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German here. I have essentially no idea of the working of guns.

I've been on a bit of a Zombie/Apocalypse trip lately. Watching the walking dead, playing fallout blablabla. I'll stick to the example of Fallout 4 for this question. Now I'm wondering about finding a functioning modern day firearm (not the ammunition. Just the weapon itself) in such a world?

The story takes place in 2280+, so over 200 years after the nuclear fallout. People are using old weapons that have been carefully maintained such as old bolt action rifles, old double barrel shotguns or single action revolvers. In the area around Boston, would it be anywhere near possible to find a functioning, gas operated weapon such as an AR-15 or even smaller SMG style weapons?

Ignoring that Raiders would have picked them up already. Could the gun survive for that long without a gun engineer or whatever taking proper care of it?

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    $\begingroup$ Related (but due to lack of answers, not a duplicate): How long would current weapons last?](worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/47104/…) $\endgroup$ Jan 12, 2023 at 14:21
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    $\begingroup$ The answer is yes. What many people don't realize is that a gun is a gun is a gun. All guns are pretty much just barrels with triggers and firing pins. Everything else is just minor details (especially from a story point of view). Most AR-15s are, from a practical perspective, no different from semi-automatic hunting rifles. It's just the aesthetic of their design that's different. The firearm technology is the same. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jan 12, 2023 at 16:57
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    $\begingroup$ gun yes, bullets no. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 12, 2023 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ @stix using black powder in an AR is a great way to ruin it and nitrocellulose slowly outgasses nitric acid, stabilizers absorb it but they cannot absorb it indefinitely. mercury fulminate is almost never used in modern primers, today lead azide, lead styphnate, and tetrazene are by farm more common, less corrosive but not stable indefinitely. 50-70 year old ammunitions is way different than 200 year old. and of course that is assuming you only have the best quality ammunition to start with. may be interesting to you. nature.com/articles/185456b0 $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 12, 2023 at 22:11
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    $\begingroup$ @stix no you simply stated it, and you are incorrect. nitrocellulose degasses, that is WHY stabilizers have to be added. they are stable right up until the stabilizer is saturated and nowhere near enough stabilizer is included to continue absorbing it for 200+ years. don't believe me ask the army apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA168206.pdf or ammunition manufacturer patents patents.google.com/patent/US20160236998A1/en time scale is important just because something is stable for a few decades does not make it stable for a few centuries. feel free to move to chat to continue. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 12, 2023 at 23:40

9 Answers 9

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Depending on the conditions the answer is a qualified yes.

Firearms are, at their core, mechanical, spring-based machines. Automatic weapons are no different except that they capture some of the energy from the cartridge and use it to re-set themselves to create a mechanical cycle.

As most guns are made of metal, they're vulnerable to corrosion (rust) and fatigue like anything else made of metal, but they're also trivially easy to repair/refurbish. Things like springs will likely need to be replaced, components will need to be cleaned, and ammunition will need to be fabricated unless it's been stored in some extremely sterile conditions (gunpowder is a chemical explosive and so vulnerable to water and other contaminants - properly stored it'll last forever, but 200 years of neglect creates a lot of opportunities for improper storage).

But aside from that, it's a collection of chunks of metal and metal lasts a damned long time.

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    $\begingroup$ On top of that, many people store their weapons in gun-safes or other relatively sturdy secure containers, or even whole armory rooms at military bases, police departments, etc. While those aren't going to survive e.g. a nearby nuclear blast (as someone recently asked), they are far more likely to preserve their contents from other less severe damage than just guns left out in the open somewhere. $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2023 at 14:42
  • $\begingroup$ Will a spring degrade if it's not under tension? $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jul 19, 2023 at 22:50
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There are two things that you have to consider when deciding if your weapon is still functional. The first is the barrel, and the second is the "action," which is the part of the weapon that ejects the spent cartridges and loads the next one. Note that I don't mention the firing mechanism. While that is an important part of a gun, and it can get damaged, in a corrosion situation, it will stay functional long after the action becomes unworkable.

Since this is fiction, you're really asking "under what conditions would a gun stay viable." For instance,

New, boxed

Under these conditions, a couple hundred years isn't a problem.

Underwater

Yea, no, corrosion would freeze up the action pretty quickly.

Heavy use

The barrel of an AR-15 is rated at around 20,000 rounds. After that, both accuracy and range drop off significantly, as the bullet will no longer expand to make a seal against the inside of the barrel.

Buried in a plastic bag.

This would probably be ok, as long as the bag maintains its seal. If the seal is broken and groundwater gets in, see "Underwater," above. If the seal is broken, but the weapon doesn't get soaked, you're probably ok after a good cleaning.

Buried in a crate

You see this all the time in the movies. This is another case where you have to decide if ground water gets into the space where the guns are. This would work in a desert, but wouldn't in a swamp or flood plain. For normal dirt, you have to consider that a wooden crate will get chewed up by the worms and bugs in a couple of decades.

In a cave

Is this a fracture cave or a solutional cave? The second is the type you will find stalactites in, and the first is the kind you find crushed rock coating the bottom of. Fracture caves are much better for storing things than solutional caves, as the latter tend to be permanently at 100% humidity, also flooding.

I think you get the idea. Water = bad, salt water = even worse. Dirt = bad. Airtight containers = good.

addendum: @jaskij mentioned oiled rags as a substitute for plastic. Oilcloth is a staple for fantasy novels, where plastic is out of place. That is specifically tight-woven cloth coated in boiled linseed oil, but oil-soaked rags work just fine if you aren't worried about getting oil all over your stuff.

The caveat to this is that oilcloth isn't bacteria or fungus resistant, and are prone to rot, so you have to use many more layers to get proper resistance when buried.

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  • $\begingroup$ Most "consumer" plastic degrades pretty quickly when buried. Bugs, bacteria, slightly acidic water, etc. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jan 13, 2023 at 2:39
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn, Not sure where you got that idea. You could find a plastic that would degrade in less than 200 years, but plastics are notoriously long-lived if not exposed to sunlight. pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acssuschemeng.9b06635 Don't use cellophane for this purpose! $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2023 at 3:08
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    $\begingroup$ Here's a story of cash that was buried and rotted. 9news.com.au/national/… I chose this one because it's got good pics of how well it was sealed in plastic. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jan 13, 2023 at 3:23
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    $\begingroup$ Gotcha. I'm seeing a few things in that article. The first is that the money was moldy, which says it got wet. Unless you have a good seal, plastic isn't gong to help you against water. The picture of plastic bags and containers look like they're a bit beat up, so my guess is that the plastic got damaged when the building was demolished. Runaway Bay. gets about 1277mm of rainfall each year, so it wouldn't take long for mold to take over once paper gets wet. $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2023 at 6:37
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    $\begingroup$ I've heard urban stories about people digging up WW2 or 50s guns which were buried in oiled rags, and were still in working condition up digging up in 21st century. $\endgroup$
    – jaskij
    Jan 13, 2023 at 17:26
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Shouldn't be a problem.

200 years is a long time but I'll switch the narrative up a little bit here and suggest that even if you can't find a functional AR-15 or similar, manufacturing them wouldn't be that hard. I think there's a common misconception that guns are sophisticated items, requiring special hardware and materials to manufacture. While high quality guns should be machined within tight specifications, "guns" are pretty trivial technology, even modern military rifles. (You'd have a hard time, say, replicating a carbon fiber stock but the actual mechanics that make the gun shoot bullets are not so complicated that you can't produce them in a machine shop, and then just use wood for the body.)

So, as others have mentioned, I believe you could find a properly packed and stored AR-15 that still works, but more than likely they (or something functionally identical) will be getting produced again, because it's not that hard. Repeating rifles were coming into mainstream during the American Civil War, so 1800s tech will get you what you need.

You should wonder about the ammunition though, because that's the real tech. When people "make their own bullets" they buy primers fully formed [the primer is the bit at the back of the bullet that works as the ignition source when struck]. Making your own casings is just metal working. Making gunpowder is doable (but would be some effort to set up from scratch!) I think the biggest barrier to modern guns in post-apocalypse is actually getting production of primers going again, so you have the bullets you need. (They also aren't terribly high tech, but the chemical composition is more sophisticated than gunpowder, so it's a question of being able to source those chemical components. Doable for a post-apocolypse society but probably not for a single guy on his off-the-grid farm, by himself.)

Just to try and frame it better, if your society has guns, then it's probably something like early 1900s tech? We were making all kinds of machine guns in the early 1900s. The Thompson Submachine Gun was invented in 1918, based on an invention from 1915. Full automatics were around in the late 1800s, though.

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    $\begingroup$ making your own casing is a lot more than just metalwork, it is also metallurgy to make something that can be formed and withstand firing and extraction. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 12, 2023 at 21:43
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    $\begingroup$ The casing of a cartridge is the metalworking equivalent of the primer: it's a lot more involved than you'd expect. It wasn't until World War II that cartridge manufacture became reliable enough that you could count on the gun feeding correctly after each shot -- during WWI, fighter pilots would carefully inspect their ammunition before each flight to reduce the chances of a jam happening mid-combat. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jan 13, 2023 at 1:48
  • $\begingroup$ @mark Yeah to be clear, I don't think the metal of the primer is the problem. I imagine there would be ample scrap metal that could be turned into bullets (and guns) for a society getting back up to speed. Sourcing the chemicals would be the biggest problem with post-apocalypse gun use, in my opinion. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Jan 13, 2023 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ "Making your own casings is just metal working." - ye, but you need the precision instruments and Johannsen Gauge Blocks to be able to calibrate to machine them right into tolerances. Without a modern style machine shop this is close to impossible, without spending a LOT of time. $\endgroup$
    – TomTom
    Jan 13, 2023 at 22:13
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    $\begingroup$ I did not mean computers, I meant machining PRE CNC - yes, they can go back to that but without someone knowing the details that is hogwash of an idea. You need Johannsen Gauge blocks to get comparable precision. You need a lot of infrastructure. If you have people, after 200 years, that trained for that - they will now how things fit together, but otherwise you have problems getting the precision you need. And without electricity you must go back quit a lot - water powered lathes. That is a LOT of knowledge you must fit together. $\endgroup$
    – TomTom
    Jan 14, 2023 at 7:06
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Short answer: Very possible, but depends on storage method.

Longer answer: If you aren't familiar with firearms, or haven't used them, you might be surprised at the relative simplicity of even a modern firearm. An AR, for example, only really has two moving components - the trigger group and the bolt carrier group. It certainly surprised me the first time I took mine apart (when they were still legal here; thanks Stalinda...) as to how simple they are.

Now, some obvious caveats - a firearm left out in the elements will eventually rust and wear.

However, most people don't leave their firearms out in the field. Assuming no long-term storage prep, a modern AR in a gun safe (assuming no flooding or major water ingress) would easily be good for a long time.

The main reason I cite modern ARs is that most come with a protective coating on them to prevent rust. This coating is quite hard, but if the rifle is regularly used (and abused - e.g., given to grunts or fired lots) then this coating will wear/chip off - exposing bare metal and making it likely that rust will start.

The other reason that modern ARs would be fine is that modern guns fire modern ammunition - which uses modern non-corrosive powder. Most militaries stopped using corrosive ammunition in the 1960s, but there are plenty of WW2 and WW1 firearms that are still perfectly functioning (I myself have a 1947 SMLE) corrosive ammo, if not properly cleaned afterwards, would eat away the barrel.

So - TL;DR: Yes, modern firearms aren't complex, don't use corrosive ammunition and have a coating to make them very rust resistant - so long as it's not left out in a field or otherwise submerged in water - they would be fine.

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Finding a modern weapon not rusted out into dust: Yes.

Finding a working modern weapon: Actually maybe.

The reason here is that some weapons might not be unpacked at the time of armageddon, and they are usually encased in protective grease right after manufacture, that grease is synthetic oil designed to last quite long. So, a properly encased weapon might appear working, if you feed it working ammo, after this many years. There will be limited number of places to find one in case of a total war before nuclear waste, but chances are some cases would get lost in transit, some would get buried under some not too heavy rubble and retain shape, some might not get unpacked at some army camp, and some might be found at battlefields hit by distant nuke's petrifying power, that turns sand into glass, hiding a heated but not melted machine gun under a monolithic dome, preserving it for possibly thousands of years.

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This question reminds me that one of my rifles is now over 100 years old. I bought it long ago, when it was decidedly not over 100 years old. Anyways, it looks and fires as well today as it did when it was made. The bolt on it still operates as smooth as butter. And I see no reason why that would be any different in another 100 years. So to me the answer is a clear yes, so long as the rifle is stored in a decent environment.

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  • $\begingroup$ My guess is that you've actively maintained this ancient rifle, which is a mismatch for OP's scenario. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Jan 13, 2023 at 19:32
  • $\begingroup$ No, nothing beyond the usual occasional cleaning. The question specifically mentions that they would be carefully maintained. $\endgroup$ Jan 16, 2023 at 17:07
  • $\begingroup$ Doh! You're right. My memory sucks. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Jan 16, 2023 at 19:55
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Short answer it depends...

Long answer, probably but:

An AK-47 will survive just about anything, but probably won't shoot very accurately if it's an old mass produced Soviet model (they had many issues with barrel flex). If it's stored in a less-than-ideal environment though, things like the handguards, which are usually made of wood, are very likely to have rotted away.

AR-15s generally need a lot of maintenance, but it'd take a lot of neglect to put one completely out of commission. The receiver body is generally made of aluminium, and the non-firing parts (furniture) is usually plastic. The gun bits are usually very hard stainless steel that will last a long time, but will probably need cleaning before firing if it's been subjected to harsh environments.

Bullets will survive very long term so long as they are kept dry. Modern stockpiles tend to store them in hermetically sealed cans.

Any weapon packed in cosmoline will survive long term, possibly even centuries, but will need some rehabilitation to get back to firing condition (cosmoline has to be cleaned off).

In the end, any weapon that is discovered after all this time is likely to need some rehabilitation work before it can be used. However, so long as it is stored properly, 200 years is not a long time at all. Bullets will be fine, so long as they are also stored properly (i.e. in hermetically sealed cases).

That said, firearms technology isn't particularly complex. After all, we've had firearms in one form or another for far longer than 200 years, so recreating a boomstick in your post apocalyptic world would not be particularly difficult. If it has the most basic of machinery and metallurgy, it would be possible to make new guns.

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    $\begingroup$ "An AK-47 will survive just about anything", except being stored in a Russian ordinance depot... $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jan 13, 2023 at 3:37
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn The natural enemy of AK-47s is angry Ukrainians. $\endgroup$
    – stix
    Jan 13, 2023 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ Ukrainians love the AK-47. Corrupt, drunken Russians who stockpile AK-47s where they can rust and rot are the natural enemy of AK-47s. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jan 13, 2023 at 17:30
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Short Answer: Yes.

Justification: Tutankhamun's bow and arrows still look serviceable after a bit more than 3300 years. This time included numerous social and political upheavals. It's likely there was no further maintenance of the item after the initial storage period.

So if a well-made "primitive" item can last this long, a modern item - stored correctly, should easily last longer than 200 years.

EDIT: fix maths. (doh!)

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  • $\begingroup$ Boston Mass (near saltwater) isn't anything close to the same as a sealed, dry temperature-controlled (by being underground) room. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jul 19, 2023 at 23:15
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It might be worth considering that an apocalyptic scenario doesn't necessarily mean every inch of the land has been nuked. So we don't have to worry about whether or not something would survive ground zero. Just whether or not you could happen across a functional gas powered rifle with or without ammunition in the year 2280 under a reasonably well covered nuclear experience.

Before we worry about finding weapons in special containers designed for century long sleep, perhaps we should consider who survived the initial apocalypse, and what the journey of these weapons may have been.

A quick example, suppose you had a character on a homestead in a remote Alaskan compound when the event took place. This person is pretty sure this is what they have been prepping for since forever, and they hunker down and play one-man army by themselves and their consortium of like minded preppers for say the next 20 years or so. During this time, nothing happens. The apocalypse has shifted people's interests and for whatever reason, nobody cares to hunt down stockpiles of weapons and food in remote areas with secret compounds. So these preppers have lived a fairly uneventful apocalypse, far from the fantasies that made them stock up on 20 years of underground supplies. But a prepper is a prepper. Generationally, they teach what needs to be done to who needs to know. Their weapons are never neglected in the entire 200 years you speak of. They are maintained, passed down, and stored how they should be. They just never happened to be required for combat survival, and so their general wear is not expected to exceed much beyond common handling, and the occasional neglectful slip up that means they are no longer in new condition.

The point being, you can find a 200+ year old weapon in perfect-ish operational condition if the back story is sufficient. It doesn't have to be found in a crate. It can be a trade for a truck or something the owner needed and was willing to give up an heirloom rifle they have never needed, and still have 50 more in their bunker. That part is up to you.

The ammunition thing - I mean, people will want to argue all day about what will and won't work here. But it's your story. You can allude to survivalists who have gone trough great strides to preserve this technology to a certain point, and remove them from the tale at a point where it still serves your interest. Like finding a makeshift ammo plant that was operated by the survivors who knew what they were doing, but eventually bit off more than they could chew and died off having exhausted their wealth of ammo down to a paltry 100,000 remaining rounds. A tiny number to the military, but a lifetime to the right camp of post-apocalyptic survivors. Maybe this happened 20 years ago, in 2260. Doesn't matter. You found functional 5.56 ammunition to feed through your AR-15s and other weapons using that cartridge. Have some jam, fail to fire, fail to eject, fail to feed, squib, and it is reasonably believable. (BTW, look into ammo squib. That seems like a very plausible point of interest in old ammunition for stories like this. Could blow your face off)

This is the approach I would take, personally. I believe most weapons people find 200+ years after manufacturing of any weapons ended would be the ones scavenged at the beginning and cared for by the survivors in any generation. If not the beginning, then within a reasonable time frame before nature started taking back the structures and covering the hiding spots well. There are plenty of enthusiasts, private organizations, and braniacs who will have thought to prepare for this, and will have the means for rebuilding caches of ammo outside of the typical industrial methods we use today. And everyone dies eventually. No matter how well prepped you are, in the end it's perfectly believable to imagine the life path of a settlement who was there in the beginning to eventually, over the generations, reduce all the way down to one old dude in a hut, sitting on top of a bunker full of things he had nothing better to do with than clean, preserve, organize, document, etc. Right up until the day he died alone at age 55 in the year 2247. 12 years before he was discovered by some hippies caravanning or however you want them to be unearthed and ready to find their way into the hands of your characters. Maybe even with some basic care instructions.

It may be the apocalypse, and it may have hardened people, but it is not beyond reason to figure that some would actually work to preserve the means to survive, and be willing to teach others, and not just scavenge and stockpile found weapons and ammo. It wouldn't be as efficient and high tech as today, but it doesn't mean it is impossible or even outside the realms of plausibility to have ammunition generation continue as far as you need it to, even all the way up to 2260 and beyond if it serves your story right. Don't forget, if anyone snarkily asks where you happened to get a hold of some ingredient to make and stabilize your primers or something, you don't have to explain. You can just say we ran into a guy. Wouldn't say where he got the stuff but he was very interested in trading for a few lithium plates.

Hell, even Andy Weir didn't go all the way down the rabbit holes for the Martian. Even he cut off the details in favor of an occasional "because NASA" or something like that to forgive the need to science the F out of every bit of the story. And it works well. Too much detail might interfere with the story more than bolster it.

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