. The giant troves of guns and ammo remain, and they are more than enough for the little bit of fighting that now goes on. Guns and ammo keep.

https://www.nrafamily.org/articles/2019/10/28/can-ammunition-go-bad/#:~:text=It%27s%20just%20smart%20policy.,it%27s%20been%20stored%20reasonably%20well.

Twenty-five years later, I was asked to write this story. I trekked back to my now-departed father’s gun cabinet, grabbed the .303 and a few cartridges and marched down to the pond-dam range. Blam! The gun fired! The ammo is at least 75 years old, if not 100.

“I’ve shot factory loads from the 1870s, and they went bang and hit the target accurately,” said NRA Museums Senior Curator Doug Wicklund, affirming that ammo can indeed last a long, long time, and the .303 wasn’t a fluke.

Your people have retrieved a few dozen truckloads of bullets and guns and they keep them dry and secure. Like everything else in the wasteland, they conserve what they have.

bullets

http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1947490,00.html

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  • $\begingroup$ Probably not very likely. The whole scenario starts with a nuclear war wiping out civilization including many of the ammunition stores your talking about. (What doesn't get burned gets buried.) Then lots of whats left gets used up in the period of civil disorder that follows. And most of what remains is in the hands of the military. Flash forward 100 years? How much of that stockpile do you really think will be left? $\endgroup$ – Mon Dec 28 '20 at 8:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Mon - I am most optimistic about the caches that are buried! $\endgroup$ – Willk Dec 28 '20 at 23:07
  • $\begingroup$ Yes but buried ammo cashes (like treasure) need to be found. And unfortunately, unlike pirates the deceased owners of ammo caches are not going to leave handy maps lying round for others to find. Not forgetting the fact that waterproofing, no matter how good is is going to fail over time. Lastly even if someone finds a cache it only does that one community, town any good. It most likely wont be large and even if it is there's no easy way to disburse it in useful amounts across the entire country. $\endgroup$ – Mon Dec 29 '20 at 0:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Mon - agreed re disbursing ammo. Distribution of goods after the apocalypse is going to be hard. But I love the idea of pirate style maps! Why shouldn't those cache owners leave maps? That has the makings of a fine story. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jan 1 at 0:53
  • $\begingroup$ Presumably owners of private caches wouldn't be expecting to die and could simply tell/show their friends/families (if they had any) where it was. Your best bet might be a government cache where some old records are found indicating at least the general area one was located in. $\endgroup$ – Mon Jan 1 at 0:58
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There are four components to consider:

  1. Projectile
  2. Propellant
  3. Primer
  4. Case

Projectiles are by far the easiest to make. Assuming that the EPA was wiped out, go back to making lead projectiles. This is trivial with 1890s technology and decades or centuries after the apocalypse it is unlikely that there will be much functional kevlar armour remaining to resist them. There's a catch though - manufacturing projectiles that will not disintegrate as they leave the barrel of the latest 5.56mm assault rifles is tricky - in order to (try to) maximise the wounding potential of the round there is a ferocious turn rate from the grooves in the barrel. (Don't try firing older 5.56mm ammunition through new 5.56mm assault rifles.) 1890s technology may not be up to the job, and basic lead projectiles definitely will not work for these rifles. Read here for much more detail.

Propellant is surprisingly tricky. It's relatively easy to make gunpowder - it can obviously be made with quite basic technology - but making high quality gunpowder with each grain shaped ideally for the optimum burn rate (fast burning for pistols and shotguns, slower burning for rifles) is difficult. Low quality powder that burns too quickly will cause excessive wear or even breach explosions, while powder that burns too slowly may fail to cycle a semi-automatic or automatic weapon. (The projectile will also go either too high or too low at range.) @AlexP has correctly noted that semi-automatic weapons and their ammunition were manufactured in the 1890s, but the manufacture of the ammunition and its components was undertaken by industrial concerns, not cottage industry. Bolt / lever / pump action firearms will be more forgiving of low quality powder, so these are likely to be the firearm types in use. It is also likely that the effective range of firearms will be shorter due to the inconsistent powder making tight groupings at long ranges impossible.

Primers are relatively dangerous to manufacture - they are explosives sensitive enough to explode if struck sharply - but the techniques for manufacturing them without losing fingers / limbs / factories are easily within 1890s technology.

Cases are easily produced given a supply of brass and a lathe. This is also within 1890s technology. Cases can also be reloaded a number of times if they are recovered, much more cheaply than manufacturing new ones.

So, all of the problems are potentially solvable. However, they are only effectively solvable on an industrial scale by component type. In order to have all of the weapons and ammunition you want, you must have a separate production line for each of the following:

  • .223 projectiles
  • 7.62 NATO (.308) projectiles
  • .44 magnum projectiles
  • 9mm projectiles
  • 00 buck shot (and/or slugs and/or every other shot size)
  • Rifle powder
  • pistol / shotgun powder
  • large rifle primers
  • small rifle primers
  • pistol primers
  • shotgun primers (unsure if pistol primers for 9mm / 44 magnum are compatible)
  • .223 cases
  • 7.62 NATO cases
  • .44 magnum cases
  • 9mm cases
  • 12 gauge shotgun cases (maybe also wadding? - I've never reloaded shotgun shells)

This is a ridiculously complicated manufacturing requirement which is frankly unachievable without a civilisation which is back up and running again with lots of manufacturing capacity. It also replies on the firearms still working - eventually the pre-apocalypse firearms will wear out, and 1890s technology can not be used to manufacture spare parts for some of the firearms listed. What is far more likely is that by the time the pre-apocalypse ammunition stocks have run out there will be the following production lines:

  • .45 pistol (M1911 clone or revolver)
  • .45 carbine (bolt, lever or pump action, accepting the same ammunition as the pistol)
  • .45 lead projectile
  • pistol powder
  • pistol primer
  • .45 cases

It may not be exactly .45 if there are lots of pistols and/or projectile dies of a different calibre around (it could be .44 Magnum if you really want it), but it will be one pistol and one carbine with a high-ish calibre common cartridge, as was used at times in the western United States by some of the cowboys in the 19th century, for the same reasons. A pistol that can be fired rapidly at short range, a carbine that can effectively engage targets out to about 100m, both over-engineered to not explode if a "hot" load of powder slips through quality control.

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  • $\begingroup$ Very valid point on the modern 5.56mm. They really don't work well with naked lead, they want copper jacket. Rather go for the humble AK47. Much more field robust, fires almost anything, even naked lead castings fired with black powder works if you are willing to clean the gas mechanism every 50 rounds or so. $\endgroup$ – PcMan Dec 27 '20 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ You need a bullet mold, cutting pliers, and a press with all its dies that pop out primers from spent cases, push new primers in, seat the projectile, and dispense the proper amount of powder. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Dec 28 '20 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Mazura that's what you need for reloading with lead projectiles, but there's a limit to how many times cases can be reloaded and there is still reliance on a supply of primers and powder. $\endgroup$ – KerrAvon2055 Dec 29 '20 at 6:45
  • $\begingroup$ @PcMan - A Short Overview Of Making A 22 LR Case Into A 223 Bullet – YouTube. ... "reliance on a supply of primers and powder" - I live in the US; that's not a problem, now, nor for about the next 10k years notwithstanding any given situation other than an extinction level event. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Dec 29 '20 at 7:06
  • $\begingroup$ Cases are not lathed - at least not entirely - they are stamped in a 'sloppy' die, which allows the metal to be squeezed up from under the punch and between the punch and the die to form the main body of the cartridge, then they may be trimmed to size, and potentially necked down, and may have extraction grooves, primer wells etc lathed in. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Dec 29 '20 at 14:45
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Producing certain ammunition is not tech intensive: smelting lead and letting it drip from an height will make round bullets, stones can be worked to make a something round enough to be fired by a gun, one can load a cartridge with metal shards.

Sadly, none of the above is remotely similar to

.223/5.56, 9mm, 7.62mm, .44 magnum, and 12 gauge shotgun shells.

They would resemble what people used in their rifles during the first years of usage of gun powder based weapons.

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  • $\begingroup$ Alright how do I shoehorn/had save this issue cause I want my characters using cool firearms $\endgroup$ – DT Cooper Dec 23 '20 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ Casting lead is trivial, I've done some nice shaped castings in 2-piece wood form, with the design carved out of it. Just hot enough to char the wood, allowing easy removal, yet cool enough to not erode the wood after hundreds of cycles! When the lead cools, it shrinks just enough to un-stick itself from the mold. I doubt EPA or OSHA would approve (due to lead), but it is easy and works like a charm. $\endgroup$ – PcMan Dec 27 '20 at 16:38
  • $\begingroup$ @DTCooper - per usual in these questions, what is not "cool" about an elephant gun you can load with ground-up utensils? $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Dec 29 '20 at 7:18
  • $\begingroup$ @jdunlop: No automatic fire $\endgroup$ – DT Cooper Dec 29 '20 at 12:15
  • $\begingroup$ If you know how to make brass cartridges, making copper jacketed rounds is even simpler: just stamp an ogival bullet shell in copper and fill it with molten lead. The base of the bullet need not be copper for the copper sides to engrave properly into the rifling. In fact, a concave-based bullet would engrave even better. Maybe it wouldn't be as good as a modrrn boat-tailed bullet, but it would be good enough. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Dec 29 '20 at 14:51
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The problem is defined in your question. You've stipulated a general level of technology of about the 1890s combined with a lower level of industrialization than existed in the North America/Europe at that time. You then want to produce modern ammunition (.308, ,233 etc)

Using the US as a template most of the great names in firearms manufacturing Colt, Browning etc were well established by then. This period also corresponds to the great era of railway construction and a massive expansion in steel production as well as the mechanization of production (Henry Ford is just around the corner to).

All this means in theory you could produce the ammunition types you want in quantity with relative ease - if not with modern propellants. But you also lack the vast urbanized workforce and factories (the scale) as well as the raw materials and transport networks needed to do so.

No cities filled to bursting with new migrants, only small towns and villages and no great factories as a result. No railways or road network to deliver the raw materials you need and no-one to mine/manufacture them for you even if you had a transport grid.

At best firearm and ammunition production will be a cottage industry - smithies and armorers producing limited numbers of rounds using recycled/re-forged materials and job lots of powder/primer of varying quantity in amounts large enough to meet local demand (if their lucky and no-one starts a war).

In short you wont get consistency in calibers or in the quality and quantity of ammo until some form of national trade grid and industrial base is established.

In fact your survivors are probably better off sticking to muzzle loading, rifled muskets and black powder etc because they WILL be easier to manufacture in quantity and to consistent standards. This is because the manufacturing processes involved are simpler & fewer in number than modern firearms and you don't require as much specialized equipment or rare/hard to get inputs. Your whole town can be armed and given enough rounds to defend themselves from most threats.

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  • $\begingroup$ Black powder, yes. Because it mostly does the job (aside from the smoke and fouling issues) and better propellants are really difficult to make without a serious chemical industry infrastructure. But definitely not muzzle loading. If you have the metallurgy to make a firearm, you have the ability to make a breech-loading cartridge firer. Building this requires knowhow and skill, not infrastructure. $\endgroup$ – PcMan Dec 29 '20 at 5:31
  • $\begingroup$ I considered simple breach loading weapons (single shot). My concern was access to brass and percussion primers/percussion caps etc. Some communities might have access some not. So I set the tech level/solution at the worst case scenario level. $\endgroup$ – Mon Dec 29 '20 at 6:31
  • $\begingroup$ it's quite possible to make a cartridge out of paper or plastic (like shotgun shells). The brass just helps with better handling for automatic feeds, better gas seal, and handing&storage. The primer is the greatest hurdle, but there are many functional and easy ways to make them, just not safe ways. Something like a Mercury Fulminate primer can be made with 1200's tech. Just have an assistant with spare fingers do the making and initial assembly. $\endgroup$ – PcMan Dec 29 '20 at 7:00
  • $\begingroup$ You need (consistently) good quality waxed paper for the paper cartridges, access to supplies of refined zinc and copper to make the brass & access to the all the raw material needed for the mercury fulminate primers. Unless the community concerned basically lives on top of these resources they all have to be imported. In any event there's also a whole lot of specialized knowledge/learning involved in the crafts needed to make these products. Ask yourself, what are the odds any random group of survivors are going to come together at exactly the right location with exactly the right skills. $\endgroup$ – Mon Dec 29 '20 at 9:07
  • $\begingroup$ the OP's question is not about a single, isolated community stranded in one forgotten valley. It is about a society of "human civilization has been shrunken back to small city-states and farming villages scattered across the desert", with "technology in the wasteland is about as advanced as the 1890's" and "in the southwestern united states, so they have access to natural resources from that area". Think Fallout Vegas, without the robots and rayguns. There would be traders, and workshops, and cashes of materials, and books... Chance they will be able to make ammo including primers? 110% $\endgroup$ – PcMan Dec 29 '20 at 10:00
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I am going to cheat here, but maybe you like my cheat.

Have you thought about pneumatic rifles/airguns?

With that tech level you should be able to build the air tanks necesarry to hold the pressure. It's better than blackpowder as it doesn't give away your position and is much more silent. Not to mention it doesn't require dangerous and complicated chemistry like primers and smokeless powders do.

It has it's own drawbacks, but it's up to you to determine whether these drawbacks outweight the benefits in your setting. The quality of bullets worries me the most about your setting. With cottage level industry producing good quality ammo is going to be an issue.

-Giradoni Air rifle

-Texan Airguns

-Air gun

-McGlashan Air Machine Gun

-Caselman Air-Powered machine gun

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