Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Some assembly required

Brass, atomic weight 223.
Get it into your head early: you cannot store enough finished goods to live the rest of your life just like you live today.

A lot of preppers, subconsciously perhaps, act like if they just set aside enough ammo or beans or whatever, they won't need to worry about whatever the future brings.  Well, you don't have to worry about the future,* but unless you have one foot in the grave already, you're likely going to have to learn to make much of the stuff you'll need or that others will need.

Now, the obvious problem is that there's lots of stuff you need but you can't make. That's the beauty and the Achilles' heel of modern technological society. This means you're going to have to store some stuff until a workaround can be devised.  But stockpiling, other than a small "get-by" stockpile of everything, should be done as efficiently as possible.

As I discussed in the SHTF Stockpile, saving closets fulls of toilet paper is a waste of your space. But saving small, technically difficult to create and replace items is critical. You might be able to fashion a lawn mower blade, but what about a spark plug? The difference between them is more than just how much storage space each demands.

Let's see how this works using ammo as an example, but it will apply to any other product that can be assembled or maintained at home from canned goods to fishing lures to motorcycle engines.

You can store tons and tons of ammo.  It's small, stacks well, trades easily, and so it's good to have a bunch of it in your personal stockpile. But then you have a fire or a flood or a break-in and all your ammo is gone.** When you can't just walk down to your gun store and replace it, what do you do? When the gun that is supposed to shoot that ammo is lost or broken, what do you do?

That's the problem with relying wholly on end products - if you can't buy them, you're stuck. If you have one but it no longer meets your need, you can't use it until you can find someone to trade it to. So let's see if we can find ways to make our storage more efficient, both in terms of space and money, and in eliminating things we don't need.

To start, break your favorite end product down into its component parts.  What are the indivisible pieces?  What are the processes for assembling those pieces?  What is the smallest thing we can and must accumulate in order to re-create the product? What are the parts that break again and again and again?

Modern centerfire*** ammunition is made up of four parts - bullet, powder, brass, and primer.  You can buy and store all of those separately, and so long as have the tools to assemble them, you can save significant space and money.  Plus, thieves are far less likely to carry off a peanut butter jar of cast 9mm bullets than they are a box of finished 9mm ammo.  But in the interest of breaking it down further, let's take a look at each in turn:

Bullets: A bullet is simply a hunk of metal of a proper size and shape to be shot from a gun.  It could be made of lead and tin and antimony. It might be a copper coating over a core of aluminum powder. It might be 100% zinc or even, for werewolves, silver. Maybe it has a little aluminum gas check attached to its bottom.  Maybe it has some lubricant**** in its grooves. But there's nothing complex about it - it's simply metal molded into a specific shape.  We'll later do a post about casting bullets (maybe we'll even get our good friend Giraffe to write it, nudge nudge, wink wink), but suffice it to say that anyone can fashion one. The tools and process are simple. 

Brass: The beauty of reloading your own brass goes far beyond the therapeutic effects of recycling. Because you can use brass again and again, you don't need to store as much of it as you would finished ammo. A thousand rounds of 9mm fills 20 boxes, with quite a bit of space and cost.  But the brass needed to load and shoot those thousand rounds - figure 200 pieces each reused 5 times - can almost fit in a sandwich bag. You probably can't make brass casings yourself, so where do you get them? Save your own brass, visit the range at sunup, buy 500 pieces on Amazon for $20. Free or almost free brass is not hard to come by, and over the course of a year you can probably collect enough to last you a lifetime if you shoot a common caliber. Finding reloadable 7.62x39 brass lying around is a significant challenge. Finding 45ACP is not.

Powder and primers: Until you build your smokeless powder manufactory, these are two items you're just going to have to store. Fortunately, they are both far more compact than finished ammo.  A pound of pistol powder - enough for ~1000 rounds of 9mm - is about the size of a large vitamin bottle. A thousand primers to go with it is about the size of a brick.

Assuming you get your components the cheapest way possible, you can probably assemble 9mm ammo for under 8c a round, or $4 for a box of 50. That's about a fourth of the cost of regular ammo when you can get it.

But besides the reduction in cost, space, and the odds of it being stolen, there's another advantage to storing components rather than finished products: you can assemble the same parts into different products. Accumulating components rather than finished products will give you resilience, flexibility, adaptability.

You can buy the bullets you think you'll need, but you're better off to make the ones you actually need. Any 9mm round you've cast can be re-cast into 357 or 45ACP easily.  With a little kitchen chemistry and the addition of a gas check, they can be re-cast into rifle rounds as well. You can even cast them into fishing sinkers or jig heads so long as you have the right tools and learn to do it.

While your 9mm brass will only work for 9mm,***** your primers will work in all small calibers. .380, Makarov, 25ACP, you won't care, they all use the same primers.

Your powder can be used to charge any pistol caliber and perhaps even shotgun loads depending upon the powder.

So that's the first lesson: rather than storing finished products, gather and store tools and components. Learn to use them to assemble the products you need. You'll not only save yourself space and money, you'll give yourself skills and flexibility in a time when the ability to adjust to circumstances will be critical.

But there is another, complementary one: make an extra effort to find the weak links in your production chain. No matter what you're assembling or fixing or making, those links exist.  Find the critical parts you can't make, like canning lids,****** and store extras. Find the pieces that will disappear first and store those. Especially, identify alternative parts that will work in place of expensive ones and store those. That way when others are scrounging around for products, you'll be able to assemble exactly what they need and trade it for what you need.

* Besides, it does no good anyway - Matt 6:27.
** It needn't be that dramatic. You might just shoot it all, too.
*** If you want to shoot 22LR, you're just going to have to store it. Sorry.
**** Do you have bees? Get a good wax-based bullet lube recipe and you may have customers for life.  You're welcome.
***** unless you get form dies and a brass trimming lathe. Then the world is your oyster.
****** If you don't store them, learn how to seal jars like your grandmother did. Even better, do both.


  1. Everything you said is true, but it's really difficult to prioritize because we've all had really good lives and don't really know how difficult things will get.

    I had several problems recently, at the same time, which illustrate this point. Wash machine stopped working. My brother was able to fix it. *phew* My vehicle need repairs. I had to take it in for repairs because I did not have the time to wait around for kin to fix it--well, the real issue is obviously my own ignorance. It cost me half my paycheck for the month, and I still have more repairs. It looks like kin will be able to help me with these. As we were just finishing our slab wood run, the trailer tongue ripped like a piece of paper. Went out to investigate and heard a loud bang, thought I'd go deaf. Trailer tire popped. Costs $80. Yeeeeeeeeeeeeehaaaaaaaaaaw!

    Obviously everyone's priorities will be different, depending on location, but you really have to be able to function. Many people are not focused on the mundane, the bahpocalypse. The boring things can kill you too.

    The solution is actually simple. Write down all the things you do right now which help you survive and live comfortably. Reinforce those assets. Maybe you need a spare vehicle so you can spend time to repair one yourself. Spare trailer, wash machine, etc. The biggest problem I seem to face is time. I just don't have enough time to do a lot of the things I want. Anything you can do to buy more time is helpful.

    Also, I'm getting bees soon. We'll see if they actually survive the year...

    As for 22 LR, I've found some places where I can order, but I'm just not sure it's worth it, because priorities. It was worth it a long time ago when it was cheap, but I didn't get much.

  2. I tend to scoff at people who say they need 5 rifles and 5,000 rounds for each. But they probably have it right. If they did get in a real firefight or two, the odds are they won't survive long enough to shoot 200 rounds. But they have other uses, like for trade.

    I should do the bees too.

  3. I'm deathly allergic to bees. But I have lots of strawberry jam to trade. Yum.