If (a) zombies come knocking on your back door, (b) aliens land in Manhattan to enslave us or (c) an Angry Space Rock obliterates civilization because Bruce Willis was otherwise occupied, you’ll need to fend for yourself.
That means some kind of makeshift armor along with weapons to hunt for food and defend yourself.
So what’s makes sense?
This series is about being brutally practical, which means the ideal melee weapons would be:
- Simple to use, even for people with no training
- Cheap or free
- Easy to find or replace
Blade Choice Number 1: A Knife for All Occasions
There’s nothing more basic than a knife, which is both a weapon and an essential tool.
So what kind of knife?
Folding knives are nice, small and full of serious flaws. Any sort of mechanism, springs or no springs, can wear out. And no matter how expensive and well-made a folder might be, it won’t be as strong as a full-tang knife.
The other flaw is the lack of a crossguard, which is essential protection in a fight or doing serious work. Without one, any blade will slip and cut your hand to ribbons.
So: you want a non-folder, also known as a “knife.” There are all kinds of varieties. You can’t go wrong with time-tested hunting knives or military K-bars.
The only pitfall here is going too Crododile Dundee / Rambo here and picking the Biggest Knife Known to Man. Make sure the knife you pick is something you can comfortably wear while hiking through rough terrain. Any sort of blade is useless if you have to dig through your pack to grab it.
Also, one of the uses of a knife is speed. You can grab it and use it faster than almost anything else, including a gun. Because the old saying, “Never bring a gun to a knife fight” might not actually be true.
Verdict: Yes, you need a knife, as an essential tool and weapon.
Blade Choice Number 2: Romancing the Sword
If a knife is essential, a sword is even better, right?
Bigger. Longer. More able to chop and slash.
Movies and books have brainwashed us into thinking swords are amazing, if not magical. And yes, a lightsaber would be the ultimate weapon, if they existed.
However, lightsabers aren’t an option. Also arguing against picking a sword: history and logic.
- Knights and samurai actually relied on bows and spears as their primary weapons. Swords were a last-ditch option, not a primary choice.
- Since factories will stop making ammunition and everyone will be shooting up the place, guns will quickly become useless. Everybody will be using more primitive weapons, which means smart people will wear armor to guard against blades and bludgeons while people who resist this armor fashion trend will earn fancy Darwin Awards.
- Swords work best against unarmored opponents. Armored knights didn’t actually fight each other with swords, because even the sharpest steel bounced off thick armor. They used maces, flails and war hammers to bash in that armor.
- Picking a sword as your weapon therefore hurts if you actually come up against armored opponents, and let’s face it, unprotected folks aren’t going to last long in a real apocalypse.
- Expensive, high-quality swords won’t be lying around. It will be hard to repair or replace a truly nice sword, and any long-term apocalypse means you need to be able to repair and replace stuff—or have extras to gear up new friends.
That being said, people are going to pick swords. It’s like our romance with handguns, which are nothing compared to the power of shotguns and range of rifles. People don’t care. Swords and handguns are catnip to a lot of people. So: if you’re going to pick a sword no matter what, what makes sense?
Though this series of posts is all about cheap and sustainable apocalyptic goodness, going too cheap with a sword is an Achy Breaky Big Mistakey, because most swords out there are meant to look pretty while hung on the wall, not used for combat year after year. The cheaper a sword, the more likely it will break or fly off the hilt.
Not kidding about the “fly off the hilt” bit. Take a look.
At the other extreme, the best possible swords do not make sense, since they’re crazy expensive.
Therefore: check out the wisdom of a Paul Southren, a man who lives and breathes moderately priced swords at sword-buyers-guide.com. Paul field tests and abuses his swords, and his whole schtick is about buying the best quality for a moderate amount of money: $100 to $300, though he does test and review swords that cost a bit more and has a section dedicated to the rare sword under $100 that’s actually decent.
Verdict: Here’s the TL;DR version of Paul’s research: get what Paul calls a heavy duty beater, a mono-tempered sword made from modern steel that’s tempered right and designed to take all kinds of abuse. Check out this page for reviews of katanas and head over to this page for medieval swords.
Blade Choice Number 3: Battle Axe Badness
You see insanely huge, double-bladed battle axes in movies.
That’s because in real life, such things would be heavier than a Volkswagen Bug.
You wouldn’t want to use a modern two-handed axe, the kind designed to cut trees or split wood, because those things are still too heavy to carry around as you march through the wastelands all day, much less use in a real battle. Same thing with pickaxes. All of these monsters are too slow. Anybody could see it coming and dodge the blow.
If you look at actual warfare over the centuries, soldiers did use single-handed axes, which are a lot faster than today’s two-handed axes meant for trees. Check out this discussion of the pros and cons of one-handed axes. This man is both an expert and British, so you have to listen to him.
Verdict: During any sort of apocalypse, you’d want some way of cutting wood for shelter, fuel and tools. So this is a lot like the conversation about a knife: a one-handed axe is both a weapon and an essential tool. Get one.
Blade Choice Number 4: Machete Madness
Economists have a concept called “opportunity cost,” which is a fancy way of saying blowing 2,000 on a high-end katana makes no sense when, for the same money, you could buy 50 top-quality machetes for $40 apiece and equip an army of your closest friends and family.
One sword or a horde? Come on, that’s not even a question.
Machetes also hit our sweet spot: cheap, common and durable.
In my decade-long fight against scotch broom, I’ve bought and used all varieties and brands of machetes. Here’s the deal:
- Garden-variety machetes in the Garden section of Home Depot: The long, thin machetes you can buy at any hardware store are OK for cutting blackberry bushes and Scotch broom but a bad idea for the wasteland.
- Military grade: Armies have as used machetes for decades, especially for jungle warfare. They’ve researched and perfected tough blades that stand up to abuse in the worst conditions. Army surplus all the way.
- Sword-like goodness: You can get thicker, longer machetes that are really tough little swords for a fraction of the price. Cold Steel makes a crazy assortment of these machetes. I can vouch for the magnum kukri, which is tough enough to use as an axe. I’ve cut down trees with this thing.
Verdict: Machetes are a great choice, especially the thicker, higher quality ones that can do the job of a sword and an axe.
Blade Choice Number 3: Sharp Things on Long Poles
Here’s why spears and poleaxes rock and are the King of Apocalyptic Blades:
- Reach rules: The evolution of combat has always been a question of greater and greater reach, with the winning side typically being able to throw rocks, shoot arrows or fling missiles from beyond the range of the enemy. The same thing applies to melee combat. Whoever has the greater reach will usually win. Spears and polearms give you better reach than knifes, swords, machetes or any other sort of blade.
- You won’t be fighting one-on-one: The default way of thinking of melee combat is you vs. a solitary opponent, which is completely wrong. Any organized group of average people has the advantage against a Lone Wolf, and this series assumes that (a) you’ll be smart which means (b) you’ll travel with a group of friends. If there are four people with spears against four people with knife, swords, machetes or baseball bats, I’m betting the spears win every time, simple because nobody on the other side can get close enough to do damage before holes get poked into vital bits. Four people with spears and shields would be a tough, tough combination to overcome.
- Easy to make: Trying to make a real knife or sword would be tough. You’d need the right scrap metal, a hot enough forge, an anvil plus the knowledge to do it all right. There’s a science to quenching and tempering. Spears, now, are easy to make. You can do a simple spear by sharpening a straight stick. Done. Want a fancier spear? Last a sharp bit of scrap metal or a knife on the end of a pole.
Verdict: Buy or make a Sharp Thing on a Long Pole, the most practical of the blade options.
Bludgeon Option Number 1: Brass Knuckles
Any sort of bludgeon is better than fighting barehanded. And sure, brass knuckles would be fine if you live in a terrible neighborhood where people get into fistfights all the time and you want an edge.
In any real apocalypse, the zombies, alien invaders, killer robots or scavengers won’t be getting into fistfights with you. Plus, brass knuckles are typically illegal in most places, which makes them hard to find. And it’s not the sort of thing you can just craft from some old Campbell soup cans and a hammer.
Verdict: Ixnay on the brass knuckles.
Bludgeon Option Number 2: Lucille
Baseball bats don’t take any training to use and are absolutely deadly.
They work equally well against unarmored and armored opponents, are cheap and easy to find.
A few caveats:
Aluminum baseball bats seem like the ultimate choice here. They seem better than wood, right? However: aluminum bats are hollow and designed to hit baseballs or softballs. If you smack them against other, bigger, tougher things, they’ll bend.
Wooden bats are the way to go here.
Verdict: A good option if you want to bash your way through problems.
Bludgeon Option Number 3: Thor’s hammer
Yes, I know it has a name, but (a) nobody except total comic book geeks can pronounce it and (b) even when somebody pronounces it right, it sounds like the sound a Swedish cat would make.
I’m talking about hammers of all sorts, from carpenter’s hammers to sledgehammers. They’re great for using against armored opponents, since armor is typically meant to guard against blades.
Sledgehammers seem deadly, but they suffer from the same problem as two-handed axes designed for cutting down trees or splitting wood: too heavy to be nimble enough in combat.
A long-handled carpenter’s hammer would do the job. Cheap, easy to find if you need more and versatile, since it’s useful for scavenging or crafting.
Verdict: Pack a hammer.
Bludgeon Option Number 4: A mace
Not pepper spray. A medieval mace is even better than a baseball bat or a hammer for dealing with armored opponents.
A real mace is an amazing choice here.
The trouble is finding one. Unless you buy a bunch, now, you won’t randomly find them in the rubble of the wasteland and won’t be able to craft one out of scrap metal.
Verdict: A beautiful option that’s simply too rare to be practical.
Those are the basic options for blades and bludgeons. As for bad ideas, there’s a treasure trove of terrible choices.
Bad Idea Number 1: Flailing away
Any movie set in the Middle Ages has knights with swords, shields and flails, which seem deadly.
Two problems with flails: First, they’d be pretty slow. Maybe you successfully whack somebody upside their helmet. It would take a while to recover and swing your flail at a second enemy, and an effective blow has to be completely accurate. Compare that to a sword, where the entire length is sharp and any sort of contact will draw blood.
Second, flails weren’t really a thing. At all.
Bad Idea Number 2: Chainsaws
They’re big, roaring, imposing monsters and yes, nobody wants to get cut by a chainsaw.
Trouble is, chainsaws and require fuel, which rules this out as an option.
Another nail in the coffin: even if you had a magic chainsaw that never rain out of fuel, actually using one in combat against armored opponents would be clumsy. You’d have to get awfully close and they’d need to sit still while you chewed away.
Bad Idea Number 3: Nunchucks
If you’re Bruce Lee, sure, nunchucks look amazing and deadly.
For everybody else, these aren’t an option. It’s super easy to hit yourself instead of your opponent. They don’t have much range and would bounce off most armor. Plus, instead of looking like Bruce Lee, you’ll probably look like this dude.
Bad Idea Number 4: Flamethrower
Nobody wants to come up against a flamethrower. You run away to avoid becoming barbeque, right?
Actual flamethrowers are incredibly hard to find. They also require fuel, which is stored in a crazy heavy tank on your back.
If you actually had a sustainable source of flammable liquid—say, grease from the cooking fire—it’d be smarter to bottle that up and make a supply of Molotov cocktails.
Bottom line: You can’t predict when and where melee combat breaks out. The right options work as both a weapon and a tool, which means your best bets are a knife, a one-handed axe, a hammer and/or a spear, which gives you the most range and serves as a handy walking stick.
Though you’re going to pick a sword no matter what I say, so pick the right one.
Also: a tough, high-quality machete (not the floppy cheap kind at the hardware store) can take the place of a sword and an axe, plus they’re cheap.
Next week: Chapter 9—Getting Real about Long Range Weapons