Fireside Friday, August 5, 2022

Fireside this week! We’ve just moved and I am settling in to my new home office, but the slow process of unpacking all of my books has delayed Logistics, Part III. I can, however, give you a picture of the new Fireside, albeit unlit because it is Augustus in the Carolinas and that means it is hot. Nevertheless, blog readers one and all, BEAR WITNESS:

Obviously still some cleaning to do. The screen is, for now, mostly to keep the cats away from the spare outlet covers we need to do something with. Lots of little bits and bobs to to be done.

For my musing I am going to be a bit silly and talk about a common science fiction setting, the post-apocalypse, and what those conditions might mean for warfare, at least in a very simplified way. In part this is because a lot of the outcomes that appear in the genre – particularly in games with a focus on combat – don’t seem to me to be likely or stable outcomes, regardless of the sort of apocalypse that has occurred. We’re going to assume a Fallout, Dying Light or Metro style apocalypse; the specifics are unimportant but the idea here is that enough time has passed for new societies adapted to the new conditions to emerge and there are enough humans to make more or less stable societies possible. And in part this is because I actually want to talk about what it takes to make a modern army able to fight because even the things that seem very simple are in fact very complex when you cannot just order them from a convenient supplier.

In the immediate aftermath of whatever disaster has happened, these societies – with vastly fewer humans than they started with – are going to initially have a lot of firearms (there are something like a billion guns worldwide) with a much smaller population and a lot of modern ammunition that is already accessible. But in conditions where there is a lot of conflict, that ammunition isn’t actually going to last all that long. Modern infantry tactics rely heavily on suppression fire to enable maneuver, which means expending a lot of bullets – even for armies that prize marksmanship and accuracy – in any given fight. This is something that doesn’t seem to have filtered through to the general public very well; in the more intense days of the Global War on Terror there were occasional stories about how many hundreds of thousands of bullets were fired for every enemy combatant killed, printed without much of an awareness that this was the intended use case. Bullets are cheap, soldiers are expensive, you fire a bunch of the former to try and avoid losing any of the latter.

That style of fighting isn’t a fashion choice, rather it is the most effective way to stay alive and defeat an opponent in a firefight when you have a lot of bullets. But it is going to rapidly result in having far less bullets or more correctly far less cartridges. And here we need to get into the different parts of the cartridge, the thing a modern firearm fires. Generally speaking there is a projectile (the bullet), a propellant charge, a primer (which ignites the propellant charge when struck) and a casing to hold it all together. The cartridge (technically here the ‘integrated cartridge’) was actually a major innovation in warfare; in early firearms all of these elements were separate and had to be loaded in order to fire. Even for a single-action firearm, being able to just load the cartridge and get bullet, powder and primer all in one was a substantial improvement.

The good news here is that the bullet is a fairly simple lump of metal and casings are both reusable and not too difficult to machine or cast, so a small community of survivors (think the size of a small town) or even a particularly handy individual could easily produce their own bullets and casings. Indeed, some modern reloaders do exactly this. But primer and propellant are going to be a problem.

Modern propellants, sometimes collectively called ‘smokeless powder’ are chemically complex things, a product of the rapid innovations in chemistry in the 1800s. The primary component of many modern propellants (though not all of them, some use nitroglycerin1) is nitrocellulose also called (quite sensibly) ‘guncotton’ or ‘flash paper.’ It is tricky to make; the first effort to manufacture it at scale in 1846 blew up the plant within a year and it took 15 years from that to figure out how to manufacture it safely without it just exploding. Seriously, looking into the history of guncotton is a succession of plant explosions (Faversham in 1847, in Austria in 1862 (and 1865!), and Stowmarket in 1871). To make it, you need nitric acid (HNO3) and sulfuric acid (H2SO4) and a source of cellulose (C6H10O5 over and over again); any form of cellulose will do (but the quality matters); the first guncotton was made using cotton (imagine that). Drying must be done very carefully and also the ratio of nitric acid to sulfuric acid has to be controlled carefully; too much nitric acid and the dry guncotton explodes near room temperatures, which is not ideal.

But that’s not all you have to do here, because additional processing is going to be necessary to get the propellant into the right form (grains or filaments) and stable enough for use in a rifle round. This required yet more additives and produced various formulas like ballistite and cordite (both of which use nitroglycerin in addition to nitrocellulose), with the nitrocellulose in some cases coming in the form of collodion (a solution of nitrocellulose, ether and alcohol which requires its own chemical process to produce). And on the other end of the spectrum, all of these 19th century chemists could rely on just being able to order their precursor chemicals, but actually producing nitric and sulfuric acids (both required for nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose) is also tricky and dangerous. These are, after all, very powerful acids.

In looking this all up I fear I may have gotten my name on some sort of a list. Also I cannot tell you the number of times I heard or read some version of ‘do not, under any circumstances, try this at home without <safety device you absolutely do not have at home> and <training you absolutely do not have>.’ Given just how many inventors appear to have blown up themselves, their factories or close relatives trying to figure this stuff out, I am content merely to read about it. But, in case I am not being clear: do not try this at home. Or anywhere.

The point here is that making a modern smokeless powder at even a small scale – even older, less chemically complex kinds – is going to require at minimum a decently well-furnished chemistry lab. Producing this stuff at any kind of scale is going to require a chemical plant and remember, you want hundreds of rounds to be able to fire in order to do modern system infantry tactics; a standard US soldier’s ammunition load (210 rounds of 5.56 NATO) requires about 6,000 grains of propellant, 0.85lbs or so. Per combatant. In either case, you are also going to need a chemist who understands the processes and is either experienced in or can think through the necessary steps to stabilize the resultant highly unstable explosives without them exploding. It isn’t impossible to do this, but it is going to be a struggle for a post-apocalyptic community, demanding both knowledge and the ability to support specialization; doing it at scale also demands a lot of infrastructure and remember that you need to do it at scale if you want to use the more effective modern tactics which require putting a lot of metal down range quickly.

And this is actually a neat point to come out of this little exercise: the tremendous complexity of producing even the simplest elements of modern industrial military power. If you want to build a modern army, you must start with a chemical plant (actually quite a few) or else purchase your ammunition from abroad (and thus be strategically captive to your suppliers because, again, in an actual fight your ammunition stores will not last. This ‘access problem’ is actually older than smokeless powder; we see European powers exploit it against local powers in both West Africa and North America).

Does this mean that guns drop away until eventually it is back mostly to bows, arrows and contact weapons, like in Dying Light 2 or Horizon: Zero Dawn? No. Because there is a simple, backyard producible alternative to modern propellants: black powder. Black powder is made of saltpeter (potassium nitrate), charcoal and sulfur in a roughly 75/15/10% mixture; getting the mix a little wrong will produce an inferior propellant, but any mixture with more than 60% potassium nitrate will explode when ignited. Charcoal is just a mass of carbon, easily producible in sufficient quantity and sulfur is a fairly readily identifiable naturally occurring mineral and one of the most abundant on Earth. And saltpeter, while it occurs in mineral form can also be produced from excrement using a nitre bed to encourage nitrification, a chemical process one can literally perform in their backyard using a product (human waste) that human settlements produce automatically. And figuring this out isn’t necessarily going to require an expert chemist either; your average town library likely has multiple books which describe the production of black powder from a historical perspective.

Now black powder is, as a propellant, markedly inferior to modern smokeless propellants. It produces lower pressures resulting in lower muzzle velocities and thus is going to produce inferior range and penetrative power for a given size of cartridge and gun. It also doesn’t burn very cleanly; that’s what makes it not ‘smokeless’ compared to modern powders (which also still produce some smoke, just a lot less). In modern, rapid-firing firearms, the half-burnt material black powder is going to leave behind will quickly foul the weapon. But, assuming you can ignite it, it will fire and it isn’t hard to see survivors in this situation quickly identifying which sorts of firearms had actions which could at least tolerate the inferior powder they could actually produce in bulk rather than requiring the limited and dwindling supply of modern cartridges or bespoke chemist produced propellant.

That leaves primer, which is also going to be tricky, but on the upside you need a lot less of it. The key here is a chemical which will ignite when struck by the firing pin (and so ignite the rest of the charge). The earliest chemical used for the purpose was mercury fulminate, the production of which requires mercury, nitric acid and ethanol. Another early option is potassium chlorate, produced from sodium chlorate and potassium chloride. Once again as best I know we are again looking at products that are going to require a chemistry lab, especially because you need to remember that a community of post-apocalypse survivors can’t simply order the precursor chemicals from a supplier. Still, if your community of survivors has the chemist and the facilities for small-scale production, as far as I can tell batches of primer are going to be more useful than batches of propellant: there is a cheap, backyard (inferior) solution for propellant, but not – as far as I know – for primer. Getting something that is stable under normal conditions but ignites reliably under pressure is a tricky chemical problem, after all. And absent a workable primer, none of the firearms you have will work.

And all of that is going to impose some shaping constraints on warfare in a Fallout style apocalypse. Unlike in many of these settings where guns are scarce, it would be cartridges that would be scarce (credit, I suppose, to Metro, where they are in fact so notionally scarce they’ve become the de facto currency); the world’s supply of guns are more than capable of shooting the world’s supply of bullets long before they all wear out their barrels and actions. These modern weapons are designed to be the last step on a very long industrial pipeline continually feed explosives to consumers (civilian or military); the gun is not itself so much the final product as the let step in the assembly line. At the same time, and I want to stress this, these ammunition-heavy ways of fighting are simply the most effective way of using these weapons, so a community can’t find its way around an ammunition shortage; it simply has to drop back to less effective ways of fighting.

But because black powder isn’t nearly as hard to make (though I must note that many early black powder experiments also ended up with unintended explosions) and modern machining tools can produce basic firearms fairly easily (and there are lots of firearms generally), I doubt you would see a reversion to swords, spears and bows. Instead I suspect you would see tiers develop between various weapons, ammunition and communities. At the upper end, you’d have modern cartridges which would probably end up being hoarded for use with automatic weapons for war and emergencies, since automatic weapons would see the greatest effectiveness loss from messy black powder cartridges (since rapid fire would foul them very quickly). Then you’d have everyday personal defense and hunting weapons, probably using black powder cartridges (with the limited supply of primer being the focus of what chemistry is available to these societies). And if primer became scarce, you might see the reemergence of other jury-rigged ignition systems, potentially in muzzle-loading configurations because again, guns, bullets and black powder would all be fairly easy to produce given a town library and a high school’s shop classroom. After all, you can hunt with a black-powder fed, flint-lock rifled musket, but trying to use that weapon in a firefight is a poor plan unless there are no other options.

The odd difference here is this would be a society that knows what the future looks like in terms of firearms: they know that industrialized warfare is possibly and they know how to wage it if they could only get the means. Consequently – and this is bad news for the plot of almost every post-apocalyptic setting – the advantage is going to go to large coordinated communities which can most rapidly reassemble industrial chemical processes. Probably that would begin with improvised chemical labs before scaling up production into large chemical plants. Communities that were able to scale up production sufficiently to provide for automatic firearms and light artillery would enjoy an enormous advantage over their neighbors (or zombies) almost entirely regardless of numbers. A community able to build the infrastructure for large scale primer and propellant production would find itself with an immensely valuable military resource in a landscape of communities without that capability.

I actually suspect you’d see similar processes play out in several different fields at once, all related to the ability to produce the chemicals required to run modern technology: effective gasoline replacements (which in most cases I suspect would be ethanol) and fertilizers (conveniently overlapping with explosives because the question here is producing nitrates) would all be staggering advantages. We haven’t touched artillery but it presents the same problems here (indeed with many of the same chemicals) only at a much larger scale and with potentially much greater impact. Without access to those replacement chemicals, the wasteland ‘raiders’ and ‘bandits’ of most of these settings would be fairly easy prey to a community which could produce these chemicals. In short the sort of larger town-and-some-farmland community that is normally the prey in these settings to extortion by ‘raiders’ would in fact have the strong hand, able to manage the production of ammunition and thus firepower.

All of which is perhaps a very long-winded way of saying that both House and Caesar’s Legion in Fallout: New Vegas are, in the long run, doomed (just to use a now famous example of this interaction in fiction; New Vegas is absolutely my favorite modern Fallout): the New California Republic (NCR) has very clearly and explicitly hit the point of manufacturing their own industrial firepower – not merely guns and bullets, but artillery as well (and they even maintain and fuel a few pre-war air assets). That means actually destroying NCR is probably already decisively out of reach for the various powers we meet in the Fallout games (short of finding a whole pile of old nukes, a la Lonesome Road) and in the mean time every year the gap between NCR’s growing industrial arsenal and its opponents is going to grow. Also the fact that NCR eventually beat the Brotherhood – a large rebuilding society beating a small, insular ‘tech-hoarder’ society – seems right as well. As we’re seeing, for instance, in Ukraine, at some point advanced firepower is not substitute for raw quantities of firepower. Meanwhile, Caesar’s Legion’ lost before they ever got to Hoover Dam by failing to focus on building up the industrial base to support industrialized warfare.

A final note: the one thing I expect you would see very little of in this environment? Improvised melee weapons made out of random scrap. Fallout and Dying Light are practically flooded with this sort of thing; see also The Walking Dead‘s iconic barbed-wire bat. If you did see a shift back to contact weapons, people are going to want good contact weapons. They’ll likely have access to quite a lot of already acceptable quality steel (and some good spring steel); the fellow with a properly balanced machete or sabre is going to have a huge advantage over someone wielding a repurposed car part or street-sign or whatever. Forging or even just machining a proper weapon would be very doable and even if you are repurposing scrap metal you can always file off extraneous extra bits which might make the weapon heavy or throw off the balance. Beyond the initial phases of the disaster, there is simply going to be no reason to resort to a bat wrapped in barbed wire or with nails through it; you’d be a fool to fight with that. For what it is worth, I’d expect double-purpose weapon/tools like spears, machetes and hatchets to be broadly favored, being robust and useful at a variety of tasks (and thus saving the weight of carrying multiple tools). Spears in particular are potent hunting weapons and their reach offers a huge advantage over most other contact weapons in a lot of situations.

But the upshot of this whole thought experiment is as a useful example of how modern warfare is frequently as much a conflict between industries and economies as it is a conflict between soldiers.

On to this week’s recommendations!

This is becoming a regular recommendation but I want to note that Michael Kofman has once again checked in with Ryan Evans to update the War on the Rocks podcast on the war in Ukraine. I find these updates essential listening as the war has become very slow moving and granular and so I need an expert who can follow what is happening and offer some sense of the state of things. Kofman is also a pretty sober analyst which is valuable in an environment where every new weapon or twitter thread is hailed as game-changing by journalists who are trying their best but may not have a background in military affairs or Russia or Ukraine and so don’t have a sense of what might matter and what might not.

Two links this week from Dr. Eleanor Janega (@goingmedieval on Twitter). First is this video with History Hit on What Was Life Really Like For A Medieval Peasant? A number of the elements will be familiar to those who have read the farming series (small plots, village living, vertical and horizontal ties, big landowners and little peasants, etc) but there’s a lot of additional detail here, some of it specific to the Middle Ages and the whole thing is well illustrated and presented. A lot of history material on YouTube is basically garbage so I’m glad to see History Hit get an actual expert to talk about the topic and the video is really well put together, clear and historically grounded.

Speaking of which, Dr. Janega also let loose on the creators of the new Game of Thrones spin-off series for trying to hide behind the Middle Ages just being ‘rapey’ as an excuse for having lots of sexual violence in their show. The essay is a valuable corrective. I do have one quibble which is I am not so confident that “Early Roman law documents don’t suggest that forced sex was punished at all.” That’s not wrong but the phrasing there is particular: we don’t have a lot of early Roman law (our picture of law in the Late Republic and Empire is much more complete), so the documents don’t suggest mostly because we don’t have the documents. The key foundational law code, the Twelve Tables, survives only in fragments; none of the fragments we have concerns sexual assault but given how little we have that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. We certainly know that later Romans imagined that sexual assault demanded violent retribution by the injured woman’s family, as evident by legends (possibly based in some fact) about Lucretia and Verginia.

Early law codes often formalized (and constrained) these sorts of customary ‘blood feud’ responses, so it would be very strange for the Twelve Tables not to codify this, though it almost certainly would have been codified the way it was in many other ancient and medieval societies where sexual assault was a crime against the male guardian of the woman in question, rather than the woman herself (which, to be clear, is a rubbish way to set up the law, I’m not making excuses for Roman patriarchy). If it wasn’t so codified, then the attitudes of the Romans as they become historically visible to us (and which they project backwards historically) suggest that fatal retributive violence was considered an acceptable response. As Janega notes, when we finally do get evidence for Roman laws on the matter, sexual assault was a capital offense in Roman law (but as a property crime against the male guardian because Roman patriarchy), which seems a fairly straightforward extrapolation of this attitude. Thus I suspect that the Romans always maintained a fairly severe prohibition against forcible sexual assault.2

Finally this week’s book recommendation was just a very easy one. I’m going to recommend N. Guillerat, J. Scheid, and M. Melocco, Ancient Rome: Infographics (2021). The book is, as the title suggests, a collection of infographics alongside text description covering the whole of the Roman world; the text is fairly chunky and written at about the level of an introductory textbook, though many of the graphics are (because they compress information) actually rather more advanced; for instance the chart of the individual imperial legions with all of their symbols and some service history is the kind of thing you might get in a dedicated Roman warfare course. Text and graphics are divided into three chapters, on one people (including social class, gender, etc.), one on government and religion (including some wonderful graphics of the political structure and processes of the Republic) and one on the military.

Scheid and Melocco are both Roman historians (Scheid, indeed, a senior scholar of no insignificant impact, with a focus on religion; Guillerat’s expertise seems to be on infographics themselves) and their expertise shows here – this is not some half-baked poorly researched book; the graphics are detailed (sometimes stunningly so) and generally very accurate. I did find I had some quibbles with the graphics in the Roman military section – it was here that there were the most curious choices. The fighting formation of the ‘Republican period’ is shown as three lines without the quincunx as opposed to the post-Marian legion; realistically the Republican (449-108) legion needs to be broken at least in two and in practice we ought to admit we have very little firm sense of how the Romans fought pre-225 or so. The ‘number of troops’ graph wants to make a (correct) point about the rising size of the army over time, but it ‘sands off’ the huge mobilization from 218-202 BC to do it – this should be a huge bulge easily visible in the chart where the Roman army jumps to a strength close to what it would have under Augustus (auxiliaries included) before thinning back down for the early second century. The same chart also suggests the Romans were seasonable campaigners in the Middle Republic, which is probably incorrect. Later the quadrireme is suggested as the ‘most common’ Roman oar configuration, which is not what either our sources3 or the Egadi Rams4 tell us (though they currently disagree with each other so you have your pick!).

This sounds like a lot of complaints but actually I think on the whole the quality of the graphics is very good and the information they convey is generally very accurate. There is a lot in this book so I was bound to disagree with some scholarly choices here and there; none of them struck me as a head-into-desk ‘what were they thinking’ sort of the kind I so often see in Roman military books shoveled out to the public riddled with errors. Overall this is a lot better than par for easy-to-absorb visual data, produced by actual historians who actually know what they’re doing running through probably several university courses worth of raw data on the Roman world. The volume itself is hardback, the illustrations are excellent and all at a very reasonable price for the quality of presentation. A great thing for a Roman history enthusiast to have in their library.

  1. Successfully figuring out how to manufacture that without exploding is what made Alfred Nobel rich and famous, but only after an explosion trying to produce the stuff killed his brother.
  2. – of Roman citizen women in peacetime, of course. This is a necessary caveat. Roman slavery didn’t acknowledge any sanctity of person until quite late in the imperial period (and even then it seems to have been enforced only very rarely) and as we’ve discussed recently Roman behavior towards ‘enemy civilians’ could be very brutal.
  3. Which prefer the quinquireme as the most common
  4. Which seem to suggest that triremes remained common. By the by, if you are at all interested in ancient naval warfare, Stephen DeCasien, the author of that link, is someone you should be following.

241 thoughts on “Fireside Friday, August 5, 2022

  1. I definitely agree that “making primer and propellant” would be a huge emphasis of any organized society worried about warfare, or just wanting to get a leg-up back on their rivals.

    Until then, they might rig up some rather interesting black powder guns. If they can make a basic small battery, then they might not actually need to build a flintlock with its sparks and flash pan – maybe they could figure out some type of “Spark-Lock” gun that can ignite black powder (maybe even black powder in a cartridge of sorts!). The limitation on primer would make people get very creative.

    In general, I agree that getting some chemistry up and going again would be a huge priority for any such society. Not just for weapons, but because if you’ve got chemistry you can make synthetic fertilizer and have massive advantages in crop yields over your rivals.

    Speaking of which, Dr. Janega also let loose on the creators of the new Game of Thrones spin-off series for trying to hide behind the Middle Ages just being ‘rapey’ as an excuse for having lots of sexual violence in their show.

    It looks like one of the other showrunners has rather hastily walked back some of what Sapolnick said, saying there’s only one scene of sexual violence and it’s not treated luridly. That’s mostly what I’m looking for – if you’re going to use sexual violence in the show, do it in a way that’s not creepy or treated as something for lurid enjoyment.

    1. The pickle gun: wet the end of the gun in preserved pickle juice. Make the cartridge out of two metals with a thin barrier between them. to fire, push the cartridge into the pickle juice. Spark, boom.

      Sure, probably wouldn’t actually work the way I just wrote, but reading “primitive battery” those potato or pickle home things popped into my head.

      1. And as a bonus you’re carrying around delicious pickle juice with you everywhere (also a great source of electrolytes if you’ve been sweating in combat all day)! I love it.

    2. Electrically-primed guns have been tried but they’re not especially reliable at small-arms scales. Seems like electrically-primed artillery (especially rockets) are fairly common, though.

      Black powder guns in particular can be primed with… more black powder, at least in flint/wheel/match-lock systems. Only percussion caps need a separate chemical primer, but since we’re already talking about a tiered inventory where your black powder guns are used for daily use and you’ve got modern smokeless guns for community defence, I think there’s probably not a huge impetus to come up with a better priming system for the black power weaponry.

      I think probably the thing we’d see most commonly is breech-loaded flintlocks or wheellocks. That strikes me as the best balance between ease of use and ease of manufacture that doesn’t require special primer. You could carry paper cartridges of black powder and a small bottle of finer black powder for priming, and that would be plenty effective for hunting and emergency defence.

      1. pre-percussion-cap ingnition systems (match/wheel/dog/flint locks) aren’t very reliable either. there’s a reason everyone switched to percussion caps as soon as they became available. i personally own a flintlock muzzleloader, and even with a newly-sharpened flint it fails to go off about every 5th shot or so.

        recently the guy who assassinated Shinzo Abe in Japan used a homemade black powder muzzeloader with electric ignition. you can see the batteries and wires in the photo of him dropping the weapon.

        1. Unreliable flintlocks gave us the expression “a flash in the pan”. 🙂

          I currently own a plasma arc lighter and I can see that the mechanism wouldn’t last long in the harsh environment of a rifle chamber.

    3. I think people would just reinvent or resume production of fulminate percussion caps, maybe lead azide if they can’t get mercury. You could create, by hand, shotgun cartridges that would work in ordinary shotguns, although they probably wouldn’t cycle, with nothing that can’t be found in any sized town and no special equipment or knowledge beyond knowing that it is possible to do so. Although doing it without poisoning yourself with heavy metals over time is probably less easy.

    4. Honestly, the article feels a bit weird, “there was quite a bit of male-on female violence at the time” doesen’t say anyhting about it being an *especially* violent period, so contrasting it with roman antiquity feels very weird.

  2. I wonder if the assassination of Shinzo Abe was fresh in our host’s mind for this Fireside Friday. There, the killer Tetsuya used a homemade black powder pipe shotgun for the hit. Notable is the effectiveness of the weapon, or, more specifically, the lack thereof – a sawn-off double-barrelled pipe shotgun was shot twice at point-blank range, and yet it still missed the first time. Still, the assassin was able to make most of the necessary materials from simply watching Youtube videos – quite impressive from a purely logistical standpoint.

  3. I think a lot of this applies to other areas. Electrical systems are another place where it’s not likely to regress too far–motors and generators will be very expensive and not very good compared to the ones we have today, but people (as a group) aren’t going to forget that you can wind copper wire around an iron armature and get that to do useful stuff. Copper and iron are both things that don’t require high technology to procure, leaving aside finding scrap.

    I think systems will look different, as people economize on capital systems instead of people. For example, there are two cranes used to operate the spillway gate on this dam because when it was designed, the cranes and motors were super-expensive:

    Therefore, having motors that could be moved from gate to gate–at the cost of a full crew to do this operation–was the preferred solution. Compare to the second dam downstream of that one, designed and built ten years later, where they just put a damn hoist on every gate so a single guy could just walk out there and open the gates at the push of a button:

    I think it will go back to this kind of economizing. So while it’ll be expensive and much rarer, people are still going to prefer electrical systems to, say, line shafting, as it’s just so much more efficient and safer once you know how to do it. It’s just an overall better way to transmit power, whether the source is flowing water or fuel.

    Shifting gears a bit, one other thing that’s really started to bother me about a lot of post-apocalyptic media is the aesthetic, largely because of reading this blog.

    As you point out when talking about historical societies of all stripes, people like nice things! Nobody has bothered to clean the place up and put a coat of paint on their buildings since the fall of society?

    Or as a comic riffing on Fallout and other post-apocalyptic games put it better than I can when a main character was talking to the Villain:
    “Will destroying all that the survivors of the great war struggled to rebuild really improve the world?”
    “If all you can do in 200 years is build a shed from scrap, you’re a waste of oxygen.”

    1. I suspect it would be a long time before we would try to start manufacturing motors. I think even a nuclear war would left behind a huge quantities of perfectly workable electric motors and generators of all sizes. Smaller motors you can scavenge from any building and larger can be easily found from factories and EVs.

    2. The first 3 mad max films take place over maybe a 5 year span and that has new towns, farms and governments coming in to being.
      That’s more like what would happen, simple steps forward not eternal scrap age cave men.

  4. Yes, I’ve thought about this as an ex-Chemist. There are also the energy inputs to consider for any serious chemistry – unless our survivors just happen to be near an open pit coal mine, they will have to rely on wood as an energy source, which drastically limits what they can do. Running a fleet of low-fuel-economy souped up dune buggies a la Mad Max is right out! Even getting regulated heat sources for lab chemistry is going to be hard. And without motorised transport, I’d guess that ammunition-heavy tactics become even more of a problem.

    The other thing to think about is that in out post-apocalypse world, we’d be going back to a society where 95% of people were engaged in basic food/textile production as per ancient history. And certainly not living in deserts or other extreme environments.

    1. I was thinking about energy as well, that will be a big bottleneck for other things as well. But with lots of windmills getting common, if the knowledge to build them sticks around and the towers themselves survive, they may be good for a lot of energy, though maybe not for a full chemical plant if they have to be maintained, or people build less tall, less efficient ones due to limited materials.

      1. If we are talking about a drastic population decrease, hydropower would seem more then sufficient for all the industrial electrical needs. Hydropower dams have enormous durability and a very small number of them could sustain an enormous number of people if we assume post-apocalyptic reductions in consumption. Supposing we fell back to pre-1950s per capita electricity consumption, a GWh of annual generation would be enough to supply about a million people, quite a lot of population to start bootstrapping your new industry. There are over 30 dams in the US alone which have over a GWh of annual generation.

        1. on the other hand, dams are a strategic target. if the apocalypse you’re trying to recover from was a global nuclear war, it’s likely that all the major dams would have been taken out in the initial strike.

          1. A dam is a gigantic mass of reinforced concrete. These are very, very hard to blow up: the Dambusters raid in WW2 required precisely placed explosives. The power generation turbines are usually inside the dam structure and thus well protected too. A nuke in the vicinity will cause problems from fallout, but unlikely to actually destroy anything.

            And yes a dam could be considered a ‘strategic’ target, but it would be a long way down the list from nuclear weapon silos, defence headquarters, airbases, naval bases, railway stations, factories … If someone has enough nukes to go after your hydropower dams, they’ve already incinerated just about everybody and everything else that could make use of them.

          2. Another point to bear in mind is that dams can be built. They are, conceptually speaking, one of the simplest and most pragmatic forms of power plant, and you can build relatively small ones at the right locations with nothing but oxen, hand tools, and maybe some blasting powder.

            Consider all the “mill towns” of the early Industrial Revolution; many of these were located at places where there was conveniently available hydropower that could be used to power machinery by direct mechanical linkages. The same sites are readily repurposed to provide at least modest amounts of electricity in a “run of river” dam.

            So even if literally all the electrical generating infrastructure is destroyed… Well, if your civilization is blasted back to the Iron Age but retains basic knowledge of how things like dynamos work, then any community capable of getting several hundred workers on the same task at the same time (not trivial but far from impossible) can get some hydroelectric power back. They won’t be running giant “city of light” metropoli or powering any great big aluminum smelters, but it’s electricity.

          3. But any one with some rocks an simple generator can dam a small stream.

    2. Resource availability will absolutely be an issue. Without large-scale shipping food is going to be local and seasonal, except for grains and preserved stuff. Canning technology will help–it’s simple enough to be doable on a wood fire–but there’s going to be a lot less variety. Medical care will be a major issue as well–a surprising amount of medical care relies on artificial refrigeration, something that’s going to be problematic without industrial-scale power plants. Just getting mineral resources into your town to build with is going to be problematic. You mention coal, but once you strip the city of copper, tin, lead, various clays, and the like, you’re going to have to go without unless you’re sitting on a mine. (Iron’s common enough to be unlikely to be rapidly depleted.) The only people capable of producing aluminum will be those by hydroelectric dams, and only if they devote serious resources into maintaining them–a major problem with dams today is that their reservoirs are filling with silt, and removing that requires heavy machinery. Those cans in Fallout aren’t going to be worthless trash; they’re going to be a VERY valuable resource!

      Wars will be fought over rivers and mines, just like they were in the past. Libraries, chemistry labs, and factories will also be fought over–they can be treated as natural resources to be exploited for the purpose of this discussion. Any university town on a river is going to need a fortress or to become very tolerant of violence. On that note, the question of fortifications becomes significant. When bullets are rare it becomes much easier for a city under siege to out-last the besieging army–the army has to weigh the benefits of capturing the city against the cost of supplies, and without modern explosives walls are harder to breach.

      1. Much depends on the details of the problem.

        If you want real fun, check out Moe Lane’s series starting with Frozen Dreams. Granting its premise, it’s logical.

      2. Quite on the contrary, I think that mineral resources are going to be irrelevant in such circumstances because due the decrease in population (I’m assuming that any post-apoc scenario involves at least a tenfold if not a hundredfold decrease) means that the available amount of per-capita copper, aluminum, steel, etc is abundant compared to what we have now.

        How much copper does a community of 1000 people need? The scrap copper from everything that the previous community of 10k or 100k had should be more than sufficient. You do not need to mine new copper at all, because “once you strip the city of copper” happens only when you either have a *major* increase in personal wealth (i.e. that the goods people have involve ten times or more resources than today) or you have a full bounceback in population, both of which can happen only after the “post-apocalyptic” problems have been fully solved and you have a controlled environment with a strong, reliable industrial capacity; but during the post-apocalyptic conditions you’re simply not going to “strip the city” because it has more mineral resources that the decimated post-apocalyptic population needs, wants or is able to process.

        Consumables (like food, fuel, ‘gunpowder’ or medicines) are a concern, of course, but not metals.

        1. That rather depends on the circumstances that lead to the apocalypse. Hard to harvest copper wire if the place glows in the dark.

    3. Great point on Mad Max’s assault drag racers being right out!

      That did make me think of how much else in the franchise, and particularly the most recent Fury Road, does work with Bret’s analysis. The big bad guy is depicted as using access to water as his power base, but we also see him make a big deal out of sending his troops to the “bullet farm” which seems to indicate that he rules at least in part by having more/better access to modern munitions.

      1. He also has some sort of vassalege relationship with Gastown, which presumably provides the fuel for the assault drag racers, and its ruler complains about how much fuel they’re burning on this chase.

        1. supplimental material to the film (behind the scenes books for example) indicate that Gastown and the bullet farm were literally that.. feudal vassals that supplied vital resources like ammo and fuel to the Immortan’s Citadel in exchange for food and water. with their leaders being part of the same army unit “in the before time” as Immortan Joe which is why they got put in charge of those locales. apparently gastown being an old refinery, and the bulletfarm being an old lead mine.

          said materials don;t really say whether gastown had actual oil wells (like the settlement in Roadwarrior) or what the bulletfarm used as propellants though. probably because the screenwriters didn’t think those were important details.
          personally i’d suspect they’d be using Nitrocellulose.. the widespread use of Nitrous Oxide in the vehicles of the Warboys suggests that someone can make the stuff (probably gastown) whihc would allow for the production of nitrix oxide as well, which could then be processed into Nitric Acid. combined with Cellulose (basically waste product from the Citadel’s agriculture) you could make nitrocellulose, which would allow for the mostly smokeless firearms seen in use.

    4. I once wondered if small-scale refrigeration (sufficient to preserve a small stock of perishable medicine for example) would be doable by using ammonium nitrate or urea cooling packs that were recycled by boiling off the water and reusing the powder. Then I crunched the numbers; long story short, refrigeration is appallingly energy-intensive. You’d be better off trying to build ice houses.

      1. There’s an Einstein-Szilard refrigerator – yes, that Einstein – that doesn’t need moving parts or electricity and runs on ammonia, water, and butane. Not as efficient as the electrical powered designs which is why they’re not in widespread use, especially in industrialised countries.

        Learned about this from Neal Stephenson’s ‘Termination Shock’ novel.

        1. I know where the ammonia comes from (pecunia non olet) but how do the apocalypse survivors get butane?

      2. I’ve actually seen an ice house from the victorian era – it is a lo-tech affair, but was only really present on wealthy manors. Of course, in our hypothetical apocalypse scenario, there would be plenty of home insulation that could be ripped out and used to super-insulate a suitable cave/construction. Fill it with ice in winter and it should stay cold year-round. Of course, this implies that you get sufficient snow and ice during winter…

        1. The international overseas ice trade ran during the 19th century into the early 20th, supplying winter ice from New England (and later on other cold northern climes) worldwide (even into the tropics!) year-round.
          The technology and techniques used are not particularly unavailable to post-apocalyptic society (though if chronometers are unavailable, the transoceanic trade becomes more fraught)

          1. Depends on whether radio is available. Have astronomical observatories broadcast when it is noon.

          2. I wonder if any satellites would be visible enough use for navigation, or if they would either be too far out or too short lived.

          3. There were some fairly advanced non-chronometric methods of determining the longitude as well.
            OTOH, I don’t actually know how hard it is to redevelop the prize-winning chronometer

          4. Chronometers are basically a clock accurate enough that on a ship at sea it will be no more than a fraction of a second off per day. Since pendulum clocks are useless aboard ship, a spring-driven escapement is necessary. The main requirement is quality control: being able to make uniform springs of low-expansion and high-elasticity steel.

          5. This has sent me on a google hunt to try to find out if a salvaged electronic or atomic clock would be suitable. Apparently there are atomic clocks the size of a matchbox but I can’t find an estimated lifespan for those; the big ones used for the national reference clocks are only good for seven years.

            Then I remembered we still make mechanical timepieces, and apparently there are totally Swiss watches certified for use as chronometers to this day..

          6. Even a cheap digital watch should be usable as a chronometer, if we’re talking about salvage.

            It’s building new ones that I’m curious about

          7. Some years back, a blog I followed did a close reading of the Narnia books. We discussed the perennial question of how the Narnians obtained food during the hundred-year winter, and the best answer we found was “they exported ice and traded it for food.”

        2. A big seasonal ice house might be a manor thing, but I grew up in a 1910 streetcar suburb house with an ice house, probably stocked by weekly delivery or something; ice became a mass market thing in the 1800s (eventually helped by artificial ice. House was in Chicago — no mountains there, but maybe harvested from Lake Michigan in the winter, or delivered by train.)

          1. Oh wait, I guess my parents called it the ice *box*, not ice house. Makes more sense for what was basically a cabinet (with doors on inner and outer sides — outer for the deliveryman.)

    5. “where 95% of people were engaged in basic food/textile production as per ancient history”

      I dunno. People will remember that things like spinning wheels and horse-drawn harvesters are possible, if not have reference materials in libraries or attics. Falling back to some late 1700s or early 1800s tech level seems more likely to me than going full ancient.

      1. I have bad news for you about how many people in the 17th century were involved in basic agriculture. (it’s not 95% but by modern standards it is a lot)

        1. 17th century is 1600s.

 has some surprisingly low numbers: 1700 France 63%, UK 39%. I am skeptical, but I can’t find better.

          I would note that evaluating percentages can be unintuitive. Going from 95% to 90% farmers might not seem like much (“most people are still farmers”) but it also means roughly twice as many non-farmers per farmer — which is bad if they’re parasitic nobles, but good if they’re doing specialist things that boost economic productivity.

          1. The UK got that number by switching to cattle farming in a large way.
            Farm labourer an solders where on average eating 1lb of beef a day.
            That’s a lot of calories from little labour input, just the kind of thing a post-apocalypse group with the land can do.

          2. We tend to count as ‘farmers’ the rural population. But it included lots of smiths, carpenters, thatchers, weavers, wagoners, wainwrights, millwrights and other artisans, as well as a lot of minor officials.

    6. As well as food and textiles there’s fuel to consider. If they’re fuelling vehicles on ethanol as Bret suggests, that’s a lot of extra cropland dedicated to growing carbs for alcohol.

      Being able to use mechanised farm machinery might make up for that, but it won’t be as land-efficient as farms using mineral fuel oils.

      1. If you have jerusalem artichokes then the ethanol is easy, 5~ 600 gallons per acre.
        That’s enough to run a small tractor an a few other items.

      2. I think more likely alternative fuel would be wood gas. It got quite a bit of use during WW2, converting gasoline engines isn’t probably that complicated and doesn’t require complicated processing for the fuel.

        Google for “El Kamina”, a 1987 El Camino converted to wood gas by one of the recent prime ministers of Finland. “Kamiina” translates to “stove”, that pun was probably enough motivation for the project. Consumes 40 kg of wood per 100 km, can carry enough wood for a range of 1300 km. Emissions on wood gas CO 0,176%, HC 48 ppm.

        1. Heh, I remember WAY back in the 1970s there was a pilot episode for a post-apocalyptic science fiction show called “Planet Earth”. A group of mutant baddies drove around in wood-gas converted automobiles. A clip can be seen here:

          1. are you sure those were meamt to be woodgas conversions, and not steam conversions? (either way they’re clearly just regular cars fitted with cosmetic smokestacks for filming)

  5. It is said that Alfred Nobel got the idea for his Prize when newspapers misreported his brother’s death as him dying, and an obituary called him “the merchant of death”. He decided he wanted a better legacy than that

    1. That was a different brother. Alfred Nobel’s younger brother Emil was the one blown up in the factory accident (when Alfred was in his 30s). Alfred Nobel’s older brother Ludvig (who, by the way, helped establish the Russian oil industry) was the one whose death (when Alfred was in his 50s) inspired the famous obituary.

  6. In the recent fighting between China and India on the Himalayan border, where both parties had agreed not to carry firearms, the fighting did involve clubs with nails and an officer’s saber.

    1. I’d imagine that’s because neither military was built up with the intention of using contact weapons. If they had foreseen that, they would have probably issued those sabers to the rank and file.

      1. and I seriously doubt either military bothered to train their rank and file in earnest for shock combat as that would be almost entirely distinct from modern maneuver warfare.

        1. How does maneuver warfare work in extremely mountainous areas where trails and passes (or even ground that’s level enough to stand on) completely dictate infantry movement?

          1. Badly, as discussed in Dr. Devereaux’s recent article on Luigi Cadorna.

            The general consensus of maneuver warfare experts about fighting in that kind of terrain is “this is a bad idea, go find something better to do.”

            This may seem flippant, but it’s better advice than you might think. Almost all the valuable things to fight over are somewhere besides literally right there in the mountain range. If there’s any way at all to encircle the mountains by hitting the enemy from other angles (e.g. attaining naval superiority and staging an amphibious landing), that’s almost always a better plan. It gives you a chance to cut the supplies and support out from behind the garrisons defending the mountains, which is almost always less costly than storming heavily fortified positions in a mountain range.

            If there’s NO way to get at the enemy besides fighting your way through a heavily defended mountain range, it’s quite possible that the correct approach to your problem is “make peace” or “defend your own side of the mountains until the other side of the war figures out how stupid it is to try to fight through mountains.”

          2. When invading Afghanistan, neither the Soviets nor the US had to deal with well organized and heavily armed opposition holding fortified mountain passes against them.

            The Soviets already had extensive penetration on the ground, and were able to freely land airborne troops in Kabul before their ground forces even crossed the border. They were, in fact, invading an already communist country that had directly asked them for military aid. However, the then-government that had become an embarrassment, and the Soviets decided that their “aid” would take the form of overthrowing it and replacing it with a more tractable and hopefully more competent one.

            The US had local allies and did not stage a normal overland invasion at all; it flew in commandos while dumping airstrikes on the Taliban’s heads until their resistance collapsed and local allies could swarm over them with a gradually increasing amount of US support.

            In both cases, the truism remains: “the maneuver warfare solution to a fortified mountain pass is to go find something else to do that doesn’t involve trying to capture a fortified mountain pass.”

      2. Maces and clubs had been regular military weapons,
        btw i think they would have issued bajonetts

    1. Especially as it depicts duch “grading” of firearms: modern stuff for special forces, high-ranking individuals and their bodyguards, Napoleonic or American Civil War stuff for the common grunt. Which is still an improvement over everyone else’s mid-17th Century stuff.

      1. “American Civil War” covers a lot of ground. In 5 years the standard issue arm would go from a
        smoothbore breachloading percussion lock Springfield 1842 model to the Springfield 1865, a trapdoor rifle with cartridges.

        1. The series covers a lot of ground, too. They upgrade their rifles every few books in the main sequence.

    2. It was actually Flint’s fan community that informed him potassium chlorate could be made with the materials and methods available. As such, the enemies in his early books actually “lapped” the heroes at one point and developed a percussion lock first.

      They’ve also pointed out just how many chemical reactions depend on stainless steel, something nearly impossible to make without a global supply chain.

    3. Yes, and I’d be very interested in a post or series from our host about the society and military developments in those books!

  7. The ammo scarcity is very well present in The Last of Us game series. This is one of few games I know, which simulate resource scarcity well enough to be plausible. Bar zombies, of course.

  8. “guns, bullets and black powder would all be fairly easy to produce given a town library and a high school’s shop classroom”

    Is that really true? I thought gunpowder required a fairly difficult and dangerous process of “corning” to be usable in firearms, where the granules are ground to the correct size without being accidentally exploded in the process. I live near the old Hounslow Gunpowder Mills which had a habit of exploding and shattering all the nearby windows.

    I can see making a muzzle-loading firearm being pretty easy if you already have a strong metal pipe or tube with a straight bore. Once those are used up though, wouldn’t it be pretty tricky for an amateur to bore out a gun barrel from scratch?

    1. Corning makes the powder easier to use and much easier to transport, both of which are major advantages (there’s a reason it took over). But guns work just fine without it. The early rise of firearms on European battlefields predates the discovery of this process.

      We have a lot of metal tubing already, and if you have some sort of simple tube you can reinforce it around the outside in a number of ways to make it a more effective barrel. If that somehow all got used up, there are still ways to make barrels by forge-welding strips of metal together, they’re not as good as modern barrels but can be made to work with practice.

      1. or if you have some straight, healthy solid trees you are willing to sacrifice, as mythbusters showed. even without powertools you could wrap the tree in wire or metal belts for reinforcement, drill out a muzzle, and fire small cannonballs from it. you’d probably eventually lose the thing through use but they’d be fairly cheap. (and might be worth making regularly to train your gunners on how to operate the nicer metal tube based versions)

        1. Matt Easton had a short video on wooden cannon a while ago. They were fairly common for improvised siege defence if you had gunpowder. They seem to have been used more as an IED or a deterrent though, I think he said you basically light the fuse and then dive behind a wall in case it blows you up too.

    2. IIRC there’s a trick to corning which makes it much safer; possibly doing it with “wetted” powder, but I don’t feel like looking it up today

    3. Corning isn’t that difficult – you just wet the powder and hold it under compression for a few minutes and then grind it (and then filter the grains into a series of sizes).

      The first time you do it, it’s not really dangerous – you get a small amount of gunpowder dust, but not enough to be a problem. The problem is that the dust accumulates and eventually something sets it off.

      The solution is to clean your facility properly (including all the dust-traps and awkward corners) after every batch. This is expensive in time and tedious beyond belief – and also safety-critical, so you can’t just dump it on a junior without supervising them carefully to make sure they don’t slack off.

    4. Corning powder was a technology widely available from the 17th century, from Europe to Japan and into Africa. Machining requires training and practice and a reliable power source (which would be tricky post-apocalypse – adapting modern machine tools to water-power might be difficult, but do-able with older lathes and drills). Again, though, making gun barrels and cannon was a widespread technology in the 1700s.

      1. Sure, but that was an era of centralized nation-states, factories with division of labour (Wealth of Nations with its pin factory was written in 1776) and international trade. There was a famous Spectator article from 1711:

        “Our Ships are loaden with the Harvest of every Climate: Our Tables are stored with Spices, and Oils, and Wines: Our Rooms are filled with Pyramids of China, and adorned with the Workmanship of Japan: Our Morning’s-Draught comes to us from the remotest Corners of the Earth: We repair our Bodies by the Drugs of America, and repose our selves under Indian Canopies.”

        A post-apocalyptic small town trying to make do with local resources and whatever labour can be spared from farming is lacking a whole load of advantages 1700s Europeans had.

        1. Europe yes. But a blacksmith in Kyushu managed to replicate a firearm, and the locals made gunpowder. Various African small kingdoms were also self-sufficient in matchlock technologies, as were Pashtun tribes.

        2. Yeah, but it’s a mixed bag. They lack a lot of the resources 18th century Europeans had, but many of those resources are luxury goods, and they have knowledge 18th century Europeans didn’t have.

          The net result might very well be a civilization that is not “more” or “less” advanced in any simplistic way, but different.

    5. Corning isn’t that difficult; you could do it in your kitchen and you could probably figure out how to do it by trial and error. It is dangerous by the standards of anything you’d normally do in your kitchen, but there’s dangerous and then there’s *dangerous*, Making and corning your own gunpowder is dangerous. Manning the palisades with a spear or bow when the other side has breechloading rifles, is *dangerous*.

      Every town big enough to have significant specialization would have someone whose job is to make corned black powder, or reliable trading relationships with a larger town with a bunch of those guys. And those guys will be told to do their thing on the island out in the lake, just in case, but they’ll be paid accordingly and most of them will live to spend it.

      I’m skeptical that it will really come to black powder; I’d expect small-scale smokeless powder production to ramp up before existing stockpiles of ammunition are exhausted. But black powder, of reasonable quality and with guns of reasonable quality to use it, is the minimum. And none of this will be done by amateurs.

  9. In the absence of fuel for motor vehicles, it might be hard for especially a weak state to effectively operate in the vast plains and clear out nomads, even if the state has much more and better ammunition for their guns. After all, the US didn’t manage to fully pacify the Indians until after the Civil War.

    But I still think US popular culture has too much emphasis on roving warbands. I mean, we are talking about Democracy-loving civilization-liking Americans. A few groups of somebodies are going to quickly set up reasonably functioning states and get well-organized and large enough armies to secure and expand their borders. It’s just that getting to cover the entire CONUS is going to take a lot of time, especially if there’s inter-state warfare.

    1. This is the notional background of Steve Jackson Games Car Wars game – a short period of Mad-Max style post-apocalysm that settles out to (relatively) civilized urban areas (with a much higher rate of background violence than today) and large areas of depopulated wastelands where the roving nomadic warbands operate; and a “buffer area” of town- and city-states between the two. Long term effects of the apocalypse (in this case a short and “minor” exchange of WMDs between all the Great Powers) include massively reduced availability of petroleum products and widespread and long-lasting crop blights.

    2. There’s another aspect of American society that would help us maintain stability: We tend to form very large organizations. The Society for Creative Anachronisms, for example, already has a pseudo-government that covers most of North America, and includes people from a wide enough background that it includes people with experience at everything from running cities, to running chemistry labs, to fighting with modern weapons, to shoeing horses, to making paper and vegetable oils. Any major church could step up as well. It would be a theocracy, and not fantastic for anyone who didn’t follow that religion, but it would be a stable, functional society with a broad and deep knowledge base. For that matter, universities could operate as government–they are concentrations of knowledge, a key resource in these settings, and are used to governing people.

      I do think there would initially be a lot of raiders–we have our share of crazy people–but I doubt any major city that survives would be in danger from them for long. The bigger danger would be battles between rival factions for ruling major cities.

      1. The problem with major cities is they’re non-functional without electricity and massive non-local food sources. I’m inclined toward SM Stirling’s depiction where any city of notable size turns into a death zone as it eats itself and the immediately accessible countryside.

        Though there’s probably a sweet spot where they have enough people to support ongoing or at least future specialization while being small enough to survive until they can pivot to local food sources.

        1. Interestingly, if I remember it right lots of US university cities are not that large, which could give them another advantage in that they might be able to use less resources in that stage

        2. and the particular disaster might be particularly hard on cities. The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett has a Constitutional amendment forbidding settlement over a certain size.

          1. I don’t think something like that would be very likely. The problems with large settlements would be self-enforcing and would vary wildly as a function of access to transportation, materials, and basic knowledge about early industrial innovations in agriculture and so on.

            A structural, official ban wouldn’t help much.

      2. Religions hundreds of years ago had great organizational acumen because they had extremely large endowments of well educated people. Modern religions organizationally dont have that advantage. They employ a lot of laypeople and rely on somebody else making sure there is a well organized society outside some philanthropic activities. While a theocracy might emerge from hardship, I wouldn’t expect any of our organized religions to be capable of evolving into the task.

        The Mormons are often held out as an extreme example of a church controlling a modern society but they are babes in a nursery compared to a pre-modern religion. Even in Utah they are following society when it comes to matters like acceptance of gay individuals, not the other way around. Groups like the Scientologists are capable of holding enormous (and abusive) control over individuals but that control exists within a social framework maintained by others, one that provides so much stability that there are individuals ripe to devoting their entire lifestyle to pseudoscientific psychiatry. To control the people in the post-apocolypse you need to be answering issues of providing clean water and storing food, matters that the Scientologist organization is worse equipped to answer then your local PTA board and the Mormon religion is worse equipped to handle then a local community college.

          1. No, pretty much all my knowledge of religious organizations comes from first hand participation for my first few decades.

        1. Religions don’t have the same degree of temporal power they once did, but they’re still very large organizations that do a lot of things. Individual churches can be pretty large and, except for taxes, have all the responsibilities of any organization that size. Their philanthropic activities can include specifically providing clean water and storing food, fighting diseases, and all sorts of other critical tasks in the wake of disasters.

          Most importantly, though, even today a lot of people take their religion seriously. Their pastor will have more moral authority than their boss at a company that no longer exists or their mayor whose name they did not know who was installed in an election they did not vote in. So while the pastor may not have experience in setting up water filtration (unless he went to Africa to help provide clean water, which he might have) there’s a fair chance that the local water treatment guys will listen to him.

          1. And there’s a fair chance that a couple water treatment guys are members of the church.

        2. > and the Mormon religion is worse equipped to handle then a local community college.

          The Mormons absolutely have the capabilities of a college because they control a number of colleges.

        3. Mormonism successfully built a theocracy 150 years ago. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints successfully convinced tens of thousands of people to walk across the Plains and build a new society from the ground up in Utah. 150 years is not that long ago. The current prophet of the LDS Church, Russel M. Nelson, has great grandparents who were pioneers. His grandparents grew up in a Mormon theocracy.

          The LDS Church does not currently dominate Utah’s society like it once did, but it still has a lot of the institutional capacity. It is undoubtedly more capable than a community college, since it controls multiple universities (BYU, BYU-Idaho, BYU-Hawaii, & Ensign College). It owns a bunch of farmland and maintains its own food distribution system, most notably Welfare Square in Salt Lake City. The LDS Church also has its own bookstore (Deseret Book), newspaper (Deseret News), broadcasting company (Bonneville International), shopping mall (City Creek), thrift stores (Deseret Industries), and some manufacturing capacity. These would need to be scaled up in the event of apocalypse, but a lot of the capabilities are there.

          The Catholic Church probably has a smaller variety of capabilities in the United States (I’m not sure about this – and the Catholic Church is much more capable in many other countries). It controls multiple universities and has a large network of professional clergy. The Catholic Church also has significantly more members, which means that there are more people who are willing to listen to it. Being able to coordinate people is extremely important, and having a large audience helps that.

          I don’t think that any other churches in the US have as much institutional capability as the Mormons or Catholic – most other large denominations in the US are more decentralized. They could still play a major role in coordinating large groups of people and calling for nonviolence, even if it would take more work for them to move into the food distribution industry.

          1. A number of the large churches in the US also explicitly expect an apocolypse and a time of tribulation, which will give them a good deal of credibility in the event of an apocolypse. They’ve got a strong presence in the rural areas that currently grow their own food and are likely to avoid direct nuclear fire, so while they’re not immediately prepared to assume governmental power they’re well-positioned to be a dominating force in the formation of new governments. Maybe not as a direct theocracy, but certainly putting their weight in behind the local sherriff, mayor, retired colonel, SCA guy, or whoever.

        4. When you say that religions or churches don’t have a lot of organizational capacity because “they employ a lot of laypeople,” to me that suggests a misunderstanding about what a church is. The laypeople are part of the church, in fact they make up MOST of the church. Any church or religion will include a wide variety of adherents with a wide variety of skills, as others have alluded. To act effectively, they need some organizational structure to channel their cooperation. I would guess most churches could provide that structure at least on a local level, especially in rural areas, and in some cases beyond. When I did flood relief work one summer, one of the most effective response organizations where I was working was a group of Apostolic Christians. They’re not a large church, but they still had the capacity to recruit people and send them in from out of state.

    3. Democracy has pretty shallow roots in much of the US. Consider how many people were ready to proclaim an unaccountable autocract as their lord and ruler. Or how much of the South was traditionally ruled by aristocratic families of planters. Oligarchical Republics are more likely to take the place of central governance during a Post-apocalypse. You’d see plenty of small countrys and city states that are run by a couple of families that elect a president from among them who then rules for a set number of years before stepping back down.

      1. As an Australian I’m surprised to see Joe Biden described as an unaccountable autocrat. Seems a bit early to declare such.

        Democracy is not unique to the USA, nor to the past few centuries. One thing I get from reading a lot of history is that our egalitarian and hierarchical tendencies wax and wane. As an optimist I prefer to believe that the world wide trend towards *more* democratic – note, not perfect – government over the past few decades won’t be easily reversed. Gwynne Dyer summarised this view nicely in

        1. >As an Australian I’m surprised to see
          >Joe Biden described as an unaccountable
          >autocrat. Seems a bit early to declare such.

          Recent results from the congressional investigation have made it all the more apparent that the guy Biden replaced, upon finding out that he’d lost the election, first attempted to commit election fraud and intimidate politicians at the provincial level into declaring him president, then rallied a mob and whipped it up into a frenzy quite coincidentally on the day that the federal government proclaimed the new president, and then when the mob stormed the legislative offices and erected a gallows, he moved to join them and was only narrowly restrained from doing so.

          So joking that comments like this refer to Biden just falls flat on its face. What happened, happened.

          And indeed, part of the reason I’m concerned about American democracy is how many citizens of developed countries, particularly America itself, seem to want to deny that this happened or even that it is bad.

          A democracy can definitely survive having a power-mad president try (and importantly fail) to use mob violence to self-coup the government and proclaim himself to still be in power, as long as the mob is stopped and nobody listens to the proclamations.

          A democracy cannot survive having this happen and then having half the politically active population just memory-hole the fact that it did happen. Especially if that means responding to all concerns about the subject with the Narcissist’s Litany:

          “That didn’t happen. And if it did, it wasn’t that bad. And if it was, it’s not a big deal. And if it is, that’s not my fault. And if it is, then I didn’t mean it. And if I did, then you deserved it.”

          For democracies to be survivable, the electorate and the part of the political class that still values the legitimacy of the process must at least notice when direct attacks on the mechanisms of democracy take place and work to prevent them from simply being repeated over and over.

          1. Trump is a troll. He’ll do whatever it takes to whip the media into a frenzy. While I’ll rather not have a troll for president, I don’t think he had any serious intent of making himself a dictator.

            And I’m quite sure that 95% of Americans did not want for Trump to rule as anything other than a fairly-elected president, and therefore he had no chance of winning.

          2. Things are certainly much more dramatic and interesting in the timeline you’re typing from than the one that the rest of us inhabit.

            Trump is a narcissistic twerp with delusions of grandeur. The kind of nefarious scheming required for the scenario you’ve presented is utterly beyond him.

          3. I warn anyone to assume that Trump did not seriously intend to make himself a dictator. Idiotic joker has ever been the Fascist’s favorite guise. It feigns stupidity to deflect serious attacks by the forces of democracy. Love, from Germany

          4. Actually the Fascist’s favorite guise is the one warning that you’re in danger of being tyrannized.

          5. “the Fascist’s favorite guise” is warning about communists and leftists, even while they undermine democracy and unleash violence themselves.

          6. There is a difference between memory-holing and not wanting to talk about it 24/7/365.

            Our host this week chose to write about something “a bit silly” the technology available in a post-apocalyptic setting. So of course someone wants, needs, to bring Trump into the discussion. Every problem, United States or world wide, current day or imaginary future, must be traced back to his evil reign!

            Screaming “Just STFU already” was an alternative, but I decided to go for some mockery. And a genuine response to, if you read the link.

          7. Bret made much the same points a while back, with historical comparison to Athens.

            For democracies to be survivable, they must also respond to concerns *appropriately*. My opinion is that y’all constantly trying to raise awareness are, unintentionally, aiding and abetting Trump and his followers.

            Egotists thrive on attention and publicity, even negative publicity. If you want to really upset one, ignore them, or don’t take them seriously. This is NOT the same as pretending nothing happened.

            Trump followers were looking for someone who would stand up to the establishment and such. The constant refrain that Trump is the biggest threat to America in the history of history itself just confirms to his followers that they have the right candidate.

            And for January 6, well the United States is just a teensy bit bigger than classical Athens. Compared to the real coups in 2019 (Sudan) and 2020 (Mali) those people were a joke. When US progressives shout that This Was An Existential Threat to American Democracy That Came Within an Inch of Installing a Dictator, I don’t think this is discouraging future attempts.

            Yes I’m an optimist. I think being optimistic is a precondition for a better future.

          8. @Hearkener: History disagrees with you. Neither Hitler nor Mussolini nor Franco ever presented themselves as “idiotic jokers.”

            Totalitarians want others to take them as seriously as they take themselves.

          9. “Totalitarians want others to take them as seriously as they take themselves.”

            I haven’t heard of Stalin, Mao, Putin, or Xi being known for their self-deprecating humor either. Not that I’m an expert.

          10. @Ariel:
            >While I’ll rather not have a troll
            >for president, I don’t think he
            >had any serious intent of
            >making himself a dictator.
            Then what, exactly, do you think the riots were intended to accomplish? He spent roughly a month setting up that rally. What do you think he was trying to do? I get that he’s not exactly a deep thinker-planner, but he wouldn’t have spent a month preparing for something entirely purposeless.

            >And I’m quite sure that 95% of
            >Americans did not want for
            >Trump to rule as anything
            >other than a fairly-elected
            >president, and therefore he
            >had no chance of winning.
            Perhaps he did not have a chance of winning. But that ties back into my earlier point.

            A nation’s democracy can survive a single man trying to make himself king, as long as the rest of the nation collectively agree that this is not allowed behavior and wrestle the scepter and nuclear launch codes out of his hands afterwards.

            A nation’s democracy, in the long term, cannot survive a situation where a man can try to make himself king, and then the entire half-or-so of the electorate that supported him tries to deny that it ever happened. Or to deny that he even lost the election in the first place. Because at that point it starts looking much safer and more attractive to try to make yourself king with the backing of that half of the electorate.

            Sure, the other half of the electorate, and some of the uninvolved, might resist. But then, that’s a problem you can potentially solve by making sure your followers have a lot of guns and have been carefully prepared in advance to think that extrajudicial killings of “enemies of the state” are righteous and proper.

            >For democracies to be survivable,
            >they must also respond to concerns
            >*appropriately*. My opinion is that
            >y’all constantly trying to raise
            >awareness are, unintentionally,
            >aiding and abetting Trump and his
            This invites the question: what is the *appropriate* response to a weak and implausible, but by all appearances sincere, attempt by a sitting president to self-coup the government and set oneself up as king? Fine, fine, the odds against success were enormous, it would never have ended well for him, call the man a clown or a weakling as many times as you will. He still tried.

            So what is the *appropriate* response? Quietly say nothing about it, don’t bring it up again? What if the same man runs for nomination as president again? What if he wins nomination, as seems not-unlikely? Should the same man who tried and failed once have a chance to try the same stunt again, “once more, with feeling,” with more prep time and fewer illusions?

            It would seem to me that the minimum *appropriate* response of any government to a sincere (if weak and unlikely) attempt at a coup is to ensure that those responsible wind up in jail, or exiled and in no position to return and attempt to exercise power.

            I do not think the point has yet been reached where we can declare this all to be an irrelevant tempest-in-teapot, a historical footnote. I think it would be far more convenient to the people who tried to do it if it were all hushed up and never discussed at inconvenient moments, than if it were discussed ‘too often.’

        2. I’m talking about the orange clown a bunch of insane neo-fascists wanted to make president against the democratic majority of American voters.

  10. A really interesting point to consider about post-apocalypse societies, but a bit unfair to the bows of Horizon Zero Dawn: unlike other examples, there is no continuity between the societies of Horizon Zero Dawn, the peoples in that game have essentially had to start over from scratch with almost no knowledge of the Old World (as they refer to it). Notably, in the sequel game, societies with a bit more knowledge of the Old World have been manufacturing some gun-like weapons (the boltblaster seems a bit like a nail gun, but if a nail gun fired two dozen nails at a time and was designed to work against massive machines) although there’s no real specifics about how they’re made. If you haven’t played HZD or the sequel Forbidden West, I recommend them. I think you might find the Tenakth in particular interesting, since they have a militarised culture based off small amounts of data about an Old World (but near-future to us) conflict. It’s not necessarily super realistic, but fun and interesting to see how these scraps of knowledge influenced their society as the game devs wrote it. It might make for another good Fireside topic!

    Long time reader of the blog but first time commenting. I wanted to say thanks as well for all the work that you do on the blog. It’s improved my knowledge base and writing tremendously. I find myself recommending it to people constantly. Long may the pedantry continue!

    1. They also do have guns in Horizon Zero Dawn, the “Deathbringers.” For reasons I dont want to say because it’s spoilers on an absolute gem of story telling, they have much less access to these guns then a “conventional” post-apocolyptic society however guns do show up and they are highly prized for obvious reasons.

      HZD is also in a bit of an interesting technological blind alley. For them black powder isn’t the most readily produced explosive, this means that they have grenades but they dont have guns. In fact if you were teleported to the realm of HZD with knowledge of how to make guns in a cottege industry, the guns wouldn’t be immediately very useful. You could probably procure a Deathbringer for the same kind of money that it would cost to go through all those steps of making the gun and ammunition artisanally. Or alternatively you could use the non gun-powder explosives to make yourself a Hwacha, which would be much more immediately useful then the gun. The gun would only really start to be useful after many decades of experimentation. One could image that Avad might patronize some experimenter who might put in those decades of work and suddenly the Carja would have a huge military breakthrough when their guns finally start to be better then crossbows with attached explosives.

      I’m not sure that I would even call HZD post-apocolyptic. Part of post-apocolyptic is material scarcity and I think life is much less harsh in HZD. It seems like they have a technological level where they are free from having most of their labor going into procuring food and clothing. It would be much easier for them to spare the labor for new discovery and it’s only their extremely small population that would prevent rapid technological development.

      1. I agree that ” life is much less harsh” in HZD because of [spoiler]. The other difference is that they do have some access to technological products from an industrial economy via all the parts and chemicals they can scavenge from the robot animals they destroy. Why make gunpowder when you can probably rig up something using “blaze”?

        1. The fact that they have ready access to specific technologically advanced materials that exceed even modern capabilities does probably have a big impact on their development. You could invest enormous time and resources into mining and refining materials and difficult advanced chemistry or you can mug the output of an AI-controlled autofac. Heck, as I understand it until a short time before the game started the machines weren’t very combative so it was pretty safe.

  11. Possible typo:

    “The same chart also suggests the Romans were seasonable campaigners in the Middle Republic …”

    Did you perhaps mean *seasonal* rather than *seasonable*?

  12. SM Stirling’s Islands On The Seas Of Time series (Nantucket Island in the Eighties gets thrown back to the Bronze Age, with the USCGC Eagle accompanying them), and details the evolution of the uptimers combat capabilities in this manner (though the plot almost immediately removes almost all the uptime weapons from the setting immediately).

  13. I have done nitration reactions on organic compounds. In a competent lab, students don’t do nitration on the organics that will make explosives; you nitrate benzene or something (nitrobenzene is not an explosive). You can learn the tricks for getting it to work safely on that sort of thing and then move on to nitrating cellulose or glycerin or toluene.

    The main trick is temperature control. If you can’t keep it within a 5C range reliably, for hours, then you won’t get a good product, and you’ll not be allowed near anything dangerous.

    Achieving that sort of reliable temperature control requires a lot of technique and, for most of us, several months of practice. I did eventually get good enough to make a little TNT (this in a university undergraduate org-chem lab).

    There is a real skill to it, and if you get it wrong it goes very wrong. I was doing it with access to electronic thermometers and precision heating elements. Doing it with a bunsen burner and a reflux condenser and measuring temperature by where on the condenser the condensation ring is located (which is how they did it in that lab a decade earlier) is a whole other level of challenge and is beyond my abilities.

    When Bret says “don’t try this at home”, he means “DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME”. It’s hard, you need lots of practice, and a supervisor who knows exactly how to do it. Much of the original work was done in small huts so if the hut was blown to bits, it didn’t harm anything else.

    1. That didn’t even get into primer. Primers are hell. Don’t do it.

      Seriously: the first standard primer was mercury fulminate. Which has an unfortunate tendency to either explode, or kill you with mercury poisoning, or kill you with cyanide poisoning, depending on how you got it wrong.

      Chlorate primers are slightly easier chemically but don’t work as well. Also, mistakes tend to result in clouds of hydrogen chloride or chlorine.

      Modern primers are lead styphnate, which substitutes the mercury poisoning risk for lead poisoning, but is somewhat more stable and isn’t heat-sensitive. On the other hand, the chemical preparation is even more annoying and fiddly than the fulminates.

    2. Small huts with deliberately weakened roofs and very strong walls so that when they blew up, the blast would go up rather than hitting the hut next door where they were doing some other part of the process.

      The other thing is, if you do try this at home (don’t), then use SMALL batches. As the process gets larger your chances of an accidental explosion and the size of any accidental explosion both go up.

      When I was high-school age, anyone allowed to use the base technical library (which was basically anyone, a University student ID was sufficient) could check out special forces documents on how to improvise some quite powerful explosives with stuff you could find at home in a modern household. Our motto was “At no time do the fingers leave the hand” and “do not use anything from the anarchist’s cookbook”.

      I’ll also note that most of the chemicals you needed were easily available for mail-order, and at much higher purity than you’d be likely to get post-apocalyptic. Having done some small scale explosives work, I would not care to try it with feedstock chemicals I wasn’t fairly sure were pure.

      1. Some things from the Anarchist’s Cookbook are usable with slight modifications, but by the time you have the education and the experience to know which things and what modifications, you know better things to make anyway.
        (I am in real life and professionally the kind of person who has that experience.)

        1. Do you know why the Anarchist’s Cookbook is like that? Did the author not know any better, or is it a trick to get enemies of the state to blow themselves up?

  14. There’s always good reading on this blog, but this particular article is pretty fortuitous, since I’ve been messing around with a post-apocalyptic setting for tabletop game night. I did some research (read: snuck onto Wikipedia at work) and I knew there was a difference in quality between blackpowder weapons (which the system has stats for) and modern weapons, but you laid it out very clearly. In all seriousness, it’d be great if you could add this to the resources for world-builders page, because it’s very useful.

  15. Speaking of Metro, they appear to have already made the transition you mention, with “basic” ammunition being clearly reloaded and also producing the kind of white smoke (though not nearly enough of it) that you’d expect from black powder. Military-grade rounds (MGR), the setting’s currency, are clearly fresh rounds from before the war.

    IIRC this is justified by the presence of Armory Station, which is all the tools and staff of an arms plant moved into the Metro system, with primers either originating from pre-war stockpiles or being synthesized somewhere offscreen/offpage alongside whatever powder they’re reloading with.

    As an aside, there is the occasional chatter in blackpowder circles about mixing black powder with small quantities of smokeless, generally described as a duplex load. While this allegedly can create unsafe pressures for blackpowder firearms, it (largely anecdotally) appears to reduce the amount of fouling, presumably by burning off the carbon before in can deposit.

  16. I’m always interested in thinking about “how things/systems work” and putting it in a post-apocalyptic setting gives folks a common framework to work from. Good and interesting writing!

  17. Since you’ve opened the Pandora’s Box that is talking about Fallout, I’d be interested sometime in a look at (Fallout) Caesar’s take on Rome and how he applies that take to his regime. What inspires him, what does he get wrong about Rome and what are the flaws of Roman government even if he’s right?

    1. I’m no expert in Roman history but I believe the question “What did (Fallout) Caesar get correct about Rome” would be much faster to answer. To my untrained eye I dont think he understood anything about Rome so the points of convergence are completely accidental.

      1. This was my impression too–Fallout Caesar had a superficial understanding of the Roman army which he copied with the names of his ranks and their armour but I don’t think his system of government had any more resemblance to Rome’s than that of any other empire. Obviously it was an empire so a parallel could be drawn to Rome but I don’t think it copied any distinctively Roman traits. I also think Fallout Caesar’s focus on conformity is a bit at odds with how our host describes Rome’s interactions with its subjects and the diversity within the empire (see for example

    2. From what we see, Caesar has a bunch of the trappings and titles of Rome, but we don’t really see much evidence of Roman governmental structure. Admittedly the furthest we go into Legion territory is Caesar’s war camp, but the implication seems to be that there’s not much more to the Legion than we see. And what we do see doesn’t seem to be time-shifted Roman; where Rome used advanced for the time artillery and siege engineering, Caesar’s artillery for the dam assault is… one gun. That’s broken. Granted, they started out with tribal warbands so their technical know-how is limited, but they don’t seem to regard this as a serious deficency which must be remedied.

      They seem to lack serious auxillia, and they don’t seem to have the relative regularity of a legion in their deployments. In addition to lacking siege engineering, they show no sign of embarking on other major engineering projects. Granted, this is a warzone, but most notably there’s no discussion of bridging the river downstream of the dam where they effectively control both banks.

      Basically they’re a tribal warband in Roman hats, and their only edge over the NCR is that the NCR has internal financial problems and seems at most halfway interested in controlling New Vegas.

    3. It’s explicit in the game that Caesar basically understood nothing about Ancient Rome. He found and read some history books (Decline and Fall, as well as Commentariat) of themselves dubious accuracy, and then proceeded to distort even those distorted sources even further in pursuit of personal power. The game makes no bones about the fact that Caesars Legion is more or less LARPing Rome for political benefit with no pretension at historical understanding.

      Arcade Gannon (a generally much more well read character) delivers several stinging commentarIes in the game itself towards the Legion and Caesar to that effect, so the game is well aware of this.

    4. When you talk to Caesar, he’s pretty open about the fact that he decided what sort of society he wanted to build *first* and adopted Rome as a model *second.* The end result is a “cult of the badass” version of the Roman legion, with cool red cloaks and gratuitous Latin military terms and pretty much zero genuine resemblance to actual Roman society. Which is unsurprising since Caesar was an anthropologist specializing in languages of the American Southwest, not a historian of ancient Rome, so his knowledge base is that of an enthusiastic amateur with a heavy dose of confirmation bias. If you take Arcade Gannon to visit the Legion base, he’ll complain about how historically inaccurate it is, but he’s the only character who’s both educated enough to know and nerdy enough to care.

      Ironically, the NCR is actually the most Rome-like faction in the Fallout ‘verse, by virtue of being heavily inspired by the US. (Which Caesar acknowledges- one thing he gets right about being a latter-day Julius Caesar is that it involves killing a bunch of other “Romans.” Ironically, he seems unaware of all the previous wars between societies that had nothing in common apart from claiming to be some kind of Roman successor.)

    5. Others have already noted that Edward Sallow gets it pretty wrong and the game is well aware of this, but in light of what else our host has written, it’s worth noting that the child soldiers, extremely abusive training of said child soldiers, and heavy emphasis on slavery are more evocative of Sparta than Rome.

  18. “Beyond the initial phases of the disaster, there is simply going to be no reason to resort to a bat wrapped in barbed wire or with nails through it; you’d be a fool to fight with that.”

    I dunno, a board with a nail in it is a provenly effective weapon for fighting off alien invaders.

  19. I think it would be a pretty interesting detail to throw in these post-apocalyptic setting communities that either bankrupted or literally destroyed themselves trying to produce high-quality smokeless powder ammunition. It could produce an anti-snowball (to borrow a strategy game term) effect where communities that start with stockpiles of modern ammo rush their attempts to mass-produce replacement ammo and then fall apart because doing so is actually much harder than they think.

    1. Additionally, trying to develop a chemical industry could be treated as equivalent to trying to enrich uranium. I don’t see this as being long run stable but I could see a period of about 10-60 years post collapse where communities are either successfully deterred from mass producing smokeless powder because it is SOP to launch preemptive strikes on anyone that looks like they are getting close to having a chemical industry.

  20. I also think people tend to overestimate the level of immediate post-apocalyptic violence. We’re talking survivors who are very well ensconced in civilization and accustomed to low levels of violence, who all initially consider everyone around their countrymen, and who, further, are aware of an Enemy even if there is not actually anything more to be done about the war. Additionally, your main centers of violence (organized crime, gangs) are fairly vulnerable to most apocalypse causing events. (Military units may cause issues in some countries but in others they ought to be quite helpful to the extent any survive).

    This is not to say you wouldn’t have a significant jump over what we are accustomed to today but I think the first generation especially would be fairly conflict adverse.

    1. While it certainly deserves some world building attention rather than being assumed, I think many apocalyptic scenarios tend towards violence. Any event that destroys infrastructure without immediately reducing the size of the population is going to result in a great many desperate people which will lead to violence over scarce resources. If there’s a threat like zombies, violence will quickly become a much more appealing way to solve problems.

      I think cultural myths around violence and individualism might also contribute to a much more rapid increase in violence than one might expect from our civilized trappings. Not to mention the first groups to succeed at organized violence will find it very easy to prey on anyone who can’t match them in either violence or organization.

      1. We have lots of natural disasters, some of very large scale, to learn from, and almost none of them involve people fighting over scarce resources in any large way. There’s much more in the way of people organizing collective relief efforts.

        You can argue that the lack of fighting over resources is because the whole world wasn’t destroyed and everybody expects the national guard or whatever to show up in a week or so. But the first week is always more locals organizing their own relief effort than people fighting over loot either because they’re hungry or the because they want to grab the best loot while they can. Which means if there is some hypothetical future point where, if the national guard hasn’t shown up, people are going to turn to looting – they’re going to be faced with an organized militia of the sort of people who have learned to trust each other in a crisis and who really don’t like looting.

        1. From a fighting over resources perspective, the “best” case apocalypse is a plague that kills almost everyone but the survivors have their pick of what’s laying around. The worst case apocalypse is an EMP event that destroys electrical grids around the planet but directly kills almost no one- until most of them slowly and miserably starve to death, quite possibly taking down with them any refuges that might otherwise have survived.

        2. Actually, they’ll be faced with a bunch of corpses and the people who survived by eating them. While the tyranny of the wagon equation is difficult, imagine trying to feed New York without gas or electricity.

      2. The first groups to succeed at organized violence will be the state authorities, at least in the West, and most of the rest of the world. They have more authority, large scale organisation and firepower than any other groups. Organized violence is the primal function of the state, after all. No gang of desperadoes is big enough (or has authority enough) to compete.

        The authorities may then ration whatever is in short supply. That doesn’t mean they have to ration it equally – their own security forces may be highly favoured if necessary. The disfavoured may be unhappy about this – but they would be mostly disorganised people in a weak starting position who will grow weaker as they starve. The weak make poor rebels.

  21. Re. cartridge-firing guns: a huge disadvantage muzzle-loaders have is that one has to stand up to reload them. In the American Civil War trenches and breastworks were important because defenders could reload behind them. Breach loaders require far less cover.

  22. One thing that’ll make a huge comeback in the post-apocalypse: horses. Cars are not just difficult to build and fuel, they also require a large system of well maintained roads to be useable. So your wasteland warrior would probably look somewhat like Polish WW2 cavalry. Rides on campaign but gets down for the actual fight. Plus you can use horses (and donkeys) to carry heavy loads like machine guns or even light artillery.

    1. Given the comments above that posit electrical infrastructure being easier to maintain, at least in the short term (i.e. hydrodams, PV farms and wind farms), I wonder if a BEV oriented society would have a significant advantage once the 30 day or so local supply runs out.

      1. Probably massively stripped BEVs. Like electric mopeds with thick tires (for the rougher terrain). Might be more efficient to feed biomass to a steam engine that charges batteries, than to feed a horse.

        Except… how do you make the batteries? Well, at first you can scavenge a lot, lead-acid batteries from cars and such. But as they fail, then what? There’s lots of strong acid and toxic chemistry with batteries, even if they don’t explode quite as much.

        1. All the high-energy-density rechargeable batteries we know how to make today degrade “on the shelf” to a greater or lesser extent, within a handful of years

          1. How long can lead-acid last, though? It’s not super high density, but if out standard is “better than a horse” it doesn’t have to be; being able to sustain 8 MPH would be pretty good, no need to be zipping around at 45 MPH.

            (your other comment)

            Oh man, I forgot all about air rifles! Yeah, that’s a neat tech tree to explore in a crisis.

          2. As far as I know, lead-acid chemistry is subject to degradation by aging. It certainly degrades in use over a few years

    2. Horses are so relatively rare today that I wonder if whatever cataclysm destroys civilization might make them extinct. Fallout that blankets the continent and kills everything that doesn’t hide underground for forty days would be tough. Or maybe starving hordes kill and eat them all during the three-year long winter.

      1. You’re describing some pretty extreme disasters, on a par with the dinosaur extinction. So, sure, those would kill horses and a lot of other things.

        In less extreme apocalypse, if grass survives horses will survive.

          1. The original American horses were hunted to extinction. Post-apocalyptic people would be unlikely to do that, because they would know that horses can be trained for riding.

        1. I mean an apocalypse like the KPG extinction event would almost certainly wipe us from the face of the earth. We are on top of the food chain. When ecosystems collapse so severely as they did back then, we all starve to death.

          1. (KPG = KT = Cretaceous mass extinction 65 million years ago = all non-bird dinosaurs dead)

            Well, that was a pretty extreme event. But humans are *very* flexible omnivores. We’re not just top of the food chain like apex predators, we can exist at multiple levels of the food chain — not to the point of eating grass, but one step up (eating grass seeds, feeding grass to dairy).

            This is part of why we’re so good at causing mass extinctions: we can wipe something out and move on. Omnivores like bears usually aren’t that big of hunters. Specialized carnivores collapse if they eat out their prey. But humans could hunt out Paleolithic big game, then move on to Mesolithic small game and gathering, and then to Neolithic farming…

            I won’t say “humans could totally survive K-T” but between omnivory, clothing, fire, shelter, and other advantages, we’re probably a lot harder to wipe out than a mammal of our size should be.

            Modern urban humans are a lot more vulnerable, but hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers still exist, so wiping out the *species* is hard.

    3. Dragoons is the technical term for units that use horses to get to the battlefield, but fight on foot once there.

    4. i’d imagine you’d get a lot of repurposed cars.. chop off the engine to fit a harness set up for horses/oxen, turning your old no longer functional cars into wagons and carts. the metal frame and skin would make them more durable than most handmade wooden ones, and the glass windows and seats would make them a bit more comfortable. eventually you’d have to resort to wooden wheels with solid suspension, but the basic frames and shells would stick around due to the sheer durability. would be a lot easier than learning how to design and build all wooden ones.

  23. I’ll throw in an advertisement for a book I published in 2016: Hot Earth Dreams: what if severe climate change happens and humans survive? It’s available on Amazon. The book’s a general sourcebook for anyone trying to create scenarios for a climate changed future, not just in the next few decades, but going out up to 100,000 years, or whenever the climate returns to 20th Century norms. It’s intended to put a lot of science out on the same time scales, to give a sense of how it all works together.

    I got into the future of guns in one chapter, and I came to the same conclusion that guns aren’t going away, mostly because the smithing skill you’d need to forge a sword can be used to make the barrel for a muzzleloader (see Wallace’s Malay Archipelago for a description of an Indonesian smith making guns with tools that an English smith would consider barely sufficient for shoeing a horse). That said, saltpeter historically was a major limiting ingredient, leading to “guano wars” in the nineteenth century as colonial empires fought to control sources of nitrates for smokeless powder. (see Hager, 2008, The Alchemy of Air). There are various ways of producing saltpeter, but the tradeoff is that you use a lot of urine and manure to do so, so those materials don’t go to fertilize your crops if you’re using them to make gunpowder. It’s a different form of the guns vs. butter tradeoff.

    It then comes down to how you fight with the guns you have. As the modern archer militias in Africa have demonstrated, poisoned arrows are roughly a match for AK-47s with three bullets per rifle, at least in terrain that limits sight lines to arrow range. You can also read The Great Ming MIlitary Blog for an extended take on how the Ming armies fought with a wide array of firearms, from fire lances to flintlocks, many locally produced and of questionable quality.

    Anyway, just wanted people to know the Hot Earth Dreams is out there, if this is something you’re interested in.

    1. With scavenged tool steel (from eg, leaf-springs) and the modern knowledge of gears, levers, and other systems of mechanical advantage, some pretty effective crossbows whose “pull weight” is quite significant.

      I don’t know if something like the could be made by a post-apocalyptic town- or city-state with knowledge access to modern metalworking techniques and pre-industrial-age tools and metals, but I can think of a couple of useful things to do with a potato cannon and a granado…

      1. I think it’s possible – the wiki article says that the air reservoir was made of hammered and riveted sheet iron, sealed shut by brazing, which is all possible with hand tools. However, it also mentions that they were very difficult to make, which I definitely believe. If you’re making a pressure vessel with hand tools, any little flaw in your workmanship can mean it won’t hold pressure.

        1. I wonder if we have found better ways to seal pressure vessels, that don’t require a long supply chain the way rubber would.
          Probably not though

          1. There are many ways to seal them. Metal seals are generally used in high pressure instead of rubber. If you look at a mortar the seal is a plastic split ring for the obturator.

          2. There would be a huge amount of pressure vessels laying around, starting from fire extinguishers to gas bottles in every workshop, factory, hospital and research facility.

          3. Oh, sure, immediately post-apoc, salvage is the order of the day.

            But can “new-build” airguns be made, and, at what stabilized tech level?

  24. Modern cartridges also require manufacturing percussion caps. I can’t speak with any confidence but I think that would be even easier than the casings so not a limiting factor here.

    1. The percussion cap thing is the entire “primer” section of the initial essay. (And based on discussion, it’s fiddly, but also the quantity of output required is significantly smaller.)

      There’s an interesting retrofit stage for that in firearms, too, where flintlock-like muzzle-loaders can instead use a percussion cap (but not in the same shape as a primer in a reloaded cartridge, of course) as the initiator instead of loose powder and a spark in a priming pan. This is, of course, militarily much more workable, since they are more reliable in inclement weather, but it comes at the cost of having more different supply requirements. Of course, modern cartridge designs solve all these problems much better.

      I haven’t verified whether this actually happened, but I’ve seen it argued that using a flint allows for better performance when industrial supplies are less available. It seems a little suspect in hindsight, given that one still needs to supply the gunpowder, but the argument is that, without having a standard gunpowder to cap ratio, you can’t have a situation where you run out of caps without running out of powder, or vice versa. (The baseline assumption here is that flints are trivially replaceable, since most rocks would make sparks against steel, even if they don’t all do it equally well. I’m less trusting of that than I once was, as well, now that I have learned a bit more about metallurgy.)

      1. I’m likely misusing terminology. When I said “percussion cap” I was referring to the metal component in a centerfire cartridge that is struck by the firing pin. I thought that primer referred only to the chemical explosive set off by the shock of that strike.

          1. Thank you for the explanation. I found some articles online that refer to the “primer cup” and “anvil”. This is a metal container that is filled with the primer explosive. The pin strikes the cup which squeezes the explosive against the anvil top cause it to ignite. The entire assembly is just called a “primer”. What I meant to refer to when I erroneously said “percussion cap” was the assembly of cup and anvil before you fill it with the explosive.

      2. Flint has the properties both that it’s hard and that it can be chipped into sharp-edged pieces. I’ve done primitive fire starting with rock flint, steel and char cloth, and it’s much easier to get sparks with a fresh piece of flint than one that’s gotten worn down and blunted. Quartz and quartzite is just as hard and can make sparks but are much harder to get a sharp edge.

  25. A note on cartridges, specifically brass ones. These weren’t just a breakthrough in ease of reloading, the brass cartridge is also a breakthrough in allowing breach loading. The brass expands under pressure and forms a gas seal against the bolt (or whatever is sealing the breach).

    Breachloading leads to huge innovations. Quite quickly, you see magazines with lever action guns. Bolt action follows, and full automatic emplaced guns aren’t far behind.

    As far as I know (all of this based on forgotten weapons and c&arsenal on Youtube) biggest holdup here wasn’t innovation in guns, but army confidence in ammunition supply. Armies did not like weapons with magazines at first because they feared soldiers would waste their ammo. This is why many early bolt-actions allow the magazine cut-off and single loading. The magazine was only intended for emergencies, in all other cases you should single load rounds. That meshes very well with the point that warfare needed industrial production of ammunition. Since it was ammunition scarcity that held back the introduction of bolt-action rifles. I presume the same goes for semiautomatic rifles, SMGs, and perhaps even assault rifles.

      1. Why not copy the direct file world and got with a slide block and disposable cartridge case? Multi-lug is state of the art for tank cannons. They have used combustible cases for decades. Even howitzers are starting to go the combustible case route. That just leaves a stub case and primer. The one advantage screw block would have is that you could eliminate the stub case but then the breech block and primer feed mechanism becomes more complicated

  26. On a tangent – You qualify that Roman law only punished assault “of Roman citizen women in peacetime.” What about Roman-allied Italians? Or more generally, how did Roman law treat crimes against Italians in general?

  27. I wonder how realistic the “making blackpowder in the field” sequence from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is.

    1. Haven’t read that one; but in the classic science-fiction novel “Lest Darkness Fall”, the protagonist introduces several technologies to sixth-century AD Italy. He _tries_ to introduce gunpowder and a prototype cannon, but the powder he makes produces barely enough of a burp to push the cannonball out of the muzzle.

      1. In the Dungeon Samurai trilogy they do actually make guns once they have the stuff for gunpowder, but they discover some interesting safety requirements.

    2. As someone who did some very dumb things with pyrotechnics as a teenager, it took me a few months to make something that would actually explode instead of just burning quickly, and that was with access to Home Depot and the Internet.

    3. I haven’t read that sequence but I can tell you from experience that making workable black powder is fiddly even if you know what you’re doing and have the right equipment. If you don’t you’re just as likely to end up with fewer fingers than you started with.

  28. One important point to make about post-apocalyptic armament and combat is that it’s going to change rapidly. As apocalypse transitions to post-post-apocalypse, a lot is going to change very fast. There’s absolutely going to be a stage where survivors are gonna use a mixture of improvised melee weapons, garden tools, and guns with modern cartridges (since they don’t have the industrial base to make their own sabres or black powder), and probably a stage where pre-apocalyptic salvage and post-apocalyptic parts are cludged together into machines (or weapons) that work better than it looks like they should.

    You know, a history of a post-apocalyptic period—the shifting subsistence, industrial, and political dynamics as civilization is destroyed and re-emerges—could make for a pretty neat story on its own. No MacGuffin or big external threat needed.

    1. For you, Moe Lane wrote The Shadow of the Tower, a collection of post-apocalyptical stories over a few centuries.

      Provided you can accept the unusual cause and consequence of the apocalypse.

  29. On the subject of “garbage history YouTube channels”, is there any way we could get a sort of ranking list of your opinions on them? Obviously wouldn’t ask for judgments on every video, but at the very least a “do not watch this person” list could be very valuable.

    On the flip side, I can think of few things that would get you yelled at more.

    1. A list of channels that *aren’t* garbage would be both shorter and less likely to cause problems.

  30. One thing you missed is the ability for small scale additive manufacturing. We are already working in printing propellants. 3D printed propellant has been demonstrated at medium caliber and is being worked on for large caliber. Also there are other ignition trains besides conventional primer. electroChemical Thermal (ECT) has been worked on for years. The same for plasma and laser.
    There is a real push for being able to print everything and use what is found in the environment as your precursor. If that happens before the apocalypse things could turn out very differently

    1. 3D printing doesn’t solve your problem here. 3D printing propellant is meant to replace the extrusion process, which is all about mixing the already made chemicals and outputting them as a solid in a desired shape. That’s not the problem here, the problem is getting the chemicals – the inputs that you would feed into a 3D printer. And that’s the issue, ‘what’s found in your environment’ aren’t going to be the precursors you actually need and the 3D printer is many things but it isn’t a molecular forge (a science fiction thing that can churn out molecules of any material from any raw material). So 3D printing solves the wrong problem.

      Likewise, as noted in other comments, electric ignition systems, while workable at artillery and rocket scales, remain unreliable at small arms scales. If it could be made reliable, that solves for primer, but not for powder.

      1. You missed the final comment t about finding the precursors in the environment. A large amount of effort is being put into synthetic biology in conjunction with 3D printing. The idea being to print a lattice on which the chemical reactions will take place to generate the end chemicals you are looking for. Also the chemicals going into the printer even these days are not exactly the same as standard propellants. There is a reaction that occurs during the printing process.

        As for ETC and other alternative ignitions, scaling them down has more to do with reliable power supplies than anything else.

        Unless the apocalypse comes in the next decade I don’t see propellant being a large issue. There is more than enough money being tossed into synthetic biology to deal with the precursor issue.

      2. Also all the chemicals you need to 3D print modern propellant are readily available and can be ordered by anyone. There are a few steps you need to do that require specialized knowledge but not fancy labs. There is still a chance that the printer will blow up though.

        1. But we’re talking about a collapse of civilization scenario where you can’t just order stuff. If the modern economy is still running you don’t have to worry about any of this because you can just buy ammunition.

          1. What I am saying is that the chemicals are NOT that hazardous and there are large stock piles of them. Yes if you are in the middle of now where you are going back to black powder. However if you are someplace that still has electricity, a lot of stuff will be made by small 3D printers. Propellant may be one of them.

            It is really a matter of when the apocalypse happens and how bad it is. If it happened in the next 5 years I won’t be printing propellant. A decade from now? 50/50. Two decades almost certainly. I can already print pretty much everything else for small and medium cal.

            Whether or not you have access to electricity will be the real deciding factor.

      3. To jump on this, printing powder is about being able to tune the powder’s properties by changing the granule size and shape, which can give you different kinds of pressure curves, so that you can make the best cartridge for a specific gun.

        If you are referring to something like then extruding some RDX in resin or whatever has basically nothing to do with modern small arms.

        1. I am talking about using SLA to print from resin. Yes it is aimed at print large grains with specific geometries to optimize burning. However he printers have the resolution to print small and medium caliber propellant as has been demonstrated in 45mm.

      4. Electric ignition systems are wide spread in aircraft use, there’s no technical limits other then power supply stopping there use in small arms.

  31. Great observations. I’ve long argued (in the “enthusiastic amateur” mode, rather than from any point of expertise) that the winning technology in a post-apocalyptic world is social cohesion and the ability to organize and leverage the expertise and labour of large groups of survivors.

  32. > In part this is because a lot of the outcomes that appear in the genre – particularly in games with a focus on combat – don’t seem to me to be likely or stable outcomes, regardless of the sort of apocalypse that has occurred.

    Few post-apocalyptic works try to portray a stable situation. They show the fading material influence of the culture before and the emergence of a new material culture to replace it.

    1. Well, the Fallout games are kind of trying to have it both ways, actually. They want to show you the fading influence of the old world and the new world being put together from scavenged parts, but the thing is, the games are set 100-200 years after the bombs dropped. Anything easy to scavenge should have long since been taken, and the new material culture should have firmly settled into place around a supply chain that’s actually sustainable with the new world tools. There shouldn’t be people going around with road-sign swords any more because they’ve had plenty of time to relearn how blacksmithing works.

      This is kind of bad for a Fallout game, though, which wants to have gameplay that involves exploring ruins for things to scavenge, building cool things from scrap metal, and playing around with cool old world technology like power armor and plasma rifles. So they kind of hybridize it, giving you a world that has the weird future societies you’d expect from 200 years after the apocalypse, but with the sort of lootable goodies you’d expect from, like, 5 years after the apocalypse, and they just try not to draw attention to the conflict.

      (Fallout 3 was probably the most egregious example of this, with the “wasteland survival guide” quest that sends you to scavenge food from a nearby grocery store that still has edible food on the shelves after 200 years.)

  33. This stuff can’t easily be done safely, but safe is a relative term in a post-apocalyptic world. A society that is happy to blow up its chemistry techs in order that fewer of its soldiers die on the battlefield may end up dominating one that shies away from making its own HE.

  34. > Spears in particular are potent hunting weapons and their reach offers a huge advantage over most other contact weapons in a lot of situations.

    Such as say… being out of zombie biting range. It’s crazy how few people in a zombie apocalypse who don’t have a gun didn’t find something usable as a spear.

  35. Hello! As someone currently studying chemistry in college, I have a few thoughts about the difficulty of starting up different chemical industries from scratch.
    1. Making sulfuric and nitric acids really isn’t very hard. For sulfuric acid, it can be made by heating ferrous sulfate in a retort and condensing the fumes that come off. Ferrous sulfate in turn can be found in nature as a mineral fairly often, and can also be made via the slow oxidation/leaching of wet pyrite in air, which happens spontaneously. (This reaction happening to pyrite in mine tailings is the source of acid mine drainage). Once you have sulfuric acid, you can just add it to saltpeter and distill off the nitric acid which is formed. Both sulfuric and nitric acids were prepared by alchemists in the Middle Ages, so it doesn’t require super complicated industrial equipment. Later on, the lead chamber process (discovered in the 1700s and used up until the early 1900s) could be used to produce larger amounts of sulfuric acid.
    2. However, you are probably right about smokeless powder being fairly hard to make for practical weapons. Nitrocellulose is actually very easy to make, but the problem is that without stabilizers tiny traces of leftover acids will cause it to start breaking down, which in turn releases more acids which cause it to break down even faster and it turns into useless gloop within a few days. These stabilizers are things like diphenylamine which are substantially more complex to produce and will probably require nearby sources of coal (for coal tar) or crude oil to manufacture.
    3. However, primers will probably be substantially easier to make than smokeless powder. The synthesis of mercury fulminate is extremely simple, only requiring mercury, ethanol, and nitric acid – there’s no intrinsic reason I can think of why it couldn’t have been discovered a century or two earlier than it was in real life. However, it does require that you have mercury which isn’t a super common element. If there are still some working sources of electricity, making potassium chlorate would be even easier – all you need to make it besides electricity are salt and water to make sodium chlorate via electrolysis, then add potash to precipitate out crystals of potassium chlorate.
    4. If you have the ability to make stabilizers like diphenylamine, you probably also have the ability to make fairly simple pharmaceuticals and pesticides like aspirin, paracetamol, DDT, and sulfanilamide. Pesticides would be useful not only for agriculture but also to prevent the spread of diseases like typhus, the bubonic plague, and malaria, and this use would in fact probably start earlier than for agriculture since it requires much smaller amounts.

    1. Thanks for that detailed response. I’ve used percussion muskets and was always curious about how difficult it was to make the primers. The fact that Confederacy appeared to have quickly built up a reliable supply of percussion caps during the Civil War, seemed to indicate it wasn’t too demanding of a process.

  36. typo?: “as the let step”

    As far as post-apoc books go, I have a fondness for Brin’s _The Postman_ (speaking of rebuilding *civilizaton*), and McMullen’s _The Miocene Arrow_, which had the brilliant-crack premise of a feudal society in old Colorado — where the ‘knights’ are pilots of small airplanes, running on biodisesel produced by the serfs. Instead of peasants feeding an armored knight and horse, they’re fueling a plane.

    A related genre is the the “lost colony planet”, though in the case of Bujold’s Barrayar, isolation happened quickly and there wasn’t probably a ton of steel lying around (other than cannibalizing the spaceships, maybe), while Pern was supposedly low on metals and I think also colonized by some deliberate primitivists (though ones capable of very impressive genetic engineering before they really fell). Still, I’ve suspected that such colonies shouldn’t fall as low as they usually do in SF novels. (How bad do things have to be so you forget that movable type printing is possible?)

    1. Well, Pern does have the fairly unusual setting situation that every 200 years, theres a fifty year period where a horrifying all consuming parasite falls from the sky in huge waves requiring the effective mobilisation of the surplus resources of the entire population to fight off for a lifetime, causing rapid population dynamic shifts that then collapse in the other direction as the Pass eases off and everything reverts back to a more individualistic point of view for another 10 generations before the cycle repeats.

      Furthermore the orbital irregularities resulting in the “Long Pass” situation make everything more fraught still. What did the people of the Long Pass think for the first few generations, wondering why the ancient calamity their forefathers warned them of centuries ago did not occur?

      1. I now recall Pern also has the thing where they have almost no war and don’t seem to do much hunting (unless you’re a dragon), so investing in guns would be pointless anyway. Unlike Barrayar, which took to war early and often.

        OTOH, remembering paper and printing presses and optical would probably have been useful for them.

        1. war existed, one book started with a settlement being taken over by a warlord from a larger neighboring settlement. and it was indicated that that sort of thing was not uncommon. but the conflict was presented as one of warband conflict. small units of troops infiltrating the settlement and seizing or killing the leadership. but iirc this took place before the return of the thread, at the end of the long interval. (the disruption to the settlement’s affairs was presented as a complication to recognizing the thread had come back and organizing to fight it and protect their fields and livestock)

          once the thread arrived and the oldtimers come forward, the politics of the non-dragonriders just fell the wayside in the narrative.

          1. (mindstalk0 here. blog isn’t honoring my WordPress identity. or maybe it will? I dunno.)

            My impression was that Lord Fax had re-invented warfare. Author isn’t entirely consistent, but this paragraph is telling:

            “F’lar doubted that Fax would have attempted such a program of aggression against neighboring Holds if the Weyr had maintained its old prominence. Each Hold must have its Lord to protect valley and folk from the Threads. One Hold, one Lord-not one Lord claiming seven Holds. That was against ancient tradition, and evil besides, for how well can one man protect seven valleys at once? Man, except for dragonman, can be in only one place at a time. And unless a man was dragon-mounted, it took hours to get from one Hold to another. No Weyrman of old would have permitted such flagrant disregard of ancient ways.”

            I note that for all the swords, they end up dueling by knife fight.

  37. >motors and generators will be very expensive and not very good compared to the ones we have today…

    I’m not sure I buy that. Motors or generators made shortly after the disaster, yes – but it’s hard to imagine any event that doesn’t leave billions of electrical motors spread across the face of the Earth. Motors or generators that are suited for a particular purpose could be rare – but if you’re reading this on a computer rather than a phone, there’s a CPU fan right there. For the first few decades the survivors would be awash in old technological artifacts.

  38. > All of which is perhaps a very long-winded way of saying that both House and Caesar’s Legion in Fallout: New Vegas are, in the long run, doomed

    I can buy Caesar’s Legion, but House to me seems more complicated case. His plan clearly involves using the short-term threat of his pre-war built robot army and New Vegas’s economic relationship with the NCR to (re)build the Mojave’s industrial capacity. Undoubtedly that would include the manufacturing base to sustain and possibly even replenish and expand that aforementioned robot army. His long-term ambitions involve re-building the industry for space travel.

    The same might also apply to a “Wild Card” independent New Vegas, depending on the choices, tastes, and abilities of the Courier and what allies they made.

    1. Notably, House doesen’t wnat to destroy the NCR; Just show them who’s the boss of the Mojave, he still wants/needs them as trading partners.

    2. House’s plan is very much to trade short term material dominance for long term material production, which is a dicy preposition. In the real world his efforts are definitely doomed. He has incredible power (literally) with the control of Hoover Dam, but it has a strict ceiling past which he will struggle to grow. There are simply not enough people, food or resources in Nevada to rebuild the educated population he needs to maintain his edge over the competition. He may be extremely powerful in the immediate future and stand to be influential for some time to come, but ultimately as the world rebuilds around him his power will dwindle away. In the end I would expect Vegas to go the way of Venice, once rich and powerful enough to shape the politics of the region but diminished to just a famous city in a larger political block.

      In the Fallout-verse his prospects are better. The existence of strong AI makes the maintenance of his robot army easier and with the local super-science he might even have a chance of getting off-world. It would still be a race against the NCR but one that is technically feasible. That is, if his autocratic tendencies don’t seem him overthrown by his own people long before.

      1. Well, naturally, I was speaking in regard to the context of the Falloutverse since in a Real World nuclear scenario, House wouldn’t have the benefits of automation that come with AI, never mind all the other advanced technologies he relies on (like his biological immortality via cybernetic internment). I do agree that even in-universe his plan is not a 100% sure-fire thing.

        There are other variables to consider, though. Caesar’s Legion may be doomed, but the East Coast Brotherhood has become less insular, established genuine control over territory (although that control is apparently more neo-feudal in nature), and is indicated to have developed some degree of their own manufacturing base by Fallout 4, though naturally what ending Bethesda decides to make canon there might throw this off. And there’s plenty of territory between the Colorado River and Virginia for another state society to develop. Not to mention the entire rest of the world…

      2. House’s goal seems to have been to trade the Hoover dam and New Vegas and parley that into basically becoming a tick on the NCR, and then using what he can suck out of that to try to rebuilt pre-war technology.

    3. This discussion is fascinating even though I haven’t played Fallout. In just 50 years or so computer games have gone from blips and beeps to having world building and character arcs that can be discussed at the level of literature and film. In an earlier thread someone wrote “When you talk to Caesar” and it doesn’t seem strange.

  39. As regards the Janega article, I have to say, that kind of pointlessly colloquial, obscenity-sprinkled, remorselessly political rant doesn’t do much for me. When I encounter that stuff, I dismiss the author as another tedious, tendentious academic and move on.

    The video was better. But I hope I’m not the only person who noticed that her statement that monks did not work in agriculture was shortly followed by a picture of a plowman with . . . a tonsure and a cowl. Monasteries had different rules, and many monks did labor in the fields. I had some other quibbles too, of similar magnitude.

  40. I’m really curious what research has been done on electromechanical ignition of black powder. It seems like a system similar to what a grill lighter uses could be integrated into a firearm design, with a cocking step piercing the cartridge with the electrode and also charging the spring. It seems potentially more reliable than a flintlock anyway.

    1. The usual way of lighting it in rocketry (very small rockets!) is with a current through a high-impedance resistor, which is perfectly workable and quite reliable, but the resistors are single-use and I can’t imagine it’s easy to get your hands on large quantities of nichrome in a post-apocalyptic scenario, particularly as it’s not terribly easy to get your hands on it right now where I am.

      1. An issue with any ETC ignition is reliability. The concern is always about hang fire and misfire. Plasma ignition is supposed to get around those issues but requires a very large power supply.

  41. Regarding dependence on foreign suppliers: the Israeli military-industrial complex started off making artillery and small-arms ammunition precisely for this reason, moving on to spare parts for bigger weapons systems, and only then circling back around to producing our own small arms and artillery pieces. Focus first on building the high-consumption parts that will limit your endurance if you get cut off supply (which is “always” in a post-apocalyptic setting) and only move up to the capital items when you can actually get superior results from rolling your own.

  42. S.M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire has something called “The Event” or “The Change” occur in 1996 and it (through reasons of handwaving as world building) takes electrical power, fossil fuels, steam engines (to some extent), nuclear power, communications technology and firearms off the table.

    Suddenly Norman style cavalry make a comeback until the infrastructure for the mass production of plate armor can be reintroduced. I lost interest after the first couple, but the initial idea was interesting, I thought.

  43. > but also to prevent the spread of diseases like typhus, the bubonic plague, and malaria

    That presupposes that they knew about insect disease vectors; they didn’t.

    1. I hope a post-apocalyptic setting retains such information as germ theory. Otherwise there’s going to be a lot more disease around.

  44. There was a TV mini-series called “Jericho”; the premise was the outbreak of a civil war in the USA, beginnning with a number of nuclear strikes.

    In this scenario, the government forces are portrayed as just another bunch of gangsters. Two neighbouring end up at war with one another, apparently over access to a salt mine. One of them has a factory, which they use to manufacture mortar bombs.

    It ran over two series, but the second series was abandoned after a few episodes, resulting in an unsatisfactory ending.

    I thought it was a good series, well acted, and reasonably well-produced. It’s not a post-apocalyptic scenario – it’s more like imagining what would happen if goveernment broke down.

    1. I was just thinking myself of the mortar factory reading this one! Jericho, when it got out from the spy drama and melodrama elements, did a lot of things right.

    1. As peterisp wrote earlier about copper, there is unlikely to be a shortage of transmission lines.
      If you live in any town or city look around, there are probably hundreds or thousands of kilometres of electrical wire available. (OK, would be available if there were no police or other people to stop you taking some.) Steel or aluminium cables are very tough and weatherproof. A nuclear blast nearby would knock down a lot of pylons but it wouldn’t destroy the cabling. And the metal pylons would also survive, although probably bent.
      If you live in a built up area and can’t see lots of electrical wire that’s even better for a post-apocalyptic setting, someone has kindly protected all the cables against blast damage by burying them in corrosion-proof wrapping under a metre or two of earth.

  45. The best rule of thumb is to ignore anything about history on YouTube (or TV) unless the author has demonstrable expertise in the subject (bare minimum: has he or she clearly read books on the subject, and does he or she represent them accurately?) Google set it up so that creators have to create videos faster and faster on clickbaitier topics to earn the same amount of money, so eventually someone who is say an expert on European railroad history will start talking about Japanese streetcars or New York subway politics and sound very knowledgeable but not have anything to back it up.

    In other words, even relatively good vlogs have topics on which you should be very skeptical. And unless you are knowledgeable about those topics, you can’t list them.

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