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I love a good “end of the world” story. The Road Warrior is my all-time favorite action movie. Lucifer’s Hammer,  The Stand and Earth Abides are amongst my favorite books. What’s not to like? The story of a lone hero (or a band of heroes) fighting against the forces of darkness in a post-apocalyptic world is inherently compelling, with excellent opportunities for action, character development and raw emotion. It’s entertainment dynamite. But entertainment—fantasy—is exactly what it is.

Discussions about “SHTF” (When Shit Hits The Fan) and “WTZC” (When The Zombies Come) are common gun blog fodder. The threads almost always start with “what gun(s) would you take?” and “where would you go?” While there’s nothing wrong with a good discussion or intellectual exercise, I find it hard to take these kinds of topics seriously, for a number of reasons.

Not all apocalypses are created equal. Before you can answer “what’s the perfect weapon when excrement and air circulation device collide” is premature. First, you have to know what kind of S is hitting what kind of F. There are two completely different kinds of disasters or emergencies: localized emergencies with temporary and local effects; and more general emergencies with more far-reaching and widespread effects.

Natural disasters and weather emergencies—earthquakes, hurricanes, forest fires, floods—are examples of localized emergencies. Most terrorist attacks fall under the same category (e.g., 9/11). These mini-apocalypses are fairly common. In contrast, general emergencies—civil war, invasion, global or regional emergency, breakdown of civil order, etc.—are relatively rare.

In a local disaster, the first issue is, in the immortal words of The Clash, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” Local disasters are relatively short lived. Tornadoes last a few minutes, hurricanes pass through in a matter of a few days. Fires and floods are temporary events, as are civil disturbances like the LA riots.

Unless flames or the flood waters are approaching your door, hunkering down at home and waiting for the emergency to pass is the best way to deal with a local apocalypse. There’s going to be a lot of chaos on the streets. You don’t want to be a part of it, no matter how well armed you may be. Even the biggest badass with the most guns doesn’t have eyes on the back of his head, and everybody’s got to sleep sometime.

If you have to pack up the brood, the first question you’ll need to answer is “where do I go?” Given that these types of emergencies are of short duration, getting your family to some kind of nearby safety to ride out the storm (be it physical or socio-economic) should be your top priority. Once the apocalypse has subsided, you can go home (if your home is still there.)

So you load up the SUV with spare gas cans, dried food, bottled water, and enough guns and ammo to supply an infantry platoon. Here’s the rub: your vehicle may be useless.

As we saw with Hurricane Katrina (as we see here in Colorado during every long weekend), if there’s a regional emergency and you live in or near a big city, a good percentage of your fellow citizens will get the same GFI (Great Fucking Idea). Talk to some of the folks who tried to escape Houston or New Orleans; they’ll tell you about hours spent stopped in traffic, all exits blocked, going nowhere.

It could be worse. Some natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes or floods) will destroy critical parts of the road grid (bridges and tunnels) rendering them impassable. If you need to leave your SUV, you can only carry so much. Water and ammo weigh about the same. Which do you think is more important? If you are serious about survival, it’s not a good idea to put all of your eggs into that four-wheeled basket.

What now? Now it’s you and your family, on foot, with only what you can carry, and with little to protect you from the outside world. So where do you go? In real disasters/emergencies (as opposed to the fictional ones in movies and books) emergency shelters are your best bet. The Red Cross, local emergency services, the National Guard and other agencies set up sites at armories, high school gyms and other public spaces suitable to sheltering large numbers of people.

Unless you have friends or relatives nearby, that’s where you go. Your objective is not to be the biggest badass in the apocalypse. Your objective is to survive.

If you show up to the front door of a shelter bristling with armaments, do you think they’re going to let you in? Of course not. So now you’re faced with a stark choice. You can tell your hungry, thirsty, cold, exhausted, scared, family that your ability to keep your AR is more important than their survival, or you can surrender your weapons. (BTW, your chance of getting them back is roughly zero; they won’t have a weapons storage facility nor any kind of record keeping methods to know which gun belongs to who.)

So, to the question of “what gun should I take?” my answer is (a) something that is small enough that it can be hidden on your person (they probably won’t have metal detectors at the shelter, and they may not even be patting people down for weapons) and (b) something that’s not going to break your heart when you throw it into a dumpster.

Some folks will say “I don’t need to worry about that because I know the perfect little hideaway in the mountains/desert/plains that nobody else knows about, and my family and I will just head there.” Well, you better be able to get there on foot because in the case of a real emergency, chances are, you won’t be able to count on getting there any other way.

Also, there are 300 million people in this country. The chances that none of those 300 million knows about your little “secret hideaway” is about zero. If those other people – say the locals in that area – get there first, what then? You gonna fight ‘em for that choice spot?

Again, the objective is survival. As stated above, these kinds of emergencies tend to be short lived and local. If you can move 20 miles and get by for two weeks, chances are, the emergency will have passed and you can then resume your life.

Then there’s the other type of “survival situation,” the kind that committed “Survivalists” worry about. Specifically, a nationwide breakdown of civil authority and the economy. If that S hits the F, you’ll need a different survival technique. The good news: this type of situation takes years to develop. You’ll have warning that it’s coming and time to prepare for it.

The “World war III” or “Red Dawn” scenario is the least likely type of “apocalypse” to fear. You might as well buy Zombie insurance or put a meteor shield over your house. But it’s true enough: societies break down and civilizations crumble. Economic strife and ethnic tension can rip a nation apart (cough Yugoslavia cough.)

The most likely locus of this apocalyptic scenario: big cities. Urban centers require a huge infrastructure to function, and that infrastructure is the most vulnerable to this kind of collapse. The solution is simple and doesn’t require any firepower (at least initially). Don’t be there when it happens.

If you really believe that the world is going to hell, then leave the big city
now. Find a small community of like-minded individuals, far from the cities and far from the interstates that lead out of those cities. Cultivate valuable skills. Learn to be a doctor, or a blacksmith, or an electrician (just because there’s an apocalypse doesn’t mean we won’t have machines or technology).  Find friends who think the same way you do and who will watch your back as you watch theirs.

No question: guns are important here. An armed society is a society. But the type of weaponry at your disposal is not as important as getting your butt away from Ground Zero and connecting with your community. Again, don’t plan you armory based on you and you alone. No man is an island; the ones who act that way soon discover just how hard it is to defend an island.

Even in a social collapse apocalype, guns aren’t automatically going to help you. Societies don’t go from fully functioning one minute to Thunderdome the next. There will be stages of collapse. At each stage, different groups will be trying to exercise their authority. And, now finally, weapon selection . . .

Whether it’s an “official” group like the military or an “unofficial” group like a “citizen’s militia,” somebody is going to try and take charge. When they do, they’re going to guard that authority zealously. You can expect martial law – or something like it. Anybody in public with a long gun who’s not part of the “authority” will come under very unfriendly scrutiny.

In fact, being detained and locked up might be the best thing that could happen to the owner of a long gun. Depending on how nervous/crazy the “authority” forces are, they might simply shoot anybody they consider a threat. As RF suggested, a small, concealable weapon offers most people a better chance at survival in a post-apocalyptic world than something that makes you a target.

Again, I like a good “what gun should I choose” discussion as much as any other shooter. But let’s not pretend these SHTF plans are anything other than exercises in fantasy, a fantasy we have the luxury to indulge in precisely because our civilization
isn’t collapsing.

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  1. That society dissolves into violent chaos during disasters is an enduring and pernicious myth. As Rebecca Solnit amply demonstrates in her book, “A Paradise Built in Hell,” what really happens is that people pull together in ways they never dream of doing in ordinary life. The violence is almost always perpetrated by the authorities, who cannot imagine people governing themselves without officials’ benevolent hand to guide them. This was certainly my experience in New Orleans during the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I was all over the city, and saw no violence at all. What I saw was people helping each other in amazingly inventive, brave, and tender ways. It was the authorities who were whipping people up with lies about “babies raped in the Superdome,” which led the cops and National Guard (when they finally showed up) to rove the city heavily armed to “take the city back.” It was all bullshit, and it cost innocent people their lives. So the idea that a gun is the first thing you need in a disaster is dangerous nonsense. It might be a prudent thing to have — I’d have one — but focusing on the gun is really missing the point.

  2. Outstanding point. As a fan of Lucifer’s Hammer (and Footfall) myself, I agree with Nivens and Pournelle that the survivalists probably will not become the government. The government, (whatever local or national government that functuons) is more likely to become the survivalists.

  3. The other thing to consider is that as much fun as this kind of mental masturbation may be, all your planning matters not a whit if you are not there to see society fall. If you are driving down the road trying to calculate whether your Super Duty can take the weight of all the MRE’s and ammo you are going to be bugging out with when the black helicopters come and you blow a stop sign and kill a bus load of nuns, you are going to be dead or in jail. Your personal S has hit the F in the most prosaic of ways, but it is just as destructive to you and yours as anything short of a zombie apocalypse would have been. For that matter if you are out at the killhouse practicing your CQ zombie B and accidentally shoot yourself or friend/family member, you are in a worse spot sooner than you would have been had you not worried about zombies in the first place.

    I am not saying that you shouldn’t plan or prepare, but I think there is a lot of telescoping of this particular risk because it is the most fun/dramatic one to contemplate.

  4. +1 on Lucifer’s Hammer. Great read.

    It’s absolutely correct that for the first kind of SHTF the best bet is to stay home. The plan for that is to have emergency supplies, a communication plan for all family members, good home security, and a passion for board games. I’m of the opinion that the second type of SHTF is going to be more like the “long emergency” that Howard Kunstler describes. We may not even recognize it when we see it as its emergence can be subtle and gradual.

  5. Yes, like the long emergency of real wages not rising since 1978, of the top 1 percent of income earners owning almost 30 percent of the nation’s wealth, of watching your own heroically inventive nation sit on its hands while China grabs the renewable-energy economy of the future, of the gnawing insecurity of having no health insurance, of the very real likelihood of losing your job, of living in a society that practically begs you to blow up your marriage, and on and on. Who wouldn’t rather think about shooting zombies?

  6. Zombies are a protected class and cannot be discriminated against, according to the Americans With Disabilities Act.

  7. He’s a bit of a tree-hugging hippy (by his own admission) but there is no doubt he knows his stuff, and in his book, “When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need To Survive When Disaster Strikes”, Cody Lundin spends considerable page time talking about the most critical element of a survival situation: one’s own desire to survive and the will and tenacity to persevere through hard and difficult times.

    All the gadgets and guns in the world won’t mean a damn thing if one is a cowering and flubbering fool hiding in the rubble and too afraid to do anything. The willingness to tolerate extreme discomfort and profound fear and still continue on is far more important than any of the materials one may stockpile.

    I vaguely recall a story that contrasted two wilderness survival situations: one guy was lost and ended up hypothermic and needing to be carried out. He later lamented his failure to pack matches and how he became dejected and gave up. Another lost hiker was found huddled up to small camp-fire. He too failed to bring matches, but he figured out how to start a fire with his headlamp lens. One had the will, the other didn’t.

  8. I only bother to plan for the short term emergencies. If the TEOTWAWKI happens my wife and I will be dead when the prescriptions run out, or soon thereafter. Without refrigeration, type I diabetics will soon be gone, and there are many others who have conditions that are well controlled with medication, but die without them.
    I plan for 2 weeks in place, and 2 weeks vehicle travel. Beyond that, there just isn’t much point for us.

  9. Many of the people who spend time constructing fantasy SHTF scenarios could do something far simpler to extend their actual lifespan – get off the couch, exercise and improve their diet.

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