Friday, December 31, 2010

Nine Lives

The Leibowitz Society doesn't spend much time discussing firearms, for a variety of reasons.  First, this is an international effort, as the coming Dark Age will affect all nations, not just America, and small arms are not legal in every country.  Second, modern firearms and ammunition require the support of modern industry to make and maintain (black powder for flintlocks is much easier to manufacture than smokeless powder).  Third, the Leibowitz Society is not intended to be a classic "survivalist" initiative, where discussions about firearms and military tactics dominate to the point of often excluding all other topics -- are people trying to survive the coming upheavals or do they want to be their own paramilitary organization, anyway?  After all, in a gunfight, some people are going to win, some are going to lose, and even a "lucky" shot can kill the smartest, faster, most skilled and experienced person.  Finally, the notion of engaging in armed conflict with others defeats the purpose of preserving and reintroducing knowledge after a collapse.

That said, there is still going to be a real need for personal self-defense down the road as police agencies vanish due to loss of funding and any kind of organized civic government to maintain them.  Even Argentina, which teetered on the brink of collapse due to economic problems, but did not completely collapse, saw drastic spikes in crime and violence.  In America, the infamous Los Angeles Riots in 1992, and the aftermath of Katrina both showed that it doesn't take a lot to sweep aside any kind of organized law enforcement and leave private citizens vulnerable to violent attacks.  As always, the Leibowitz Society recommends that people obey the law when it comes to firearms and self-defense, because we are still in the phase where social survival is important as physical survival.

If people wish to purchase firearms for protection, there are a number of choices for people, from military-style semi-automatic rifles to shotguns to hunting rifles.  However, I think that the lessons of modern history are going to show that handguns are generally a far more useful tool most of the time.  They are much more easily carried than a rifle (imagine trying to repair your roof with an M1 slung over your shoulder), can be more easily concealed (provoking less anxiety when going to the open-air market), and are generally less threatening, as they are viewed as more of a defensive item (this, of course, depends on when/where you are -- a Glock might bring a lot of close scrutiny in an area where people wouldn't look twice at a deer rifle). 

There are a large variety of options for people who wish to use firearms for self-defense.  Much of what is available on the market is driven not only by normal engineering improvements, but also a search for the "magic bullet," marketing, changes public and law enforcement preferences and so on.  Examples of this include the ill-fated .41 Action Express and 10mm some two decades ago, and the .45 GAP in the modern day.  Even the now-established .40 Smith and Wesson was the result of a search for a newer, better cartridge.  Pistols themselves have changed, the dominance of the revolver eroding after World War 2 in most nations of the world, more recently in the United States, with modern semi-automatic pistols being generally preferred now.  People left searching for what to use are going to run into a sea of differing opinions, as well as sales people who want to move a particular type of product.

However, there is a relatively clear and logical choice for the best pistol caliber on the market these days, the 9mm Luger or Parabellum.  The 9mm was invented at the beginning of the 20th century for the German Luger pistol and become the dominant pistol cartridge within in a generation or so most places outside of America, which had its own dominant calibers, the .38 Special for revolvers and the .45 ACP in the M1911 pistol.  In fact, one of the most frequent discussions/debates over firearms has been the people who favor the 9mm versus the people who favor the .45.  The key argument often made by the people who back the .45 is that the .45 has a larger diameter bullet and a little more energy and is therefore the superior round.  Also cited is the reliability and proven track record of the M1911 design, although numerous pistol designs are now chambered in the .45 

While these arguments are seductive at first, they are not born out by real-world experience and studies of what actually happens in violent encounters.  The theme that shows up over and over is that the "big three" pistol cartridges -- the 9mmP, the .45 ACP and the .40 S&W offer little advantage over one another in terms of immediately stopping a violent attacker. Effective shot placement seems to generally be the most decisive factor, not how much power the cartridge delivers.  One real-world study showed that around 65% of the time, a single hit from a .45 ACP would stop an attacker, while the 9mm would do the same around 63% of the time, not much of a difference.  Only more powerful pistol cartridges -- the magnums, the 10mm, and so on, show any real improvement in stopping power.

This means that the real distinction in the rounds is the nature of the cartridges themselves, as well as their delivery systems.  The 9mm is widely produced, inexpensive and usually readily available, unlike the .40 S&W which is still not as common as the 9mm.  The cartridge itself is significantly smaller than the .45 ACP, meaning that it's possible to more easily design a pistol which can hold a large number of rounds, unlike the high-capacity .45 pistols, which tend to be very bulky and difficult to hold for people with small to medium-sized hands.  A graphic difference in this difference can be seen in the grip sizes of the Glock 26, a compact high-capacity 9mm pistol, versus the Glock 30, a compact high-capacity .45 ACP pistol.  Even if grip size isn't necessarily a consideration, remember that a high-capacity 9mm can hold up to 19 rounds with a magazine that's flush with the grip, while a high-capacity .45 will generally only hold up to 13 or so. 

What all this boils down to is that the best cartridge choice is that which offers more reasonable chances to stop an attacker.  Given that 9mm ammunition is readily available and generally inexpensive, and 9mm pistols usually hold more rounds than other calibers, and the common pistol calibers don't offer much difference in stopping power, it is the clear choice for what round to use for self-defense.  No one seriously wants to engage in a gun battle, especially in a time when medical treatment will be taking a giant step backwards, but if they are forced into such a desperate situation, it is better to have the most effective tool at hand than hoping for mercy or good fortune.


  1. `Black powder isn't that easy. The major component is potassium nitrate, which has to be "Grown",rather being dug out of a mine.

  2. Anonymous,

    I agree that it's not easy -- you'll notice that I compared it to smokeless powder. In addition to manufacturing the powder, people are going to have to learn how to manufacture black powder firearms, itself not really a trivial task. Still, I see it as being likely that manufacture of black powder and black powder arms will eventually happen on a wide scale as the ability to manufacture modern arms and ammunition runs out.


  3. Hitting a target with a handgun is not a simple proposition. In fact, one might say the posession of a handgun in the hands of a novice is a dangerous proposition, especially when the gun is lage caliber discharge like a 9mm. It takes lots of practice to get the bullets to go anywhere remotely where you want them to go. You know how, in the movies, the protagonist can run away from a pack of bad guys and they'll all miss? Well, that's not to far off from reality. It's a product of lots of practice that makes a marksman with a handgun, and it's a rare skill at that.

    If one would like an actual anti-zombie gun, narrow your search to the shotgun family of weaponry. The shorter the barrel, the more accuracy a novice can command.


  4. There are several problems with shotguns, all of which make them poor choices for defensive weapons, except in limited circumstances -- they are not reliable in the hands of inexperienced operators (pump actions can be short-stroked, semi-autos require maintenance that they may not get); recoil is punishing for pump-action shotguns unless you downgrade the caliber; the ammunition is bulky, expensive and people will likely carry fewer rounds; most shotguns are fairly slow to reload and don't carry a large number of rounds; they are very difficult to operate one-handed, a consideration if a person is wounded in either arm.

    As far as individual skill with weapons is concerned, I have seen training classes composed of people with limited familiarity with weapons who, after several hours of training time, were able to reliably an 8x11 piece of paper at seven yards. I have also gone shooting with an undercover narcotics officer who was barely able to hit a silhouette target at the same distance. So, at best, it varies, but training is available to people and if they're not willing to learn how to properly use a weapon for self-defense, then it probably doesn't matter much what you put in their hands -- they're still going to be ineffective with it.

    I think the problem really is a consideration of what people are going to have to deal with as the collapse occurs. The pattern which seems to be most likely is a sharp increase in random, predatory violence, meaning that people are going to have to be able to defend themselves in most places and most times. While there is some wisdom in Clint Smith viewing a handgun as what he uses to fight his way to a rifle, the reality is that this may simply not be an option for everyone and what they have at hand is going to be what they will either live or die with. In the modern pre-collapse world, most shootouts are over within a few seconds, the matter being decided by what someone has on them...the old adage is "Better the .22 with you, than the .45 you left at home." Here, I think it's "Better the pistol you have on you than the shotgun or rifle you left at home."

    Truthfully, I think the best anyone can expect is to never have to be put in a life and death situation.

    Peace back.

  5. Having used both the .45 and the 9mm pistols in the Service (I was in for the transition), I prefer the .45 even though I was more accurate with the 9mm. The 9's were new, and the .45's shot out Korean war leftovers... But it's a purely personal preference, and you're right about the magazine capacity. Still the old time cops managed with 6 shot revolvers. A little _regular_ practice will enable that. But ammo and maintenance need to be budgeted as an ongoing expense if the gun is to be more help than harm.

    As for sustainability, it's the absence of primers such as lead styphnate or fulminate of mercury that would force a reversion to muzzle loaders. Nitrocellulose (sp?) or gun cotton based propellants are not much harder to make than black powder, but do require more chemical knowledge. Still, there's a lot of chemical energy embedded in ammunition, and it's worth noting that black powder is the only explosive known or used before the widespread availability of fossil fuels.

    I'm not sure if any of the modern explosives or powders would be practical with an industrial base depending entirely on sustainable energy, even disregarding societal collapse and subsequent loss of knowledge.


  6. Glenn,

    I agree that practice is crucial. I've had people talk about purchasing weapons for self-defense and when you ask them how often they practice, you get a blank look in return. If they bought golf clubs, they'd go to a driving range on a regular basis...

    Good point on the primers. I haven't looked much into the question of what would be sustainable and for how long. It's been my thinking for a while that we would see a return to a technology level around that of the 1700s, before the industrial revolution and the specialized production processes therein really took off. So, obviously, that would preclude a lot of chemical production.

    One other point I was thinking is the shelf life of production ammunition, as well as the weapons themselves. I've read things from people who have shied away from purchasing Glocks or other polymer-frame pistols because they're worried about the polymer breaking down over time from heat, etc. Any insights on that?

  7. I don't know about the polymers in Glock frames, in my experience with synthetic ropes such as nylon and dacron, they lose about 50% of their strength in the first 5 years due to age alone, regardless of exposure to UV light, fuel or other chemicals. I've seen a lot of Glocks older than 5 years that were fine, so if it's an issue with them it's over a much longer time span. Of course, it would be easier to replace wood or steel gun parts in a post-industrial culture.

    As for ammo, I wouldn't give stored munitions more than 10 or 20 years of reliability. One would have to maintain the industrial base, not just stash a bunch. I'm not sure if the problem is the propellant, the primer, or the chemicals from the primers corroding the brass components.

    I think we can maintain the chemical process knowledge. I just question how much of modern chemical production literally depends on how much energy we can afford to add to the reactions to get the desired product. It's not an assertation on my part, it's an honest question. One I suspect that only an honest industrial Chemical Engineer could answer.


  8. Glenn,

    I did a little digging -- it looks like less expensive/durable polymers will experience brittleness by losing atoms in gas form from the polymer structure. I've had some chemistry in college, but it's been a while and I'm not a chemist at any rate. If anything, it looks like they will last long enough to be not be an issue.

    The questions we've raised here -- like how long can a chemical compounds last or what would be needed to replace that compound -- are all things that I started the Leibowitz Society to address, so it's good to see that the questions are in fact getting asked. I would assume there's probably some engineers lurking in the woodwork.