Firearms and the Supernatural

Probably going a bit too technical, especially into things which solely exist to kill and maim other people… but…

While watching The Walking Dead back to back leading up to the finale, it struck me how woefully unprepared the U.S. Military is for combating undead. Seeing the abandoned tanks and barricades surrounded by corpses is spot on. The military isn’t prepared for such an event, part of the reason a zombie apocalypse is so palpably terrifying. Between the War on Terror and Katrina, we can make some speculations on government planning and reaction times. If zombies existed, there would be neither the contingency to contain the outbreak, nor the proper weaponry to take them out.

It’s a common theme for firearms aficionados (“gun nuts”) and rabid fanboys to start up threads asking “what’s the best gun for [insert hypothetical horror/fantasy/SF situation here],” especially for a zombie outbreak. This is my take on it.

First, An Overly Long Note on Firearm Cartridges

For most of the century, rifles have fired high-caliber rounds, relying on hydrostatic shock to knock down and disable what they hit. The standard American rifles were chambered in .30-’06, still popular as a hunting caliber, and then the 7.62mm NATO (derived from the .308 Winchester) during the early Cold War. Back in Korea and early Vietnam,  it was discovered that the large and bulky rifles used by the U.S. were a bit too powerful for the smaller Asian frame. The replacement was designed back in the ’60s and ’70s, when the theory went that yawing caused a bullet to fragment, thus causing more internal damage, and putting struck targets down so they can’t return fire. These rounds are designed for lethality (through fragmentation) rather than hydrostatic shock. In practice, this is harder to achieve, so the Armed Forces have been changing their type of 5.56 round to improve lethality.

The result is that the weapons used by most modern armies, thanks to the NATO and Warsaw Pact standardization, fire small, lightweight bullets. And when I mean small, I mean small: NATO standard is 5.56x45mm, a militarized version of the .223 Remington, while the Soviet/Warsaw Pact standard is the 5.45x39mm round. (It’s also worth noting that the U.S. standard M16s fire single-shot and three-round bursts; even the best marksman can only hold the first three rounds on target in full-auto mode, and limiting the fire modes saves ammunition.)

The wounding effects of these rounds is debatable. Reports on the 5.56 in Vietnam ranged from blowing gaping holes into targets, to comparing the round to an ice pick. The Army later moved towards 5.56 rounds with armor-piercing capabilities in the 1980s and 90s, especially the black-tip rounds designed to pierce 12mm of body armor. The “like hitting with an ice pick” comments came up again from special forces after use in Somalia and Iraq; the armor-piercing rounds went right through unarmed targets without fragmenting. Obviously, being turned into a human pincushion is painful and involves blood loss, but studies found that human organs were more flexible than assumed, and without the fragmentation, lethality was far below expectations. The rounds didn’t take down their targets as easily as they should have, leaving the (now pissed off) targets able to return fire, probably firing the more powerful 7.62 Soviet round from AK-47s.

All of this is part of the reason we have the 6.8mm Remington SPC round; special forces replaced them with higher-caliber rounds, such as the 6.8 SPC, 7.62 NATO, and 7.62 Soviet. It’s also the reason that hunters recommend the 5.56 as the smallest possible round for deer hunting, and even then, to avoid military-grade loads so that the deer doesn’t just limp away to be miserable.

In comparison, pistol rounds are designed to do exactly what rifle rounds don’t: take advantage of their low velocity, larger comparative size, and knock people down from hydrostatic shock. Many calibers, like .38 and 9mm, don’t produce as much shock compared to a .45 ACP or a magnum revolver, and a large percent of pistol bullets can’t penetrate body armor (or a good steel door). In all cases, pistol rounds can be found almost anywhere, and are relatively cheap.

More Technical Notes, This Time On Tank Cannons and Various Missiles And Explosives

Since I’m on the subject… for the most part, guided missiles, both anti-tank and anti-air, follow heat signatures. It may look badass to fire a Stinger or Tow II and blow away the bad guy in a movie, but in real life, the missile wouldn’t lock on: body heat isn’t what it tracks, since that’s negligable compared to a hot tank or jet engine. Still, there are plenty of fire and forget rockets and LAW M72s out there, bringing us to point two.

Modern missiles are designed to counter waves of Soviet tanks rolling through Fulda Gap, not take out squads of infantry; designed to penetrate turrets or otherwise disable one large metal thing, not thirty fleshy things. For example, the Hellfire missile is designed to strike a tank’s side and superheat the metal, with the explosive charge mostly there to propel the molten tank armor slurry at the crew; I’m somewhat amazed that the Isrealis use it as their weapon of choice to assassinate wheelchair-bound Palestinians considering the deviation from the weapon’s designed purpose. While some can be used against personnel, it’s like firing a 12 gauge at an anthill: heavy weapons are used more for bunker-busting and suppression when they’re used against personnel, rather than taking out the arch-villain or his lead henchman in a fiery explosion.

Next, tanks. Again, these are mostly designed to combat other tanks, with IFVs and APCs meant to suppress and destroy infantry; high explosive (HE) rounds aren’t as commonplace as they were in the 1940s. The M1A2 Abrams’ main gun can fire a variety of anti-personnel rounds, including one loaded with tungsten shot to create a shotgun effect. At the end of the day, it was designed to knock out masses of Soviet tanks, not a mob of individual targets, and the standard loadouts focus on anti-tank action first.

Tanks also have a dead zone within 20 meters or so, allowing infantrymen with steel balls to plant anti-tank mines or explosives or whatever and knock a tank out. Oh, and tanks are surprisingly fragile: no Abrams has been destroyed by enemy fire, but plenty have been taken out of action by something hitting the rangefinder, stabilizer, or computer guidance system, blowing a tread, or getting a turret ring hit and immobilizing the turret. Most of these can be done with a high-caliber machinegun, grenade, molotov cocktail, or (more likely) with an RPG-7, all without penetrating the turret armor. The Abrams is loaded down with machineguns for a reason, and it’s the same reason they travel with mechanized infantry support: to keep the tanks safe from enemy infantry.


As mentioned, watching The Walking Dead was what kicked off this idea-train: the U.S. Armed Forces are woefully unprepared for a zombie outbreak. Depending on the specifics, zombies usually involve some kind of cranial activity in a dead person, so shooting the brain is the only way to take them down. The 5.56 round used by the military could easily just blow through a brain without hitting whatever it is that animates the undead. Shooting a zombie on full-auto might not even slow it down, depending on if the nerve centers outside the brain are still functioning. So a zombie might not necessarily receive hydrostatic shock, negating the point of most pistol rounds (like .45 ACP); anything less than a magnum revolver is questionable. Besides, revolvers are fairly reliable in the gritty post-apocalypse. Lastly, tank guns and rockets aren’t going to be much use against mobs of undead, unless the military’s willing to load those tungsten ball-bearing shotgun rounds within the continental U.S. That said, the military still has the .50 M2 Browning machinegun, which would churn through zombies like they were paper.

The best weapon for a zombie invasion would be, obviously, a high-power rifle: something used for hunting, like .30-’06 or .30-30, with a scope. If you can’t knock out a brain with that, you’re probably doomed. A shotgun is the obligatory weapon, but it requires you to get fairly close to be effective, though it’s hard to argue with results. Besides, 12 gauge shells are fairly commonplace, and a shotgun is merely a tube with a firing device: so long as you don’t stick it in mud or something, and clean it now and again, it won’t jam or wear itself out as easily as an automatic weapon. Lastly, never forget the power of a crossbow or compound bow, since ammo’s usually reusable.

Multiple weapons are a good idea, in case you become mobbed; a 12 gauge, a scoped .30-30 hunting rifle, and a good .357 revolver or two would be my combo, along with a baseball bat or crowbar. Others would be nice, but outrunning a slow-moving zombie is easier when you’re not weighed down. Body armor is unnecessary. The best weapons in a zombie apocalypse need to be totally reliable—autoloading pistols and automatic weapons have a tendency to jam at precisely the wrong time, and their parts wear out after heavy use—but also need to come in a caliber that’s easily found. A .50 Desert Eagle may pop zombies like nobody’s business, but the round is found in specialty gunshops or is special ordered; besides, it’s likely to break your wrist or go flying out of your hand if you don’t treat it properly.

This also depends on how the infection spreads; if it’s by blood or contact, explosives, grenades, and the 12 gauge are a poor idea, simply because of how much bits and blood are flying around or get aerosol’d right in your face. If this is a worry, you’re probably beyond all hope, and grenades would be a stop-gap final measure to prevent yourself from coming back as a zombie yourself.


Again, most bullets wouldn’t phase a Jurassic Park style raptor (Deinonychus for those of us dinosaur purists), much less a T-Rex, leaving the army wildly unprepared. A gangbanger with an Uzi would damage, but probably not kill, a raptor, and a Rex wouldn’t feel much of it. 5.56 rounds are not meant for big game, and if they can’t take down an elephant, a T-Rex would be impossible. Fortunately, it would be big enough for a tank to knock out, since anything over .50-caliber would probably be enough to take down a Rex.

In general, dinosaurs would require big-game weapons: a good Holland & Holland would be worth a dozen Uzis, since it would be able to break skin where an Uzi couldn’t. Shotguns firing slugs is another consideration; this is supposedly what the SPAS-12s in Jurassic Park (the movie) were loaded with. An anti-material rifle, if you could get your hands on one, is the one-shot guarantee, though against fast moving raptors you’d need backup of some kind… something in 7.62, like an FN-FAL or Ak-47. If those aren’t strong enough to take out a raptor, then humanity would be in a world of hurt.


This is probably too broad to cover here, and all boils down to whether or not they have shields of some kind. If it’s like Stargate, or Dune, and something slow can penetrate them while absorbing bullets and energy discharges, people will raid sporting goods stores for bows and arrows. (I’ve always been surprised that the Federation never tried this with the Borg: just reinvent flintlocks and shoot the damn things, or throw a bunch of blade-wielding Klingons against them… one of the things Stargate vaguely fixed when they did the replicators.)

Though, it should be pointed out… all aliens we’ve seen depicted in films and movies, from Aliens and Predator on down, all can be killed by human weapons, despite whatever advantages they may have. They need the feet of clay in order for the humans to win, or escape, so the movie can have a semblance of a happy ending. This isn’t always the case, and in a realistic event, might not be guaranteed.

Cthulhu Mythos

I remember a thread on RPGNet asking which mythos creatures could withstand a nuclear device, and the answer was strikingly high. If it didn’t obliterate a shoggoth—hoping they’re single-celled and keel over from the rads—nothing would. For shoggoths and other oozey things, a flamethrower comes to mind; in terms of firepower, most are fairly tough or fairly smart. Take the Migou: if they were caught flying down the middle of Times Square for some reason (which they wouldn’t do), a 5.56 might be able to pierce their fungoid carapaces. Gugs are rather big, bringing us back to the “find a big game rifle.” Cthulhu, starspawn, spawn of Yog-Sothoth, and others are probably too big to be taken down without nukes, and if they’re resistant… game over, man, game over.

For the most part, the question is whether or not you can target something which exists in non-euclidean geometry before it kills you or not. (Specifically, hounds of Tindalos.) In most cases, even if you could kill them with a 9mm handgun or a good blast from a 12-gauge, finding them before they find you is the issue. Lovecraft’s monsters were created with a very specific “mankind is a mere mote in the massive Petri dish that is the universe” worldview, so it makes sense when most of them are more powerful (or avoid) the limits of human weaponry.

D&D Fantasy Monsters

Probably the reason why Urban Arcana and DragonStar work is because their fantasy creatures are based on real-life mythological creatures: people dreamed them up, and for the most part, they share the same weaknesses as people. (For the most part, they also require food, water, and shelter. Why? Because the people who thought them up needed those things, and figured they were universals.) As long as they didn’t have some kind of magic aura preventing bullets from entering, and as long as a normal lead slug could still hit and hurt them, every creature in the Bestiary can be killed by modern means… if a sword and bow can kill it, so can a gun. Even the most powerful mind flayer could go down to a blaze of fire from a gangbanger’s Uzi or Tec-9. Oozes would require special weapons: flamethrowers, or perhaps a chemical bath in bleach. Creatures with natural armor, however light, might be more resistant to bullets… namely kobolds and lizardfolk. But these are still frail, and about human strength, so they’ll just take more bullets before dying.

The big things to worry about would be things adventurers worry about: flak vests and body armor doesn’t protect much when a beholder can turn you to stone or a dragon can fry you with its breath. Outsiders, dragons and aberrations would be pretty tough, just like in-game, and would be the ones to shake up the status quo the most. The world would change drastically, perhaps moreso than even a zombipocalypse, but fewer people would probably die in the process.

Supernatural Monsters

Vampires and werewolves, the World of Darkness combo. In most media forms, both of these have one staggering weakness, but are incredibly resilient to most other forms of damage; at the very least, one is technically dead, and the other is a bulky man-wolf. Either way, getting the required weakness is more important than the caliber of bullet: holy water in sealed hollow points, blessed rounds, or silver bullets. These things make up for a lot of life’s errors. Given the size and power of a werewolf, a hunting rifle is a good choice, just to make sure the round gets through a big, meaty werewolf body. When in doubt, there’s always the 12 gauge shotgun.

A Final Note

Obviously, this is looking at things with a more “realistic” (pessimistic) outlook. In a game, movie, or novel, the focus is on entertainment rather than realism, which is what makes things fun. Campy movies, video games, and roleplaying are outside the scope of realism, after all: yes, blow away the bad guy with a Stinger, even though he’s not a jet engine. Go ahead and take down a T-Rex with an Uzi, despite its size and body mass. It shouldn’t be easy. But it should be at least entertaining.

Lastly, no, I don’t expect there to be a zombie apocalypse or dinosaur outbreak in the next couple of weeks, so the fact that the world’s militaries are woefully unprepared is a non issue… namely because such events defy out current laws of physics, view on reality, Occam’s Razor and all that.

For one thing, if it was physically possible, the world’s militaries would not be unprepared.

The other thing: if they were adequately prepared, a zombiepocalypse or alien invasion wouldn’t be interesting any more, since it would suddenly be on even footing.

About admiral.ironbombs

“The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes.” -- Andre Gide "But I think you should know this--specifically, in case you are, say, in your twenties and rather poor and perhaps becoming filled with despair, whether you are an SF writer or not, whatever you want to make of your life. There can be a lot of fear, and often it is a justified fear. [...] Kabir, the sixteenth-century Sufi poet, wrote, 'If you have not lived through something, it is not true.' So live through it; I mean, go all the way to the end. Only then can it be understood, not along the way." -- Philip K. Dick

Posted on 12 December 2010, in guns.. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Just FYI, your points about zombies are almost exactly the conclusions Max Brooks came to in his excellent World War Z (the book, not the movie).
    My only quibble is: the transition from 7.62 NATO to 5.56 had nothing to do with the “small Asian frame” and more to do with reducing recoil andn lightening ammo loads. The M14 was nearly uncontrollable on full auto and the heavy, bulky ammunition was not well-suited to bring humped around the jungles of Southeast Asia.
    Otherwise, a well written piece.

  2. William Chamberlin

    Aaaand your assumptions are false in many cases, in my opinion. A standard copper jacketed 5.56 round would, in fact, blow through the front of the skull – but that WOULD cause it to fragment, resulting in multiple pieces ricocheting around the skull, turning the brain to mush and repeatedly adding smaller fractures to the skull. A headshot from a 5.56 round is one of the nastiest things to do to a human, and looks like nothing more than a hole in the head. As for the dinos, well, we can assume a deinonychus or Utahraptor would likely be about as armored as a Komodo Dragon, and normal handguns can easily kill them. Larger, more armored dinos might be as tough as a Nile Crocodile, or even more, but even then larger caliber rifle rounds (7.62 to .50 cal, depending on where you hit it) can penetrate, meaning MMG’s and HMG’s would make short work of them. And finally, one VERY common piece of equipment would do horrendous damage to zombies, dinos, and even vampires (depending on the milleiu – and how close they were), and that’s hand grenades. Heck, the famous claymore mine, which (for example) all US Marines have training in using, would utterly eradicate huge swaths of these cratures – and most vampires can’t exist if their heads are nothing but jelly.

    • You’re right about the 5.56, I’d forgotten about the damage skull fragments would do to a probably desiccated organ. Someone with a scoped Mini-14 could down quite a few zombies, provided they can hit the target.

      Dinos – most small dinosaurs could probably be taken down with 7.62 or above, or enough 5.56 in the right location. But don’t forget, a Utahraptor is over 20′, which is bigger than most Nile crocodiles, yet on the small side of medium for carnosaurs . You don’t go hunting elephants with a .308 or 12-gauge slugs, why would those do anything but piss off a thirty foot allosaur? Taking a .50 would be more ideal, but it’s not like everyone has an M2 Browning sitting around the house. That said, not many people have a .338 Win Mag or a .470 Nitro Express rifle, either. Most likely the best option is just to avoid the dinosaur, or go someplace it can’t.

      MMGs/HMGs – those put out more than enough fire to take down targets, and I did point out a .50 would mow down zombies like wheat, breaking bones and snapping spines like they were paper. On a pintle mount they’d be an excellent choice, especially on a very mobile vehicle. However, the unstated assumption was this was for personal weapons; would you really want to get caught in the open trying to set up an MMG’s tripod, or end up with it facing the wrong direction when a T-Rex wanders by? Team weapons are bulky and not as versatile as something you hold in your hands; it’s a trade-off of mobility for firepower.

      Explosives – very true, not much can stand up to a directed explosive. But I think you’re oversimplifying them as an asset. As I mentioned, depending on how zombification spreads, I’d rather not risk infection by turning some undead into a fine red mist I could inhale. Claymores would be excellent at pushing back waves of zombies, but for things like dinos and animals you’d need to lure them into the killing zone rather than relying on them going through a specific chokepoint. Depending on the mythology, a vampire or werewolf could regenerate—though it’d take a number of weeks—unless the explosive was dipped in holy water or was made out of silver.

      And much like with MMGs, I’m going to bet even money you don’t have a crate of claymores just sitting around at home. It’s an edge that only applies to the military—1.1 million members of the Armed Forces, around 1.1 million law enforcement officers, out of a population of 313 million—at least until the explosives on-hand are used up; it’s a longshot that the logistics train, supply depot, and factories making them are still operating at peak efficiency in the middle of a zombipocalypse or alien invasion.

      • William Chamberlin

        I’d accept your point about it being “about small arms”, if not for one BIG thing:

        “While watching The Walking Dead back to back leading up to the finale, it struck me how woefully unprepared the U.S. Military is for combating undead.”

        This setup sentence implies this wasn’t about small arms. With that comment and others, you imply that your article is about the US military, in which case I must stand by my statements. Also, having served in the USMC and seen what grenades can do, there’s a durn good chance that a grenade would do enough damage to equate to a beheading (which destroys most vamp types) within about 2-4 meters. I’d say more, but I don’t want to turn this into an argument.

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